Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Best TV Show Ever

A few weeks ago, just before the holidays, a pair of very sheepish-looking sales reps knocked on my door. Those clipboards give them away every time; door-to-door types should really start dressing like distressed neighbors or something—people would be so much more inclined to talk to them. Anyway, turns out these guys were from our wireless company and had been calling repeatedly to offer a new, free service that made everything faster and better and—most interesting to me—cheaper. After grilling them for about twenty minutes about loopholes and contingencies, I decided that they were offering a pretty good deal (the service was actually going to LOWER my monthly bill), so I signed up.

Unfortunately for me, the service INCLUDED a free month’s worth of cable connection, something my wife and I have happily gone without for our entire marriage. They even threw in a DVR with the deal.

Like the heroin dealer who hooks the poor sucker by telling him that the first hit’s free, they totally nabbed me.

So I’m a junk-TV junkie now. But the real confession is yet to come. Having never seen “Lost,” or much of “The Sopranos” or “Nip/Tuck” or “Desperate Housewives,” or any of the water-cooler fare that I’m told is gripping and unmissable, I have become addicted to the latest iteration of….American Gladiators.

Yup, that show from going on 20 years ago with the WWF-types howling and trash-talking and gnashing their teeth while a gaggle of schoolteachers, retail managers and librarians with a fitness obsession and masochistic streak try to best them in variety of silly tests of strength, speed, agility, power and endurance.

The last show that really got me in the same way was “The Contender” (another show based around an athletic competition), and I watched an episode of “The Biggest Loser” last week and was instantly smitten as well. Likewise I can chalk my obsession with AG up to my interest in fitness, but really, who am I kidding? I’m watching it for the same reason the guys in my fraternity at the University of Virginia’s chapter of Sigma Pi used to watch it: to see the 225-pound Gladiator bash the contestant off the platform and into the water with the giant Q-tip and say, “Whoa! That dude just got creamed.”

This season’s winner will not only take home $100,000 bucks and a gargantuan truck that melts a cubic yard of polar ice for every half-block you drive it, but also a spot on the Gladiator team itself. You read that right: the show actually gives you the chance to leave behind your sorry-ass life as a CPA and achieve what every American dreams of : to wear Spandex, grimace at the camera, and go by the name of “The Reckoning Ball.” Just try not to think of the massive hit your professional credibility will take when the show is cancelled and you have to hitchhike back to Akron.

For those of you inexplicably not in the know about the show, it works like this: in each episode, two men compete for points in a series of three battles against the Gladiators. Typical match-ups include a race up a climbing wall with Gladiators in pursuit, or up a thirty-foot pyramid with Gladiators attempting to push you off, or a timed run through a gauntlet of Gladiators as they attempt to power-block you with huge padded battering rams. The events vary, but the points you accrue actually don’t count for that much, because all they do is determine which contender gets a head start in The Eliminator, the final, brutal obstacle course that concludes every show. Every single-point advantage earns you a half-second start over your opponent. And in an event where two minutes is an excellent finishing time, a five, or even ten-second headstart—meaning, a ten- or twenty-point lead-- can very quickly disappear.

So for all the hoopla that leads up to it, American Gladiators is really all about the Eliminator. And it’s tough: a lot of the competitors on AG are terrific athletes, and everyone is sucking wind at the end of it; many can barely speak.

The Eliminator is basically a test of upper-and-lower-body relative strength and strength-endurance, meaning, your ability to move your body weight at top speed for an extended period. Between the wall climb, the swim, the net-climb, the barrel roll, and the hand-bike, the advantage clearly goes to the competitors with exceptional upper-body relative strength, and that’s why the full-body fitness generalists like gymnasts, rock climbers, and firefighters seem to be faring pretty well so far this season, while more specialized athletes, among them football players, rodeo riders, and martial artists aren’t.

The most interesting thing from my standpoint, however, is that at a certain point, extra muscle appears to be a hindrance. The fastest male Eliminator competitors have been under 200 pounds, and the scrappy rock-climbing instructor who smoked the course record last Monday weighed in at just 165. The bigger guys may have power and absolute strength, but they aren’t able to muscle themselves around as quickly or as dexterously as the lighter guys who may not be able to bench as much but who don’t need to since they’re schlepping around about 40 fewer pounds of bulk.

From the looks of things, the winner of the contest—and thus, the newest American Gladiator—will be a lighter, quicker, probably shorter guy with great hand speed; something along the lines of a middleweight boxer.

I’m looking forward to seeing this guy alongside the 230-pound bruisers next season. He’ll probably be the best Gladiator of them all.

Which means I guess I’ve got to re-up my cable subscription. Heaven help me.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Siren Call

So I was listening to a little of the NPR whilst navigating LA traffic this afternoon and heard an interesting interview: a very emphatic researcher has concluded that the recent surge in obesity can be attributed, in large part to our modern "food environment," that is, to the instant availability of a vast array of junk foods in all their highly-caloric and nutrient-deprived glory. It's not crumbling willpower or waning interest in exercise that's turning us all into fatties. Rather, it's the office doughnut tray, the candy bowl, the enticing sugar- and trans-fat laden goodies calling from the aisles of every convenience store, gas station, and greengrocer across the nation.

Think about it: as hunter-gatherers, we're programmed to eat when food is available. The mechanism (so effectively exploited by fast-food advertisers everywhere) which convinces us we're hungry at the very sights and sounds and smells of food, is innate and very tough to resist, and that's not any more true for us 21st-Century dwellers than for our ancestors. That impulse is there to keep us alive, after all. It tells us that when food is present, you'd best get eatin,' Mr. Bipedal Mammal, because Krishnu only knows when famine will strike.

So, like Pavlov's dogs, we salivate when the bell rings. Trouble is, bells are jangling in our ears virtually 24-7, convincing us that we're hungry when we're not, and THAT, the argument goes, is the true cause of the obesity epidemic.

At first glance, this seems like one of those Sociology 101-class theories that are equal parts obvious and fatalistic: Poverty is Societal! Racism is Institutional! Sexism is passed down through the generations! And Advertising Made You Fat, Fattie!

I was a Sociology minor back at the U of Virginia, and the weird appeal of these theories is that, like sci-fi, they're terrifying and oddly comforting at the same time. It sucks that racism exists and is perpetuated in part by vast mechanisms far beyond our control, but believing that also conveniently relieves us of the impetus to do anything about it. It's beyond our control, like the weather, so we might as well quit worrying about it and go play hacky-sack in the quad.

Several listeners called in to the NPR show to protest: "We still have the choice," they said, "we still have free will. So we can choose not to fall victim to the ubiquitous call of junk food."

And that's true: we CAN, and that's what the fitness industry is always exhorting us to do: resist. But above those well-meaning but tiny voices--mine included--the Siren call of appealing consumables swells ever louder, threatening to dash us all on cliffs made of Count Chocula.

So if we go with this idea that we're fatter now because of this change in our food environment (and that does seem like a more plausible argument than the more moralistic implication that the willpower has been miraculously bred out of us in two generations), where does that leave us? Do we just throw up our hands and have at those Krispy Kremes?

That's the path of least resistance, and judging from our ever-expanding waistlines, it seems to be the one that most of us are taking.

But then I got to thinking. If 'food environment' really is a factor--and there's really no harm in believing that it is--we just need to do what we can to control our it. We need to attack the problem at its root.

And to a large extent, you CAN control your food environment. The problem is most decidedly not lack of information. Pretty much everyone knows what's good for them and what's not. Sure, we can quibble over details, but I don't imagine there's too many Americans over the age of five that can't tell you the fruits and veggies are good and candy and cookies are bad. My clients, for instance, don't NEED more knowledge on what to eat and what not to eat, they need more practical strategies on dealing with the ubiquity of temptation.

So maybe fitness freaks need to go about things a little differently and spend less time on the minutia of refined sugars and omega-3 fatty acids (interesting and valuable as that information is), and more about practical things like the best brands of easy-to-carry food coolers and the route to take through the grocery store. In other words, practical ways to limit your exposure to the bad stuff and maximize your exposure to the good stuff. Most diet books, in my experience, will nod at these things but spend the lion's share of their verbiage on theory and formulae.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Aragon Alert!

Well, I’ve taken myself a nice long break from the world of blogging, and it’s time I got myself back in the saddle. No excuse, really, except holiday sluggishness.

What finally got me going again was an email from my colleague Alan Aragon, a nutritionist and dietician whose seminar I attended (and discussed here) about a year ago. I don’t know Alan that well, but I really liked his angle on things: he never takes studies or trends or whoop-di-do ideas at face value. Whenever some new gem pops up in the fitness world—particularly as it pertains to diet—Aragon will crank it through the meat-grinder of his own perceptive and freakishly well-informed mind and come up with the straight skinny for those of us more credulous types without a thousand letters after our names and the patience and wherewithal to sort the dross from the genuinely substantial.

A skeptic among the faithful is a valuable commodity: what good would the first STAR WARS movies have been without Han Solo, the wisecracker in the background undermining every starry-eyed platitude about The Force that Mark Hamill takes in with such puppyish enthusiasm. When Solo starts to believe—even a little bit—at the end of the first movie, we start to think, hey, maybe Obi-Wan was onto something.

And do we ever need our skeptics in the fitness world. If the responses to my CrossFit post from a few weeks ago tells me nothing else, it’s that for many people, a fitness program is tantamount to a religion (T.C. Luoma has an ever-profane take on this same topic here). My swipes at Intelligent Design and my comments about presidential candidates didn’t meet with anything near the deluge of protest I received when I opined that every single person in the known universe may not have all their fitness needs and dreams and desires entirely satisfied by CrossFit. With a tip of the hat to Ray Kybartas, for many—hey, maybe for ME—fitness is a religion.

Without the Alan Aragons out there to check and challenge us (and there are others out there, too!), we fitness types would be a bunch of snake-oil charletons, getting by on a shoeshine and a smile.

So it was great to hear from him. The email in question included a sample of his newest project: a monthly newsletter called the ALAN ARAGON RESEARCH REVIEW. From this first issue, I gather Alan’s intention is to sum up the latest studies in the science rags and lay journals and pretty much sort it all out for us: the AARR will tell us which studies make sense, which ones don’t, which ones are laughably biased or fatally flawed, and the few-and-far-between that represent real innovation.

Much of this information would be available to anyone inclined to pore through all of it, it’s just that so few of us ARE. I’ve been a member of the NSCA for a couple of years now, and one of the big perks is receiving a huge tome of studies on diet and exercise methodologies every month. I always tear into my latest issue of the JOURNAL OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING with gusto, only to glaze over after reading a handful of abstracts. Sure, the folks at NSCA are doing valuable work, and for heaven’s sake, they should go on with it. But for the most part, they’re the theoretical physicists, toiling away at the outer reaches of this field, coming up with theories that are well beyond the pale of usage for average gym-goers like you and me.

Some of the studies offer definitive proof in the roundness of the world, the existence of gravity, or the greenness of grass. Others modify common knowledge so slightly and tentatively that the results are almost meaningless. But ever so often, I’ll come across a study or two that sees to be saying something really groundbreaking, but I’m just so unscientifically inclined that it’s sometimes tough to be sure that I’m reading what I think I’m reading.

Now, there are plenty of lay resources out there, too, which are clearly written and easy to understand, but there you have the opposite problem: whereas science journals offer tons of substance with precious little application (“Effects of Post-Exercise L-Glutamine Supplementation on Amino Acid Uptake in Hypoglycemic College Pole-Vaulters”); many lay resources offer tons of application of questionable substance (“Lose 25 Pounds of Flab in Eight Days!”).

So what’s to do? Stuck between reams of impenetrable science on one side and glossy pages of empty promises on the other, the average fitness Joe might feel inclined to throw up his hands and settle in for an afternoon of Captain Kangaroo and bon-bons. But Alan’s RESEARCH REVIEW pulls it all together. He’ll tell you if a study on the benefits of Snickers bars was sponsored by Hershey, or if the article about the dangers of soy was underwritten by the National Council for the Advancement of Carnivorism. Want to know what’s new, what’s hip and most importantly, what’s EFFECTIVE in the fitness world? Check it out. Alan’s one of the good guys.