Let's take down the "hormone-balancing workout/diet" scam

Plus: ENTER MARY, accountability coaches find a new direction, the Barkley Marathon. This is Link Letter 63!

Let's take down the "hormone-balancing workout/diet" scam

The essential nature of a social media timeline is “being plagued by some goddamn trend.” If I open TikTok or Instagram and some sort of personal-care/wellness fix-all isn’t trying to run me over, I check out the window for nuclear war.

Algorithms have two very simple criteria for a viral health post: It must have an uncannily relatable setup, and in contrast, the solution must seem nearly totally alien. In other words, the premise must make you go “YES” and the proposed solution must make you go “huh???”

It is important to keep this in mind when trying to absorb the words “hormone-balancing workout and/or diet.” Hormone-balancing workouts/diets have grabbed the timelines by the throat. What are they?

Workouts are my jam so we will focus on that. Let’s let this blog try to tell us what a "hormone balancing workout" does:

Hormones are chemical messengers that keep our bodies in a happy state of equilibrium. Unfortunately, crossed wires and miscommunications happen, and before you know it, your hormones are all over the place, and you’re drowning your sorrows in vats of wine and ice cream (it’s okay, we’ve all been there). So what causes our internal communication system to go haywire? It could be work stress, a high-sugar diet (probably driven by that work stress), or even too much exercise.

[uncannily relatable setup]

Jenni Rivett is a personal trainer who has built her method, Body by Rivett, around boosting beneficial hormones and suppressing the less beneficial ones (such as those that come from being too stressed out).

[nearly totally alien solution]

The blog proceeds to run through some of the types of hormones, and what happens if hormones, but too much: stress, low energy, and never forget the [lowers voice to a stage whisper] weight gain. The post is all over the idea that body fat secretes “hormones that affect other hormones.” But interestingly, it has zero information about the negative effects that being underweight or having an eating disorder can have on your hormones.

The fundamental mistake that “hormone-balancing workouts” make is that hormone levels are generally symptoms, not causes (unless you have a medical issue you shouldn’t be self-treating with, like, Pilates). Our stress is high, thus our cortisol is high; we aren’t stressed because we have high cortisol. The solution to high cortisol is lowering our stress; the solution to stress is not trying to hoodwink our organs into producing less cortisol with a highly specific, near-superstitious set of rituals.

Exercise can help lower stress, and therefore help lower cortisol. There's a chance that anything unfamiliar or excessively stressful, including exercise, could raise cortisol. But the activity would have to be so excessive and unfamiliar for that to happen; I'm talking like, someone who's never lifted a weight before trying to squat 200 pounds. Someone who's never run before trying to do a marathon. It's about the dose, not the type of medicine. There is zero evidence that a given type of physical activity is inherently more cortisol-producing than any other. For hormones in general, exercise isn't uniquely capable of producing changes that are worrisome, in terms of health or anything else. Diets can affect our hormones, but as a result of being malnourished, which is not a problem to address with quick-fix supplements or fad diets.

Of course, the insidious thing about the “hormone-balancing workout” is that there is a kernel of truth to it: Working out does affect hormone levels. But it’s not because we need to consciously manage them like we are a Price Is Right contestant turning a dial, constantly looking back at the hormone audience for approval. One simply does not need to think this deeply about the ways in which exercise is good.

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Though hormones do a lot of things in our bodies, their closest popular association is with sex and gender. Female hormones be like this (estrogen, progesterone), male hormones be like that (testosterone). (Never mind that both sexes have all of these hormones.)

To tell someone they may have a hormone imbalance is to telegraph that they are not cutting it in terms of how they are conforming to their gender. A woman with a hormone imbalance isn’t feminine enough, and maybe even worse, doesn’t care enough about being feminine. The “hormone-balancing workout” tickles this hole worn into our brains by social programming without having to say anything outright and presents a nice, simple solution to caring more, via the trusty old American-as-pie Protestant good works. This goes one hundred times more for the "hormone balancing workout" that claims we need to orient everything around the follicular/luteal phases of our periods.  

The best thing about this blog post is that it totally unravels by the end. When it tries to put forward an answer as to what kind of exercise would balance hormones, it does this:

So you’re saying… all? Any? Any moving, at all, is a hormone-balancing workout? Okay, now that I can get behind.

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Pull up a chair—there is much to know, much to know that we don’t know, much to do, and maybe more importantly, much to not do.


“Wow I feel strong today” ENTER: MARY

Paywalled, but a great post from Haley Nahman about crying at the marathon. In it, she also recommends a documentary about the Barkley Marathons, which I am now TOTALLY fascinated by and obsessed with re-creating in some way with lifting weights.

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“I don’t care who he is. He’s got some real biceps. We call them guns”


Even the people still watching the Kardashians are tired of their weight-loss bullshit. I guess Kim’s “oh because I’m a WOMAN I’m not ALLOWED to lose weight” gambit re: her crash diet to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s dress didn’t win as many minds or influence as many people as she hoped!

There are now “accountability coaches for weight loss.” No “accounting” for taste! Here’s some of their incisive commentary:

Coaches tend to like tequila for its low sugar count. “Eeew,” says Mellencamp. “I don’t like it and I don’t care if it’s healthier.” See? Relatability. Wine, well, that’s a problem. “Wine begets wine,” says Wragge. Also, “a brownie looks more enticing after wine because wine has so much sugar.” She tells her clients, if they must drink, to stick to hard liquor. “It doesn’t spike the blood sugar as high.”

And yet!:

You may have heard that “diet” is a four-letter word, and that no one wants to buy into the body-shaming, weight-loss culture of the past. And yet, as Mellencamp says, “Everybody who originally comes to us thinks they’re coming for weight loss.... But it always transitions into more.” That “more” might be better sleep, mood, energy, and motivation. Suddenly, they’re thriving.

It’s almost as if…. it’s almost… as if…. it’s almost… as… if… wait for it……. wait for it…. hold…….. HOLD…..

“HOW DO I LOSE WEIGHT?” IS THE WRONG QUESTION thank you and goodnight!!!!


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That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—