Today on HBR: A hard look at the hard bodies promised by Tim Ferriss

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My latest post for Harvard Business Review takes a hard look at hard bodies: specifically, the hard bodies promised by Tim Ferriss in his book, The 4-Hour Body. In the post I quote three experts I asked for insight into the book’s recommendations: Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, an MD and expert on alternative and complementary medicine; Dr. Jonathan Emens, a psychiatrist and sleep researcher; and Heather Low, a Pilates instructor.

While the post reflects on my concerns about how the 4-Hour Body will affect geek culture, it started from a much more personal place. When I first started reading 4HB in late December, I got caught up in the book’s enthusiasm — can any human resist the enthusiasm of Tim Ferriss? — and thought I’d take it for a spin. I snapped my naked pictures (mental note: delete the naked pictures before you start passing your iPhone around during an app sharing event), took my measurements, and set up my Excel spreadsheet.

Then it came time to have breakfast.

For the past, gosh….five years??….my daily breakfast has been yogurt, fresh fruit and a small amount of granola.  It’s delicious, it gives me lots of energy and at least one of my kids is willing to eat it too. And every single bit of it is verboten under the Ferriss regime.

That gave me my first moment of hesitation. After all, my breakfast got the stamp of approval from a nutritionist…the same nutritionist who helped me lose 30 pounds after the birth of my second child. Her methodology didn’t involve any fad diets, any rules about carbs or no-go zones. Her simple method was to follow the Canada Food Guide (key challenge: limiting myself to 5 servings of grains & starchy veggies each day) and ensuring I got somewhat more demanding cardio (which took the form of half-hour jogs while pushing a double stroller, FTW!)

The 4HB method contrasted sharply with the moderate, balanced approach my nutritionist had advocated — and which I’d successfully sustained long enough to lose all but the final, mythical 10 pounds. It also diverged from the exercise approach I’d invested in with my Pilates teacher, who had taught me to focus on form rather than weight load. And its sleep approach was a dramatic departure from what I’d learned about sleep in my casual reading over the years.

So I decided that before I jumped into the 4HB approach, I’d look for a little expert advice. Much to my surprise, there was almost nothing available: while the books’ December publication date was great timing for people looking for a New Year’s resolution, vacation season is also a tough time to line up expert interviews. Perhaps that’s the reason that I could only find expert commentary on the book’s legendary promise of a 15-minute orgasm (“I’m not sure that would be a pleasant experience,” said sociologist and sexologist Pepper Schwartz.)

My HBR story gave me a chance to seek out the expert opinion I hadn’t found online. And while I’m as sorry as the next slightly overweight guy to hear that 4HB might not be an entirely wise approach, I can’t say I was that surprised.

In my own experience of physical self-care over the years, extreme approaches are rarely safe, healthy and sustainable, particularly for those of us who are interested in long-run health rather than short-run hotness. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m willing to settle for both.) It’s our desire for short-run hotness that makes us so susceptible to the promise of a quick fix, even when that quick fix might carry significant risks.

One of the things I love about geeks — beyond the aspiration to a world that goes beyond surface impressions, as I discuss in my HBR post — is the high intellectual standard to which they subject any claim: the more ambitious or extreme the claim, the tougher the scrutiny. (Snopes and Quackwatch). I hope that the geeks of the world, be they hot or not, will bring that same scrutiny to those who promise us smokin’ bodies to go with our smokin’ brains.

4 Comments on this site

  1. Tod Maffin

    It was a great title, leveraging the title of his previous book, The Four-Hour Workweek. But a great title does not make a good book. He is a master marketer, though, I’ll give him that.

  2. RJ

    Yea, um been on the 4HB diet for 90 days and lost 48 (308 – 260) pounds at a steady 3 pounds per week. Easiest diet to follow and funnest in my life. But keep telling me how it doesn’t work. I promise I am listening…

  3. Alexandra Samuel

    Glad it’s working for you, RJ. I don’t think that either I or the experts I interviewed suggested it wouldn’t work; we expressed reservations about whether it’s healthy or sustainable. It’s terrific that you’ve found something that has helped you move towards your own goals and I hope that you are enjoying how that feels as well as how it looks!

  4. Alexandra Samuel

    No kidding! I’m waiting for the 4-Hour Marketing book. THAT will be awesome.

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