Porter Shimer has the zeal of the recently reformed. Yes, he says, he once bought it all. The pavement pounding, the sweat-until-you-drop mentality, the endless rides to nowhere on a stationary bike. He used to carry 10-pound hand weights during his daily run--in, he swears, a rubber suit in the middle of July. He was a fanatic about fitness.
And what did it get him?
Well, he says, he was lean, all right.
And when he went to his doctor a few years back, the doctor thought Shimer had some kind of a heart defect because his resting pulse rate clocked in at 34--about half the average.
But was Shimer fit? According to some definitions, he was. Was he healthy? Probably not, he now believes. And was he happy? Well, the answer to that is a resounding no.
"I was a prisoner to it," the former editor of Rodale Press' "Executive Fitness Newsletter" says of his old workout schedule. "My exercise needs began to eat into my work hours. I didn't feel comfortable without it (working out)."
Now Shimer no longer suffers from workout-aholism. He says he has jumped off the exercise treadmill--at least compared to the old days. And he wants the rest of us to do the same.
"The principles are that you don't need to exercise within the target heart rate to be healthy," he said of his new philosophy, outlined in a newly published book he co-wrote with exercise physiologist Bryant Stamford.
The book is called "Fitness Without Exercise: The Scientifically Proven Strategy for Achieving Maximum Health with Minimum Effort." And while the title is something of a misnomer, Shimer insists that the book's premise is sound.
"We look at 'exercise' as a magic bullet, but it's not," Shimer said recently at his home outside Limeport, Pa.
According to Shimer, the reason most people don't exercise is that they think that to do any good, they've got to exercise their hearts out. For the last 10 or 20 years, he said, people have been hearing fitness instructors and running gurus preaching that to get fit, people need to get their heart rate up to 60% to 80% of maximum capacity and keep it there, at minimum, for 20 minutes three times a week.
For many, that idea was just too daunting, he said, so they stayed on the couch. And those who did try to meet the goal often ended up suffering from boredom, injuries or burnout.
Shimer proposes that the idea of aerobic fitness isn't a true measure of health. People who do a lot of aerobic exercise may strengthen their hearts and be considered "fit," as he was, he says, and they may keep their weight down because aerobic exercise does burn fat.
But, he says, all that may lead people to believe that if they do enough aerobic exercise, they can eat whatever they want--including many fatty foods that ultimately contribute to disease.
In other words, you can be aerobically fit but in rotten health.
"You may look lean," Shimer said, "but your arteries can be a mess." So, leaping on new research that documents the benefits of "moderate" exercise, Shimer believes we need to redefine exercise to include any kind of physical activity.
In his view, energy spent mowing the lawn counts as much as that used on a three-mile run. And the exertion you use playing a fun game of softball or volleyball with the guys after work is just as good as that spent on the rowing machine--even if your heart doesn't pound the whole time.
Spent the weekend cleaning the house? It counts. So does digging in the garden, raking leaves, grocery shopping, walking the dog, playing badminton with the kids, fixing the car or dancing.
Even activity on the job--moving stock, fixing pipes, climbing utility poles, chasing after 3-year-olds--counts.
"Aerobic exercise--it burns a lot of calories. But you can burn those same calories and get something done," Shimer said, noting how silly it sounds to say that you're putting off household chores because you're too tired from working out.
In place of aerobic training, Shimer and Stamford prescribe what they call "lipo-fitness."
To achieve it, the two recommend any kind of activity that burns 2,000 calories a week--combined with controlling the amount of fat in the diet.
"The best way to keep fat out of your arteries is by keeping it out of the mouth," Shimer said.
The book recommends that 20% of a person's calories come from fat--less than the 30% the American Heart Assn. recommends.
Stamford said that since following the dietary guidelines, he has been able to tone down his running workouts and still lose weight.
The book lists recipes, fat counts and foods to be avoided, as well as activities that count as exercise and the calories they burn.
"What our book is trying to do is open up the whole fitness concept to people who can't get into that torture."