Supplements and diet have changed the way we think about exercise
A modern workout will feature, besides weight lifting and running, a protein shake for muscle gain, a dose of creatine to rebuild muscles, a pill to help the creatine work faster and a palette of vitamins to sustain a healthy body. Also, but not required, are fat burners, testosterone boosters and fish oils. The craze began a decade ago when a large insurgence of baby boomers went searching for the fountain of youth. Upon coming up empty, they turned to the technology-guiding professional athletes, which promptly supplied the billion-dollar audience with the “unsteroid” – a natural way to rebuild a better body.
The changes, like the possibilities, are on the shelf.
Step into a GNC store, featuring 11 different forms and flavors of muscle-enhancing creatine – from a powder shake to a serum you swish in your mouth –and see for yourself what scientists offer as over-the-counter supplements.
Or maybe you already have.
Valerie Keith, manager of the GNC in Avon, has benefited from the supplement boom, saying business has risen 25 percent this year. She offers gold card programs for frequent buyers and said during the gold card days, her store is packed.
The popularity of supplements, though, is more than just news. It divides the athletic community on moral ground.
When Mark McGwire broke major league baseball’s home run record four years ago, the fact he took the supplement androstenedione caused people to call him a “cheat” because it increased testosterone levels. A scandal is brewing in baseball today over steroid use, but “Andro” isn’t steroids. In fact, Keith sells Andro at her store.
“We ask everyone specific questions about heart and thyroid problems,” Keith said. “It’s not for everyone, but body builders and serious athletes will see benefits.”
Helpers and shortcuts weren’t always viewed as a positive option. In cold-war-era 1985, “Rocky IV” featured an au-natural Rocky pitted against the Russian Drago, who trained under the study of a myriad of scientists. The much-loved Rocky won the fight, but the evil Drago had his finger on the future.
Since then, science has offered us so many supplement options, in fact, that a beginner in the weight room could confuse the difference between wasteful and helpful. Creatine, for example, is created naturally in the body by a series of three amino acids. (Amino acids make proteins and proteins build muscle.)
The incentive to take creatine is clear, but how to take the supplement is still being argued. Keith offers a type of creatine that requires the user to “load,” or take four times the normal amount, for four days.
She also offers a supplement that will help the body digest the large amounts of creatine, plus a type of creatine not requiring any loading. Keith has something on her shelves for man and woman, for obese and skinny, for morning, noon and night. But where does all of this stop?
Dr. Richard Hawkins M.D., of Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, works with the Colorado Rockies and Denver Broncos and says he advises his athletes to avoid loading – a change from previous policy. Cramping and bloating were common side effects.
“It seems to be a very safe drug, from what we know now,” Hawkins said. “If I had a son playing high school football and he was athletic, strong and wanted something to help him become stronger, I think it would be OK.”
While it is prevalent in high school athletics, GNC’s company policy does not allow the sale of creatine to anyone under 18. The body, Keith said, needs to be fully mature in order to guarantee results.
Mainstream medicine, meanwhile, is just starting to recognize and incorporate the idea of diet and nutrition into rehabilitation from injury. For years, Hawkins said, doctors have neglected nutrition.
Now, Hawkins prescribes the supplement glucosamine to those with arthritis or joint injuries. Glucosamine helps mend the cartilage and joint bones, but it takes 3-5 weeks for anything to happen.
Creatine, on the other hand, offers instant results. Muscle-enhancing pills or powders give people the desired effect for the short term. But loading the body improperly with proteins can also cause damage to the kidneys.
Dr. Kendrick Adnan M.D., of the Breckenridge Medical Center, said he sees very few patients asking about creatine, except for body builders.
“It seems to help the athlete only while they’re on it,” Adnan said. “When they’re off it the benefits seem to stop, though you can take it as an artificial inflation of strength. In the long run, it doesn’t have cardiovascular benefits. The longer you do it, the harder it is on your parts.”
Two things are important to do if you’re considering protein loading before a workout. Drink more water, Adnan said, and listen to your body.
One creatine user he advises is a senior power lifter going for a world record. While administering acupuncture to help with fatigue issues, he also advises the older man on the use of supplements. While it’s good for one patient, he says, “There are healthier ways to do it without taxing the kidney,” he adds.
For the purists, taking supplements is nonsense. Franz Fuchsberger, a 43-year-old world champion ski racer, said he never even considered taking supplements.
“After a workout, the brain feels fresher,” Fuchsberger said. “If I don’t do it, it feels stuffed. I don’t want something interfering with the natural way my body works.”
U.S. Ski Team trainer Andy Walshe doesn’t prescribe supplements for his athletes unless they’re recovering from an injury. Walshe said the unknown speaks for itself.
“A lot of it is people looking for short cuts,” Walshe said. “The bottom line is, eating good foods and monitoring the body during a workout will give you benefits without any help.”
Diets have also taken a more scientific turn. Until 1994, 40 percent of food products didn’t carry information on nutrition – because they didn’t have to. Adaptations to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 finally made it mandatory to include daily recommendations and ingredient lists.
But there are still things labels hide, Walshe said. Processed fruits in pop-top cans are not the same fruits you pick from a tree or even select in the produce aisle. In fact, the processing strips the fruits of most of their natural vitamins, whatever the label says.
“What Americans eat on a regular basis is nothing like the rest of the world,” said Walshe, a native New Zealander. “They eat crap, basically, things with no rewarding sustenance.”
So they balance hamburgers and french fries with a one-a-day vitamin in the morning. The benefits are still being discovered.
“It’s appropriate for most of us to take supplements like vitamins,” Hawkins said. “They help prevent diseases. A single aspirin’s been proven to be very helpful to combat coronary disease.”
These exercise and performance-enhancement trends ride bareback on a booming billion-dollar exercise industry and an aging population. In the year 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65 years old. Most are looking for simple ways to stay healthy and live longer and exercise. They walk into one of the world’s 5,300 GNC stores looking for the cure for aging.
“People need to do more research before they come in and buy,” Keith said. “They don’t usually know what they want. We offer something for just about every type of person, but each person is different.”
The products on her shelves range from propane-tank sized containers of whey protein powder to eye droppers of liquid vitamins. While most of the population is creatine free, the doctors agreed, they are paying more attention to what they eat, when they eat and how to get an edge – whether it’s on the racquetball court or in the office. The result is a population that’s bigger (a 7-foot NBA star is no longer freakish) and living longer (in 2060, 2.5 million Americans are projected to be centenarians).
“I’m sure genetics and natural selection has something to do with it,” Hawkins said. “But it’s more likely related to nutrition and diet and our knowledge about the body.”