Fitness Myths and Facts -- Gina Kolata -- 05/08/03

By Gina Kolata
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Every fitness program is based on hard science and proven research. At least that's what the books, videos, and infomercials say in bold letters. But how do you know what is true and what is hype? What will work for you? And which fitness regimens should you avoid? Gina Kolata, author of Ultimate Fitness, joined us to investigate the myths and facts of working out.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live, Gina. What led you to writing Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth About Exercise and Fitness?

Kolata: I've always loved exercising. I was running before there were running shoes. I tried every group exercise fad as it came along, from Jane Fonda-type aerobics to step classes to spinning. I tried the exercise machines from Stairmasters to Lifecycles to elliptical trainers. And along the way, like everybody who loves to exercise, I would hear the advice and the exhortations, I would hear the promises that would be too good to be true about calorie-burning or weightlifting or body-toning, and I wanted to know where did these things come from, is there science behind the advice, what should you believe, and why.

Member: That gets a bit expensive doesn't it? Trying everything?

Kolata: Not necessarily. Running shoes are not that big an expense, and most of the other things I tried are things you can do in a gym. So we're talking about a gym membership. My first gym was called Spa Lady. It was an all-female affair; all the equipment was pink. I bought a lifetime membership for $29 a month. My sister asked, "Your lifetime or theirs?"

Moderator: Well, which was it?

Kolata: I think it was theirs.

Moderator: What are some of the biggest "core beliefs" held by the general public about exercise that you found to be incorrect?

Kolata: I'll give you two beliefs, one that I think is a misconception by the general public; the other that I think is wishful thinking, too good to be true.

The misperception is actually confusion over exercise goals. We're told over and over again that all you need to do is to walk for 20 minutes a day five days a week. That's absolutely true, if your goal is to be healthier and to live longer. But many people think that walking that amount will make them lose weight, will tone their bodies, will make them look different. That advice was never meant to be advice on how to change your weight or the way your body looks. Changing the way your body looks usually requires much more intense exercise and it takes a long time.

The too-good-to-be-true myth is one that I had believed. I had thought, and so did many people, that if you build muscle that muscle will burn more calories and fat and therefore throughout the day, even if you do nothing, even if you just sit still, you will automatically be burning more calories, your metabolism will be higher. Unfortunately, that's not true. I asked an exercise physiologist to do a calculation for me. If a man goes to a gym and lifts weights seriously for four months he might build about four pounds of muscle, which is a lot; a woman would build much less. That four pounds of muscle would burn an extra 24 calories a day. That's like a bite of a cookie.

Moderator: In your book, you explain in detail how you investigated a "study" that purported to make certain claims about exercise, which you showed to be baseless. How can the public know what to believe about exercise claims?

Kolata: I'd like to think that if you read my book you could learn to think for yourself about exercise claims. In general, things that sound like gimmicks really are gimmicks. In general, there's no science behind the marketing hype, but there are basic principles that hold true.

  1. One is the principle that you don't have to do much to improve your health.
  2. A second one is that to change the way you look, you have to exercise with intensity.
  3. A third one is that exercise is not medicine, and that most people that stay with a program do it because it gives them pleasure. If you don't like your exercise, you may want to try a different form of exercise.

Moderator: So much is presented with anecdotal "evidence" supporting claims of program success. How should we view this "evidence"?

Kolata: I would view it very, very skeptically. Usually what happens is somebody who looks good, who is young, fit, vibrant, muscular, gets up, and says, "All you have to do is X, whatever it may be, buy my treadmill, lift weights very slowly or whatever this person is saying, and you too will look like me." Then you will have testimonials, the before and after pictures. I do not consider any of this evidence at all; this is marketing.

Member: I just joined a gym. Some of the machines have heart rate and fat burning rates on them. What are these? Is there really a "fat-burning zone"?

Kolata: The fat burning zone is a myth. The idea is if you exercise slowly you burn more fat than if you work out more vigorously. It's absolutely not true, and I explain why in my book. The cardio programs on the machines are usually pretty mild exercise programs based on the idea that for your heart you don't have to do much. All these programs, as I see it, are marketing tools. You certainly should not take them seriously, because even the heart rate formula that is behind them is unreliable and highly inaccurate.

Moderator: So much of what we do is based on Dr. Kenneth Cooper's aerobics work. Do you think his basic premise is valid?

Kolata: His basic premise has changed over the years. He used to say that you don't have to lift weights; now he says lift weights. He had a formula to compare exercise intensity, which few would say was accurate; however, he was an exercise evangelist. He encouraged thousands of people to try exercise, and so in a way, he is a hero of the exercise movement.

Member: Years ago, 20 minutes of exercise three times a week was recommended. Then it went up to 25 minutes; then to 30. Is there any scientific basis for this "inflation?"

Kolata: Actually, most recently it went up to 60 minutes. The reason is, once again, what are your goals? When they told people 20 minutes, many public health officials thought that people were cheating. One researcher said to me, everyone overestimates how much he or she exercises and underestimates how much he or she eats. So some of the inflation is an effort to get people to maybe do just 20 minutes of exercise. The 60 minutes is somewhat different. There the idea was, we tell people they have to eat all these different foods, fruits, vegetables, dairy products, protein, and if they take us seriously, they'll get fatter than ever. Believe it or not, this was the reasoning that the National Academy of Scientists, when its committee said now you should walk 60 minutes a day.

Member: Some life extension research suggests that caloric restriction is key to longevity. Some of this same research has indicated that lower levels of exercise are more beneficial to longevity rather than "extreme" exercising. I know this may be out of your area a bit, but have you heard this?

Kolata: It's very hard to know whether caloric restriction increases your life span, because in some animals it may, and some animals it may not. We have no idea about humans. The same goes for extreme exercise. The way we know that moderate exercise helps is by looking repeatedly at huge groups of people, thousands or tens of thousands of people and following them over the years and asking whether exercise is associated with a longer life span, and, if so, how much exercise. Very, very few people are extreme exercisers, and so it is impossible to know what is cause and what is effect when you have so few people and so little data.

Moderator: When we try to evaluate claims made by various exercise programs or trainers, what are the key factors we should consider? Is there any institutional "seal of approval" that would give some indication of validity?

Kolata: These programs and the trainer certifications are almost exclusively marketing tools. And as one exercise physiologist said to me, it's a jungle out there. One group, the American College of Sports Medicine, has a rigorous certification program for instructors. But in the end, I think you have to ask yourself, what are my goals? And if the program or if the instructor does not understand your goals or is not helping you to achieve them, you should not think they have some secret knowledge or expertise that you lack, and use that as a reason to stay with them. In other words, I think you should use common sense if you don't think something is working and you do not trust the person that is promoting it to you, you should not stay with them.

Member: So, what did your research find to be the ultimate exercise program in terms of time, type, and intensity?

Kolata: It depends on your goals. If your goal is to change the way you look, then the ultimate exercise program would be one that is strenuous and regular. You have to keep at it. But I think the ultimate exercise program is one you enjoy. And if high intensity makes you feel good, that's your ultimate program. If you hate it, it's clearly not for you.

Member: What about the claims you see on bodybuilding supplement products, like those protein powders and creatine? They sell a lot of this stuff to teen boys who want to get "cut." Is any of it worth the can it comes in?

Kolata: I don't think so. In fact, I have a whole chapter on bodybuilding and its history. And you will see that the idea of selling protein supplements began half a century ago and was pure marketing from day one. In fact, at one time the Federal Trade Commission told the inventor of this marketing gimmick to take the muscle man off of the label of his protein supplements, because people thought if they ate the protein they would look like the muscle man. I worry about some of these supplements. My friend's son takes them, and when I looked at the ingredients of one, it included not just proteins, vitamins, and minerals, but an herb that was supposed to be a testosterone precursor, and raw prostate extract and raw testicular extract. It didn't say what animal these extracts came from.

Moderator: The point of your book is to get people to think for themselves regarding fitness and exercise.

Kolata: That's right, it is. I'm not selling a magic program, but I think if you can pull aside the veil over the fitness industry, you can then understand the basic principles of how to gain strength and endurance and how to understand your own fitness goals and how to achieve them. Then I think you don't need the magic program, because you can think for yourself. I also hope that people will learn to love exercise when they realize that for many of us, it is a source of pleasure, and sometimes it's just a matter of finding which exercise is most appealing to you.

Moderator: Why do you think people are so willing to try so many different fitness programs with outrageous claims -- claims that they would probably be skeptical of if applied to another area of life?

Kolata: We want to believe the myths. It's the same psychology that occurs at the cosmetics counter when someone tells me, "Oh, just buy this cream and it will get rid of the wrinkles around your eyes." When you see somebody who looks good and tells you it's easy, it's all too enticing sometimes to raise questions. When the program doesn't work, we usually assume it's because we didn't do it right or we gave up on it too soon.

It's a lot like diets. If there were the perfect diet nobody would be fat in this country. And yet year after year we dash from one diet to the next, each one claiming to be scientific and to have an amazing way to melt off the pounds and testimonials, once again, are accepted as evidence.

Moderator: Do we have unrealistic expectations, expectations that exceed the limits of biology, in part because of media images?

Kolata: I think that often we do. In fact, people vary along a bell curve in their ability to respond to exercise. That's one thing I discovered on working on this book, and just like most of us will never be champion athletes, no matter how hard we train, there also is a limit to how much exercise can do for us in changing the way we look. I do think it can make us healthier, I do think it can change the way you feel, it can change your mood and it can change the way you feel about your body. But dramatic transformations are unlikely for most people.

Member: When you were researching your book, did anything you discovered surprise you?

Kolata: I was really surprised along the way when one myth after another fell. I hate to say it, but I was really surprised when I learned that putting on muscle does not increase your metabolic rate. I was really surprised that the maximum heart rate formula was so wrong. I was really surprised that some things that do work, like interval training, were discovered by coaches by trial and error. I guess along the way the more I looked into this the more my eyes were opened. And the smarter I became about my own susceptibility marketing hype.

Member: Should we make sure fun is part of our exercise?

Kolata: I would say yes. Over and again as I worked on this group I asked people why do you exercise. Over and over again it was the same answer: It makes me feel good, I like the way I feel, it's become part of who I am. One man told me that the idea of not exercising is like saying "I think I won't brush my teeth anymore;" it was that much a part of daily life.

I did find one man, and only one, who said he had been exercising for years and hates it. I asked him then, "Why do you exercise?" and he said, "It's out of fear." He had had a heart attack and begun a cardiac rehabilitation program. It required walking around a track with a group several days a week. He's been with it for decades, but he said, most people drop out. He then did admit one thing to me. Before they walk on the track the group lifts weights. This man said he didn't really mind lifting weights. Then one day, to his enormous surprise, he was on an airplane and he had to lift his bag into the overhead rack; he could not believe how easy it was. He told me this gleefully. Somehow, that part of exercise had given him some pleasure. Some psychiatrists told me that they actually prescribe exercise to their depressed patients. I do think it can lift your mood.

Moderator: Gina, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Kolata: This is the way I end my book and I think it sums up the message:

One day, I get an email from Richard Friedman, the avid swimmer and psychophamarcologist at the Cornell Medical School. He knows I'm writing this book and he has a question: "Are you planning to tell the truth about exercise?" he asks me.

I write back. What, I ask, is the truth?

"Ah, the truth about exercise?" he replies. "Well, I suspect that exercise is more often a marker of health than its cause -- healthy people like to exercise more than unhealthy people, to start with. And the real value of it is not in terms of abstract health benefits like longevity -- an extra few hours or maybe months -- but because it feels good when you do it or when it's over. To hell with Hygeia; the truth lies in pleasure."

Moderator: We are out of time. I'm sorry we couldn't get to all of your great questions. Our thanks to Kolata, and thank you members for joining us today. For more information, please read Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth About Exercise and Fitness by Kolata.

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