Working Out

Read Men’s Health!

I admit it, I read Men’s Health. Religiously. In the same way my Italian Catholic family used go to church every Sunday: partly out of habit, partly out of a belief that it couldn’t really hurt and in the end might actually help. And with the same sense that I’ve heard (read) it all before, the same certainty that I won’t be surprised.

I still buy it every month. Sometimes, if I have a flight to make, more than once a month. (I never run out because there are two editions in English, one for the UK and another for the USA, and then there’re the German and Greek editions, all available at the airport.) I can’t help myself. I find myself at the newsstand gazing at the impossibly lean, impossibly well-defined muscular model on the cover and I suffer a temporary memory block. I never seem to recall how unsatisfied I was by the immediately previous issue.

I still don’t know why I buy it. It’s not just or indeed even because of the eye candy. I’m no longer the awkward 14-year-old boy sheepishly buying his first muscle mag in a deli store down the road from his parent’s house in a boring working-class suburb in New Jersey. (I was too scared to buy a second issue. There were only two reasons why someone would buy a magazine like that and I was obviously too scrawny to be lifting weights).

Maybe it’s the hope of finding the perfect workout. Not the one that will transform me into a clone of the cover model. I have no such delusions. I’m fairly happy with my body. I wouldn’t post a photo of it anywhere, but I’ve grown accustomed to it. I have two-thirds of a six-pack (if I stand really erect and lean back a bit and the light is right), but the other third is hidden under a layer of skin that was made for a midsection a size or two larger than the one I have now. Most of my life I swam. Now you think swimmer’s body, lean, right? But most swimmers I know over 30 have more body fat than, say, runners. It helps keep us buoyant. When I started training for the triathlon and running and biking a lot, I must have shaved off a few layers of abdominal fat, leaving me with a slight but still noticeable creasing of the skin, like a bedsheet that’s not been pulled taut. It’s a slightly weird body but it’s mine.

No, by perfect workout I mean the one that will actually get me to enjoy working out with weights. I could spend all my workout time cycling or swimming or running, but I know endurance is only a fourth of fitness.

I still haven’t found it. The perfect workout, I mean. And I’ve been reading MH for more than a decade. Always with a tinge of guilt. It’s like eating a granola bar for breakfast, the appearance of sustenance without real nutritional value, the illusion of oats for people who don’t like oatmeal. Or in the case of MH, the illusion of science without the context, methodical deliberateness, and caution of science. Whatever science is behind the hundreds of health and fitness tips MH dispenses each month, it’s been so stripped down, processed, adulterated and pumped up with promise that it bears as much resemblance to the real thing as the wheat in a Twinkie does to Triticum aestivum.

But mostly things are left out. Unavoidable, I suppose, as MH articles have shrunk over time to paragraph-length items and even one-sentence tips. Like this tidbit I found in a list of “Three Secrets to Keeping Your 20/20 Vision”: “Eating papaya will protect and improve your eyesight. The reason being that its levels of lutein leave eyes 80% less likely to suffer from age-related muscular degeneration”. Oh, and we get a reference, of sorts: Florida International University. But it’s an intriguing claim. Who doesn’t want to protect his eyesight? And even “improve it”? And that image of muscles around the eye degenerating, growing all flabby and decrepit, well, that’s downright scary.

If you actually dig up the study, it tells a somewhat different story. First being that it has to do with degeneration not of the muscle but of the macula, the pigmented spot near the center of the retina that plays a crucial role in central vision. The spot is yellow because of, yes, its high concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids found in foods like kale, turnip greens, broccoli, swiss chard and you guessed it, papaya. But what the actual study says it that the “[donors] in the study in the highest quartile of lutein and zeaxanthin levels had an 82% lower risk for AMD compared with those in the lowest quartile.” It doesn’t say eating papaya lowers the risk of AMD. It says, “The results are consistent with a theoretical model that proposes an inverse association between risk of AMD and the amounts of L and Z in the retina.” But that’s not much of an attention-getter and even lousier as a tip.

Another item. Number 7 in a list of eight life-extending super-foods. “Coffee. Four cups a day reduce your risk of dying of heart disease by 53%. Brooklyn College.” Wow. 53%! Make mine a venti. Except that the protective effect was observed only in participants who were over 65 (and who were not severely hypertensive). It wasn’t observed for younger participants. The conclusions in the study form a model of careful scientific reasoning and well-written scientific prose, beginning with the following; “Our results do not allow us to conclude whether caffeine or the caffeinated beverages were responsible for the protective effect. Three of our findings suggest that caffeine is a possible causal agent…” after which the authors discuss the evidence for and against these hypotheses.

I sometimes think there must be a random generator of health and nutrition advice at MH. You start out with something like “new research has shown” or one of its dozen variations, add an exercise, vegetable, or mineral, couple it with a verb of change like “increases”, “lowers” or “improves”, add in a percent (even 3% will do, even if it’s nearly statistically insignificant) and, optionally a wisecrack at the end or in the title, and you’ve got it.

I know it sounds formulaic. But that’s the point. Like other genres—the obituary and wedding announcement, pornography or crime stories—MH has its, its own discourse and its own set of conventions. Here are a few I’ve noticed:

Advice is often bundled in numbered packages.

55 High-Energy Super-foods. 29 Foods for Rock-Hard Abs, 5 Quick Fixes for Stressed-out Guys. 13 Drugs That Turn Back Time, 7 Pains You Must Never Ignore. (right, as if I could ignore persistent painful urination). Curiously enough, these recommendations seem to come in odd numbered sets, and more often than not in primes. I suppose this gives an authoritative aura of completeness and precision to the set; “10” and “a dozen” are fuzzy, “29” never is.

Or couched as commands.

Make Good Sex Great (and in case you were wondering)—Start Tonight. Lose Your Gut. Build Big Arms. The title is more a promise and encouragement than an order, more exhortative than imperative. “You really must try this terrific workout routine (and even bigger arms will be yours)”. Though I suspect if the writers gave full rein to their cynicism, the mood would be desiderative (if we had one in English): “You want to have a flat stomach”… but you and I both know there’s no way you’re ever going to shed that ring of lard around your abdomen, but hell, that’s how we sell magazines.

Advice is revelation.

With your copy of MH you gain access to a treasure of esoteric knowledge acquired over the years from the Navy Seals, football players and a slew of stars of action and adventure films. In November 2003 the magazine proclaims, “Six Pack Secrets Revealed—it’s easier than you think.” Six years later, the cover shouts, “Six Pack Secrets Revealed—sculpt abs on the beach.” In March 2011, MH trumpets, “Six Pack Secrets Revealed—unlock your abs (from the sofa)”. But maybe they weren’t the same secrets.

Advice is getting easier…

Did you notice the move from the beach to the sofa? I think it’s representative of a broader shift in MH over time towards less taxing and less time-consuming workouts, the shedding of discipline in favor of quick-fix solutions. In August 2002 MH told us, “Lose Your Gut” but by August 2010 it had become much more fun: “Lose Your Gut with Ice Cream”.

But it’s also part of MH’s hedonism. A case of having your cake—or ice cream—and eating it, too. In its April 2011 issue MH ran a short piece on foods that purportedly cut the risk of hypertension: celery, watermelon, bananas and olive oil. Like most of the “health” items in the magazine it’s marred by sloppy science reporting but as part of a broader initiative to raise its readers’ awareness of the risks off hypertension and to get them to eat more vegetables and fruit, it’s admirable. In the same issue, though, in a piece on “Seductive Suppers” there’s a recipe for Asian pork belly (!) that has almost an entire day’s sodium content in just one serving.

The mellowing process may have something to do with a change in readership. Judging by the growing preponderance of articles focusing on building abs and burning fat, I’d say its readers are fatter and arguably lazier than those in the early 00s. But paradoxically with perhaps greater, if more unrealistic, expectations. The December 2002 issue ran a piece called “Add an Inch to Your Arms”, a year later it was “Add 2 Inches to Your Biceps” and six years later, the stakes had risen even further: “Add 3 Inches to Your Biceps”. Oh, and by the way, in May of last year the six-pack acquired two new cans to become an eight-pack. Just in case you got your six and turned smug.

…And ever more confusing.

The magazine desperately needs a continuity editor. It’s rife with the journalistic equivalent of the scene in Ocean Eleven where Linus and Rusty are at the Bellagio waiting for Tess; Rusty has a goblet of shrimp cocktail in his hand, the cameras changes angle and then it’s a plate. And then it’s a schooner again. In April 2011 MH counsels us to switch from orange juice to apple juice to “[prevent] the formation of ‘senile’ proteins [sic] in the brain that can lead to Alzheihmer’s”. Just as I was about to toss the juicer to keep those nasty demented little proteins at bay (just for the record, its senile plaque), the May issue comes out and advises me to switch from apple juice to orange juice. Apparently it has a much higher antioxidant count. But I’m still implementing the January issue. I’m sticking with pomegranate juice.

-/-

Image: Miguel Iglesias, Cover for MH Spain 12/10

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  1. Day 6: Science Says, Eat This! | 30@100