Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
16 Feb

Trusting Authorities (or Not) Based on Appearance

personaltrainerRegina Benjamin, the United States’ 18th Surgeon General, is markedly overweight. She’s a highly trained physician who famously set up a medical clinic for Alabama’s poor hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina, and she’s unquestionably knowledgeable and experienced, but she’s also overweight. Does this negatively impact her role as the public face of health? Does her weight detract from the message?

Or take countless nutrition experts that fit the mold of the dietitian featured in this video? She’s educated, has dozens of books on nutrition and healthy cooking under her belt and, at least on paper, looks like an authority of sorts. But her physique (saying nothing of her healthy eating tips) doesn’t exactly instill confidence in her recommendations (as readers noted in the forum).

On the other hand what about someone like Jillian Michaels? Strong shoulders. Check. Trim waistline and ripped abs. Check and check. She must be doing things right? Right?

I’m sure you see what I’m getting at. Does the physical appearance of a fitness or nutrition authority affect the worthiness of the message? Do we discount weight loss advice from an obese expert who can’t take her own advice – or that takes her own advice a bit too well (in the case of Dr. Benjamin)? Do we listen, enraptured, to the opinions of a random gym rat just because he’s got massive guns? What about the lanky older dude with a Crossfit total of 1,000 pounds?

The natural reaction is to balk at the overweight nutrition teacher or the flabby fitness guru, and accept as gospel the recommendations of musclebound meatheads. And why wouldn’t it? If they practice what they preach and practice equals results they should look the part. But are we missing out on some great stuff by ignoring physically unimpressive people? On the same token, are we making false prophets out of people who are just genetically blessed statistical outliers?

Absolutely.

“Oh, I dunno. I pretty much eat whatever I want.” How often have we heard that from chiseled, elite athletes? Lamar Odom eats pounds of candy each day, sports sub-10% body fat, and is fast, tall, and powerful – does that mean you can do it and make the NBA, too? Michael Phelps eats upwards of 10,000 calories a day, most of it from refined carbohydrates and industrial, processed fats (he’s not sprouting his grains or whipping up his own mayo, folks), yet he retains a lean swimmer’s body and several world records. Neither Odom nor Phelps are telling us what to eat or how to exercise, but plenty of people point to them as evidence that nutrition doesn’t matter. Plenty of bodybuilders lift weights seven days a week for several hours each day without showing signs of overtraining. Try lifting heavy for hours each day without accelerating your anabolic hormonal response to superhuman proportions. Should Joe the middle manager with a pot belly be taking lifting advice from Ronnie Coleman? Of course not. These guys are statistical outliers; they’re the exception to the rule. Their success is often in spite of their training or diet (what if Odom and Phelps ate nothing but real food?). And in some cases, their success is amplified by chemical assistance or steroid use. And yet these are the people whose advice is trusted and sold to unsuspecting consumers looking to get in shape.

Big muscles make fitness magazine covers and sell supplements and lend credence, but that’s it. Statistical outliers don’t make the argument – for or against a particular training or eating program. We see them try, though, all the time. I can’t really blame them. I do the same. A bodybuilder’s physique makes for great marketing, and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that my fitness levels and appearance make the Primal Blueprint more believable and easier to digest. I’ll also say that because I’m trying to reach the most people possible, it’s crucial that I maintain strong personal fitness; the knee-jerk reaction to a trainer’s appearance is a universal truth that we all must acknowledge, especially those of us who are trying to make a difference in people’s lives.

What you, as digesters of dietary and fitness advice, should focus on is what the science says, what works for the most people, and, most importantly, what works for you. If a massively ripped dude is giving out advice, citing actual evidence, and people of all stripes who take that advice are getting stronger, fitter, and faster, then there’s probably something to it. A scrawny old guy with the same support and the same results? You gotta listen to him, too. Fitness and nutrition coaches who can point to hordes of successful trainees and supportive science deserve a listen, even if their personal appearance leaves something to be desired.

I’ve witnessed people discount or dismiss folks like Greg Glassman’s (of CrossFit) or Mark Rippetoe’s (of Starting Strength) training advice simply because they don’t “look the part.” They don’t have a six-pack, they may have a bit of a belly, or they may even be totally out of the game (injuries largely prevent Glassman, a former gymnast, from working out). They may not even practice what they preach (watch Rip squat and deadlift, for you doubters) as much as they once did. They may even be outlifted and outperformed by some random lunkhead at your local globo-gym flexing in the mirror or commenting on YouTube videos – but who should you take advice from? Glassman has presided over an entire fitness movement that produces scores upon scores of strong, fast, powerful, well-balanced athletes. Rip is recognized as perhaps the premier barbell coach in the game. You want to learn how to squat and deadlift, you read his stuff. Yet, your average untrained person would be more than a bit skeptical if either one tried to school them on fitness matters, simply because of their appearance. A coach is a coach. You don’t see people rag on overweight football or swim coaches for not physically measuring up to their players. Basketball coaches are often as diminutive as they come, and they’re still successful. Knowledge is knowledge, whether it’s knowledge of sport, fitness, or nutrition.

If what a health expert is proposing and living has any merit whatsoever, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for them to at least approach the results they’re touting. But we have to keep in mind the complexities of physical fitness, statistical outliers, and other external factors. As for me, I attribute in large part my health, fitness, and physique to the Primal Blueprint. When I backed way off training I was concerned my body composition would suffer, but with the PB I’ve been able to maintain virtually the same body fat percentage while putting muscle on. That said, it would disingenuous to overlook the years of antithetical lifestyle behaviors I practiced previously. I did just about everything wrong – Chronic Cardio, endless grain and refined carb consumption, almost no weight training – and I looked pretty fit and healthy. I wasn’t, of course, but there are probably underlying genetic factors in my favor preventing obesity – no matter how many grains or sugars I eat. At the same time, you can look to the MDA forums and our many success stories to get a sense that the PB isn’t just for the genetically blessed or the elite; it works pretty well for just about everyone who gives it a fair shot. It better work, seeing as how it’s based on human evolutionary biology!

All the variables that determine one’s appearance and fitness levels – genetics, training history, supplementation, training frequency, training intensity, methodology – make deciding who to trust incredibly confusing. At the end of it all, though, you’ve got to follow the science and the results objectively and rationally, because that human instinctual tendency to dole out or withhold trust based on appearance is always going to be a factor. We’re always going to react to appearance, but we should never base our ultimate appraisal on appearance alone.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. While I agree that I would prefer some one who can talk the talk and walk the walk, it is not necessary, merely a preference. Luckily for the New England Patriot’s & New York Jets football teams, who have arguably the best offensive & defensive football coaches in the NFL, the players do not follow the logic of many of the posters here. Rex Ryan weighs 350 lbs and Bill Belichick doesn’t look particularly fit — neither one of them ever played in the NFL. Great coaches learn and get better by experimenting and observation — there is no advantage to applying their knowledge to themselves, in fact, it may muddy the process.

    jim wrote on February 19th, 2010
    • Bravo! Well said Jim.

      Too much more of the cookie cutter mentality and my business will be even busier…we cannot judge someones total health by how they look.

      I hope we don’t start having body requirements to give Nobel Prizes.

      Gina wrote on February 19th, 2010
  2. Interesting discussion. I have to disagree though. Sports performance and knowledge are different from nutrition. Only a few outliers can compete physically. More can coach. But nutrition and eating well is not based on one being a genetic outlier. Everyone eats everyday.

    Brett_nyc wrote on February 19th, 2010
  3. Um.. what happened to getting references? Any professional worth his weight in grass fed beef should be able to show their past successes, be it personal or client based.
    $.02

    Michael wrote on February 19th, 2010
  4. When you are in the business of making people fitter, you “walk the talk” by MAKING PEOPLE FITTER. I don’t care how fat you get, if you claim to know how to make me fit and you can show that you’ve made others fit, then what else do I need from you? That is your service and you have evidence that it is effective.

    Mike Rapoza wrote on February 19th, 2010
  5. That said, a trainer who looks too good is probably too focused on himself to be a great trainer; a trainer who is too slovenly probably doesn’t care about himself enough to be a good trainer. I choose a professional who cares about his health and appearance, but cares about others just as much or more. That’s why great football coaches are at least a little fat. If they spent too much time concerned with working out and looking nice it would take away from their coaching. That’s why Belichick wears the same sweatshirt everyday and why Coach Glassman wears jeans and hiking boots with neck ties.

    Mike Rapoza wrote on February 19th, 2010
  6. As far as the Surgeon General goes, there’s a lot more to the position than looking the part. I like that Regina Benjamin has first-hand experience with the impact of poverty on public health in this country, not to mention first-hand experience with the challenges of building a primary care practice in an economically depressed area. I’m sure I’m not the first to make this observation, but there’s a real problem in this country with people making public-health proclamations that would work great if everyone was just an upper-middle-class white collar professional; I don’t see much danger of her doing this.

    Which reminds me, one of the more helpful professionals I’ve consulted was an obese dietician. She was the first to acknowledge she didn’t look the part, but what she had was the wealth of experience that came from working with thousands of clients before me, of varying body type, background, and goals. The meat of her advice was much more sensible than the dietician in the video (quite paleo-compatible, actually), but what was valuable about working with her was her varied professional experience.

    Kim wrote on February 20th, 2010
  7. Yes, I, too, am more inclinded to believe or seek info from those who walk the talk. But, I also know life can throw you curve balls. Mourning, trauma, thyroid problems, divorce, etc., can cause a person’s lifestyle (eating & exercise habits) to change.

    Debra wrote on April 12th, 2010
    • Thank you Debra! We would all do well to count our blessings and I am grateful to be living long enough to *know* the problems you mentioned cause not only your eating and exercise to change but your constitution, hormones,life force (chi)…we change and we adjust and sometimes the adjustment takes a long time.

      I pray I never begin to judge health care promoters or anyone by their body size/condition. Like I said earlier this kind of body image pressure has done more harm than good AND I am saddened to see the men now jumping on the band wagon…it is reflected in the rapidly increasing numbers of men with full blown eating disorders.

      Gina wrote on April 12th, 2010
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