No Offense, but Why Do Fitness Influencers End Up Pushing Junk Science?

No Offense, but Why Do Fitness Influencers End Up Pushing Junk Science?

Hi Casey,

I’ve been lifting on and off since high school, having done so in an I-want-to-add-10lbs approach after high school, an I-want-to-run-a-fast-400m approach in college, and an I-want-to-maintain-without-too-much-work approach in my 20s. 

I fell out of love with gyms somewhere along the way and in early March — before the Great Kettlebell Shortage — I got into Pavel Tsatsouline’s Simple and Sinister. As a reporter, a busy person, and a functional strength enthusiast, I really liked Tsatsouline’s approach and the goal of ruggedness/utility and injury prevention, which seems so often deprioritized compared to things like strength and physique/looks.

Anyway, I’ve been loving kettlebell training’s efficiency and utility, and I wanted to learn more beyond Pavel’s books. Then I listened to his Tim Ferriss podcast and…. holy… fucking shit!

I read a little bit and Dwight Garner’s NYTimes masterpiece of a review of Ferriss’s 4 hour body book and MAMMA MIA THIS SHIT IS NUTS, doling out weird fitness advice and taking fertility drugs and eating various foods as medicine. This is some Alex Jones shit, no? How are we not talking about this??

This got me thinking about how adjacent to good advice and more academically focused stuff is this well of crazy that lurks just below the surface that I only assume finishes in getting caught with a suitcase of T by the Australian authorities like Sly Stallone. Why are fitness forums and Reddits and the like always a stones throw from crazytown?? Why is the carnivore James Blunt scurvy diet (fucking nuts) only a few clicks away from kettlebell swings (fucking great!)? – Ethan

Man, I so appreciate the opportunity to revisit Tim Ferriss, since he came a little before my time and it feels like many dudes who were fascinated with him. You are not quite asking how “real” anything that Tim Ferriss says is, or any sort of health/wellness/fitness fad. But you also sort of are, in noting that the stuff that works and is good is often positioned so close to the stuff that is just trying to drain you of resources and is bad. In the specific case of Tim Ferriss, but also any fitness fad, I think it’s important to look at longevity. No one really follows his regimen anymore, at least certainly not the number of guys who it caught on with in the first place. We certainly haven’t all started, to paraphrase the book review, taking ginger and sauerkraut (???) if we are “undermuscled” or upping our saturated fat and cold exposure when we “can’t sleep.”

I don’t recall if he gives any justification for these things, but they simply don’t make sense, and now we can safely say, if this were the key, we’d all be doing it by now. The parts of his philosophy that you might say have stuck, like “eat whole grains instead of ‘white’ carbs,” were not unique concepts he came up with.

This all easy to say in hindsight, but I want to dig deeper into how we experience this stuff, and health stuff in general, to try and land on a theory of how, exactly, we are supposed to distinguish the good and helpful health advice (that might even be worth paying for!) from that which is deranged, or even reckless and harmful.  

But in the broader case, our overall systemic approach to health is set up to create both real anxieties and phantom “needs,” but also not give us enough resources to meaningfully change our health without a lot of uphill work, so we are perfectly primed to shower the loudest and most self-assured-sounding influencer with money in hopes they can fix us. 

Do you have a question about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn’t be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to swole.woman@vice.com and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

Nutrition recommendations, and even nutrition labels, have been lorded over by lobbyists for decades; the corn lobby, the dairy lobby. Look at how the dairy industry forced its way onto the latest “My Plate” guidance instructing Americans on how to eat healthy. And then, when we have terrible lives because our system is not really incentivized to give us the tools or time or resources to take care of ourselves, that drives us right into the arms of the healthcare and insurance industries.

That’s right; politicians who are in the pockets of big American health-related businesses can score not once, but twice on our dumb little livelihoods. Let the food and diet and supplement lobbies drive us into an unhealthy lifestyle, diabetes and heart disease and high blood pressure and so forth, to the point that we need serious medical intervention, long hospital stays, fancy new medications that are advertised in TV commercials (the United States is only one of two countries where this is legal). 

It would seem like a conspiracy theory except a conspiracy theory couldn’t be happening every day right in front of our eyes, right? We are choosing to eat the McDonalds and not the fresh fruits and vegetables that cost many times more per calorie, right? It’s not because the beef and dairy and potato industries receive massive subsidies through lobbying, and because if we eat lots of that beef and dairy and potato we’re more likely to end up in the hospital with a chronic illness for a hospital and an insurance company to milk?

We have only the barest gestures toward preventative medicine in this country, and meanwhile, nearly every structure that ostensibly exists to protect us has been corrupted by corporate influence. One very recent example of this pattern: Our government’s response to coronavirus has not been to manage it through preventive measures like solid contact tracing, consistent federal-level public messaging, or widely available and free rapid tests. (It did promise COVID tests would be free, but tests are still constrained, and insurance companies and medical centers have nonetheless somehow managed to get away with all manner of shenanigans, from tacking on extraneous charges to denying people an actual test in order to mark their visit as unrelated to coronavirus). Instead, the government has put far more energy into developing treatments for people who are already sick, including a $450 million contract awarded to Regeneron, the company producing the polyclonal antibody cocktail that Trump took when he contracted COVID, and an estimated $99 million in tax dollars to develop remdesivir into a COVID treatment. If those treatments become standard, people will be charged for them again: an estimated $3,120 for a course of remdesivir, and a few thousand dollars per antibody treatment. This is to say nothing of the treatment costs of any COVID-related complications. It must be nice for the president, who owns stock in the companies developing these treatments

What does this have to do with the kooky solutions offered by fitness gurus? Mostly that our infrastructure is so aggressively engineered against us and in favor of parasites. If a fitness guru sets you up to believe that their physique, which is the result of years and years of work (or else, steroids and amphetamines and who knows what else) is achievable with a $20 set of rubber fitness bands, or a $12 diet tea mix, or a $35 “super male vitality serum,” we are highly motivated to believe them, and they have no burden of proving anything.

(Many people don’t realize this, but the FDA regulates supplements reactively, not proactively, meaning all a company has to do to put a supplement on the market is submit a basic report they themselves commissioned indicating the product is not dangerous; the FDA will believe anyone literally until people start getting hurt by a product and manage to make the connection that it’s the product hurting them.)

Sure, there are people, wealthy people, who have time to value their health, throwing money and time at it and cultivating the overall hobby of it. There is a reason that the wellness industry has ballooned in value over the last decade or so: the rise in lifestyle diseases has us steering into the turn, and now “taking care of ourselves” is a huge priority. So rich people have an interest in spending that time and money to live longer and better; that’s how we arrive at the $66 jade egg

But the rest of us find our desire to prioritize health significantly compromised. We find ourselves in this impossible situation where winning is an uphill struggle: our diets are engineered by big business and force us into chronic lifestyle illnesses; our income has been carefully engineered over the last several decades by the now-wealthiest people alive to never go up, so we have to work longer and longer hours just to tread water and avoid filing for bankruptcy, so we can’t afford to exercise nor do we have time to; and these things tear us to pieces, mentally and emotionally speaking. 

We feel terrible, and feel even worse about feeling terrible because we have no resources with which to do anything about it. It is in this dark hour that the quick-fix diet solution arrives, the new exercise device promising something extreme like eight pack abs in one week. We know the gap between where we are and where we should be, health wise, is vast; we likewise do not really have time or money to devote to getting there. So if someone is promising we can get there, with a modest amount of time and money, they’re digging their dirty fingers right into that health guilt wound and then we will do anything to dig ourselves out.

If you do have a little bit of time and energy, it’s worth it to try and pull yourself out of the quick-fix rat race, and try to notice when you’re trying to band-aid over your guilt about your health but ultimately just disappointing and blaming yourself over and over when that junky stuff doesn’t work. There are pretty basic things that work, like going for a walk, stretching, squats/pushups/rows/deadlifts, eating a vegetable with a couple meals a day. You have time for these things if you have a few hours a week. It’s just going to be work, and you have to begin from the idea that it’s not easy. It’s not devastatingly hard, but just like our jobs and eating healthy and teaching our partners that you have to point the utensils up instead of down in the dishwasher or else they don’t get clean, it’s not fun all of the time; it’s an investment in your overall well-being and happiness. Ideally we would have been cultivating this kind of balance all our lives, but a quick-fix is the far easier option, so we default to that. 

You note that often the kooky stuff and the real stuff seems to be sold side by side, often by the same person. This is called market segmentation. You also see this in, let’s say TVs. There is the $4,700 727-inch LG OLED 4K TV, and then there is the $150 36-inch brand-that-won’t-be-named-but-the-backlight-is-sure-to-die-precisely-two-months-after-the-warranty-runs-out. In the case of the second TV, it may not be as clear on the surface that it’s a real piece of garbage that doesn’t really work and is an overall terrible experience, because it looks and works enough like the $4,700 4K TV. But if you know anything about TVs, you know that it is. If you know something about working out, you know that a $24 waist trainer is nothing like individual coaching from a trainer to all the celebrities in the Marvel movies. But there is lots of fine stuff in between.

So how do we tell the real deals from the fads? Mostly, it’s just educating ourselves. Like being healthy itself, there is not really a shortcut. There are a couple of tricks and red flags to look for.

Let me be clear: you don’t have to pay money to learn how to work out and get stronger. Just like any form of school versus being self-taught, teaching yourself for free can take a lot of time and research and patience; at minimum you’re going to need to like, buy some study materials. You can get more than information out of, for instance, a good coach, one who teaches you things instead of just making you do things. 

But also remember that anything that seems incredibly hard to do is not necessarily better. A workout program that takes two hours every single day and leaves you so sore you can’t move and promises to make you lose 100 pounds in three months maybe isn’t made to be impossible, but it is preying on your guilt more than actually trying to help you. I’d feel okay about saying that any program that is trying to overhaul your entire existence overnight, especially the way you look, is bullshit. Look for things that preach sustainable progress and teaching you skills (like strength training!!) versus punishing you.

But the other extreme is bullshit, too. Anything that promises to fix your life fast, cheap, and easy is just trying to get a quick 30 bucks out of you. But anything that costs like, hundreds of dollars a month is either also preying on your guilt about having tried lots and lots of stuff and not having stuck with any of it (ahem, spin classes, profoundly fancy health club memberships), or is really promising some incredibly serious and specific expertise. If you’re not the person who has ever really stuck with a workout, you’re, I’m sorry to say, definitely not a pro athlete or A-list actress who’s just been cast as She-Hulk. Everyone else in the middle ground, I feel confident saying we have options that are affordable. These are your monthly workout programs, your consumer-level gym memberships, 

All of this said, you won’t learn if you don’t try. Trying to take care of yourself just IS going to be a learning experience. Don’t feel guilty about throwing SOME money at your health; you only have one body and we get next to no instruction on how to manage it from the people who should be teaching us, and we’re all still learning. Just don’t get locked into contracts and make sure whatever it is is easy to cancel before you sign up; there are so many options for health stuff now that don’t involve one-year contracts and other bullshit like that. But there is a great variety of stuff out there and you won’t know whose particular steez is going to work for you until you try it. You might not learn what’s fake as hell until you get burned a few times, but all I ask is that you stay open to the possibility that the problem is not you.  

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.

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