Free Weights: There are 2 industries in which I am highly skeptical of innovation: fitness and finance. If someone is trying to sell you a financial product that is overly complicated and you can barely understand, run away. If it’s not a stock or a bond (or a fund of stocks or bonds), then it was probably designed to rip you off. And if someone is trying to sell you some great new strength training machine that perfectly replicates a movement, you are probably better off just doing the original movement. The best fitness is old school fitness. And the best way to do old school fitness is with free weights. I’m far from the only person that believes this and the big box gyms are taking notice. From the WSJ:

Traditional health clubs are removing some machines to open floor space for more personal and small-group training, often popular high-intensity or strength-focused workouts. Some gyms also are increasing the number of fitness classes, as experienced gym-goers seek more engaging workouts and less time staring ahead on an elliptical or push-pulling on weight machines.

“No question there’s been a movement away from those pieces,” says Charles Huff, vice president of facilities for 24 Hour Fitness. In recent years the 420-location chain has scaled back cardio and weight machines to 50% of floor space from about 66%, Mr. Huff says. The gym devotes the other half of floor space to free weights and functional training, which includes things like kettlebell swings and body-weight exercises with TRX suspension straps. It has also expanded its studio group-exercise classes.

              Free weights are cheaper, more effective, more versatile, and require less maintenance than strength-training machines. That is an amazing sentence to type out. So why do weight machines even exist?

Despite 24 Hour Fitness’s move away from cardio and weight machines, at least a few of the familiar rows of equipment are here to stay, Mr. Huff says.

“A ton of people join our club and have never been to a club before,” he says. “The resistance machines and the cardio equipment is almost designed for someone to walk up to that doesn’t necessarily know that they’re doing.”

              Free weights are low-cost, high-knowledge. Machines are high-cost, low-knowledge. It’s encouraging to see things moving in the right direction though. Big-box gyms could still stand to get rid of a lot of their machines.

Fitness Planning: Health care costs in this country have been steadily rising for as long as I can remember. There are a number of factors at play but the effect of the obesity epidemic cannot be overlooked. Should people be planning for the impact that their health (or lack thereof) will have on their finances? From the Stillwater Gazette:

How great would it be if people were encouraged, as part of their planning for the future and even their retirement, to get a realistic idea of health care costs if we maintain our health or not? I can just picture your financial planner looking at your health records, your workout history, doing a movement analysis to give you an estimation of your needed savings based on your current movement patterns, endurance and heart health.

              This is an interesting idea. It’s probably a good idea if you think that people should have a comprehensive retirement plan. If you think that this will scare people straight, I highly doubt it. First off, I don’t think that people are all that confused regarding the link between being over-weight and having health problems. Second, people are really bad at getting motivated for things that might happen in 10 or 20 or 30 years. Third, this wouldn’t be all that different from a doctor telling someone that they need to lose weight. It might scare that person into joining a gym but it probably won’t keep them going to the gym. Shouldn’t people be more scared of the thought of dying prematurely? From MarketWatch:

Being overweight or obese is associated with a higher risk of dying prematurely than being a healthier weight — and the risk increases with additional pounds, according to a separate international study released last year also by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the University of Cambridge in the U.K. Researchers joined forces in 2013 to establish the Global BMI (Body Mass Index) Mortality Collaboration, which included more than 500 investigators from over 300 global institutions.

Looking at specific causes of death, the study found that, for each five-unit increase in BMI (from, say, 30 to 35) — body mass index is measured by a formula that divides your body weight your height — the corresponding increases in risk were 49% for cardiovascular mortality, 38% for respiratory disease mortality and 19% for cancer mortality. That means these people are 49%, 38% and 19% more likely to die earlier than a person who has a healthy body weight.

              If that doesn’t scare the beejezus out of you, I really doubt that talking about health care costs will do the trick.

Guilt Trip: Pure Gym, a U.K.-based gym operator, tweeted out a guide on the 26th to how much “damage” Christmas dinner had done to our bodies. This tweet brought on an avalanche of outrage. From BuzzFeed News:

Others said the language in the post could be harmful to people who have eating disorders. Harriet Fairclough told BuzzFeed News the tweet "was poorly worded and poorly timed". "It’s obvious they just wanted a few more sign-ups by guilting people, which is cruel," she said.

The 20-year-old from Bournemouth said: "I know a large number of people who struggle with restrictive disorders who see Christmas as a challenge and are often very proud of themselves for managing any amount of food.

"I cannot imagine how it must feel to be proud of yourself for not listening to the voice of your eating disorder and then see the Pure Gym tweet, which would validate those negative thoughts and could potentially ruin an already challenging day and maybe even trigger a relapse."

              Was this post insensitive and offensive? Yes, very much so. Should Pure Gym have known better? Yes, although I would have thought that people would have been more critical for fat-shaming rather than triggering people with eating disorders. The question that really sticks with me is why did Pure Gym think that this was going to be effective marketing? There have been marketing campaigns that have come under criticism for fat-shaming but at least they utilized humor. I’m not condoning them but I can see the train of thought. This is pure guilt. Guilt is not the bedrock on which great marketing is built upon. Motivating people to work-out is very tricky but guilt is not the answer. Fitness is a positive good, it’s not life insurance. You have to inspire people not guilt them.   

Intensity: People tend to slow down as they age. Even those that continue to exercise tend to gravitate towards less intense forms of exercise. Is that a choice or a biological imperative? From the NY Times:

Other studies this year reinforced the notion that age need not be a deterrent to hard exercise and that such workouts could be key to healthy aging. An animal study that I wrote about in July, for instance, found that frail, elderly mice were capable of completing brief spurts of high-intensity running on little treadmills, if the treadmill’s pace were adjusted to each mouse’s individual fitness level.

After four months of this kind of training, the exercised animals were stronger and more aerobically fit than other mice of the same age, and few remained physically frail. Perhaps most striking, “the animals had tolerated the high-intensity interval training well,” one of the scientists who conducted the study told me.

              This has always felt like a chicken or egg dilemma. Is someone feeling their age because of the inevitability of aging or because they have reduced their activity levels? Is it biology or psychology? I do believe that the number one mistake is that as you get older, you have to get smarter about the little things. When you’re young, you can get away with cutting corners on things like rest and recovery. As you get older, those mistakes will really bit you in the ass. And the best way to get in shape is to stay in shape.

But of course, mice are not people. So it was another study this year that to my mind provided the most persuasive evidence that strenuous exercise alters how we age. In that study, which I wrote about in March (which became my most popular column this year), scientists at the Mayo Clinic compared differences in gene expression inside muscle cells after younger and older people had completed various types of workouts.

But of course, mice are not people. So it was another study this year that to my mind provided the most persuasive evidence that strenuous exercise alters how we age. In that study, which I wrote about in March (which became my most popular column this year), scientists at the Mayo Clinic compared differences in gene expression inside muscle cells after younger and older people had completed various types of workouts.

The greatest differences were seen in the operations of genes after people had practiced high-intensity interval training for 12 weeks. In younger people who exercised this way, almost 275 genes were firing differently now than they had been before the exercise. But in people older than 64, more than 400 genes were working differently now and many of those genes are known to be related to the health and aging of cells.

In effect, the intense exercise seemed to be changing muscle cells in ways that theoretically could affect biological aging.            

              Our bodies respond to stimuli. If you tell your body that it’s not time to slow down yet, then your body will respond to that accordingly. Stay young by staying active.

Wearables: Do you want to feel depressed and hopeless about the obesity epidemic? Yes? Then let’s hear what Wired has to say about fitness trackers:

Personal technology is getting a bad rap these days. It keeps getting more addictive: Notifications keep us glued to our phones. Auto-playing episodes lure us into Netflix binges. Social awareness cues—like the "seen-by" list on Instagram Stories—enslave us to obsessive, ouroboric usage patterns. (Blink twice if you've ever closed Instagram, only to re-open it reflexively.) Our devices, apps, and platforms, experts increasingly warn, have been engineered to capture our attention and ingrain habits that are (it seems self-evident) less than healthy.

Unless, that is, you're talking about fitness trackers. For years, the problem with Fitbits, Garmins, Apple Watches, and their ilk has been that they aren't addictive enough. About one third of people who buy fitness trackers stop using them within six months, and more than half eventually abandon them altogether.

              I never thought of it like that but they’re absolutely right. Fitness trackers & smartwatches is the one piece of hardware that has proven to not be addictive. We’re addicted to screens yet we aren’t mass adopting the one screen that could potentially make us healthier. There are a number of reasons why this might be besides the idea that people hate exercising: it’s still early days for fitness trackers, we’re still waiting on the killer app, we hit the point of gadget fatigue. The Wired article hits upon some optimism at the end:

These are just some of the ways wearable manufacturers have begun borrowing theories from psychology and behavioral economics to motivate users in recent years—and there will be more to come. "They're constantly adding features," says Brandeis University psychologist Alycia Sullivan, a researcher at the Boston Roybal Center for Active Lifestyle Interventions and coauthor of a recent review of fitness tracker motivation strategies. Now that these devices are small, powerful, and packed with sensors, she says, expect most of those features to show up on the software side of things. "That's where these companies are most able to leverage the data they're accumulating toward interactive, personalized information you'll actually use."

It may have taken them a while to catch up with the Facebooks and Netflixes of the world, but our fitness devices are finally poised to hijack our brains—and bodies—for good.

              That’s a strong close but that opening really got to me.

Trainers: Australian Vogue may not be your first source of musings about the fitness industry but they have some thoughts:

The new luxury is about feeling good internally. (Looking good is a welcome side effect.) But becoming your “best self” is a status symbol that comes with lasting real-life benefits. Longevity has become the ultimate gift with purchase. Pumped up by Instagram memes and #fitspo imagery, motivated clients are pushing trainers to lift their game, too. Once it was enough for PTs to stand back and bark orders. Now they are expected to be thought leaders, lifestyle gurus and agents of radical change. Being a PT is not about telling people what to do any more, says Kraschnefski. “PTs need to be able to recognise detrimental behaviours and coach their clients towards positive behavioural change,” she says. “And not just while they are in the gym, but in other areas of their life, such as what they eat and how they manage stress.”


Bridges says the trainers leading the field are expanding their clients’ mental and emotional selves, not just aerobic capacity. “We’ve always been motivators, but the pressure is on, because of consumer demand and expectation, to be much more multifaceted ourselves as trainers,” she says. She warns that consumers need to make sure their trainers are qualified to advise them on areas outside the physical training sphere: “Training people in the mental and emotional fields is a really specialised skill set and it’s important for all parties that no-one oversteps their remit and expertise.”


              Sweet Fancy Moses! Is this for real? What are they envisioning here? I understand the hype but I would expect a media outlet to push back against it. Question whether people should be expecting their trainer to also be their life coach. Question whether it’s realistic to expect someone to be an expert in all aspects of human psychology and physiology. Do a basic sanity test.


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