Why People Won't Do What's 'Good' For Them

I read a great deal about fitness, nutrition, and health, and my latest purchase is Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week. The book needed a better editor: apart from the irrelevant and drawn-out chat about bell-curves and canopy trees in the beginning, there is no such word as 'inputted', and calories and muscles are measured as numbers not amounts. These quibbles aside, the book has a great deal of value to say. But it makes a couple of claims -- in the course of delivering all this otherwise valuable information -- that I'd like cordially to dispute.

The authors claim in the first place that obesity has mushroomed because human physiology doesn't have a 'negative feedback loop' that in effect raises the alarm, the red flag, and anything else that might scream STOP. But is that true? If 'the diseases of civilization' -- among them cancer, heart disease, common forms of dementia, diabetes, and hypertension, which were somewhat rare in the past and not only because people died younger -- are the result in large part of too much bodyfat, then how is that not a significant 'negative feedback loop'? Dying is pretty much a negative. We also have a feedback loop called Lost Dates, Lost Jobs, and The Mirror. The problem is that a) we have misdiagnosed the culprits, owing not least to the bullheaded prematureness of Ancel Keys, the 50's-era nutrition guru who blamed fats and was sympathetic to sugar in the diet; and b) we don't know what the solution is.

Authorities, however credentialed or experienced, are now telling everyone that resistance training -- working hard with some sort of weight -- is where it's at from the standpoint of overall health. Or as Little and McGuff put it: 'Strength training is the best preventive medicine in which a human being can engage'. Strong stuff: and I agree with it. But in the next sentence they say: 'In many instances, senior citizens are being medicated to improve those listed biomarkers of health, never having been told that it is fully within their power to achieve these same effects through proper resistance training' (p. 243). This may be true. But is it really the case that most old people are eager to hear the latest about strength training and only want the right encouragement to try it? I doubt it. I suspect that doctors don't try to press training on their patients for a number of reasons, and I think the doctors are right.

In the first place, never discount the fact that people see themselves and others in terms of categories: He's an athlete / She's a homebody / They're rich / She's creative / I can't draw / He's a math whiz / She's an Earth Mother / They're a power couple / He's a lady's man / She's a social butterfly. Simplistic, reductionist, limiting? You bet. The typical shorthand for how we often see things? You can bet some more. And if 'I'm an athlete' is not in one's self-categorization, anything that is demanding, sweaty, and physically hard is going to seem like someone else's business, not yours. That's the first thing.

Then there is the fact that people in general have no idea how exercise works. (If they did, people such as Little and McGuff would not have needed to write such a book.) They can't tell you what the difference is between physical activity, exercise, and physical training -- even though the differences are profound. They think that 'hard' physical work means an intolerable bootcamp of pain and misery. They probably have never had the experience of training past the point of inertia to the point, quite early on (a couple of weeks at most, in my own training) of wanting to do more because it feels so rewarding. To them, 'exercise' is a chore and a bore, and probably a pain, as well. Who can blame them?

Adjustable Water Fan Paddles by the Water Gear company.Like a salt box, turning the dial one way lets the water through, while turning it the other gradually closes off the openings, making movement through the water harder. All with the aim of building upper body strength.

Adjustable Water Fan Paddles by the Water Gear company.Like a salt box, turning the dial one way lets the water through, while turning it the other gradually closes off the openings, making movement through the water harder. All with the aim of building upper body strength.

Take for instance my mother-in-law, who is in her early 80s. She does something called water aerobics nearly every day, but the movements are low-intensity so her body -- which is really to say her muscles, upon which everything else ultimately depends -- don't grow and improve. I offered her my water exercise paddles, since they were too light to do anything for me. But she said they were too difficult for her, even on the lightest setting. She gave them back and bought instead a pair of floaty things that won't challenge her muscles at all. In short, she made a big mistake. If she wants to improve in strength, she should have accepted my paddles with the understanding that they would feel difficult at first and that she would have to work her way up to using them frequently. Instead she wasted her money on paddles that might as well be make-believe because those are the ones she can easily use at the moment. But people that want to be fitter and healthier never do only what feels easiest at the moment. When they work, they work hard and they push themselves (within safe anatomical limits, one hopes). When they need to rest, they rest. But they don't try to get their rest somehow melded with their exertion. It would be like asking the Rollings Stones to sneak a few bars of Olivia Newton-John into 'Can't You Hear Me Knocking?'. Needless to say, it just wouldn't work.

But back to the question of why people won't do what's good for them. Part of it is the very problem already hinted at: that experts vary as to what is 'right' and 'wrong', and no one really knows who the experts are, anyway. For every article that says acupuncture and chiropractic may bring benefits, there are others raising serious doubts -- and worse. For every expert telling you not to skip breakfast and advocating several small meals a day, there is another now stating that breakfast can be a stumbling block and snacking is an insulin provocateur. At one time, in the 70s and 80s, we were told that 'aerobics' was the best, indeed the only respectable, type of exercise, by which was meant steady-state, same-pace, somewhat lengthy 'cardio' work like running. But running has been shown up as a terrible exercise for many if not most people (see Little and McGuff, for instance), not only because of the specific injuries it causes but also because it fails to deliver on its promises. If anything, it takes healthy people and makes them worse off. Oh, but what about Kathy Smith -- still going strong in her mid-60s and a pioneer of the aerobics video? Ah, but she always emphasized strength training, even in the early days when she wore a fetching bob. 'Backstage' footage shows her working hard at weight machines in the gym. This girl never ran her muscles away to nothing. She was a pioneer in knowing about them, too.

My mother-in-law, like many people her age and much younger, thinks that any kind of movement is a good thing. If she moves, she must be healthy to some degree. As Blackadder said to Baldrick about 2 + 2 equalling 'some beans', the answer is Yes... and No. Moving is a sign of life and to the extent that all movement is cardiovascular, we're doing it every moment -- and so we should. The alternative is death. But if you want to improve your fitness, if you want to be more functional, more powerful, and better at pre-empting disease, you need to do something more than move. You have to move or support whatever is heavy for you -- whether it's your own body or something else. You don't have to do it every day and it shouldn't take you very long. The discovery that this can be fun, enjoyable, exhilarating even, only adds to the boon.