Celebrity health videos can strain credulity - and sometimes more EXERCISE CAUTION

November 16, 1993|By Benedict Carey | Benedict Carey,Universal Press Syndicate

You'd think by now America's assorted fitness celebrities would know how to teach a safe exercise. For a decade they've been hopping around in spandex and designer sneakers, talking about muscle tone and body alignment so much that -- well, put it this way: Those of us who want to injure ourselves can do it skiing or playing tennis or even shoveling snow. But who needs to collapse in pain while following some perky exercise tape? Nobody. There's no dignity in that.

Still, exercise physiologists shake their heads at some of the moves being passed off as healthy. "The problem is that any celebrity can decide to make an exercise video," says Peg Jordan, a nurse and the editor of American Fitness, the magazine of the Aerobics and Fitness Association, which certifies aerobics instructors. "So you get people who may not know anything about how to protect the back and knees against injury."

Jane Fonda's first video, released in 1981, earned the name "Pain Fonda" because it featured moves that not only burned but could lead to injuries. Most video instruction, including Ms. Fonda's, now seems rooted in the knowledge that viewers should be handled with care. Eighty percent of Americans over 30 have suffered back pain, 20 percent have had knee problems, and not everybody looks terrific in tights. These instructors avoid the many old gym class drills that, even when done up as !B modern aerobic-dance moves, are potentially harmful, if not useless.

But Ms. Jordan and others still are having to skewer dozens of fitness stars for neglecting safety. Among the most prominent are Jake Steinfeld, the affable, pump-you-up host of ESPN's "Body by Jake," and model Cindy Crawford, whose video topped best-seller lists for months. These two, among others, revive a range of risky techniques. Everybody throws out blanket cautions of some kind -- "Check with your doctor," "Go at your own pace," and the crucial "Keep breathing" -- but many neglect to mention more useful warnings. Namely:

* Save your neck: The tip of the spinal column and the muscles that surround it already spend all day lifting, turning and supporting the head, which is why many aerobics teachers have given up neck circles, in which you drop your head to one shoulder and let it roll across your chest and back around, like a rag doll's.

Jake makes this exercise look strenuous, and Cindy makes it look sensuous. What it really is, says Ms. Jordan, is pointless. "If you want to stretch your neck," she says, "drop your chin to your chest, slowly; then tip your head back, then to one side and the other."

Think of the spinal column as a stack of tea saucers separated by jelly doughnuts. When you're young, these cartilage-filled doughnuts, or disks, are springy, the neck muscles and ligaments supple, and the spine itself strong. But as you age, the ligaments become more likely to rupture, causing a sprained neck, while the disks can bulge or burst.

Thus beware the yoga plow, in which you lie on your back and lift your legs up overhead and then lower them behind your head. "You've got your whole weight on the top of your spine," says Daniel Kosich, a Denver-based physician with a sports medicine practice. He suggests a less risky way to stretch: From the flat-back position, simply pull one knee to your chest and briefly hold. Do that several times with each leg and then with both legs together.

* Get off your knees: Year after year the knee becomes measurably more fragile; in particular, the fibrous ligaments that hold the kneecap in place and directly connect the thigh and shin bones can fray like old rubber bands if twisted or stretched too far. The resulting injuries range from a simple ligament sprain, which can put you in a knee brace for months, to a tear, which can require surgery.

"Sometimes I see people on their knees, sitting on their ankles, and then even leaning their head back toward the floor," says Robert Stephens, an anatomist at the University of Health Sciences in Kansas City, Mo. "This strains the cartilage and the ligaments that run across the front of the knees. Not a good idea."

The same goes for the hurdler's stretch, in which you sit on the floor with one leg kicked straight forward and the other tucked back behind your rump, then lean forward and touch your toes -- like Jake does. "In this exercise you're twisting and overstretching the knee ligaments of the leg you tuck behind," says Ms. Jordan. A safer way to loosen the hamstrings, she says, is to lie on your back with your knees slightly bent and gradually raise one leg, keeping it straight but relaxed, until the foot is directly above your chest. Now reach up with both hands and slowly pull the leg toward you as if to get a closer look.

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