Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Presidential Physiques and the Making of Squat-Rack Barack

Between the hours I spend carving out six-packs, loading and unloading Olympic barbells, and wiping up clients' sweat, I try to pretend to be a normal human being interested in normal human things like politics and NASCAR, but it can be tough sometimes. I can't seem to help seeing things through the lens of a Fitness Guy.

I take comfort in thinking that Einstein probably couldn't help but contemplate time's inexorable bend as he waited for a tardy date; or that Mozart probably heard music in the pitter-pat of rain on his roof; or that the Heat Miser probably perceives a kind of delicate beauty in the gradual liquification of candle wax. Similarly, I can't help seeing people as the sum total of the size and tonus of their contractile tissue, and how and what might be done to rearrange and retool the shape that tissue assumes as it moves its owner through the world.

Example: the other day I was watching CNN, and a clip of Barack Obama came onscreen. I was making a real attempt at having a serious listen to him when an occupational twitch kicked in: instead of focusing on the good Senator's words, I started honing in on his NECK:

Geez, that guy could really stand to gain some solid, muscular weight. He needs to lay off the pick-up basketball, up his protein intake, and go for some serious work on squats and deads. And maybe some O-lifts, too, to thicken up the neck, traps and upper torso. Perhaps throw in a few isolation moves for the arms so he fills out the shirt sleeves a little more? Looks good to have a popping bicep when you're hoisting babies on the campaign trail. Of course he's an ecto, so we've got to get him out of the gym fast...

When I shook myself out of my regimen-planning reverie, they were on to the already very fit and energetic-looking John Edwards, for whom designing a workout program would be a lot less fun, so I lost interest.

But then I got to thinking: I may be a fitness freak and all, but surely other people have had the same thought. Maybe even most people. After all, Obama's svelte physique is an integral part of who he is, and it will, in fact, have something of an influence on his effectiveness if we decide to give him the job: it will affect how he comes across to other world leaders; to congress and the rest of Washington, and, of course, to us, every time we see him delivering a speech or boarding Air Force One or strolling through the Rose Garden. Wheelchair-bound Franklin D. Roosevelt made a savvy call when he decided to have himself propped up with braces when he appeared in public: the president is the embodiment of the country, after all, and no matter how capable his mind, you want that body to appear strong as well. It's a significant factor in that mysterious and irrational split-second calculation we run in our animal brains when we decide--almost without our conscious participation--whether or not we deem a candidate "presidential."

Consider: just about all our presidents have been physically impressive. Of the 42 presidents to date, only 11 have been below the average CURRENT adult male height of 5' 9." Average height has risen, of course, meaning that earlier, shorter presidents still may have been above average height for their era. Eighteen of them--nearly half--have been a full six feet or more. And the trend seems to be even more pronounced since the advent of television and ubiquitous news images: take away a couple of single-term exceptions (five-foot-niners Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter), and you've got to go all the way back to 1900, and the five-foot-seven William McKinley, to find a president much under six feet tall.

But height is only part of the 'physically impressive' equation. Stats on the weights of US presidents are a little tougher to come by, but judging from the numbers available, descriptions, potraits and photographs, it would appear we like our presidents to be rather more beefy than average. In a website dedicated to the medical histories of our presidents,Monroe and Johnson are described as "massive;" Zachary Taylor as having been "big and barrel chested;" Garfield as "very strong, athletic, and muscular." Even the diminutive Benjamin Harrison is described, at five-foot-six, as having a "big torso and strong muscles." Chester Arthur was trim but powerful at 6'2" and 185; JFK was a touch over six feet and around 180. At 6' 1", media-savvy exercise fiend Ronald Reagan appeared to be about 200 very muscular pounds; Clinton had a bit of a gut but still looked powerful in his presidential finery at six-two and 220. And, according to the New York Times, six-footer George W. Bush now tips the scales at 194. Whatever else one might think of him, I bet he could take Osama in a cage match.

There are outliers, certainly: Jefferson was tall and thin, as were John Tyler and Andrew Jackson (whose sylphlike frame once helped him avoid death by a duellist's bullet). Madison was tiny, both in height and weight, and McKinley was ridiculed by opponents as having a frame like a little boy's. At 320 pounds, Taft was morbidly obese, and the chubby Grover Cleveland wasn't far behind. For all his rough riding, Teddy Roosevelt was himself close to clinically obese, though it's hard to fault the physique of a guy who took exercising so seriously that he lost the sight in one eye as the result of a White House boxing match:

"Chad, put down those law books and lace up my gloves, will you? I understand you did a touch of the boxing while in the military...well be a good citizen and give your President a taste of your 'sweet science,' eh? No holding back, now, there's a good..." [THUD].

So the ideal presidential physique appears to be, not surprisingly, perhaps, pretty close to that of most male movie stars: on the tall, trim, athletic side, somewhere along the meso-ectomorphic border. It makes a kind of sense: a taller guy can see and be seen a hair better than a shorter guy, meaning he's got an advantage when it comes to working a room; his long arms can reach out to shake more outstretched hands; a pair of wider shoulders guy will get you more space from others in the room, making you appear even bigger. Sure, we're a few million years off from being primates, but the silverback in the room still makes us sit up and take notice.

Height-wise, Obama's pretty solidly in the ballpark: at six-two, he's is in the rarified territory occupied by presidential giants Thomas Jefferson, George Wahington, FDR, as well as more recent 74-inchers George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, though he's still a good two inches shy of the presidential height record, still held by Obama's political idol, the six-foot-four-inch Abraham Lincoln.

(Quick fact about Abe: apparently he had a loud, shrill voice--not something you'd think would be an asset to a president-- until you remember that he would have had to give speeches to assembled audiences without modern amplification: the louder he was, the more people he could reach, impress, and convince. Nowadays, of course, a candidate who doesn't sound measured and cool on the mic--think Howard Dean-- would be unelectable.)

Looking at the shot of Barack on the beach, it's clear he's in pretty great shape for a guy his age, especially a busy one. But I still can't help thinking that Barack could help his cause if put some more muscle on his lanky frame: he's got the height, but with a few extra pounds of contractile tissue to his name, he'd move with more authority, exhude more gravitas, and look more like he belonged in the pantheon of US presidents.

I even wonder whether, more than a simple aesthetic hiccup, Obama's slight physique might in fact be the real source of what appears to be his most significant stumbling block. When voters say that they're worried about Obama's "experience," how many of them have actually checked his resume (which is, in fact, about as varied and challenging as you could expect a relatively young politician's to be), and how many are just looking at his physique and thinking, "He looks kind of skinny"--which somehow translates into 'inexperienced' when they answer polls? It's impossible to know, of course, but I'm going to speculate wildly that a large part of what people are responding to when they say "Obama lacks experience" isn't his track record but his BODY. Obama's whippet-thin physique looks like that of a young and inexperienced man, so we think that he must be, even if the facts tell us otherwise.

The solution? Hit the weight room, Barack.

Hey, I'll even design your program for you. It could be centered around baby-hoisting for the delts and hand-shaking for the forearms. All I'll ask in return is a token cabinet position in the event of your election.

(All information on presidential health and fitness was taken from here and here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Lesson from the Shrubbery

Quick metaphor for fitness poeple out there with a poetical bent: when my wife and I bought our house in the spring of 2006, the back yard was an atrocity. Concrete covering 90% of the area, a gravelly, dirt-covered space on one end that the flyer had referred to as a "patio," the ugly side of a hideous fence separating our yard from the neighbor's.

It needed work.

So I spent an exhilerating weekend bashing up the concrete with a sledgehammer (my wife, whose general response to my physical exploits is indifference at best, actually got kind of fluttery watching me heave and sweat. And I was wearing safety goggles at the time, so I must have REALLY looked macho. It must have been a Kareem thing.) We laid down new turf. We had a real stone patio built. And we put up shrubs to mask the fence.

When the shrubs were put in, they were more like skinny trees with branches from top to bottom. Each one was like a newborn colt, barely able to stand on its own, so the contractor drove a six-foot stake into the ground next to each one and wrapped five or six tape rings at 12-inch intervals around each one.

Not having much of a green thumb, I kind of ignored the shrubs for a year or so, occasionally sprinkling them with a little water lest they parch in the blazing Southern California sun. I appreciated them, certainly--I liked the way they looked a lot better than the horrendous "Gates of Hell" fence that the previous owner had been lunatic enough to allow the neighbors to install, and I took measures to make sure the shrubs weren't turning brown. To my satisfaction, they grew about six inches apiece in their first year.

Then, about six weeks ago, my wife said, "Isn't it time we pulled up those stakes? I think they can stand on their own now."

I agreed, but waited about another two weeks to actually take the twenty minutes to DO the job (so that, you know, I could pretend it was MY idea.)

But here's the trippy part: in the month or so since I cut the tape of the shrubs and pulled up those stakes, those suckers have grown as much as eighteen inches apiece. I kid you not. And we're coming up on winter, here, folks, which even out here in SoCal means most plants are kind of taking it easy on the growth thing. But I'm telling you, once those shrubs were freed, they shot up like Jack's beanstalk.

So watch your heads, and get the metaphor abuse hotline on the phone, because here it comes: we're all shrubs, ladies and gentlemen, and after awhile, the very thing that starts out as a help to us often winds up holding us back.

Maybe you've been on the same workout program for two years. It stopped challenging you or yielding results after about six weeks, but you keep at it, vaguely thinking that those productive days will return, or that the new territory of a different program couldn't possibly work as well.

When I first started exercising, I stuck with the same program for literally eight years. I could recite it to you top to bottom, sets, reps, body part split (I know, I know...), exercises, sequence, rest periods. It wasn't that it was a bad program--I've returned to variations on the basic theme several times since then--but no program anywhere, designed by the most inventive, well-credentialed trainer in the world, will keep yielding optimal results for much longer than about two months (unless periodization is built in, of course). But I stayed taped to that stake-crutch for half of high school, all four years of college, and well into grad school--thus largely missing out on some of my most fruitful strength-and-fitness-gaining years--until at last I met a trainer who pointed out the myriad errors of my ways and set me on a path to liberation.

When I really started contemplating the full implications of my experience with the shrubs, I honed in on about a half-dozen habits, relationships, and behavior patterns that at one point in my life had served me but now were holding me back from serious growth. I imagine they're out there in droves in everyone's life. We're clinging to them, convinced we'll fall over without them, but in fact they're the very things that are keeping us from achieving our true potential.

Untape yourself from the stake-crutches of your life.

Here endeth the pop psychology lesson of the day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Lost Art of Spotting

I've never been a big "workout partner" guy. Whether running or biking or lifting weights or swimming or practicing kata or hitting a heavy bag, working out has always felt like an inherently solitary endeavor to me, ever since my initiate days of pumping concrete-filled "DP" weights in my parents' basement. My few forays into "social" exercise--in triathlon clubs, boxing gyms, and martial arts studios--have been enjoyable, eye-opening revelations to me, but they've all been followed by quick retreats back into the comforts of my own misanthropic little workout shell, a secret world where I can deny my athletic averageness and safely pretend that I'm bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else without the pesky intrusion of anything so mundane as "reality."

Not everyone is like that, and many workout texts perkily counsel readers to "Exercise With A Buddy! : )." I see such duos in the gym all the time, chatting away between sets or next to one another on the treadmill, or loudly impugning the honor of each other's mothers as they go for personal records in the dead lift.

One of the benefits of having a workout partner is that you always have someone to spot you, which would be a huge plus for me at the moment: as I've mentioned before, I'm currently on a personal mission to raise my lifting numbers solidly into 'mediocre' territory, so I've had occasion to need a spotter lately. The importance of a spotter was brought home to me again recently when a fellow gym-rat I'd buttonholed for a spot recounted the tale of getting himself stuck under a max-effort bench-press weight and attempting to extricate himself by ROLLING THE BAR ONTO HIS THROAT (capitalization mine). When I asked him what made him think that would be a wise course of action, he replied, "I thought my neck would be able to take the weight."

Among many other things, this little story illustrates the dangers of lifting weights while smoking crack. How and why he was alive and kicking to spot me on that day is a complete mystery to me, and a complete breakdown in the laws of Evolution as I understand them.

Show of hands: how many times has this happened to you? You're about to attempt a near-maximal lift on the bench press, you need a spotter, and you look around the gym, sizing everyone up on their ability, should the need arise, to save you from being crushed.

It's a strange moment, because, truth be told, you're looking for someone with whom you're momentarily going to entrust your life. You don't think of it like that, of course. After all, spotting is a relatively quick and easy task: give a guy some help hefting the bar off the uprights, mutter some cheesy but encouraging platitudes as he pumps away, then give maybe ten or fifteen pounds of assistance as he ekes out his final rep. Nothing to it.

Still, if he screws up, let's face it, you could buy it, right there at Bally's during the 5:15 rush.

Now, few spotters are so negligent that you'll actually die on their watch, but in my experience, they tend to fall into one of four cagegories:

1) CAUTIOUS PETE, or 'THAT-BAR-WILL-KILL-YOU-SOON-AS-LOOK-AT-YOU': This guy treats the bar like it's a wild stallion that could start bucking and kicking at any second. He won't let go of the bar the entire time you're lifting, and then he helps you the milisecond your lifting speed flags, denying your the feeling of accomplishment that comes with grunting your way through an agonizing last rep or two. Eventually you get the feeling that if you don't terminate the set yourself, Pete will just keep on lifting it for you till doomsday. You could take your hands off the bar, have a chat on the cell and a drag on your cigarette, and he'd still be there, lifting away. At the end of that set, it's impossible to know if you ever did even one single rep by yourself. Was he spotting you on the bench or were you spotting him on the dead lift?

2) ORTHOPEDIST'S ASSISTANT: This guy doesn't know to help you lift the bar off the rack, so you do something god-awful to your shoulders trying to wrastle the bar into place for your first rep, guaranteeing an expensive trip to the orthopedist, with whom O.A. is in cahoots. Your set goes on just fine, but when you finally need just the tiniest hint of spot to get the bar back onto the racks, O.A. pulls the bar skyward with all his might, practically lifting you off the bench along with it. This means the pressure on your shoulder joints goes from near 100% to less than zero in a matter of a tenth of a second or so, so that if the bad liftoff didn't already seal it for you, this little coup de grace at set's end will ensure that soon, very soon, you will personally be buying your local orthopedist a brand new Jet Ski that he'll bring along with him on a two-week trip to the Caymans!*

3) NO-HELP McGEE: When this guy utters the requisite "all you," he means it, because he's not helping you AT ALL. "How bad do you want it, Jackson?" he seems to be saying as you sputter and wheeze beneath the swaying tonnage. It's not until the bar begins its inexorable descent towards your trachea, and you've mentally started saying your goodbyes to loved ones and the taste of hazelnut chocolate bon-bons, that No-Help comes to the rescue, emitting a Beevis-and-Butt-Head chuckle when he finally saves your bacon.

4) GUNNERY SERGEANT McCARTHY, YOUR SENIOR DRILL INSTRUCTOR: This guy seems innocuous enough. Sure, he's a big guy, but most of the behemoths want the rest of us to succeed, if only so G.S.M. will have more smaller folks around to lord over on his big heavy lifting days. But get that bar moving and he starts cursing at you like you're back on Parris Island. And you never WERE on Parris Island, but you're pretty sure you know what it must have been like, because McCarthy casts such horrible aspersions on your character, your parentage, and your very value as a human being that you suddenly feel like you'd rather be squatting in the bush keeping an eye out for Charlie than listening to the kind of invective spilling out of this mammoth's mouth.

Given that the Art of Spotting seems to have gone the way of the Do-Do, I thought I'd just put together this little refresher course:


1) Stand CLOSE to the bench, but not SO CLOSE that it's distracting. Or weird.
2) FIND OUT roughly how many reps the lifter is going for.
3) On the lifter's command, HELP him get the bar off the uprights and DON'T let go until he tells you.
4) When he tells you--LET GO OF THE BAR. Don't touch it, graze it, or hover your hands around it like you're casting magic spells unless and until he asks you for help.
4) Stand close and WATCH the lifter as he does his reps. Even if he doesn't need your help till the end, the focus will be appreciated. He's obviously working at near his maximum capacity, or you wouldn't be there. A little respect is warranted, no matter how easy that weight would be for YOU.
5) Utter some affirming, but not distracting, words as he cranks through his set (optional).
6) When he ASKS for help, and not before (unless he's in obvious distress), give him JUST ENOUGH ASSISTANCE to get the bar up to the arms-locked position. DON'T pull up with all your might (unless, of course, that's the only way to get the bar moving). Once the bar is up, DON'T assume he's finished with the set and force the bar into the uprights. Just help him lift it up till his arms are locked. If he wants to go for another rep, take your hands OFF the bar as he lowers it but keep them close, because he'll most likely need help again to get the bar up. Repeat until the lifter tells you he's done, and THEN, and only then, guide the bar back into the uprights.
7) End with a couple of words of encouragement, or congratulations, or--if the lifter ASKS for it--advice on technique, progression, or stock picks.
8) Be happy because you've participated in an age-old ritual of helping a fellow gym rat work confidently at his edge.

A good spotter is hard to find, and when you DO find one, remember it, because you owe him an equally attentive spot sometime in the near future. If you're not up for spotting someone who needs it--if you've got a bad back, or you worry that the load he's lifting is too much for you--say so.

I've never gotten myself a workout partner out of spotting someone, but I've made some decent gym pals. Saving someone's life will do that. To say nothing of being saved.


*also paid for by you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

CrossFit: A Total Sham or The Second Coming?

A reader named tommythecat (not--presumably--his real name) wrote to me recently and asked me to do a post on CrossFit, a popular training system whose devotees and detractors lock horns on chat rooms with alarming frequency and leave the rest of us wondering what the big deal is.

Taking away all the hoopla--and there's plenty of that, believe me--CrossFit offers brief, intense workouts that combine a heart-pumping cardiovascular challenge with basic, old-fashioned strength moves, creating a full-body workout challenge in less than half an hour. There are CrossFit Facilities, CrossFit Websites, CrossFit Mixers, CrossFit Tote Bags, CrossFit Pregnancy Tests...the whole ball of wax, all designed to create and maintain the sprawling CrossFit Community, a large percentage of whom post the particulars of their Herculean accomplishments on the site as an across-the-board challenge to other members. So if you live in Homer, Alaska, you can check the site and see that FitYoda123 in Valpariso did the "Fran" workout (all the workouts are named for the person who first did them) in 15:45 and you can try to beat his time.

CrossFit first came onto my radar about a year ago. I read a bunch of their material and did a couple of their workouts, and overall I have to say that the workouts are pretty tough. They consist mostly of anaerobic exercises, often done in a circuit, usually for time or maximum repetitions, making them short and very intense: the idea is you are working at or near your maximum capacity for the entire workout.

For some samples of CrossFit-style workouts, I pulled up their site and saw that the last week of workouts looked like this:

Front Squats, 5 sets of 5


5 Rounds for time:
400 m run
75 lbs. Sumo Deadlift/High Pull, 21 reps
75 lbs. Thruster, 21 reps

5 rounds, maximum reps:
Body-Weight Bench Press
Pull Ups

Deadlift 5 sets of 3


MONDAY 12/10
Push Jerk 7 sets of 3

For time:
100 Pullups
100 Pushups
100 Situps
100 Squats

The idea of blending cardio and strength training is something I've discussed before (here and here if you're interested), and, for time economy, general health and fitness, fat-loss, and sheer, gut-wrenching toughness, it's hard to beat this particular way of structuring a workout. For most of us, this kind of anaerobic workout is the hardest physical challenge we're likely to encounter in everyday life: if you ever have to run to catch a bus, or scamper up a few flights of stairs, or help your cousin Jed unload the bricks for his new patio from his F-250, this kind of anaerobic conditioning will help you prep for it. And since basketball, touch football, raquetball, and tennis are anaerobic in nature, a CrossFit athlete is unlikely to find himself sucking wind on a rec field either.

Looking at the above week of workouts, I see that there's a pretty good balance between workouts that focus on the upper body (Friday and Monday), the lower body (Tuesday, 12/4 and Saturday), and something in between (Thursday and Tuesday, 12/11). You've got some heavy strenth work (Tuesday 12/4, Saturday, and Monday) as well as some hardcore anaerobic challenges (Thursday and Tuesday, 12/11). I don't know if it always shakes out like that, but it appears that some thought has been given to the structure of the entire week. So looking at their workouts, I'd wager (though I can't really say for sure, never having gone to their classes or seriously studied the performance of their athletes) CrossFit will produce an excellent athletic generalist, which is all most of us will ever aspire to be.

Add to all this an emphasis on competition--both against one's own personal best in a given workout and against the other CrossFitters worldwide--plus the supportive online community (real or virtual), and you've got yourself what adds up to a pretty cool little workout trend.

So in my book, the CrossFit system has a lot to recommend it.

The weaknesses in this program--yes, CrossFit has weaknesses, just as any program does--and, most likely, what chafes certain elements of the fitness population about these workouts--is their lack of specificity and progression.

Specificity is also something I've gone over before. The idea behind the principle of specificity is that the body makes adaptations based very precisely on the demands you place upon it: you won't become a significantly better runner by swimming; you won't bench-press much more by playing tennis. Sure, there may be some microscopic change, but it's not going to be a significant, performance-enhancing, wow-I-won-my-club's-golf-trophy change. If you want to get better at something, you've got to work at that thing, not its second cousin, not its next-door neighbor, but the thing itself.

So if you work at doing CrossFit, you're going to get better at...CrossFit. You aren't going to get much stronger at the bench-press; you aren't going to get much faster on the track; you aren't going to deadlift 500 pounds, you're not going to improve your forehand. Sure, if you're so out of shape you can't lift a pencil and you suddenly get a hankering to take up CrossFit, you'll certainly see some changes in performance in many skills. But you could get that effect if you started any kind of fitness program, and these improvements will plateau fairly quickly.

Even though your athletic abilities may very well see some initial improvements on many fronts, CrossFit will never make you a master Olympic lifter, or carve you an astonishingly aesthetic physique, or make you a master sprinter (unless, of course, you have exceptional genetics for any one of those things before you started, at which point--yes--any coach in the world would tell you to jettison all the other irrelevent activities that CrossFit entails and focus on your sport of choice in order to excel further). You simply won't develop exceptional abilities in any athletic endeavor unless you focus specifically on getting better at those things.

Which leads me to my "no progression" complaint. Say you're really into the whole CrossFit thing, and you really want to be able to post some impressive numbers on the site and maybe earn yourself an approving PM from CrossFitChick75. But let's say you're terrible at sprinting. Unless you figure out a way to do some carefully-worked-out sprint progressions in addition to what's posted on the site, you're out of luck, there, Freckles, because sprinting once a week isn't going to make you faster or better or much-of-anything-'er' except exhausteder and frustrateder.

And if you're terrible at, say, deadlifting, you're going to stay terrible at it because before last Saturday, the last time you deadlifted was November 28th, and that was just to test your one-rep max, which I'm here to tell you may be good for the ego but it's not much of a workout. Referring back to the week of workouts, none of the programs listed have been in the rotation for at least a month, and a couple haven't been visited since June, meaning that any specific benefits you got out of the workout a month ago will have evaporated.

So CrossFit isn't the place to turn if you're looking for a systematic way to improve any single aspect of your fitness, be it aerobic conditioning, sports skills, or maximum speed, power, and strength. There are certainly more efficient ways to improve body composition as well.

But the simple fact is that the vast majority of us don't want or need to have superior aerobic conditioning, significant amounts of hypertrophy, or superior absolute strength or power. At our most physically stressed moments in life, and during intense sport play, we need a kind of middle-ground ability to express fairly high strength at fairly high speed, which, again, is exactly the kind of sweet spot that CrossFit-style workouts develop. I suspect that a CrossFit devotee would argue that the weaknesses I cite above are actually strengths: that all-around, general fitness is in fact the goal, that avoiding what they might call excessive focus on one activity is precisely the point, and that their system fosters readiness for any kind of physical challenge.

So: who out there has tried it, and what do you guys think? CrossFit lovers and haters alike, I'm open to your comments.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nature: ONE; Nurture: ZERO

In Andrew Niccol's 1997 sci-fi movie Gattaca, Ethan Hawke plays an aspiring astronaut in a dystopian future where the quality of your life is dictated by the quality of your genes. It's a world where, "with the right helix tucked under your arm, you can go anywhere." Unlike his brother, who was engineered to be a perfect combination of his parents' best features, Hawke's character was conceived the old-fashioned way (in the back of a convertible), and is therefore born with a weak heart, which automatically disqualifies him from the astronaut program.

But his desire to reach the stars burns strong and bright, and he contrives a way to take on the identity of the genetically superior but wheelchair-bound Jude Law, who sells him his fingerprints, a blood sample, and a medical-bag full of other distinguishing features for a hefty percentage of Hawke's earnings. Some diligent workouts stave off his heart troubles whilst some fancy evasive moves keep the man off his tail, and things wind up going pretty well for him. Law has the genes, but he lacks the heart and soul to get the job done; Hawke lacks the genes but he's got the fire. As the poster said, 'There is no gene for the human spirit.'

As my occasional references suggest, I'm a fan of this movie, I suppose in part because it reinforces my conviction that our genes don't tell our whole story: we're in charge of our destiny, thank you very much, and what we do and how we act and what we accomplish is all on our shoulders, not predestined by our genes or by anything or anyone else. In a way, Gattaca describes the whole ethos of working out: put in the time and the effort, and you can create a new self. It's all up to you.

I suppose that's why I was so taken by a story in a recent issue of The New Yorker (abstracted here). The story, by Stephen S. Hall, describes the development and gradual acceptance of a hypothesis by scientist David J.P. Barker that "adult disease is linked to pre-natal and early post-natal life." Barker based his hypothesis on some data that suggested that being born small (under 5.5 pounds in this study, though premature babies were deliberately excluded from the research) increased one's chances of contracting heart disease in adulthood.

Hall describes how Barker's hypothesis initially met with a fair amount of resistance, primarily because of the anti-Gattaca impulse: science is great, of course, but we want to believe that it doesn't tell us everything. That if we contract heart disease, it may be a bum deal, but darn it, maybe we should have laid off the french fries and mayo. In direct contrast to the oppressive powers-that-be in Niccol's film, health officials had been laboring to get the message out that adult behaviors determined health and longevity. Now here was a study--and a convincing one--that suggested that we might not be as fully in control as we once believed.

Elsewhere in the article, Hall cites research that suggests that adult health may be influenced to a shocking extent by the quality of your mother's diet in the four days following conception: in theory, the developing embryo sets the pace for its growth rate during this crucial period, and if nutrients are scarce, it puts the brakes on its development (it must be noted that those results were taken from an animal study).

But the supporting data for Barker's theories came hard and fast, and now, as the abstract states, they're a new kind of orthodoxy. Score one for the Gattacists.

I suppose I feel a little pang when I read Hall's article, but I also realize that we still don't know the whole equation. There's a complex relationship at work here, and cheesy though it may be to say, the human spirit is unquestionably a wild-card player that very well might trump the whole game: I'm reminded again of cancer survivors I know who have gritted their way back to health, and of friends and clients who have lost enormous amounts of weight, beating genetics and ubiquitous temptation through constant vigilance and a thousand daily acts of will. Our genetic hand plays a big role in our health and fitness, certainly, but in truth, we can't deny the power of our own nature any more than we can deny the power of nature itself.