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Any fitness has benefits, so don't overdo it

In 1986, after nearly 20 years of hard running, William Davis found that his hip did not want him to climb the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill one more time. Davis, now 61, just could not run without pain anymore. That is when he discovered walking, and he has been at it daily ever since.

"It's ridiculous, as I look back on it," says the Bloomfield, Conn., lawyer, reviewing his pavement-pounding past as an avid distance runner. Although he says that he and his buddies had lots of fun, he admits that, if he had it to do over again, he would take it a little easier.

"Moderation is the key," he concludes.

This wisdom is the new wave in fitness: Don't kill yourself. Medical evidence, nagging injuries and common sense are prompting those who exercise to exercise moderation. While highly competitive athletes must train hard and long, those who seek fitness can find it without hitting the wall.

"We discovered the fitness thing in the '70s, and it was a heady thing," says George Leonard, a 68-year-old runner, martial arts teacher, writer and editor who has chronicled fitness trends in the United States in books, articles and as editor of Esquire magazine's "ultimate fitness" issues for six years. His most recent book, Mastery (Plume, $8), has just been released in paperback.

He says that, 10 years ago, grown-ups began reclaiming the human birthright _ we were made to be physically active, not sedentary. Jogging and running took off, and in our grand American way, we took it to extremes. "More, faster, harder, longer," Leonard says. "People really began pushing themselves." That's when hips, feet, ankles and knees began giving way, and the idea of a kinder, gentler fitness took root.

Moderation is not merely the product of hobbling marathoners. Research has shown that you do not have to be an Olympian to reap world-class health benefits. Less is not more, but it is almost as much.

In an influential study published in 1989 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Steven N. Blair and other researchers at Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper's Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas demonstrated that fitness is not an either-or proposition.

"I guess I was surprised a bit at this," says Blair in a telephone interview. "People have been accustomed to thinking of themselves as sedentary or active. It's become very clear to me that there is a continuum. A lot of the benefit comes from just getting out of the bottom (level of fitness)."

Indeed, Blair's data used five levels of fitness from least to most fit. Those who moved only from "least fit" to the next level cut their death rate in half _ the decrease was even more dramatic for men.

The benefits increased with fitness, but not as dramatically as that first step from non-active to active.

How do you make that step? Most experts say that at least 20 minutes of walking _ or any activity that uses the large muscles of the lower body _ at least three days a week will do the trick. Blair suggests working up to walking 2 miles in 30 or 40 minutes and to do this on most days.

"They're finding that, unless you're training for an event, moderate levels (of exercise) give you better results with cholesterol, body fat, stress management and weight control," says Linda Turner, director of health, physical education and member services at the Hartford, Conn., YMCA.

Blair's study, and more recent work that supports it, is not just good news for former physical fanatics; it opens the world of exercise to those who might be daunted by health clubs, road races, swimming meets and other athletic gatherings, and, "health boom" advocates to the contrary, most of us are not even minimally fit.

"We haven't sold exercise to the nation," laments C. Annie Goranson, assistant professor of health and fitness at Springfield College. She says that only 20 percent of Americans work out regularly. The trend toward moderation, she says, can help sell fitness: "We can help people fit to their lifestyle when the time commitment isn't as great. Bottom line: It should be fun."

Integrating exercise we enjoy into our lives is all part of the current direction in fitness, Leonard says. Although some will be drawn toward competition, the main goal is to live a long, healthy and happy life. Leonard says that many disabilities of old age that were once considered inevitable are now thought to result from a lack of fitness.

"We can't afford to have millions and millions of baby boomers become disabled," he says. "It's not inevitable."

He says that, increasingly, those who exercise will perform a variety of activities and that they will balance aerobic-type sports like walking and swimming with weight training and activities such as yoga that build flexibility. In addition, he sees people combining exercise and a healthful, low-fat diet and integrating all of this into a life in which all of our activities _ relationships, stress management, even intellectual and spiritual pursuits _ are "healthy."

"We want to get a health span equal to our life span," he says.

He warns that we have to moderate even our moderation.

"Even moderation itself can become an extreme," he says. There must be room for those who want to push the boundaries of their sports, and moderation doesn't mean finding the absolutely lowest possible level of useful activity. For athletes, moderation can mean tapering off and balancing one's sport with other aspects of life.

West Hartford, Conn., psychiatrist Walter Borden, 59, one of Davis' old running partners, still runs, but he has long since given up marathons. "I just don't want to do that training anymore," he says. "It's too much of an investment in time and energy, and I can get the same physical benefits from a lot less."

West Hartford triathlete Diane Stuart, 56, is very serious about her sport, but she says she is not obsessed with competition and winning the way she used to be.

"I'm absolutely happier because I'm a more balanced person," she says. One of the points of being fit is keeping a level of vigor and vitality well into old age, she says. "I think there is less emphasis on being fast and being competitive as maintaining a total health package."