The First 20 Minutes is one of those scientific fitness advice books written to explain how the scientific fitness advice books of the past got it all, or at least most of it, wrong. Gretchen Reynolds, its author, not a scientist herself, is a respected journalist. A fitness columnist for the New York Times, her work has appeared in Popular Science, O, The Oprah Magazine and AARP Magazine. Essentially the thesis of her extensive review of what was once the conventional scientific wisdom about fitness and athletic training is that much of what we have been told in the past often had no scientific basis, much was exaggerated and a good deal was just plain wrong.
Carbo-loading before a marathon won’t help a runner. Hydration doesn’t prevent cramps. Moreover, too much water during exercise can be dangerous. Lactic acid may be a good thing. Running shoes built to accommodate the shape of a runner’s foot are ineffective and may be harmful. Short intensive intervals are more effective than the torturous, long intervals recommended in the past. Weight training can help with mental acuity.
Reynolds summarizes a mass of studies by prestigious scientists from prestigious institutions — studies on mice and rats, studies on athletes, studies on pot-bellied couch potatoes — that demonstrate the shortcomings of previous thinking. She has her experts and authorities. Her work is reasonable and convincing. Of course, the writers of those fitness advice books of the past had their studies by prestigious scientists from prestigious institutions as well. They had their experts and authorities; their work was just as reasonable and equally convincing. Given the track record she herself is exposing, one might well be forgiven for viewing her recommendations with a grain or two of skepticism.
That said, what if she’s right?
What if pickle juice will cure cramps? What if it isn’t necessary to pay through the nose for running shoes for overpronators? What if chocolate milk will help you recover from an intensive workout better than Gatorade? What if stretching before exercise is unnecessary and may even be harmful?
More importantly, for those of us uninterested in the Iron Man Triathlon or the Tour de France, what if her prescription for healthy fitness works? What if 20 minutes of moderate exercise daily, exercise as physically undemanding as walking at a reasonable pace, will keep us physically fit, mentally alert, and may well keep us living longer. These are the claims Reynolds makes for a regular 20 minute regimen. If there is even the possibility that 20 minutes of physical activity can do all that, skeptical or not, it has to be worth a shot. 20 minutes? What have you got to lose?
Ten years from now someone may come along and demonstrate that in fact chocolate milk will only make you fat, or that failure to stretch results in hamstring injuries. Ten years from now someone may come along telling us to stay away from eggs once again. Ten years from now the scientific consensus may do an about face on climate change and admit that the deniers were right all along. One can only look at the information we have on hand and act reasonably on that information.
The best thing about Reynolds’s book is that her advice is reasonable. She recommends the kinds of workouts that even the least athletic among us can deal with. The important thing is activity. Sitting is debilitating. It is bad for the body and bad for the mind. Getting out of that chair and moving about may not do everything she thinks it will for everyone of us, but it probably won’t hurt. Although I must admit, it is difficult to read her book while walking down at the local track.