What is the truth about exercise and health? If you exercise for 30 minutes a day five or six times a week will you stave off that heart attack or stroke? Do you need to break a sweat every time you exercise to lose a little weight? What about that heart rate — if you take your age and subtract it from 220 and then take 80 percent of that value, is that the maximum that you should allow your heart to pump when you exercise? And will it kill you to go over that?
I don’t know about you, but I keep getting drawn into these little discussions. The last time was Saturday afternoon on Nassau Street. I was coming in from a 30-minute walk and bumped into a college classmate. We two survivors of the 1960s traded war stories about business management and parenting for a few minutes, but soon the talk turned to health. I had the angioplasty to report, along with the subsequent angiogram to see if the recurring pains in the left arm had anything to do with the coronary arteries (apparently not).
What about my classmate from 1969? "Just found out that I have all the silent symptoms," he replied. "High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes." From health we turned to exercise and I considered recommending the new book by Gina Kolata, the science reporter for the New York Times and Princeton resident: "Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Exercise and Health."
I considered it, but then rejected the idea. Instead I gave my college classmate the only absolute exercise truth I know: The truth about exercise bikes, passed along to me by my contractor friend, Hank Sufnar.
Holding Kolata’s book in hand (and considering that the author is in the midst of a nationwide book tour that will bring her to the Barnes & Noble at MarketFair on Wednesday, May 14), you would think that I could come up with something better for my college classmate than the wisdom passed along by a building contractor. But, as Kolata’s title states, this is about the "quest" for truth, not necessarily the truth itself.
Kolata digs into the backgrounds of "researchers" who advocate a new and improved and incredibly easy exercise routine and discovers a man with a chance for financial gain and a research study that included just a dozen people.
Even serious and highly regarded researchers admit that their findings could be flawed. A highly publicized study published in 1989 in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed the health of more than 13,000 people over an eight-year period. The researcher concedes that the study could have been better if there were a control group — people who did not exercise at all. But to Kolata, nevertheless, this is "most surprising" — that "the health benefits of exercise emerge from the most modest of efforts, that there is no need to run a marathon if you want to improve your health. Walking would suffice."
As a nearly 56-year-old man with two gimpy knees, that’s music to my ears. But then I read a story that made the daily papers just a month ago, too late for Kolata’s book. This story, based on a study published in a British medical journal called Heart, suggested that a daily half-hour brisk walk would not help ward off that heart attack. Only vigorous exercise would help, according to the decade-long study of 2,000 men.
But having read the Kolata book, I was careful to read the fine print of the British study. The 2,000 subjects included men whose exercise included bowling, sailing, golfing, and dancing, as well as brisk walking. Separate out those brisk walkers, I thought, and then narrow in on the ones who hit 80 percent of that maximum heart rate, and see where the numbers come in.
What about that maximum heart rate? According to the formula mine would be 220 minus 56, or 164 and 80 percent of that would be 131. But for a good portion of my five mile per hour walk my heart rate is closer to 140, and when I hit "Heartbreak Hill" (Linden Lane from Hamilton up to Nassau) it goes into the 150s.
Kolata — herself an extreme exerciser (see her picture on page 49 and judge for yourself if this is worth it) — uncovered the origin of the heart rate formula. One of the men who devised it in 1970, exercise physiologist William Haskell, is amused at how his formula, devised as a simple way to help people measure the relative intensity of exercise, has become a mantra. "It’s typical of Americans to take an idea and extend it way beyond what it was intended for."
So out on Nassau Street, I keep it simple for my college classmate, and anyone else who asks my exercise advice. Instead I tell the story of Hank Sufnar loaning me his exercise bicycle that had been gathering cobwebs. "It’s boring," he tells me. "Whatever you do, put it somewhere in front of a TV." To that truth, I would add one corollary: Make sure you have a remote and make sure you have the maximum number of cable channels you can afford. Thirty minutes on a stationary bike is the mental equivalent of an hour walking around town.