No, Mr. President, Exercise Does Not Deplete Energy

A correction

President Donald Trump holds up an Air Force Academy football jersey presented to him by team captain Weston Steelhammer (Susan Walsh / AP)

In September, a concerned elementary-school teacher asked a question of the soon-to-be President Donald Trump from among the audience at The Dr. Oz Show: “How would you go about handling the obesity problem in the country—especially among children—and the fact that many schools are not providing enough exercise and recess time?”

The septuagenarian did not hesitate to respond. Words came in authoritative bursts: “That is a school thing, to a certain extent. I guess you could say it’s a hereditary thing, too, I would imagine. It certainly is a hereditary thing, but a lot of schools aren’t providing proper food because they have budget problems, and they’re buying cheaper food and not as good of food, and the big thing—when I went to school I always loved sports, and I would always—I loved to eat and I loved sports, and it worked, because I could do both.”

Oz sat beside him, nodding intently. Trump continued. “A lot of schools today, they don’t have sports programs, and that is a big problem. I would try and open that up. I’m a big believer in the whole world of sports. I would try and open that up.”

The “whole world of sports” seemed an homage to ESPN’s “wide world of sports,” and apparently represents the extent of the televisual enthusiast’s understanding of the causes of obesity. It is the condition at the heart of the $3 trillion in annual health-care spending that shapes the national economy and results in stifling political discord. These are costs that could be slashed by comprehensive approaches to preventive medicine—communities built to optimize health, where people have the opportunities to keep themselves out of the hospital. That includes schools that emphasize the importance of recess and play and eating well. A lack of emphasis on sports programs is a distant concern.

What’s more, this idea of using sports as a means to physical health is at odds with comments by the president that have just now come uncomfortably to light.

I don’t check my phone much when running, but when something comes from The Atlantic’s David Graham, I stop what I’m doing. I was finishing a run along Rock Creek on Sunday evening when he alerted me to a story from The Washington Post. The headline: “Trump Thinks That Exercising Too Much Uses Up the Body’s ‘Finite’ Energy.”

Good Lord. I turned for home and started typing, full of energy from the run. Graham wasn’t the only one who sent me the story that night. It cites a Trump quote in the latest New Yorker, in which the commander-in-chief said he gave up sports after college because he “believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted.”

This is exactly right. The body is a battery. The key to longevity and power is to sit perfectly still and keep the body constantly full of food. It will last indefinitely.

No, I mean, no. This is wrong. The Washington Post notes, “Experts say this argument is flawed because the human body actually becomes stronger with exercise.” I would argue that this is not an argument but a false statement. The accurate exercise-battery analogy is that exercise charges the human battery. And the body is a sort of battery that gets stronger the more it is charged.

I was hopeful that it might be an off-the-cuff colloquial misfire from Trump, but then found that writers Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher recounted a similar instance in their recent book Trump Revealed:

After college, after Trump mostly gave up his personal athletic interests, he came to view time spent playing sports as time wasted. Trump believed the human body was like a battery, with a finite amount of energy, which exercise only depleted. So he didn’t work out. When he learned that John O’Donnell, one of his top casino executives, was training for an Ironman triathlon, he admonished him, “You are going to die young because of this.”

“You are going to die young because of this” is something I say often to people, but never earnestly. It’s always a joke.

Here it doesn’t seem to be. The idea of the body’s energy as a finite resource fits well into Trump’s zero-sum worldview. In deals, there are losers and winners. Taxing people to create social programs is simply a drain on taxpayers. He frames the world in ways at odds with the idea that rising tides lift all boats, that investment in a healthy society pays dividends all around. As my colleague Stephanie Hayes noted in these pages last month, since our attitudes about our own health tend to be emblematic of deeper beliefs and values, a president who is committed to working out is seen to have more “self-control, discipline, and a willingness to exert oneself in pursuit of a goal—ideas that align with the good old-fashioned American belief in meritocracy, however illusory.”

The wrongness of the battery metaphor matters in principle because a president should have a better understanding of science, and be willing to acknowledge his limits and defer to experts, especially in the domain of health. Trump has done the opposite repeatedly, as in the cases of vaccines and climate change, showing that he is rather willing to take strong and dangerous stances.

In the case of exercise, this also matters because of the scope of the problem that affects his electorate. Some two-thirds of American adults are classified as overweight or obese. Trump’s own body-mass index lands him on the line between those two distinctions. This is a socioeconomic disease that all leaders need to understand, but especially those in the states where more people voted for Trump, according to the latest maps of the problem.

One of the very few clearly proven approaches to preventing and reversing the adverse effects of obesity is to lead an active lifestyle—as active as possible. Yes there is a point of diminishing returns, as could be the case with people who run 50-mile races, or who exercise to the point of neglecting professional and social obligations, leading to the decline of marriages and erosion of joints, et cetera. But this is a fringe problem relative to the epidemic of sedentary lives. Should the country ever reach a point where over-exercising is the norm, a president might speak out about our depleted National Battery.

For now, what we know is that exercising regularly—or leading a generally active lifestyle—is key to longevity, from preventing cardiovascular disease to cancers to depression to irritable bowels. For some kids who have been diagnosed with ADHD, exercise can be as effective as amphetamines. Though many school districts are choosing the latter. In the face of such consequences, the country needs leaders to be above bass, guttural, reflexive understandings of the natural world—and to treat health as a pursuit where gains are not zero sum.