Getting Into Shape

Today 30,000 people will take part in The Sunday Times National Fun Run in London’s Hyde Park. The event, started in 1978, has become a celebration for many Britons of a switch to a healthier lifestyle. Recent studies underline the beneficial effects of regular, moderate exercise combined with a proper diet. Perhaps the best news is that you don’t have to be fanatical to be fit.

Lis Forrester, a 46-year-old social worker, trained for six months before she was able to run three miles comfortably. Now she feels she can face anything and is more optimistic about the future. She senses that life is opening up for her – most recently with a better job.

Lis has friends who are skeptical. “They say that it would have happened anyway, but I know that it is exercise that has changed my attitude and made me more positive,” she says.

She finds, for example, that exercise helps her to cope with stress. As a social worker in the juvenile courts, she regularly has to appear before the magistrates as an expert witness. In the morning before these appearances she always goes for a run and says she gets a pleasant, calm feeling that helps her face the court.

Lis is one of 174 people who took part in an experiment supported by The Sunday Times, begun in January 1983, to assess the effects of exercise on self-proclaimed “unfit” people. The program, called Getting in Shape, was monitored throughout by Professor David Denison and colleagues at the Brompton Hospital, London. The results of their research, now available, show that unfit men and women, half of whom had taken no appreciable exercise for between 10 and 20 years, could benefit greatly from systematic physical activity.

The participants, aged 30 to 55, described themselves at the start as lethargic, overweight, sluggish, tired and depressed. They were checked for medical problems and then divided up into teams that met once a week for joint training. One group chose “aerobic” exercise, which started with five minutes jogging and worked up to 40 minutes. Another “anaerobic” group chose static exercises such as stretching, bending and squats.

Aerobic exercise, or endurance training, involves exercising continuously for at least 10 minutes whereas anaerobic exercise, or explosive training, involves using the muscles to near maximum effort for short periods of time, allowing complete recovery before repeating the exercise. One aim of the Getting in Shape project was to find out which type of exercise is more beneficial.

The participants exercised on alternate days and after a year medical tests showed a distinct improvement. Those who did aerobic exercise benefited most. Their pulse rate decreased by up to 20 beats a minute and their ability to absorb oxygen increased by up to 14%. Tests showed that their lungs were working more efficiently with air penetrating deeper following training.

Eight out of 10 men and women participating noticed an increase in stamina as a result of training; about half noticed an increase in alertness at work; and half noticed improved quality of sleep. Almost all the participants noticed a general improvement in well-being, and eight out of 10 wanted to continue with some form of exercise.

Four out of 10 smokers who entered the project gave up smoking during the course of training, although they were not asked or specially encouraged to do so, and another two out of 10 smokers reduced their consumption. Giving up smoking greatly reduces risks of heart disease additional to the reduction that occurs as a result of taking up exercise.

Although their average weight did not change, the participants finished up less flabby, with flatter stomachs and a better posture. They noticed that their faces also became thinner, adding appreciably to the general improvement in their appearance. A most noticeable improvement also occurred in body shape with fat lost on the waist, bottom and thighs. Since a large paunch is one of the clearest predictors of heart disease, this change in shape showed that participants were healthier as well as having better figures.