Friday, November 25, 2011

Three Straight Ways to Conquer Your Waist


This holiday eating season, many will squander limited energy worrying about their beltlines. In my last weight-loss book review, I said different people gain weight for different reasons, so we must lose it through different tools. Maybe that isn’t scientifically rigorous, but it certainly resolves the issue to my satisfaction. But that doesn’t stop the book industry from printing money by insisting why every other weight loss regimen in the world is wrong.

Take, for instance, Jonathan Bailor’s The Smarter Science of Slim, and Mike Schatzki’s The Great Fat Fraud. Both authors claim to sort mountains of scientific research, and both have the uncountable source notes to prove it. Both claim the truth of real weight control has been stifled by a monolithic corporate conspiracy that would rather sell us a million pills than see us get permanently well. That’s where the similarities end.

Bailor builds his book on the thesis that we should “Eat more. Exercise less. Smarter.” For him, the problem stems from habits that short-circuit natural metabolic processes. High-starch diets and workouts that inefficiently distribute benefits leave us more hungry, more tired, and more obese than when physical fitness went mainstream forty years ago. His solution lies in more carefully choosing what goes into our bodies, and how we use them.

Schatzki, however, sees the focus on weight as a canard. The problem, for him, is “fitlessness,” widespread inattention to core wellness that extends beyond mere weight issues. Humans evolved in unsteady circumstances, forced to eat whatever came to hand, even if it wasn’t balanced. Fitness, for Schatzki, croses all weight classes. Instead, we should focus on whether we work our muscles in the way for which our bodies are optimally designed.

I suspect that, if Bailor and Schatzki sat on the same panel, they would be at each other’s throats constantly. They have different solutions because they favor different issues. What one sees as the real problem, the other sees as a mere subset. Though I doubt they’ve read each other’s books, each takes a sneering attitude toward the other’s solution. Here’s the kicker: I suspect they’re both right. By which I mean, they’re both wrong.

Where Bailor presents a fine-tuned diet and exercise regimen, stressing protein and focused effort, Schatzki sees such approaches as sauce for the gander. Humans evolved to walk fourteen miles per day, and if we want to keep our health, we should do so, no matter our weight. Both solutions are more complex than that, of course, and you should not undertake either without consulting your doctor. But that’s their respective positions, in a nutshell.

Both systems make sense, because both stress how the body is engineered. Human physiology exquisitely demonstrates purpose-built design, for hard work, feast-or-famine food supplies, and long haul endurance in hardship conditions. Unfortunately, starchy diets and sedentary lifestyles short-circuit those advantages. Thus both systems are perfectly correct, and woefully lopsided.

That’s why I like Don McGrath’s Dream It, Live It, Love It: Beyond Well, Beyond 50. Where Bailor and Schatzki name ways people should improve weight and fitness, quoting stats and research, McGrath interviews people past fifty who, at an age when many settle into comfy ease, have continued, or even newly begun, competitive athletic careers. No abstractions for these heroes; they’re too busy living to hypothesize.

McGrath interviews runners, cyclists, rowers, triathletes, mountaineers, Special Olympians, and even a competitive dancer. Most are in their fifties and sixties, though some maintain top form into their seventies, eighties, and beyond. Banana George Blair, McGrath’s cover model, remains a top-ranked barefoot waterskier past ninety. The accompanying photos showcase trim figures with great skin and bright smiles. Nobody would mind turning fifty if age looked like this.

The patterns McGrath sees among these heroes, salted with a hint of science, support a three-part system to identify the difference between competitive masters and the rest of us. But these aren’t rare saints. They emphasize that, with determination and the right mindset, we could achieve the heights they have. The effects our culture associate with age reflect inactivity and poor choices more than actually getting old.

McGrath doesn’t contradict anything Schatzki or Bailor say. In fact, he proves them right. How we eat and exercise makes a difference. But instead of treading the rare air of scientific research, he shows us real people who incorporate these principles into their own lives. McGrath provides inspiration; Bailor and Schatzki provide tools. Now it falls on us to make the difference in our own lives.

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