Like women, men suffer from body image issues as well; at least, Western men do. A book called “The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys” delineates this idea, which, judging by the number of one star reviews written for it, is controversial to say the least. I googled “Adonis Complex” because the title of the paper I will discuss today is “Male body image in Taiwan versus the West: Yanggang Zhiqi meets the Adonis complex.”

More broadly than masculinity and muscles, physical fitness has been linked with work ethic as well. The origin of this idea is unclear, but in America, it may be traced back to President John F. Kennedy’s admonition to the nation on their poor physical fitness levels.

In an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1960 titled “The Soft American,” he said:

“For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.

In this sense, physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society. And if our bodies grow soft and inactive, if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America.”

Today, many people use this idea to spread motivational images. They associate hard work with a fit-looking body. I’ve criticized this idea before on instagram. Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 12.12.26 PMI call it fit-looking because fitness to me is more about biological fitness, which doesn’t require lifting weights at the gym to optimize, but can.

To me, it’s quite obvious that lifting weights isn’t related to hard work or masculinity. Working hard in the gym is quite an easy thing to do in my opinion. Although it does take dedication, the goal is so desirable, and the steps required to achieve it are so mindless, it’s a very common pursuit.

But on a global level, not everyone is yet infected with this virus. In Taiwan for instance, men don’t care about having bigger muscles. They don’t see it as more masculine.

That’s the conclusion a group of researchers came to when they studied body image in Taiwanese men vs Western men in the US and Europe. They found that in Taiwan, pictures of men in their underwear are rarely seen in magazines. Men do nine times fewer chores than women do and are the heads of the household.

The authors hypothesized further that perhaps there are fewer roles in Western society for men to display masculinity, so they have turned to the body as a source of masculinity. In Taiwan, a male’s masculine nature is reinforced in society. I guess you could blame feminism for eroding it in the West? I don’t know.

Whatever the case is, masculinity is about a man’s behavior. Being big and strong is cool too, but if a big and strong body shrouds an insecure society-pleasing individual who works out not for himself but in order to feel more attractive, he isn’t very masculine. The problem with that statement is, everyone likes to say they do it for themselves, but the fact that they’re even doing it, hints that they are influenced by Western beliefs and culture.

I started working out to achieve an athletic goal. I was not interested in bodybuilding and did not perform any bicep curls and didn’t waste my time with bench pressing. Along the way however I also wanted to achieve a different looking body so I changed my workouts a little. I was insecure about my appearance, largely because of the culture I am living in. I have learned from this and now I am more of a man than ever because of the confidence I have developed from within. If my arms look fat compared to 2 years ago, that doesn’t stop me from wearing a tank top in the gym. The bodybuilder however would feel too insecure, because he has cultivated his masculinity not from within, but from the mores of the fitness culture.

I guess you could argue the way a man cultivates his masculinity is entirely based on the culture he lives in. Since there is no one culture in America, men may be lost on how to cultivate masculinity.

 

 

Social media gets blamed a lot as a cause of eating disorders and body image issues. A study published in March this year examined this in detail among adolescents in Israel. I will summarize the paper here.

We can’t just blame social media for body image issues without blaming ourselves I’d like to preface this with however. We are the ones internalizing the messages then acting on it. But when we are exposed to media, we may act out on it and let it influence our lives without thinking about it. It surely happened to me when I was a chubby (as I thought) teenager. What about people who instead of having a negative body image, develop a positive body image due to social media? I will talk about that in a bit.

So this study examined people with disordered eating and not eating disorders. Disordered eating is characterized by a preoccupation with weight and food and results in caloric restriction, heavy exercising, and the use of laxatives or diuretics to control weight. I remember for me green tea was my favorite back in the day and I got into that primarily to lose weight (even though I thought the health benefits were interesting as well–I wouldn’t have drank it if it didn’t also have weight loss potential).

The risk factors for disordered eating pathologies (DEPs) and eating disorders (EDs) include the following:

  • body dissatisfaction
  • disturbed body image
  • low self-esteem
  • low sense of empowerment

The researchers wanted to look at how being on Facebook and watching TV shows like Gossip Girl influenced these teenagers’ body image. The whole idea here is that comparing yourself to others is a huge factor in developing any one of the four risk factors I described above (social comparison theory). Again, as I mentioned already, I kept thinking about those “inspiration” photos on instagram and how there are also people who feel inspired and develop a positive body image.

I posted on my instagram two weeks ago about a study (full-text not available without subscription) from Poland that found that teens with better body images exercised more. That confused me a little bit because I thought having a negative body image made people want to work out. But along the way, perhaps the image changes and people feel better about themselves.

To me that’s pathetic but it’s the reality and it will not change. People exercise to change their bodies, not to become healthier (it’s accepted as a nice side effect but it’s not the primary reason!). That’s the generalization and it’s not true for everyone, but true for a lot of people. It’s merely a cosmetic tool in this unfortunate light.

And so those people who develop a positive body image perhaps reach their ideal body. But I think the ideals themselves aren’t that attractive. That’s another story but I have mentioned this on instagram how many “before” pictures of bikini competitors look a lot better than the “after” photos because extreme leanness in females is a turn-off for most men.

I bring that up just as a counterpoint, because I’ve found that this world of eating disorder research seems to be completely separate from discussions on fitness and exercise. They’ll say for example that the harmful media images present people with “unattainable” physiques. Well that’s not entirely true in my opinion; some of them are indeed attainable. My problem with them is that they’re not as attractive as people think and that people aiming to look like that may already have a healthy and very attractive body. They may be unattainable for some due to differences in bone structure however. These worlds are also at odds because body images issues to the ED world is bad but to the fitness world it might be the precursor to a positive transformation. Anyway.

Let’s move onto the findings of this study (fairly straightforward). They had five hypotheses, which I’ll sum up. They first predicted that people with worse empowerment, or ability to critically think about their media exposure and not be influenced by them basically, will have a poorer body image. Next, media exposure was predicted to correlate with more disordered eating and poor body image. They also predicted that chiller parents, basically parents who don’t try to control their kids’ media exposures but are open about discussing them with their kids, have kids with better empowerment. Then lastly, the combination of low empowerment, poor body image, and harmful media exposure predict disordered eating pathology.

Results

They found basically that all of that was true. Watching TV, reading magazines, and being on Facebook was associated with poor body image AND disordered eating. Looking for the presence of both of these things was a strength to this study, because it’s not enough to just say that consuming media results in poor body image. Seeing what people are doing with that information is the next step in showing some level of causality.

What are we to do with the results of this study?

The results aren’t mind-blowing, but it’s the first study to examine these three variables together. But is the solution to cut out Facebook and social media? As the authors pointed out, the comparison among immediate peers like friends results in feelings of poorer body image. A survey conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt found that 32% of respondents said they felt sad when comparing facebook images of themselves versus their friends.

The explanation for that could be that media images of thinness are often associated with happiness, success, and of course beauty.

If kids are obese and overweight and they want to change themselves that’s great. The problem is, and the reason why I choose to think about this topic, is that being thinner won’t enhance the appearance of most of the people wanting to be thinner. For males, becoming more muscular won’t always make them more attractive either. Will it sometimes? Yes of course; since we’ve fully internalized on a global scale now that muscles look good on men, having some extra muscles can make you look better and indirectly improve your confidence that way. But it’s certainly not necessary for you to be a more attractive or strong man.

For women, the skinny ideals might not even be attractive, but maybe less attractive. Thigh gaps aren’t attractive to all men, and if they are, it might be due to the media influencing them. There is a subjective and objective component in all this but certain traits like body fat indicate our reproductive potential. Having too little of it can indicate less reproductive potential. And that’s why this is important to me, because social media is ruining beautiful women by making them think they need to be skinnier.

Conclusion

Comparing oneself to others on social media can result in poorer body image and disordered eating pathology. One’s sense of empowerment, or ability to analyze peer pressures and influences of the media, is a critical way to prevent disordered eating behavior when exposed to media. This is why the body positive movement is good in my opinion; although there are people who are obese who support the movement as well (who may or may not be unhealthy), the idea of building confidence from within is HUGE for feeling good. I was insecure as a teenager because of my gynecomastia, but after spending years actively working on my confidence, I feel better in all situations.

Strive for a better body if you truly want to; but just think about your ideals and whether or not they’re extreme and influenced by the types of pictures you are exposed to!

 

 

I’ve been interested in how people respond differently to exercise because I want to prescribe exercise as medicine. I’m going to keep this post wicked short because I haven’t read this whole paper yet, or had time to digest it as it’s almost finals week for me and I don’t have time. But I have saved it to my folders because this is pretty novel stuff.

This paper found that 21 different genes explained half of the variations in the heterogeneous responses of V02 max in response to aerobic exercise training. Some of these genes help people use fatty acids as fuel more effectively, and some just make their mitochondria more active. I’ll have to talk about this paper in detail another time.

Next week I will start getting back to the topics of health myths and disordered eating. Stay tuned.

I’m very interested in personalized medicine; in order to personalize it however we need to know how people are different, to put it as simply as possible. When I worked as a personal trainer in Washington D.C. during my college years, I quickly realized that some people happened to like certain exercises more than others. This sounds obvious, but its implications to me are that perhaps their liking of certain exercises more than others indicates that it’s better for them. This applies to nutrition as well; we are well-adapted to recognize odors and tastes that could indicate something harmful. So for a while I’ve been thinking that some people do better with low intensity exercise (relaxed hikes, recreational sports for fun, playing outside, walking) and some prefer and respond better to higher intensity exercise (competitive sports, crossfit, rigorous weight-lifting, etc). Ayurvedic doctors suspected the same things, but they recommended that we do the opposite of what we prefer once in a while, to balance ourselves out.

So the study I want to talk about today was the first (generally when researchers submit their protocols they like to emphasize that what they are doing hasn’t been done before, so this study apparently wasn’t done before) to look at individual differences in the change in VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen one can use in a given period of time) after exercise training. The subjects (481 of them) trained on a cycle ergometer, or stationary bike, three times a week for 20 weeks.

The results were that some people improved their aerobic capacity a ton, and some almost not at all. And as the researchers knew before already, in twin studies, the variation in the change in VO2 max between groups of twins is much higher than the variation between twins, in response to aerobic exercise training. Here they found the same thing among families. This figure sums up their findings.

Here’s the main point:

THERE’S SOMETHING GENETIC THAT CAUSES SOME PEOPLE TO SEE A GREATER INCREASE IN VO2 MAX AFTER AEROBIC EXERCISE TRAINING THAN OTHERS!! In the near future I’ll mention that this heterogenous response also applies to things like LDL and HDL cholesterol, which gets us a little closer to theorizing how this all affects disease progression.

But what are the implications of this study then? Well I kinda hinted at that-ish last week when I discussed an amazing paper on rats that found that the low-responders saw a greater inflammatory response to exercise and the high responders showed a higher anti-inflammatory response. (It would make more sense to post this study first but this is kind of background for that, so if you didn’t catch last week’s post, go click on it in the hyperlink I provided). If that can be shown in humans, it would give me a mind-gasm. I’m sure there are some studies that provide clues to this but I don’t know of them at the moment.

Next week I plan to discuss some of the genes that have been identified after this study that explain the heritability and differences in response to aerobic exercise training. Some of you may be wondering: does this apply to resistance exercise? Considering that a lot of people are into things like crossfit and doing a mix of aerobic and resistance exercise, it’ll be important to come up with a design that can look at that. For now, I don’t know; but I sure think that there is a genetic component, as I kind of mentioned in my introductory paragraph, where I noticed that some people just liked certain exercises more than others and maybe that indicates they would flourish at them. I like sprinting and anaerobic activity so I’m going to do some sprints right now.