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THE HEALTHY MAN / TIMOTHY GOWER

Strive to Be Fit, Not Fanatical

June 07, 1999|TIMOTHY GOWER

Dear Readers: Timothy Gower starts this month as the new writer of the Healthy Man column. He has written for various publications, including Esquire, Health, Men's Fitness and Men's Health magazines and is the author of "Staying at the Top of Your Game" (Avon Books, 1999).

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I know what you're thinking.

Who's this clown? Another fitness Nazi with a word processor who's going to scold and call me a girly-man if I don't do 150 chin-ups before breakfast? Or maybe he's one of those camera-hogging doctors who's always turning up on TV news shows, insisting that if I eat one more bacon cheeseburger my body will be declared a biohazard?

Nope. I'm just a reporter whose beat for much of the last decade has been health and medicine, with a particular focus on the care and feeding of the male animal. My interest is unabashedly personal: I just turned 38 and have begun to notice a few chinks in the armor. Chances are you have, too.

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And if you're reading this column, maybe you've also picked up your share of health books and magazines that are targeted at men. Me, too, and you know what I've noticed? Some contain a lot of valuable information, but they all seem to have two things in common: 1) they avoid using big words, and 2) they take the old "no pain, no gain" philosophy very seriously. All that talk about "getting ripped" and "feeling the burn"--ouch!

Of course, "no pain, no gain" is hardly a new idea. Many men grew up hearing it from coaches who insisted that if you didn't collapse in a puddle of protoplasm at the end of practice, then you obviously weren't hustling. We've been led to believe that working out isn't supposed to be fun; it's supposed to leave your muscles aching and stomach roiling. Is it any wonder that only about one in five U.S. men exercises regularly?

The thing is, getting enough exercise and eating right aren't as hard as you might think. The idea that it takes long, grueling workouts to get in shape is malarkey. Believe it or not, more isn't always better when it comes to exercise. And if you're tired of diets that leave you with a fridge full of icky cabbage soup, then tuck in your napkin: Healthy eating doesn't have to bum out your palate.

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Let's start with exercise. If you know that a little jogging is good for your heart, then you might assume that doing laps till you're dizzy and ready to retch would make your ticker indestructible. But you would be incorrect, sir. A 1997 Harvard study determined that the cardiovascular benefits of an intense aerobic workout peak at about 24 minutes; pound the pavement longer if you like, but your heart won't get any stronger.

Ditto for strength training. According to the gospel of the weight room, you must do a minimum of three sets of bench presses, curls, or any other strength-training exercise, to build up a muscle. But studies at the University of Florida show that's just not true; doing one set of an exercise produces more than three-quarters of the muscle you get from doing three. You gain a little less in the biceps department, maybe, but you get the heck out of that stinky, sweaty gym in one-third the time. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Unless you're obese, forget about dieting. (And if you are dramatically overweight, see a doctor who specializes in obesity.) Nutrition experts say crash weight-loss plans that require you to stop eating certain foods don't work; you'll lose weight, but inevitably your willpower crumbles, and the pounds return. Instead, eat a balanced meal plan that includes lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and an occasional splurge. Add regular exercise, and eventually you'll attain a manageable, healthy weight.

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Bottom line: Modest lifestyle changes can make a huge difference. Consider the evidence. Exhibit A: me. In high school my classmates gave me the nickname "Blaze." At first, I thought they were mispronouncing "blase," but it turns out they were poking fun of me for being a slow and easily winded runner. During forced-jogging sessions in gym class, I'd bring up the rear, gasping like I was born sucking on an unfiltered Camel. Though I managed to weasel my way on to a few sports teams, few people mistook me for an athlete.

In the two decades that followed, I wasn't much of a Healthy Man. I'd go running occasionally, but only if it was getting close to 11 p.m. and the liquor stores were closing. Then, a few years ago, I began to notice a pale, flabby orb forming where my flat stomach used to be. It had to go; I started jogging for half an hour every other day and have never looked back.

Last winter I injured my back and went to the hospital. As a nurse took my heart rate, she suddenly arched her eyebrows.

"Are you an athlete?" she asked. It turns out my resting heart rate was 56 beats per minute. The average guy's heart rate is about 70, but with regular aerobic training, the cardiovascular system becomes more efficient, and the heart doesn't have to work as hard.

I lay back on the exam table and thought of that lonely teenager, huffing and puffing behind the pack during gym class, and how I could totally humiliate him in a race today. See ya, Blaze! If I can become a Healthy Man, anyone with the right chromosomes can, too.

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Timothy Gower can be reached by e-mail at tgower@capecod.net.

* The Healthy Man column runs monthly in Health.

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