How Do I Tell the Good Fitness Information from the Bad?

There are three questions to ask when you’re trying to determine if the fitness writing you’re reading or the product or supplement you’re thinking of buying or the diet you’re thinking of starting will help you at all. Like, AT ALL.

A) Does it relate to my goal?

B) Will it work for me?

C) What kind of promises does it make?

I’ll discuss these questions one at a time, as usual 🙂

Does it relate to my goal?

As I often discuss ad infinitum, if you don’t know precisely what you’re trying to do, it’s impossible to know if the information or product will help you. If you’re trying to burn fat but are not ready or willing to commit to a diet and exercise regimen, coconut oil will not only not help you but it can hold you back. If you want to get “shredded” fast, neither the Perfect Pushup nor the Perfect Pullup is perfect for that goal. And better long-term health won’t necessarily come from liquid diets, high-protein/low-carb diets, single-ingredient diets (like grapefruit or avocado), specific products like coconut oil, kale, or goji berries, or any other type of dieting fad that involves extremes of “eat this, not that.” It definitely won’t come from starvation diets.

This is because these products or fads, some of which may be useful tools, sell themselves as substitutes for a healthy lifestyle. That is, they tell you, “make this one change to your life and you’ll reach your goals!” This promise is a pretty sure sign that the product is not a good starting point. The only value these products have is as effective means of “learning the hard way,” because they so often result in failure and all of the demotivating feelings that come with it.

There is nothing wrong with the hard way as long as you actually learn from it. Besides learning and changing a particular behavior, the other outcome is that you don’t learn from it and you are hard on yourself about it. “Why can’t I just do what the guy in the commercial does and exercise with my new Perfect Pushup three times a day forever? I guess I’m just a weakling deadbeat failure.” The thing is, you can safely assume that the folks who sell these items don’t care if you use it even once after you buy it. They are trying to make money and get ahead in a crowded and competitive field.

The goals that they give you—Lose the Weight And Get Shredded NOW!—may not be the goals you need. Let’s say I’d like to be a genius mathematician. Where do I start? Trying to calculate the tensile strength of a 75-ton iron beam while undergoing the cross-directional friction of 650-ton electronic bullet train generating a drag force of (1/2)*1.2*(160^2)*0.027*42.67 amidst an air density of 1.2 at sea level, and traveling 160 kph, with a 0.027 Drag Coefficient and 420.67m equalling the total approximate underside area of the train?

Hell no! I start at the beginning that suits me. Same goes for “getting shredded!” You definitely don’t start there.

Will it work for me?

The “fitness products” industry wants you to believe there are hard and fast rules for achieving “fitness” and health, such that if a product worked for So-and-so, it’ll work for you too. Two problems with this. A) you don’t know for a fact that it worked for So-and-so. People get paid to say things all the time. And B) Different people react differently to different things. There is no guarantee that the specific strategy that worked for So-and-so will work for you. This is pure marketing.

As I said, these items for sale may be useful tools. The other side of asking, “will it work for me?”is knowing how you will integrate a specific tool into your regimen. “Integrate” is the key word, because this one product will definitely not constitute your regimen. A product that does only one thing, or a diet whose purpose is weight loss and nothing else, is not of itself a recipe for success.

Real, long-term success comes from changes in overall lifestyle that integrate (there’s that word again!) practical principles of health and fitness into your everyday decision-making process. Whereas once you might have eaten to relieve stress, now you manage stress better. Whereas you used to use alcohol consumption to get rid of bad feelings, now its occasional use creates feelings of enjoyment. Whereas energy was a diminishing resource throughout the day, now it is abundant, et cetera.

The principles that produce these types of healthy life changes are not complex. They are essentially universal strategies; they pretty much work for everyone, though to different degrees and in different ways. And there are countless ways to put them into action. This wealth of options is what seems to complicate such simple ideas as the law of thermogenesis: if your caloric intake exceeds your caloric expenditure, you will gain weight (including potentially muscle). If your caloric expenditure exceeds your caloric intake, you will lose weight (including potentially muscle). This is a scientific fact. Your body and its multitude of tissues require calories in order to maintain themselves. If you reduce your caloric intake, you create the conditions for losing unwanted bodyfat.

Now, how and where you lose weight on your body is decided by your genes, and lowering your caloric intake too much can have harmful effects like causing binges, depression, hormonal imbalances, and other non-fun. But “cutting calories” doesn’t only have to mean reducing caloric intake; if you increase your caloric expenditure by increasing exercise, this also has the effect of cutting calories. So doing both, with a decent level of variety in both as well—NOT just one food product, or one type of exercise, or one type of ANYTHING—is the answer.

You see, ideas like this, which are so basic and straightforward and universal, so general and clearcut and unsexy, and place an emphasis on personal responsibility, are not as marketable as, “use this, get that!” The question, therefore, must not be simply “will it work for me?” but “will it work in my overall strategy to improve my health and well-being?” Which leads me to the last of the three questions:

What kind of promises does it make?

It shouldn’t be construed from what I’m saying that integrating helpful principles—no matter how simple they are—into your life and seeing great results is at all easy. It is hard, and it takes time. “Knowing” and “doing” are two different things, after all. Fitness products, however, often want fitness to look easy to achieve: instant gratification, without the work, without the big, disruptive lifestyle changes. You say, “Gimme!” and pay $49.95 for a book or a doorway pullup bar, and within the month, sixpack abs, a skinny waist, a massive chest, and an attractive butt will suddenly say hello to you in the mirror one morning.

The product may promise things like, “See Insane Results in Just Four Weeks!” or “The One, The Secret, The Answer, to All of Your Diet Prayers!” But the truth is simple, and it hurts: the only promises any fitness product can truly make are the promises you make to yourself. “I promise to go from little or no regular exercise to using this piece of equipment exclusively, daily and sometimes more than once per day, and/or going from eating whatever I feel like to, instead, sticking to this restrictive diet every day, all day, for the next indefinite period, and I’ll get jacked.”

If you actually did that, you would probably NOT get jacked, but you’d likely see some results. But almost no one does either. That’s not the product failing; that’s the marketing succeeding, in tandem with a widespread lack of knowledge surrounding fitness and nutrition.

Therefore, your best bet is ignoring the product’s promises and assessing your own level of motivation and readiness to get healthier. Each product must be seen, not as a be-all, end-all, but rather as a tool that is worth adding to your collection of fitness resources. You must ask yourself, “do I know how to get the most out of this product? Is it worth spending my hard-earned money on to expand my fitness options? Or build my ability to work out at home when I can’t get to the gym? Or to work out when traveling and no gym is available? What specific area of my health will this product help me with?”

Of course, this implies that you are concerned with more than one “area”: abs, chest, butt, et cetera. You want an overall feeling of health, a holistic experience of being able to access your physical self at will, a better sense of strength and robustness and better feelings in the mirror. Such a goal is not a destination; it is a process, one with ups and downs, one that requires work and resolve, but that needn’t be torturous or mired in harsh black/white perceptions of “success” or “failure.”

It is a journey that you will choose to take when you are ready, when you feel informed and motivated and empowered, and when the pile of books and workout gear starts to bug you. The only fitness product that truly works is the one that you already own: your body. Believe in it, give it a chance to succeed, learn from its mistakes, and it will get you far. Don’t make promises; make progress.

The Three Criteria of Whether Something is “Good For You”

Instant gratification is a powerful expectation. Once we become accustomed to it, it can define the value of something, just by giving us that initial, endorphin-filled feeling of “now I have it!”

When it comes to fitness and nutrition, though, this “instinct” can hold us back. There are no quick fixes to becoming healthy, losing weight, or gaining muscle.

Every week, another product appears on the market whose claims of being “what you need” to reach your goals sweeps the nutrition field: apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, kale, açaí, goji berries, garcinia cambogia, white grapefruit, paleo and other low-carb diets, et cetera.

But none of these products or routes is “THE” answer. The actual answer is not to make one or two or three changes while keeping everything else the same. It is, instead, to transition into a healthy lifestyle wherein your health and longevity play a key role in your decision-making. The questions of “is this [food or activity] healthy?” and “will this [food or activity] positively contribute to my health and fitness goals?” should constitute a significant portion of your daily conscious thinking, and active measures to accomplish these ends should constitute a significant part of your daily conscious action.

This is, of course, dependent on having fitness goals. So you must be empowered to think knowledgeably in order to set them, and to act confidently on that knowledge in order to meet them.

This transition is easier for some people than it is for other people. It has a lot to do with your current level of health, your day-to-day schedule, your mentalities, your upbringing, and your relationship (or lack thereof) with physical exercise. Just changing from little or no conscious thought about fitness to some conscious thought about it is a challenge for many people, never mind reaching the point where it is regularly considered and acted upon on a daily basis.

Part of the reason for this is the perceived “learning curve.” All of our lives, we are told to become educated in our field of study and profession in order to get ahead in those fields. But rarely are we told to, “educate yourself on maintaining good cardiorespiratory health!” “Learn about retaining insulin sensitivity!” “Develop a firm grasp on how antioxidants CAN EXTEND YOUR LIFE AND FIGHT DISEASE!”

Gym class is of little help. Now, I’m not trying to blame Phys Ed. teachers here, but gym class should be about more than either learning how to play floor hockey, or learning how to get out of playing floor hockey. It should be about learning why floor hockey or any other physical activity is important to your life, and if you don’t like floor hockey, here’s a bazillion other options to choose from.

Similarly, we aren’t told much about the value of nutrient-dense food over nutrient-deficient food, at least not before college. The roles of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber are barely understood by the general populace. Rarely do we hear about the law of thermogenics in relation to health: “if calorie intake exceeds calorie expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” How many times did you hear about how awful heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are, without being told how to prevent them besides “eat your vegetables”?

Like I said, different people learned about these subjects differently, so maybe you learned about them just fine, and maybe you are doing just fine with your fitness level right now (I hope). But many people’s understanding of them is deficient; even if they are excellent at building a house, balancing a budget, writing a novel, or raising a child, staying and feeling healthy is something they just can’t seem to nail down.

There are so many voices in the media and everywhere telling us to do a million different things in order to “get fit.” Healthy, “fit” people seem to have mastered these million things, while everyone else is still struggling. Those who were brought up to have a positive relationship to physical exercise have an advantage, and everyone else has a disadvantage. In neither case, of being “born into” healthy habits or overcoming unhealthy ones and embracing a healthy lifestyle, does it occur overnight. And keep in mind, you can’t always tell how healthy a person is by looking at them.

The “secret” that many successfully healthy people have learned is what I am right about to share with you. The three criteria for knowing whether something—a food or an activity—is good for you, are the following:

1. Does it fall within my health restrictions, if any, caused by a medical condition such as lactose-intolerance, Celiac’s disease, Crohn’s disease, or high cholesterol? If so, do not eat it.

2. Is it aligned with my sense of ethics? You should not eat anything that you don’t approve of, ethically. Avoiding moral compromises helps to reinforce feelings of self-control, discipline, and long-term thinking, and produce an “eating to live” mentality, rather than a “living to eat” mentality.

3. Does it fit my fitness goals? If you want to run marathons, you will need carbohydrates in your diet. If you want that “dry, shredded look,” carbs are a no-no. The health value of any food is almost completely dependent on what you are trying to achieve. Of course, reaching your daily intake goal for fats could be achieved by eating bacon, or by eating avocado, and I would be hard-pressed not to say that one is healthier than the other, especially if one of your fitness goals is longevity.

Another simple criterion you could consider in deciding if a food is good for you is its nutritional content. If it is rich in nutrients, it is good for you. If it isn’t, or if it is also rich in bad things like saturated fat, cholesterol, or added sugar, it is bad for you or should at least be eaten in moderation.

The majority of your foods should be nutrient-dense, whole food (unprocessed or minimally processed) options that leave as little question of their nutritional value as possible. Nutrient-dense whole foods have many benefits: they keep us feeling full longer due to higher fiber content. They give us more sustained energy because they are more vitamin-rich and their carbohydrates are broken down more slowly. Due to that increased energy, they complement our exercise routines. And, they contain more water to help us stay hydrated and reduce water retention (“water weight”).

The trick to remember, no matter how “healthy” all of your foods are, is that law of thermodynamics: “if caloric intake exceeds caloric expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” So if you did nothing but “eat your vegetables” for 3000 calories a day, there’s a good chance you’d gain weight.

That’s because there is no “quick fix,” whereby “you do this and ONLY this, and all of your health worries will be solved.” No. The marketing value of such products is that, once you’ve implemented them, they free you from the burden of having to think about health and fitness, or change anything else about your life.

The truth is, health and fitness require sustained informed thought and decisionmaking, and conscious choice. In other words, it requires some thinking and some time out of your life to really make it happen. But isn’t your health worth it? Wouldn’t it feel good to know that your decisions are based on achieving a larger purpose, and the stress of “not knowing what you’re doing” can be replaced with the empowered feeling of being a nutritional badass?

Now, another question is, do these criteria reduce food and exercise to mere instruments for larger goals, alienating them from their individual pleasurable attributes? Do they demystify flavor and apply a utilitarian purpose to every macro- and micronutrient? Do they encourage every food-related decision to be considered and thought about and monitored, and thereby remove the joy of eating?

I would say no, they don’t. What they do is repurpose food to suit a greater purpose than the hunger or flavor of the moment. Hunger and flavor are indeed important, and needn’t be left behind. But the stress and destructive cycles that mindless, uninformed, or confused consumption can cause should indeed be left behind immediately. There is a very clear pleasure and reward to eating and living with your health being an end result. It is its own reward.

Plus: kale, watercress, avocado, pistachios, chickpeas, arugula, pineapple, kiwi, black beans, oatmeal with ground flaxseed and agave, baked sweet potato, and a million other things are delicious! But, like floor hockey, health is an acquired taste. All it takes is learning how to skate in a straight line, and you’re 100% closer to success than you were before.