Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health by Gina Kolata

I walk a lot. I've walked 2 half-marathons each of the last two years. I plan to walk my first full in April 2011. And I work out occasionally, at home. But that's it. Luckily I have good genes and was taught to just eat within reason, and I don't need to really kill myself to stay pretty thin. J. however is in training to be a Personal Trainer, and when I saw it at the library sale I knew this book would be right up his alley. It was and he devoured it pretty quickly. But I picked it up too. One reason I got it for him in the first place is because I figured even if he didn't want to read it, I did.
Ms. Kolata is a medical reporter for the New York Times, and she gets a press release about a revolutionary new study showing amazing results for a ridiculous exercise program (work out for 1 minute; rest for 7). Usually she just tosses those, but something about this one got under her skin and she decided to delve into it. Turns out it was a study of just 10 women, with no controls, and the two statisticians she consults say there are serious problems with the numbers, and the study is basically unrepeatable from the information given. Hm. She looks into it again and finds out naturally that the "inventor" of this new type of exercise is of course trying to sell it (license gyms to be official places to practice it) and while 2 of the three researchers are at Columbia and Harvard, the third (the inventor guy) has had his license to practice medicine pulled in NJ and NY and his sanity was questioned at one of the hearings. The message: when you read about a new study that purports to have amazing new news about fitness and working out, be skeptical. And then she wondered how much of what she knows about fitness and exercise is backed up by real, legitimate, provable research?
It turns out, very little. I love books that skewer urban myths, which this one does with rapidity. Ms. Kolata investigates is there a runner's high? Is there science behind the "fat burning zone" on exercise equipment? Are the target heart rate charts accurate? Are there really some people who won't become fit no matter how much they exercise? Do nutritional supplements help build muscle? Are trainers actually trained to do anything useful? Does building muscles really help you burn more calories even while sitting and doing nothing? Can people really get addicted to exercise? As you can probably guess by my use of the word "skewer" earlier, the answer to most of these questions turns out to be negative (except the last). Most universal truths you hear around the gym have never been proven, can't be proven, or are simply guesses that have taken on the varnish of facts.
She intersperses the research and science with her own personal stories of discovering weight lifting, Spinning, and her own experiences with working out. I really liked these parts, being a big fan of memoirs. J. preferred the slightly wonky fact-heavy specifics about fast-twitch versus slow-twitch muscles, the information about weight-lifting (as a sport), and the details of which of the personal training programs are legit. So nicely, we both enjoyed the book thoroughly for very different reasons. It was very well written, a fast, breezy read despite being research-heavy, and I am by no means a jock or a gym-head. I haven't even had a gym membership in about 8 years. But if you are truly adverse to working out, this likely isn't the book for you, although Ms. Kolata would hope to inspire you to give it a try, I'm sure!
I particularly loved the odd historical tidbits such as: in early marathons (through the 1960s), drinking water was considered cheating. Marathoners in the Olympics weren't allowed to drink water until after mile 6, and even then they had to either carry it themselves, or set up their own water stations in advance, as there were no water stations offered by the Olympics. Man, do we have it cushy!
Okay, I'm off now to watch "The Biggest Loser" and do leg lifts and crunches!

1 comment:

Teresa said...

This sounds really interesting. I love myth-busting books, and exercise (and nutrition) seems surrounded by myth. I'll have to look into this one.