Kolata on fitness: beware of the hype

April 27, 2003|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,Sun Staff

Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health, by Gina Kolata. Farrar Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $24.

There was a time when athletes believed in a breakfast of stale bread and old beer. Others wore flannel as they trained to help burn fat. And in the more recent history of exercise, as late as the 1960s, physicians warned middle-aged and older patients not to exert themselves.

But a new book by New York Times science writer Gina Kolata reveals that modern ideas about exercise, such as the runner's high and heart-rate monitoring, are often no more grounded in science than those older outdated notions. The insight is one of the important contributions of this nonfiction book, a skeptical and sometimes affectionate look at why people exercise and what it actually does for their health. In that way, Ultimate Fitness is a welcome antidote to most fitness books.

Talking to scientists and analyzing studies, Kolata takes apart popular concepts, such as "fat-burning zones," and shows their origins are sketchy at best. She describes how fitness training is no modern invention: It had a prominent place in societies as far back as ancient Greece. She peppers the text with entertaining anecdotes about the characters in gyms and the strange, obsessive ways that people have attempted to get in shape. That group includes her.

An exercise fanatic, Kolata belongs to three gyms and carries running shoes on every trip. She's sweated over every new machine and in every type of exercise class. That experience sparked many of the questions she poses in the book, questions many readers have asked themselves. She wonders if she would have had to exercise if she had been born tall and slim. She discovers that serious weight training can get her the slender, athletic legs she envies in her teen-age daughter.

But these personal sections are not woven well with the book's other elements. Within chapters, Kolata shifts abruptly from her own exercising, to a historical tale, to the biology of fitness. This often short-circuits the book's momentum. A greater disconnect is created by the author's dueling perspectives. On the one hand, she's a tough medical reporter warning readers about the hucksters and phony programs in the fitness world. On the other hand, Kolata revels in the exhilaration of a tough workout and celebrates the routines and physiques of fellow enthusiasts.

Perhaps the conflict between her science and herself only reflects the material. But near the end of the book, some readers may feel uncertain about what role exercise should play in their own lives. Particularly discouraging is the statement that about 10 percent of the population "will never get any better with exercise, their endurance will never improve, they will never get faster, and they will never get stronger." The general reader may find it simplest to read the epilogue, which gives a roundup of key advice.

Exercise fanatics, on the other hand, will want to devour every word of this book. They should understand that, according to Kolata, much of the dogma on which they base their workouts is unfounded. They'll probably find, though, that like her, they'll want to do it anyway -- not because those intense sessions will make them live longer, but just because they love it.

Diana K. Sugg has been a health reporter at The Sun since 1995, writing about trends, scientific breakthroughs and the human aspects of medicine. She won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting.

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