Cultivated skepticism

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Not going to lie–I remember this issue.

Now, I can’t pinpoint the origin of my tendency to gravitate towards quizzes and categories—possibly all those hours in my preteens poring over pilfered “Young and Modern” magazines of my sister’s to find out how gutsy I am with guys (was I a gutsy go-getter or a wary wallflower?) or what kind of guy I prefer to date (pretty sure there’s a virtually unbroken preppy streak starting around then), but I can’t deny that there’s some comfort in being able to say that I fit or belong in some kind of category, that I’m an ectomorph, a triangle body shape (more like a spoon, imo), with a BMI of XX or a competitive fitness personality type. It’s like being in an exclusive club where you can nod at other ectomorphs in solidarity/commiseration over our inhibited ability to gain muscle or consult other glutards (my very pc word for my gluten-intolerant or Celiac disease-ridden friends) for innovative recipes free of that foul toxin There’s some comfort in belonging to something. That categorizing happens in running a bit too, but I think there it’s really a matter of specialization. For example, you could be a sprinter, a 5ker, a 10ker, a marathoner, or crazy an ultramarathoner. Depending on what type of runner you are, you might train differently, but that’s really about the only thing that separates one runner from another. Maybe that’s why I like acknowledging and being acknowledged by other runners—because even if we’re going different distances at a different pace, we’re all out because we like to run.

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Ec-tastic.

This propensity toward self-categorization persists because people are naturally inclined to be curious about themselves and ever since that dude Adam came around, they love to put names to things. Sometimes these results can be personally meaningful. However, it can also be dangerous to pigeonhole yourself into one category or misinterpret the results, and because of all that, I have become more and more resistant to buying into any kind of self-categorization. The fact is that although people may share some common character traits, every person is different and has different goals. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now is the psychological theory of somatotypes. According to this theory, developed in the 1940s to equate physical attributes to mental temperament (which at first just sounded a little too much like the Hippocratic four humors but meh), there are three “pure” somatotypes: ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph. These types are characterized by physical traits such as a lean or slim appearance with little fat or muscle, a solid and muscular look but minimal fat, and a high storage of fat, respectively.  Although you may be predisposed to one type over another, your type may change as you age, and identifying your type is not as simple as looking in the mirror. Or so the theory goes. If I graphed the three somatotypes on a ternary diagram, there’s little doubt that I inhabit somewhere in the ectomorph region. I’m tall and lanky-ish with a normal female distribution of “insulation.” So what does being classified as an ectomorph actually mean for me? 

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As a self-identified ectomorph, I am supposed to avoid cardio, which will burn too many of the valuable Calories needed to build muscle. Rather, I’m meant to focus on strength training multiple muscle groups at the same time. This would no doubt help me (or anyone) build muscle, but I can’t help but ask what the point, then, would be? I’d likely have to keep up that regimen to maintain those muscles, and if my reason to build muscles in the first place is to be a better runner, then cutting out cardio just seems a little counterproductive. In this case, the advice I’m given does not jive with my goals. I’m not decrying the entire somatotype theory or any fitness theory for that matter. (So if you are the person who told me about it in the first place–you know who you are!–I am not attempting to debunk it or mock it or anything!) This could have just as easily been a post about how quizzes tell me to not wear prints on my lower half because it makes me look bottom-heavy(er) or how my exercise-induced asthma should restrict me to short-distance running unless I’m treating myself with meds like crazy. Like any knowledge, you can use it for good or evil. Will it push you forward or hold you back?

If what you do keeps you active, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, stop doing it. There has to be a certain amount of buy-in to following through with something that might be hard to start with, like exercising, especially if the efficacy of it is not readily apparent. That is, you have to believe that all that blood, sweat, and tears is achieving something. At the same time, don’t be afraid to challenge your own beliefs or challenge what you read, even stuff written by experts–because you are a person and not a category, fads are things that exist, and sometimes people have personal or professional agendas for saying what they say. Do not structure your entire life around an article you read in Women’s Health magazine. Challenging what you read is what one of my science professors referred to as a “cultivated skepticism.”

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A good, relevant example of a well-known, creditable scientist purporting a less-than-credible scientific theory is that of Dr. Linus Pauling and his megadoses of Vitamin C. It’s hard to say enough to contrast Pauling’s early and later professional career. A short laundry list of his accomplishments includes fleshing out the field of quantum mechanics as well as making every future high school chemistry student hate him for his work on the nature of the chemical bond (i.e. ionic, covalent, etc.), for which he won one of his two Nobel Prizes (the other was a Peace Prize in the 60s). Unfortunately, more people probably know him for his belief that Vitamin C was the panacea of all human ills. He insisted that Vitamin C administered to cancer patients actually cured them of the disease (another study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in recovery rates between patients taking Vitamin C and a placebo). Pauling himself took  something like 3 grams of Vitamin C every day to prevent colds, which is another claim that has been widely discredited by studies. (At least one study did suggest Vitamin C could lessen the severity of existing cold symptoms, but did not seem to prevent them altogether.) Despite the wealth of evidence suggesting otherwise, Pauling’s scientific credibility and his total insistence that Vitamin C boosts the immune system have created a market for products like Airborne. Even knowing that the science isn’t exactly sound, orange juice is still one of the first things I reach for when I get sick.

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My point in all this is that sometimes even experts can get things wrong, and the only reason I’m not out there tearing Airborne packets off the drugstore shelves  or ridiculing those who are taking 17 multivitamins a day is, really, what can it hurt to take extra vitamins? Perhaps Vitamin C isn’t helping you get better, but if you think it is, maybe the placebo effect might be worth something.

That said, I’m still into questioning everything. There’s no substitute to poking the poop.

As for me, I’ll still wear my galaxy leggings even though prints make my butt look big. Whatever.

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