Facing the facts on health

(Edmonton) Tim Caulfield was used to regular exercise, six days a week since the age of 12 . He naturally assumed he was in great shape, with low body fat and pretty solid muscle.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong,” confesses the U of A professor of health law.  Through the course of writing his latest book on health fads—called The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness—Caulfield discovered that much of his training was missing the mark, he was eating too much and he had way too much fat on his body.

It’s sobering news for those of us who manage to fit moderate exercise into our lives but aren’t fitness fanatics. It turns out, according to Caulfield’s research, that it takes way more work and far fewer calories than we might think to get into decent shape.

Caulfield should know. In addition to filtering through the deafening noise of information on health that bombards us in popular culture and media and assessing solid research on various alleged health remedies, he used himself as guinea pig for much of what he writes about.

“I tried to live every chapter,” he says. He went to L.A. to suffer through the gruelling fitness regimen of a renowned Hollywood trainer, went on a diet designed with the help of his Fitness Advisory Committee (FAT), had his DNA sequenced and took all kinds of remedies—homeopathic and pharmaceutical.

“Underneath all of that, though, is good research,” says Caulfield. “I interviewed people from all over the world and tried to reveal the truth. And not just the truth but the forces that twist the truth. Why are we told so many strange things about our health? Why do we hear that bacon is good for you one day and then the next that it’s pure poison? What are the social forces and commercial pressures?

“There are also those twisting influences that reside within all of us, stemming from desire and a preconceived notion of what we look like and what we want to look like. I explore all of those things and try to come up with some really simple recommendations, because when you strip it all away, it’s pretty simple, and stuff we’ve known for a really long time.”

Not surprisingly, Caulfield found the vast majority of health and fitness fads are a waste of time and money. The simple truth, he says, is that the best thing you can do for your health is exercise—the more the better. To be truly fit, however, you have to regularly work yourself into a state so breathless you can’t talk.

“Forget the long, slow runs,” he says. Ten minutes of interval training (short spurts of going hard) is as good as an hour of moderate exercise, according to one study.

Why do we believe moderate exercise is all you need? Partly because that’s what companies that sell fitness products want you to believe, says Caulfield.

“There’s also a public health concern. It’s hard to tell people you have to work hard, because people will say, ‘If I have to work hard to stay fit, I’m not going to do anything.’” The Canadian Participaction campaign is a case in point , he says. “It’s all about getting people moving” if not much else.

If he had to pick the two most important health messages, Caulfield says the first and fairly obvious would be to stop smoking. The second: work out hard, placing as much emphasis on resistance training as aerobic activity, especially as you age.

“You get so many health benefits from working out, even if you don’t get a physiological change. Our society is so obsessed with esthetics and working out for the purpose of looking good, and that’s the wrong message.”

Don’t think of working out as the road to losing weight. Appetite increases, and it’s very difficult to work out enough to cause a significant calorie deficit, says Caulfield. There’s no getting around it: The only way to lose weight is to eat less.

“The road to good health is simpler than we are often led to believe. In some ways, this is liberating….It is not necessarily an easy path to follow, but if you can parse the twisted messages that bombard us daily, you’ll find that the way is surprisingly direct.”