Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Fast Food Solutions for Fast Food Problems

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
-Albert Einstein*

Every time I go to a store with a large parking lot, I always see cars hovering around the front waiting for a space near to open up. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of spots to be had just a few rows back. By taking the far spot and making the sacrifice of an embarrassingly short walk, you can be on your way in a fraction of the time. The parking space vultures, in search of an easy quick-fix solution, wind up sitting there wasting time.

Taking shortcuts and always looking for a new angle — whether it’s corporate cost-cutting or a new diet pill that will melt off the 50 pounds you need to lose — has a way of backfiring. What’s startling is how people apply this kind of thinking to their health, always looking for the easy way out when it comes to exercising or eating.

The whole point of exercise is to get up and move around. Physical activity activates otherwise dormant genes, with plenty of research indicating that our minds and bodies alike require at least modest amounts of activity for optimal health. We’re not meant to be sedentary creatures.

And yet there are entire fields and sub-fields of pop-culture fitness that promote the quick ‘n easy solution. Abs in eight minutes. A shapely body with just 10 minutes of weight training three times a week.

If only I’d known it would be so easy.

I’ve always operated on the understanding that the body needs stimulus to adapt. The stronger you become — the more ‘adapted’ you are — the more stimulus you need. The trend, then, is towards doing more.

The minimalists don’t see it that way. Instead, they suggest that plateaus happen due to ‘overtraining’. You’re simply doing too much work; by cutting back workloads and encouraging recovery, you’d see far better results.

Like any mostly-scientific proposition, this hypothesis is testable, and proponents of infrequent, slow-tempo, machine-based training simply don’t have support for their position. The preponderance of scientific research doesn’t agree, and if you need empirical Bro-wisdom, there are no top athletes that (successfully) train this way.

Exercise and results relate on an inverted-U-shaped dose-response curve. As the amount of exercise, your dose, increases, so do results — up to a point. Past that plateau, further increases lead to decreased performance. The sweet spot is in the middle of the curve, where the dose maximizes the result. Doing too little, by clinging to the absolute minimum, short-changes results as much as ‘overtraining’. You need to up the dose for best results.

Time-efficient machine workouts with extreme tempos are certainly better than sitting on the couch eating Cheetos, but you will not find a world-class physique or Olympian athleticism at the end of that path. Minimalism says do less; science and practice say do the right amount.

You don’t have to think hard to see how this mentality came to be, or why it’s so popular. The Western world takes pride in efficiency, in outcomes over processes, in getting the most done in the least amount of time. Modern life is encapsulated in equations measuring productivity and time-efficiency and maximum utility.

Why should nutrition and fitness be exempt from the trend towards cultural industrialization? These are just processes to integrate into the daily time-table, commodities to exchange at market rates.

With an obesity epidemic on the rise and no solutions in sight, is it really the best idea to continue the same policies of quick-fix thinking?

You have people like Gary Taubes claiming that exercise doesn’t help manage your weight, but you can eat as much as you want as long as you cut out the scapegoat foods. You have people like Fred Hahn telling you that you can get in the best possible shape using ultra-minimalist workouts based on discredited science.

Simplistic, fast-food solutions. Satisfying solutions. Solutions that feed the need for self-esteem-building, not-my-fault validation. All the same thoughts that got us to this point. Are they enough to get us out?

Probably not.

* For some totally unrelated trivia: this often-cited quote is commonly attributed to Einstein, and yet it may be the result of the whisper game. The original quote was “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”

In The New Quotable Einstein (2005), editor Alice Calaprice suggests that two quotes attributed to Einstein which she could not find sources for, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” and “The world we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them,” may both be paraphrases of the 1946 quote above.