Something is radically wrong in American medicine when even the 2008 Republican presidential candidates start debating the merits of universal coverage and even Michael Moore’s critics praise his cinematic exposé of political bungling and corporate maneuvering behind the health-care mess.

So it may come as no surprise that the leading U.S. men’s magazine in newsstand sales is called Men’s Health—targeted at males, ages twenty-five to forty-five, and read by an estimated 10.5 million of them a month. What might be surprising, however, is the magazine’s definition of health. It all but excludes the national crisis, while including:

“Dress for More Sex”
“Magnetize Your Attraction”
“What Her Place Says About Her—Decipher her pad, then launch your offensive”

Recent issues also carried pieces on fashion (“Great White Ways—How to wear the ultimate summer color”), outdoor cuisine (“The grill is the glory tool of masculine cooking”), and the perfect aluminum softball bat, to name just a few. Need to identify the office weasel, who’s likely to stab you in the back? A weasel’s handshake, Men’s Health explains, “will either be too hard, too soft, too long, too short, or just plain limp and weird.” Who knew?

There is also health as we know it in Men’s Health, with the focus on helping guys be winners—eradicating belly fat in eight days flat, building “muscles that show,” finding a tasty, low-cholesterol burger, avoiding an early stroke or unnecessary surgery.

David Zinczenko, Men’s Health’s editor-in-chief, explains in an e-mail that his magazine’s formula has boosted circulation seven-fold since 1990, overcoming the resistance of the 86-percent male audience to health as a subject. “Health class in high school was about venereal disease… So we redefined the word to be inclusive of everything that could improve a man’s life. Great sex. Great food. Endorphin-boosting exercise. Looking and feeling your best. We turned health into a concept every guy would want to embrace, starting with the healthy guy on the cover”—usually a Hollywood or sports star. “He was living the life, and our readers could achieve that have-it-all lifestyle as well, if they picked us up on the newsstand.”

That is an exhilarating declaration, but the magazine reads as if it were published in a parallel America, far more benign than the real one, where people have the power to keep themselves healthy and prosperous, largely undisturbed by outside threats. Imagine a Venn diagram with two circles that barely intersect. Circle A represents such health challenges as obesity, high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. A Men’s Health reader can generally overcome these on his own with sound nutrition, diet, exercise, and other disease-prevention routines. Circle B represents systemic national health risks, which a reader acting alone can’t defeat. These threats include tainted food imports, drinking water laced with dangerous chemicals, employee health benefits slashed by corporations, and private health-insurance policies that cost more while covering less.

Men’s Health mostly confines its coverage to Circle A. It deals overwhelmingly with self-care and, in fact, exaggerates the possibilities for autonomous personal transformation. For instance, the magazine repeats the same claims, month after month, often word for word, as in a saturation ad campaign. “Look Better, Instantly!” (May 2007); “Look Better, Instantly!” (June 2007); “See results in just 8 days” (April 2007); “…in just 9 days” (August 2007); “Strip Away Stress” (May 2007); “Strip Away Stress! In 30 Seconds or Less!” (August 2007). In reality, improvements virtually never come this easily. Even if they did, the reader would still face potential threats from Circle B that could snag even the most rugged individualist. But Men’s Health plays these down:

• When a manly man prepares a savory yet nutritious meal, no one keels over from E. coli in the gourmet spinach salad. When he selects a noble dog to suit his temperament, it does not die from pesticide-tainted Woof Biscuits.

• When a promising young man develops an anger management problem, he reins himself in with therapy and medication. He is not jailed for assault when his psychiatric coverage runs out after five visits. When he follows the magazine’s advice to find the best doctor, he is not thwarted by an insurance company insisting that he use “preferred providers” or pay out of his own pocket.

Christopher Hanson is a contributing editor of CJR.