Friday, 1 November 2013

Ultimate Fitness – The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health.

By Gina Kolata. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2003. pp 299.

This review was written on July 4th 2007

Ms. Kolata is a reporter with the New York Times and deals generally with medical matters. She is herself a physical fitness guru and is committed with her husband to the most strenuous exercise in the form of weight lifting, cycling, a highly strenuous form of fixed cycling in the gym called Spinning, and to running. She is obviously familiar with the American fitness world and particularly with the history and politics of weight lifting and the more strenuous form of cycling. Her own fitness career is concerned most with muscle building and the physical, mental and psychological effects of extreme physical exercise. 

There is much of interest in the book about the whole fitness and body culture of the United States. This short review deals mainly with three aspects of her message – the body cult related to extreme exercise, the huge fitness industry which is generated by commercial considerations rather than scientific based evidence and the huge commercial industry inviting Americans to join a bewildering variety of fitness gyms and various bizarre fitness programmes, to encourage a bewildering variety of diets, and to take a wide variety of vitamins, drugs, chemical supplements and skin applications.  What valid research exists in the field of exercise ‘gets lost amidst marketing claims and exaggerations and the sale of dubious programs and nostrums’.

Apart from her own devotion to muscle building and the satisfaction she derives from extreme exercise, her writing is reasonably balanced and sensible. She is certainly ready to acknowledge that much of the philosophy driving the fitness cult not only ignores the importance of the scientific method of evidence but is at times contemptuous of conventional research based on proper trials and observational studies. 

Kolata puts forward many reasons why people take exercise or wish to adopt an exercise programme. They include health, longevity, pleasure, strength training, improved appearance, weight control, social cohesion, treatment of depression and other mood problems. She accepts that training through such aerobic exercises as walking, jogging, running and cycling does contribute to better health but she is justified in being cautious about accepting the widely held view that such aerobic exercise increases longevity. Many confounding factors which are common to the exercise-motivated person, and particularly in those who adhere to long-term training, make it difficult to define the specific effect of exercise on longevity.  Aerobically active people are less likely to smoke and to drink heavily; they tend to eat sensibly with an eye on fat and salt, and have a preference for vegetables and fruit. I have little doubt that those following a sensible aerobic exercise live longer, and enjoy a shorter period of disability and decrepitude before death, than the sedentary but there are certainly other confounding factors which add to longevity as well as aerobic exercise. I doubt whether weight lifting and other strenuous isometric exercises aimed at muscle mass and strength confer the same benefits. Certainly there is little valid research evidence to suggest that being more heavily muscled will prolong our lives. 

There are strong physiological reasons to accept the value of aerobic exercise as a factor in ensuring health and longevity. It has been shown through basic cellular research that exercise reduces the instability of the lining of blood vessels, a condition which makes people more liable to clots and to heart attack and stroke. There is also indisputable evidence that exercise reduces blood pressure and has a beneficial effect on the blood cholesterol profile with an increase in the protective high-density cholesterol and a possible reduction in the harmful low-density cholesterol. It is likely that these benefits can be achieved by a moderate exercise programme and there is little reason to believe that greater benefit can be achieved by more severe aerobic exercise and certainly not by muscle building, weight lifting or the extreme form of static cycling or Spinning practised by the author. In justice to the author, she makes no such claim. Rather, she expresses concern about the humbug, unjustified claims, fabrications and greed of the so-called health industry which exists in the United States and which is sadly, like many aspects of American culture, spreading world-wide.

A substantial part of this book is an account of the author’s involvement in very strenuous weightlifting and her devotion to Spinning. Spinning involves prolonged and at times maximum exercise on a static bike, an ergometer, which has been specially designed for this purpose. She and other adherents indulge in periods of some hours in the practice, always in groups in specially designed gyms and with music. The degree of exercise which they indulge seems so great that it is difficult to think it can be achieved by any human being, however intense the training. The sessions require heavy and repeated fluid replacement, heavy sweating and moments of extreme fatigue. Sessions may last some hours and a marathon session is described as lasting twelve hours. All this apparently leads to a high, a state of mental exhilaration which leads to this unlikely, almost bizarre, addiction.  

There is much about the body and muscle building benefits of weight lifting and about the author’s long attachment to this form of isometric exercise. She describes the history of weightlifting in some detail with its long tradition of recourse to anabolic drugs. The sport has its seamier side in terms of crime and corruption, and is now on a decline worldwide because of its association with drugs and crime. It is hard to believe that the human frame, including the female frame, can lift the weights which have been reported in recent years, almost certainly as a result of resorting to muscle building drugs. 

Gina Kolata running a marathon
This book gives an honest account of the evolution of the popular and commercialised exercise health industry in the United States. It is also a very frank and personal account by the author of her devotion to strenuous exercise and of its importance to her in her daily life.  It is a striking account of human greed, of human frailty and credulity, of changing social and behavioural fashions. Most of all, the author reminds us  of the huge part leisure exercise can play in our physical wellbeing, in our attitudes and moods, our spirituality and in coping with boredom and other stresses of life. 

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