How Healthy Is Men’s Health?

A shovelful of sugar helps the medicine go down
September 6, 2007

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?

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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.

• When a lean, virile guy slams a drive with his perfect aluminum softball bat, he does not shatter the pitcher’s teeth. The lean, virile, but uninsured pitcher does not wake up owing his oral surgeon $170,000. Thus, he does not suspend purchase of men’s colognes, face creams, and other vanity items touted in the magazine. That is a good thing, because in Men’s Health doctrine, vanity is a necessity. The true Men’s Health man gets better jobs, higher pay, and hotter girlfriends because he is attentive to his image—his coif, his clothes, his smell, his smile (“In Praise of Vanity,” August 2007).

As for Circle B, consider an April 2007 article on how the Iraq war is sucking funds from medical research, halting progress toward cures of many diseases and driving renowned U.S.-trained physicians back to their home countries—a brain drain in reverse. Bob Drury’s piece is exceptional in two senses. It is excellent. And it is sore-thumb conspicuous in a magazine that stresses the personal over the political.

In short, the magazine is preoccupied with health and “lifestyle” problems a person can readily resolve. It underplays bigger threats to health that have no quick fixes. Men’s Health thus gives its readers an unbalanced picture of the threats they actually face.

That distortion can only stem from the magazine’s central theme: self-determination. “We provide ways for our guys to seize control over the chaos in their lives,” Zinczenko says. “We want to give our guys a sense of control, not scare the hell out of them.” Since providing a feeling of control is the magazine’s selling point, it is under great pressure to stress problems that easily lend themselves to quick and personal solutions. There is a strong incentive to play down systemic, political problems that might take years—and cultural or political change—to fix or settle. Too much attention to Group B problems erodes the feeling of control. That would never do.

It should. Men’s Health readers (37 percent college grads, 32 percent professionals) could use help from the magazine confronting Circle B problems—for instance, regular features on how to deal with recalcitrant insurance companies, and on organizing effective citizen pressure to fix pieces of the broken health-care machine. Editors might make space for these by eliminating just a few of the magazine’s silliest items.

They could start with those relying on dubious experts (“mentalist” detects lying girlfriends by looking into their eyes), biased methods (Romanian men have sex 232 times a year, according to a poll of Romanian Men’s Health readers), and questionable studies (Want to stay crisp and alert on a first date? Men’s Health recommends wearing Calvin Klein 91-percent cotton underwear, because a military study concluded that cotton clothes boost mental acuity).

Such a redesign might let J.I. Rodale, the late founder of the magazine’s publishing company, rest easier, since he built his reputation on magazines that displayed single-minded commitment to improving Americans’ health. His first was Organic Gardening, inspired by the Victory Gardens of World War II, followed by such titles as Prevention, Runner’s World, and Backpacker. Rodale calls itself a “global content company in health and wellness.”

Zinczenko says his magazine takes a decidedly Mary Poppins approach—a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. But the sugar is delivered not with teaspoons but shovels. From a journalistic point of view, Men’s Health is looking a bit wan. It’s time to get more from each of the major food groups onto its menu. 

Christopher Hanson is a contributing editor of CJR.