I haven’t found NBA basketball worth watching since the Michael Jordan era, when I lived in Chicago and couldn’t help myself. But last night, as sort of a “bye-bye to L.A.” experience, I decided to watch the Lakers in the finals, and the more I watched, the more I couldn’t help but notice something peculiar: almost all the players are very tall – much taller than the average man.
This got me thinking back to my college days, when I last attended basketball games in person. The college players were tall too, although not as tall as the Lakers. Then I thought about my high school team. As a bunch of white Catholic kids, they weren’t exactly human skyscrapers, but they were still some of the tallest guys in our school.
So after carefully thinking through all the evidence, I came to the obvious conclusion: playing basketball makes you tall. And the longer you play, the taller you become. Nothing else can explain why the players become taller as they move from high school, to college, to the pros.
Therefore, I’ve decided to add a few hours of rigorous basketball to my weekly workout regimen. My goal is to grow to about 6 ft. 2 inches, which would make me as tall as my son – who did play high school basketball and thus outgrew me. However, if Fat Head sells to the point that I can be sure I’ll be flying first class from now on, I may keep playing until I reach 6 ft. 5 inches.
There’s nothing wrong with my current height of 5 ft. 11 inches, you understand. I certainly don’t feel vertically inadequate. But I can see some definite advantages to being taller. I’ve read, for example, that tall men tend to earn higher incomes, so after my basketball program does its magic, I’ll be able to raise my software-programming rates.
I’ve also read that tall men have an advantage in the dating market and are more likely to be happily married. I’m already happily married, but I figure when I start packing on the extra inches, my wife may sense the growing competition and work on improving her already-sparkling personality. (I would say she’ll work on becoming better-looking, but there’s really no room for improvement.)
If my plan sounds a bit ridiculous – which it is – keep in mind that it’s only slightly more ridiculous than the “exercise makes you lean” theory. While researching Fat Head, I came across study after study that compared fat people to thin people and concluded that because the thin people moved more, it was the extra movement that made them thinner.
And truth be told, this theory has been pounded into our consciousness for so many decades, I bought into it. I quoted some of those studies in an early version of the film. It was Dr. Mike Eades who warned me I was about to repeat the error made by the researchers themselves: confusing an association with a cause.
Yes, people who are active and bouncy tend to be thinner than people who aren’t. But that doesn’t mean the lean people are lean because they’re active. It’s just as likely – more likely, I believe – that they’re active because they’re lean.
This was one of the truly eye-opening revelations in Good Calories, Bad Calories, by Gary Taubes. As Taubes explains, your body is constantly working to reach homeostasis, the point at which the internal environment is in balance. Your blood sugar, for example, must be balanced, and so a whole series of biochemical processes interact to keep it within a narrow range.
Your body’s fuel supply also needs to stay in balance – which means maintaining exactly as much fat as you need. Yes, you need your fat. You may even need a lot of it, depending on your hormonal balance.
Your fat cells are not little bank accounts that only take deposits when you eat too much. They’re more like rechargeable batteries. When you eat, you charge them up with fatty acids … even if you’re skinny. When you’re not eating and begin to run low on available energy, the fat cells release fatty acids to provide fuel for your muscles and organs.
If your fat cells don’t release fatty acids efficiently – that is, if they’ve become akin to weak batteries – your body will work to make bigger batteries. You’ll feel hungrier and eat more. Your metabolism will slow down. You’ll produce less heat. You’ll feel lethargic and lazy.
Guess what? People who feel lethargic don’t move as much – exactly what your body intended. And this process will continue until you reach homeostasis, the point at which your slow-leak fat cells are big enough to provide the fuel your body needs when you’re not eating.
The opposite is also true. As Taubes explains, people like Lance Armstrong (or my lean, bouncy son) have fat cells that are constantly releasing fatty acids. With the body awash in fuel, there is a strong impulse to move. Their bodies don’t want to store fat, and so they’re driven to burn it. They’re active because they’re naturally lean.
So do I believe exercise is worthless for losing weight? Nope. If you work out and put on extra muscle, the bigger muscles will burn more fuel and raise your basal metabolism. More importantly, a good, hard workout can increase your sensitivity to insulin, so you won’t need as much of the stuff to keep your blood sugar level. Lower insulin means you’re more likely to burn fat and less likely to store it – which in turn means you’re more likely to have the impulse to move. So exercise can lead to the desire to exercise. I know it does for me.
But if your insulin is elevated and you don’t change your diet to bring it down, exercising will most likely just deplete your body of fuel – and your body will fight to hang onto those big batteries it needs by conserving fuel any way it can. Taubes recounts stories of people who’ve trained for and run marathons without losing weight.
The bottom line is that I think the right type of exercise is great for your muscles and your overall health. When I see people in their seventies or eighties clinging to a walker and inching down the sidewalk, it breaks my heart. I’m determined to keep working out and make sure that doesn’t happen to me. But without the right diet, I don’t expect exercise to keep my weight down.
I also don’t expect it to make me any taller. But I think the Lakers can live without me.