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'Going for the Burn' Has Scared Many Into Sloth, but Experts Say a Small Workout Is Far Better Than None : 'Lite' Exercise

August 25, 1987|RICK McGUIRE

First came "lite" beer, then "lite" wine, now you can have an entire "lite" meal. With Americans obviously seeing the "lite," it should come as no surprise that next up is "lite" exercise.

Researchers have been working up a sweat studying the effect of activity on the human body, and they are coming to the conclusion that the public has been oversold the value of training-level exercise. Consequently, according to these scientists, this "go-for-the-burn" mentality has discouraged the very people who most need exercise in their lives.

However, there is a healthy dose of hope in a series of new studies that define the substantial benefits of light- to moderate-activity levels. This light approach to exercise includes activities such as gardening, golf, home repairs and bowling.

The debate over recommended activity levels was a recurring theme during this year's meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Las Vegas.

Steven Blair, director of epidemiology at the Institute for Aerobics Research, Dallas, believes there has been "way too much emphasis" on the intensity of exercise and not enough emphasis on the exercise or activity itself.

People Scared of Exercising

"Frankly," he said, "I think we've scared 70 million to 80 million people away from the very activities that we want them to pursue. That's why nearly half of all adult Americans have no leisure-exercise program whatsoever."

Blair added that our cultural and commercial presentation of exercise is also unhealthy. He is convinced that the idealized image of fit young people doing highly vigorous activities has dissuaded many people from doing anything at all.

"An overweight, middle-aged, out-of-shape person looks at this image, figures it's unattainable for him or her and quits exercising before they even begin," Blair said.

Dr. Peter Raven, head of the department of physiology at Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine and the new president of the ACSM, agreed with Blair and noted: "There is this whole concept that if you can't run a marathon you aren't very fit. That's ridiculous."

"We've confused health fitness with performance fitness," he said.

What proof is there that light-to-moderate activity is health protective? The evidence, according to several studies presented at the ACSM meeting, is substantial.

For example, Blair, who is a doctor of physical education, presented the results of an analysis of 250,000 veterans that indicated lower rates of colon cancer, brain cancer, leukemia and kidney cancer among men whose jobs consisted of light to heavy work, compared with sedentary men.

Researchers from Harvard reported a lower incidence of breast and reproductive system cancers in women who were athletes in college, compared to their non-active classmates.

And Dr. Henry S. Miller, medical director of Bowman Grey School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C., presented a paper that showed no difference in the recovery of heart-attack patients who were on low- or high-intensity exercise regimes.

New Ideas About Exercise

"I agree that we've got to get away from the idea that if you don't jog or bounce you're not going to get any good from (your activity) and away from the idea that you have to go for total exhaustion," he said.

Miller, who is considered the father of cardiac rehabilitation in the United States, added: "You have to do something to increase the use of your muscles, to make your heart rate come up, but I don't think there's anything really magic about getting your heart rate up to 80% to 90% of max."

"Sure, you'll get more training effect that way, but I don't think it's been proven that you'll get more cardiovascular protection at that (maximum) level as opposed to say a 40% maximum level at which you can incorporate almost all daily activity and get some (healthful) effect," he said.

Steven Blair said: "The public health message needs to swing a bit and we need to get people off their butts and up and moving, even if that just means getting them out for a 15- to 20-minute walk once or twice a day. I don't care what their heart rate is! There is certainly evidence that that kind of light to moderate activity produces health benefits."

Although the phrase light to moderate activity was bantered around by one and all at the gathering of sports medicine specialists, a precise definition was not forthcoming.

"(Activity) doesn't have to be real intense to protect the vascular system," Miller said, "but total activity should reach a certain critical level, and I guess we are a little undecided about what that is."

Blair said: "I think if you exercise hard enough to increase your breathing rate noticeably and--assuming you're not in a cold climate--you sweat a little, that's hard enough. Whether you go beyond that to push yourself I think is a matter of personal preference."

"Basically, we need to get people active and almost anything they do will improve them," Miller said.

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