Paul Ryan, Ubermensch
Why does the vice-presidential candidate keep hyping his physical prowess?
Ryan wouldn’t be the first guy to dissemble about his physical attributes. But with him it’s become a pattern: first the marathon, then the dubious mountain climbs, as well as some minor confusion about the exact level of his skiing prowess. (He told Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker that he was on Janesville Craig High School’s “ski team,” when in fact the school only maintains a ski club.) “Sounds a lot like when guys say they can also bench 300 pounds, run a 4.5 forty, etc.,” says Rooney.
Still, it’s not impossible that he’s telling the truth. P90X is certainly intense. Ryan is definitely fit. And one of his workout buddies, 29-year-old Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock, really did make the cover of Men’s Health last year. “They’re both very fit, very lean, and on top of their game,” says P90X founder Tony Horton, who estimates that he’s worked out with the congressional gym rats six or eight times. “I know that he kind of spaced out on his marathon time, but I’ve stood next to that guy. And he’s easily 6 to 8 percent body fat. You just have to eat right and exercise every day, and that’s what he does.”
He must do it very well, because that would make him even leaner than Horton himself, who porks out at a robust 9 percent body fat, according to a recent Men’s Health profile. That figure was just an estimate, Horton told me: “I haven’t measured my body fat in 10 years.”
Body fat is fairly tricky to measure. The standard tape-measure-and-caliper methods, which measure the thickness of skinfolds at various body sites, can vary by as much as 6 percentage points, says Gary Hunter, a professor of physiology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Underwater weighing (which is exactly what it sounds like) and DXA scans (dual X-ray images that discern fat from other tissue) are more accurate, and also more expensive and complicated.
But even if Ryan did get his body fat measured regularly, as he implied to Politico, it seems oddly vain to do so. “If he was measured at all, my first question would be, why?” asks Men’s Health workout columnist Lou Schuler. “Why would a lean and obviously objectively fit congressman need to know his body-fat percentage? I don't know mine, and I write about this stuff for a living.”
Finally, even assuming Ryan is telling the truth, and his body fat really is that low, it raises questions about his judgment. “It’s hard to sustain,” says Hunter. “Physiologically, you aren’t going to be functioning real well. Your strength levels will probably go down, you will feel fatigued, and your hormone levels will be disturbed.”
At very low body-fat levels, strange things start happening. Starved for energy, the body starts consuming muscle instead of fat, in what’s known as a catabolic state. Low fat levels also affect immune function. In the 1940s, the legendary nutritionist Ancel Keys (father of the military’s K-rations) subjected a group of 36 men to a severely restricted diet, amounting to about half what they were used to eating. The results of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment were shocking, both scientifically and visually. The subjects’ ribs protruded, and their stomachs caved in; they looked like prisoners.
Keys took precise body-fat measurements of his subjects, and found that they bottomed out around 5 percent—1 percent below Ryan’s claim. Whether from lack of body fat, or plain lack of food, they basically went crazy. One study participant lost three fingers to an axe—but was not sure whether it had been an accident or intentional. So until those shirtless pics emerge showing a veined, “cut,” muscle-mag-worthy bod under those Brooks Brothers suits, let’s just hope that this one is just another Paul Ryan brag.
Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.