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A question of fitness

Gov. Schwarzenegger's ties to bodybuilding magazines raise issues of appropriateness. Others say he's promoting exercise.

April 12, 2004|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

It may seem like a natural progression, the next step in a nearly four-decade relationship that is widely credited with helping to push weightlifting into the mainstream.

Last month, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a seven-time Mr. Olympia, agreed to become executive editor of two of the nation's most popular bodybuilding magazines -- Muscle & Fitness and Flex. The magazines hope to capitalize on the international celebrity of Schwarzenegger to raise its profile and profitability; in exchange, one of his favorite projects, the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness (which promotes healthy and active lifestyles), will receive $1.25 million over the next five years.

But Schwarzenegger is, of course, no longer just a public figure; he's also a public servant charged with guarding the health and welfare of 34 million residents. As such, some political observers and health professionals say, his relationship with the magazines delivers a mixed message about fitness.

In his widely lauded role as physical fitness guru, the governor has instructed youngsters that the best way to succeed in sports is through hard work and sweat, not by taking performance-enhancing substances. But the magazines of which he is now editor routinely splash huge-muscled bodybuilders across their pages. At least some of the physiques, say observers of the sport, are probably a direct result of "juicing," a slang term for using anabolic steroids.

Further raising questions about the association is the magazines' reliance on advertisements for dietary supplements, even as the national debate over the regulation and safety of such products intensifies. The vast bulk of the magazines' advertisements -- more than 90%, according to a spokesman -- are for supplements that promise ways to lose weight or to quickly bulk up.

The federal government and three states, including California, have restricted some of the products previously advertised in the publications -- those containing ephedra and androstenedione, or andro, a steroid precursor. Although the magazines stopped running ads for those products shortly after the Food and Drug Administration's actions, regulators are considering restrictions on similar products still advertised.

The vast bulk of the magazines' advertisements -- more than 90%, according to a spokesman -- are for supplements that are designed to appeal to bodybuilders. Some promise weight loss; others say they can help weightlifters bulk up quickly.

"He should take a more careful look at his association with magazines that promote some questionable dietary supplements that may ultimately be banned by the U.S. Congress," said Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "What he should be doing instead is promoting fair play without the use of drugs masquerading as dietary supplements. Anything less is a disservice to American youth."

Bill Gurley, a pharmacy professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who specializes in the research of dietary supplements, calls supplements like those advertised in the bodybuilding magazines a pharmacological Pandora's box. The supplements, especially those claiming to aid weight loss, are usually packed with caffeine and other stimulants, he noted, and their safety and efficacy have not been proved.

"If he wasn't governor, I'd have no problem with what [Schwarzenegger] is doing," he said. "But he's supposed to be looking out for the health and welfare of his state, and those magazines are selling supplement products that frankly we don't know too much about."

Vincent Scalisi who oversees editorial content for both magazines, defends Schwarzenegger, the magazines and their mission.

"Arnold has a personality that attracts hearts and minds, and if we can get someone to pick up an issue of our magazine and become stronger and healthier as a result," said Scalisi, "then that's what it's all about."

Responding to some critics' suggestions that the bodybuilders pictured in the magazine use steroids, he said: "Steroids don't make these athletes; smart training and incredibly hard work do."

Although Schwarzenegger declined to be interviewed for this story, his spokeswoman, Terri Carbaugh, said the governor's new editorial post was an appropriate outlet for his "long-standing personal passion" for physical fitness.

The governor believes in educating the public about the potential risks of steroids and supplements, she said. But if people want to take supplements, she said, that's "really a decision that comes down to the individual."

Ultimately, Schwarzenegger could have a direct effect on those individual decisions.

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