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The "body age" testing craze: Good science or smart marketing?

By Walter Armstrong

The hot new trend at blue-chip health clubs is body-age testing, The New York Times reported in its Sunday edition this week. Hyped as a revolutionary approach to exercise, the procedure seems simple enough: You pony up about $150, and a personal trainer puts you through 90-minute paces to evaluate your body fat, strength, cardiovascular condition, flexibility and other fitness fundamentals. When finished, you get these routine measurements converted to so-called body age, based on calculations comparing you to other people in your age range as determined by federal epidemiological data.

Your body age, or BodyAge (trademark by Polar), is not the same thing as your real, or chronological, age, of course—unless your body age is being monitored by Polar's rival, RealAge, which has trademarked its own body-age monitor as RealAge.

Confused? The personal trainer will be happy to sort it out for you. Whether packaged as BodyAge or RealAge, this info is likely to come with a pitch for a free consultation and session, which he or she will likely try to leverage into a regular gig on your dime—all in the name of turning back the clock in your body.

What turned this fairly transparent marketing scheme to sell you stats about your own body that you could otherwise obtain from your doctor for a minimal co-pay into a national trend? "As a motivational tool, having a ballpark sense of one's physical age [seem to] resonate more than one's vital statistics," according to the Times. Whitney Connor, for example, a gemologist in New York City, was deeply disappointed to learn that despite her regular workout regime at her Equinox health club, her BodyAge matched her real age: 41. "I became somewhat obsessed with getting that number down," Connor told the Times. She immediately hired a personal trainer, added a two-mile run to amp up her cardio and cut junk-food carbs to shed fat. Four months and a second evaluation later, she had shaved eight years off the age of her body. "[I'm] ecstatic," she said. "It just makes me feel healthier to know that I'm the same physical age as a 33-year-old."

The pioneer of the body-age trend is Dr. Michael Roizen, an anesthesiologist at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic who claims to have hit on the idea one day while trying to persuade an overweight, cholesterol-clogged, middle-aged patient to quit smoking and start exercising. The man, a heavy smoker, was due for surgery and asked Roizen about his survival chances. Roizen told him, "If you were only 49, you wouldn't have much risk, but your smoking makes you at least eight years older. If you stop smoking, you can get one year younger in two months and two years younger in five months." This get-younger frame worked, and the man quit cold turkey. "That taught me that if we put it in age terms, we can motivate patients

Roizen has parlayed this motivational technique into a mega-buck brand. According to the Times, more than 16 million people have taken his RealAge test online (realage.com) since 1991, and his books, RealAge: Are You as Young as You Could Be?, The RealAge Work Out, The RealAge Makeover, The RealAge Diet and Cooking the RealAge Way, have sold big. (Roizen told Newsweek that "my chronological age is 60...but my biological age is 41.6").

RealAge tests are rolling out this week at Bally Total Fitness' 400 or so clubs nationwide, while BodyAge monitors are already available at some 800 gyms, including such chains as Equinox, Liberty Fitness and Gold's.

But come on—can you really sweat, pump and lift years off your body? "You can slow down the clock, but you cannot reverse it," Kerry Stewart, the director of clinical research and exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore told the Times. "There's always a decline, but it's much slower in people who are athletic. A 60-year-old might be more like a 45-year-old, but they are not going to be like a 20-year-old."

Just don't tell that to BodyAge believers. If being as young as they can be works for them, and for their gyms and their trainers, why spoil the fun?