What your body can do is more important than what it looks like.
The fitness magazines scream out with headlines about “Insane Abs,” “Instant Success” and “Get the Lean + Sexy Look.”
These publications and other commercial fitness schemes reflect a culture obsessed with body image rather than true health and fitness.
Just ask Christopher McDougall, author of the bestselling book Born to Run and the more recent Natural Born Heroes, which takes many popular notions about fitness to task while also telling the obscure story of true endurance, strength and compassion of Cretan resistance fighters responsible for turning the tide of World War II.
“What you look like with your shirt off is not the point,” Christopher says. “The art of the hero is always about performance first.”
In World War II the Cretan resistance fighters launched their counter-assault the same day the Nazis invaded, Christopher says. While Hitler had rolled right over every major army in Europe, when he got to Crete, civilians grabbed old hunting rifles and barnyard tools and raced out to defend their rugged and mountainous island. They also co-oped with a misfit band of British operatives and kidnapped the German general, the only time in modern military history that a commanding officer has been abducted from the field of battle.
So fierce and unrelenting were the Cretans, they ultimately changed the very course of the war by delaying Hitler’s invasion of Russia.
But what if the Cretan resistance fighters had sported the bodies of today’s fitness magazines?
“In short, they’d die — quick,” Christopher says.
He says our cultural obsession stems from a strange puritanical sense that “there’s something wrong with you and someone else is judging you.”
But that’s backward, he says. In real-life fitness, performance comes first and appearance follows.
“You think Mark Allen ever looked in the mirror and said, ‘You know, I’m winning the Ironman six times, but I’m not sure how I look in my trunks?’”
For much of Allen’s career as a professional triathlete he received coaching from Dr. Phil Maffetone on building his aerobic fat-burning system, and his success at triathlon became legendary.
As Christopher was researching for Natural Born Heroes, Phil’s name kept surfacing, and Christopher realized he’d found a modern-day fat-burning guru who had rediscovered the knowledge that had been passed down from the time of the ancient Greeks to the Cretan resistance. It was this same philosophy that he used to help Mark and many others achieve athletic success.
“Mark built the basics first — a big fatigue-resistant aerobic engine with the ability to generate large amounts of energy from fat,” says Phil. “It laid the foundation for a long-standing successful career.”
Christopher says the proof to the modern fitness fallacy is the actual success of the very magazines that promote it and the high dropout rate at health clubs — in fact many health clubs count on people paying and not using them in order to be profitable.
“The reason why we have monthly fitness magazines and why the dropout rate in gyms is so high is that both are unsuccessful and unsatisfactory,” he says. “You bought your issue of Mens Health and your gym membership, and it’s not working — you’re still kind of fat and your workout routine is boring. And so you buy another issue.”
Instead Christopher advocates an entirely different and more natural approach to fitness by setting real long-term goals rather than fake short-term goals.
“If I do these bicep curls, is that for a short-term goal like I’ll look nice in a T-shirt, or would it be better to work on a useful long-term goal like being able to lift myself up on a ledge?” he says. “Why not go pull yourself up on a ledge or pick up a sandbag? Vault over a railing. Rather than do the same thing over and over in a controlled environment, find an actual challenge in its natural environment.”
Christopher notes that humans are climbing creatures but rarely do modern workouts include things like climbing trees and rocks. He also is a fan of vaulting over obstacles.
“It’s a pretty decadent society to be focused on appearance,” Christopher says. “It’s a sign of things going wrong if you have the luxury of worrying about what you look like rather than what you can do.”
He jokes that the Cretan resistance fighters were much too busy fighting the Nazis to worry about how they looked with their shirts off.
“The fortunate thing was on Crete this was nothing new for them — this had been a tradition of self-sufficiency for thousands of years,” Christopher says. “It’s a sign of health if you actually are more worried about what you can do.”
By Hal Walter
MAF Senior Editor