The Why Files The Why Files --

Olympics: Science of the Sporting Life
Posted 26 JANUARY 2006 (Expanded 2006 based on 1996 story)

bikers ride uphill Want to keep moving?
Staleness may be interesting, but the predominant exercise problem is too little, not too much; sloth, not overtraining. Regular exercise is necessary for healthy circulatory, respiratory and immune systems. Exercise seems to prevent some cancers, and is a chief defense against diabetes and obesity, both now rampant in the United States.

50 percent of all people who take up formal exercise quit in a few months.The American College of Sports Medicine suggests we do aerobic exercise for three to five days a week, for 30 to 45 minutes a day. But most Americans don't come close, says Raglin. "Hardly anyone -- maybe 20 percent of the population -- exercises to the degree that they should to maintain cardiovascular health."

Too many of us spend too long watching the tragic lantern (AKA boob tube) instead of on the run, in the pool, or in the saddle. Raglin knows human hostility to heavy breathing from experience designing fitness programs for sedentary people. "If you take people and give them good equipment and a good training program," he laments, "half of them will quit before long. Here we live in a society where health, fitness, and a fit body are highly valued, and there are a lot of couch potatoes."

But if you've caught Olympic fever, here are some simple suggestions for safe, effective exercise:

Don't overdo it at first -- that's a recipe for aches, sprains and discouragement. Start slowly and build up. And talk to your doc first.

Find a co-conspirator. When both spouses enter an experimental fitness regime, only 8 percent drop out, compared to 50 percent who quit the typical program, Raglin says. "That's a pretty remarkable result."

Do something you like. If you're an avid cyclist, give your running shoes the heave-ho. If Ping-Pong is your style, why shoot hoops?

A boy proudly rests against his bike along a roadHe loves biking. Shouldn't his exercise program take advantage of that fact? (Okay, he's young for an "exercise program" but you get the point...). Catch the crazy cow mailbox in the background? © David Tenenbaum

This last point is sometimes lost on exercise advocates, noted William Morgan. "If you read the American Heart Association guidelines, they imply that all exercise is running. They talk about selecting shorts that are not too tight ... making sure the upper body has warm clothes." But what will happen, Morgan wonders, when he dives into a pool while bundled up in winter clothes?

Beyond "following your bliss" when choosing exercise, Morgan suggests a different approach to exercising. Instead of "walking on treadmills to nowhere," use your muscles for "purposeful physical activity, whether walking for transportation to work, to the store, to church, or walking your dog or splitting wood."

Purposeful physical activity can transcend boredom, he adds. "There are people who have a personality structure that lends itself to doing meaningless activity, staring at a wall or television, riding an ergometer [stationary bike] to nowhere. It's fine if they can adhere to that, but 50 percent of all people who take up formal exercise quit in a few months, and another 25 percent quit later on."

 Hulking players in uniform flank a field, watching players dive for the ball.
Watching football may make you happy, but not fit. © David Tenenbaum

Exercising while aging
Exercise is critical to successful aging, according to Steven Devor, who studies aging and exercise at The Ohio State University. As you age, your muscles weaken and shrink, says Devor. He focuses on the mass of skeletal muscles -- the ones that move the limbs, because it's a good indication of strength. Muscle mass starts to decline around age 30 for most Americans; the decline may occur a decade later among active people.

'Losing muscle mass is an inevitable consequence of aging.'Then matters get worse, he adds. "By 40 to 50, you will start seeing approximately a 5 percent decline per decade, and the decline starts to accelerate after age 50." The muscle of athletes may decline more slowly, he says, but "it doesn't matter what you do, losing muscle mass is an inevitable consequence of aging. By age 80, it's common to have only half as much muscle as you did at age 30."

Big, strong muscles help older people stay independent. "The primary thing that puts people into full-service nursing homes is not disease," Devor says, but rather the inability "to do what we call the activities of daily living, climbing a flight of steps, getting a pot down from the shelf, rising from the toilet or bathtub." And the key to these activities, he says, is to "maintain adequate skeletal muscle mass."

Woman in purple jogsShe loves running. You wanna convince her to bike instead? © David Tenenbaum

The cardiovascular system benefits from aerobic exercise, but muscle mass depends on resistance training -- lifting weighs or using exercise machines. Resistance training also strengthens tendons and ligaments, Devor adds, and causes bones to "pick up extra calcium, so they become harder, denser, they don't get as osteoporotic." Proper resistance training can strengthen and protect joints, Devor says, even among people who do not aspire to bench press 350 pounds.

The good news is that most people can slow the decline of muscle mass, or even restore some muscle with resistance training. But the bad news that even trained athletes lose mass. "If you maintain a high level of training, the decline at 50 and beyond is about half as fast, or about 5 percent per decade, Devor says. "It's going to happen, it's just a matter of how fast you want to slide."

The role of the mind in the body.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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