A question of fitness

Times Staff Writer

It may seem like a natural progression, the next step in a nearly four-decade relationship that is widely credited with helping to push weightlifting into the mainstream.

Last month, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a seven-time Mr. Olympia, agreed to become executive editor of two of the nation's most popular bodybuilding magazines -- Muscle & Fitness and Flex. The magazines hope to capitalize on the international celebrity of Schwarzenegger to raise its profile and profitability; in exchange, one of his favorite projects, the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness (which promotes healthy and active lifestyles), will receive $1.25 million over the next five years.

But Schwarzenegger is, of course, no longer just a public figure; he's also a public servant charged with guarding the health and welfare of 34 million residents. As such, some political observers and health professionals say, his relationship with the magazines delivers a mixed message about fitness.

In his widely lauded role as physical fitness guru, the governor has instructed youngsters that the best way to succeed in sports is through hard work and sweat, not by taking performance-enhancing substances. But the magazines of which he is now editor routinely splash huge-muscled bodybuilders across their pages. At least some of the physiques, say observers of the sport, are probably a direct result of "juicing," a slang term for using anabolic steroids.

Further raising questions about the association is the magazines' reliance on advertisements for dietary supplements, even as the national debate over the regulation and safety of such products intensifies. The vast bulk of the magazines' advertisements -- more than 90%, according to a spokesman -- are for supplements that promise ways to lose weight or to quickly bulk up.

The federal government and three states, including California, have restricted some of the products previously advertised in the publications -- those containing ephedra and androstenedione, or andro, a steroid precursor. Although the magazines stopped running ads for those products shortly after the Food and Drug Administration's actions, regulators are considering restrictions on similar products still advertised.

The vast bulk of the magazines' advertisements -- more than 90%, according to a spokesman -- are for supplements that are designed to appeal to bodybuilders. Some promise weight loss; others say they can help weightlifters bulk up quickly.

"He should take a more careful look at his association with magazines that promote some questionable dietary supplements that may ultimately be banned by the U.S. Congress," said Bruce Silverglade, legal director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "What he should be doing instead is promoting fair play without the use of drugs masquerading as dietary supplements. Anything less is a disservice to American youth."

Bill Gurley, a pharmacy professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences who specializes in the research of dietary supplements, calls supplements like those advertised in the bodybuilding magazines a pharmacological Pandora's box. The supplements, especially those claiming to aid weight loss, are usually packed with caffeine and other stimulants, he noted, and their safety and efficacy have not been proved.

"If he wasn't governor, I'd have no problem with what [Schwarzenegger] is doing," he said. "But he's supposed to be looking out for the health and welfare of his state, and those magazines are selling supplement products that frankly we don't know too much about."

Vincent Scalisi who oversees editorial content for both magazines, defends Schwarzenegger, the magazines and their mission.

"Arnold has a personality that attracts hearts and minds, and if we can get someone to pick up an issue of our magazine and become stronger and healthier as a result," said Scalisi, "then that's what it's all about."

Responding to some critics' suggestions that the bodybuilders pictured in the magazine use steroids, he said: "Steroids don't make these athletes; smart training and incredibly hard work do."

Although Schwarzenegger declined to be interviewed for this story, his spokeswoman, Terri Carbaugh, said the governor's new editorial post was an appropriate outlet for his "long-standing personal passion" for physical fitness.

The governor believes in educating the public about the potential risks of steroids and supplements, she said. But if people want to take supplements, she said, that's "really a decision that comes down to the individual."

Ultimately, Schwarzenegger could have a direct effect on those individual decisions.

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) has introduced a bill aimed at closing loopholes in the recent Food and Drug Administration restrictions on the herb ephedra and androstenedione. Ephedra has been linked to heart attacks and stroke. Androstenedione has been associated with testicular atrophy in men, and blood clots and an increased risk of breast and endometrial cancer in women. Other supplements may be added to the bill, which is still being amended. The bill could reach the governor's desk within several months, Speier said.

Schwarzenegger has publicly stated that he is generally opposed to government regulation of supplements. At his annual Arnold Fitness Weekend held last month in Columbus, Ohio, the governor said: "I have always campaigned against the FDA getting involved in food supplements." He added, "I have very rarely seen the government do anything that was effective."

Such positions make some observers wary. "It could create a situation where he is going to have a hard time persuading people he has an open mind on this," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute on Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. "You get the idea he hasn't left his old life behind and it raises questions about whether his judgment is compromised by these connections."

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A personal history

The relationship between Schwarzenegger and the magazines began in the late 1960s when the publications' founder, Joe Weider, brought Schwarzenegger to America. Weider set him up with his first apartment in Santa Monica and a $100 weekly allowance.

In 1968, Schwarzenegger made his first appearance on the cover of what is today Muscle & Fitness (it was then called Muscle Builder/Power) and, since then, has been featured on the cover of it and Flex almost 50 times. He's also been the subject of hundreds of articles inside both magazines, many long after he had retired from bodybuilding. For about the last eight years, Schwarzenegger has written a monthly column called "Ask Arnold" for Muscle & Fitness, offering tips and advice on issues from nutrition to training regimens.

In 2002, Weider, now 81, sold his magazine empire, which also included Shape and Men's Fitness, for $350 million to American Media Corp., the Boca-Raton, Fla.-based company that owns the National Enquirer. Today Muscle & Fitness remains what it has been for almost six decades -- one of the magazine world's leading authorities on constructing a bodybuilder's physique.

It's not clear precisely what Schwarzenegger's editorial role will be. Stuart Zakim, a spokesman for American Media, said the agreement grew out of the personal relationship between Schwarzenegger and American Media Chairman David Pecker, whom Schwarzenegger met after Weider sold his magazines.

The governor's magazine duties, said Zakim, should take no more than a couple of hours a week.

In the most recent issue of Flex, Schwarzenegger detailed his history with the magazines and the role they've had in his life. "The magazines created the foundation of the person I am, and it is a debt I will never be able to repay," he wrote.

He also explained his motivations for taking the post: "Both magazines deliver a positive message of building a strong fit body, while developing winning attitudes and character-building habits along the way."

Of the two publications, Muscle & Fitness is marketed toward the mainstream, offering readers a snapshot of the bodybuilding lifestyle. Flex, started in 1983 as an outgrowth of Muscle & Fitness, is geared toward the hard-core bodybuilder and is considered the sport's most respected voice.

Together, Muscle & Fitness and Flex rank Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, among more than a dozen competitors and have a circulation of approximately 600,000, roughly the same size as Atlantic Monthly or Premiere.

Both magazines include stories about proper rest, nutrition and weight training -- coupled with page after page of bodybuilders, most of them men, sporting enormous, some say almost freakish, muscles. The photos appear in editorial content and advertisements.

Although the magazine's words say one thing -- steroids are illegal and possibly dangerous -- these types of photos say another, critics contend. The suspicion is that at least some of the athletes portrayed are using anabolic steroids, a controlled substance illegal without a prescription.

"Come on, you don't see bodies like that in nature," said Katie Arnoldi, a former bodybuilder from Venice, who skewered the rampant abuse of steroids in bodybuilding in her 2000 novel "Chemical Pink." "You just don't."

The images of bodybuilders with rock-hard physiques and enormous bulk promote an unattainable physical standard for most people, fitness experts say, adding that such displays exert a powerful influence upon athletes, especially young ones.

"There's no doubt these magazines have contributed significantly to the widespread use of steroids and supplements," said Frank Uryasz, head of the National Center for Drug Free Sport Inc. "They give the impression that this is what you're supposed to look like.

"The message these photos send is that athletic enhancement comes from some magic potion or pill," Uryasz said. "We used to think it came from rest, good coaching and good diet. That's the message [Schwarzenegger] should be sending."

Schwarzenegger has acknowledged he owes at least some portion of his former prize-winning musculature to steroid use. He has said he did so only when the substances were legal, and denied the chemicals had anything to do with a 1997 surgery to replace an aortic valve. Steroid use has been shown to damage the heart.

Scalisi concedes there is probably steroid use in the sport of bodybuilding just as there is in other professional sports such as baseball and football, adding that the magazines don't test their models for the substances.

But he rejects the notion that bodybuilders must take steroids to achieve the astounding bodies glorified in the pages of the magazines. "It can come down to genetics," he said. "It's why you have a Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods: They are as natural as athletes come and they stand far above their competitors and I never hear anything about drug abuse regarding them."

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A call for action

Meanwhile, the magazines' position regarding the growing controversy surrounding dietary supplements is clear -- it's overblown. In the April issue of Flex, a then senior editor, Jim Schmaltz, criticized what he called the federal government's "new war on supplements" and said its recent ephedra action was based on faulty scientific research and media hysteria. The piece urged readers to contact congressional leaders to protest any further bans.

"All these laws are going to do is limit freedom of choice and be counterproductive in terms of improving health."

Some supplement experts say that just as the magazines once accepted advertisements for ephedra and andro products, they may today be accepting ads from products eventually found to be harmful.

"Ephedra is off the market, but you look at these products being advertised as ephedra-free and they're very similar," Gurley said.

Unlike prescription drugs, supplements do not have to prove the safety or efficacy of their products. Proponents of greater regulation say more safeguards are needed to protect consumers from the dangerous supplements among the 29,000 currently available.

"As it stands now, it takes serious injury or death before there is an outcry to research a supplement's reaction in the body," said Mike Perko, author of "Taking One for the Team: The New Thinking on Young Athletes and Dietary Supplements" (2002, Kendall/Hunt Publishing).

"Schwarzenegger is a politician now, not a movie star, and it sure doesn't seem like he is weighing these issues very carefully," added Perko, a professor of health education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

But Schwarzenegger appears to be unfazed by reactions to his new post. Friends say once the governor has made up his mind, it's unlikely he will change it.

"I knew he was opening himself up for political criticism when he took the editor job," said longtime friend John Balik, publisher of the bodybuilding magazine Ironman. "But he's a 16-hour-a-day, burn-everyone-else-out-around-him kind of guy and I think he really wants to do this. Besides, he's proven he can take the heat."

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