With all the attention focused on Mitt Romney’s verbal stumbles on the campaign, less attention has been paid to his running mate Paul Ryan’s activities. He too has had his share of awkward incidents. But while Paul Krugman has rightly been excoriating Ryan’s budget, calling him ‘an unserious man’ and his budget a ‘con game’, other commentators have focused more on Ryan’s odd penchant for embellishing his physical prowess to unrealistic levels.
Much attention was paid to his claim that he had run a marathon in under three hours, which would have put him in the category of elite runners, when the records showed that he had completed just one marathon about two decades ago when he was in college, and his time was slightly over four hours. This is a respectable effort but, for comparison, worse than what Sarah Palin did when she was over forty years old and already a mother several times over.
Then there was the mountaineering claim. Ryan gave the impression that he had climbed ‘close to 40’ of Colorado’s 54 ‘fourteeners’ (14,000 ft peaks). James Fallows pointed out that that claim too seemed implausible, because such an effort is indicative of a dedicated mountaineer, not the result of a Sunday dilettante, however fit.
Here’s who else maintains 6 to 8 percent body fat: Olympic 100-meter sprinters, that’s who. Also, world-class boxers, wrestlers, and marathoners, according to this study of elite American athletes. Top collegiate swimmers look pretty fit, right? Well, they average out at a plump 9.5 percent, at least according to another study. Positively porky, compared to Ryan. (For some perspective, the average man has body fat of 17 to 24 percent, and most women a bit more.)
If his claim is to be believed—a Ryan spokesman did not respond to questions—he’s more along the lines of Tour de France cyclists who also get down around 8 or 9 percent to prepare for major races. According to Iñigo San Millan, a veteran cycling physiologist who has worked with numerous Tour de France teams, the lowest body fat he’s ever measured on a cyclist was 8.3 percent. That’s at peak fitness, racing shape.
Ryan’s claim, in other words, puts him squarely in the company of elite athletes.
Gifford writes that the very fact that Ryan knows his body fat percentage and seemingly repeatedly measures it is in itself odd, irrespective of whether the number is true or not.
But even if Ryan did get his body fat measured regularly, as he implied to Politico, it seems oddly vain to do so. “If he was measured at all, my first question would be, why?” asks Men’s Health workout columnist Lou Schuler. “Why would a lean and obviously objectively fit congressman need to know his body-fat percentage? I don’t know mine, and I write about this stuff for a living.”
Finally, even assuming Ryan is telling the truth, and his body fat really is that low, it raises questions about his judgment. “It’s hard to sustain,” says Hunter. “Physiologically, you aren’t going to be functioning real well. Your strength levels will probably go down, you will feel fatigued, and your hormone levels will be disturbed.”
No one doubts that Ryan is a fitness buff, subjecting himself to a specific, rigorous exercise regimen known as P90X. It is also hardly news that politicians are vain and prone to embellishing their private and professional lives in order to make themselves appear more impressive in the eyes of voters.
But there is something a little odd about going this extra mile of exaggeration. Ryan seems to be well above average in physical ability and fitness, way beyond anything that might be necessary to impress those voters who care about such things. He may well be the fittest person in the history of all people who have served in the Congress. So why try to put oneself into elite categories when you must know that people who are in those categories keep careful records, tend to jealously guard the status of those who have earned the right to enter the circle, and are quick to debunk usurpers who try to boast their way in?
This kind of lie is harder to understand that those of pure political expediency, like Ryan’s quick pivot from claiming to be an ardent admirer of Ayn Rand to dumping her and saying that Thomas Aquinas was his muse when Rand’s atheism and politics became a liability. I share James Fallows’s puzzlement:
I don’t understand this. I can understand, while obviously deploring, why Bill Clinton brazenly said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” on national TV. It was a flat-out lie that to him might have seemed necessary to his survival. I can understand the little embellishments politicians and everyone else make — especially when these occur in early days of the campaign, or in odd corners where you think no one is listening.
That’s why I mention it one more time: This doesn’t fit the normal model of “efficient” political or human truth-shaving. It was a lie that was totally unnecessary — if he’d said he had run a five-hour marathon, we’d still know that he’s physically very fit.
There probably is a reason for this behavior that psychologists can come up with. But it is a political liability. It is the kind of lie low-level, low profile politicians can get away with because no one is really putting much time or effort into checking on their claims. But even after they get on a national ticket and start experiencing greater scrutiny, it is hard for them to break the habit of embellishing the truth and inconvenient facts start catching up with them.
It is perhaps just as well for Ryan that so much attention has been focused on Mitt Romney’s missteps that people seem to have forgotten that he even exists.