This weekend, New York Times Food Critic Frank Bruni wasted space in an otherwise fine newspaper with this editorial on Jack LaLanne and his (negative) impact on American fitness culture.
It is Jack LaLanne you can thank, or curse, for all the gyms: in exurban strip malls, suburban manses, downtown hotels. The health club he opened in Oakland, Calif., in 1936 was one of their seeds and templates, an endorphin emporium that pointed the way.If Bruni seriously thinks America is fitness-obsessed, he needs to walk away from all those fancy, Manhattan bistros he reviews and spend an afternoon hanging out at a Jack in the Box - maybe one next door to the gym at an "exurban strip mall." If he does, he's in for a major shock. Guess what, Frank? With an obesity shooting past 30%, we're not fitness-obsessed. We're a bunch of fat-asses!
That sense of failure you feel when you haven’t exercised in days? That conviction that if you could pull off better push-ups, you’d be a better person through and through? These, too, are his doing, at least in part. What he left behind when he died last week, at the toned old age of 96, was not only a sweaty culture of relentless crunching and spinning but also the notion that fitness equals character, and that self-actualization begins with the self-discipline to get and stay in shape. In the post-LaLanne landscape, it’s not the eyes but the abdominals that are windows to the soul.
Admittedly, we, however, image-obsessed - but I'd be much more willing to pin that on Us Weekly or reality television. True, there is a small, highly visible population in America who fuss too much about their six-pack abs, but for the most part, we're a lot more interested in Ryan Reynolds' six-pack - and only from the comfort of our living room couch, while guzzling down an entirely different kind of six-pack.
Furthermore, while I admire any writer who achieves a resume like Bruni's, he seems to forget that we are a nation of individuals. He may have found self-actualization in his career or his intellectualism, but we can't all do that. For many, fitness is where we find character, where we find ourselves - and there's nothing wrong with that. Bruni doesn't appear to agree. Instead, he tries to paint fitness culture as some sort of cult:
“There seems to be a whole substitute morality, where your obligation is to go to the gym and not ask why,” says Mark Greif, a founding editor of the literary journal n+1 and the author of a widely discussed 2004 essay, “Against Exercise.” “If you don’t, you become a sort of villain of the culture.”
The message that perspiration is a gateway to, and reflection of, higher virtues is captured in health club slogans like ones used by the Equinox chain over recent years: “Results aren’t always measured in pounds and inches.” “My body. My biography.” “It’s not fitness. It’s life.” The same idea is encoded in the language of personal improvement. A “new you” usually means a trimmer, tauter version, not someone who has learned to speak Mandarin or picked up woodworking skills.
But the flaw here - as is the case with the rest of this piece - is that he completely overlooks the fact that exercise is good for you. It's what our bodies were meant to do and most of us don't do it enough. If you don't exercise, you may not be my "enemy," but you're certainly your own enemy. If we lived in ancient Sparta, where the drive for physical excellence reached a point that unhealthy children were routinely killed, I'd concede this point, but, and I repeat, we are a fat nation. We need to exercise more.
In addition to promoting weight loss, exercise has scores of other benefits. It wards off diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, arthritis, and on and on. It's also been shown to have scores of physiological benefits and improve productivity. Bruni has sport with the American public for approving of our two most recent presidents' fitness regimes. You bet your ass I approve! Anyone who makes time to clear their head and take care of their body, even when saddled with one of the world's hardest jobs, is going to make better decisions. (That said, I'm not thrilled with all the decisions made by these two leaders, but that has more to do with ideology and less to do with jogging.)
Let me put it this way; I know people who don't like to read. They find it a waste of time, especially when you can work through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2 hours onscreen thanks to the miracle of cinema. Tell me, Frank, what about those people? Do you approve of them? Just as exercise nourishes and body, reading nourishes the brain and I'm fairly certain you're somewhat dismissive of people who eschew the written word. Yet it all serves the same purpose, in a way. Mind-body-soul, buddy. They all work together. You need to tend to them all.
Yes, as is the case with every other industry in America, the fitness industry can be overzealous, but would you attack a food company selling healthy foods and admonishing high fructose corn syrup? Would you attack anti-smoking campaigns, even though they tend to over-dramatize the horrors of tobacco? If you smoked or were a firm believer in the curative powers of Pepsi, you might be willing to take those jabs. And that, I believe, might be the root of Bruni's odd diatribe. In his memoir, "Born Round," the writer details a lifetime battling his weight, including jags with bulimia. I haven't read the book, but I'm willing to bet that the his personal body image issues inform the opinions in this piece somewhat, which is fine, but he really should have offered a little more disclosure.
I'm not 100% sure of this theory, because I haven't read his book. It's not fair for me to judge, so I'll make you a deal, Frank. I'll read your book and keep an open mind about how you live your life. In turn, the next time you're in Los Angeles, you come surfing or attend a yoga class with me and we'll discuss why what Uncle Jack did wasn't so bad.
And if that doesn't settle it, I'm sure a couple rounds of Greco-Roman wrestling will decide who's fit, er, I mean right.
Thanks to Fitness Nerd Andrew R. for pointing this editorial out.