Intense Celeb Workouts: Ideal or Over-the-Top?

Gwyneth, Madonna and Britney lead pack of Hollywood's hardcore gym-goers.

Oct. 30, 2008 — -- Sure, Britney Spears is getting her body back.

But at what cost?

It may be five days before one of the most important elections in this country's history, but in Hollywood, decision 2008 is not Barack Obama vs. John McCain. Rather, it's one hour of exercise vs. three or more.

It's a fact of fame that celebrities, with few exceptions, have to be svelte and sleek both on the red carpet and in whatever endeavors they pursue to warrant A-list status.

Spears, on the verge of releasing her sixth album and embarking on a tour for the first time since she fell off the map following her divorce from Kevin Federline, has morphed from marshmallow (by Hollywood standards) to hot mom in little more than a couple of months, reportedly because of an intense regimen that includes workouts three times a day, five days a week, with 1,000 crunches per day thrown in for good measure.

She's not downing Mickey D's anymore, either. In August, Spears told OK! magazine she eats only 1,200 calories a day.

"I have no sugar. I don't eat fruit or even fruit juice because of the sugar. I eat chicken and salmon and rice. I eat avocados. I'll have egg whites for breakfast and sometimes turkey burgers for lunch," she said. "It may sound like it's not much, but it's actually a lot of food if you eat the right things."

Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna would probably agree. On "Oprah" earlier this year, Paltrow revealed that she works "freaking hard" at the gym because she can't control what she puts in her mouth.

"I just can't do it. I just cannot diet," the 35-year-old Oscar-winner said. "I think maybe it's the idea that you can't have something. ... It's worth it to me to do that extra exercise so I can eat what I want and not think about it."

Her friend and food-partner-in-crime Mario Batali told Us Weekly magazine in May that Paltrow, a mother of two, probably works out three hours a day. On "Oprah," she showed off the intense routine trainer Tracy Anderson developed for her, featuring armbands befitting a medieval torture chamber.

Coincidentally, Anderson also trains Madonna, who's second to none when it comes to military-esque workouts. She reportedly exercises two hours a day, six days a week -- a combination of running, pilates, swimming and strength training. Britain's Daily Mail reported earlier this month that Madonna's routine has become so intense, she has recurring back and knee problems and tours with a chiropractor and physiotherapist.

It seems the 50-year-old queen of pop's MO is go hard or go home. Madonna told the U.K. edition of Elle for its May issue, "I'm not going to slow down, get off this ride, stay home and get fat. No way! ... I would never get fat."

Does High-Impact Mean Negative-Impact?

Fearing fat may be extreme, but most exercise experts agree that as long as these celebrities don't do too much too fast, their activities are most likely safe.

"There is nothing wrong with intense exercise for someone who is apparently healthy with no pre-existing injuries, medical conditions, or metabolic abnormalities, who begins at a moderate level and progresses systematically to a high level of intensity," said Larry Woodruff, senior lecturer in the Arizona State University Polytechnic Exercise and Wellness Department in Mesa, Ariz. "High-intensity, low-impact activities carry little inherent danger for apparently healthy adults of most ages."

But routines involving high-impact maneuvers -- particularly if adopted too quickly -- could spell both short-term pain and long-term trouble.

"The dangers may come in when one does explosive movements or high-impact activities," Woodruff said. "Some individuals' joints may not tolerate those types of activities."

And a good workout shouldn't push the body to the point of exhaustion every day.

"You shouldn't feel like you want to throw up or go back to bed," said Hollywood personal trainer Valerie Waters, whose clients include Jennifer Garner and Cindy Crawford and who generally does not structure her routines to run longer than one hour. "There needs to be some balance."

Michael Dupper, assistant professor in the Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management at the University of Mississippi, agreed that musculoskeletal and overuse injuries await those who try to do too much, too soon -- a strategy he terms the "fast food" approach to fitness.

"Most folks who use the 'fast food' approach to exercise usually do not look at it as a permanent behavioral lifestyle change, but a short-term 'wedding preparation' or 'class reunion' approach to getting in shape for one significant event in their lives," he said, citing Oprah Winfrey's high-profile training regimen in preparation for her run in the 1994 Chicago Marathon.

So, what does Dupper think of Spears' three daily workouts, complete with a 1,000-crunch quota?

"Great idea; however, if you are not used to three daily workouts, it can be brutal, physiologically and mentally," he said, calling the regimen a "short-term solution which would be almost impossible to maintain for any great length of time."

Dupper was somewhat more forgiving of Paltrow's killer regimen, as long as she has been able to gradually work herself up to its strenuous demands. But as for Madonna's routine, he said some discretion may be in order.

"Madonna is 50 years old, I believe," he said. "I would have to be concerned with amenorrhea [absence of menstrual bleeding] and osteoporosis based on these workout schedules."

Granted, these routines aren't for the common man or woman. But then, the common men and women aren't scrutinized by their peers, the press and the public on a 24/7 basis. The pressure to be in top form is incredible, not unlike that placed on a professional athlete. And maybe that's how everyone ought to think of them.

"I don't think it's fair to call out Madonna because clearly she's not held to the same standards as the rest of us," Waters said. "We have to acknowledge that what she's doing on stage is hardcore. It's a highly aerobic routine done in high heels that goes on not just for one night, but for months, and for hours each night. You've got to consider her as a pro athlete in her 50s."

So, Madonna: Keep kickin' and setting the bar for Hollywood's hardcore elite.