The lead story in the New York Times Magazine's wellness issue this past weekend: "Does working out really help you lose weight?" A better question: Why doesn't the New York Times want to tell you the fitness truth?
This is hardly the first time the NYT has asked some slight variation of this maddening question. But this latest story clearly distilled these fundamental premises from which the journalism proceeds:
1. Weight loss is the goal towards which you should strive.
2. Exercise therefore has value to the extent it helps you lose weight.
3. Your goal is to become thin.
Thin. "Thin!" That is exactly the word this story uses. "The newest science suggests that exercise alone will not make you thin, but it may determine whether you stay thin, if you can achieve that state."
Who the fuck wants to be thin? Besides anorexics, for whom the NYT apparently tailors its fitness coverage? We are presumably discussing fitness (or, euphemistically, "wellness," which just means health, and since we are talking about physical health achieved through exercise, we are talking about fitness). Take a moment to reflect upon what is implied by the fact that this language is used so casually and without qualification in the very top of a lead story in one of our nation's most respected news magazines.
Now I will answer my own rhetorical device: what is implied by the author, perhaps unthinkingly, is that everyone knows and accepts that being thin is the sole worthwhile goal of a fitness program. It is not even something that the NYT magazine finds worthwhile debating or explaining. So we will do so here.
Being thin is an awful goal towards which to strive. It is certainly not the goal of an exercise program. Writing an entire, ostensibly meaningful and important story on whether exercise can make you thin is analogous to wondering whether going to college can get you laid. Yes, but that's not really the point.
The purpose of working out is get in shape. Not to get "thin." To be in shape, for the average person, connotes being healthy, and improving on the basic elements of one's own fitness: muscular strength, endurance, cardiovascular, flexibility, etc. Certainly, if someone is obese, it behooves them to get down to a healthier body weight. But outside of that, the concept of being "thin" could not have less to do with the concept of fitness. Indeed, designing a workout and nutrition program with the goal of being thin will almost certainly ensure that you cannot achieve a high level of fitness; you would eat a low-calorie diet, thereby robbing yourself of muscular gains.
Yes, there are certain specific athletes for whom a low body weight is important: fighters who must stay in a certain weight class, marathoners who must carry as little weight as necessary. But it's odd to act as if the general public should follow a fitness program suited for only a small subset of professionals.
And we will leave aside the fact that this story bases its conclusions about "exercise" mainly on studies featuring treadmill jogging workouts, which are terribly inefficient ways to lose fat in the first place. That is not a topic we will broach here.
We will simply point out that "body mass index" is a laughably blunt instrument with which to measure fitness—one that would declare, for example, the strongest, fittest NFL linebackers to be out of shape. Likewise, the bathroom scale is not your best tool when it comes to deciding on the success of an exercise program.
Take our advice, America: don't take any more fitness advice from the New York Times. Fuck a desperate quest to become "thin." Fuck trudging endlessly on a treadmill in a neon-lit suburban gym. Fuck calorie-counting on prepackaged diet plans that sell you bad food in small boxes. If you're interested in fitness, then throw out your scale, and get fit. Lift some weights. Run some sprints. Check out this, or this, or this, or this. As a man by the name of Mark Rippetoe once wrote—not in the New York Times—"Exercise is not a thing we do to fix a problem—it is a thing we must do anyway, a thing without which there will always be problems." Don't lose weight. GAIN IT.
[Pic: Miodrag Gajic/ Shutterstock]