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.

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Matt

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10 thoughts on “Fast Food Solutions for Fast Food Problems”

  1. I know Jason Ferruggia did a series of posts on minimalism (his take) at the end of last year, What I took from that was not to do less, but to focus on the important stuff with regards to training, remove the "fluff". But I can see how that could be misinterpreted by the lazy.

    As an aside, when I drive, I just go to the top level of the multi-level, or to the outskirts, I can't be bothered dealing with the hassle of driving in circles. Plus, I can't let my conditioning go to waste.

    1. I wondered how to best approach the term, for that very reason. Minimalism, in the sense of sticking to the core of most-effective exercises, is a fantastic premise and lies at the core of my philosophy. Defined as doing less for the sake of doing less, minimalism leads to things like SuperSlow and vulturing over parking lots.

      I agree that the terminology needs more precision.

  2. What if you don't want to be a top athlete? Squat heavy once a week – one top set! – and you'll be stronger than almost everyone at almost everything; throw in a set of heavy kettlebell swings and you'll have most of the benefits of daily exercisers for a temporal investment of… five minutes? Ten? The zippy little 5k guys can brag about their times but when my buddy wanted the 200# marble column – base to a pretty birdbath – walked up three flights of stairs, somehow the aerobics guys were suddenly unfit; huh. Guys who can significantly outbench and outcurl me get crushed in the clinch and taken down effortlessly. Walking up hills suddenly becomes a very even contest between the lean young runner and the obese middle-aged lifter when 80# rucks are added to the equation. Maximalists have an argument, sure, but it's for pros; for white collar guys it makes more sense to set reasonable goals and do the minimum to achieve them, you have other things to do, right? Consider Kilgore' standards: http://www.killustrated.com/sport-amp-fitness-pri… if you can hit intermediate and you're not a serious athlete, mightn't you be doing enough already?

    1. "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."

      There's also the fact that citing Pavel as an example of how to train less is hilarious in a way you probably wouldn't get if you're not more familiar with his writings. Pavel emphasizes minimalism in your exercise pool — which I agree with — not necessarily in your entire workout regimen.

      1. How high a bar are you setting here? World record deadlift isn't good enough?
        And sure, an hour a week is more than a set a week, but you'd still call it minimalism, neh?

      2. Scott, I'm not sure why you're so bothered here. I've expressly stated that we're dealing with a particular mindset looking for quick results from the least-possible amount of effort, and this tends to backfire. Take it for what it is and move on.

        Further, you're going to find far more WR holders who don't train in that way, and beyond that, there's a lot of dynamics involved to the process. I make great gains with one heavy deadlift workout each week, but if I don't squat and do a lot of lighter pulling work on top of that, nothing else gets stronger and the deadlift stalls out sooner than later.

        Picking one example from a narrow slice of time and claiming the entire point to be disproven is simply not adequate.

    2. "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."

      There's also the fact that citing Pavel as an example of how to train less is hilarious in a way you probably wouldn't get if you're not more familiar with his writings. Pavel emphasizes minimalism in your exercise pool — which I agree with — not necessarily in your entire workout regimen.

  3. Hi Matt,
    If I understand what Gary Taubes claims it's not that you can exceed your caloric needs and lose weight, it's more that insulin raising foods turn on fat storing which make you eat more (or fight yourself) no matter if you train or not.

    1. zbiggy, that sounds about right in all truth.

      My comment in the post was more to the effect of what people will hear, rather than what was said. Once you give people a reason to expect magic, and tell them exercise won't help, that tends to be the message received.

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