A street view of Fitocracy headquarters (I kid, I kid)
I had the pleasure of meeting a Fitocracy Co-Founder at The Fitness Summit this past weekend. Dick Talens and I have been in correspondence for more than a year, bouncing great ideas off each other from time to time. When I read his post titled “Why the Fitness Industry is Broken,” I had to respond.
I write this response out of great respect for his thoughts. I can see his side, but I also feel that perhaps there’s more to it than what reaches his perception.
If you asked me who stands on the frontlines of the fitness industry in recent years, Dick Talens would be toward the top of my list. Believe me, the list is vast—for many reasons. Thirty years ago we could tick off our fingers when asked to name the men and women revolutionizing fitness. Now we see an incredible thing happening.
What were then polychotomous fields now gather in the same room to canvass new theories, old thoughts, and empirical data. Gym owners, athletic coaches, personal trainers, nutritionists, scientists, computer geeks, writers, physical therapists, and the general populous share jurisdiction in a space that not long ago was very black and white. Talens and I experienced this over the weekend at the JP Fitness Summit in Kansas City, MO.
An entire subculture has formed that allows us to take off our helmets to stop butting heads, and rather put our heads together to solve tangible issues that pose a real threat to our future. That statement in itself seems a bit alarming (something Talens warns us against in his article), but I can’t help bringing up the dire straits we are facing with the current health crisis.
According to the CDC, in 2000 no state reported having an obesity rate over 30%. Ten years later, 12 states reportedly saw an obesity rate of +30%, with a US average of 35.7%. During this time we witnessed one of the greatest economic crises in American history, with it came a rise in unemployment and an increase in healthcare costs.
Anyone calculating this dyad of despair would clench his chest. But when adding the third factor of obesity, his wallet practically disappears. An obese person spends upward 5.5% more of their average household income on healthcare as compared to citizens with a clinically healthy weight, according to a study in 2006. In addition, economists have found a direct correlation with unemployment and obesity. In other words, health care costs and unemployment are higher for those with obesity-related health issues. But the price of healthcare spending on obesity doesn’t just affect the spending of those individuals.
The Organization for Economic Co-Operations and Development reported obesity-related health care spending cost upward of $190 billion per year in 2012, equaling more than 20% of the total U.S. health care costs. This number is predicted to rise another $50 billion by 2030.
I won’t bludgeon you to death with statistical data regarding the economic impact of obesity or the state of health care. I also don’t want it to appear I think the health care crisis is only related to obesity– I know there exists a multitude of other factors and I’ve barely chipped away at this topic. I presented this information as an anti-catalyst to Talens’ argument as to why the fitness industry is broken, largely because a great percentage of the fitness industry works with clients who are overweight.
Before you believe that my goal is to reduce is argument in anyway, I think that no one has collected more real-world data on the psychological aspect of fitness than our friends at Fitocracy. In recent months, Fitocracy reached over 1 million users, giving them access to the largest information pool on how people interact in the fitness and nutrition realm. Coaches interact with dozens and even hundreds of clients each year, but these guys receive a constant stream of feedback regarding all things fitness related.
They read it all. They know who’s got it right and who’s doing it wrong. From reading Talens post we can definitely gauge that more or doing it wrong than right, which is likely what trigger his post in the first place. But his post wasn’t to call out those working hard to improve their well being. He created a call to action to expose why so many people have a hard time making progress. It’s not the individuals themselves, the misinformation that surrounds the fitness arena.
I agree with much of what he said in the article. I’m not going to dissect each statement and provide a counter-statement (that’s just annoying). But I do not agree that the fitness industry is broken.
We must take into account that physical fitness as a cultural substrate is relatively new when looking at the entire context of human history. Not to say that exercise is new—it couldn’t be otherwise man would have extinguished a long time ago. But the idea of this habit that’s taken outside of our normal lives, this hobby almost, hasn’t existed that long.
In the same notion, exercise and nutritional scientists are infants among the scientific universe. Though Hippocrates, Celsus, and da Vinci presented radical ideas about exercise and nutrition, the first scientific experiments on food were not performed until the mid 1700’s. We didn’t even know what elements foods were composed of until the early 1800’s, and Liebig didn’t point out the chemical makeup of carbohydrates, fats, and protein until well into the 19th century.
We can largely thank Gutenberg for the invention of the printing press (16th century) as it allowed theories of exercise to spread among scholars through printed word. But, we still must account for the fact that exercise wasn’t studied in labs until much, much later.
Eating and moving are voluntary human actions, but necessary to survival. Perhaps we can say that the more the fitness subculture evolves, the more complicated we make these two basic survival skills, churning our brains into a heap of confusion?
In turn, we can also argue that in order for the fitness industry to break, it was at one time comprised of uniformly moving parts.
Exercise science, human nutrition, technology, medicine, health care and economics must be coetaneous for the general population to live harmoniously healthy lives. Marketers will always be marketers. We cannot blame faulty marketing on the failing of our current system. It’s not the Tony Horton’s or the Hydroxycut’s of the world that prevent people from achieving their goals. People will always buy into hype because of the rush they feel with instant gratification and the idea of things being easier to accomplish. Man evolves because he works very hard to make hard things easier to do.
PT Barnum taught us about marketing with the circus. There’s nothing wrong with that rush. It’s what keeps us coming back for more. When we grew tired of sword swallowers, Barnum brought us ladies on elephants. When that no longer excited us, he tamed lions and tigers.
The magic of marketing is to continually create these illusions that distract people from their real lives. The fantasy of having what we think we want.
In the grand scheme of things, the P90X’s are harmless when it’s up against the drug companies and medical manufactures that continue to create bandages that make living with debilitating non-communicable disease possible. Crossfit seems far less dangerous than Johnson and Johnson who is making more advanced orthopedic devices for obese persons, or Merck’s Januvia and Janumet diabetes medications that pulled in more than $5.7 billion in sales last year.
When we stand up against this wall dodging bullets and cannons being shot at us from the other side, we have to question what is really hurling danger at us in the first place? Is the fitness industry really fighting a battle within itself, or are we up against a much larger force?
We are being taught that it is far easier to take an amalgam of pills and undergo risky surgery to treat symptoms of disease than it is to prevent it in the first place. We are being taught that the only way to get better is keep doing things that may potentially cause other health issues. Band-Aids are easier to put on than to stop doing what hurts us in the first place.
Health care is big business, and until a system is in place that rewards the efforts of those who work to treat and prevent disease rather than symptoms, it will be the fitness industry greatest adversary— which means we (fitness and nutrition professions from all walks) must remain close allies. We must continue to reward the efforts of those who take their health out of the stranglehold imposed on health care and into their own hands. Regardless if they stumble, take the wrong advice, or give up.
As fitness professionals, it is our job to keep battering that wall. The one that separates exercise and nutrition from treatment and prevention of disease. We must continue to turn heads away from pharmaceuticals and medical devices that merely cauterize the wounds caused by a truly broken health care system. A system teaching people being sick is normal—a system that continues to thrive as obesity numbers rise.
The cost of health doesn’t hinge on the $39.99 DVD that failed the deliver its promises. The scope runs much deeper than that. Until the fitness community can unite with health care and work together to create a society that thrives—a society that understands how quality nutrition and movement helps us work harder and more efficiently as employees, making us a more productive society—then will we continue to stand up against the wall. The wall that prevents people from seeing what is possible for their own health.
I commend Talens, who is a dear friend and a brilliant mind in fitness. He has found a way to take something that caused a generation of kids to sit on their butts for hours on end and turn it into something that motivates them to move. These are the innovators who will create those hairline fractures in that wall we stand up against. I also commend him for opening up this dialogue as it forces us to think about the real issue—and also help us realize that we can choose to be a part of the problem or the solution, but we can’t be both at the same time.