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You Are What Is Wrong with the Fitness Industry

On this day, six years ago, a great man died.

He lived to be 96, he inspired many, and he was an honest man. I’m talking about Jack LaLanne.

I was crushed at his death the way the 70s outsider felt about the loss of David Bowie. It seemed like Jack was the last good guy. A small measure of consolation, if you can call it that, was provided by the Los Angeles Times when my editor asked me to write the tribute to Jack. It was an honor for which I did not feel worthy, but I did my best. Later, I was honored again when I had the chance to interview Jack’s widow Elaine LaLanne for that same paper. She’s a feisty one. I can understand what Jack saw in her. I like her a lot.

Jack would never have become famous in today’s fitness environment. He launched it, and you warped it. It’s all your fault. And mine. And everyone’s.

LaLanne was a fitness innovator. He came on the scene as technology was allowing Americans to become more sedentary, and convinced people of the benefits of regular exercise. He opened one of the first weightlifting gyms in the U.S. in Oakland in 1936. Many medical experts of the time scoffed. They alleged that lifting weights would cause hemorrhoids and erectile dysfunction, and that women would look like men and athletes would become muscle-bound.

Jack provided novelty. He convinced many that movement for the sake of movement was good for you, and that it could be fun. He inspired people with amazing physical feats to show what a body could do. Jack broke new ground in fitness, and people paid attention to him because of it.

And that’s part of the problem.

Because fitness was new in Jack’s time, he had the advantage of being able to sell honesty and reality. Adding muscle mass and improving physicality and exercising for enjoyment were all novel concepts that didn’t need to be dressed up that much to get people to pay attention, because no one had ever said such outlandish things before via a mass communication device such as television. TV was brand new, and a regular fit guy teaching you to be fit was enough to get people interested and entertained.

LaLanne’s show ran from 1953 until 1985, but by then times were changing. We needed something new. We needed Bess Motta to shake her toned booty on the 20 Minute Workout to get people to tune in.

It only got worse from there.

The Gillette Mach 3 razor came out in 1998, and I’ve been using it ever since. The fact that many “new and improved” hair removal technologies have come since then have not swayed me to change.

Marketing always needs some new, improved or fresh to flog their products, or they’ll lose market share. Sometimes it’s just a new package. And they trumpet that. New Look! the package proudly proclaims on the macaroni and cheese box. Uh, who friggin’ cares? Does it taste the same? Did the price change? Is it cheesier now? No to all of that. Just different design on the cardboard container that you’re going to throw into the recycling bin. Aren’t you excited about that?

Sadly, people are. As humans, we crave novelty.

Jack had it right. If we followed his old-school advice about health and fitness from decades ago, we’d be fine. He lived to be 96 and was fit and spry up until the end. And for the vanity motivated, this is what he looked like at the age of 40, in an era before anabolic steroids and runaway supplement marketing.

But after the fitness industry was introduced by LaLanne, honesty and reality lost its luster. Again, we craved novelty and new packaging. Again, that’s what people want: a new and more outrageous spectacle. There was The Biggest Loser, which is thankfully dying a slow death now after 17 seasons, and new versions of ridiculous weight loss programs like the reprehensible Fit to Fat to Fit.

But it’s not just television.

If no diet book had ever been written, we’d all be much better off.

If people forgot everything they ever read about dieting and nutrition, no one would be tempted to put butter in their coffee or think that fruit makes you fat or obsess over unnecessarily cutting out gluten. We’d use common sense, which says that fruits and vegetables are good, and large quantities of candy and fast food aren’t. On the exercise front, we’d never have heard the nonsense that cardio is going to kill you or pay for some abdominal electro-shocking device.

At the elite level, there is value in new research for health and fitness and physical performance. Altitude training wasn’t properly understood until the 90s, and now it’s ingrained for elite endurance athletes. We’ve learned a lot about the science of muscular strength and hypertrophy, like training to failure and length of rest intervals, as well as about injury prevention and rehabilitation. We’ve also continued to learn about nutritional science for optimal performance.

But most people just want to be fit, healthy, not be in pain, look good … and for them the answers are usually quite simple, and we’ve known them for a long time.

Nevertheless, when some morally bankrupt snake oil salesman wants a book deal, he (or she) will start flogging the health benefits of butter-soaked bacon, or spreading fear about the modern food supply, or saying eating like a caveman or choosing a diet based on your blood type is where it’s at.

You are the problem with the fitness industry, because you want something new, even though you don’t need it. Okay, perhaps no you. The fact that you’re reading this indicates you’re likely one of the more skeptical ones who is disgusted with what this industry has become. When I say “you” I mean “they;” the ones who always fall for and pay for the latest diet and exercise scam.

There is a meme I’ve seen that proclaims “Stop Making Stupid People Famous.” The same could be said for snake oil salesmen; we need to stop making them famous. Why anyone would prefer the nutrition advice of someone who puts butter in coffee over that of a professor of nutrition is beyond me.

If the market is there, capitalism will create the snake oil. If there are people willing to buy health and fitness fantasy, there will be those willing to sell it.

Why is there so much bullshit in this industry? The answer is simple: They’re giving the people what they want.

If you’re sick of the bullshit; if you want something different than what is most popular in the fitness and weight loss industry, I have a suggestion for the moms who are reading this. I have some friends who run a group called Health Habits, Happy Moms. They have a program called Balance 365 that begins February 1, and it might be what you’re looking for. Check it out here.

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James S. Fell, MBA, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.

 

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