By GINA KOLATA, NYTimes.com
CARL FOSTER, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, was amused by ads for a popular piece of exercise equipment. Before-and-after photos showed pudgy men and women turned into athletes with ripped bodies of steel. And it all happened after just 12 weeks of exercising for 30 minutes three times a week. Then there was the popular book, with its own before-and-after photos, promoting a program that would totally change your body in six weeks with three 20-minute exercise sessions a week.
There are many examples of people who took up exercise and markedly changed their appearance. But how long does it take? And how much time and effort are required? Six weeks sounded crazy to Dr. Foster.
“We said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t change yourself that much,’ ” Dr. Foster said. So he and his colleagues decided to experiment. Suppose they recruited sedentary people for a six-week exercise program. Would objective observers notice any changes in their bodies?
The plan was to photograph volunteers wearing skimpy bathing suits and then randomly assign them to one of three groups: cardiovascular exercise, weight lifting or control. Six weeks later, they would be photographed again.
Their heads would be blocked out of the photos, which would be shuffled. Then the subjects and judges would rate the body in each photo on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being spectacular.
The volunteers were men, age 18 to 40 (the university’s human-subjects review board looked askance at having women photographed and rated like that). And they were sedentary. “These were people who were just sort of dumplings,” Dr. Foster said.
Results were not surprising. The subjects rated themselves more highly than anyone else rated them, and female panelists rated the subjects lower than the male subjects or panelists rated them. But, over all, the subjects’ ratings barely changed, if at all, after their exercise program. And neither did objective measures, like weight or percentage of body fat, or waist size or the size of the bicep or thigh.
Exercise physiologists approach the whole new year, new you, total body transformation mania with a jaundiced eye. Yes, they said, people can change the way they look. But not overnight.
“I think it’s pretty clear,” said William Kraemer, a kinesiology professor at the University of Connecticut. Often the promises are just marketing, he said. “A lot of times when you are dealing with health clubs, they are trying to get new members who have made New Year’s resolutions.”
“To make a change in how you look, you are talking about a significant period of training,” Dr. Kraemer said. “In our studies it takes six months to a year.” And, he added, that is with regular strength-training workouts, using the appropriate weights and with a carefully designed individualized program. “That is what the reality is,” he said.
And genetic differences among individuals mean some people respond much better to exercise than others, said Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, an exercise researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He added that although he does not think the before-and-after photos in ads are doctored, most people will not change so markedly no matter how hard or long they work. “I believe they are taking the top one or two people out of thousands,” Dr. Tarnopolsky said.
People who did change their bodies say six months is a bare minimum to see real change.
Schuyler Antane, 43, a research scientist, is one. He began in January 2006 with a diet, which meant, he said, “letting go of the foods that taste good, but are wicked evil. And no more beer.”
In three months, he had lost 10 pounds and was down to 190 pounds on his 5-foot-8-inch frame. Then he read a magazine article on 5-kilometer races and decided to try to run. He could run for only five minutes when he started, and it took two months to train for his first race. But he kept at it and improved. Within six months, he weighed about 150 pounds. Then he added bicycling and swimming, becoming a triathlete. That, he said, got him to his fighting weight of 140 to 145 pounds.
“My beer belly is long gone,” he said. “The only flab in my midsection is excess skin, but I am not vain enough to have an operation.”
Now, said Mr. Antane, who runs with a group in Princeton on Thursday nights, “everything changed — my outlook on life, who I hung out with, how I felt about myself.”
Jim Lisowski, 45, the owner and chief executive of SciTec, a research and development company in Montgomery, N.J., said he had let himself slip out of shape, going from 189 pounds to 225 pounds. He is 5-foot-10 1/2. Then his wife bought a joint membership at a gym within walking distance of his office. At first, he went sporadically, but he decided to get serious after about three years.
That was the end of February 2005. By the start of 2006, Mr. Lisowski, who goes to one of my gyms and whose company employs one of my best friends, was a changed man. He weighed 184 pounds and had a muscular, utterly transformed body. He did it with a routine he continues to this day — working out five or six days a week with more than an hour of hard cardio, first on an elliptical cross-trainer and then a rowing machine followed by lifting weights for about an hour.
“My approach was to get fit,” Mr. Lisowski said. “I knew I would lose weight.”
The nine months or so that it took to lose the weight and gain strength and endurance seemed fast to him. He attributes it to the fact that he had been fit before he let himself go, and to his attitude.
“You can go to a gym and spend time there and not make changes,” he said. “You’ve got to break a sweat, you have to increase the weights. You’ve got to challenge yourself.”
Then there’s Charles Reilly, a federal prosecutor in Manhattan and a marathon runner who took a 10-year hiatus from the sport when he joined his local school board. He just did not have time to exercise, he said. Along with exercising less, he ate more. Soon he ballooned from 159 pounds to 282. “It came on gradually, but it came on,” Mr. Reilly said of the weight.
On April 18, 2005, he had his last school board meeting — he’d decided not to run for any more terms. Eight days later, he went out for a run.
“After half a mile, I had to stop and walk,” Mr. Reilly said. But he kept trying. A month later, he could run three miles without stopping. After three or four months, he says, he could run for five miles. By the end of 2006, he ran 10 miles. In the meantime, he also changed his diet. “My goal was to lose 100 pounds,” Mr. Reilly said. He did it, hitting his goal on Feb. 3, 2007, in a little over 21 months.
Mr. Reilly continues to run and has maintained his lower weight. Many who knew him when he was on the school board no longer recognize him, he said. “They do a double take and say, ‘Is that you?’ ”
But, Mr. Reilly said, he never believed those ads saying you can transform yourself almost overnight.
“It’s not really possible,” he said.