In the fitness and weight loss industry, serpent lubrication sells like hotcakes. It’s capitalism run amok, and it is not helping. Billions of dollars are at stake to perpetuate the myth of “quick and easy” when it comes to building muscle and/or dropping fat from your frame. If you believe in quick-fix miracle cures for getting in shape, you’re not alone. Every couple of years the Federal Trade Commission conducts a massive survey of consumer fraud in the United States, and every time it is found people were more likely to be taken in by a weight loss scam than any other type of fraud. It’s not all “bank inspectors” and pyramid schemes; fraudsters scammed millions of Americans wanting to lose weight by selling pills, powders, machines, wraps, creams and even “weight loss earrings.” Huh.
Are people who believe such things stupid? Not necessarily.
In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, Skeptics Society founder Michael Shermer asserted “smart people” could be more susceptible to outrageous claims than others, “because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” These non-smart reasons can include peer pressure, sibling and parental influences, life experiences, cultural pressure and even genetic predispositions. Shermer further explained: “More than any other, the reason people believe weird things is because they want to. It feels good. It is comforting. It is consoling.”
“Weight loss is so susceptible for fraud because it’s so hard to do and the signs of progress so slow,” Shermer told me. “The reward is not enough for most people. Anything that appeals to shortening the process is going to sell.”
But you’re too well-informed to fall for the Shake Weights and the wraps and creams and Body Blades and ab rockers and crap like that, but are there diet and fitness bandwagons you’ve jumped on?
There is an actual thing called the Bandwagon Effect, where if a bunch of other people are doing something it makes it more likely that you’ll want to do it too, because it’s trendy. Tabata, intervals, CrossFit, Paleo, low carb, keto, gluten free, say no to cardio … I’m not saying there is anything inherently bad with any of these things – they work for some people – but many people are ditching programs that work – diet and exercise programs that they’re happy with – because others are compelling them to hop on the latest bandwagon and engage in fitness groupthink.
But maybe these programs aren’t the best for you. Paleo may be better than what the typical North American eats, but it’s founded on terribly flawed principals and engages in that egregious behavior of demonizing food groups. CrossFit certainly is motivating, and not all that more injurious than other intense sports, but it doesn’t change the fact that, at its core, it’s built on a flawed model of exercise prescription that leads to injuries it needn’t have. Intervals are a tool for getting faster, not blasting fat, and should be done sparingly. Many have gone gluten free, even though only a small percentage are celiac, and this is both a boon and bane for people with the disease. Intermittent fasting has a disordered eating like dark side to it. Or just sometimes, a self-proclaimed Internet fitness guru twists the research to rail against the evils of running (then gets his ass handed to him by people who actually know how to interpret scientific research).
So how do you not jump on the bandwagon? Here are some tips:
Don’t feel the need to fix what isn’t broken
You don’t always need to optimize, synergize, or maximize. If you have a program that is getting you good results, you have a diet you’re happy with and can stick to, and you generally feel happy, healthy and like the way you look, why mess with that? Ignore the proselytizers trying to convert you to their dietary or exercise cult and just stick with what you know works for you. When they’re telling you how great CrossPaleo is or how Intermittent Gluten will totally get you ripped, and how you must start doing it, just nod, smile, and say, “That’s nice.” Then go back to doing your own thing.
Develop a Zen-like mindset about diet and exercise
Does everything need to be perfect in your life? Did you always quest to get 100% on every exam and paper, give every single task a max effort, always work to your utmost level of achievement at even the most menial tasks, and ensure every personal interaction involves you being your very best?
Hell no. You’d burn out in no time. And that’s why you shouldn’t stress the diet and exercise stuff so much either. Not just exercise, but eating as well is supposed to be enjoyable for you to stick to a healthy regimen long-term. If you start slipping into obsessive-like diet and/or exercise behavior, then that’s the path to an eventual crash and a burn.
You need to feel more at peace with your regimen. Find something that works with your schedule, your tastes, your family, and your personal preferences. Then kick an appropriate level of ass at it. You’ll do fine.
Become a critical thinker
In the movie World War Z, Israel decided to build a wall to keep the zombies out because of their “tenth man” policy, where when nine other people agree on something, it is the responsibility of the tenth man to question and look for alternative point of view. Nine people said, “No way actual zombies.” And the tenth man said, “But what if … actual zombies?” And the wall got built. Not that it helped for long, but never mind that part.
You should always be looking for alternative points of view. Just because something sounds like a good idea doesn’t mean it’s true. As an example, there is a fallacy that if something is natural then it must therefore be good. But lead, hemlock, mercury and asbestos are all naturally occurring, and I don’t advice chowing down on them. Likewise, “natural” supplements aren’t always safe either.
And in the case of the dude mentioned above who ragged on running, just because someone references a bunch of scientific journals doesn’t mean he did it well. It doesn’t mean he didn’t misrepresent the research and twist things to fit within his own preconceived notions that running = bad.
Remember, spectacular claims require spectacular evidence. If someone is telling you something that sounds amazing, then they need to have some amazing evidence to back it up.
I’m not saying new and amazing stuff in fitness isn’t still yet to come, but most of the “next big thing” is going to be crap. Jack LaLanne was old school in his approach (eat healthy, work hard), and he looked pretty amazing (that’s him in the feature photo) and accomplished incredible feats of fitness (although he pushed the odd gimmick too). So, when faced with hype over the next fitness fad, stop. Don’t just instantly move towards a choice, but analyze and reflect. Actively work to pick apart the claims of others. Seek the holes in their arguments and ask the all-important question of “Why?” If you’re not satisfied with the answer dig deeper and design a way to test their assumptions.
Don’t become a prisoner of diet and exercise groupthink. Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t me you should.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.