Gain fitness with no pain

A new book proves that anyone really can get fit without suffering.

March 19, 2006 07:29
Gain fitness with no pain

no sweat 88.298. (photo credit: )

Just what we needed - yet another book to teach us how to "lose weight, get healthy and live longer." No sarcasm is intended here; it really is just what we needed! This 255-page, $22 volume is quite different from the mountains of how-to books by self-styled experts lacking professional training who are certain their technique can work for everybody. The No Sweat Exercise Plan, published by McGraw Hill and aimed at getting the overweight and unfit to lose weight and improve their health without spending hours in the gym, was written by leading Harvard Medical School physician Prof. Harvey Simon. The book targets those who know that exercise is a proven recipe for preserving and restoring good health, earnestly buy an expensive electronic treadmill and then use it only as a clothes hanger. Simon - a Yale College and Harvard Medical School graduate, faculty member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founding member of the Harvard Cardiovascular Health Center and winner of the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching - dedicates the book to his wife Rita for starting him on the path to fitness. HE CONFESSES in the preface that on July 4, 1976, his wife "pushed me out the door to get some exercise. Without the benefit of any medical training, Rita knew that I needed to exercise, and she was right. She also insisted that my need was urgent, and she was right again. I was only 34 and believed I was healthy, but the warning signs were in plain view. At 205 pounds, I was substantially overweight, and my repeated attempts to diet had not countered the five or six extra pounds that I'd been packing on every year since medical school. My cholesterol and blood pressure were borderline by the standards of the 1970s but high by today's criteria." Simon adds that he had a very problematic family medical history. "My pedigree was even more worrisome. My father was disabled by cardiovascular disease when he was in his late thirties; my mother died of heart disease at 42; and my uncles all succumbed in a similar fashion before age 45." Exercise, he declares, "hasn't done anything for my genes, but it has done wonders for my health." His first jog ended breathlessly after only a few blocks. But his wife pushed him forward, and "slowly but surely, remarkable things happened to my body. My stamina, strength and speed improved dramatically." He lost five inches (12 centimeters) from his waist, and his weight dropped 40 pounds. His blood pressure dropped and his cholesterol levels greatly improved. His personality changed too - he became more energetic yet relaxed, more social and outgoing. He was suddenly "hooked on exercise," and for the next 30 years was a marathon runner who preached what he practiced, prescribing intense aerobic exercise for his patients and dismissing golf as useless as a fitness regimen. Simon finally realized that he was wrong - and wrote this splendid book to explain why. PREHISTORIC MAN during the Paleolithic era depended on physical prowess for survival; they spent most of their time hunting and gathering - highly strenuous activities. The rest of their time was spent seeking shelter, escaping from predators and coping with nature. Change came slowly in the Stone Age, when humans gradually learned to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Wandering about on foot became less of an imperative, and people had a somewhat easier, more predictable existence without having to wander much. The agricultural life of farming and herding required almost as much physical exertion as hunting and gathering, and so it went for millennia until the Industrial Revolution of 250 years ago. Machines changed everything, and the technological/computer revolution that began four decades ago finally made man in developed countries almost completely sedentary, with pressing the keys on a computer or a TV remote control the most exercise many get. At the same time, food - especially the cheap, unhealthful kind - became very accessible and affordable, resulting in poor dietary habits, weight gains and the resultant heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Simon's new book has been endorsed by Harvard Medical School colleagues: "Exercise and diet are equally important for good health and weight control," comments Prof. Walter Willett of Harvard's School of Public Health and author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy . "This outstanding book presents a unique exercise program that is scientifically sound, practical and achievable. Everyone would benefit by reading this book and starting the program." THE LATEST scientific studies, Simon notes, show conclusively that people can get the full health benefits of exercise with only slight modifications to their daily routine. It doesn't need to take a lot of time or be boring. One doesn't have to sweat it out in a gym. Instead, the penitent Simon insists that just pumping up your regular walking, housecleaning, gardening, golfing, shopping, mowing the lawn, climbing stairs, washing the car and even playing with your children outdoors can add healthy and happy years to your life. He explains the types and amounts of exercise needed for this, and offers readers an innovative CME (cardiometabolic exercise) point system to help them track their activities and achieve their goals. For example, if you weigh 180 pounds (or 82.7 kilos; for Israelis, the one disadvantage of this US-published book is that it refers to pounds and miles rather than kilos and kilometers), if you walk two miles per hour, you'll earn 104 CME points in 30 minutes; if you walk at twice the pace, you'll earn 195 points for the same amount of time. Another chart shows that if you play ping pong at a moderate pace for half an hour, you get 135 points, while the same time devoted to rollerskating is worth 210, and just 15 minutes of moderate rope jumping is equivalent to 200. Stairclimbing, says Simon, "is the best-kept secret in exercise for health." It's a great way to accumulate CME points during your daily life, and will improve your leg strength and balance, strengthen your heart and reduce your waistline. No equipment is needed, and it's free. One can even exercise effectively by walking briskly through a shopping mall. He quotes Canadian research on healthy male volunteers with an average age of 64 who walked, lifted weights or climbed stairs. The researchers found that stair climbing was twice as taxing as brisk walking on a level surface, and 50 percent harder than walking up a steep incline or lifting weights. Peak exertion was reached much faster by climbing stairs than by walking. Simon notes that although only the "very young at heart" should try charging up long flights, people of other ages and conditions can benefit by starting at a slow but steady pace, going up a flight or two and then increasing the number as you increase your stamina. He advises readers to take the stairs whenever they can and, if necessary, walk partway and then switch to an elevator. It is best to hold onto the railing for balance and security, and not to do this exercise if you feel unwell or have just eaten a heavy meal. Chapter eight helps readers plan a comprehensive personal exercise program after undergoing several simple self-tests to see where you stand (people suffering from chronic diseases and the elderly should, of course, first consult their physicians). For example, to test your abdominal muscles, take the one-minute sit-up test. Lie on the floor with your back flat, your knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor. Clasp your hands behind your neck and do as many sit-ups as you can in one minute, touching your elbows to your knees each time, then returning to the starting position. You can test your balance talents by standing in your bare or stockinged feet about 30 centimeters from a wall (which comes in handy if you topple over). Keep your eyes open, your chin up, your back straight and your arms at your sides. Bend one leg backward and up at the knee and see how long you can stand on the other leg. Women in their 50s, for example, are in good shape if they can hold it for 8.8 seconds or more, while men in their 60s can make such claims if they can hold it for 4.1 seconds or longer. Subsequent chapters provide detailed information - and explanatory drawings - on four types of easy exercises to promote health. Besides cardiometabolic exercise (which includes swimming, dancing, biking and skating), there is flexibility training ("stretching for health"); exercise for balance (to reduce the risk of falling, especially in the elderly); and strength training (to buttress muscles and bones). The author wisely devotes a whole chapter to the pitfalls of exercise, and offers numerous precautions. Rigorous activity such as shovelling snow can precipitate heart attacks. It is rare and gets a lot of publicity (such as the sudden death at 52 of jogging guru Jim Fixx, who had a heart attack while running in Vermont; but he had risk factors such as tobacco abuse and a family history of early cardiac death). Although Simon says stress tests have not been shown to predict exercise-induced cardiac problems, he recommends them to people with cardiac symptoms or suspected cardiovascular disease before they begin exercising. Exercise can induce asthma in some people, and exercising at high altitudes can be problematic. Exerting yourself in hot temperatures and without drinking a lot of water or in a very cold environment is definitely not recommended. Make sure your medical checkups are up to date before you begin a new exercise program; exercise at an appropriate level, and work your way up gradually; warm up before and cool down afterwards; don't eat within two hours of moderate or intense exercise; exercise regularly but don't do it if you are ill; and, above all, listen to your body. Simon also devotes an important chapter to nutrition, including a discussion of good and bad oils and fats, vitamins and minerals, and to preventive medical care. He urges consultation with one's doctor, but sharing responsibility with him or her. "Although your primary-care physician should be the conductor of your health orchestra, you should remain involved as the general manager," he advises. "The doctor-patient relationship should be a partnership, with both parties working together to solve health-related problems." He ends by recommending various screening tests such as mammograms, colonoscopies, skin cancer checks and vaccinations. Now read the book and get up from your chair.

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