In last week’s New York Times Magazine, Gretchen Reynolds described a Finnish study on the body’s responsiveness to exercise, or, as the case may be, lack of responsiveness.  Surprisingly, some of the study’s 175 participants showed no improvement in cardiovascular fitness subsequent to a 21-week regimen in exercise endurance, and others failed to increase strength after doing weight training for the same duration.  Further, there were those who completed both regimens but showed no improvement whatsoever.

As Reynolds points out, these results shouldn’t be used to justify exercise avoidance, because most people do respond positively to exercise.  There are also the less tangible benefits, like improved quality of life, which count for something as well.  But non-responders are not unheard of, and exist in virtually all research.

The take-home message is that aerobic capacity and strength are not uniquely impacted by our behavior; environmental factors and disobedient genes may have more say than we’d like.

Findings like these prove unsettling, particularly this time of year, when we overindulge with the anticipation of starting fresh come January 1.  We bank on the fact that exercise and caloric restriction will undo the damage incurred through holiday festivities and family gatherings.  In short, we assume that a combination of effort and determination will enable us to reach our fitness goals and change our bodies.

It’s hardly a stretch to say that these findings might be considered downright un-American; a culture of rugged individualism has perpetuated the idea that we can do anything we set about to do, provided we exert adequate effort over a sufficient period of time. Indeed, this belief is the underpinning of the American dream.  Or, the American myth, as it more accurately may be dubbed.

It is threatening to acknowledge that we are not in full control of the course of our lives or the state of our bodies.  This is why we promulgate the idea that, if you work out regularly and eat a sensible diet, of course you’ll be able to look like Jillian Michaels!  But, unless you’ve come from that very privileged end of the gene pool, it’s unlikely that your silhouette will ever be an exact copy of hers, even with appropriate diet and exercise.

Some people go to extreme lengths because they subscribe to this notion of utter control through behavioral means. A striking example is the anorexic, baffled by the fact that she still has cellulite or a slight tummy; she assumed, as most everyone does, that all fat would be excised from her body if she used the behavioral tools at her disposal (e.g., caloric restriction and exercise).  Another example might be a weightlifter who is simply unable to coax his muscles to get any bigger without artificial enhancement.

When we consider that even a disciplined and single-minded athlete lacks the ability to completely dictate his body’s appearance or physiological response, the alarm bells go off.  We may feel a little nervous, as it challenges our fundamental sense of cause and effect.

It’s a common belief that effort is accompanied by commensurate reward, after all.  The body will respond if you follow the rules and maintain self-control.

Until it doesn’t.  And then we feel a bit like a six year-old taken to the principal’s office and falsely accused: “It’s not faaaaiiiiir!”

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that we tend to cling to the notion that success is the product of one’s internal characteristics, such as fortitude, intelligence, aptitude or effort.  Yet most of those who succeed, he explains, have profited immensely from the assistance of others or a particular set of favorable circumstances.  Virtually all who reach the upper echelons of their given professions make it due to a combination of talent, dedication and exertion; but these things are rarely, by themselves, sufficient.

The same idea can be applied to weight or health; we will be unlikely to meet our goals without hard work and conscious effort.  But it would behoove us to acknowledge that we can only control so much. A realistic perspective can prevent us from throwing in the towel when our stomach doesn’t get (quite) as chiseled as that of Ms. Michaels.  Or when we find that, despite all those morning runs, we’re still the turtle to Usain Bolt’s hare.

Photo by Alain Limoges via Flick’s Creative Commons License.