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Stamford: Experience shows moderation is key to diet, exercise

A major theme of my columns over the years has been approaching things with moderation. This is not something that we Americans do naturally. We are a culture of extremes in many ways, and we tend to flip-flop from one pole to the other.

The latest crisis on Wall Street is the perfect example of the extremes of greed and fear. Buy stocks in a fever, hoping to cash in on the next Microsoft. Then sell in a fever, fearful that the sky is falling.

I believe in moderation, but I haven’t always. Not by a long shot. I’m pure-blooded American and as erratic and extreme in my behaviors as the next guy, and probably more so. When I do something, I tend to grab it by the throat and take it as far as I possibly can.

My old exercise habit is the perfect example. Longtime readers of this column, dating back to the 1970s, will remember me as an exercise zealot, the guy who beat the exercise drum relentlessly. The more exercise you did, the better, and no amount was too much.

I have a bad knee that has seen the surgeon’s scalpel, and it doesn’t care much for running. Even so, back then I used to train hard and long, pounding on that knee so viciously, it would swell and ache after every run. I used a variety of knee braces, gobbled aspirin before and after my runs, and iced my knees down. All of this greatly increased the amount of time I allocated to exercise, but I was determined to keep running at all costs.

Bassler’s hypothesis

I believed I was promoting the health of my heart, and I embraced what became known as Bassler’s hypothesis, a proclamation popularized in the 1970s by physician Thomas Bassler. It claimed that running marathons prevented heart disease by preventing clogging of the arteries with cholesterol.

He based this upon autopsy studies and observations of various cultures where running long distances is a big part of daily life. The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, for example, who engage in games like “kick the can” that can take them distances comparable to a marathon, are seemingly immune to heart disease.

As I was doing all this running, I also was extreme in my diet. It was extremely horrible. I ate red meat three times a day, and lots of it. Bacon for breakfast, burgers for lunch and steak for dinner was typical.

Unfortunately, Bassler forgot to mention that the Tarahumara and other cultures he observed were primarily vegans who rarely if ever consumed any type of meat, or any products that promote artery clogging. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for Bassler’s hypothesis to come under attack, and a series of studies revealed that marathon runners can have very high levels of blood cholesterol and can suffer heart attacks if they are not careful with their diet.

This indicated that diet trumps exercise when it comes to heart health. I didn’t like this interpretation, and I didn’t believe it at first, but eventually, the evidence became overwhelming.

So what did I do? I resorted to my typical approach to things. I went to the opposite extremes, quit running and became a vegetarian. And although my message had changed 180 degrees, I was still an evangelistic zealot, preaching now about ridding the diet of the meat I used to eat daily by the pound, and the value of taking a walk instead of a jog.


Thankfully, with the accumulation of years on Earth comes the accumulation of at least some degree of wisdom. I laugh at myself and my antics of the past, my intolerance of the habits of others, my insistence that I had the answers for everyone. The older I get, the more I realize I have fewer answers, especially for others.

I also now highly value moderation as the best approach in most situations. You don’t have to run marathons or become a vegetarian. A dose of moderate exercise each day combined with some prudent food choices can go a long way toward promoting your health.

Bryant Stamford is professor and chairman of the department of exercise science at Hanover (Ind.) College. Address questions or suggestions to “The Body Shop,” The Courier-Journal, P.O. Box 740031, Louisville, KY 40201-7431

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