Friday, January 23, 2009

Fitness Isn’t an Overnight Sensation

“Carl Foster, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, was amused by ads for a popular piece of exercise equipment. Before-and-after photos showed pudgy men and women turned into athletes with ripped bodies of steel. And it all happened after just 12 weeks of exercising for 30 minutes three times a week. ‘We said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t change yourself that much,’ Dr. Foster said. So he and his colleagues decided to experiment. Suppose they recruited sedentary people for a six-week exercise program. Would objective observers notice any changes in their bodies? The plan was to photograph volunteers wearing skimpy bathing suits and then randomly assign them to one of three groups: cardiovascular exercise, weight lifting or control. Six weeks later, they would be photographed again. Their heads would be blocked out of the photos, which would be shuffled. Then the subjects and judges would rate the body in each photo on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being spectacular. The volunteers were men, age 18 to 40 (the university’s human-subjects review board looked askance at having women photographed and rated like that). And they were sedentary. ‘These were people who were just sort of dumplings,’ Dr. Foster said. Results were not surprising. The subjects rated themselves more highly than anyone else rated them, and female panelists rated the subjects lower than the male subjects or panelists rated them. But, over all, the subjects’ ratings barely changed, if at all, after their exercise program. And neither did objective measures, like weight or percentage of body fat, or waist size or the size of the bicep or thigh. Exercise physiologists approach the whole new year, new you, total body transformation mania with a jaundiced eye. Yes, they said, people can change the way they look. But not overnight. ‘I think it’s pretty clear,’ said William Kraemer, a kinesiology professor at the University of Connecticut. Often the promises are just marketing, he said. ‘A lot of times when you are dealing with health clubs, they are trying to get new members who have made New Year’s resolutions. ‘To make a change in how you look, you are talking about a significant period of training,’ Dr. Kraemer said. ‘In our studies it takes six months to a year.’ And, he added, that is with regular strength-training workouts, using the appropriate weights and with a carefully designed individualized program. ‘That is what the reality is,’ he said. Jim Lisowski, 45, the owner and chief executive of SciTec, a research and development company in Montgomery, N.J., said he had let himself slip out of shape, going from 189 pounds to 225 pounds. He is 5-foot-10 ½. ‘My approach was to get fit,’ Mr. Lisowski said. ‘I knew I would lose weight.’ The nine months or so that it took to lose the weight and gain strength and endurance seemed fast to him. He attributes it to the fact that he had been fit before he let himself go, and to his attitude. ‘You can go to a gym and spend time there and not make changes,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to break a sweat, you have to increase the weights. You’ve got to challenge yourself.’”

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