Back when I arrived as a freshman at the University of Delaware in 1990, I was told of the legend of Ted Spiker.
Ted had been editor of the student newspaper, The Review, and he was—by all accounts—awesome. Phenomenal writer. Insanely smart. Terrific people skills. Shaped like a pear. Understood the medium. Cared fo—
I never actually heard that Ted was shaped like a pear. Yet he did—throughout his life. People would mock his shape, bemoan his shape, ridicule his shape. He was a great guy with an awkward physique, and—internally—it sorta haunted him. Or, put different, Ted was one of millions of Americans who looked in the mirror and cringed.
Now, in a very public way, he’s talking about it.
Ted’s fantastic new book, Down Size: 12 Truths for Turning Pants-Splitting Frustration into Pants-Fitting Success, is both humorous and serious; a self-deprecating look at one man’s fight to maintain a healthy lifestyle (as well as a riveting study of the biology and psychology of weight loss). Ted is a well-known fitness-oriented writer whose work includes myriad books, as well as his regular blog for Runner’s World. He is a journalism professor at the University of Florida (for my money, the best journalism professor in the country. I truly mean that), as well as a brilliant tap dancer who studied at the Gregory Hines Institute.
OK, I made that last part up.
It’s my pleasure to welcome Ted Spiker, proud
Gator Blue Hen, to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Ted, I’m gonna start untraditional. I’ve met many overweight people—severely overweight—who have said something along the lines of, “I was always trying to lose weight, and I finally said to myself, ‘I am who I am, and I’m going to love myself.’” Meaning, I’m obese—and that’s OK. I hate to admit this, but I often think to myself, “You tried, you failed, it didn’t work—so you’re saying what you need to say to protect yourself. But it’s unlikely you feel great weighing 400 pounds.’ Am I being a dick? Too cynical? Is it OK to be obese, if one is OK being obese?
TED SPIKER: I think you nailed exactly what a lot of overweight or obese people do: Protect themselves. We do it with baggy clothes, we do it by staying out of the public and out of photos, we do it by making jokes about ourselves [I’m raising my right hand right now; my left hand has a yogurt-covered pretzel in it]. It’s hard enough to be overweight—and then you have to admit you feel like crap, too? That’s a lot to handle, so we say that we’re OK. But I think you’re right on the big point. Chances are that there aren’t many truly obese people who do love their bodies.
But here’s where the tricky part is: We should be more accepting of flaws, of not being perfect, of realizing that there are ranges of weights and shapes and sizes. And I think that the sweet spot on the grid is being able to make sure your numbers beyond the scale (blood pressure, blood sugar) are good and then accepting the fact that you aren’t going to look like Kate Upton or David Beckham or whoever it is you think has the ideal body. Perfection isn’t the goal. Good health, high energy, and feeling good about your body (flaws and all) is the goal.
For those outliers who are truly happy and really heavy, you asked if it was ok to be obese. I don’t necessarily think we should underestimate how hard it can be for someone to turn a lifestyle around, so it’s hard for me to tsk-tsk anyone and say, shame on you, it’s not OK to be obese. But the reality is that yes, obesity is a burden not just for the individual, but for families, significant others, and the health-care system.
J.P.: So I’m deep into your book, and fascinated. I’m a big fan of people who mock themselves—and you’re pretty ruthless about your body, body image, etc. How did you develop the comfort level to expose yourself on such a public level? Was it a process? Easy?
T.S.: So you’re probably referring to the parts when a classmate said I had child-bearing hips. And some other spots when people take their shots at my body shape. I guess I’ve always been pretty ha-ha-ha about it—I try to take my work seriously, but not myself. And I also think guys are able to pull off the fat-funny guy routine. Look at Chris Farley or Kevin James or Zach Galifianakis. Fat is like a comedian’s prop—it’s an antagonist and works well into a storyline. And I guess at some point, I just realized that you can beat yourself up about it (which I’ve done) or you can have fun, not take yourself so seriously (if you don’t have serious health issues, which I didn’t or don’t). I still cringe at pictures and I’m not great with my body shape, though I’m a million times better. I just learned that body image is so less important … It’s not as important as what I try to do as a father, in my career, in my personal goals, in everything. It’s one piece, but not the whole piece. And even though body image can influence every other aspect of your life, I think it’s about figuring out how to put it in perspective with everything else. Like really, how does the shape of my hips have anything to do with how I try to teach my kids about sportsmanship? And if I have a sausage and mushroom pizza every once in a while, does that mean I’m less of a teacher or writer? Would I like to wake up and be the ideal weight with the ideal body-fat percentage and be able to buy a pair of pants that fits right? Uh, yeah. But when you starting sinking your energy into other goals—for me, it was trying to learn to surf and trying to complete an Ironman—you worry less about your khakis and think more about the big picture and all the stuff goes into that.
J.P.: You’ve written books with other people, but never with your name big, bold and solo. I’m wondering what sort of adjustment, as a writer, this took—if any. Did you find the process intimidating? Daunting? Or no biggie?
T.S.: In my other books (I’ve co-authored about a dozen), I was definitely the offensive lineman (and not just because of body type). My job was to block, provide support, and make room for the MVPs. And I loved being part of that process—it was truly a cool process to do a book as a team where everybody is contributing different skill sets. So yeah, when it shifted to the sole-authored book, I did feel more pressure, but also more ownership obviously—that I could tell the story that I wanted: A book that looked at the biology and psychology of weight loss and diets with an equal mix of science and soul. So it’s not a plan or a prescription, and I tried to venture into a sort of hybrid genre—a bit of narrative, a bit of humor, a bit of science, and a bit of how-to. I hope I’m not too heavy-handed, but give readers enough tales and information to help them go in the direction they want to do. And it was really nice to work with a great editor (Caroline Sutton of Hudson Street Press) and a great agent (David Black) who helped me hone and shape and solidify the best way to tell this story.
But there is also more of a sense of pressure. I know you’ve written about the gut-wrenching that comes when you find a mistake. I think I’m going to be okay if people don’t like it or my humor doesn’t fit their style, but I’m going to beat myself up with any stupid mistakes.
But truth is … after a dozen books as that offensive lineman, it’s pretty cool to carry the ball. When I first saw the design of the cover, I loved it—and not because of my name, but because the designers at Hudson Street Press nailed it. Great, fun image—just the right amount of humor, I think.
J.P.: Why are we, as a country, so fucking fat?
T.S.: Any number of reasons: We don’t walk from point-to-point anymore to go the store or wherever, we sit all day in our jobs, cheese, Scandal and Modern Family and Orange is the New Black and whatever else you like encourages you to stay on the couch when you’re not working, Dairy Queen is effing good, mashed potatoes, being busy makes us tired and tired make us not want to do anything but eat bowls of Doritos, and on and on. Take all that into consideration and making good choices feels like you’re swimming upstream. I can try all I want, but I’m not getting anywhere. It’s not that we don’t know what to do; it’s just that there are so many factors that steer us away from good decision. While I spend two chapters specifically on exercise and nutrition, I really spend most of the book exploring the psychological factors that determine what we do with exercise and nutrition. You know, things like motivation, inspiration, social networks, handling frustration and plateaus, and factors like that.
J.P.: There’s a moment in your book when I literally cringed. You teach journalism at the University of Florida, and a student—in an anonymous evaluation section—wrote, “Wear slacks that aren’t as baggy.” It just struck me as … cruel. Mean. Dickish. I’m wondering how you reacted, mentally. What went through your mind? And did you—as I would have—try to figure out who penned the words?
T.S.: Well, it was a class of more than 200 people, so there was really no way to try to figure out who said it. It stung, but I don’t think it was mean. I think the person was actually trying to help—like, “Dude, I like your class, but tighten up a bit.” Some would argue that appearance should be off-limits, but I was OK with it, because the student was right. My pants selection is an issue—can’t stand tight pants because of my ample gluteus, but if I find pants that will fit up and over that ampleness, they’re too baggy because they droop from my waist. “Why don’t you just get some pants tailored?” one might ask … I’ve started doing that, but for years I never would—because I always thought that if I took the time to tailor pants, that would mean I was satisfied with my size and I should stop pursuing goals. I know, kinda fucked up, but it’s really what I thought—when you yo-yo and never quite reach your goal, you don’t get clothes tailored because it feels like a permanent act, even though logic would dictate otherwise.
J.P.: You’ve worked with Dr. Oz a lot. He wrote the foreword to your book. I’m gonna be 100 percent honest—I’m always skeptical of people like him. Professional experts who then transcend the fame of their chosen profession. Dr. Phil. Dr. Drew. Etc. Tell me why I’m wrong to feel this way. Or right.
T.S.: Full disclosure: I’ve worked with Mehmet for 10 years. He’s my friend and one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. He has the skills of a surgeon and the mind of a scientist, businessman, artist, and so much more. He’s hard-charging, but he’s also as genuine and passionate about helping people improve their health. He makes people feel good about themselves and he inspires people to do better.
I’m admittedly biased, so take my answer for what it’s worth. When he went through those hearings where politicians were questioning claims about diet claims on his show, it pissed me off, because, I felt like a lot of it was taken out of context. He doesn’t hawk products – anything you see on the internet using his name is some company using his image without his permission because he may have mentioned an ingredient on his show that could have some benefit. Where they wanted to grill him was in how he marketed those ingredients, and all I was thinking was, Wait, politicians are questioning about the marketing of a product? Isn’t that what politicians do during campaign season and in office? Nearly every single media organization and individual markets itself—tweets are marketing, “stay tuned for the puppy who saved a squirrel” is marketing, headlines are marketing. They’re all designed to draw you into the content (and subsequently get your eyeballs there to help finance the costs associated with the product). So is he wrong for marketing his show? No. He said at that hearing that some of his words were perhaps a little strong—and that’s a fine line that all media types straddle. How much is too much of a stretch in the “sell” of content? I don’t think anyone endorses any wrong or dangerous information that would be used to promo a show or anything, but if his show and his message helps people get healthy, ask questions, and come up with solutions they might have not otherwise known about, I can’t see how that’s a bad thing.
J.P.: I ask you, simply, “What’s the best way for me to lose weight?” I’m, oh, 10 pounds over, I probably eat too much, I go to the gym and do the StairMaster four days per week. How can I lose weight most effectively?
T.S.: If you have four days at the gym, I’d do weights two or three days and then high-intensity cardio for one or two days. That would be most efficient—muscle just chews up fat, and you’re not going to get all that bulky doing it (with some exceptions, but more factors have to be involved). But that doesn’t really even matter as much as the food: It all centers around what you eat more than you work out (though they go hand in hand and you get motivated to do each one the better you do the other). So the first step would have to be evaluating your food intake, figuring out where your hiccups are and how you can adjust your eating to have more real foods and nutrients, less processed gunk. Easier said than done, right? The X factor, I think, is taking your efforts from private to public—even if it’s just with one friend or with creating a small Facebook group to hold each other accountable, or doing group workouts once a week—where you just feed off each other’s energy, rather than feeding off the coconut cream pie.
J.P.: What’s your life path? I mean, I know you attended Delaware, teach at Florida. But why writing? When did you realize, ‘This is for me!’ And when did your career head toward books, and wellness-themed books?
T.S.: I remember a high school English teacher complimented my writing to another student, or so he told me. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but music was a big part of high school—I did all the bands (marching, jazz, concert, orchestra pit) as a drummer/percussionist. But once I started writing and got inspired by my teachers at Delaware—Dennis Jackson, Chuck Stone, Bill Fleischman—I knew I wanted to keep going. I had a great experience at the school paper and learned a ton. There are a lot of similarities between music (especially percussion) and writing, so I do think one informed the other. Then when I got to grad school (Columbia), I got eaten up by the faculty there, and it was good for me. In my first magazine job, I fell in love with the creative aspect of it and telling stories of people, but when I jumped from a small magazine (Delaware Today) to Men’s Health, that’s where I started to focus on health and fitness. I knew that I wanted to teach and write, so I was fortunate enough to get this job at the University of Florida and still write magazine articles, the Big Guy Blog for Runner’s World, and books. And it really is the best of both worlds. I can reach small audiences in the classroom in (I hope) an impactful way to help students develop skills and critical thinking, as well as larger audiences in a different kind of way through my reporting and writing.
J.P.: Here’s my problem: I exercise, then I’m REALLY hungry. I don’t exercise, I’m less hungry. I feel like I actually gain more weight on days I exercise than on days I do shit. Is that logical? And can the argument be made I just shouldn’t exercise?
T.S.: Your problem is that you do that Stairmaster too much. Long cardio always makes me hungry as hell, too, especially swimming. I think adding more weights changes that a bit, but it’s easy to rationalize: “Hey, I worked out, I get sixteen doughnuts!” But the fact is, even if you’re exercising long and hard, you’re not burning nearly as much damage as you can do very quickly with a plate of junk. So I think a good strategy is to have some kind of protein (like some almond milk and protein powder) after a workout, which not only helps repair muscle that gets broken down, but also helps take the edge off so you don’t inhale an entire meat loaf. Coffee really works for me—just having a steady something to sip on helps keeping me from feeling like I need to go crazy.
J.P.: Much is spoken about the downfall of journalism. When you and I came up, the goal … dream was to work in newspapers, have a byline, etc. You teach at Florida. Do you still advise folks to enter the profession? And what, for most, is the goal?
T.S.: Absolutely. It’s just that the profession has changed. There’s still a much-needed place for news. But it’s only one piece of the storytelling puzzle. There’s longform, there are tweets, there are service stories, there are videos, there are and will continue to be lots of places and genres of stories. It’s just that the model keeps shifting about how it’s published, disseminated, and talked about—and it can sometimes be hard to find the good stuff in the not-so-good stuff. But there will always be a place for people who can be creative, have voice, find original information, and construct a narrative. Sometime it will come in the form of these intricate and 3-D stories that you immerse yourself in, and sometimes they’ll be less than that. But the spectrum of possibilities, to me, is what makes it fun, not to mention an absolute necessity because of our thirst for information, entertainment, and connecting and engaging with other people.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH TED SPIKER:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Urban Meyer, Tubby Raymond, Tim Tebow, Bill Vergantino, David Lee, Spencer Dunkley, oranges, Grotto’s Pizza, the Scrounge, South Beach, Rehoboth Beach, Gators, Blue Hens: Gators, Blue Hens, Tubby Raymond, South Beach, Tim Tebow, the Scrounge, Spencer Dunkley, Bill Vergantino, David Lee, Grotto’s Pizza, Rehoboth Beach, oranges, Urban Meyer.
• Five reasons one should make Gainesville his next vacation destination?: Satchel’s pizza, Burritos Bros. guac, Ivey’s coffee blend, being in town for an on-the-line sports event in any of UF’s sports, college town with some unique outdoor landscape (majestic oaks, sun-bathing gators, springs nearby).
• Should Destiny’s Child get back together?: There’s no e´ in team.
• Your wife was once struck by lightning. What happened?: I know nothing of this. But I do know that I spelled lightning as lightening in the college paper. And I have never made that mistake again. [Jeff’s note: It turns out she wasn’t struck. My mistake. But fun to ask]
• Four pro sports teams that need to change their logos?: 76ers, Browns, Brewers, Edmonton Oilers
• Lowest moment during your marathon run?: Being passed by a juggling runner.
• Would you rather chop off your thumbs or have Madonna’s “This Used to Be My Playground” as your 24/7 life soundtrack for the next two years?: I need my thumbs for my space bar.
• How did you propose to your wife?: Picnic on our second anniversary of us seeing each other. Asked her father right before we left while she was getting her coat or something.
• Your biggest mistake as a college newspaper editor?: Publishing a racially insensitive editorial cartoon. And trying to dunk a tennis ball on a metal Planet of the Apes trash can. Still have the scars.
• One question you would ask Dixie Carter were she here right now?: What qualities make a southern gentleman?