3 Great Exercise Books for Your Summer Reading List

Beach ReadingWe don’t usually review books here on Obesity Panacea.  That’s not because we don’t like books, we just don’t like to use digital ink on them unless there is something that we either love or hate about them.  But I’ve come across 3 books related to diet, exercise and health in the past year that I really enjoyed, and which I think are just the thing to take with you on Canada Day/Fourth of July long weekend.  Most of these books have been reviewed at length elsewhere, so I thought it would be more useful to simply give a relatively short synopsis of each book, as well as links to more detailed reviews that have been written previously.  If you’ve read any of the books yourself, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

My qualitative rating scale

When I read science books I find that they vary considerably in terms of 2 key factors: narrative and research evidence.  Some books have a clearly defined narrative – we follow characters as they move through various situations, following some sort of arc from beginning to end (e.g. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).  Others focus more on the science itself – lots of discussion of studies and what their findings tell us/don’t tell us, etc (e.g. The Elegant Universe).  I enjoy reading both of these styles, although I find I often favour one or the other depending on my mood.  So I have ranked each book based on how I feel that they rate on these two subjective characteristics, in order that you can choose the one(s) that suit your tastes.

Oh, and lest anyone worry about undue influence, I paid full price for 2 of these books, while the third was a gift from my mother-in-law.

1.  Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Chris McDougall)

The subtitle of this book pretty much sums it up. The book follows the author as he tries to track down the secrets of the running prowess of the Tarahumara Indians, who are able to casually win ultramarathons while wearing little in the way of footwear, all while appearing impervious to injury.  The story is gripping, and I’ve been amazed at the broadness of the book’s appeal (it was read first by my sister-in-law, who passed it to my mother-in-law, who gave me a copy, which was then also read by my wife and my father).  If you’re looking to relax on the beach with a beer or slice of watermelon, this is a perfect book for you.

However, while the story itself is fascinating (the narrative element was by far the strongest of the three books), it also had relatively little actual science content compared the books below.  It did include discussion of findings and researchers, but this sort of storytelling doesn’t always allow for details on the nuances (e.g. general confusion) that is inherent to the research process.  My biggest issue was when the author described “maverick” scientists – a term that always bothers me.  You can make the argument that almost any scientist is a maverick if viewed through the right lens (Peter’s PhD studies suggested that you can be obese and healthy, does that make him a maverick?). That being said I did find the book’s discussions of research to be interesting, I just didn’t feel that I really learned much about the science of running itself.  But it was part of a very interesting and enjoyable story.

Narrative Element: Very High

Science Content: Low

Perfect For: Anyone looking for a good story

Reviews: Washington Post, Barefoot Running

2.   Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise (Alex Hutchinson)

This book was written by Canadian journalist Alex Hutchinson, who regular readers may remember from his recent guest post on the utility of stretching (or lack thereof).  As the title suggests, this book is setup as a series of short questions and answers related to exercise.

For example (full table of contents here):

  • Does pumping my arms make me run faster?
  • Can exercise increase my risk of a heart attack?
  • Is running on a treadmill better or worse than running outside?
  • How can I avoid muscle cramps?

If (like me) you prefer everything to be evidence-based, then this is the book for you. It covers a range of topics that are useful for beginners right up to exercise physiologists – each chapter reads like a mini-review on important questions that almost everyone has at one time or another.  I was surprised on the number of topics that covered information that was new to me, even on topics that (I like to think) I know quite well (e.g. endurance running).  I also liked that Alex was realistic in his assessment of the literature (he’s not one to overstate the significance of a finding), and that he presented information on both the ideal way to reach a fitness goal, as well as the more realistic options that may be more relevant for the average reader.  In fact, this book is actually quite reassuring in that it provides plenty of evidence that even if your workout isn’t perfect, you’re still getting lots of benefits – unless you’re an elite athlete, it’s good to know that you don’t need to lose sleep over the exact number of reps you do in each set.

If you like the research-based posts on this blog, or any of Alex’s articles in the Globe and Mail, then you will like this book.  It’s short chapters are also ideal for reading in bite-sized chunks, whether on the bus, or on the throne.  Obesity Panacea is also briefly mentioned in the book, which was exciting for me personally.

I had only one very (very) minor quibble with this book, and that was in the section on the value of personal trainers.  When discussing the certifications to look for in a trainer, Alex overlooked Certified Personal Trainers, Certified Exercise Physiologists and Certified Kinesiologists, which are the only certifications in Canada that ensure that your trainer has at least some post-secondary education related to fitness and health (other certifications are more akin to a weekend CPR course).  It may seem like a minor thing, but I think it’s an important distinction.

Narrative Element: Low

Science Content: Very High

Perfect For: The person that *needs* to know whether their workout plan is evidence-based.

Reviews: Montreal Endurance, Weighty Matters, BC Living

3. The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness (Timothy Caulfield)

In this book Tim Caulfield (who also  happens to be Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta) takes us along on his personal journal to find the path to increased health fitness, and happiness. From the introduction:

Scientific data should help us make the best [health] decisions that we can, but is this what actually happens? While never promising the Truth, science is meant to nudge us closer to an objective picture of our world.  It should give us some idea of what is likely to work.  But despite the power of science to provide us with practical information, most of us have only a vague notion of what actually makes us healthy.  Our vision has been obscured by personal and institutional agendas, commercial interests, and pop-culture spin….

My aim is to clarify the picture and explain that forces that have made [the science of health] obscure.

As you might expect from the above excerpt, he takes a very a critical view of the many stakeholders (including researchers) that distort the way that the public views health research.  And he points out (somewhat relentlessly) that when the mainstream media talks about “health”, what they really mean is “sex” (do you really think anyone wants a 6 pack simply for the health benefits?).  He also brings a critical eye to both both pharmaceutical and “natural” health industries.

In many ways I see this book as the happy medium between the two other books in this list – the story has plenty of science, as well as a compelling narrative as we follow Tim’s attempt to put all this science into practice in his own life.  My only issue with the book is that Tim focuses so  heavily on finding the ideal workout, diet, etc.  In the process it shows just how unpleasant the “ideal” workout can be, but it would have been nice for people to be reminded that they can still get most of the health benefits of exercise (albeit without the 6-pack abs) even if their workout regimen remains “suboptimal”.  But that is a pretty minor complaint, and the book was a fantastic read nonetheless.

Narrative Element: Medium

Science Content: Medium

Perfect For: The cynical health nut

Reviews: Nutsci.org, Weighty Matters, National Post.


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6 Responses to 3 Great Exercise Books for Your Summer Reading List

  1. Thank you very much Travis, this was a helpful review. I got a very good sense of the nature of each book from your comments. On its basis I picked up the latter two books. They were available in Kindle from the US site (although not from the CA site).

  2. Rhodia says:

    I read and enjoyed the first two on your list (especially the Hutchison book – I really like knowing exactly what the evidence says and how to interpret it, and the book puts in in language someone with no postsecondary science education can understand), but I hadn’t heard of the third one so I will definitely check it out.

    For people who are interested in some of the ideas in Born to Run, but want more science, I highly recommend Tread Lightly by Peter Larson (the guy who writes Runblogger.com).

  3. Johan says:

    I hope it is not presumptuous of me to ask for a book review. There’s this book that everybody has been raving about lately, and my mother handed me a copy which is lying in my to-be-read pile currently. Its Amazon review are unbelievably good as well.

    It is It Starts With Food by Dallas & Melissa Hartwig.

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t read it, but the U.S. Amazon reviews are interesting. 109 glowing reviews for how good a paleo book this is, and a negative review saying it is just a Paleo book and offers nothing unique beyond what proponents like Cordain say, but without the science diligence.

      I maintain that one of the factors in “lifestyle” change or long term adherence to beneficial practices is acquiring expertise in both behavioral self-management and the specifics of how your own body responds to various combinations of conditions (thus “self-experimentation”). That, and I’m pretty much persuaded that the effort involved in preparing real food vs. convenience foods most of the time is a huge factor in health and vitality, not least of the reasons being that it gives us more flexibility to make small beneficial changes and to implement “good” changes that can be much more helpful than “optimal” changes that purists argue endlessly about. Finally, the sorts of things you have to do in order to prepare food have a cascade effect on the thinking and habits you do in other areas of your life.

      What I see of this book from the reviews makes me think it is very consistent with those principles and fills in many of the details of what it takes to think about food in a more healthy and realistic way.

      I thank you for making this request and pointing readers of this blog to the book, I for one intend to check it out, although I already have a long list of pending books to read. I’d like to see what Travis thinks of it if he’s read it as well.


    • Travis says:

      Not presumptuous at all :) I’m actually in the process of reading another Paleo book at the moment, although it falls in the range where I don’t feel the need to review it online, as it’s ok but not great. I’m thinking that most books focused on a specific diet would fall into that category for me – anything that promotes one approach to eating as completely transformational is something that probably won’t really excite me. But I will add this book to my list of books to check out down the road. Let me know what you think of it when you get around to reading it.