The Common Good

The Problem with Exercise Plans and Miracle Cures

A post making the Facebook rounds claims that “a mix of honey and cinnamon cures most diseases.” Mix honey and cinnamon together and your arthritis pain will vanish, your lost hearing will be restored, the flu virus ravaging your body will be killed, and your eczema and ringworm will disappear!

I know I should ignore this stuff. But I can’t. Every outrageous health claim I come across online (and there are many) cuts me to the quick, because of what they say about me as a person with a disability, and about us as God’s beloved creatures.

The Internet fosters a populist environment in which regular folks’ life wisdom, assumed to be more valuable than professional or conventional wisdom, is rarely questioned, despite obvious logical fallacies. For example, while many foods, including honey and cinnamon, indeed have therapeutic potential for reducing inflammation and boosting immunity, that’s a far cry from curing arthritis or hearing loss. Yet people click and share, apparently without pausing to consider how outlandish it is to claim that two common foods can cure — not ameliorate, but cure — a long list of health problems that have affected people for all of human history.

Honey and cinnamon will not cure my severe, bone-on-bone arthritis. It will not regrow my cartilage and reshape my bones, which rub together in all sorts of wrong ways after being ravaged for 46 years by my genetic bone disorder. I take opioids for pain, which allow me to function at a very high level, caring for three children and a household. I’m proud of how much I do in spite of my disability, and grateful for the doctors whose support and treatments help so much. But all it takes is one post about how honey and cinnamon will cure arthritis to make me feel like a fool duped by Big Pharma and the medical establishment, when all along the answers to my health problems were sitting in my pantry.

Besides giving dubious health claims street cred, the Internet allows self-appointed gurus to spread an insidious social hierarchy, in which health becomes the measure of one’s willpower, smarts, and achievements, an indication of whether you are living rightly or wrongly. Here are just a few of the health claims I’ve come across recently:

  • If you are healthy, you can do anything! (from a personal trainer)
  • If you make these changes to your diet, you will feel amazing! (from a yoga instructor/nutritional advisor)
  • If I [gave birth at home without medical help/cured myself of breast cancer with a special diet/went from being on disability to being a long-distance runner], you can too! (from about a zillion blog and Facebook posts)

So if I’m not completely healthy, does that mean I can’t do anything? If I can’t do some things, does that mean I’m unhealthy? If I get healthy as you define it (do weight training or eat organic or whatever), will I automatically be able to do things I’ve never been able to do, like run? What if I never feel amazing, no matter what I eat or do, because bone scraping on bone hurts pretty much always? What if I don’t care if I ever run a marathon, but feel great that I manage to walk the dog around the block every day? What if someone discovers that she can’t safely give birth at home without medical help because her baby is in distress or breech or she’s bleeding too much? What if it’s clear to everyone that Grandpa is dying of cancer, and that even the most vegan-Paleo-organic diet ever won’t save him? Are C-sections and disabilities and death itself indicators that we haven’t tried hard enough or made the right choices?

The problem with outrageous health claims isn’t merely that they feed into anti-establishment biases to reach conclusions unsupported by evidence. More significantly, these claims ignore our limits as bodily creatures, or rather, imply that we can overcome our limits with the right workout or diet, with enough willpower and positive attitude. They are an insult to those of us living with disabilities that place very real limits on what we can reasonably do and achieve.

The message of these claims is that if you just work hard enough and do/eat all the right things, you will be able to do whatever you want and feel great at the same time. The logical conclusion is that, if you can’t do everything you want to do, and don’t feel great all the time, it must be your own fault. Lost is the peace of mind that comes from recognizing our limits, from saying, “I can’t,” and moving toward self-acceptance. We are saddled instead with an endless striving to do and be better — a striving sure to fail, because physical limits, decline, and death come to all of us.

By putting the responsibility for our well-being entirely on our own (svelte and muscular) shoulders, these claims perpetuate the myth of self-sufficiency that undermines the gift of human relationship. We are terrified of old age and perceive people with disabilities as “burdens” because we see the need for help as a sign of weakness, and independence as a sign of strength. Asking for help is uncomfortable and hard, but it leads to deeper relationships. It’s also, quite simply, a given aspect of human life. We cannot survive, much less thrive, without each other.

For Christians, claims that the right diet and/or exercise and/or superfood will allow us to do anything, on our own, is simply bad theology. Our story as God’s people begins with God giving humankind all we need to flourish within limits, and our being broken by a misguided desire to transcend those limits. As followers of Jesus Christ, our worth lies not in our power as individual bodies, but in our role as a crucial part of an interdependent body. Our needs and skills, wounds and strengths ebb and flow, making sense only when we view them in the context of our relationships with each other. We were made to be dependent on one another and God, not because God is a guilt-tripping parent who wants to keep us wrapped up tight and under his thumb, but because God knows that we are happiest and healthiest — in the broadest sense possible — when we are in relationship.

Over-the-top claims about how exercise or the right foods will cure all our ills and empower us to do all things are rarely based on solid evidence. At best they ignore and at worst they disrespect those of us with conditions that limit what our bodies can reasonably do. But the biggest problem with these claims is that they are lies, wooing us with false promises away from the truth of our nature as limited, mortal, and interdependent creatures. They insist that happiness and fulfillment are to be found when we blast through and beyond our limits. But happiness and fulfillment are actually found when we honor our limits, when we celebrate who we are while leaning on the care of others whose strengths balance our weaknesses, and vice versa.

For followers of Christ, dependence on each other, creation, and God, is not merely an unavoidable fact of life. Dependence — the rich give and take of generosity and gratitude, of recognizing that we are both needy and gifted — is a defining quality of a divinely ordered life. God has given us everything we need — good food, work to do, miraculously intricate physical systems, and one another — to thrive within the limits of our beautiful, capable, mortal bodies. When we look to food or exercise to save us from the constraints of our lives as mortal creatures, we not only fail to escape those constraints, but also fail to honor life as God has given it.

Ellen Painter Dollar blogs for Patheos on faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice : A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox 2012).

Image: Diet and fitness bundle, Mariusz Szczygiel / Shutterstock.com

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