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All brawn and no beef

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I recently visited the BodyPower Expo at the NEC in Birmingham, billed as the “world’s number 1 fitness expo”. I wanted to learn more about those interested in powerful bodies and the commercial sector that provides products for them, and to see how far things have moved on since the early days of bodybuilding supplements – which were sometimes laced with questionable ingredients and steroids, and almost always loaded with synthetic additives, colours and sweeteners.

Given BodyPower’s billing, I was curious to find out if there had been any convergence of the bodybuilding, physical fitness and natural-health sectors, the common ground perhaps being a desire to help people become better, fitter and more resilient versions of themselves.

I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. Despite scouring a significant proportion of the nearly 100,000 visitors over the three-day event, my mind’s eye (and iPhone photo library) is left with countless images of bronzed bodies with protuberant muscles, but tired-looking bad skin and eyes lacking any sparkle of true vitality.

Sampling stations offering artificially coloured and sweetened amino-acid blends were commonplace, while the plant-based proteins that represent the fastest-growing protein market in the natural-health sector barely made an appearance, such was the continuing demand for dairy-based proteins. There was only one stall selling reasonably healthy food.

The reality is that bodybuilders don’t enjoy any real improvement in quality of life compared with sedentary people. A Spanish study comparing bodybuilders with runners and sedentary types found that runners had the best quality of life, while bodybuilders had not much of an edge over couch potatoes. Also, the muscle mass of runners and sedentary people was about the same – and much less than the bodybuilders’.1

So it seems that muscles don’t make us happier or healthier. What’s important is the amount that we move. We know from both the published reports and countless anecdotes that spending time outdoors, including physical activities, is much better for us than pumping iron or running on treadmills in the gym.

We also know that rhythmic exercise of moderate intensity, like jogging, cycling and swimming, trigger the release of endocannabinoids, natural compounds produced by the body that are structurally related to the two principal bioactive agents in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

The amounts of natural endocannabinoid released internally [anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) are the most studied] are minuscule, and they don’t make us hallucinate, or give us the giggles or ‘the munchies’. What they do is regulate pain, boost our immune system and even make us feel happier.

In fact, it’s now understood that the well-described ‘runner’s high’ is probably the result of these endocannabinoids, not endorphins. Endocannabinoids also regulate appetite, as well as our storage and use of energy. Yet, the industry that feeds bodybuilders seems to be missing a trick, despite feeding into that primeval need that many humans have, especially if they are in some way dissatisfied with their physical appearance, to appear stronger and more powerful.

But real strength isn’t just about appearances. Take triathletes, marathon runners, and endurance cyclists and swimmers – who all look somewhat flimsy when pictured next to a bodybuilder. But assuming they don’t punish themselves too much, they’ll live longer, healthier and happier lives than those who choose to be sedentary.

They can also move around their environment with consummate ease – unlike the bodybuilders I saw in Birmingham, some of whom seemed to have difficulty just walking.

With the knowledge now available, we need industry to take the lead – and not just to exploit human weaknesses. Health-related industries should perhaps take a leaf out of Elon Musk’s book. Within 10 years of taking the helm at Tesla, Musk has convincingly shown that electric cars may well become the primary road-worthy vehicles of the near future, with performances exceeding those of their fossil-fuel-burning counterparts – a notion that, 10 years ago, was scoffed at.

Cheap and nasty bodybuilding supplements laden with harmful ingredients that do little more than help muscles to grow, while not supporting other parts of the body, are no better than Big Pharma’s new-to-nature drugs that have barely touched the surface of our current chronic-disease crisis.

Some of those supplements are even sold through Big Pharma-owned business entities.

But this crisis needs a lot more than big muscles. It needs to inspire people to get more active – and it shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of our health.

There are a few brands out there that look set to be the Teslas of the nutrition and lifestyle industry. Perhaps, as with Tesla itself, we just need one to really shine so that others will then join in the real health revolution.

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Article Topics: bodybuilding, obesity
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