03 November 2011

This is the amount of energy (B) has left over

When I was a kid the second-most fascinating book on my parents' shelves was the small pamphlet whose  prosaic title was "Revised U.S. Edition of the Official Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plans For Physical Fitness" (underline original). The cover depicts a pair of smiling Canucks in uniform striding across the tarmac away from their plane, presumably back from a long day of protecting Kapuskasing from bogeys. This book was actually "two books in one" as it contained both the official RCA exercise regimen for men and women. For some reason, the women's plan was a minute longer a day at 12 minutes to the men's 11, but still, such a deal.

I'm really not joking when I say this book held a strange fascination for me. There was something oddly authoritative about this being the actual regimen for a military service with the word "Royal" right there in its name. It claimed to be all you needed to achieve fitness, and as a chubby little nerd I believed it. I've always been a sucker for claims of expertise as well as for things that are short. Because I am gullible and I am lazy. But I was not alone in my interest in the program; 5BX was a big hit in the 1960s and the promotion of regular, intensive calisthenics paved the way for the aerobic craze of the 1970s.

Looking at the book today (I found a PDF of the 5BX pamphlet which was originally published on its own) what I'm most captivated by are not the exercises—a series of standards, some of which are neither effective nor safe—but the lengthy introduction which makes the case for physical fitness. Of the original 32 pages only 10 actually described the exercises; the rest were a series of cartoons, charts, and pep-talk to convince the sluggard to adopt this life-changing process.

And what wonderful bullshit they are! Beautiful examples of how graphics can skirt around meaning and imply that information is being given, without actually saying anything. My favorite is the following chart on page 7:
So much quantitative data is implied; none given. Look at that physical capacity scale, presented in authoritative percentiles. What is it? I don't know, but that guy slouching at the desk sure doesn't have any. Look at how much heavier the shirtless guy's energy reserve is! More energy weighs more. And don't you want to have more so you can enjoy your recreational activities? Activities like 5BX?

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