By Jay Diamond
It was a chilly December afternoon. London, 2008. I was late for the tube – so I bundled up, walked swiftly around the corner, through the turnstile, when I heard the train arriving. That meant I had about one minute – let the dash begin. I leaped up several flights of stairs to make it onto the train by a whisker… and then my life changed.
I realized that I couldn’t catch my breath. I’d been in London 2 months, sampling loads of British culture (i.e. pubs – in which they have beer and any vegetable you want, as long as its potatoes, chipped, and fried). I was in the worst shape of my life. But this was bad… I was hyperventilating and starting to panic.
Most people have a moment when they turn a significant corner in life, and for me it was on that subway train in London. I recovered from my perceived near-death experience and vowed not to let it happen again. I joined a gym at age 43 for the first time in my life and began wading through the labyrinth of extraordinary health claims, myriads of supplements, and wads of get-ripped-quick routines. In the last 5 years, I’ve gone from the worst shape of my life to the best – vastly exceeding what I thought was possible and resetting my “upper limit” too many times to count. I’ve gone from the stereotypical computer geek to being ripped – and I’m just getting started.
And that brings me to this blog – an exploration of bodybuilding under the magnifying glass of scientific skepticism. By “bodybuilding” I’m not necessarily talking about competition level. I’m talking about building your body methodically with science and a lot of hard work – pushing yourself to the limit with every workout. Some examples of “average” people who fall into this definition of bodybuilding – many of which you’d never know by looking at them:
– I had lunch with a woman at TAM who was told by her doctor that she’d soon be in a wheelchair. She decided to alter her trajectory. Although still heavy-set, she’d lost a significant amount of weight in the last 2 years with routine and progressively increasing physical activity, diet, and tenacity. The doctor was correct – had she maintained her previous trajectory, she’d be in trouble. Instead, she decided to methodically improve her health a fitness level.
And she was just getting started.
This woman is a BODYBUILDER.
– Several friends in their 50s and 60s are CrossFit junkies. When they describe their workouts, even lifelong athletes find their achievements remarkable. The lifelong non-athletes simply can’t believe what they can achieve with basic equipment and hard work.
And they are just getting started.
These people are BODYBUILDERS.
My purely anecdotal account of most people at the gym:
- <5%: Genetically gifted. These people go into the gym and pretend to work out. A combination of lucky genes and youth allows them to put on a show for themselves or others, but they aren’t really pushing themselves. Often seen carrying 5lb. weights and occasionally grimacing under the strain.
- ~10%: Methodical bodybuilders. Usually carrying a log book, they can be at any age, body-type, or level of activity and push themselves to their limits throughout the workout. They keep track of activity levels, various aspects of dietary intake, and often consult with experts on improvements.
- >85%: Civilians. Think they are in groups 1 or 2 – mostly group 1 (as demonstrated by the 5lb. weights and occasional grimace). It’s great to keep moving throughout your life, but gains and change come from mixing it up and pushing limits. This group does none of that – or at least they wouldn’t know it if they were. Often seen on phones while on a treadmill, occasionally doing what group 2 would call a “light day”, this is at best maintaining status quo and at worst self-deluding themselves into believing that they are fit and improving. I was in this group for years (believing that I was in group 2). While often seeing personal trainers, you can spot them being “worked out” by their trainers… as a kind of crutch to taking responsibility for their health.
This introductory blog entry contains several anecdotes – but future blogs will rely heavily on references, research, and evidence (with the occasional anecdote). My personal anecdotes usually mean that there MAY be something there – but please don’t take them as evidence. Please take evidence as evidence. Expect regular articles on supplements, workouts, psychology, and my favorite – debunking bodybuilding scams…
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor, nor do I pretend to be one. Before you attempt any physical exercise routine, check with a doctor. Not a naturopath, not a homeopath, not a chiropractor, not your feng shui consultant, not a Reiki master, not your neighbor, but your GP with a real medical degree from a real accredited institution of medicine. Dietary supplements will affect people differently – my comments will generally be related to MOST people in MOST situations unless otherwise stated, and you should consult a doctor before trying anything discussed in the blog.
And don’t take my word for it… please do your own research, be skeptical, and tell me what you’ve learned.
Jay Diamond is the founder of Reason4Reason – a skeptical activist group based in the San Francisco bay area. He holds dual masters degrees in engineering and business and has managed both startup companies and hundred-million-dollar programs for Fortune 50 companies. Growing up in Canada, he performed magic, studied science, and became aware of the skeptical movement. Jay has lectured around the world on science & technology, business, and skepticism.