It's never too late to get fit

Exercise: Hospitals, gyms and personal trainers are just waiting to get you off the couch and into shape.

March 26, 2000|By Vikki Valentine | Vikki Valentine,Special to the Sun

Tom O'Brien's call to battle came atop a Colorado mountain on a family vacation. "We had gone skiing in December, and I found myself terribly out of breath," says the 38-year-old physician at Sinai Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. "I think it was a combination of the altitude and having to carry mine and my family's equipment back and forth to the slopes."

But after skiing a week and "eating relatively healthy," he says, "I felt like I was moving in the right direction. And when I got back, I wanted to continue that."

After years of intermittent exercise, O'Brien decided it was time to lose 10 pounds and get back in shape.

Getting in shape is easier said than done, however, and many people's best intentions often fizzle. But if you know where to look, as O'Brien did, there's an entire community -- hospitals, gyms, personal trainers -- ready to get you off the couch and on your way to becoming fit.

If you're coming out of a winter's hibernation from exercise, or if you've never exercised before, start by taking stock of your fitness level.

Hospitals such as Johns Hopkins, Union Memorial and Good Samaritan offer a battery of fitness evaluations, ranging from $50 to $150. Hospitals and doctors consider such services preventive care.

"Lack of exercise now is considered by the government the No. 1 cause of cardiovascular disease," says Dave Petrie, former head of Union Memorial's Human Performance Lab, and now co-chair of Gettysburg College's health and exercise sciences department.

Petrie cites the 1996 Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health, which "showed how many chronic diseases are associated with the lack of exercise -- pulmonary, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease."

This month, a report by the environmental research group Worldwatch Institute stated that for the first time, the number of overweight people in the world rivals the underfed: 1 billion each.

The report says that 55 percent of America's population is overweight; one in four adults is considered obese.


At Union Memorial's Human Performance Lab, for $80, an exercise physiologist will take your health history, two body fat measurements and a VO2 Max test to help you set fitness goals and to customize an exercise program.

The VO2 Max (maximal oxygen uptake) test is a 12-minute high-tech treadmill test designed to measure how fit your engine is -- how your heart and lungs are working together in the cardiovascular system. Consider it a miles per gallon rating, says Petrie, an exercise physiologist.

With every breath analyzed and an electrocardiogram machine recording every motion of your heart, the treadmill increases in speed and grade until you reach your fatigue point. One of the test results determines your target heart rate -- how fast your heart should beat during exercise.

If you come back for retesting ($50), you will discover that your VO2 rating improves as the strength and efficiency of your cardiovascular system improves.

Johns Hopkins' new Heart Health Center at Timonium, which opened in January, is offering a similar fitness assessment to the community at its office in the Maryland Athletic Club building. For $150, you'll receive a personalized exercise program based on the results of VO2 Max and body fat tests.

The fitness evaluations, says the center's program manager Kevin Foley, "use a scientific basis for developing an exercise program based on actual measurements rather than generalized age-predicted equations."

By the end of the month, the exercise programs prescribed by the center will be downloaded into the FitLinxx national e-personal trainer system.

At any facility outfitted with Fit-

Linxx equipment, like the Maryland Athletic Club, you'll be able to access your program through a personal identification number on each machine.

Punch in your PIN, and the biceps curl machine will tell you, for example, how much weight to lift and how many sets you need to do. Cardio equipment like treadmills will automatically increase or decrease difficulty to keep you working at your target heart rate.

You can track your progress from home, too, because your program will also be accessible through the FitLinxx Web site,

First things first

If you haven't exercised in years, or have never exercised, don't worry about high-tech testing right away.

"When somebody is getting started, it's really important to start very slowly," says exercise physiologist Jody Weitzman, whose Potomac business, Women's Health and Support Services, helps women with chronic health problems stay fit.

"Starting with 30 minutes could potentially be way too much for an individual. Take small steps."

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends spending the first six weeks just moving. After you get your doctor's approval, start walking more, park the car farther away, take the stairs, wash the car. Work on spending 10 minutes a day with any kind of activity that puts your body in motion.

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