My friend told me she’s on a juice fast and after teasing her about it for a while I got to wondering why an intelligent person who is really into fitness, in fine shape, and not at all overweight would decide that it’s time to stop eating for a while. Now, I know that marketing is probably the answer; that and the pseudohealth advice that’s churned out by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, including personal trainers, yoga teachers, and sometimes, depressingly, even doctors. And I said “pseudohealth” not “pseudo health” because I think this advice misses the mark on the health side of things rather than the advice side of things, and “pseudohealth” is what one is pursuing by taking this type of advice. “Pseudohealth” is the feeling that you’re doing something healthy, even if it’s not real or healthy, and might actually be unhealthy (and yes I just coined that phrase).
Then I got to thinking about the fitness and outdoor industry as a whole and what it’s all about (selling stuff, but that’s another post I think). I can’t really figure out what the hole is that people are trying to fill by consistently bringing into fashion things that are “extreme”, from eating to exercise, but the outdoor industry loves this idea because they can sell more stuff to those people. Please don’t be fooled by the environmental line – they want to sell stuff. Period. Except for Yvon Choinard who wants to sell stuff but is grouchy about it. More people doing new stuff is more customers for them, not a win for the environment, not by a long shot.
So the product industry supports any new obsession that their consumers come up with. This is good for the industry’s health, not for consumer’s health. When I see someone shuffling along in agony with their shoulders around their ears and their knee painfully locked from overuse, not stopping because they hadn’t yet completed an arbitrary amount of distance, I reckon they’re deranged, not determined, but the industry jumps in to sell them shoes to fix their stride and fancy water bottles and heart rate monitors and even Internet sites that tell you if you’re tired. And all those people buy all that stuff. Then the industry puts on more events so they can pay to get to use all the stuff the industry sold them (I really can’t believe how hoodwinked people are over “obstacle course” and “hook” races, like the Color Run, which are basically just big profit farms, now hand in hand with product lines specifically made for those events. I wish I’d thought of it first, but really, who would think that the stupider and more pointless and wasteful the event, and the easier it is to do on your own, the more people will go wild for it/pay to enter? Kudos for the business model, boo to the fact that the general public is so easily manipulated).
But I think there’s more to it. This comic got a lot of attention and the number of people who said they relate to it really freaked me out. After reading it I was left thinking that the guy who wrote it probably needs some professional help to deal with his addictions and unhealthy relationship with food and exercise, but I guess I’m the only one because it got something like eleventy billion positive comments from people who are similarly haunted by the idea of the “blurgh,” the thing that will catch up to you and make you hugely obese if you don’t try to run until you can quite literally run no more. A whole bunch of people liked this comic because they related to the idea of exerting themselves in an excessive – and obsessive – manner because they are afraid of getting fat. They relate to the idea that obesity is a lurking monster in the shadows ready to reach out and suck them into a cocoon of lard should they ease up for one single second.
That idea isn’t actually true, you know. Controlling one’s weight is as easy (or hard) as controlling one’s eating habits. What you put in your mouth is 100% under your control. You’re not going to get fat because you only exercised for two hours instead of seven. But somehow forming an obsessive addiction to excessive exercise to cure their obsessive addiction to excessive food makes sense to a lot of people.
A lot of people loved the idea, illustrated in the comic, that after their excessive exertion they can head home and eat whatever they want. That their exertions are justification for stuffing their faces with Pop Tarts, burgers, french fries, beer, pizza, everything that a person would ordinarily think of as probably not conducive to a healthy physique. OK, sure, I like that part about being fit, too, and I’m a firm member of Team Pizza and Beer. But I’m not pedaling a bike until I feel OK about inhaling my refrigerator, and repeating the cycle tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that; no, absolutely not. That is binging and purging, without actually puking.
All this stuff is not health and fitness. Nope. This is what is known as an eating disorder. Bulimia is not OK just because you’re not physically sticking a spoon down your throat. Starving yourself is not healthy just because someone calls it “detox” (it’s not, by the way, and if you want to annoy a yoga person just start playing the “name a toxin” game with them), and hurting yourself by overexercising isn’t admirable, it means you have poor judgement and perhaps even some self-loathing. But I’m not a psychotherapist so what do I know?
I watch people at my gym flailing through one-size-fits-all Crossfit workouts, way beyond the point of diminishing returns, on their way to certain injury. I’ve a friend who started doing tons of yoga, ended up with tons of injuries, and just won’t entertain the possibility that the tons of (also one-size-fits-all) yoga is the culprit. Other friends literally run themselves into early retirement, deciding to train for “ultras” and being surprised when they end up with injuries that seem permanent. They go from being strong, capable and happy runners to broken-down, depressed, and bewildered former athletes who feel indefinitely sidelined and wonder why they aren’t performing at this endeavor like they have at ones past. These people never wouldn’t have thought of trying to travel a hundred miles in one go if there wasn’t a marketing machine out there convincing them that they should. It’s a great machine, too, because it not only convinces people to shuffle along for days at a time during their limited North American vacation time, but to pay thousands and thousands of dollars to do so, AND pull their friends into the fray to soothe, feed, and babysit them throughout the event so that they have someone to listen to their complaints about what they’re voluntarily doing. Finding the limits of human endurance has been done, and it looks like it’s about from the start line to the first aid station on the race course.
Still others, like the one whose story opened this post, gut it out through bi-yearly “cleanses” which involve simply not eating anything other than juice or certain foods, with the idea that limiting one’s intake will clean your liver out. People, your liver is THERE to clean itself out. Even if you can theoretically only eat things your liver won’t filter out, the very second you start eating “bad” things again, your liver will be back to normal. And actually, your liver is back to normal every 30 days or so; that’s how long it takes to fully regenerate your liver and that’s why liver transplants are possible; because a person can donate half of their liver and completely regrow the donated half in a month or so. There’s no point to “detox” and the name is so misleading that it’s really just a lie. The worst thing about fasts, though, is that everyone who fasts seems to be doing it solely to call attention to the fact they are are inflicting hunger on themselves. If you want to fast, fine, just do it and shut up. Stop telling us how miserable you are or how hard it is to deprive yourself of food. If you bring it up to me I’M GOING TO TELL YOU TO SHUT UP ABOUT IT AND EAT SOMETHING. Chances are, this will piss you off, but I don’t care. I don’t want to hear about your overdramatic and self-inflicted hunger pangs. Consider yourself warned.
At the core of it, I guess it’s just not as cool to “eat less” every single day than it is to “eat nothing” for enough time it takes to get attention. It’s not as EXTREME to run five miles every day for ten days as it is to run fifty miles on a Saturday just to see if you can, though you could have built up to it over the course of a few months so that you’d KNOW you can before you start. Preparation used to be the key to success but now it’s just the key to a boring story that no one wants to read. It’s not as AWESOME to live to be 90 and pass away without fanfare as it is to drop dead of heart trouble in your fifties and have legions of fans in your wake to celebrate that you were allegedly doing what you love when you died (another of my pet-hate phrases; no one loves dragging themselves through the sand desperately trying to find water so they don’t die. No one). People shake their heads in sadness when someone puts a gun in their mouth but they worship the slow suicide by body abuse in the form of excessive exercise and bizarre diet foolery.
If you’re not nodding your head in agreement you’re probably getting irate and stepping onto a soapbox about how what other people do doesn’t affect me so why should I care? Well, I put some thought into that, and it turns out that my first paragraph was wrong and this IS the post about what the industry is all about (selling stuff) and how it DOES affect me. Have you looked at the world lately? We make, use, and discard a lot of stuff. Every new obsession spawns a new giant pile of products for people to buy, get tired of, and get rid of. We’re choked with it. We fill one beautiful place with garbage and then we truck a bunch of people into another beautiful place so they can stomp all over it because some event organizer decided they should because it means a payday for him. We’ve got to put the brakes on. The planet is not our garbage heap nor is it our racetrack. I live on this planet too, and I’m tired of picking up discarded Gu packets and rah-rah signs from the ground after races and seeing events inevitably result in litter and garbage and new sports result in product excess.
The earth is also not our planetary Costco; stuffing our faces with cheap, processed, shipped-all-over-everywhere junk is a bad thing for the planet. The tipping point is coming when the Earth can’t support the amount of humans on it. The more food we eat, the faster that tipping point gets here. Besides, do you really feel good about your stack of $3-per-cookie “sports waffles” that you earned by running until you need to go to urgent care when little kids are starving on the streets of Manila? Well, I have to admit, you probably do. No matter how much I write about the negative side of all these exercise obsessions, people will still go nuts for pointless events and races and comics that celebrate stuff that really just highlights how privileged we are in our position as Westerners who don’t have to worry what we waste. But it matters.
So what is there to do? Should we not expend precious spare calories on fitness? Should we write off any and all unnecessary activity? Of course not. I think the old standby of “everything in moderation” could liberally be applied here. If you have enough stuff, don’t get more stuff. If you’re doing so much exercise that you’re damaging yourself or making significant dents in your food bill, maybe that’s too much and you could back off a little. Perhaps take that $100 race entry fee and give it to a charity that does good work eradicating actual hunger and poverty, and just go for a regular old run or ride with friends instead. If you simply HAVE to go get some event-based attention, choose events that are 100% for charity instead of 100% for profit. Instead of spending your weekend shepherding a whiny, hungry and tired racer around a race course, spend it helping people who don’t have food at all, let alone extra food.
It’s easy for me, since I never got into the race/event scene anyway, and have too much sense anymore to half-kill myself to do something that is only a thing because someone else thinks is cool. I definitely don’t have the personality to baby someone along if they choose to do something hard and want to be fawned over and force-fed every time they realize it’s hard. Make of that what you will. But I don’t think anyone can defend the practice of importing food (don’t fool yourself into thinking cornstarch isn’t food. It’s food. You’re facilitating throwing food away) then throwing it on the ground to be flushed into the groundwater system (though now there’s a Made in the USA option, yay?).
So, let’s get a grip, can we? The industry doesn’t need your help. The profit-making juggernaut of events planning doesn’t need your help. The planet and its people need your help.