What’s with the quotation marks? Let me begin with a story [from 2008]…

This week DW is in New York. This means the car is parked at the airport. Also, it’s raining heavily which means that I’m not riding my bike. I have made a solemn promise that this bike shall never touch water (grit). If it gets wet, it has to be cleaned and dried. Otherwise it dies. I plan to own it forever and I am too lazy to clean it, so ..

.. umbrella in hand, I have been walking the 5 miles to work every day (if it was more than 8 miles I would probably be running and bring a change of clothes to cut down the time instead). Unlike biking which requires one’s full attention to steer clear of broken bottles, paper cups, fastfood bags, and other waste that drivers so considerably dispose of in the curb, walking allows a lot of time for reflection and it struck me how bodybuilding and aerobics i.e. commercial gym culture has many parallels to consumer culture.

The main goal of bodybuilding is to get BIG just like the main goal of our society is to accumulate a lot of stuff. While there are some aesthetic consideration, an important focus is big biceps, big pecs and big quads, whereas other muscles receive less attention. This is similar to consumer culture, where the focus is on the size of the house, the size of the TV, and the size of the car. Bigger is better! To maintain this amount of bulk, bodybuilders eat upwards of 6000kcal a day or enough to feed at least 3 ordinary people. I’m not sure what the mortgage for a 5 bed room – 3 bath room – 2 car port house + 2 car payments and 1 large consumer line of credit is, but I imagine it eats quite a bit of cash.

The ideal body image of our culture comprise muscular men and skinny women. Many people seems to want want to achieve this ideal and of course there are people hawking 30 day to get into shape programs, diet pills, weight gain 3000 powder, abs machines, and other flimsy equipment. There are usually testimonials with before and after pictures from the 0.1% for whom it actually worked. The parallels to get rich quick daytrading options, flipping real estate, or getting payday loans are of course obvious. They all target the “quick and easy” mentality.

Everything in the body image culture is measured by size. 18″ biceps is better than 16″. A woman weighing 105 lbs is better than a woman weighing 130 lbs. Financial success is also measured by size in our culture. A net worth of $1,000,000 is better than a net worth of $100,000 and a job with a six figure income is better than a job with a five figure income. Financial success is also about the image of size and numbers: The more money you have, the happier you must be. The bigger or smaller your body is, the stronger or better shape you must be in.

However, gym workouts have substituted kinesthetic ability for perceived “safety” and highly expensive and specialized equipment (ring a bell?). In the gym people sit down on comfy padded surfaces and pull levers back and forth in repetitive motions. Never do they get the chance to lift a real weight from the floor to lockout position over head. This is considered too dangerous. I tell you though, repeatedly ripping 100 pounds of pig iron from the floor to a lockout position feels much more manly than sitting in a padded seat and pushing a lever while wearing spandex shorts.

Similarly the aerobics section resemble amputated vehicles of locomotion, bikes without wells, boats without keels and rudders, stairs without steps. None of these result in any real skills. Nobody learns how to race a real bike in spinning class and nobody learns how to row a boat by pulling levers in a rowing motion. Consequently, we see people switching their brains off and turning the wheels for an hour like hamsters while watching TV, listening to the radio or reading People magazine while paying a monthly fee for the illusion of getting fit. Almost sounds like a real job, doesn’t it?

Of course this obsession with form over function has spawned a counter revolution called functional fitness. Whereas ordinary fitness is about size and ordinary sports is about achieving the best performance under the best conditions, functional fitness is about strength, agility, speed, dexterity and achieving the best performance under the worst conditions. Suppose there is an earthquake in the middle of the night and a heavy piece of furniture falls on a person knocking him unconscious. This piece of furniture is awkward. The grip is odd. It only weighs 60lbs, but you have to lean over to reach it and you can only get a hold of it with one hand. Also, you don’t have your gloves or your weight belt. In essence you find yourself having to perform a functional task under the worst conditions. Could you lift it? Suppose you’re out hiking and your partner slips and you both fall into a creek. You are about 10 miles out, temperatures are dropping, and there is nobody in sight. Could you make it back? Or imagine walking down the street. A stray dog starts running after you. Luckily there’s an 8 feet high fence 20 yards away. Could you sprint and climb over it?

Those who are functionally fit, typically military, swat teams, and a smaller but growing number of enthusiasts, have to consider much more than size. Being too big can be a detriment because carrying a large body requires more energy and it is slower. It is also harder to get over the fence. Being too small means that absolute strength is minimized. But strength is not the only thing. My bet is that most people would have a hard time putting their shoes on right now and running 10 miles. No no, there will be all kinds of excuses about carb loading, hydration, etc. Regular athletes are not used to operating without a steady source of sugar just as regular people are not used to operating without a steady source of income.

I think frugality coupled with wealth parallels functional fitness in many ways. Frugality is about efficiency. It is about applying just the right amount of power at the right time to get the job done. Why use excess force when skill can substitute and achieve the same result. When my grandfather was in his prime, he was a 5’5″, 150lbs workman. I’d pit him against any bodybuilder in a game of stacking 100# bags of wheat. The bodybuilder would probably gas or throw up and complain about “old man strength”. This is exactly what I mean, when I talk about being efficient. My grandfather relies on skill and correctly proportioned strength to achieve his goal and his cardiovascular system is exactly matched to his muscular power. The bodybuilder may have massive biceps, but his tendons are as weak as an ordinary man’s from never gripping anything but 1″ bars and padded levers. He has little core strength, because everything he lifts is done from a prone or sitting position. Finally, his size means that his cardiovascular system can not keep up. It was never built to do hard work for more than a 45 second set.

I think personal finance is the same. If your possessions are disproportioned to your needs, you are inefficient and thus need more money to achieve the same goal.
Those who are used to rely solely on spending money every time they need something must naturally think that they need a lot of money in order to get by. Their perceived standard of living is directly coupled to how much money they spend and their financial security is directly coupled to how much money they have saved. A frugal person is more decoupled from the economy. If the TV breaks, the frugal person repairs it. Other people buy a new one and give the broken one away for free on craigslist. I am not making this up. Go to the San Francisco craigslist and you will find many people giving away 50″ TVs! The end result is that both people have a workable TV. In my opinion, they both enjoy the same standard of living, but the unfrugal and economically inefficient person just paid $3000 more. Frugality is worth something and it is an important component in a net worth calculation.

For instance, a person may have a net worth of $200,000, but until I know what that person spends, that number is meaningless. After all, it may be that expenses run at $100,000 annually in which case that number is not impressive.
In addition, a person may spend $15,000 a year, but until I know how that person lives, that number is meaningless. It may be that most of this money goes towards car payments, computer games and pizza which does not sound like a rich life to me. Finally, a person may look so and so muscular, but until I know how fast he can move 50 sacks of wheat after having just run 3 miles, I don’t know how his true strength. I mean, today it is possible to get pec and calf implants. What does that say about our society?

Originally posted 2007-12-23 09:14:00.