I used to be a bodybuilder. Not a world champion bodybuilder, obviously, but someone who tried her best to get as big and strong as her genetics would let her.
I realized later in life that the thousands of hours I spent in college lifting weights and doing cardio and researching diet and nutrition and periodization and the Karvonen method and reading Sliced and Ripped and Supervixen and years’ worth of Muscle and Fitness magazine and buying DVDs of the Ms. Olympia championship and watching Pumping Iron II: The Women on repeat was not actually a normal part of growing up and that actually I might know some things that other people would enjoy knowing also.
So here goes.
Maintaining Your Body is Not Vain; It’s an Investment in a Good Life
Just as it’s hard to become rich if you hate all rich people (in previous columns, I’ve suggested that one find a wealthy role model — Tina Fey, John Stewart, Warren Buffet) it’s hard to get in shape if deep down you think that doing so is vain and stupid.
Maintaining your body is no more vain and stupid than making sure your resume is spelled correctly and uses a respectable font. (After all, isn’t it the content of the resume that counts?)
Look, we don’t even make anything in this country anymore. All we have is marketing. Our whole country is marketing. I don’t like it, and people smarter than I have more broad-ranging things to say about this. But from the perspective of an individual trying to build a life in this country, presentation is part of the penumbra of success in virtually everything.
(See also the recent Bullish Life: On Vanity, Plastic Surgery, and Gentlewomanly Living.)
Crash-Dieting is Stupid
I mean, we all know that, right? But lots of us do it anyway.
What the hell kind of event do you need to suddenly show up way thinner for? If it’s your birthday, the friends and family throwing the party already like you! If it’s your book party, holy shit, you wrote a book! If it’s your wedding, the person you’re marrying already likes having sex with you!
So, I — along with 100% of doctors — do not advocate crash dieting. I also don’t recommend hours of mindless cardio. Because…
Bodybuilding is a Science
Having had the experience of working out and eating like a bodybuilder, I cringe when I read advice that I know is so “accessible” it isn’t going to work. Switching your salad dressing to something with less fat, and trying to eat more fruit, and taking the stairs at work — they’re certainly not bad ideas, but they’re not going to change your life or make you look or feel very different. Would you rather do a bunch of little stuff with no results, or do something big (and hard) that yields big results?
If you have any doubt, see the work of Clarence Bass, a former lawyer who achieved the lowest percent bodyfat on record. He’s now over 70. He’s a long-term achiever.
Bodybuilders plan what they’re going to eat every single day — every carb and fat gram. They even measure their broccoli on a food scale. And they can predict how much fat they’re going to lose and how much muscle they’re going to gain, practically down to the ounce.
They have to do this, because they have deadlines, also known as bodybuilding contests.
You don’t have to want to be a bodybuilder to hire a bodybuilding coach. You can hire just such a coach, do exactly what a bodybuilder does, and then stop — if you want — well before you look like a bodybuilder. You can’t accidentally look like a bodybuilder. That’s like worrying that you shouldn’t sign up for archery lessons because you might accidentally win the Olympics.
Don’t Focus on the Forbidden
Bodybuilding diets make it easy (okay, not “easy” but certainly “simple”) in that bodybuilders think about what they are going to eat, not what they aren’t going to eat.
Thinking about a big list of no-no’s just makes a lot of people want the forbidden, much like how abstinence rallies are an amazing way for sex-obsessed Christian teens to get together and talk about sex non-stop, especially in large arenas where the sexual energy rises off of them in waves as they quench their irrepressible thirst with Jesus-branded bottled water and the evangelical band leads the worship music and everyone feels close and spiritual and throbbing like only teenagers can and begins to sway in tandem, looking at each other with looks that say, “We love purity!” and also “This is the most aroused I have ever been.”
Bodybuilders know everything there is to know — well, certainly everything a layperson needs to know — about losing fat and gaining muscle. There are no secrets. Even the latest research — supplementing with MCT oils produces an 8% boost in whatever, that kind of thing — affects only a small percentage of people (i.e., bodybuilders) who are already maxxing out everything we’ve known for years.
Most people just don’t want to do the things that bodybuilders do. Which is a reasonable lifestyle choice. I just want everybody to know that the option is there.
Because most people don’t want to live like bodybuilders, I find that most diet books on the market have a gimmick: you can still eat [one tasty thing that’s not that great for you]!
That is, virtually every diet plan is consistent with eating a lot of fish (and maybe chicken and turkey and egg whites) and salad and vegetables. And various superfoods like walnuts and blueberries. Even the Perricone Prescription, which is not about losing weight but about making your skin look young, says pretty much the same thing. But it’s hard to make money off of something that’s pretty much common knowledge, so then you get the rice diet and the point system and the low-carbs-but-BACON diet and the extra-apple-before-every-meal-and-then-you-can-be-less-strict diet and the let’s-eat-tiny-desserts diet and the champagne-is-only-100-calories diet. Yep. The point here is that if you do 90% of the stuff you’re supposed to do — ANY 90% of it — that’ll still be pretty likely to work.
My trick to doing this in a gentlewomanly way is to just eat what I’ve decided to eat (I subscribe to Oxygen and try not to feel pressured to get breast implants, but this magazine certainly does idealize a particular body image, so buyer beware) and dear god, then I just think about something else most of the time. One could: Start a business. Start a nonprofit. Do all of MIT’s free online courses — seriously, calculus (pardon me: “The Calculus”) is free and open to all. I have things I want to do; I want no more more than 15% of my life portfolio to be about my body.
Use the 80/20 Principle
Looking 100% of your best is probably a full-time job. Did you ever take one of those days off at home to really pamper yourself, like they’re always recommending in women’s magazines? You probably spent a lot of time on your cuticles, and on exfoliating — things others really never notice.
I read Oxygen and I know that I could do those things really strictly and look more or less like the women in the magazine (frequent contributor Tosca Reno is 49 — age is not a factor here for me, at least). And if I had a good business purpose in doing so, I would. If I decide to finally get my personal trainer certification (I took the classes but not the exam) or write a book, I’ll be sure to step it up.
But also in those fitness magazines, I read profiles of super-fit women whose favorite song is “anything that gets me PUMPED for a workout (mostly the Black Eyed Peas)” and whose favorite book is either the Bible or something called “U CAN LIVE UR DREAMS GIRL!” And then their major goal in life is “To be fit and help others be fit!” and I’m thinking … really? To be fair, surely many of those women have other interests but are shrewdly using their magazine exposure to pitch their personal training businesses. But an entire life dedicated to physical fitness seems … well, small. Your body looks and works great. Now what?
I spoke here about writing a vision statement for your life. I wrote a column here about extreme advance planning to have the life you want. The 80/20 Principle, of course, says that 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input. I think that’s true here.
I think a gentlewoman — whose life can be thought of as a portfolio of career, business exploits, financial management, relationships, romance, sex, health, travels, philanthropy, creativity, and the creation of meaning — cannot possibly spend the kind of time or mental energy on body maintenance that so much lady-literature advocates. My position is: moderate results while keeping things in perspective.
Gentlewomanly Living for Health and Awesomeness
I do think that weight loss and fitness are much easier once you’re already on the bandwagon. Anything that gets you started, well … gets you started. Inertia works both ways. Drinking one of those hideous-looking green juices often kind of makes you want to exercise. If buying cute workout wear does the same, great. Similarly, I’ve noticed that stress, grief, bankruptcy, and crushing failure have all caused me to forget about eating long enough for my stomach to shrink a bit, so that when I get back to living like a human, I eat smaller portion sizes. That’s fine; you can use the bad stuff for good. (See Bullish: How to Motivate Yourself to Be Motivated for more on the motivational power of fear, disgust, and revenge.)
I also think that getting out of the 9-to-5 world makes healthy living a million times easier. My desk is very close to my stove and refrigerator. I own a casserole dish and know how to use it. If I want to work at my desk for four hours, work out, shower, work four more hours in my bathrobe, work out again, and call it a day, I am free to do so. Offices are bad for you.
Mainly, though, I notice that women are constantly exhorted to do all kinds of crazy shit to and for and with and about their bodies, and this is total crap. For a basically healthy person, one’s body shouldn’t seem like a full-time job. I find it a lot easier to eat well and exercise right when you think about it much, much less. (I wrote about the extreme importance of mental discipline in Bullish Life: Sometimes It’s Best Just to Not Think About It.)
Start a company, or devote yourself utterly to learning a skill outside of your current job. Cultivate an obsession. Just as you will still be able to brush your teeth and call your mother, you will also still be able to exercise and eat your egg whites. You can plan your phone calls while you exercise. You don’t have to think about exercising when you aren’t exercising or about eating a certain way when you’re not eating; in fact, exercise time is excellent time for clearing your head and plotting world takeover. You don’t have to track all your workouts in Excel and make maximum gains every time — again, 80/20.
Gentlewomanly living means that we do important things and make meaning. Meryl Streep is a gentlewoman. Do you think she’s pinching the fat on her stomach and eating nothing but grapes for four days before the Oscars? I hope not. A living legend deserves some fucking salt on her food. She looks great; she hires a stylist. I’ll bet she exercises three times a week like a normal person, while reading scripts on her stationary bike.
I write all the time about how, even if we can’t do everything at once, we can stretch our capacity for doing more things, and making those things work together well. This is no exception. You can have rock-hard thighs that could crush a man to death and also still be a CEO and also have many, many kittens and all the other things that fit into a gentlewomanly life.
originally published on The Gloss