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.
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.