In 30 Minutes a Week You Can Get in Shape, Says the Astronauts' Fitness Expert

“I hate to exercise. I always have,” admits UCLA exercise physiology professor Laurence Morehouse in his best-selling book, Total Fitness: In 30 Minutes a Week. But in 1940, while teaching at the University of Iowa, Dr. Morehouse began to suspect that traditional exercises were ineffectual when he noted “the goof-offs in physical training class stayed almost as fit as those who were training hard.”

Today, Dr. Morehouse is one of the foremost authorities in his field. Director of UCLA’s Human Performance Laboratory and the author of 12 textbooks, he wrote the sections on exercise in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and three other encylopedias. For NASA, he developed the exercise machine used by astronauts in space. In Total Fitness, co-authored with journalist Leonard Gross, Dr. Morehouse offers a radically new approach to physical fitness that, as he puts it, is not “formalized, rigid or punitive.” Some fitness experts, like Jack LaLanne, find the physiologist’s exercise plan too easy. Dr. Morehouse recently discussed his controversial program with Christopher P. Andersen of PEOPLE.

What’s wrong with traditional exercises?

They are just placebos that are totally ineffective and sometimes dangerous—not to mention boring. Exercises like touching the toes, deep-knee bends and back bends look like exercise and feel like exercise, so everyone thinks they must be exercise. In reality, they are counterproductive. Getting in shape doesn’t have to be painful. If you do the right exercises three days a week, for just 10 minutes a day, anyone can keep in excellent shape. Fitness is a piece of cake.

How did calisthenics evolve?

They originated in Sweden in the 19th century, when Swedish landowners found the sight of their stooped peasants offensive and started drills to improve the peasants’ posture. The idea was to have everyone develop a proud, soldierlike bearing, so the exercises became regimented, militaristic. But such rigid, precise movements are unnatural and harmful. The modern-day fitness cult says men should look like Tarzan and women should look like Jane. Nonsense. This is only one of the many myths so-called fitness “experts” adhere to.

What do you regard as some of the other common fitness myths?

Many people, for example, believe that sugar taken before exercise raises the energy level. That is untrue. We’ve found that sweets can trigger an insulin reaction, driving the body’s sugar into the storage organs. Extra sleep cannot, as many insist, improve one’s strength.

Why is that?

There is no way to store sleep, and, in fact, sleep has a severe deconditioning effect. The longer you remain in bed beyond nine hours, the weaker you become. Nor does “working up a sweat” get you in shape. This may acclimatize you to heat, which is great if you intend to fight in the desert. But it may otherwise endanger your health through dehydration. The myth that you should never drink while exercising couldn’t be more wrong. The body fluids need to be restored. And as for sex—no! Sexual abstinence does not somehow store up strength. Athletes seem to do better after sexual intercourse. Enlightened coaches allow players to bring their mates along.

Why do you regard most exercise instructors as tyrants?

Many aren’t satisfied until your tongue is hanging out and you are sweating—or bleeding, if possible. This is not only bad for athletes, but it is disastrous for people who want to attain a reasonable fitness goal.

What do you consider a “reasonable goal” for the average person?

First you must define who you are. Leonard Gross, my collaborator on Total Fitness, is a husband, father, writer, skier and tennis player. So his program is tailor-made, with an added degree of muscle strength and endurance for his sports. But if you don’t participate in sports, then you don’t need that extra bit of fitness. A housewife and mother will have an entirely different set of needs than, say, a bachelor bricklayer.

What if losing weight is your immediate goal?

The notion that you can tell how obese you are by weighing yourself is ridiculous. Scales are misleading. You can lose weight and gain fat. For men, the question is not whether you are overweight, but whether you are overwaist. Men get fat around the middle. The size underwear a man wears is a good measure. If he weighs 170 pounds and can’t get comfortably into a size 35 brief, then he is obese.

What is the test for women?

For them, it’s the “inch of pinch” test. Since women’s contours differ widely, they accumulate flab just about anywhere—hips, thighs, buttocks, waist, arms. If a woman can find a point anywhere on her body where her skin-fold thickness exceeds an inch, she needs to reduce.

What is your system for dieting?

Eat everything in sight. Don’t avoid anything, because a widely-varied diet is necessary for good nutrition. My formula for permanent weight loss is to reduce daily food intake by only 200 calories and to use up 300 extra calories per day through increased physical activity. This way you lose one pound of fat every week—and, unlike the weight lost on a crash diet, it stays off forever, because you have not upset your metabolism.

Why in your book do you suggest gaining weight before reducing?

Because the first two weeks of dieting are the hardest, and feeding in advance makes the metabolic adjustment easier.

Once a person makes the necessary adjustments in his diet, what next?

Heart-rated exercise. One of the things I learned from my work with the astronauts is that fitness is a temporary phenomenon that is easily won and easily lost. It’s the past four weeks that count the most. If you started in super shape and then did nothing, after a month 80 percent of your fitness would be lost. The best way to determine your condition is not by how many situps you can do, but by how much your heart is straining during performance of a task. Using the pulse rate to monitor this is a breakthrough in fitness training.

Should you take your pulse while exercising, then?

Yes, first while sitting. In a relaxed state, your pulse should be less than 100 beats per minute. Then stand in an easy resting position for a minute and count your pulse. This should not exceed 20 beats higher than your seated rate. During the series of exercises described in my book, you take your pulse after a minute of exercise to determine how much more you should do.

What exercises do you prescribe?

Exercise should be fun (see photographs). If you don’t keep just the right position, who cares? There’s no drill sergeant to scold you. During the first eight weeks, the three 10-minute exercise sessions per week are divided into one minute of limbering, four minutes of muscle-building and five minutes of any continuous activity that raises your heart rate to a minimum of 160 minus your age. In other words, if you are 40 years old, get the rate up to 120 to begin with. Then you progress from there.

Are there any tips for working exercise into one’s daily schedule?

You’ve got to create the opportunities for effort during the day. When you get up in the morning, stretch like a cat. After you take a shower, dry off briskly; toweling your body can get your heart rate up to 120 beats per minute. Take stairs instead of an elevator. If you take an escalator, walk up it. When you answer the phone at the office, stand up. If someone needs to move a typewriter, offer to carry it. Be sure and lift something heavy once a day. Go through a whole range of motions. Gesture grandly when making a point. Pace, fidget, move vigorously. These I call “gymlessnastics.”

What can an otherwise nonathletic person expect from your program?

Total Fitness is not written for the athlete, but for the man or woman who wants a substantial reserve on which to draw if it is ever necessary to do something physically extraordinary. If he has to change a tire, for instance, he’ll be able to do it without exhausting himself or having a heart attack. He’ll be able to work long hours if he has to. And he’ll be a better lover. The most important lesson to remember: fitness is no big deal.

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