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Fitness Findings: Who Knew?

Moving Crew
Washington Post Health Staff
Thursday, September 2, 2004; 11:00 AM

You need to get moving.

Let's face it, we all do -- not to claim boasting rights in the gym or look good in a Speedo (you don't) -- but to boost our chances of staying healthy and energetic, regardless of age and athletic ability.

The Moving Crew is not aimed at health faddists, body builders or extreme athletes. But if you're a harried deskjockey trying to find creative ways to squeeze in exercise, a senior looking to stay active or a workout enthusiast whose routine's gone flat, you might find the answers here.


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Readers Are Talking About...

Each week the Crew will explore some facet of fitness from the inevitable new trends to the latest research and offer ways to overcome the excuses that keep so many of us desk- and sofa-bound.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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John Briley: In the health and fitness world, the quest to distinguish fact from myth does more than keep a lot of researchers employed: At its best, it can help you and me make the most of our exercise time and guide us in recovering from injuries and ailments. At its worst, it can confuse the heck out of us and leave us burning through calories simply from all that head scratching.

We are here today - as always - to cover the gamut of fitness issues and questions. But our overriding theme is: a look at some of the latest gee-wow findings from the world of fitness. Also: How scientific findings can help get and keep you moving, and how you can tell the well-researched news from the fluff. No convention talk. No hourly Hurricane Frances updates. Just fitness. Let's dive in.

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washingtonpost.com: Looking for treatments for some forms of heart disease? Read this week's Moving Crew column about the benefits of exercise.

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Washington, DC: I started running just a few months ago, and that's going well. (I get up early to run before week three days a week, plus a longer run on weekends.) My only concern is that I'm not currently doing any strength training. I don't have a gym membership, so I'm thinking of picking up a few dumbbells and possibly a weight bench to do some strength training at home.

What would you recommend as the basic strength training exercises that I could do at home (either without equipment or only with dumbbells)? And would twice a week be enough?

John Briley: hey d.c. - nice work on the running front - a good habit to pick up.

Basic strength training: Focus on core muscles - abs and hips mostly - because strength there will really help your running (in fact, concentrate on engaging your ab muscles WHILE you run - you should find that you tire more slowly and that your legs feel less drained per mile than normal).

Also, chest presses (incline and decline), shoulder pulls, bicep curls, leg extenders and leg presses, and a couple of back exercises form the good foundation of a basic weight training program.

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Fairfax, VA: I realize that any movement is good movement and any strenght training (done safely) is beneficial. However, I'm torn between doing my own free weight routine at the gym (doing upper one day, lower another, or something to that effect) versus attending the total body hour long strength training classes the gym offers. Which would you recommend? Time is not really an issue. My goal is to develop a toned physique and burn fat.

Craig Stoltz: Hi, Fair one. . .

In my experience, the key difference between self-propelled regimens and group or circuit programs is that the latter provide structure and momentum. Further, a class is more likely to be inclined to toning and fat-burning than to bulk-building.

Remember, the most important thing about a fitness program is not the short-term result, but your ability to stay with it. Which are you more likely to enjoy and stick with?

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Alexandria, VA: I hope I do not offend anyone, but I am very curious: from a physilogy (spelling, I know) standpoint, does race factor in workout?

I am African American woman, and while I only weight 153 and stand 5'9 I have as they say 'junk in my trunk" and larger thighs, which I totally blame my parents for.

I know the only true way I can change my pear shape is by liposculpture surgery- exercises and eating right will only make my pear smaller.

But I am curious, for African Americans (or anyone is have a larger, muscular bottom half) are there exercises I should avoid? As attractive as Beyonce' is (and she runs 6 miles a day) I wouldn't want her figure.

I am not interested in larger thighs or rear end even if they are shape. Should I avoid squats, stairmasters, eliptical, etc?

Again, I am not trying to start an issue, but I am truly curious about how my ethinicity may or may not effect results, depend on what I do.

Thank you very much.

John Briley: Great question Alexandria - I am not aware of any studies precisely on your question (though I imagine some have been done). I found one from U Michigan that addressed aerobic capacity in adolescent girls and found African American girls to have three times lower capacity than white girls, BUT that was a quick Internet search and I cannot vouch for the validity of the study.

Studies are done for a wide variety of reasons, many of them to promote someone's business interests or to "confirm" pre-existing beliefs, so all health and fitness science requires real scrutiny.

Back to your issue: I know that a few years ago many women who were using Stairmasters complained that their butts just got bigger, and that makes sense if you consider the main muscle affected by stair climbing. The elliptical is probably fine, unless you dial up the incline and resistance to the point where it mimics a stair climber.

Squats also could give you a bigger behind, but you would have to do a lot of them: A couple of sets at relatively light weight shouldn't be a problem.

Does that help? Anyone else out there with similar issues?

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Craig Stoltz: Not that anyone asked, but: I joined a new health club two weeks ago. Never mind which one (that'll come out later), since I don't want this to seem like an endorsement. But here are the things that make it work well for me (easy to say two weeks into it, I know):

1. It takes six minutes to get from my desk to the locker room. That proximity is key. I quit my membership at a club whose address is just "four blocks" away, but the walk took close to 14 minutes. That added half an hour to the commitment.

2. It's not crowded (it's part of a hotel). That's also key: I can sort of do my own thing and not be disturbed. Lots of different aerobic machines and weight stations.

3. I'm a sucker for Nice Amenities, I admit: TVs with headphone jacks. Fluffy (and unlimited) towels. A fresh rolled towel tucked into each aerobic machine's water bottle holder. Fancy-hotel toiletries. Showers so good you want to steal the shower head and install it at home.

4. More important, the place doesn't stink (as in smell).

5. The bad: Too crowded with machines, not leaving enough floor space for us stability-ball/medicine-ball/dumbell users. [Note to health club proprietors: If you could help your clients learn core/dumbell/band/ball work, you could improve clients' outcomes and get rid of a lot of those expensive, maintainance-heavy machines which provide inferior workouts.]

5. Also, expensive. I pay for one what my wife and I paid together in our former club. Yes, I know: you get what you pay for.

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Washington, D.C.: The only question I have is what bothers me the most about over everything else on my body are my large arms and how to make them smaller, leaner, more attractive. It seems that the as I grew the weight went directly to my arms and not my breasts.

Please respond,

THanks,

Susan Morse: Hi Washington,
Exercises that work your biceps (the muscle that flexes your arm) and triceps (the muscle that straightens your arm) can go a long way to toning your arms and improving their strength. Triceps exercises, in particular, can help address floppy upper arms that some middle age women like (more like, hate) to refer to as "bat wings."
Bicep curls involve slowly flexing and unflexing the arms while holding weights. Triceps exercises include push-ups (yes, pushups) and triceps extensions. To do the latter, you lie on your back with knees bent and hold weights straight up over your chest with palms facing each other. Lower the forearms to 90 degree. Then repeat.
You want to do no more than 2 to 3 sessions a week, to give your muscles time to rest and repair themselves between sessions. Good luck.

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washingtonpost.com: Fitness, exercise are parts of the equation. Read Sally Squires column this week The Big Backslide about healthy eating.

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Baltimore, MD: I have just recently gotten into exercising on a regular basis. I have been experiencing some pain and discomfort in my knees/joints. Should I start taking glucosamine or some other supplement to help with this? What about jogging outside on sidewalks, does this worsen the problem?

John Briley: Balto - Glucosamine can help, but bear in mind that it takes about a month to start affecting the joints. The pain is probably from too much impact too quickly (I assume by 'recently' you mean the past few weeks?).

Depending on how you run, jogging on pavement definitely can cause joint pain (vs. jogging on a dirt path or on the beach). Two ideas: Dial back the running just a bit and supplement it with a light weight/high rep weight training program. Just a little bit of lifting can strengthen the muscles around the joints and help relieve pain in the tendons and ligaments.

When you run, try to step lightly - by tightening your abs and LIFTING your legs with your ab and hip muscles, vs. PUSHING off - and see if you can run so that your feet strike the ground directly beneath you or even a little bit behind, NOT out in front of you. When your foot hits in front, you are essentially bringing all your body weight to bear on your knee and braking a little bit with every step. Makes running harder and puts more strain on the joints (hip, knee and ankle).

Good luck!

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Susan Morse: Some of the recent studies on fitness have come up with some truly surprising findings. For instance, the item in last week's Moving Crew column about how regular exercise alone in people with heart disease improved their health and survival rates over a year more than did stents, those little metal scaffolds that hold arteries open.
There were caveats and cautions, of course, so you don't want to try this without your doctor's okay. But talk about an impressive finding.
Just as remarkable have been some findings that exercise can help with erectile disfunction, that it can help enhance neuron growth--and by extension--brain function, that at least for older men it really does boost immunity. And besides all that, exercise feels good too!

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Del Ray, VA: I am not African-American, but I have my mother's pear-shaped big thigh figure. I know I could clean up my eating some, but I exercise all the time, hard, and am still big. And I can never get rid of the fat and cellulite on my thighs. I do believe it's genetic. And that the only way to get rid of it altogether is liposuction. BUT, I don't agree that working out will make your legs or butt bigger. Weight lifters try extremely hard to build muscle, it's not that easy. Muscle should replace some of the fat at least, unless you are working very hard with high weight.

Sally Squires: Hey Del Ray: Sally here. A lot of women are "pear-shaped" which studies suggest is actually healthier than carrying weight above the waist. Extra rolls above the waist increase the risk of both diabetes and heart disease. There are a lot of activities and exercises that can certanly help tone and condition the lower body, including weight lifting of course. No need to resort to surgical methods, which carry risks of their own. Also, isn't part of it also about not just how you look, but how you feel? And as for building muscle, while it's a great thing to do, you're absolutely right that it takes work. Most people build at at most about 4 pounds of muscle and that takes weeks to months to achieve.

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Omaha, NE: I have been doing cardio regularly for about 10 months and strength traning for about 7. I do cardio 3-4 times a week for about an hour and weights 2-3 times a week for 35 minutes. I can tell I am getting stronger but I am not seeing any changes in my body composition, actually I think I am a little bigger, what am I doing wrong?

Craig Stoltz: Welcome to our guest from the land of Warren Buffett!*

First, congrats on sticking to such a regular routine for an extended period.

As for no weight loss: It's the calories, Omaha. To lose body mass, you gotta burn off slightly more calories than you eat. My best advice would be to record VERY CAREFULLY AND IN DETAIL your food input and exercise output for the week. (Our colleague Sally Squires' Lean Plate Club area on the Post Web site has info to help you do that.)

I predict you'll find calories you didn't know about are leaking into your diet.

On the exercise end, you may have acclimated to whatever cardio you've been doing--the body is very good at figuring out how to "learn" a form of exercise so it can minimize effort to do it. As a result, lots of folks just sort of zone out on a treadmill or elliptical, their heart rates not high enough to burn many calories or improve c/v function.

If you think you may be too acclimated, step one is to choose a different form of aerobic exercise. This'll shake your body up. Step two would be to get a heart rate monitor and make sure your workouts keep your ticker in the 60-to-85-percent-of-maximum-heartrate-zone. Some machines have monitors built in, which are accurate enough for this sort of use.

[SEC Disclosure: Buffett is major Post stockholder.]

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DC: I am a male 5'6 and weight 142lb. I do exercise three times a week both cadiovascular and weight. What I am concerning is my shoulders. They are getting bigger. What kinds of weight excerise should I avoid?

Craig Stoltz: Hi DC. Hey, I know guys who work like madmen to develop the big shoulders you want to avoid. But it's your body.

To elaborate on my health-club comments above: I'm a major convert to fitness ball/medicine ball/dumbell/exercise band workouts, as opposed to machines. Machines target single muscles or groups and can provoke muscle growth. That's why lots of people like them. But if you were to do a series of exercises with dumbells while sitting or lying on a stability ball, you'll use less weight, gain more functional strength, build your core muscles and not develop much bulk at all.

My other thoughts are more obvious: Avoid military presses, upright rows, and other exercises that target the shoulders. And with your upper body, use lower weights and more reps, as opposed to higher weights and fewer reps.

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Washington, DC: Triceps exercise, in addition to the good ones that you mention, lie on your back on a bench with your head right at the end. Hold the heaviest weight you can manuever with two hands straight up over your face (hold on tight). And lower the weight behind your head. Repeat until triceps say STOP. I am a 63 year old female and I have worked my way up to 25 lbs. (from about 15 lbs.)

Craig Stoltz: Hey, Washington63, that's good advice. I do those myself, but (boy, I'm riding my hobby horse today) I lie down on a stability ball to do them. In fact, my triceps hurt today from doing this very exercise two days ago. Don't touch 'em! Ouch!

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Totally Confusicated: I'm a 38-year-old male, 5'6" and 150 pounds. I lost 20 pounds last year and recently joined the gym. I now want to add muscle pretty much all over while also burning off a little more fat (maybe five pounds) around the middle.

But it's my understanding I need to eat MORE to build muscle. So how on God'd green earth do I find the right balance?

Thanks!;

John Briley: I wouldn't say you need to eat more to build muscle. Experts say to eat a meal with about 10 to 20 percent protein around 45 to 60 minutes after working out. This promotes protein synthesis in your body and inhibits protein breakdown, helping you gain muscle strength.

If you don't want to get that technical, just eat small, balanced meals, well-spaced throughout the day, and avoid obvious villains like fast food, late-night pizza, bagel-egg-cheese-mayonnaise-ketchup sandwiches and the like.

The weight training and some cardio (which I assume you're doing?) will burn fat. Sounds like you're on the right track. You do not need to pig out in order to bulk up.

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Bethesda, MD: Hi all. I have a question about beginning a jogging routine. It seems that, when I begin to run, I become winded very quickly. I've always thought that it was because I was running too fast, but, if I slow down, I'm almost at walking speed before I can manage to catch my breath. It's not really aerobic fitness, because I bike several times a week for 20-30 miles at a clip. Any advice on starting this program?

Susan Morse: Hi Bethesda,
Jogging most certainly is an aerobic activity, even if you vary the pace occassionally--by alternating between jogging and walking, as many experts recommend, particularly for people just starting a jogging routine. When you find yourself getting out of breath enough that you can't carry on a conversation, take the pace down to a walk until you recover. Then resume jogging. Repeat. The aim is to eventually get to a point where you can jog 45 minutes continuously. But don't rush it. Building up could take a while, and in the meantime you're getting a fine aerobic workout.

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Craig Stoltz: To in-chime on the glucosamine question: I just changed the one I take (I too have runner's knee, which my doc has begun calling "arthritis." Must be my hitting my mid-40s. . .)

I now take one with glucosamine, chondroitin and MSM (beats me what that stands for). A recent study done overseas showed more benefit (reduced pain) for those taking g-c with MSM compared to g-c alone.

Boy, that stuff is expensive (I think it's the chondroitin that adds the cost. Gluco- alone is much cheaper). I try to use the two-pills-a-day formula, so I can take one each morning and night. Many require you to take between three and six per day.

NIH is continuing a major study on g-c,which is expected to answer some key questions on efficacy, doseage, who it works best for, etc. Alas, that study doesn't include MSM (Doh!). Results are expected in a couple years, I believe.

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John Briley: Since nobody asked - where is your sense of curiosity, people? - I'll give you a few pointers on judging health studies:

The best studies have robust enrollment - i.e., more than 10 or 20 people (although some small studies can be valid and very useful).

Look for the words 'randomized' and 'double blind' - that means that the study designers did not bias the results by telling pre-conditioning either the subjects or the clinical investigators to expect a certain result, and did not put, for example, all the strong fit people in one group and all the weak sick ones in another. By the same token, the best studies compare apples to apples: For example, all patients in the study are between age 55 and 70 with heart disease and no other major health conditions.

Studies sponsored by a company or group with a clear financial interest in the findings are automatically suspect.

Carefully read articles for the explanation of exactly what the investigators were looking for - sometimes a big headline about, for example, exercise and cholesterol does not explain that the results apply only to a small subset of society.

There's a lot more to it, but that's a beginner's primer.

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Race and shape: I think we're all predisposed to have certain shapes based on heredity. I'm a stocky/curvy/bottom-heavy German body type, and there's only so much I can do to change that.

That said, I find the most effective approach is to work out the whole body and try to lose weight all over, but building up my shoulders and upper back has helped balance out my booty. Stretching activities like yoga help me adopt postures that elongate my body and change how I carry myself.

Also, try to get into activities that celebrate your shape, like belly dance or salsa. If you can't beat it, flaunt it!;

Workin' what my mama gave me

Craig Stoltz: Thanks, RandS. Good points. We should all work with what mama gave us (our mamas, not yours).

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Palisades, DC: Seeking to get back into shape, but I'm the type that needs to have a goal or distraction besides just getting in shape. I was thinking of triathlons. Could you point me towards a good beginner workout program? Thanks!;

Craig Stoltz: try beginnertriathlete.com

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"Junk in the truck": You might want to consider cardio exercises that allow a smooth motion--like swimming/aquarobics, pilates or yoga, elliptical machine at not too high of a resistance, ballet, or dance that is not high impact. Some women put on muscle easily and find themselves looking bulky if they do higher impact activities.

Susan Morse: Hey there,
Nothing wrong with any of the exercises you mention But that fear that some women have of bulking up or putting on too much muscle from exercise is generally unfounded. Strength training can help cut body fat and build lean muscle mass so many women who do it actually look thinner. High-impact activities and bulkiness? I don't believe I've ever seen evidence for such an association.





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Alexandria, VA (Again): That helps thank you. I also took note of del ray's comments. Thank you.

I happy with my rear end. I wear a 6-8 depending on the manufacturer, but my thighs are 36 inches. To me, that's insane. And since you can't spot-reduce, I am actually considering surgery. I just really took note on how awful I look in a skirts. I tell people I weight 153 and 152.50 is in my thighs.

As crazy as it sounds, I would rather be apple shaped. At least you're proporioned.

Craig Stoltz: Glad that helps. Very interesting discussion. Let's all be happy we're not tangerine-shaped.

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Arlington, VA: "And as for building muscle, while it's a great thing to do, you're absolutely right that it takes work. Most people build at at most about 4 pounds of muscle and that takes weeks to months to achieve." Huh? Something is missing from your statement - I've put on about 50lbs of muscle over a prolonged period - at about 5lbs per year - is this what you are saying?

John Briley: The answer to this will vary from person to person. Taking it to pro weight lifting extremes, someone with the right genetic predisposition could add dozens of pounds of muscle per year (up to a point), as could a tall, lean teenager who had never lifted weights until turning 17 (age chosen at random; not scientifically important).

The 4 pounds statement might apply to adults who simply start going to the gym and working out but not for two hours per day and not accompanied by any other major changes in lifestyle. But you are correct - It is not a hard, fast rule.

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John Briley: That's all the time we have today folks. Thanks for joining us, this week and always. Our next chat will be Sept. 16, which happens to be the first anniversary of the Moving Crew launch!

Help us keep it going strong for many years to come. Have a great Labor Day.

The Crew

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