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Our Iron-Pumping President Has Solved One Weighty Issue

April 06, 1998|KATHY SMITH

For years, late-night television hosts had a field day with Bill Clinton's battle of the bulge. Seemed like there were more Big Macs in Jay Leno's monologue than there were in McDonald's itself. Meanwhile, as network news crews followed the president on his daily jog, reporters often pointed out that, at best, the most powerful man in the world was breaking even in the fight against fat.

Well, those days are apparently over for good. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the president now looks great. No longer do you need a calculator to count his chins or a 35-inch monitor to accommodate his close-up.

What changed his appearance?

Apparently, Mr. Clinton discovered weight training.

At least, that's the explanation I read. If true, it makes all the sense in the world. Because as we close in on the 21st century, weight training, that most ancient of exercises, is the closest thing we have to a magic bullet fat-burner. As an ever-growing mountain of scientific literature confirms, the best way to lose weight is to lift weight.

The reason, which may seem counterintuitive, is simple physiology. Muscle requires more energy than fat tissue does, so while aerobic-type exercises like running burn more calories as you're doing them, strength training ends up burning more calories in the long run by raising your metabolism. Hungry for nourishment, your bigger and stronger muscles consume more calories every single minute, even when your body is at rest.

On the aesthetics front, weight training allows you to sculpt a new figure. Let's say you have what is politely referred to as a pear shape. With aerobic exercises, you can make yourself a smaller pear. But with strength training, you can change your body's silhouette. If nothing else, by broadening your shoulders, your stomach appears to be smaller.

(None of this should be taken as a license to give up aerobic activities in favor of strength training. You need both, the two in balance, to maintain optimum health. Each has its irreplaceable benefits.)

In my experience, many women are particularly opposed to weight training. They believe that lifting weights will cause them to bulk up like the female bodybuilders they see on ESPN. But it's not true. Having begun weight training more than 20 years ago in Hawaii on Nautilus equipment, I plan never to stop. Not only does it keep me lean, the additional strength it provides allows me to conduct my daily life with greater ease. Just picking up the groceries, for example, is a much simpler task when muscles are willing.

Beyond that, though, weight training builds up connective tissues around the joints, resulting in greater resistance to injury in areas like the knees and back. Many people who have problems in these areas would benefit noticeably from weight training, even though they've likely never considered the correlation between lack of muscle and pain.

Whether or not we need to lose fat, strength training becomes even more important as we age. Studies show that, starting at age 25, unattended muscles atrophy and get weaker over time, with the average person losing about 6 pounds of muscle per decade. The loss accelerates after age 45. No wonder older people often seem so frail. In fact, a high percentage of our elderly who don't suffer any other serious or chronic malady end up disabled through a loss of muscular strength.

The good news is that muscle loss is almost completely reversible at any age through weight training. Several studies conducted on people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s have demonstrated remarkable increases in strength and muscle mass, leading to improved agility and energy levels, faster walking speeds and better overall functional mobility. These, in turn, lead to greater confidence and a sunnier outlook. Sounds to me like the fountain of youth has finally been discovered.

All in all, you have to admit that weight training has a great upside. It doesn't even have to be expensive. For most people, a few dumbbells are a great and inexpensive way to reap the many advantages. Before beginning, however, I suggest that you get a weight training book or video, or even consult with a personal trainer who can tailor a program to your needs.

Whoever introduced President Clinton to weight training made it possible for him finally to get his paunch out of the late-night monologues. What an amazing irony. Given the nature of today's jokes about him, the president probably longs for those Big Mac attacks. Oh, well. I guess he could do worse than to go down in history as the president who led us, by example, into becoming a stronger--and leaner--country.

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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