Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday, 8 October 2011

On weighty matters

I am a Cheddar cheese.

No, honestly! Just bear with me for a moment.

With all this talk of 'fat taxes', I had a highly topical experience this week. I've been advised to join a gym to sort out a dodgy shoulder, so I duly unearthed a dusty pair of trainers from the back of the wardrobe and trotted along in my best lamb-to-the-slaughter fashion.

I have to admit that the gym is not my natural habitat; I find myself pondering awkward questions like "If I'm making all this effort, why is the machine plugged into the mains?" or "Wouldn't it be nicer to go for a walk outside?" or, mostly, just "Why?"

However, on my best behaviour, I walked into what Jeremy Clarkson once described as 'a room crammed with Steves busy lifting things up and putting them down again' to meet my 'Fitness Consultant' (who was, inevitably, a superbly-honed specimen expressly designed to lower the self-esteem of most of us mere mortals).

I wasn't allowed to play with the iron bars and hamster-wheels straight away, though; the first thing they wanted was a 'fitness assessment', for which I was wired up to an assortment of nameless and expensive-looking gadgets. Then it was back to the office for what I believe in lifestyle TV is called 'the reveal'.

Actually I'm not in such bad shape; all the figures in the glossy report were printed in green - all but one, that is. It turns out I have the same percentage fat content as a good Cheddar cheese. As a result, there were angry announcements in red all over the printout saying, basically, "Watch out, the Grim Reaper's on his way!"

Amid all the dire warnings about diabetes and heart disease was the actual percentage figure, so when I got home, naturally I googled it. And here's the thing; I exceed the 'healthy percentage' of body fat for my profile by a mere half a per cent, rounded up.

0.3% less and I would be in the 'acceptable' range; no red lines, no dire warnings, green lights all the way. And what's the margin for error for a calculating machine that gets all its data from sticking electrodes to the wrist and ankle of the recumbent victim and measuring the resistance?

Small wonder, then, that my 'Consultant' hardly batted an eyelid at these woeful prognostications; after all, I'd managed to squeeze in through the door without a struggle and - using the other fashionable statistic - my BMI is unequivocally normal.

Now, I'd like to believe that all these parameters are determined by dedicated, white-coated lab rats hunched over their microscopes for the good of humanity but I suspect that, somewhere, there is a roomful of state-funded statisticians who have arbitrarily decided that a fraction of a percentage more or less will divide the sheep from the goats.

If you have the body fat percentage of cottage cheese, you're among the ranks of the saved; if it's Roquefort, then you're on the road to perdition. Forget St Peter and the pearly gates; we're right back to Ancient Egypt and the Weighing of the Heart.

In view of which, it's probably a good thing that, according to the bizarrely omniscient Frankestein electrode machine, my skeleton and internal organs apparently weigh exactly what they should.


  1. You fat whap! Prepare to be denormalised :-)

  2. Cheers Bucko!

    You know, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the dedicated gym bunnies puffing away on their treadmills are actually trying to achieve a body fat percentage of zero; after all, they've been told for years that fat-free is always better.

  3. Speaking as a Dorset Blue Vinney perhaps it is all a matter of taste.

  4. I think you will find, on further questioning, that most of the body-beautiful gym bunnies have in fact honed every muscle in their bodies save one: the one between their ears.

    Close questioning, especially on the matter of accuracy of machines, statistical Standard Errors, percentiles and so on can be most amusing. I would especially recommend a psychological trick my former PhD supervisor used often; pretend to be very confused about something, and get them to explain it in minute detail, inserting as many difficult questions as necessary; most run away screaming after a few minutes of this.

  5. Demetrius, there might just be a highly entertaining party game in this...

    Dr D.H., what I've overheard so far at the gym suggests you are quite right; the fitness industry is awash with buzz-words and jargon, always a useful substitute for rational thought.