How the Fitness Industry Gets Rich Doing Nothing

The fitness industry’s promises to melt fat, shrink thighs, and stop hunger are doing more harm than good.

John Verner

If you’ve ever found yourself at the grocery store behind someone who is overweight, unloading chips and sodas from their cart, and thought: “Why on earth is that person buying that junk?” You might be surprised to learn that it is you—the daily crossfitting, yoga mat-carrying eater of vegetables—who are the anomaly in the situation. You are the one going against your evolution-bequeathed natural tendencies, not the object of your derision.

It turns out that dieting and exercise are actually really weird things, and they’re hard for most people to do. In fact, the grocery store aisle, with its glossy promises of belly-fat busting on one side and a literal four-foot wall of chocolate and candy on the other, is a great place to pause for a moment to seriously think about our ideas about health and fitness—and where those ideas come from.

If you Google “health,” the first result will likely be, the website associated with the eponymous magazine. The issue archive displays covers that shout FIGHT THE FLAB! LOSE EVERY BULGE, BLAST FAT FAST, and LOSE 5 LBS NOW. This magazine touts “body secrets,” “toned thighs in five minutes,” and foods that literally “melt fat.” For more of exactly the same, see Shape, Self, Fitness, Prevention, or anything with Dr. Oz on the cover.

So what is health? According to these magazines, it is looking a certain way: skinny, toned, jacked, buff, ripped—anything but fat. Fat is bad.

Fat needs to be shredded, burned, melted, blasted, punched, yelled at, and left in a secluded field to be picked apart by hyenas. And, the path to looking not fat is fast, exciting, and often involves some secret, miracle, or scientific breakthrough.

But these miracles do not exist.

The mainstream commercial fitness industry is not in the business of empowering regular people to learn how to take care of their bodies. Imagine the cover lines of these magazines if they truly represented the state of empirical research on health and wellness: SCIENCE SAYS MOVING MORE STILL GOOD, JUST LIKE LAST MONTH.

Is fitness good for us? Asks Dr. Jennifer Smith Maguire, in her book “Fit for Consumption: Sociology and the Business of Fitness.” “For the majority,” she writes, “and in particular for those lower down the socioeconomic ladder who are more likely to be inactive and overweight—the answer is no.” Maguire explains that “the private provision of fitness services facilitates the withdrawal of their public provision.”

In other words, the growth of the fitness industry gives society an excuse to ignore some serious public health issues. Why invest in walkable communities or improve the food environment, when people can just go to the gym or buy a diet pill? The growth of the private weight loss industry allows the public to abdicate its responsibility for the obesogenic environment it has created.

The current framing goes like this: We have serious and growing problems with chronic disease associated with poor diet and physical activity. People are eating too much and moving too little. Therefore, people should eat less, and move more. People should make better choices. Problem solved!

Well, not really.

It turns out humans are not very good at eating less and moving more, at least, not if we don’t have to. No creature on this planet would expend energy for the sake of expending energy, nor deny itself much desired calories when they’re so readily available. A 2011 Lancet report concluded that the growth of obesity worldwide was simply the result of people responding naturally to their environment—one characterized by cheap, ubiquitous, empty calories, automated transportation, and sedentary occupations.

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Dan Buettner is the founder and CEO of the public health organization Blue Zones. Buettner works with cities to emulate the conditions of unique places around the world where people live unusually long and healthy lives—improving the food and built environments to make healthier choices the easier choices.

I called Buettner to ask why his approach isn’t focused on dieting and exercise. “I take a cue from evolution,” he said.

“If you look at how humans evolved over time, they didn’t sit down at a desk or on their couch for eight hours and then hope to make it up for a half hour in the gym. In Blue Zones, it’s an extension of how people have lived forever. They live in an environment that nudges them to moving every 20 minutes or so…Diet and exercise are exactly what [Blue Zones] is not. Diet and exercise do not work. They provide short-term successes occasionally, but on a population level they never deliver long-term results,” Buettner told me.

This sentiment was shared by Rebecca Puhl, PhD, deputy director of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. She described problems with focusing on aesthetics as well. In an email she wrote:

“This industry often focuses on appearance motivations for weight loss rather than health or important indices of health, like blood pressure, cholesterol, et cetera.”

This preoccupation with body weight and fat has consequences. The largely unattainable ideal promoted by the fitness industry sets a lot of people up for failure, and in some cases, may keep many people from pursuing healthy habits in the first place.

“We do know from research on weight bias that when people feel stigma or shame about their body size, they are more likely to avoid physical activity or have lower motivation to engage in physical activity,” wrote Puhl. “[Our research] suggest[s] that focusing on appearance is not the way to go. Instead, the messages should focus on promoting healthy eating and exercise behaviors for all individuals, regardless of their body size or weight.”

Government estimates put health care spending at in this country at $3 trillion, and the majority of these costs could be prevented. The CDC estimates that 40 percent of cancer cases, and 80 percent of cases of heart disease, stroke, and type II diabetes could be eliminated through more physical activity, better eating, and smoking cessation. Yet even as the diet and fitness industry flourishes, rates of physical activity remain low, and we continue to eat far too much processed, nutritionally devoid foods.

“No one makes any money if you stay healthy,” Buettner told me. “All the incentives are lined up behind people getting sick—getting a doctor visit, coming up with a pill, and generally making sick people less sick…What we need to do is take the trillions of dollars we’re wasting on health care every year and shift it to optimizing our environment.”

Let’s go back to that grocery store checkout lane. The wall of fitness magazines on your left legitimizes the wall of candy on your right. The mainstream fitness industry won’t challenge the presence of sugary, fatty, nutritionally empty calories within arm’s reach in nearly every public and private setting. The fitness industry doesn’t question city plans that favor cars over active transportation. It doesn’t question the normalcy of giant sugary beverages accompanying every meal. Many of us have been convinced that the solutions to our health problems come in the form of crash diets and fitness boot camps, to make up for an unhealthy environment, without considering changing the environment itself.

Is there a place for exercise, for fitness professionals? Absolutely. But when dealing with obesity and chronic disease, we need to recognize that the mainstream diet and fitness industry is not in the business of solving these problems. It is simply in the business of profiting from them.