Book Review: Ultimate Fitness by Gina Kolata

from the back cover of the paperback edition

from the back cover of the paperback edition

“Exercise is my obsession,” states Gina Kolata on page 3 of her book Ultimate Fitness. Why does Kolata love exercise?   “I discovered that if I work out really hard and for at least forty minutes, I can sometimes reach an almost indescribable state of sheer exhilaration.”   By the end of the book Kolata admits to belonging to three gyms.  The book is nearly a love letter to exercise, blending science and history with memoir into an exploration of exercise and the exercise industry.

Kolata uses Spinning, her current favorite cardio exercise, almost as a case study for much of the book, which can be a weakness.  (Why so much focus on one brand?)  But to my mind the biggest weakness of the book is the actual title:  Ultimate Fitness: The Quest for Truth about Health and Exercise.   Is it an exercise book?  A spiritual book?  Neither.  But this is a book I turn to over and over again.  I go to look up a sample training program and get caught up in the story.

For an overview, I’m typing in the table of contents and adding my own notes (in italics).  Links are to related articles by Kolata.

Less Is More, or Is It? Kolata’s love of Spinning and intense exercise; a 10-person “groundbreaking study” on exercise with a publicist is likely selling something

History Repeats Itself Kenneth Cooper’s book Aerobics; the Greeks’ teaching on exercise; overview of exercise fads of the 1800s+, including Cooper’s attempts to evangelize exercise

How Much Is Enough? Researchers were surprised to find that the biggest fitness gain is when a sedentary person begins a moderate (like walking) program a few days a week (which can also be had in day-to-day life); medical advice through the 60s worried that might exercise enlarged the heart and overstressed cardiac patients; exercise doesn’t always increase health; do healthy people just enjoy exercise more?

Maximum Heart Rates and Fat-Burning Zones Using heart rate as a measure of effort; the (minimal) science behind the much-publicized “target heart rates”; lower heart rates do not burn more body fat; maximum heart rates vary by more than age and conditioning

Training Lore It often IS lore and urban legends, not science; historic training methods;  Kolata’s training plan for the Spinning “Mt Everest” event; attempting a 3-hour Spinning ride without training first; what methods science does support; not everyone gets faster with training

The Athlete’s World Profiles pro cycler and spinning instructor, Josh Taylor,  as a pro (but not household name) athlete

Mount Everest The 4-hour Spinning ride Kolata trained months for with Josh Taylor, and how her training program did make a difference

Is There A Runner’s High? It’s not necessarily endorphins*; it’s not something everyone gets; different people acheive it differently; it’s independent from exercise’s affects on depression

Sculpting the Body Beautiful Weight training to build muscles and shape; a brief history of bodybuilding in the US; bigger muscles aren’t necessarily stronger; how much mass and strength you can build depends on genetics; weightlifting has little to no affect on resting metabolism, because the muscles only use energy if they’re working

The Fitness Business It’s a lucrative business; many certifications, such as ACE physical trainer and Spinning certifications, are more about paying for “study materials” than learning about physiology or safe training methods; American College of Sports Medicine is much more serious; fitness products that are a waste of money

Epilogue: The Truth About Exercise Kolata muses on three types of people who exercise:

  1. Those who want to improve their health, aka following the CDC recommendations;
  2. Those who want broader shoulders or to be thinner, for which more, much more, is needed, and may not be possible; and, finally,
  3. Those who love it.

Kolata closes with a quote from avid swimmer and psychopharmacologist Richard Friedman:

Ah, the truth about exercise? Well, I suspect that exercise is more often a marker of health than its cause—healthy people like to exercise more than unhealthy people to start with.  And the real value of it is not in terms of abstract health benefits like longevity—an extra few hours or maybe months—but because it feels good when you do it or when it’s over.  To hell with Hygeia; the truth lies in pleasure.

Kolata is most known through the fat-o-sphere for her book Rethinking Thin and her science reporting for The New York Times.  Occasionally it’s clear that Ultimate Fitness was written before Rethinking Thin; Kolata assumes her exercising keeps her thinner; she notes that some aspiring fitness instructors do not appear fit (because of course fitness can be determined by appearance alone).   This book is useful to fat acceptance advocates  because many of the myths it debunks (20 minutes of walking a day will make you thin!  Everyone gets bulky with weights!  Everyone gets a runner’s high if they run!) are often pushed as ways to lose weight—and don’t work.

I originally got this from the library—and liked it enough to buy it.

Some related links:


*Writing in 2002, Kolata summarized the research for the Times as well as in the book.  In 2008 she reported on new research which provides more support for the endorphin theory.

16 thoughts on “Book Review: Ultimate Fitness by Gina Kolata

  1. I am interested in reading this book because I really liked “ReThinking Thin”. I also think it’s cool that she was honest in this new book (according to the New York Times Review I think) in saying that she wanted to look like the young female athletes she saw or had seen. At least she’s not using the ‘ I just want to be healthier’ bullshit.

    • Looking like the young women she’d seen was her reason for getting into weight lifting. But she also wrote that according to her husband she gets weird when she’s around her favorite exercise equipment — like all she can think about it her next “fix”. She exercises because she loves how it feels, and I’m glad she admits that ;)

  2. I think that I will avoid this book. Ms. Kolata is obviously even more obsessive, compulsive than I used to be & apparently doesn’t realize that it is a bad thing. I don’t ever want to go back to compulsive exercise & I am no longer physically able to do that much, nor do I want to read a book which causes me to feel guilty about how much movement I can handle these days & perhaps encourages me to start pushing myself harder again. I honestly do not think at this stage of my life, at 60 years old, that I need anyone, particularly some journalist who admits that she wants to look like a fitness instructor or whatever, to tell me how to live in my body. I also seriously doubt that she is a great deal thinner because of her obsession than she would be without much exercise; she is obviously a naturally thin person & perhaps her excessive exercise is keeping her a few pounds below her natural weight, but she would be thin in any case. (I am much larger than she is & even compulsive exercise maintained for years makes no more than a 15-18 pound difference on my frame.)

    This book doesn’t sound particularly healthy for most of us to me & I know it is not healthy for me personally.

    • I’m not sure what makes it unhealthy — pointing out that a lot of “you must exercise this way” is garbage? That ACE personal trainer certifications are marketing? That the biggest improvement from exercising is to do moderate exercise, like walking, 20 minutes a day, 3-4 days a week? That just because healthy people tend to exercise more doesn’t mean they’re healthier because of the exercise? That no, not everyone gets stronger from lifting weights?

      Yeah, if that’s bad, then it’s a really, really bad book.

  3. Well, I can’t help but walk more than 20 minutes a day on weekdays, but I have never felt like this is enough to say “I exercise.” If I exercise more, I think I can identify a sensation that is akin to the “runner’s high” but it has very little effect on me.

    • Ms Kolata does emphasize that studies show the biggest improvements in health from exercise are when totally sedentary people start exercising moderately, like walking an extra 20 minutes a day. AKA “You don’t have to make exercise your life for health reasons.” ;)

  4. I think that I will avoid this book. Ms. Kolata is obviously even more obsessive, compulsive than I used to be & apparently doesn’t realize that it is a bad thing.

    *sigh* I shouldn’t start this just before leaving for a few days, but I simply can’t let a phrase like “obviously even more obsessive compulsive than I” pass with out note. This is the EXACT logic by which a thin person would say that I MUST be a compulsive eater, because see, for them to be as fat as me they would HAVE to be a compulsive over eater, therefore I MUST also be a compulsive over eater! QED!!

    Just because Ms Kolata exercises a lot does not mean she has any sort of disorder. Not everything that a person enjoys immensely is a freakin’ disorder. It’s only a disorder if it’s a detriment to one’s physical, emotional or mental health. It was for you. Fine. I get that. Don’t read about it. I can see how it would be triggering, but calling a total stranger obsessive compulsive? That’s a bit much. I have a real problem with folks psychoanalyzing people they’ve never met. The world does it to fat people all the bloody time and it’s just as much BS when we fat people do it to exercisers. It’s a little extra specially egregious to do it in the same sentence in which you admit that you haven’t even read the book and don’t intend to.

  5. I won’t be reading it as I found Kolata to be quite fat-phobic in ReThinking Thin. I’m still surprised by how many in the Fatosphere rave about that book.

    And though I enjoy exercise and love reading books such as Born to Run, I really despise tomes that tell me that I’m unhealthy because I don’t make a point of going out to exercise. Somehow these people never take into account that a lot of people have to work for a living, raise children, clean their houses make dinner do laundry work in the garden yadda yadda yadda. Know what I mean?

    • I won’t be reading it as I found Kolata to be quite fat-phobic in ReThinking Thin. I’m still surprised by how many in the Fatosphere rave about that book.

      I suspect that a lot of people like it more for the extensive references and logical dismantling of bad science rather than Kolata herself, though the two get bound up together. Personally, I took the title literally, that she herself was going through a process of looking critically at everything she (and society) believed about being thin. I think if the book had come from someone who had no fat-phobia at all (or was fat themselves) then it wouldn’t have had the impact that it did. Sort of an “only Nixon can go to China” thing.

      However, I read it before finding the fatosphere… I suspect if I’d read the glowing reviews first, I might have found it very disconcerting too.

    • Heh. I didn’t see that Rethinking Thin added a lot that hadn’t already been covered in Big Fat Lies, myself. Then Health At Every Size came out and became my go-to book for the science of why weight loss doesn’t work.

  6. I apologize if I misinterpreted what was written in the original post. I certainly would not try to prevent anyone from reading whatever he or she wishes to read, but I am not fond personally of taking a lot of advice about exercise, eating, health or whatever from thin people who do exercise a lot, &, so some of the posters here say, exhibit a lot of fat phobia even as they write some things which should indicate to them that fat is not as bad as it is cracked up to be. I also have a very limited book budget, so I admit that unless I really have reason to believe that a book is truly fat positive or that it may tell me anything I have not already learned sometime in the past 30 years, I don’t feel the need to buy it. I did buy “Big Fat Lies” in ’96 when it was first published, & that too is not all it is cracked up to be; the second half of the book is a diet & Gaesser has written two diet books at least since it was published.

    I DO exercise, I HAVE exercised a lot, but it doesn’t make me a better person, a better fat activist, more worthy of access, rights, & acceptance in the world, or even more likely to live to be 100. I am having to make adjustments for aging & disability & I am also understanding my own arrogance years ago when I too was working out 4 hours every day instead of having a life & the fact that I hurt & offended more than a few good fat people in a community online which I valued. I was far from the only one who was guilty of the ‘good fattie’ posturing & I am very sorry to say that, as far as I know, some of those good people have disappeared from any online fat activist/acceptance venues permanently, & the voices of ALL kinds of fat people need to be heard, including those who are very fat, who don’t or can’t exercise, & who do not eat exactly the way some ‘expert’ says we should.

    I am glad for anything good that others may get from the books mentioned, though I honestly believe, from the books I HAVE read (& the ones which have been reviewed for me by people whom I trust so that I would not spend more money I don’t have), that most such writers still have many reservations about unconditional acceptance/rights for all people & about all fat people being okay as they are. And I also admit freely that Junkfood Science is my source for science about weight/food/health, etc.

    And, yes, the things which you quoted in your response to my original post do sound reasonable & in line with what I have heard elsewhere, that 20-30 minutes exercise daily is fine for any possible health benefits, etc. So, again, I am sorry if I overeacted to what I read about Ms. Kolata’s exercise habits in the original post.

    • Well, and I was trying to warn people that Gina Kolata is really into exercise for the fun of it. For some people that’s a trip to an exotic world worthy of the Travel Channel and for others it’s crazy-making. ;)

      Re: book cost, I don’t buy all the books I read. I originally got this one from the library. I still buy and own lots of books, but especially as I get older and tired of organizing and dusting I find the library is my Very Special Friend :)

  7. Pingback: What would you put into a Fitness for Life class? « Living ~400lbs

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