Several months ago I was contacted by a popular men’s health magazine by a journalist writing an article about how to pick a good personal trainer. Having known and worked (both out and with) many of them, I was happy to share my top tips. Imagine my surprise when the magazine came out and I was identified as a “fitness expert.” I almost shat myself. While I could be considered an expert in some fields – toddler toy mediation comes to mind – in fitness I am about as non-expert as they come. Dr. J, an experienced and credentialed surgeon and bona fide health expert, reminded me of this tendency of both the media and shameless (or shady) self-promoters to crown dubious health and fitness “experts” in his recent post on the subject.
Gym Buddy Leila found this out the hard way. Awhile ago as I was recovering from a tough weight session (read: gabbing about Kate Gosselin and if she would really take Jon back like we were 14 years old and she was the homecoming queen) we spotted Leila jogging sluggishly by, as if she were in slow motion.
“Leila!” we called out, “Whatcha doing girl? Get over here!”
“Can’t,” she shook her head sadly, “I’m burning fat.”
“She obviously means with a lighter and a grill somewhere,” muttered the peanut gallery.
“Seriously, my trainer told me that my fat burning zone is under 120. I gotta keep going for two hours if I want to lose this baby weight.”
“120! Are you kidding me?”
“Well, look at him!” All eyes turned to Dirk, a string bean of a man with Popeye biceps and an overly hopeful “muscle” shirt. “He’s the expert on losing weight!” And she was gone.
We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Experts
Several weeks later I caught up with Leila. “How’s it going with Dirk?” She burst into tears, “I’ve gained 12 pounds. I just don’t get it! I mean, he’s so thin! Why isn’t it working for me?”
If you hang around any nutrition or fitness circles (or even your local Barnes & Noble) for long, you will soon discover that Televangelists got nothing on the diet/weight/muscle “expert” du jour. These people stalk you with aggressive websites – with LOTS and LOTS of bold CAPS and unnecessary white space. They smother you with e-books and print books and booklets, all with tantalizing ultimate-secret-of-everything-“they”-don’t-want-you-to-know titles. They titillate you with ads on every site you read, populated with the evil spawn of Photoshop and CGI. They even find you in your safe place, blanketing your gym with fliers and business cards.
And everyone’s an expert.
Why do we even listen to these people? And how do you tell the good ones from the bad ones?
In My Expert Opinion
If, for a moment, you will let me be the expert on experts, I will answer those questions for you. You see, I am a Recovering Expert. There are no 12-steps for this but there should be. (Think of it, mandatory humility counseling! The UN would never be the same.) A few years ago, when I finally decided to get serious about my health & fitness, I read everything I could get my hands on on the subject. I subscribed to all the magazines, the news feeds, the hyped and hyper e-mail lists. I read the books, the e-books, the booklets & wannabe books. And then, one fine day, I figured it all out.
I won’t bore you with the details. You’ve heard them all before. But it was The Magic Formula. I would never worry about my weight again. I would be forever toned with smooth skin and lustrous hair. And I felt like I had to tell everyone I knew about it so they too could be toned and lustrous and smooth. My sister said, after one glorious (and free, even!) unsolicited tutorial, “It’s like you found religion. Except more annoying.”
It was a nice dream. Too bad it didn’t last. One day it just stopped working and I was forced to realize that I didn’t know it all. My Magic Formula was a great start but that my body, being smart and very adaptable, was on to my gig. It was time to tweak my formula.
So why do we listen to, seek out, and especially pay for expert guidance? A little bit of ignorance (most of us aren’t personally-trained Personal Trainers). A lot of desperation. After all, if everything you’ve tried isn’t working, then surely someone else must know something. I was desperate. I’d had great success – up to a point. I wanted more! I joined chat rooms & bulletin boards about weight lifting & nutrition. I took classes. But the more I studied, the more confused I became.
-Cut calories! But not too many or your metabolism will nosedive!!
-Carbs are evil! Whole grains are the staff of life! For a while I was actually trying to be a non-carb eating vegetarian. Do you know what that left me (besides cranky)? Veggies and… nuts. That’s it. Congratulations, I’m a squirrel.
– Weight lifting is the key to a high metabolism! No, wait, cardio is the secret to fat loss!
It all made my head spin. You know the feeling.
I learned very quickly that once somebody finds something that works for them, they automatically assume it will work for everyone else too (like stick-bug Dirk and post-partum Leila). The only thing you can trust about an expert is that they passionately believe that they have the answers. So I did what any scientist would do: I started experimenting. And that’s how I’ve spent the past several years.
Don’t get me wrong, experts have their place. The good ones anyhow – there are some very smart and talented people out there. But you sure have to sift through a lot of toddler poop to find that shiny penny. Here are a few of my (non-expert) tips:
1. Look for someone who agrees with basic common sense. It is true that taking out processed crap foods and getting a little exercise will help everyone. So if the expert tells you you can eat cookies all day long and get your exercise via surrogate by watching The Biggest Loser, then you can bet they are selling you something. (Jillian’s new diet pills, anyone?)
2. Look for someone who isn’t just in it for the money. Sure people gotta make a buck; I’m not going to begrudge them their hard-earned money. But if they want your credit card number before showing you anything of substance then run fast and far (hey, that’s good exercise too!). I’m especially wary of the ones hawking “product”: special machines, shakes, pills, supplements, gadgets, teas and other proprietary-buy-it-now-before-I-run-out-forever stuff.
3. Look for someone who will personalize it to you. While every body will respond to basic nutrition and fitness, after that the tweaks are individual. If they say they can make you look just like them be very wary. Find someone who says they can make you look like you – just better.
4. Look for someone who ISN’T touting a “secret” or the “ultimate solution” or “the last diet you’ll ever need.” There just isn’t any magic formula. Your body is always changing and adapting and so you’re going to have to too.
Well, that’s my (ahem) expert opinion. What say all of you? Did I miss anything? Anyone else have a run in with an Expert you’d like to add to the hall of shame?