Fifty-Seven Channels And Nothing On: The American Fitness Paradox

testman (2)“A message came back from the great beyond: There’s fifty-seven channels and nothing on.” –Bruce Springsteen

As a certified personal fitness trainer and long-distance running coach, I’m more doer than thinker. To me, most exercise-related cogitation is stalling for time. Sciencing one’s fitness is often code for I’m not really doing anything, just thinking about it. Overthinking may be nearer the truth. This article shouldn’t be part of your sciencing; I’d rather you be running, planking or standing on one leg than reading it. Twenty-five years of field experience has led me to think of fitness less as exercise science and more as found object art. Also, there’s an Eastern tradition of keeping a noble silence about things one thinks (or others think) he or she ought to know well enough to impart. If I had you in front of me, I’d literally go to the mat for you and demonstrate how a fitness routine looks to me. This would illustrate, better than my words, how my fitness philosophy differs from the type that currently holds sway over the American fitness landscape. As should already be evident, I’m ignoring my own counsel and writing anyway (in the tradition of every teacher who knows better). This concession I make to the straits we’re in as a nation regarding the general state of our physical (to say nothing of psychological) fitness, a condition recently brought to light (as commentators like Real Time host Bill Maher have rousingly pointed out) by the disproportionally heavy toll of the Coronavirus on an already under-healthy American population.

There’s something rotten in the state of American fitness. For anyone who wants fitness (and who doesn’t?), there are more channels for it than ever before: big and small box gyms, bootcamps, yoga studios, HIIT, fitness boutiques, fun runs, and the scores of YouTube and TikTok workouts that were released while we last ate breakfast. To list even a fraction of what’s on offer by name is to waste time drawing attention to branches when the trunk and roots are what we ought to be looking at. For as much as the latest drummed up fitness offering wants us to think it’s a new thing under the sun, it’s almost surely a recombining of rebranded modalities conforming to worn ideologies, a particular foliating branch of the tree under whose outspreading shade no new thing—or any other thing—can take root. Meanwhile—and here’s the rot–just down the proverbial road one encounters rising rates of obesity, metabolic syndrome, COPD, Type 2 Diabetes, and degenerative joint disease, collectively straining our healthcare and eldercare systems (the cynic in me thinks this strain might be institutional, leaving the demand for care artificially high).

As a rule, there’s more of everything in present-day America than anywhere else, than any-when else. What might be observed of the U.S. in general is no less true for its health and wellness scene: we’re a body politic of obscene plentitude juxtaposed with head-scratching poverty, and the rot is evident in whichever of our extremities comes under investigation. The net product is that average life expectancy, rising steadily for the past century in America, has flatlined, and is, by some predictive models, approaching decline, as obesity rates undercut gains in other areas. According to a dialog between biochemical gerontologist Aubrey DeGray and Dr. Rhonda Patrick of the Found My Fitness podcast, America sits at a disappointing 45th on the longevity tables, five years of average life expectancy behind world-leading Japan. We’re right to find this ludicrous, given the ubiquity of fitness outlets, the sheer outlay of funds in play. It’s the absurdity of starving at an all-you-can-eat buffet. “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” a poet once ironized over the counterintuitive realities of sailors perishing of thirst while afloat on an ocean of liquid water. To commit further to the analogy, there’s something saliferous about our present fitness fare.

We salivate for supersized meals. And supersized workouts. Marketed poison. Pitched purgation. Our diets aren’t sustainable. Neither are our workouts. Moderation is for wafflers and weaklings. We’re all-in foodies. And all-in, gut-busting, Tough Mudders. We’re extremophiles. We’re both sides of the same flipped coin; on any given day it’s anybody’s guess which side we’ll land on. We’re driven to excesses in consumption through emotional dysregulation: anxiety, depression. We’re lured by manipulative ads aimed at undercutting our impulse control. We’re driven to excesses in exercise by feelings of guilt and shame and worthlessness, and ad copy that parleys our inner turmoil into some fitness industry mogul’s gain. Workouts that leave us weak and sore for days lead to gorge-fests and play into the indulgence-feeding mantra that, “we’ve earned it,” a classic marketing ruse aimed at our psyche’s soft underbelly. We flee one form of gluttony and barrel full steam toward another on a hamster wheel whose axel is American Civilization itself. Our turning of the dynamo creates heat energy for two industries. Our bloat and our sweat are the engines, and we’re redlining.

There’s a word for it all. Madness isn’t the one I’ve got in mind, as apropos as that is. Bulimia is the word: a neurosis characterized by binge/purge dichotomous behavior.

Of course, the complete picture is more multifold and nuanced than finite words can relate. There’s the sedentariness of our jobs, and of our computer and TV time. There’s our modern age of anxiety, which keeps us humming for decades at a cellularly damaging frequency, our sympathetic nervous systems on perpetual orange alert. There’s the question of not just how much food we’re consuming but of its nutrient value and purity. And that’s just the beginning.

To notice the wheel is one thing. To work up a plan to stop its turning is another. Peddlers of American fitness culture won’t fancy the plan I’d put into place if it were up to me (not that they’ll care what a single dissenting voice has to say).

Preliminary to change, American culture will need to get on friendlier terms with what’s come to be the longest four-letter word in our vocabulary: moderation.

When did we begin to stigmatize moderation? Sociologically speaking, the revulsion to moderation may be a peristaltic reaction to the notion of a homogenized American life of anodyne conversation, kid-gloved sterilization (pervading our relationships and institutions), sell-out jobs, cookie-cutter abodes, and conformist patterns of consumption, and to the ennui that too frequently attends the suburban life. It turns out that it’s not, to riff on William Blake, such “an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity.” Consider the pathologically extreme reaction to the humdrum unexamined life as characterized by the 1998 cult classic film Fight Club. Soft, emasculated, milquetoast, the Narrator finds religious awakening in parking lot and cellar brawls that bring him face to face with a primal self, Tyler Durden. If the violence is nauseating, it’s no more sickening than the soporific daily rounds it seeks to annihilate. But does it really annihilate? Or does it merely give the wheel another turn? Doing the opposite of what is expected is still acting (albeit contrarily) on what is expected. If we are paying attention, we find that even our paths to “rebellion” are carefully prescribed. A billboard slogan entreats us to, “Go big or go home.” We hear and obey the bugle call of the weekend warrior. In the fitting words of Pink Floyd’s Welcome to The Machine: “What did you dream? It’s alright, we told you what to dream.” Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden is an overcorrection of Ed Norton’s Narrator, a photographic negative, just as gym rat Joe Rectus Abdominus is a compensatory avatar for noshing, dad-bodied Joe Six Pack. Both alter ego dyads are best represented by the Ouroboros, the serpent swallowing and simultaneously withdrawing its own tail in one interminable slithering round.

The ban on moderation is based on mistaken identity. The usual American suspects, the glut of rich food, alcoholic beverages, and prescription/recreational drugs, for example, do not belong to the lifeway prescribed by staid Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume in his essay, Of the Middle Station of Life, or, to quote Twentieth Century Zen popularizer Alan Watts, “The middle between the extremes of ascetic discipline and pleasure seeking.” We’ve confused routine with moderation. What we are is routinely decadent. It’s not less moderation we want, but less profligacy. Adding decadent workouts to an already rich lineup will never give us what we want most: distance from decadence.

Journalist Dan Buettner, describing the habits of the world’s longest-lived populations with the lengthiest health-spans, characterizes them as having no canonized conception of diet and fitness routines, but rather as the inheritors of lifestyles that are naturally replete with what we recognize as our own coveted best health practices. It’s naïve to think we can, in our modern urban and suburban context, easily appropriate peasant diets, farming/ranching work, and perambulations as our sole means of transit. But to believe, as a false alternative, that speed-eating the standard American diet (SAD) and sweating it out in climate controlled, artificially lit, sonically saturated gyms is our irrefusable cultural inheritance, is worse yet. What we require instead is a common-sense balance of modern and primitive, and an ever-present and easy-to-flip toggle switch between them.

Leaving alone the particulars of a primitivistic diet (as I’m not a certified nutritionist), I suggest we realign our notions about exercise around a few pre-modern concepts.

The first of these concepts is time-independence. The opposing idea, that there’s an ideal time and duration for exercise, must be jettisoned if we’re to break the wheel. Perhaps the worst thing to ever happen to exercise was our squeezing it into blocks of time ranging from, say, 15 minutes to an hour. Animals don’t take their exercise in intervals divisible by 15 minutes, and neither did our premodern ancestors. The practice of scheduling exercise is a modern human luxury. There’s nothing special about the use of a block of time. In fact, assigning exercise an arbitrary minimum duration for effectiveness combined with all-or-nothing thinking leads to excuse generation (e.g., I didn’t have the time, life got in the way).

The next concept is place-independence. Wherever you go, that’s where you are. That’s one of those “deepities” that doesn’t sound like it’s saying anything. Yet in this context, it’s saying everything. All you need is you. Oh, and one more thing: gravity. You and gravity, both of which are everywhere you go. “I couldn’t get to the gym,” is an excuse to which our pre-modern ancestors had no recourse. And neither should we. Nature is the most salubrious place to exercise. But even home and workplace can be handy “gyms” involving neither a commute nor monthly membership fees (pre-modern fitness was undoubtedly more egalitarian than the fitness boutique brand in ascendence).

A third concept is equipment-independence. Unless you consider a mat and running shoes equipment (and even these are negotiables), no kit is needed to get into top physical condition. Of course, manufacturers and distributors of barbells, squat racks and exercise machines, some of which can be purchased by gyms or private consumers for tens of thousands of dollars, have a vested interest in convincing us otherwise. Even minimal equipment such as exercise bands can be misplaced or forgotten, leading again to excuse generation. There’s no forgetting you and gravity. Of course, benches, ledges, poles, trees, and playground equipment are all fair game where available; remember, this is found object art.

Taken together with moderation, these three degrees of fitness freedom (i.e., time, place and equipment-independence) constitute that on-the-spot toggle switch I mentioned previously. To keep the switch well-oiled, I suggest routinely outfitting oneself in clothes conducive to exercise at the drop of a hat.

Modern American culture (Western industrial culture in general) makes mechanistic use of human beings as cogs and levers in building and maintaining its physical and social structures. Shearing forces that stress us as useful parts, have the effect of heating and grinding us down. We reach for fattening foods, recreational/prescription drugs, and alcohol to lower the temperature (except they don’t, really). Gyms and popular fitness programs are fractalated forms of modern American culture, again using humans as cogs and levers. We provide the energy that moves the stacks. Are we in service to big fitness? Or to our own bodies and minds? Does the wheel turn us? Or do we turn the wheel? Seize the wheel, and the question is moot.


Why We Need Running Now More Than Ever

testman (2)It doesn’t take the words of an evolutionary biologist to put us in mind of running’s central role in human evolution. I like how ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes says it in the telling of a race misadventure, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the person next to you.” Survival of the, um, fitter than the next guy, I guess.

Except that’s far from the whole story; and not even its best part. Setting aside the devil take the hindmost attitude, running is, by and large, pro-social. Running raises all boats. If the metaphor sounds mixed, we’d do well to remember that many large races are run in waves. This isn’t just to keep order but also to promote an uplifting synergism among participants whose natural rhythms are easily synched. When picturing the action of a wave crossing a body of water, it’s meaningless to think in terms of individual drops of water. When we take the 10,000-foot view, the individual runner loses delineation; she and her fellow runners together form, say, the 7:30 per mile pace wave, rushing like human water along Main Streets, footpaths and single-track mountain trails.

Catch the right wave, and a runner may PR by a minute or more in a 10K race. “There is,” Shakespeare reveled, ”a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Don’t we runners know it!

But let’s return to the 10,000-foot view, where drop and wave, racer and race wave are perceived as one, without differentiation. A racer doesn’t literally have the 10,000-foot view, of course; his eyes are fixed on the runner ahead of him. But what about the 10,000-foot sense? A racer in the zone, a racer transcending, has it for sure. Who knew the runner’s high was a 10,000-foot high?

We run best with others, that’s a fact. Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge used professional pacers to bust through the 2-hour barrier. The winner of your last race had pacers too: every racer who showed up, you included.

Think you couldn’t possibly have paced the winner of your last race, a person who finished so far ahead of you that you never saw her? Did the stadium wave that originated in the nosebleed stands help rally the team of professional athletes to victory? Of course it did! You pushed the racer in front of you, who pushed the racer in front of him, and on and on, through tens or hundreds, up to the first finisher. And here’s something just as good: it worked the other way round, pulling runners up from the rear. A Pushmi-Pullyu with hundreds or thousands of feet pointing toward the finish. Many feet make light work, as the saying goes—or almost goes.

Every racer knows that the worst place to be on race day is “no man’s land,” without hope of catching or being caught. It’s like the doldrums to a sailor: windless, current-less, endless. When one is in the right race wave, one is always in good company.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds great, it gets even better. Running doesn’t just raise all boats, you see; it pulls them together. Yours with mine; yachts with junks; Lusitanias with U-20s: all rafted together and riding the Gulf Stream as one community. None are lost at sea.

In her book, Move, British science journalist Caroline Williams describes the phenomenon like this: “When we move in time with others … the line between self and other becomes blurred.” She goes on to suggest that moving with others, “could also provide a way of bringing people together who, on the surface of it, have very little in common, or have totally opposite world views.” Former US presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, though politically disparate, shared a genuine interest in recreational running. Every veteran runner has shared a mile or ten in the welcome company of another with whom, in the miasmatic air of internet anonymity, he or she might have shared a far less positive interaction. We are reminded of Chinese philosopher and general Sun Tsu’s 2,500-year-old words of advice: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Invite them all to your running group, I say! (Which brings me to an important point. Everything that applies to racing, applies to group running. And running in groups is safer, too.)

Dean Karnazes observed at the start of his latest Western States 100: “We were no longer accountants, teachers, and businessmen: orderly life was about to be abandoned. In a few short moments we would be stepping into the wild and becoming our untamed selves.” Run with an emperor, and his new clothes are a pair of shorts and a T shirt, just like your own. As for his shorts, he will have put on one leg at a time. The next best thing to walking a mile in another’s shoes, might be running in time with them.

American historian William McNeill, writing about his experience with repetitive marching drills in the U.S. Army in 1941, recalled their having provided him with, “a sense of pervasive well-being…a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” He would go on to name this phenomenon, “muscular bonding,” and explain how, to quote social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, “it was a mechanism that evolved long before the beginning of recorded history for shutting down the self and creating a temporary superorganism.” You mean like a Pushmi-Pullyu?

In cynical times it’s tempting to withdraw into the loner’s sanctuary we all know running can be, or to use running to make sure ours isn’t the hide the “bear” sinks its teeth into. (Think of Zombieland‘s rule #1: Cardio.) But now more than ever, we must resist such impulses and instead join running groups and register for races, remembering poet William Butler Yeats’s words as we do: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”