In Search of the Best Way to Exercise, Eat Less

Media Reviews for Media People: Dobrow Surfs Weight-Loss Sites

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Many folks woke up on New Year's Day and dutifully resolved to shed a few pounds during the months ahead. Me, I pried my tongue off the pillow with a crowbar and resolved to immediately down three servings of Breyers YoCrunch, which I'd discovered in the dairy aisle only a few days earlier.
MSN Health & Fitness is the best of the portals, but it doesn't exactly jump off the screen.
MSN Health & Fitness is the best of the portals, but it doesn't exactly jump off the screen.

Dude, that stuff totally rules. How is it possible that Western civilization has managed to produce such masterworks of engineering and artistry as the Golden Gate Bridge and "Die Hard 2," yet only recently figured out a palatable way to add candy to the breakfast menu? And still we continue to award our Nobel Prizes to no-goodniks like Jimmy Carter.

After polishing off my breakfast, a quick glimpse in the mirror revealed that my spare tire had evolved into something more akin to a spare torso. Right then and there, I decided to join my beefy brethren in attempting to, as the kids say, lose the junk in my trunk. Ambitious problem solver that I am, I resolved to do this by exercising more and eating less.

Turns out that weight loss is a considerably more complicated process than this, or at least that's what a majority of diet/fitness websites would have you believe. "Exercise" -- well, what kind of exercise? "Eating less" -- does that mean eating smaller portions or inhaling fewer Chocodiles? Leave it to the Industrio-Corporate Diet Advice Complex (aka Big Nutrition) to muddy up the waters and set us reaching for our billfolds.

So I took a virtual mosey around the web to see what the biggest, shiniest diet/fitness sites have to offer nowadays. For the purposes of this exercise (pun aggressively intended), I dismissed the sites affiliated with specific programs (eDiets.com, WeightWatchers.com, et al.), which concentrate more on hawking their wares than on providing actionable advice. Sure, there are ad modules on many of these sites -- eDiets boasts some kind of Kmart-backed weight-loss confab tucked away in a corner -- but they tend to get lost amid the in-house shilling.

Unfortunately, that leaves only beyond-broad diet/fitness portals associated with internet behemoths. I say "unfortunately" because, despite a few differences in navigation and organization, they're all the same. They offer the same columns (tips for starting the new year on a healthy note); the same dippy advisers ("hydration is really, really, really, really important"); and the same imagery (thin white people eating and smiling, blissful in their deliberate consumption).

My major problem with a sizable percentage of the diet/fitness sites, though, is their rah-rah tone. I understand that the targets of these programs, mostly middle-aged women, don't want to be bullied or shamed into slimming down. Losing weight is hard; I get this. But the sites' attempts to inspire! fall flat, since they celebrate only the most exceptional cases (e.g., "Cassandra was diagnosed with lupus, but that didn't keep her from losing 45 pounds, participating in triathlons and enjoying ear-poppingly intense sex with an battalion of cabana boys"). I have to think there's an opportunity for some forward-thinking publisher to devise a diet/fitness site aimed at a younger, less affirmation-hungry audience, one inclined to giggle at diet-site blasphemy such as, "You lost two pounds in six weeks? Wow! What'd you do, pass up a single piece of bread?" But that's a conversation for another day.

By default, MSN Health & Fitness is the best of the portals I perused. It's the most recipe-heavy of the three, plus its videos tend toward the instructional (clips of a fitter-than-you guy demonstrating proper leg-lift technique, etc.). Visually, however, the site doesn't exactly jump off the screen; the generic sidebar ad for auto insurance, among other things, gives it a low-rent feel.

The Yahoo Health front page features a mishmash of news (bits on the seizure of fake impotence drugs, oddly accompanied by a photo of a guy kissing a woman's stomach); relationship advice (a list of resolutions, a la "Do not deride your mate's core value system"); and duh-really manifestos ("Exercise: There's No Way Around It"). What troubles me more is the site's tendency to boil down complex advice ("Eating high-fat, high-carb meals produces damaging effects that are longer-lasting in obese people, research finds") in an almost willfully glib manner. Serious research demands serious explication, not a mere blurb-and-out presentation. Yahoo Health rarely digs deep.

AOL Body does slightly better on the organizational/navigational front, in that it simply lists a bunch of stuff. Indeed, it's impossible to get lost here. But again, the site lacks ambition and creativity. Ab workouts, body mass index, blah blah blah. I'm bored just recounting it.

I'll say this, though: I dig the Diet Coke Plus ad that headlined the AOL Body home page on Tuesday. It attempts to simulate that refrigerator-magnet-poetry thing that blanketed our nation's iceboxes a few years back, letting users create New Year's resolutions by dragging-and-dropping any of 35 or so words into a nearby form. I did this with my eyes closed, hoping to come up with some kind of freaky-deaky prediction for the months ahead. The doohickey promptly spat out "trip friend, donate mom," which sounds about right.

I went into this column thinking I'd enthusiastically recommend that marketers deepen their involvement with diet/fitness websites. Every study you see notes how people flock to the web for health information; you'd think would-be dieters and newly nutrition-conscious individuals would do the same. This would open up tons of ad opportunities for personal-electronics marketers (my iPod Shuffle is as important to my daily lap around Central Park as my sneakers) and companies that market fitness-oriented gear (Nike, New Balance, etc.). And, of course, those crazy pharma kids with their sweet nothings about oily discharge would always be at home here.

Instead, my one and only recommendation is this: Stay away. Divert your dollars towards Rodale's magazines, especially Men's Health, Women's Health and Runner's World, or find a way to work a deal with the only smart, sober-minded diet/fitness site I could locate -- Aetna's InteliHealth, believe it or not. That's right: An insurance company is kicking everybody's butt in the health-content derby.

Me, I'll just be over here in my girth-accommodating muumuu, trying to realize my "trip friend, donate mom" destiny. Wish me well.
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