I was fascinated by two articles that ironically were side-by-side in yesterday’s Review section of Wall Street Journal. The first article, entitled “The Greek Hero at the Gym: From Beefcake to Core strength” discusses images of the ideal body through the ages and how to attain it, while the second article, “Should We Take a Daily Pill to Avert Deadly Diseases?” addresses the potential of reducing many common ills through taking one inclusive pill. The reason I found these adjacent articles compelling is because one discusses the virtues of hard work, concentration and discipline, while the other offers a panacea for many of our modern day afflictions. I know, I know, you’d rather hear about the magic pill first. Sorry, but you need to eat the broccoli before dessert!
In the first article, author Daniel Kunitz asserts that we’ve arrived at a remarkable moment in the history of fitness. Girls and women have become more interested in weightlifting and its substantial benefits, instead of seeking the skinny, emaciated looks seen in magazines and on the runway. Of course, eating disorders and crazy diets still loom large, but there’s a new focus on being fit, muscular, and healthy. Men and women are looking to improve athletic performance as well as life performance in preferred activities. The shift from how you look in the mirror to how you perform in life is a healthy and welcome antidote to the pressure to be thin, regardless of costs. The major benefits of weight training, along with the obvious body sculpting effects, include increased agility, flexibility, strength, improved confidence and mental focus. These ultimately influence your quality of life more than being a size 2. Additionally, people who keep a consistent practice regime will sleep and eat better and likely change the way they perceive beauty, regardless of societal expectations and popular media images.
The ancient Greeks, when sculpting their famous works of art, considered their hero-athletes not as models, but rather as representations of self-mastery, discipline and strength, as that’s what it took to attain the Herculean body. The above qualities superseded the current ideal of muscle definition as represented by the perfect pectoral, deltoid, bicep and abdominal six-pack. Herein lies the key- the result of the muscular body was the combination of effort, discipline, toil and a willingness to sacrifice. These were the higher ideals sought after and valued in society.
When the ancient sculptors looked for models, they found them at the gymnasium, where men were sprinting, lifting heavy stones, throwing, jumping and wrestling, these all being whole body movements useful for war. Greek athletes had no use for working isolated muscles, which contemporary weight machines encourage. They took care of real functional strength, which is what we need to be focusing on in current times to do the activities that make our lives fulfilling.
Athletic feats, war training and tasks of life required strength, quickness, endurance and accuracy, so the ancients trained with a focus on core-to-extremity, whole body movements. It’s important to note that many machines limit your range of motion while isolating muscles, which is not good preparation for those times you may have to move a couch. The small stabilizing muscles during free weight training are not in use while using machines which do the stabilizing for you. For functional strength in every day activities, whole body, dynamic free weight training is key.We need to be doing the same, although our contemporary lives don’t require soldier-like strength and our daily living skills require heavy lifting infrequently.
The Greeks of old also valued strain, along the “no pain, no gain” idea. They believed that one needed to suffer some to get real results. This mirrors the new focus on high intensity interval workouts, where you have to sweat, reach or exceed your target heart rate, and feel the soreness or at least fatigue after your workout.
When you work out to capacity (read INTENSELY) you learn that your pain threshold is a moving target and your abilities often exceed your perceived limitations. This produces positive mental adaptations regarding your efforts, abilities, and expectations. Mind and body are best improved through skill development, which takes many hours of practice. Learning good form takes repetition and guidance but will result in improved muscle strength, endurance and coordination.
Contrast the above article to the second article about taking a daily pill for health. Melvin Konner writes about two top doctors with good diet and lifestyles who are now touting the benefits of taking a “polypill” daily. This pill may include any of several ingredients: a baby aspirin, a statin for cholesterol, a drug to control blood pressure and lower blood sugar, all in low doses. Like a multivitamin, (which in itself has questionable benefits), it is purported to have advantages for everyone over the tender age of 50.
The downside? Medicalizing whole populations, encouraging bad habits and worsening health disparities. Currently, one-size-fits-all, which is not the optimal way to improve individual illnesses. The upside? The drugs in the pill are cheap, readily accessible, and have been found to have a moderately positive effect (doses were low, so adverse effects were minimal) in a study involving 12,000 people over five years, reported in the May issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The ultimate question posed is “Will popping a pill work better than most people’s willpower?” The ancient Greeks had a few things right; exercising hard will improve strength, core stability and functional movements . This will enhance life performance by improving discipline and mental focus. For each individual, the ideal is to eat well, and exercise consistently with intensity and a functional focus. These are things that can never be condensed in pill form! The idea of a pill preventing disease may be in our future, but it will never improve your physical or mental well-being.