Paul Ryan, Ubermensch
Why does the vice-presidential candidate keep hyping his physical prowess?
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
In case you haven’t heard, Paul Ryan works out. A lot, apparently; he’s so much of a “fitness guy,” as he’s said, that for days after Mitt Romney chose him as his vice-presidential candidate, the media could talk about little else but the fact that Ryan leads a group of congressmen in a daily workout called P90X, a hugely popular, high-intensity workout routine with a cultlike following.
The legend of Paul Ryan’s physical fitness got even crazier when the boy-wonder V.P. candidate bragged to Hugh Hewitt about his marathon running, claiming he’d run the 26.2-mile race in “under three [hours], high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something. … I was fast when I was younger, yeah.”
Of course, we now know that was a lie. As Runner’s World discovered, Ryan’s time was 4:01:25, and as a Ryan spokesman admitted, it was his one and only marathon. He was 20 when he ran it, and yet he still would have lost to a 40-ish Sarah Palin. Whoops. Diehard runners were ticked off, of course, and the Ryan marathon soon became a punch line.
Left unexamined, however, was another, equally outrageous claim: That Ryan has 6 percent body fat. This was endlessly repeated at the time of his selection—trumpeted in headlines (both here and abroad) and even in editorial-page cartoons. “Oh, to be a pair of calipers,” swooned Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. “Paul Ryan shirtless” became one of the most popular Internet searches—despite yielding only one softish vacation photo—which makes it all the more strange that nobody has taken a closer look.
Well, guess what: He’s probably lying about the body fat thing, too. Or, at best, wildly exaggerating.
The “6 percent body fat” meme seems to have originated in a 2010 interview with Mike Allen of Politico. Allen asked him about P90X—“a fad, a craze that you’ve created here on Capitol Hill.” Ryan, who says he once worked as a “fitness trainer,” talks about the workout group, which at the time he led with then-Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.): “Tony Horton, the creator of it, comes by and works out with us every few months. It works because it’s called muscle confusion, it hits your body in many different ways—pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, lots of cardio, karate, jump training, yoga. So what it does is it pushes your body in many different ways so that it gets out of its plateau.”
Sounds good. But then he can’t help but brag: “I keep my body fat between 6 and 8 percent,” he tells Allen.
Here’s who else maintains 6 to 8 percent body fat: Olympic 100-meter sprinters, that’s who. Also, world-class boxers, wrestlers, and marathoners, according to this study of elite American athletes. Top collegiate swimmers look pretty fit, right? Well, they average out at a plump 9.5 percent, at least according to another study. Positively porky, compared to Ryan. (For some perspective, the average man has body fat of 17 to 24 percent, and most women a bit more.)
If his claim is to be believed—a Ryan spokesman did not respond to questions—he’s more along the lines of Tour de France cyclists who also get down around 8 or 9 percent to prepare for major races. According to Iñigo San Millan, a veteran cycling physiologist who has worked with numerous Tour de France teams, the lowest body fat he’s ever measured on a cyclist was 8.3 percent. That’s at peak fitness, racing shape.
Ryan’s claim, in other words, puts him squarely in the company of elite athletes. (And also, freakily, with these guys.) But while Ryan is definitely skinny—he told Allen that he’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 163 pounds, and his suits flutter like a Christo project gone wrong—that might be a stretch. At anything less than 10 percent body fat, says Martin Rooney, a well-known trainer who works with NFL and MMA athletes, “a man with his shirt off is lean and shredded. Veins everywhere and really cut up. This is the model and bodybuilder look. So if he is saying he is 6 percent, he is shredded with a six-pack and should have no reason not to do photo shoots everywhere.”
So far, he hasn’t. The only topless Ryan photo to surface is this grainy vacation shot on TMZ, from before he started P90X. So we can’t know for sure. Also not showing up: any summit shots from Ryan’s claimed 38 trips up Colorado’s 14,000-foot-high peaks, or “fourteeners,” a claim that has also generated skepticism among climbers. In a nutshell, there was confusion over whether Ryan had climbed 40 of the state’s 53 fourteeners, as he seems to have led at least one local politician to believe, or (as a campaign statement later clarified) “almost 40 climbs” up 28 different peaks.
Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.