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Even Slugs Can Be Exercise Swans

A little goes a long way when it comes to exercising, says research

FRIDAY, Sept. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- A new study confirms that when it comes to cardiovascular fitness, you either use it or lose it -- but it isn't too tough to get it back, even when you're middle-age and pudgy.

Thirty years ago, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center hired five college students to lie in bed for almost a month. They measured their fitness before and after and concluded the obvious -- that lying in bed was debilitating.

Recently, researchers dug up these same guys (by hiring private detectives) and compared their current fitness levels with what they had been 30 years before in the original study.

The researchers first examined changes in the men's cardiovascular capacity. That's the body's ability to take in and use oxygen and it affects not only heart health, but also endurance and, as you age, the ability to carry on a normally active life.

They then compared the cardiovascular capacity that the men lost in 30 years of aging to that lost during three weeks of bed rest when they were 20 years old. And they discovered that the bed rest was harder on the men than 30 years of hard living.

Dr. Darren McGuire, assistant professor of internal medicine and lead author of the study, believes this finding makes it clear that getting patients up and moving is very important. "It's not fun for a patient to get up, but there are lot of reasons to do early rehabilitation," he says.

Then the researchers enrolled the men in a low-key exercise program. If you're 50 and feeling sluggish, the results of that program may surprise you. The initial tests showed the five men to be mostly out of shape. All of them had doubled their percentage of body fat since they were in their 20s. "Slugs," is how one of the research physicians characterized them.

But after only a moderate amount of exercise -- 15 minutes a day, growing to about an hour four days a week over a six-month period, all five of the men were back to the cardiovascular fitness level they had enjoyed as 21-year-old students before bed rest.

"It just shows you that the average non-athletic person doesn't have to knock himself out to gain a large amount of cardiovascular fitness," says McGuire, whose study appeared in a recent Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

One of the five participants in the pair of studies, Kazmer Laszlo, a Dallas-area engineer who is now 55, says, "Then I had everything but brains. Today, I have the brains, but my life is behind a desk."

When he started the exercise regime, Laszlo was asked to choose an activity he could do regularly. He decided to run around the high-school track next to his house. "At first, I'd run a half-mile and I'd have to quit, but after awhile I built up my stamina, and it started to feel good."

McGuire says the trick is to encourage an exerciser to select a mode of exercise that he can stick with. Among the five men in the study, Laszlo jogged; one rode a stationary bike and the remaining three did a combination of walking, jogging and stationary biking. Those who worked harder reached their optimal cardiovascular fitness level in about four months. Those who were less determined took six months, but all five got there.

None of the men lost any weight, and they didn't achieve muscle tone. "We didn't change body composition, but we dramatically improved their aerobic power," McGuire says. "They didn't look different, but they all said they felt better."

Bruce Craig, who is a professor of exercise at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., says the findings don't surprise him at all.

"The encouraging thing with older individuals, you can see fairly good results with both resistance or aerobic training as long as they stick with it. My theory has always been, that anything above nothing is going to be beneficial."

What To Do

It's never too late to get off the couch and start moving around.

Start simply and keep going, and here are some basics to get you going, along withsome advice from the Franklin Institute.

SOURCES: Interviews with Darren McGuire, M.D., assistant professor of internal medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; Bruce Craig, Ph.D., professor of exercise, Human Performance Laboratory, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.; Kazmer Laszlo, a Dallas-area engineer; Sept. 18 Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association
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