Rigorous at-home fitness programs can render results, may pose serious risk
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The turning point for Kevin Praska came three years ago, when he lost his breath tying his shoes.
"I knew then, something's gotta change," he said.
That realization prompted him to begin P90X, a rigorous fitness program, which ultimately helped him shed 50 pounds and forge a commitment to leading a healthier lifestyle.
The results he got from the program were "amazing," he said, considering "overall strength, core (strength), balance and agility."
While fitness programs like P90X and others, packaged on DVDs for at-home use, "are very popular and offer a lot of benefits," they are not for everyone, according to Kendall Railing, a strength and conditioning specialist with Sanford Power Center in Fargo.
"There are drawbacks," he said.
These types of fitness programs attract buyers because they are "quick, easy and you see a lot of results in a short amount of time," he said. "And results motivate people."
Some people, especially those who are not used to exercising strenuously, may not be ready for the physical intensity of such programs, he said.
Choosing to change
In fall 2010, Praska was going through a difficult time after the death of his father, he said. Until then, he had been exercising -- some weight-lifting and walking.
"When my dad passed away, I got away from it. I probably took on too much afterward," he said. "It was a depression kind of thing."
He paid scant attention to his physical fitness or his diet. "I ate and drank whatever the heck I wanted to, I didn't really care."
Then, the 35-year-old Grand Forks man took "loving ribbing" from his family when they'd gather for meals. "They'd say, 'Better get your food before Kevin does,'" he said. "I didn't think I was that big."
Weighing 240 pounds at his peak, "I knew it wasn't the way I wanted to look. I knew I needed to get into better shape, choose a healthier lifestyle."
He realized that "walking wasn't going to cut it," he said.
A friend invited Praska to join him in a P90X workout.
"I'd always been kind of active," he said. "I thought I'd see if this really can work."
They met in his friend's basement in pre-dawn hours to work out every day for three months.
The P90X program leads participants through a daily regimen of 60 to 90 minutes of exercises focused on developing core strength and balance, he said. It also includes yoga poses and uses bands and free weights.
A higher level of the program, P90X2, involves different moves and poses, he said.
The brainchild of trainer and fitness expert Tony Horton, the P90X workout is a 90-day, step-by-step program. The seventh day of each week is devoted to rest and stretching, Praska said.
The pattern of exercises is changed frequently to promote "muscle confusion," he said, maximizing the calorie-burning and muscle-building effects.
"We basically stuck to the regimen. After a week or two, I couldn't move my arms" they were so sore, he said. "It's pretty strenuous stuff.
"It's tough. It pushes you to the extreme. I was using muscles I hadn't used in a long, long time."
He and his friend "motivated each other," he said. "We're both really competitive."
They completed the program shortly before Christmas 2010.
Following program requirements, he cut out breads, carbohydrates and alcohol, he said. "No sweets. You eat a lot of protein."
Success is based on a combination of exercise and adherence to strict nutrition guidelines, he said. "I watch what I eat."
He changed his diet in favor of salads, chicken and tuna, he said, and moved away from cream and butter.
"No mayonnaise on buns," he said.
The P90X program promotes its own protein shakes, but he preferred to buy similar foods locally.
His waist has shrunk from 38 to 32 inches.
"It's a lifestyle change," said Praska, who still practices aspects of P90X but has largely replaced it by exercising regularly at a local fitness center to maintain his weight at 175 pounds.
He would recommend the program to others, he said, but "it's best to consult a physician before starting," noting that anyone with bad joints or heart problems should be wary.
Fitness programs like P90X attract customers because people can exercise in their own homes and the programs "are pretty time-efficient," Railing said.
"You get a lot of exercise done in a short amount of time. You don't need to drive to and from a gym."
And the exercises "are more than you ever would have gotten on your own at a gym," he said.
These programs often are tailored "so you're doing something different every day," he said, such as movements aimed at cardiovascular health and building core strength.
"Unfortunately, no real physician prerequisites are required" to get started, Railing said. "I would recommend (getting) physician approval for anyone who has two or more risk factors" which include concerns about heart disease, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, diabetes, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and age.
"If a person wants to do it and hasn't been active, I'd recommend that they (first) be active for one or two months on their own or with a personal trainer," Railing said.
Those who are not physically ready for the intensity of these programs risk injury, he said, to knees, shoulders, back and Achilles tendons.
For those who are active and ready for such a regimen, "the benefits are losing weight and body fat, toning, strengthening, losing inches," Railing said.
Railing suggested that anyone considering starting P90X or a similar program meet with an exercise professional to evaluate their readiness.
"It might cost you up front, but it could save you from injury (later) that will keep you from exercise," he said.
A personal trainer or someone who has earned a degree in exercise science or is certified by a reputable agency such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, or the National Academy of Sports Medicine would be qualified to offer sound advice, he said.
When it comes to exercising, he cautions people against "reliving the past" and to train "where they're at," not striving to do what they used to be able to do in their "glory days when they could jump high and run fast."
Age is an important risk factor, he said. "For males, it's 45 and, for females, it's 50 or 55.
"For example, take a 55-year-old male with a history of heart disease and high cholesterol. I would tell someone like that to live in the present and not exercise at the level of intensity he did years ago.
"If the person brings the same commitment (to exercise) with a trainer as they do with someone on (a DVD) who doesn't know you, they can have good results," he said.
"The personal trainer can meet the more specific needs of the individual."