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Creating A New Vision Of Islam In America

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf was once the lead cleric associated with the proposed Islamic community center some critics called the "ground zero mosque." In his new book, Moving the Mountain, Rauf calls for moderate Muslims to step up and marginalize the voices of extremists.


Other segments from the episode on May 9, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 9, 2012: Interview with Feisal Abdul Rauf; Interview with Gretchen Reynolds.


May 9, 2012

Guest: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf – Gretchen Reynolds

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the imam who is at the center of the controversy over the so-called ground zero mosque. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's vision is of an interfaith Islamic center modeled on New York's famous 92nd Street Y. Opponents have said it's an insult to those victims and survivors of the terrorist attack to have a mosque built close to ground zero.

Imam Rauf is no longer working with his original partner on the project. He's now calling his proposed center Cordoba House, part of the Cordoba Initiative, a multi-faith project he co-founded to bridge relations between Muslims and the West. Rauf is a longtime advocate of interfaith understanding. So was his father, who was Egyptian and headed Islamic centers in New York and Washington.

Imam Rauf moved to America with his family when he was a teenager. From 1983 to 2009 he served as imam of a mosque in Tribeca, about a dozen blocks from ground zero. In his new book, "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America," Rauf explains why the extremist version of Islam is untrue to Muslim history and profoundly dangerous to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Imam Rauf, welcome to FRESH AIR.

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Thank you, Terry, it's a great pleasure to be with you.

GROSS: We'll get back to this later, but what is the status of the interfaith Muslim center that you've been trying to build near ground zero, which is now known as Cordoba House?

RAUF: Yes, the dream is still alive, and this is why I wrote this book. But let me tell you what my goal was, what my dream was for the Cordoba House and what it still is and continues to this day. My dream was to find a place where Muslims and people in this country from all different religions can get to understand and respect one another more deeply in peace, in recreation, in worship and learning, and to find a place that can truly be a safe space for us all to come together in a positive, constructive way, because the world needs that today. That was my goal.

Now, what happened, Terry, at that time clearly wasn't the perfect solution, and it did not - what happened did not reflect my dream nor my purpose in the right way, but the dream still exists and continues to exist.

GROSS: I think a lot of people have found it especially ironic that you are so demonized because of the interfaith center, interfaith Islamic center that you are trying to build, because the Bush administration State Department sent you as an emissary. You were asked to speak to the FBI about Muslims in America so that they could understand Muslim life here and not fall back on stereotypes. That was in 2003.

So I mean, like the government, the FBI, had asked you to work with them, and you did, and then you were the target of death threats.

RAUF: Yes, in fact I worked with the FBI beginning in 2002. They invited me in January of 2002, just a couple of months after 9/11, to speak to all of their FBI agents, 1,200 of them in New York City, and to help liaise with many mosques and other Islamic centers so that law enforcement agencies would be - would get the cooperation of our community in making sure that, you know, we root out all terrorists who might be lurking in our mosques and our communities. And that was a very successful initiative.

And as you've pointed out, since that time I have been, and even before then, sent by the State Department to several countries around the world to speak about Islam, Islam in America, and how the - and to differentiate between Islam as a faith tradition and those who have used, the small number of extremists who have used religion to perform acts of terrorism, which are absolutely prohibited by our faith tradition as much as it is prohibited by any humanistic values on any tradition, including even the secular humanist tradition.

GROSS: Well, you moved here at the age of 16. Your parents are from Egypt. You were born in Kuwait. You grew up in Malaysia. And when you were 16, your father was asked by what you describe as the preeminent Islamic theological seminary in the Muslim world, that seminary asked him to move here and start an Islamic center in New York.

So he did that and then later moved to Washington, D.C. Correct me if I get anything wrong here.

RAUF: Yes, exactly. I was 17 when I came.

GROSS: Seventeen, OK, thank you.


GROSS: So you're age 17, and this is 1960 what?

RAUF: 1965, December 22, 1965 when we landed on West 52nd Street on an Italian liner.

GROSS: OK, so it's not only culture shock for you, it's like so many Americans are going through culture shock, and the culture shock gets even more extreme as '65 gets into '67, '68, '69.

RAUF: Absolutely.

GROSS: So what was most difficult for you in being a Muslim and being from the Arab world and trying to find a place for yourself in the middle of - you know, as a young person in the middle of this kind of counter-cultural era in New York?

RAUF: Oh, there were three major problems and challenges I had. One was finding myself as a teenager who was brought up in different parts of the world, who never - who in spite of peer pressure and the natural pressure of wanting to fit in never felt that I completely fit in, into any society, including my own. When I went back to Egypt on holidays, I was made fun of by my cousins because I spoke funny. I spoke like a foreigner.

The other challenges were the moral ones. The mid-'60s was the time of the sexual revolution. It was Vietnam War. It was the drug culture. It was Timothy Leary coming and encouraging students to experiment with LSD. And the - kind of the moral laxity that I experienced compared to the culture that I grew up in to me was very threatening, because, you know, I felt that if, you know, as attractive as it was, if I did not have a moral grounding, then I could do anything.

And the other challenge was also the political one, being an Arab and being Egyptian, especially after '67 and the Israeli-Egyptian War. It became a very difficult thing for me as an Arab in a city, and many of my - even my schoolmates at Columbia were Jewish.

We has usually passionate discussions and arguments even. Of course I made many good friends among them, but we had moments of even difficulty in those discussions. And how the politics of the Middle East and the - had poisoned, and continues to poison until this day, the relationship between Muslims and Jews, has been one of the more painful aspects.

It was a painful aspect of that period of my life, but it also shaped it in important ways in terms of wanting to understand it and seeing how we can be a factor for positive change.

GROSS: Why did you decide to become an imam, and what did you do before that?

RAUF: I worked as a teacher in the public school system in New York City for several years, and I was a victim of the layoffs, you know, in the mid-'70s. And then I worked as a sales engineer for a company in New Jersey that was selling industrial filtration equipment.

But I always had a strong interest in religion, and I even knew when I was coming on the ship from Egypt to the United States, I had this interior voice in my heart telling me that my role would be to introduce Islam to America in an American vernacular, in an American vocabulary, both Islam as a faith and also the spiritual dimension of Islam, which is called Sufism.

I was completely surrounded by religion from a young time. I was taught by my father. I engaged in discussions with him and many of these scholars who visited and came around the dining table, the lunch table, and attended many lectures with my dad. And so I learned the apprentice way.

I read, read enormously on all different fields of Islamic thought, from philosophy to Islamic literature, poetry, exegeses, (unintelligible) the teachings of the prophet. That's how I trained myself. And I was appointed imam by a Sufi master from Istanbul, Turkey.

GROSS: So as the imam, when you were the imam of the Islamic center in Tribeca, New York, what was - what was the job description? How much time did you spend trying to teach or lead people in meditative prayer? How much of your time was spent just doing things like fundraising, which you probably had to do, or helping people solve their problems, which, you know, religious leaders usually spend some of their time doing?

Like, give us a sense of what it means to be an imam.

RAUF: Well, I was imam of what was then called the Sufi mosque. I mean although we had a name, but people tended to call mosques based upon their nicknames, and we were a mosque that was known as enhancing or amplifying the spiritual dimension of Islam, and people who came to our mosque tended to be those who were from all different Sufi traditions.

You know, have different - we have different, we have many different schools of mysticism or Sufism throughout the Muslim world, and many of those who have emigrated to this country used to come to our mosque and still do, because my sermons always amplified the spiritual aspect, from the teachings of the Quran and from the prophet, from the scripture and the prophet's teachings, that really brought us to the presence of God and reminded us of our closeness to God.

Fortunately, I did not have to do very much fundraising because we were supported by a wealthy patron who took care of all of the expenses of the mosque, and that was very kind of them.

GROSS: Did you ever find in your mosque that there were people who seemed very, like, disaffected from America, very angry at America and were the kind of people that would raise a red flag in your mind that maybe they were an extremist, maybe they were dangerous?

RAUF: Well, look, as Americans, you know, we have a very healthy tradition of questioning our government's policies, whether they're domestic or international. And certainly within the Muslim community at large, not only in my mosque but at large, the Muslim community always felt that many aspects of American foreign policy towards the Muslim world were not, you know, in the best interest of the United States nor in the best interest of the Muslim community.

GROSS: OK, but there's a difference between somebody challenging American foreign policy and somebody wanting to attack Americans.

RAUF: True.

GROSS: And I guess I'm just curious if you ever met anybody at your mosque who you were worried about.

RAUF: My mosque, no, because we were primarily a Sufi mosque. Very few - I mean, I really don't - most of the people who came to our mosque really came to discharge their obligations of the Friday prayer and were spiritually motivated and really were more concerned about how can I know God, how can I really taste God and experience the reality of God.

This is what I had to deal with more, and of course there were people who had, like, you know, marriage conflicts, the usual kind of things that we do to minister to our community, people who have had a death in the family, people who had - or people who want to get married. And these are the kinds of things that I generally dealt with, and still do.

GROSS: In your attempt to create not only an interfaith community but an American Islam, you want women to have, you know, more equality. And so women in your mosque were in the main section. They were not put in back. They were not behind a curtain. But they did sit separately from the men, and I guess in reading your book I was wondering why although including women in the main section you still separated the men and women.

RAUF: Women prefer to be separated from the men because the nature of our prayers is very, you know, very intimate. We stand next to each other in rows. We're in contact with each other. We bend down. We prostrate, you know, I mean - people don't like to see a man, like, staring at their behind, that kind of stuff. So...

GROSS: You know, I really never thought of it that way.


GROSS: It's never occurred to me that that would be something...

RAUF: Yeah, besides this, there's a different energy. Even in Dhikr, for example, where we do Dhikr, where we are, you know, repeating God's names and chanting, there's a very - that's where you really feel the difference between male energy and female energy. And many women, you know, prefer to be in the company of other women so that they emphasize their, and get into their feminine energy and men in their men energy.

GROSS: What's the difference between those two energies?

RAUF: The male energy is far more aggressive, very often abrasive, and also when you're doing your Dhikr, one of the things that we believe when we are doing these mantras or these Dhikr is that it is also - as much as we are imbibing into ourselves a divine energy, a godly energy, we're also purifying ourselves of the negative energies within.

And what men throw off, you know, tends to be far more violent and abrasive compared to the energy which women throw off.

GROSS: My guest is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. His new book is called "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, and he was the imam at a mosque in Tribeca for many years and then after that started working on the Cordoba House, which has become known as the ground zero mosque, an attempt to build an interfaith Islamic center modeled kind of on the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan near ground zero, and that was very controversial, as I'm sure our listeners know.

And now he has new book called "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America." So let's just go back a couple of years, I guess, when Terry Jones, a Christian extremist pastor from Florida threatened to burn the Quran. And wasn't he saying that you need to say that you were not going to build that mosque near ground zero?

RAUF: Well, what happened was Sarah Palin was one who made that suggestion. I mean, he threatened to burn the Quran, and Sarah Palin suggested that maybe he should agree not to burn it if we agreed to move. So that immediately changed the dynamics and made it into a kind of a hostage crisis type of a situation.

GROSS: So you must have been in a really tough situation because Terry Jones is, like, very extreme. I can't speak to his mental health. And if he burned the Quran, that would have probably unleashed riots around the Muslim world.

RAUF: Absolutely.

GROSS: I mean, it's a very offensive act.

RAUF: Especially at that time.

GROSS: Yes, exactly. So I'm sure you didn't want him to burn the Quran. On the other hand, you're trying to build this kind of like interfaith Islamic community center in Manhattan near ground zero, and for you this is something that would, like, be bridging faiths and be a very healing thing. That's your vision.

So do you sacrifice what you consider to be a very healing vision so that there aren't, you know, so that somebody doesn't a Quran inciting riots around the world? I mean, how did you think that through?

RAUF: What that crisis made very clear to me was that the real battlefront was not between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Muslims and Jews, Muslims and Christians, et cetera, or Muslims and the West. The real battlefront was between all the moderates of all faith traditions against all the extremists of all faith traditions.

And here was a perfect example of an extremist, in this case a Christian, challenging a moderate who was a Muslim. And that's the battlefront that we have to wage. And this is why I proposed that we figure out a way to build a global coalition of moderates, to build and grow it into a movement of moderates that can drown out the voices of the extremists not only in the West but also from our faith traditions.

Fortunately, what really - the heroes of that, the unsung heroes of that story was our Christian friends, our Christian evangelical friends. You know, at that time Reverend Jim Wallace called me up and said, look, you know, and told me about, you know, Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, how they did not want me to engage with this person. They said this is not your problem.

They said this is a problem within the Christian community. Let us deal with him. And they in fact spoke to him, and they were the ones who when he came up trying to meet me, met him at the airport here at La Guardia airport hotel, and forced him to back down.

GROSS: So I'm going to change the subject here and ask you a question, and this is something I've read in New Jersey papers, and apparently you own some properties in New Jersey, apartment buildings, that have been accused of having health violations. And that just seems so out of tune with your spiritual belief. So I was wondering...

RAUF: Well, I have had this property, which I have actually tried to sell. We had a fire in one side of it. And, you know, unfortunately some people in the town even tried to attack me and create the problems. You know, but I have done everything I possibly can, and we have - we have spent every penny we can possibly throw into that building to keep it, to keep it, you know, free of all violations.

And whenever they have notified us of anything, we have certainly tried to do everything we can to fix them, and we have done that and continue to do that.

GROSS: Is it difficult for you to have that responsibility while being a spiritual leader?

RAUF: Well, what has been difficult for me is that since 9/11 and my devotion to bridging this work, that is has taken me away from being able to focus on managing properties. This is why I have been trying to - actually I've sold all my properties, and I've been trying to sell this last one as well.

GROSS: So, you know, ever since 9/11, people have been saying where are the leaders in the Muslim world who are willing to stand up and say this extremism must stop, and why isn't there a louder, more forceful set of voices insisting on that. You've been one of the voices saying that.

RAUF: Yes.

GROSS: Do you feel like you are part of a growing chorus or that you're part of a small group?

RAUF: Well, I believe we are part of a growing chorus. And I know for a fact that moderates exist everywhere, in every tradition, in every political environment. There are moderates in Israel. There are moderates in Iran, there are moderates in the Republican Party, moderates in the Democratic Party. What we need to do is we need link all of these moderates together and to figure out a way by which this particular coalition can speak to important issues to marginalize the voice of the extremists.

GROSS: Well, Imam Rauf, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

RAUF: Terry, thank you so much for having me. It has been such a pleasure indeed.

GROSS: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is the author of "Moving the Mountain: Beyond Ground Zero to a New Vision of Islam in America." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

A lot of what you know about exercising, running and stretching may be wrong. My guest Gretchen Reynolds writes about conventional wisdom about exercise and fitness that is being overturned by new scientific studies. Her new book is called "The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live, Longer." Reynolds writes the "Phys Ed" column for The New York Times Well blog.

Gretchen Reynolds, welcome to FRESH AIR. So...

GRETCHEN REYNOLDS: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: My pleasure. Let me tell you my dilemma. I was reading your book, which was convincing me that I have to exercise more, but, of course, I couldn't exercise because I had to finish your book before I went to sleep.


GROSS: Which is kind of what happens to me every night. Most people have their equivalent reason of why they can't exercise. So just to make us feel a little bit worse, and to scare us a little bit more about the consequences, what happens to your muscles or your tendons if you sit still for too long?

REYNOLDS: Well, sitting is, unfortunately, very unhealthy. And I do it constantly, so it worries me. What science is finding is that sitting for long periods of time - when you don't stand up, don't move at all - tends to cause changes physiologically within your muscles that cause a whole hosts of changes, the most dire being that you stop breaking up fat in your bloodstream. You start getting accumulations of fat. And what that causes is you get accumulations of fat, then, in your liver, your heart, your brain. And you just get sleepy. You gain weight. You basically are much less healthy than if you're moving.

GROSS: And what happens to your muscles and your spine?

REYNOLDS: Terrible things. Your muscles become much more slack. They're much less able, then, to respond when you do stand up. And your spine, you get back pain. You have all sorts of unhealthy changes that make it that much harder, then, to move later. So the big, big problem with sitting a lot is it makes it harder, then, to move later, which is what you need to be doing.

GROSS: Right. So you get into this vicious cycle. So give us some of your suggestions for people who, because of their, work are pretty chair-bound a good deal of the day and, you know, it's hard for them to get up and exercise. And maybe the workplace doesn't even have a good option for you to get up and move around.

REYNOLDS: Well, the very, very best thing is to simply stand up. And that sounds so simple, but it actually has profound consequences. If you can stand up every 20 minutes - even if you do nothing else, even if you don't move to the window - you change how your body responds physiologically. You start using the big muscles in your legs, because you have to to hold you upright. They start contracting. That actually releases enzymes that break up the fat in your bloodstream. It improves your blood flow. It lessens the amount of fat that you'll wind up having in your heart. It decreases your chances of getting diabetes. It decreases your chance of getting heart disease, and all it requires is standing up.

GROSS: For how long?

REYNOLDS: Two minutes. There actually was a very interesting study that came out that showed two minutes of standing up every 20 minutes reduced people's chances of getting diabetes by a pretty large amount. If you can also walk around your office, walk to the window, walk to the next cubicle, you get even more benefits. You'll lose weight. You will improve your heart, lessen your risk of heart disease. And you will improve your brain. But if you can do nothing else, stand up.

GROSS: So in your book, you describe yourself as, like, taking phone calls while standing up, conducting interviews while standing up.

REYNOLDS: I do all of that. I actually have started, because I - as I also say in the book, one of the very worst things for your fitness is to write about fitness. I sit all day long. So I started, in self-defense, standing up when I did phone calls, when I did interviews. I bought a music stand, which costs next to nothing. You can put papers on it and read standing up. I make notes to myself standing up. I try and walk down the hall at least once an hour. That's enough to break up the physiological changes that sitting otherwise causes.

GROSS: Well, it's reassuring to hear that you could just do, like, a couple of minutes of walking or standing, and it actually amounts to something if you do it every 20 minutes or so.

REYNOLDS: Well, the best part of all - at least for me, because I am, honestly, very shallow - is that standing up appears to increase the number of calories that you burn. So if you do nothing else during the day, if you stand up regularly, you will almost certainly burn more calories and be at least a little less likely to gain weight.

GROSS: So the science is really changing and contradicting a lot of previous wisdom about what we should do if we want to be physically fit. So let's start with how science is changing about stretching. A lot of people stretch, for instance, before they run or before they exercise, and some researchers are saying, maybe not such a good idea.

REYNOLDS: Almost all the research is, in fact, suggesting that that stretching before a workout - which all of us were taught to do in our own phys-ed classes - is probably counterproductive. It actually seems to cause the brain to think that you are about to tear those muscles. When you stretch and hold that pose, you lean over and touch your toes and hold that position for 30 seconds, the brain thinks you're about to damage yourself, and it sends out nerve impulses that actually tend to tighten the muscles, that the brain is trying to keep you from overstretching that muscle. But the result is you're less ready for activity, not more ready for activity. So it seems quite clear that stretching before you exercise is not actually a good idea.

GROSS: Is there a good time to stretch, or are scientists starting to think that stretching maybe isn't so healthy after all?

REYNOLDS: Well, stretching, unfortunately, doesn't really do what most of us think that it does. For most people, it won't really make you much more flexible. Most of us are born with most of the flexibility that we'll have. It's quite genetic. And so you can stretch for 15, 20 minutes a day, and unless you do that for months and months, the science suggests you will not increase your flexibility very much. If you like stretching, by all means, do it. It doesn't appear to hurt, although it's not wise beforehand. If you stretch afterwards and you enjoy it, that's great. It probably is not essential.

GROSS: So how have you changed your stretching regiment?

REYNOLDS: I never stretched.


GROSS: You never, ever stretched?

REYNOLDS: It's actually very nice when science validates what you were doing, anyway. I never liked stretching, and I'm one of those people who was born quite flexible, which is interesting, because there are some studies that clearly indicate that being very flexible is not good for athletics, and that's especially true if you're a runner. If you have really flexible hamstring muscles, you tend to be less efficient as a runner. You actually use more oxygen. So when I became a little less flexible, as I grew older, I actually became a faster runner, which was interesting. And that's because a really tight muscle is like a very well-stretched piece of elastic, and it returns energy extremely efficiently. So if you have tight hamstring muscles, you can be a very fast runner. You're also somewhat prone to more injury.

GROSS: Do you warm-up before you run, and if so, what do you do?

REYNOLDS: I jog for a short period of time before I start to run. And the science suggests that a very easy warm up - maybe all that most of us need - what you want to do when you warm up is to literally warm up the tissues. You want to get the muscles, the tendons, all of the parts of your body warm, raise the internal temperature. And the best way to do that is to use those tissues. That means if you're going to go for a run, start out by jogging. If you're going to be playing tennis, start out with a little bit of jogging, and then make sure you do something that moves your shoulders.

There is a new theory about warming up that says people should do dynamic stretching, which is quite different than the old-fashioned stretching that most of us did.

GROSS: What is it?

REYNOLDS: Dynamic stretching is, essentially, movement. It's not even really stretching at all. It means if you are going to be using a joint, warm up by using it. If you're going to be playing golf, do some practice swings. Move the joint. Do not stretch it and hold it. If you're going to be hitting a tennis ball, do jumping jacks so that your arms are up over your head. Get the tissues warmed up and get them in motion. Then you'll be ready to safely do much harder actions, like actually hitting a tennis ball or hitting a golf ball or running.

GROSS: My guest is Gretchen Reynolds. Her new book about the latest scientific research into exercise and fitness is called "The First 20 Minutes." Before we continue the interview that I recorded yesterday, I should mention something that she told me. Even though new studies are disproving some conventional wisdom about static stretching before working out, she says certain stretches - like a calf stretch - are helpful in preventing plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the plantar fascia, the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot. If you have heel or foot pain, she suggests you might want to see a physical therapist.

We'll hear more from her after break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gretchen Reynolds and she writes the "Phys Ed" column for the Well blog on The New York Times online. She's the author of the new book "The First 20 Minutes." That's about the science of exercise.

So you're a runner, and you've been a runner for decades.

REYNOLDS: I am. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What does science say now about the benefits and the risks of running?

REYNOLDS: Well, the benefits are unequivocal. Running is a wonderful way to reduce your risk of heart disease, reduce your risk of diabetes. If you run regularly, it does maintain your weigh. It also has a very strong impact on the brain, which may be the single-most important reason that I run. There's very good science that running for even half an hour or so doubles the number of brain cells in portions of your brain related to memory. Running is wonderful for the health of your body. It also leads almost inexorably to injury. The injury rate among runners is extremely high. By some estimates, it's 75 percent of runners will get injured almost every year. So running can be very hard on the body at the same time that it's very good for the body.

GROSS: What about walking? I mean, there doesn't seem to be much of a downside to walking. What are the benefits of it?

REYNOLDS: Oh, walking is, I would say, without a doubt, the single best exercise that exists. It is very low-impact. Certainly, you could hurt yourself if you want to. You can trip over something. You can overdo it.

GROSS: There's always something to trip on.


REYNOLDS: You can run into things, which I've done before.

GROSS: Absolutely.

REYNOLDS: I actually used to read and walk. When I was in college, I would try and read my textbooks while walking, and I did, a few times, run into stop signs. So that's one way to injure yourself. Otherwise, walking appears to be what the human body is built for.

There have been some very good studies showing that the most efficient stride for the human body is a walk, not a run. That means we use less oxygen, we use less energy when we walk than when we run. We are built for that movement. It does definitely stimulate all of the health benefits that you want from exercise. Walking for 30 minutes or even 20 minutes, even 15 minutes will reduce your risk for heart disease and for diabetes. It will change your brain, and it will prolong your life.

There was a really interesting study out of England showing that walking for 30 minutes at least four or five times a week increased people's life spans by 20 percent. If you tripled that amount of exercise, if you ran for 90 minutes four or five times a week, you prolonged your life span little bit more, but only by four percent. So you get most of the benefits from just going for a walk.

GROSS: So you know the kind of power walker who has, like, a weight in each arm and they're moving their arms back and forth and, like, their jaw is kind of clenched and like...


GROSS: ...and they're, like, striding through the street, and it's like looks like they're really exerting themselves a whole lot more than I certainly do when I walk. Is that helpful?

REYNOLDS: It depends completely on what you're trying to get from your exercise. If you're trying to get enjoyment, I would say no. If you are trying to become more fit, which is a different thing than trying to become healthier, then yes, you have to go at a higher intensity. You do have to raise your heart rate more. You do have to get more tired.

It does have to feel uncomfortable. That will increase your aerobic endurance. It will not necessarily make you a whole lot healthier. You can become healthy with a much lower amount and much lower intensity of exercise.

GROSS: Let's talk about hydrating in general. You know, a lot of people think, and we've been told, I mean, we should drink like eight glasses of liquids a day. You know, water's fine. The impression I get from your book is that that's being disproven.

REYNOLDS: Yes. Yet again. When you actually put it to the test, that very entrenched myth turns out to not be true. We don't need eight glasses of water a day. Thirst mechanism is extremely, exquisitely attuned to telling us how much fluid we need. Most of us have been taught - and I've run several marathons now. The last time I ran a marathon, which was 15 years ago now, I was told drink as much as you possibly can before the race, during the race, after the race, constantly. Stop at every water stop. Do not let yourself get thirsty. Well, the result of that is that some runners developed what is called water intoxication. They actually had so much water in their bodies that it became an unhealthy and even critically dangerous condition.

What we now know, and what seems clear from the science, is that if you drink to thirst, if you listen to the little voice in your head that says you need water, you will drink as much as you need. You don't need to stay ahead of your thirst. Drink what you want and you will almost certainly be fine.

GROSS: So you said if you're exercising for more than an hour you do need to replenish on the sugars and the good news is that chocolate milk is apparently a nice balanced drink for that - assuming you're not lactose intolerant.


REYNOLDS: Oh, chocolate milk. The science of chocolate milk is one of my favorite discoveries. Chocolate milk is actually an almost ideal recovery beverage and that means for in the period after you exercise, not during exercise. That much protein and milk would probably cause gastrointestinal distress during exercise but if you've worked out, again, for at least an hour, so you have burned a certain number of calories, then you do need to replenish the fuel that you've lost.

You also need to give your body some protein to help to rebuild the muscles. Chocolate milk seems to have an ideal ratio of carbohydrates, the sugar, to protein. And it tastes wonderful. So in the hour after you exercise, have some chocolate milk. You will probably recover better. If you've gone for a 30 minute walk, I'm sorry, chocolate milk is probably not your exercise drink of choice.

If you want to lose weight, just remember calories in, calories out. Whether you've worked out or not you have to be realistic about how many calories you just burned. If you walked for 30 minutes you didn't burn enough calories to have chocolate milk.

GROSS: My guest is Gretchen Reynolds. Her new book about the latest science of exercise and fitness is called "The First 20 Minutes." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guess is Gretchen Reynolds. She writes the phys ed column for the Well Blog on The New York Times website and now she's the author of the new book "The First 20 Minutes" which is about the new science of exercise. Are there any exercises that you've stopped doing because you've learned through your research that they're more harmful than helpful?

REYNOLDS: Well, I actually don't run fast anymore, which is partially the result of the fact that I'm older, but there also is some science showing that faster and harder you run, the more likely you are to get injured. If you want to compete you're going to have to run hard, you're going to have to run fast.

If you want to be healthy and fit - which is really my goal now; I want to be around for another 40 years. I want to be able to exercise for another 40 years. So I have reduced the speed at which I run. I've also actually reduced the amount that I run because I can get a lot of benefits with less exercise. And anyone can do the same. If you want to be healthy, you can become healthy by doing anything.

Getting up from your chair, gardening, anything at all where you do where you move your body will definitely make you healthier.

GROSS: But are there actual exercises besides running that you've stopped doing because of the research that you've read?

REYNOLDS: Not really. What I have started doing are exercises that I actually thought were unhealthy and turned out not to be. I do squats, which look very ungainly but I've had several scientists tell me that if they can only do one exercise on any given day, they will do squats because squats, they burn calories, they build the muscles in your legs and your bottom.

They make you stronger. It's also the squat is essentially an exercise that can guarantee that you will be independent all through your lifespan, because one of the things that happens as people get older is you lose muscle mass, you lose strength, and you become unable to get up out of your chair. If you're doing squats, you will always be able to stand up.

So I now do 20 squats at least a few times a week. I don't use weights. You don't have to hold a dumbbell. Just squat down, stand up, and do it again. I also do...

GROSS: So when you say squats you mean like deep knee bends? Same?

REYNOLDS: Yes, exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

REYNOLDS: And if that's hard...

GROSS: I had heard those are really bad for your knees, right? Didn't they say that?

REYNOLDS: And they're not.

GROSS: They're not. OK.

REYNOLDS: In fact, it appears pretty clearly that if you do it correctly it's good for your knees because it builds the muscles and the tendons all around your knee. It makes it more stable. So in fact, doing squats appears to be a very good thing for your knees. Do it carefully. If it hurts, don't go all the way down until your thighs are parallel to the ground.

Maybe keep your thighs at a 60 degree angle to the ground, but it should, for someone who has healthy knees, it should make your knees stronger. You can also, if you find a regular squat really difficult, do what are called wall squats, meaning you lean against the wall and go up and down. Then when that's easy, move away from the wall, do 20. It really has made a big difference, I think, in my leg strength.

GROSS: So how did you end up writing about exercise and having a kind of sedentary life as a result of it instead of your running?

REYNOLDS: Well, I have always been interested in exercise. I actually have been writing about health and fitness in various forms for, oh, more than 20 years and became especially interested as, frankly, I started aging. And I began to find it harder to exercise. I found that I was slower. And I did become really interested in what was happening inside my body now.

And then coincidentally, I was given the opportunity to write about physiology and many of my columns and certainly some of the most popular, as well as some of the information in the book, is about what happens to our body as we age and how much of that is inevitable, how much of it is a consequence of inactivity.

And the good news is, a lot of it is inactivity and not biological aging and that we can change. And that's the best news I think that I've gotten from researching physical activity is we can control a lot of what happens to our body.

GROSS: So what's the most popular column you've written?

REYNOLDS: I would say it's between stretching - I wrote one about that we don't need to stretch before exercise - and then secondly the most popular topic by far is exercise and the brain. Because none of us want to lose our memories, none of us want to develop dementia, and the evidence is very strong that exercise improves your ability to think at whatever age you are.

GROSS: OK. Another reason to exercise.

REYNOLDS: Well, the really great thing is that exercise actually changes the structure of your brain. It increases your ability to make new brain cells and it increases the volume in the brain where you process memories. So there's really strong evidence that if you exercise, and again, it doesn't have to be a lot - walking for 30 minutes improves your ability to think well into your 80s.

GROSS: Well, Gretchen Reynolds, I'm going to end this interview so I can take a walk.


REYNOLDS: Please do.

GROSS: OK. Thank you so much for talking with us.

REYNOLDS: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Gretchen Reynolds' new book about the new science of fitness and exercise is called "The First 20 Minutes." You can read a chapter on our website, where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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