American Health: The Shape of the Union

Despite a wealth of information about living a healthy lifestyle, many Americans aren't doing enough physical activity. Plus, updates on the best aerobic exercise machine, vitamins for energy, biking’s connection to impotence, a link between PMS and caffeine, and the American Heart Association’s new food rating system.


Despite a wealth of information on living a healthier life, many Americans seem to be missing the point. 


Content Tools

When it comes to the fitness of body, mind, or spirit, the editors of American Health are there, staying on top of the latest in medical research, separating fad from fact, and helping you preserve and improve life's most precious gift, your good health. Yet, despite a wealth of information on living a healthier life, many Americans seem to be missing the point. 

American Physical Activity Statistics

"The United States has failed in fulfilling its fitness goals and expectations," concludes Krys Spain, research and program development specialist for the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, who has been monitoring the nation's progress in meeting objectives set by health experts in 1979. Two of these goals were to have 60% of children aged 10 to 17 participating daily in school physical education programs and 60% of adults participating in regular vigorous physical activity.

Perhaps the most serious failure involves children. In 1984 the Department of Health and Human Services found that only 36% of children aged 10 to 17 had daily physical education classes available to them—a marginal 3% increase over 1975 statistics. "One of the factors is money," Spain comments. "When federal and state education budgets are cut, the first thing to go is gym class." Only one state—Illinois—requires daily physical education classes for children.

As for adults, data from studies done between 1984 and 1987 indicate that only 8% of the total population participates in regular vigorous physical exercise. That number doesn't jibe with other studies that show well over half the nation's population get some kind of regular exercise. Why the discrepancy?

"A lot of the problem may be in definition," says Spain. "What we define as regular vigorous activity—three times a week for 20 minutes a session, at 60% of maximum aerobic capacity—may be much more than what most people think of as 'regular vigorous activity.' " They may be playing softball, taking walks, or simply mowing the lawn or climbing a few flights of stairs.

Spain also points out that most people who do exercise on a regular basis are in the middle-income sector and are well educated.

"We need to put more effort and more resources into educating the public—through schools, churches, civic groups, and other social organizations."

Rowing Machines: The Best Aerobic Exercise

Once you decide to become a vigorous exerciser, which aerobic workout is best? According to a new study from Ohio University in Athens, if the choice is between a rowing machine or an exercise bike, you'll get the best cardiovascular exercise on the rowing machine.

Fredrick C. Hagerman, director of the university's Work Physiology Lab, and graduate student Sheila Marks studied 170 men and women aged 20 to 74 as they biked and rowed. When they rowed, they not only burned more calories but also used more large muscle groups. That means they required more oxygen to fuel their workouts, so they breathed more deeply, which in turn promoted better cardiovascular fitness.

Biking and Prostate Health

Harin Padma-Nathan, assistant professor of urology at the USC School of Medicine, who specializes in sexual disorders, finds many of his young male patients have something in common: They ride a bike at least 100 miles a week.

Biker's impotence is caused when the legs repeatedly thrust down on the pedals, banging the groin on the seat and damaging critical arteries and nerves. A hard, narrow seat, long distances, a lean body, and an aggressive riding style can worsen damage.

The first warnings are numbness in the seat-of the-pants area and difficulty in having an erection for a day or two. Unfortunately, says Padma-Nathan, many riders react to the sexual stress by biking more. To male bikers who want to avoid trouble, he recommends that you first invest in a padded bike seat. If you don't want a large seat, try a U-shaped one. Second, rise off the seat occasionally, especially when sprinting. Third, make sure your bike frame fits you well. Position the seat so that you don't have to shift your body on the downstroke. And, fourth, keep in mind that damage may not be apparent for years. See your doctor early if problems develop, since bike-related impotence doesn't always reverse itself, and treatment may not be available for advanced cases. 

Vitamins for Physical Activity

If when you exercise you tire more easily than usual, you could be deficient in vitamins B1, B2, B6, and C. Why are these vitamins so crucial to physical performance? They help the body use fatty acids.

"A well-nourished person derives 60% of his energy from fatty acids in foods, and 40% from glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates," says nutrition and sports-medicine expert Erik Van der Beek. "If fatty acids can't be used, the body has to draw on glycogen stores. This causes a more rapid buildup of lactic acid and, in turn, fatigue."

These four vitamins must be replenished daily, he adds, because they can't be stored. Van der Beek's advice: "If you exercise and you're not sure your diet supplies the RDA of these vitamins, or you feel more fatigued after exercise than you used to, consider taking a multivitamin supplement."

PMS and Caffeine

The causes of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) are not completely understood. But the caffeine in beverages such as coffee and cola is one suspect, fingered several years ago by a study at Oregon State University (OSU). Dr. Annette MacKay Rossignol, chair of OSU's department of public health, recently studied women who indulged in only one type of caffeine drink—tea.

Of Rossignol's 188 tea-drinking subjects, 52% experienced premenstrual symptoms, including anxiety, fatigue, and tender breasts. She found that women who sipped four and a half to eight cups a day suffered almost five times the PMS symptoms of those who drank less.

Despite accumulating evidence, a cause-and-effect relationship between caffeine and PMS has not been firmly established. Factors such as a possible link between PMS and the total amount of fluids consumed must be ruled out first.

"There's more than one cause of PMS—many women with severe symptoms may not even touch caffeine," says Rossignol. "But since caffeine is not a nutrient, there's no harm in eliminating it from your diet or cutting back your intake."

The AHA Consumer Health Information Program

"We'll soon launch the Consumer Health Information Program—CHIP—which may change the way Americans shop for food," says Myron L. Weisfeldt, director of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who has just begun a one-year term as president of the American Heart Association (AHA).

"CHIP is exciting," he notes, "because consumers will be able to walk into any store and quickly identify a product that meets the AHA standards for dietary intake of cholesterol, salt, and saturated fat. Such packaged and processed foods will have an AHA seal signifying that they are recommended as part of a heart-healthy diet.

"The American public has been begging for this. They're bombarded with all kinds of information about dietary guidelines, but complex labeling and misleading advertising have made it difficult to figure out how a particular food fits in. We hope CHIP will clear this up."

CHIP, however, has drawn fire from government food regulators who suggest the AHA shouldn't be in the business of rating foods, to which Weisfeldt replies: "We're sensitive to the concerns of government but also to the concerns of the public. And the public looks to the AHA to take the lead in providing simple and accurate information about which foods are better for their diet. The AHA has a tradition of going after issues—as we did with smoking and high blood pressure—and going after them well. In the past, we've also been accused of overstepping our bounds, and yet the credibility of the AHA has improved. We think this will be the same with this program. We have a large staff and are spending a good deal of money to do this right."