It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
–Circe, by Madeline Miller
My usual retort to any cis woman when she tells me that she doesn’t want to lift heavy weights because she doesn’t want to bulk up goes something like this: “Are you eating 200 grams of protein a day and taking testosterone supplements? Cause if you’re not, lifting some weights is not going to bulk you up.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. Generally speaking, if you are genetically female, you are not designed to get substantially bulky without outside help. Lifting twenty pounds instead of two will not change that, though it will make you stronger.
There are two important things in fitness, and you don’t exactly get them at the same time: muscular strength and muscular endurance. Strength is what you can lift, right? Endurance is how often or for how long you can lift it. Want to increase your strength? Go high weight, low rep. Want to increase your endurance? Go low weight, high rep. Want to be fit? Do both.
Low weight, high rep is how many workouts marketed to women are designed: LA Fitness’ Body Works Plus Abs program, barre classes, and Pound are some examples. They trade on the fear that women have about bulking up, which is too bad, because they could just market themselves as muscular endurance classes without the fear-mongering. They are fantastic for that! But at some point you also have to work on more sustained and heavier exercises if you want to get stronger. Lifting heavy weight to failure in, say, six reps will do wonders for your overall strength, while lifting light weights to failure in, say, 32 reps, will help you with your stamina.
Please do both. Please.
There’s nothing new or interesting about saying that women are shamed a lot when it comes to fitness. We are told not to do things that will make us bulk up, even though that’s not how science works anyway, and we’re told we’re always inadequate but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to “improve” every day, and and and. But if there’s one thing I can impart to you (and assume about you), it’s that you should not be afraid of lifting heavier weights (and you probably aren’t doing a lot of it). That doesn’t literally mean you have to go bench press 200 pounds, though feel free if you want to. It could also mean doing slow bodyweight exercises, throwing some pushups into your routine, strapping on or setting up some resistance bands to push and pull. But don’t speed through everything with two pounds.
The goddess Circe doesn’t give any fucks about society’s wishes for her, though in our human defense, we don’t have centuries upon centuries to unlearn harmful body messages, and she did. Though this book starts out kind of boring, essentially just giving us summaries of all the major Greek myths, it gradually turns into this really fantastic feminist tale, and I’m so glad I stuck with the initial boring bits to get to the amazing rest of it all. Highly recommend.
Okay, I get it. You are maybe not a weirdo like me and thus do not want to read stuff that is super heavy on the exercise science. BUT you are also a person who respects the scientific process. Awesome! The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer is a book you’ll want to pick up. Here’s why:
First, take a look at the author’s qualifications. Gretchen Reynolds is a long-time columnist for The New York Times, arguably the most respected newspaper in the country. Reporters, as you might know, are trained (at least we hope) in doing their homework, fact checking (or, at least, sending someone else to fact check), and coming at things from multiple perspectives. People who take time on things are usually more convincing people than those who do not. Good author? Check. Extra points because she’s chatty and super engaging and occasionally funny.
The book is organized as a glorified FAQ to exercise, basically. That makes it incredibly readable, even if you, unlike me, do not like reading science books cover to cover. You can skip around to chapters that interest you and learn, in very easy prose, summaries on the latest studies in exercise science so that you know that HIIT is actually worthwhile and produces results, that running actually does NOT ruin your knees, and that regular engagement in fitness will indeed keep you from aging before your time.
If this book has a flaw, it’s that Reynolds does have the underlying assumption that the only reason anyone cares about fitness is because they care about weight loss. She often ends sections with a bit of self-deprecating snark, which I can absolutely appreciate, but that snark holds some derision about fat people and fatness. She doesn’t really get down to a lot of the whole “skinny fat” or HAES movement.
But if you have questions about random fitness things and don’t want to have to flip through every back issue of SELF to see if they were answered? This book. This book. Good stuff. Definitely pick up the paperback for keeps and make notes in it.
I love to read diet books the way I used to love to watch The Biggest Loser: it’s a sick, harmful thing to do and it makes me complicit in a system of shaming, policing, and encouraging a certain kind of lifestyle based entirely on capitalism, not wellbeing. (Especially the show.) It is truly a distasteful thing to do. And I swear I’m going to stop. At least The Biggest Loser. No more of that. Don’t watch that show. Don’t watch it because your health will be better if you stop, and because if it loses ratings, it will stop encouraging bad habits for its audience (their food advice especially is based on decades-old misinformation) and stop ruining the lives of its vulnerable contestants, who deserve real health.
At the end of 2010, an osteopath suggested that my myriad health problems (you may find this TMI, but….constant gas, indigestion, suppressed immune system, halitosis, Candida, a rash that didn’t respond to eczema treatment, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, weight gain, depression and a feeling of air bubbles popping inside my intestines daily) would be solved by eliminating gluten from my diet. Soon after, another doctor told me that eliminating processed soy and all dairy would make me feel amazing. I was fairly willing to take this advice, but as I say often, nothing is real to me if I haven’t read a book about it. [This is likely linked to my obsessive compulsive anxiety, not just my love of reading, but whatever. It has served me well more times than it has disrupted my life – thought it has done that too.]
A good friend of mine recommended a book she had liked, Good Calories, Bad Calories. I thought it sounded sillypants and that I would kind of hateread it, but instead, I found it chock full of cited research, from scientific articles to news to transcripts of congressional hearings and beyond. This isn’t a review of that book but rather the book that taught me, a few months before I went to library school, how important it is to have information literacy and not just plain old literacy.
If you don’t want to read diet books, don’t start. If you do, consider this: there is a difference between “dieting” and having “a diet,” and you should try to frame your thinking around the latter, not the former. Dieting is an action, and plenty of research indicates that it’s a worthless, cyclical pursuit that invariably leads to gaining the weight you lost and losing steam, motivation, and self esteem.
On the other hand, keeping to A Diet can mean all kinds of things. It can mean that your diet doesn’t include this or that because you’re allergic or because it gives you tummy problems. It could mean that you make your biggest meal lunch because you find it gives you energy or that you prefer lots of tiny meals throughout the day. It could mean that you feel like not eating animal products is the ethical way to live. It could mean that you try to make your meals revolve around food you grow or raise yourself. It can mean whatever the fuck you want it to mean. It could mean that you are adding this or that food because you found you were deficient in this or that vitamin. But whatever it is, it should mean that it’s an ongoing thing (acknowledging that things ebb and flow and change) and a lifestyle, not a thing you do for a specific amount of time for a drastic result.
So, as I noted, these medical professionals suggested A Diet, not that I Go On A Diet. And so I tried it, but not before going to the library and getting the book Amanda suggested. And also The Idiot’s Guide to Eating Gluten-free. And some cookbooks. And the original paleo book. And on and on. I wanted to read about fucking everything. It was kind of like how Aziz Ansari describes researching 800 restaurants and wasting three hours before going out to eat, except I do it with life changes and books.
Anyway, let’s get back to the information literacy thing. One thing that made reading the book less than enjoyable but ultimately more useful than some other books was the copious amount of footnotes and endnotes and the very long works cited page.
I hope you learned this from your librarian when you were in school, and if you didn’t, I hope now you can see how important it is that all schools have librarians: any scholar or writer worth his/her/zur salt who is writing an argumentative essay or opinion piece uses the work of their colleagues, predecessors, and/or dissenters to underscore their points and substantiate their theses. They do literature reviews. They highlight and annotate what they read. They use those to prove that the things they prevent as fact are, in fact, facts (heh) and to show that they are contributing to a body of research about the same or similar things. What’s more, if they are good writers, they integrate this research into compelling, digestible prose.
I’m not saying they are infallible; I am saying that if you are trying to determine which diet book on the shelf is more likely to be worthwhile, flip to the back and see how many pages of notes and references they have. If the book has none at all, put it back on the shelf and walk away. If it has a lot, the reading experience may not be fun, exactly, but again, if your librarian and teachers did their jobs, you should be able to read the writer’s words and the quotes they pull and begin to assess bias (note: there is no such thing as “unbiased writing;” it is your job to find multiple points of bias and come up with your most objective [ha! you are not objective, ever] conclusion, and your librarian can help you with that) and use the author’s conclusions to come to your own as far as how much they have convinced you.
Diet books are not gospel. But good ones do their homework.
tl;dr: the more references, citations, notes, and appendices a book has, the more likely it is to be based in real science. The more likely it’s based in real science, the more likely it’s a good choice for you. Science is cool like that.
Silly pro tip: I have found that the books with the best research have the goofiest titles. And they’re the ones I base many of my lifestyle choices on today. See below.
A couple years ago, you might have noticed (if you live in a fancy major city) that buttered coffee became a thing. It seemed to crop up right around the time that I decided to use butter in basically all my cooking, so it was perfect.
So I decided to get the book by the guy who started the craze, and of course he’s from Silicon Valley, because they all are, and I lived there for two years. He pontificates ad nauseum about biohacking and tells the reader over and over how smart he is for having figured this stuff out.
If I compare it to other, more researched books I’ve read before, I can definitely see the value in some of the stuff he talks about. Obviously, like everybody, he talks about the dangers of too much sugar and how it can really zap your energy and make you die young. Like, of course. And there’s some other science I can somewhat buy based on the citations. Mold and other trace amounts of bad things certainly sounds like something to avoid. And there have been studies proving that organic foods do retain more of their nutrients than pesticide- and antibiotic-filled foods.
I’ve now made a version of buttered coffee, just without Asprey’s beloved MCT oil, since I don’t tolerate coconut very well and also because it’s about a billion dollars. Buttered coffee does taste pretty delicious, and at least in my experience, the time in my life that I’ve put on more muscle and become more cardiovascularly fit is the same time of my life that I’ve upped my butter intake by probably 300%, so I’m fine with it. Butter is great, and it makes everything taste great. I highly recommend that you try making buttered coffee, even without Asprey’s special oil (which, conveniently, you can only buy from him if you want the exact, perfect type), since a human diet that is the perfect human diet is actually not truly perfect if you can only achieve it through a proprietary, manufactured thing that wasn’t in existence until three years ago.
Another thing I don’t like is that Asprey claims that exercise is a waste of your time. I’ve been seeing more studies that say that diet helps you lose weight more than exercise, so if you want to lose weight and want to focus on your diet, go for it. I’m not you, so I don’t care. But exercise has about a million benefits beyond weight loss, so to say it’s irrelevant to health strikes me as unsound advice. Especially since he’s claiming that his diet is the perfect, One True Human Diet, and humans for centuries have had to do physical labor just to get by in life, and it’s as we’ve become more sedentary that we’ve developed more chronic disease, so let’s ring the bullshit bell there.
Anyway, the real problem with this book is that it’s a book at all, not that everything in it is a lie. Asprey suffers from a severe case of white male privilege, and his constant patting himself on the back for figuring everything out is insufferable, not to mention his classic, Silicon Valley forgetfulness that most human beings in the United States, not to mention the planet, have money to burn and a lifestyle where they’re welcome to focus on “health” because somebody else is cleaning their house and watching their children. If you want to read it, go for it, and there are links for you below, but your better bet is probably just spending half an hour on his website, downloading a few things.