Modern Snake Oil

In an ocean of supplements, the only proven ingredient for fitness is sweat

Scale by Christopher CunettoAccording to the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association, the fitness industry generated an amazing $21.8 billion dollars in revenue in 2012. That’s $1.5 billion more than the year before — an amazing feat in any industry. And that doesn’t include the supplement market that reported a 7.1 percent growth to $1.5 billion dollars in the same year.

What do all of those dollars mean? Obviously, they paint a clear picture of people spending their money on gyms and supplements. You might well ask, “How is that possible when our country still ranks in the top 20 of most obese countries in the world?”

Just like everyone else, especially newcomers to the fitness lifestyle, I’m constantly exposed to men and women in unbelievable shape — ripped abs, big arms, amazing glutes. Every time I see these people, they’re accompanied by something even larger than themselves: logos. The logos represent gyms, protein shakes, exercise videos and devices that you can strap to your abs to make them more defined by acute electrical shocks. (Wait, what? Seriously?)

Consider the typical scene from a Western. A gentleman in a fine suit and bowler rides his cart into town with bottles clinking away in the back. As he hops down from his seat, he proclaims to have the answer to any ailment you may have — for a price.

Fast forward to now: Remove the suit (but keep the hat — I like the hat), add a hefty amount of muscle and a bit of high-energy buzzwords and you have the contemporary snake-oil cart rolling onto your television screen.

Just like snake oil, the supplement industry is completely unregulated. The FDA doesn’t require any product considered a supplement to be tested or approved before being sold. In fact, it doesn’t even require the products to list all of their ingredients. The phrase “Proprietary Blend” often describes what’s in the bottles. And just like the snake oil, what each of the supplements actually accomplishes is up for serious debate. Most of the claims are anecdotal, with few having actual science behind them. Others have effects, and have been proven to do what they say, but to such minor degrees that it doesn’t matter if you take them or not. And the final group is the one that gets scientific backing one year, scientific damnation the next. (Looking at you, fish oil.)

So, what actually works? Unfortunately, because of all the hubbub and money involved in the supplement industry, the only way to find out what actually works is to try it yourself. Things that are natural supplements — such as whey, casein or soy protein — may be a great way to get your nutrition during the day. I take a pre-workout blend that contains branch-chain-amino-acids (protein broken down), and caffeine to get focused. It’s all natural components. Things like “fat burners” and “testosterone boosters” have had no significant impact. If they had, everyone would be on them.

Another popular and extremely straightforward product is a gym membership. There’s no secret to what a gym membership can help you accomplish. You get out what you put in. There are, however, pitfalls and bullets to dodge when picking the gym you want to use. Price, for instance, can be a major concern. Most big-box gyms hit around the same price point. CrossFit gyms, Olympic gyms and other specialty courses are all over the place.

I suggest finding a local gym. You will find better prices and help support a neighborhood business. They’re usually willing to work one-on-one with you as well, should you have any questions or special needs.

The next time you see that ripped gym god carrying around a tub of “super top secret fat-burning muscle-building super-power-inducing FLEX9000,” claiming how great a deal it is at $79.99, ask yourself if it’s too good to be true. Then hit the gym.

[Illustration "Scale" by Christopher Cunnetto]

Former couch potato that found a love for health and fitness via weight lifting. Avid hockey fan, and a wannabe web developer. Oh, and I write.

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