American Health: The Shape of the Union

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ILLUSTRATION: PARAGRAPHICS/TOBY ROSSER
Despite a wealth of information on living a healthier life, many Americans seem to be missing the point. 

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.”