Brian Boyd: Why Olympic fitness fads shouldn’t send us rushing to the gym

‘If we continue down this health probe road, we are faced with the appalling vista of a Donald Trump live colonoscopy on our TV screens’

‘Dr Lisa Bardack, Clinton’s personal doctor, wrote a two-page medical report which concluded that the 69-year-old candidate is in “excellent physical health”.’  Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

‘Dr Lisa Bardack, Clinton’s personal doctor, wrote a two-page medical report which concluded that the 69-year-old candidate is in “excellent physical health”.’ Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

 

Donald Trump’s blood pressure is 110/65; Hillary Clinton’s is 100/65. The Donald takes a daily aspirin to reduce the risk of heart disease and a statin to lower his cholesterol. Hillary takes a vitamin B12 supplement, an antihistamine for allergies and an anti-clotting drug, Coumadin, as a “precautionary measure”.

Trump has normal prostate screenings while Clinton has normal mammograms and colonoscopies.

This we know because both US presidential candidates have volunteered their personal medical information, citing a “need to know” requirement among the electorate.

Dr Lisa Bardack, Clinton’s personal doctor, wrote a two-page medical report which concluded that the 69-year-old candidate is in “excellent physical health”.

Trump’s personal doctor, Dr Jacob Bornstein, reports that the 70-year-old’s “physical strength and stamina are extraordinary”. The Republican candidate doesn’t drink or smoke, has lost 15lbs over the last year and would be, according to Dr Bornstein, “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”. Goodness.

The most recent research shows that US voters are now just as interested in candidates releasing their personal medical records as they are in them releasing their tax returns.

It’s not just that antihistamines, statins and mammograms are now on the table, serious voices are calling for even more medical information than letters from the candidate’s private doctors; the argument being that the stakes are so high for the job of the most powerful politician in the world, that an independent board of medical experts should be allowed a thorough medical evaluation of the candidates.

This is madness. Off the top of my head there are 487 other questions I’d have for a candidate before getting anywhere near how many milligrams of statin they are on daily.

And if we continue down this health probe road, we are faced with the appalling vista of a Donald Trump live colonoscopy on our TV screens.

As with everything to do with health – and more importantly our perception of health – everything we think we know is wrong.

Some 20 years ago while sequestered in a Los Angeles hotel room tasked with writing programmes for touring rock bands, I had a moment of clarity about health, fitness and the whole damn thing.

In between reporting that in his spare time the bass player of Band X likes windsurfing and Mexican food, I would notice that a certain time every morning a man in a big red car would drive to the gym directly opposite the hotel. He would reappear on the treadmill a few minutes later and walk at a leisurely pace for exactly 20 minutes before getting into his big red car and driving away. He did this three times a week.

Back then gyms were not ubiquitous but rather places of puzzlement and wonder. My puzzlement was why in God’s name the man in the big red car didn’t just go for a normal 20-minute walk three times a week, saving himself a costly annual gym membership fee and saving the rest of us from the eco footprint of six unnecessary car journeys a week?

Last week I found myself having to negotiate my way past what is jauntily known as a Spinning class. It was dark, loud discordant music was loosening the plasterwork and a man in a bandana with bulging eyes was shouting “Be honest about who you are trying to be” over a microphone to a class of indoor cyclists.

The fact that these indoor cyclists drove to a building that they pay an annual membership fee for, then paid some more to be shouted at in quasi-existential tones by a man in a bandana with a microphone attached to his face was Big Red Car Man all over again. Exercise is quite literally as easy as riding a bike – outdoors and for free and without a bulging-eyes person shouting nonsense at you.

Every Olympics, gyms in Ireland report a surge in people waddling in to “get fit”. The physical specimens show-ponying in Rio seem to trigger a “Me Too” impulse in us. The logic here would be the same as watching a programme on Albert Einstein and then saying “That guy is so rad, I think I’ll buy a maths book tomorrow”.

In 2016 our knowledge of fitness and health hasn’t evolved from that of a man driving his car in order to walk on a stationary treadmill. Except for the distressing advent of the “Facade Body”.

Much favoured by the male of the species, this refers to the development of muscles that do little other than to please the eye. Bicep curls, lat pulldowns, core stability – all are what Jeremy Bentham would correctly dismiss as “nonsense upon stilts”.

Bulging biceps (or “guns”) tell us nothing more about you than you are vain and spend too much time on mind-numbingly repetitive motor actions. They have little real world application

“Bulging biceps are required by almost no sport” physical therapist Nic Berard told Vice magazine. “You don’t need them to throw a ball, swing a bat or a racquet, or a punch, or to swim or climb. And yet guys want those big biceps because they want to look good in a shirt. Or without a shirt”.

The headline over the Vice article in which Berard was quoted reads: “Your Sculpted Pecs Are Worthless”. Indeed they are: a six-pack is no indication of your fitness, but may well be one of your narcissism.

Put your guns away boys, no one’s interested.

We sign up to expensive “warrior workout” gym programmes – not because we’re off to Syria to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Isis fighters but because it sounds more important and interesting than playing five-a-side football with your mates in the local park (which is free, good for you and a laugh – all of the things a “warrior workout” isn’t).

The fitness sideshows are worse: A post-workout protein shake? Are you actually competing in the weightlifting event in Rio this week? No? Then eat a banana and shut up. Potassium is good for your brain.

Some designer electrolyte elixir to rehydrate you after your exertions? You know what else rehydrates you but without the chemicals and a price tag? Tap water.

A fat-burning supplement? You’d burn more fat from removing a €20 note from your wallet and setting it on fire – which is what you’re doing anyway by buying a “fat burning supplement”.

We’ve allowed most everything precious in our lives to be commodified.

Must we surrender autonomy over our very well-being to a spurious and rapacious fitness and health industry?

Just as we deem ourselves too busy and important to peel and slice a piece of fruit so we buy it pre-sliced and pre-peeled in a plastic box, we want instant fitness, paid for and nicely packaged.

It doesn’t work like that and here’s why: for all that we spend on gym membership/protein shakes/spinning classes/warrior workouts, the Lancet confidently predicted in a recent report that within a few years Ireland will be the most obese country in all of Europe.

At last, a gold medal in something.

Try exercising your common sense, not your biceps.

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