“Exercise is my obsession,” states Gina Kolata on page 3 of her book Ultimate Fitness. Why does Kolata love exercise? “I discovered that if I work out really hard and for at least forty minutes, I can sometimes reach an almost indescribable state of sheer exhilaration.” By the end of the book Kolata admits to belonging to three gyms. The book is nearly a love letter to exercise, blending science and history with memoir into an exploration of exercise and the exercise industry.
Kolata uses Spinning, her current favorite cardio exercise, almost as a case study for much of the book, which can be a weakness. (Why so much focus on one brand?) But to my mind the biggest weakness of the book is the actual title: Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Health and Exercise. Is it an exercise book? A spiritual book? Neither. But this is a book I turn to over and over again. I go to look up a sample training program and get caught up in the story.
For an overview, I’m typing in the table of contents and adding my own notes (in italics). Links are to related articles by Kolata.
Less Is More, or Is It? Kolata’s love of Spinning and intense exercise; a 10-person “groundbreaking study” on exercise with a publicist is likely selling something
History Repeats Itself Kenneth Cooper’s book Aerobics; the Greeks’ teaching on exercise; overview of exercise fads of the 1800s+, including Cooper’s attempts to evangelize exercise
How Much Is Enough? Researchers were surprised to find that the biggest fitness gain is when a sedentary person begins a moderate (like walking) program a few days a week (which can also be had in day-to-day life); medical advice through the 60s worried that might exercise enlarged the heart and overstressed cardiac patients; exercise doesn’t always increase health; do healthy people just enjoy exercise more?
Maximum Heart Rates and Fat-Burning Zones Using heart rate as a measure of effort; the (minimal) science behind the much-publicized “target heart rates”; lower heart rates do not burn more body fat; maximum heart rates vary by more than age and conditioning
Training Lore It often IS lore and urban legends, not science; historic training methods; Kolata’s training plan for the Spinning “Mt Everest” event; attempting a 3-hour Spinning ride without training first; what methods science does support; not everyone gets faster with training
The Athlete’s World Profiles pro cycler and spinning instructor, Josh Taylor, as a pro (but not household name) athlete
Mount Everest The 4-hour Spinning ride Kolata trained months for with Josh Taylor, and how her training program did make a difference
Is There A Runner’s High? It’s not necessarily endorphins*; it’s not something everyone gets; different people acheive it differently; it’s independent from exercise’s affects on depression
Sculpting the Body Beautiful Weight training to build muscles and shape; a brief history of bodybuilding in the US; bigger muscles aren’t necessarily stronger; how much mass and strength you can build depends on genetics; weightlifting has little to no affect on resting metabolism, because the muscles only use energy if they’re working
The Fitness Business It’s a lucrative business; many certifications, such as ACE physical trainer and Spinning certifications, are more about paying for “study materials” than learning about physiology or safe training methods; American College of Sports Medicine is much more serious; fitness products that are a waste of money
Epilogue: The Truth About Exercise Kolata muses on three types of people who exercise:
- Those who want to improve their health, aka following the CDC recommendations;
- Those who want broader shoulders or to be thinner, for which more, much more, is needed, and may not be possible; and, finally,
- Those who love it.
Kolata closes with a quote from avid swimmer and psychopharmacologist Richard Friedman:
Ah, the truth about exercise? 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.
Kolata is most known through the fat-o-sphere for her book Rethinking Thin and her science reporting for The New York Times. Occasionally it’s clear that Ultimate Fitness was written before Rethinking Thin; Kolata assumes her exercising keeps her thinner; she notes that some aspiring fitness instructors do not appear fit (because of course fitness can be determined by appearance alone). This book is useful to fat acceptance advocates because many of the myths it debunks (20 minutes of walking a day will make you thin! Everyone gets bulky with weights! Everyone gets a runner’s high if they run!) are often pushed as ways to lose weight—and don’t work.
I originally got this from the library—and liked it enough to buy it.
Some related links:
- The San Francisco Chronicle review of Ultimate Fitness.
- The New York Times review of Ultimate Fitness.
- The New York Times also has an Exercise reference section. The initial article, Does Exercise Really Keep Us Healthy?, is written by Kolata and touches on many of the points made in the book.
- Google Books has a preview of Ultimate Fitness.
- Ultimate Fitness on Amazon, with preview.
*Writing in 2002, Kolata summarized the research for the Times as well as in the book. In 2008 she reported on new research which provides more support for the endorphin theory.
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