Thursday, January 22, 2009

The falsity of fitness: Image sold by TV ads offer people the impossible of ripped bodies in weeks

In the realm of public service, today's New York Times features a must-read article about a health professional who doubted all the TV ads by health clubs and fitness equipment manufacturers telling people that they could have ripped bodies in weeks.

So he rounded up some flabby people and gave them the equipment and health club memberships. He took before and after photos. And what he found was what he expected -- there was little change in physical appearance and weight.

Is all hopeless.?

Of course not. Fitness is matter a long-term dedication and results, which also includes major dietary changes.

I know this truth from personal experience in fighting cancer and diabetes. I now weigh 80 pounds less, am slender and my muscular frame has recovered from the ravages of chemo -- which I still take.

But I had to start walking each day for an hour after my balance returned. The pace had to be fast. Then I quit eating fried foods and going to buffets. No more white bread. I added more vegetables. And my body tells me I am not missing anything in putting those bad foods aside. I have gained so much in attitude and discipline. And on ocassion, I may eat a hamburger without cheese and with no fries.

But I don't miss the food. And I love my clothes fitting loosely.

We all face choices. The one for fitness is a no-brainer that will leave you feeling so much better about yourself while protecting your health.

Here is what The Times featured today:

CARL FOSTER, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, was amused by ads for a popular piece of exercise equipment. Before-and-after photos showed pudgy men and women turned into athletes with ripped bodies of steel. And it all happened after just 12 weeks of exercising for 30 minutes three times a week. Then there was the popular book, with its own before-and-after photos, promoting a program that would totally change your body in six weeks with three 20-minute exercise sessions a week.

There are many examples of people who took up exercise and markedly changed their appearance. But how long does it take? And how much time and effort are required? Six weeks sounded crazy to Dr. Foster.

“We said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t change yourself that much,’ ” Dr. Foster said. So he and his colleagues decided to experiment. Suppose they recruited sedentary people for a six-week exercise program. Would objective observers notice any changes in their bodies?

The plan was to photograph volunteers wearing skimpy bathing suits and then randomly assign them to one of three groups: cardiovascular exercise, weight lifting or control. Six weeks later, they would be photographed again.

Their heads would be blocked out of the photos, which would be shuffled. Then the subjects and judges would rate the body in each photo on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being spectacular.

The volunteers were men, age 18 to 40 (the university’s human-subjects review board looked askance at having women photographed and rated like that). And they were sedentary. “These were people who were just sort of dumplings,” Dr. Foster said.

Results were not surprising. The subjects rated themselves more highly than anyone else rated them, and female panelists rated the subjects lower than the male subjects or panelists rated them. But, over all, the subjects’ ratings barely changed, if at all, after their exercise program. And neither did objective measures, like weight or percentage of body fat, or waist size or the size of the bicep or thigh.

Exercise physiologists approach the whole new year, new you, total body transformation mania with a jaundiced eye. Yes, they said, people can change the way they look. But not overnight.

“I think it’s pretty clear,” said William Kraemer, a kinesiology professor at the University of Connecticut. Often the promises are just marketing, he said. “A lot of times when you are dealing with health clubs, they are trying to get new members who have made New Year’s resolutions.”

“To make a change in how you look, you are talking about a significant period of training,” Dr. Kraemer said. “In our studies it takes six months to a year.” And, he added, that is with regular strength-training workouts, using the appropriate weights and with a carefully designed individualized program. “That is what the reality is,” he said.

And genetic differences among individuals mean some people respond much better to exercise than others, said Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, an exercise researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He added that although he does not think the before-and-after photos in ads are doctored, most people will not change so markedly no matter how hard or long they work. “I believe they are taking the top one or two people out of thousands,” Dr. Tarnopolsky said.

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