Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Fitness and Intelligence

I had an interesting conversation with a colleague at work this evening. I was chatting with two male co-workers, giving advice to one about where to buy supplements. (I like Bodybuilding.com and WholesaleSupplementStore.com.) The other came back later and asked me how I got into all this "stuff" - meaning fitness, nutrition, etc. He was surprised to learn that the deadlift is actually in my repertoire of exercises. He was doing most of the talking, telling me about the gym he works out in and his routine and it seemed like he really enjoyed lifting weights - he seems reasonably fit, I might add. But he said he "doesn't want to get too big" so he tries not to lift too much.

I'm like, huh? First of all, he's probably a little misinformed if he thinks he's going to get huge without investing some significant energy into his weight training and diet. But even if he is a fast-gainer (which he told me he's not), why would he not want to "get too big"?

His explanation was something to the effect of not wanting to give people the impression that he was some muscle-head (I'm paraphrasing). He mentioned another colleague of ours, J, who he thought was "too big" (which I think is crazy, he's not that big). He says when he sees J, his first impression is "that guy's a big bodybuilder", not "that guy is smart, capable, competent, a hard worker..." He wants others' first impression of him to be more along the lines of "nerdy but brilliant", which is not served by having big muscles.

At first I was feeling confused, but as he kept talking, I realized he's right... (But not that he's right to bend to such pressures...) Most of the people in my line of work with fall well and solidly into the nerd category. They dress very conservatively and not necessarily well. Only a small handful could be considered reasonably fit and even the ambiguous ones are more euro-fit than athletic-fit (by that I mean trim from walking a lot around the city, or eating well, and/or due to a genetic propensity towards being an ectomorph). In other words most don't invest a lot of time in their appearances - it's as if they are somehow "above" caring about that because they are so busy focusing on some worthier cause.

I grew up in the military where the values are quite different from the average population. Being fit is important to military-folk and it's even looked down upon to be too out of shape, especially if you're male. In the military world, you can be muscular and fit and still be considered intelligent, capable and competent. But in the world I work in, and I think the general population, there is a perception that if you're really fit, really athletic, or care too much about your appearance/body, then you're less intelligent. I remember seeing an article in the Economist not too long ago about how many of the members of the Bush Administration are dedicated to some kind of exercise on a weekly basis - Bush's mile time was a decent 8-something, if I remember correctly, and Condi gets up at 5:00 every morning to do the elliptical, even when she's on the road. In the ironic British humor that I love the Economist for, the article was suggesting that they were too busy messing around in leg-warmers to worry about real foreign policy concerns.

I think this is a load of hogshit. Study after study confirms the benefits of exercise to mental performance, energy, and alertness. And I could get into a huge tangent here about what exactly intelligence is and how our concept of that is shaped by society. I'll save that for another time - I'm on my way to lift some heavy shit in the gym!!! Just kidding, I lifted this morning. I just think it's sad that not only is fitness not valued by the general population, but the fit among us get stereotyped as less intelligent or less competent. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive! There are really "smart" fit people, and fit people who are not so "smart", just like there are really "smart" un-fit people and also people who are neither smart nor fit. Sigh.

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