[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Ken Kifer on Fitness
The fitness controversy vs. my own understanding, based on personal experiences and observations rather than statistics: Fitness is best achieved and maintained through regular cycling at moderate speeds for a sufficient time.

Is there a lot of information on the Internet about fitness? Who is Kenneth Cooper, and what is he doing nowadays? What is the problem with running or jogging as an exercise? What are some of the criticisms of aerobics? What other solutions are offered? Why am I more qualified than some medical authorities? Do children have fitness problems? How did I achieve fitness in my teens? When exposed to Kennedy's physical fitness program in high school, did I prove to be an ultra-fit athlete? Did I find younger people more fit than an old man? Did my early cycling trips demonstrate that I had extraordinary ability? Do people get mislead by various diet and exercise authorities? Does hard construction work keep one physically fit for bicycling and hiking? Does the advice in Bicycling Magazine help the average person? How is riding at an enjoyable pace better? Why did I reject other authoritative exercise advice? Why are children healthy? What kind of exercise is worthwhile? Does pushing the pace make one stronger? Does long-distance riding help? Can the benefit of exercise last from year to year? How long can it take to get back into shape? What diet is preferable? Can cycling cause me to live longer? What is my fitness advice in a nutshell?


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Ken Kifer on Fitness

The discussions raised under "15 mph" and "fat cyclist" in newsgroup discussion caused me to check the web for additional information. I found a huge quantity of low quality information. Even after I restricted the results with four key words, the search engine still reported 1.6 million pages of information.

In particular, I couldn't find much specific about Kenneth Cooper, who started the aerobics movement -- jogging, it turns out, was started by someone else. There were numerous mentions of him -- especially by wellness groups who claim a connection, one short interview in German, and one article by him on the subject of antioxidants. Remembering his books, I can report that he once argued that the more frequent the exercise, the better the health, and the greater the success in life; for instance, he included studies that showed that children who exercised the most made the best grades in school. Then after Jim Fixx died, he began back-pedaling, suggesting that exercise should be limited to a few times a week for periods of only thirty minutes. Now that the good doctor is past his prime, he is peddling vitamins C and E plus beta carotene. As I have stated, although I think he has been a positive influence, he never understood cycling. The problem with running for an exercise is that the older the runner gets the greater the damage and the more the runner has to cut back.

In one article, formerly accessible on the web, Dr. Joseph Levy, Coordinator of the Wellness Centre at York University, Toronto, says that the whole fitness movement has been a failure. Rather than condemning the exercise itself, he says that the failure has been that most Canadians have failed to follow through. He denies that the "no pain, no gain" approach has any real value, and he states that it discourages people from exercising. He particularly dislikes the target heart rate requirements and suggests a pleasant walk can do just as much good. He says he is not opposed to exercise, that he walks 10 kilometers (6 miles) every day. He also makes no mention of cycling.

An even stronger attack on the idea of aerobics comes from a group of doctors who claim that Cooper and one of his leading researchers have admitted that they were wrong when they said that aerobics works. They believe that the ideal exercise is to slowly raise and lower a heavy weight. They say that the weight should be great enough to exhaust the power of the muscles within two minutes. They claim that statements about aerobic and anaerobic exercise are meaningless since both are taking place in all exercise. They say that it is silly and even dangerous to try to exercise the heart; if the muscles receive enough exercise (through weight lifting), the heart will be strong. Endurance is a genetic trait that cannot be altered. The best way to reduce fat is to grow muscle.

I still see Dr. Morehouse's book for sale at the grocery store. Morehouse claims that 30 minutes a week is all the exercise that anyone needs, and most of his exercise program has little aerobic benefit. He also sees no long-term benefit to exercise, saying that a person will lose 100% of any benefit acquired after 30 days confinement in bed.

Over the years, I also have been watching the food people. While some of them suggest mild exercise, most claim that health comes mainly from what you eat.

The person who ranked number one on the web for teaching fitness was Richard Simmons. While I don't want to dump on someone who might have gotten a few couch potatoes to move around, if he is the leading guru, God help us!

With experts like these, and with so much disagreement, I might as well put in my claim, although I have an MA in English and not an MD in medicine. I'll give you one advantage of accepting me as a medical authority: I won't try to force you to accept some strange exercise, medicine, or food. As far as experience goes, I spent many hours walking and cycling before Kenneth Cooper ever thought about aerobics. Finally, I won't depend on research but on my own personal and careful observation, nor do I claim that my experience applies equally well to everyone. I am going to give my observations first and my conclusions afterwards.

I don't ever remember being exhausted as a child, and I have watched many children play, and I have never seen them exhausted either. Sometimes they get sleepy and need to take a nap, so they do get tired. But not winded. Of course, they are not doing challenging adult activities. However, I went on a hiking trip with a group of young people, a couple of adults, and a seven-year-old girl. The girl and I were never tired and ran much of the way; the others, mostly college students, complained pretty often at the difficulty of the trip. Likewise, I took my nephew on a seven-mile bike ride when he was seven, no problem. Neither of his parents could have done the same thing.

Of course, children may be different now. We had to walk to school; I wasn't even five years old when I began. I walked in the rain and in the deep snow. Most of our radio listening was done at night, so we played outside summer and winter, only coming inside to eat. As a boy in the North, I can remember my leggings being frozen solid. In the South, one of our games was bicycle chase, and we would not stop for hours, so I would toss and turn at night. Now days, I rarely see children playing outside. Even when I see kids with bikes, they are either standing around or moving slowly. Are there fewer children now, or are they mostly passively sitting in front of a TV set?

In high school, I walked three miles home from school every day. At first the trip was hard, and I was glad to get rides. However, once I got used to walking, I didn't want rides any more; walking was more enjoyable. During the third year, I convinced my mother to let me walk both ways, and walking in the morning was even more enjoyable. Besides walking to school, I also went walking in the woods after I got home and on weekends.

However, I never participated in sports, except for a little basketball and volleyball because I was undersized and understrength. Even when we had to run, due to Kennedy's emphasis on physical fitness, I always came in last. The running would also make me black out. With all the exercises tried that year, I did poorly except for chinning; I guess my ultra-light weight helped there. I decided I wasn't physically fit.

After I began college, the long walks to school ended, but much longer weekend hikes into the national forest began. When I needed to visit my parents' home, I sometimes just started walking, and people would offer me rides along the way. I usually would walk nearly half of the 28 mile distance.

I also began going into caves in college, and after we started visiting longer and more difficult caves, I started noticing that my friends were having real difficulties. They would become exhausted or drowsy, would find excuses for turning back, or would become ill-tempered. I found myself being disliked for being cheerful and enjoying the trip.

I also made long hiking trips with a 70-year-old professor, gathering rocks, high on the side of a mountain. He once carried 70 pounds of rocks back down, traveling over broken ground. I never once saw him tired or grouchy; in fact, he would wear me out.

When I had a chance to ride a bike, I rode 45 miles the first day because I was in such good shape. I commonly used my bike to visit Anniston, 13 miles away, and I started making rides out into the countryside. I was interested in neither speed nor distance nor regularity, but I was interested in seeing how many places I could explore. That first year, I rode a 3-speed bike with rubber pedals. My fastest time was 25 miles in one hour (nice tailwind). During the same year (1965), I made my first long bike trip (573 miles), and I also rode four centuries, including one on the day I crossed over Newfound Gap (5,048 ft.).

That first trip (to the Smokies) taught me the need for more gears and for dropped handlebars, on my second (to Canada), I learned that my legs were less tired if I pedaled on the downhills (I still had no concept of cadence). Although I gained 15 pounds on the Canada trip (to 165), I did not feel much stronger at the end than at the beginning, mainly because I was in such great shape when I began! During my best week, I covered nearly 700 miles. Although people saw me as being some kind of athlete after I returned, I said that anyone could do what I had done.

After I began working, my cycling dropped. Although I was still in better shape than the others, I found myself breathing harder on caving trips. When I toured Canada in 1970, it was by car, because I felt I was no longer up to such a bicycling challenge. However, the trip produced a sea-change, and I began to prepare for a bicycle trip to Canada and made a wintertime cycling trip in awful weather. My cycling ability came back quickly just by riding.

I found someone who wanted to cycle to Canada with me, we married, and I had an opportunity to apply my knowledge of fitness to her. I wanted her to eat carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables, and to avoid meat and fat. She went on a carbohydrate-free diet. I thought she would be best with dropped handlebars and a narrow seat; she chose upright handlebars and a broad seat. I wanted her to cycle about 150 miles a week in preparation. She actually rode about 430 miles in three months. I wanted her to take only necessities; she took five pounds of cosmetics and two cats. I wanted to ride in front to break the wind; she rode in front and coasted down every hill and walked up every hill. The trip managed to last two weeks and 430 miles. At the start, she weighted 150 pounds and looked fat; at the end, she weighted 150 pounds and looked skinny -- for a while. She never rode with me again; however, she bought Kenneth Cooper's Aerobics and tried to train following his methods. Because she could never achieve the speeds that he recommended, she gave up.

Several years later, I quit cycling for a long period for a variety of reasons that included my cabin, my son, my job, my parents, my location, and my problems with burglars. However, I was doing physical work during the day and taking long hikes on weekends and, when I went on caving trips, I had no trouble with keeping up with the others, so I felt I was in good physical shape.

However, I was shocked in 1984 after making a ten-mile walk. I had never been so tired before in my life. I had another shock five months later after going on a 20-mile bike ride that took all day. In addition to being too tired to sleep, I also noticed that my pulse and breathing rates were both high. Testing at a drug store, I found my blood pressure had become high also (a problem that disappeared with regular cycling).

To get back into shape, I tried to follow the advice in the cycling magazines. I used a mixture of fast rides, sprints, hill climbs, and long slow distance. However, my speed on the fast rides did not increase. The harder I pushed, the longer it would take my breathing to recover (it would take me longer to recover than it took to ride the distance). My sprints did not improve either (they have slowly declined over the years -- I'm down to 27 mph now). The hill climbs (actually mountains) hurt my knees (ten-speed bike) and caused me to black out. And my long slow distance rides became painfully slow. Some people have told me the problem was cycling too much, but I was dependent on the bike for transportation.

A simple observation let me see the stupidity of all this. Whenever my eleven-year-old son would visit, I would cancel those rides and ride at my son's pace. After he would leave, I would discover that I had made rapid improvement. As a result, I quit trying follow the magazines' advice and began riding at my own natural, relaxed pace. My long slow distance rides began improving rapidly, and I noticed that I was sometimes arriving at the store five miles from my house in the same time in which I used to get there out of breath.

During this time, I read all of Kenneth Cooper's books. While I found what he said was interesting, I found none of it useful. His information was really geared towards running.

Also, following the cycling magazines, I tried stretching and various exercises. I abandoned these also and had no problems with soreness or strength as a result.

In fact, I think normal, relaxed cycling can proved the proper stretching needed. One day, I gave myself an incredibly sore neck while reading. I could only turn it slowly even after hours of babying it. That afternoon, I still wanted to make the 14-mile trip to town, so I started in great pain. On the way back home, I remembered I had forgotten something. Searching my memory, I finally realized I had forgotten to check to see how my neck was doing! Of course, I no longer needed to. Many times, I have hobbled to my bike to begin the ride and then rode mile after mile with no problems. Sometimes, I still have a limp when I get off, but I just laugh at my stupid leg.

Rather than exercising to ride a bike, I build up my arms etc. by riding. Every time I climb a hill, my stomach and arm muscles are getting a good workout.

I made the greatest improvement by making long bike trips. Several 500 mile weeks would cause a strong improvement in my speed and stamina. Even trips that I began unprepared ended with my becoming tireless (although not as strong as on trips I had begun in good shape).

For two years of graduate school and four years of teaching, I did not get enough exercise during the year, so my weight increased each winter. This increase was made worse through fat and oil added to the food at the cafeteria. The weight was burned off during my summer bike trips.

Also, for the last half dozen years the only exercise I have gotten has come from normal everyday activities, cycling, and walking. I feel that cave crawling would be a good addition to help my flexibility, but it doesn't seem to be necessary.

So here is what my experience has taught me about staying in shape:

1) Children are healthy because they never stop; they run and play all day long. Adults have health and fitness problems because they spend most of their time sitting around, not because they are older. Health problems can start at a very early age for those who are sedentary; active people can stay extremely fit into their seventies.

2) Exercise makes one healthy and slim; however, not all exercise is equally valuable. Most of the things promoted on TV as exercise have little value. Normal work and even hard, physical work and slow walking and sidewalk cycling also provide little or no benefit. In fact, the results of working long, hard hours created the belief that exercise is bad for you (however, long, hard hours can help you lose weight). Caving is excellent for exercising every muscle in the body, but it does not help endurance. However, walking several miles at four mph or riding ten miles or more at 12-16 mph will lead to rapid improvement. In other words, for cycling and walking to have any benefit, it's necessary to put some energy into them, but it's not necessary to race. I often sing while I'm cycling at my normal pace, but I might have to stop singing when climbing a hill. When I'm riding with others, we can carry on a good conversation except the person in back has a little more trouble hearing.

3) High-speed riding has no value, at least not for people my age or for younger people who want to tour. My top speed for a set distance never gone up or down, no matter how I trained. Much better is to train at one's natural speed, or even a little bit slower. Enjoy the ride rather than forcing it.

4) Long distance riding has great value: the more I ride, the better shape I am in, and the harder it is for me to get tired. If I want to be strong enough to go on a tour, I need to ride at least thirty miles a day for a few weeks. Three to five 500-mile weeks makes me very strong. However, shorter regular rides can keep me feeling good, although missing a few days has no effect.

5) Some aspects of "fitness" acquired over one summer will last to the next; once you get in shape, it's hard to loose that conditioning even when riding very little, and it's much easier to build back up.

6) On the other hand, a person who has been out of shape for some years will take more than a year to get into shape. Children adapt much more quickly; however, they also start from a higher level anyway.

7) Eating a diet with less fat makes weight control possible. I always used to think it was my exercise alone, but I have always eaten rice, potatoes, spaghetti, pasta, fruits, vegetables, along with only a little chicken or other foods containing fat.

8) A belief of mine is that I will live longer and have fewer problems in old age due to exercise. I would like to leave like my rockhounding friend did. I went to see him a few weeks before he died at 90, and he met me at the door.

To put what I've said in a nutshell:

Ken Kifer's Rx for good health:
Take two bicycle wheels daily.


Why I Ride a Bike  gives some amusing examples of the fitness I achieved while riding a bike.


The Cooper Institute  Kenneth Cooper's research center in Dallas.

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