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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Theory #46: Health and fitness and motivation

I get a whole bunch of health newsletters in my email. On the one hand, it's made me more knowledgeable about health issues. On the other hand, though... I can see why so many people just throw up their hands and say the hell with it. There's so much contradictory, outdated, and impractical advice out there, it's impossible to follow all of it.

The one that irked me the most this week: "it's impossible for women to build large muscles." If the author of that article had been sitting here, I'd have punched her in the nose. And then asked her why all my shirts were too small when I got home from basic training. It wasn't fat that made my arms and chest larger. Grrrr.

Then there's the one that says exercising any less than an hour a day, every day, is pointless. I have to wonder what they're trying to accomplish there. Okay, now I do exercise an hour a day most days (I skipped today because it's cold and rainy and I'm just seriously exhausted, but it's my first day off since last Friday), but it took me quite a while to work up to this. If I were just starting out, and if I weren't seriously cynical about health advice, this article wouldn't motivate me to jump right into an hour a day--it would make me believe that the 20 minutes I had the time and energy for was pointless, so I shouldn't even try.

The most hurtful article this week asserted that neither stress, birth control pills, menopause, nor stopping smoking caused weight gain. Reported weight gain associated with these events was instead due the the women failing to compensate by reducing their caloric intake and increasing their activity. Excuse me? It seems to me that if you have to change your diet and/or exercise levels in order to keep from gaining weight, it follows that it does cause you to gain weight. If I'm feeling charitable, I can assume that the author was trying to say that it's possible to keep from gaining weight from stress, etc, and that she was just a really bad writer. But mostly, I just think she's a size 0 with a high metabolism, a natural ectomorph, who likes to feel smug.

You've got to love the articles about healthy alternatives to favorite foods. Do they really think there's going to be a rush of people bringing bowls of roasted cauliflower to movie theaters instead of buying popcorn?

The comments on the healthy-living websites are just as bad. One memorable comment on a recipe screamed (in all caps) "SUGAR IS POISON! DON'T MAKE THIS RECIPE!" The amount of sugar in question? One teaspoon. That's five grams. Granted, most of us eat too much sugar, a lot of which is unnecessary, but one teaspoon of sugar stretched across four servings is not going to hurt anyone.

My theory, based on reading at least a hundred health-related articles and newsletters in recent months, is that a lot of them aren't trying to improve the general health. It's elitism. People like to feel superior. So whatever it is they have going for them, whether they were born into a wealthy family, are naturally thin, belong to a certain religion, live in a certain country or neighborhood, are tall or attractive or outgoing or smart, that's the highest virtue. It's human nature to feel pride in whatever it is we feel sets us apart. And I think if we're all honest with ourselves, if we have any self-esteem at all, we do feel superior about some things. And that's okay. I think it's necessary for self-esteem, as long as it's limited, and accompanied by empathy.

What's not okay is using that to make others feel bad, or worse, to sabotage their efforts to better themselves. I don't think the woman that wrote the these-things-don't-make-you-gain-weight article wanted to help other women struggling with weight gain. I think she wanted them to gain weight. That way she could continue to be superior. Granted, there's no way she even thought that to herself. But if your motivation is to help women who've gained weight because they stopped smoking, or who are concerned about doing so, you're not going to do it by accusing them of gluttony and sloth.

Likewise the various recommendations for vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc. Nearly every article I've read--and it's significant that each article focuses on just one nutrient--says you shouldn't take supplements, not even a multivitamin--you just need to eat... have you ever added up all the stuff you'd have to eat to manage all the recommended daily allowances? Good grief. So what's the motivation? Why give us impossible recommendations? None of them are willing to say you can skip the walnuts one day or have fewer than six cups of green tea (and this along with the four cups of coffee I recently read was recommended, the eight cups of water, the glass of red wine, and however much skim milk the pundit-of-the-day espouses). Call me cynical, but I think they're not making serious recommendations. I think they're just trying to sound like they know it all. And I think they want people to fail, because then they can continue to feel smug and superior. (Well, it's too bad that you got cancer, but you only drank five cups of green tea a day, so it's your own fault.)

Hmmm. Maybe the better answer is that I should stop reading health newsletters.

***Note: Actually, I take all of this with a grain of salt (okay, virtual salt, because I don't need the extra sodium), make my own decisions, and pretty much believe in the gospel of moderation.



Ah you write such good reviews it makes me want to read the ones even with 2 stars!
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