Discover more from The 50-Mile Man
Fixing the Masculinity Deficit
A recipe for recovering healthy testosterone levels in an age of comfort
If you’ve ever looked back at a vintage high school year book from, say, 1970, a few things stand out in comparison with today’s youth. The hairstyles were groovier, of course, but it seems that young men also had fuller facial hair, more chiseled jawlines, and all-around manlier physiognomy. Is this an illusion, or is something really going on?
Average testosterone levels in American men have been declining by 1% a year since the 1980s. If the trend continues, a man in 2040 will have testosterone levels closer to a woman's than a man's.
Tucker Carlson’s new mini-documentary, The End of Men, warns that the decline in manliness poses both individual health risks, along with an even greater collective risk. A society without robust men, Tucker argues, cannot stand. He’s not alone in this view. The ancient Greeks first observed that hard times – and ultimately tyranny – loom wherever weakness becomes the norm. This hardship, in turn, breeds the strength necessary to restore good order once again. This cyclical theory of political evolution was known as anakyklosis, and would predict that our current order is on the verge of breaking down.
Average testosterone levels in American men have been declining by 1% a year since the 1980s. If the trend continues, a man in 2040 will have testosterone levels closer to a woman's than a man's.
Tucker’s documentary has been chided for the exaggerated ideas it presents for reversing the decline. Biohacks like raw egg ‘slonking,’ testicle sunning, and sub-zero ice baths may have some merit, but are likely fads that will fade faster than the feathered layers of your parents’ yearbook. However, these gimmicks point the way toward the real thing: a return to nature and natural living – including exposure to sunlight and the natural elements – as I wrote about in Hormetics.
[In case you’re wondering, raw egg nog (definitely not a fad) is my preferred method of slonking]
The more thoughtful portions of the documentary speak of the need to provide physical challenges that motivate boys to become men, spotlighting President John F. Kennedy’s legacy in this regard.
Although physically frail, JFK still managed to embody the ideals of manly vigor and popularize several memes about it that live on, albeit in a weakened form. Modern P.E. standards pale in comparison to the Presidential Fitness Challenge, and the 50-mile march is almost forgotten. In the 1960s, a 17-year-old male was expected to run a mile in 6 minutes and 6 seconds, do 13 pull-ups, and do 53 complete pushups. Today, those numbers would qualify a high schooler as a fairly elite athlete.
From the short documentary, we come away with three primary root causes of the decline in testosterone and associated vigor:
a lack of motivating physical challenges for men, and
hormone-disrupting toxins in our supply chains.
All of these result in one way or another from the “Comfort Crisis” as Michael Easter calls it. Easter, a journalist and editor for Men’s Health, has consistently found that 98% of people will choose short-term gratification over long-term growth. Given that our society no longer serves up challenging circumstances as a requirement for survival, it’s no mystery why we’re seeing a health crisis, and in particular, a crisis of masculinity.
Testosterone gets a bad rap for its connotations with aggression and an unhealthy or even toxic machismo. I hated these stereotypes about manhood growing up, so I repressed my masculinity. This made life easier in Marin County – a place with a decidedly feminine spirit. But as I grew into my teen years and adulthood, I found that my masculinity deficit was limiting me. I developed a strange malaise that my family doctor diagnosed as losing the “Will to Live.”
In hindsight, I realize that I was actually suffering from a lack of purpose. What is a 20-year-old guy supposed to do in a world where men are deemed superfluous? Subconsciously, my body had absorbed the signals from my environment that testosterone was not needed. To recover it, I had to find my own motivation to resist the cult of comfort and forge a path of self-imposed challenge.
But how do we, as a culture, find the way back to virtuous section of the ancient cycle, in an age of comfort, decadence and convenience?
Rather than focusing on grand political programs, we may just need to restore healthy testosterone levels. That turns out to be a tricky problem that involves more than individual effort. Cultural change begins with a widespread understanding of the underlying mechanisms.
What is Testosterone?
Testosterone (T) is an androgenic hormone – the “man-maker” – although both sexes require it for physical growth, bone density, brain function, and cardiovascular health. In utero, testosterone leads to the development of the testes, and later it is produced by them. This mirrors a bidirectional relationship that we see at every level with testosterone: masculinity raises T, and high T promotes masculine traits.
Low T, or hypogonadism, poses health risks beyond its effects on the collective “manliness” of men. T levels are generally thought to decline naturally with age, although men who remain lean and physically active do not see nearly as much of a decline. It’s more accurate to say that testosterone falls with declining vitality. Declining testosterone is not inevitable – not in individuals or collectively. We can alter it through behavioral and environmental choices – everything from what we eat, to how we move, and even what clothes and hygiene products we use.
It’s hard to pinpoint a single cause for the declining average levels of testosterone. However, we can identify a few culprits and focus our attention on the areas we can control.
The Elephant in the Room: Rising Obesity
The sudden rise in obesity seems like the most obvious reason for declining testosterone.
The average young adult in the United States is now overweight. The average Body Mass Index in 2017-2018 was 27.7, up from 23.1 in 1976-1980. For reference, a BMI greater than 30 is considered obese. Just 6.2% of young adults were obese from 1976-1980, whereas today that figure is almost 33%.
A 2007 study of men over 40 found that a 1% increase in BMI is associated with a 2% decline in testosterone. Given the 20% rise in BMI over the past 40 years, we can already explain most of the ~40% decline in testosterone over the same period.
In that sense, whatever is causing obesity *could* be said to be also causing the decline in T levels. Except that the decline in testosterone is also contributing to the increase in obesity, so you haven’t really explained everything by blaming obesity. Testosterone is a lipolytic or fat-burning hormone. The more testosterone your body produces, the more fat it burns even at a resting state. And the less body fat you have, the more testosterone your body produces. This is an example of a positive cascading effect, whereby one trigger sets up a chain reaction of consequences. However, the feedback loops also work in reverse: gaining weight lowers testosterone, and makes subsequent weight gain more likely.
Thus, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem in thinking about where we should focus primary interventions: on the T levels, or on other factors contributing to obesity.
We get a clue from the fact that women can lose weight despite being unable to greatly increase their testosterone levels. Therefore, it likely makes sense to start with the fundamentals of weight loss – nutrition and nutritious movement – and observe where our modern world has gone so far off the rails in these areas over the past 40 years.
Where to start? Eat smarter, not less.
There is a lot of noise when it comes to healthy eating. And a lot of dogma. I have come to focus on what Rob Faigin calls hormonally-intelligent eating so as not to become neurotic or feel like I’m constantly “dieting.” Basically, you make sure to get enough healthy fats (especially from well-raised animals) to become satiated, eat enough protein for your body weight (somewhere between 0.5 and 1 gram per kilo of body weight), and take care not to mix carbs and fat together too often. The reason for separating carbs and fat in time has to do with the “conveyor belt” effect, where carbs send hormonal signals via insulin to open your cells for fat storage. You can think of carbs as fueling the conveyor belt to fat storage, while calorically-dense fats are efficiently delivered by the belt into long-term storage as adipose tissue.
It’s no coincidence that bears load up on fats and carbs just before going into hibernation. They need fat stores to last them through the winter. The modern food milieu is flush with this perfectly fattening combo – the so-called Hibernation Diet. Hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, bagels & cream cheese – and even more innocuous-seeming offerings like avocado toast – all contain the deadly 1-2 punch of carbs + fat.
In short, you can enjoy pasta from time to time. Just go lighter on the butter and olive oil during those meals. You can also feel free to butter your bacon, as long as you don’t eat it with hash browns, toast, and orange juice.
A Penn State study found impressive correlations linking higher fat diets with higher testosterone, except in the case of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), which were linked with lower testosterone.
The T-Maximizing individual should avoid excessive consumption of nuts, seeds, and most importantly, seed oils. Instead, men should eat more Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and saturated fats, without fear of the bogeyman that is cholesterol (more on this later).
Furthermore, the stereotype of the “soy boy” appears to have some merit. Soy products can inhibit testosterone production through their estrogenic effects, as can flax seed, and from the higher concentration of polyunsaturated fats.
While sugar has been blamed for the rise in obesity, Americans consume about as much sugar today as they did in 1980. Soy and seed-based vegetable oils, on the other hand, have entered the food supply relatively recently, making them the more likely culprit behind the bi-directional obesity/low-T death spiral.
In the End of Men documentary, men’s rights activist Mike Cernovich makes an appearance to decry what he calls “Bacon and Boobies” masculinity, where the only form of societally-endorsed manliness is sequestered in basement “man caves,” where guys with beer bellies drink IPAs and watch sports. Ironically, although beer drinking is often associated with men, the hops it’s made from contain far more potent phytoestrogens than soy even. The hoppier beers, like IPAs, even moreso.
Indeed, the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, which led to much hoppier beer in Europe, was established in part because Protestants figured out that hops were a reliable reducer of libido. Could the craft beer phenomenon, which has led to hoppy-beer-on-steroids, be partly responsible for the dual rise in obesity/fall in testosterone?
Lives of Slothful Ease
Inactivity is the next most obvious culprit in the not-so-mysterious case of the missing T. Of course, lack of physical activity will also contribute to the obesity problem, but even controlling for BMI, research has found a link between inactivity and low T.
Changing your activity levels can act as a lever to move T levels. A 2014 study in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology put 30 sedentary young men on a 12-week exercise program and found that it increased testosterone levels. In turn, testosterone will contribute to energy levels and feelings of motivation, such that a little bit more movement can set off the beneficial cascade towards ever-increasing T levels.
However, not all forms of exercise are created equal. While cardio (both endurance and high-intensity interval), and strength training both increase testosterone, the latter appears to be more effective. Extreme endurance sports like marathon running, are even associated with chronically low testosterone levels. For distance runners, having too much muscle slows you down. A reduction in testosterone and thus muscle mass is an example of a Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand, and our bodies seem to be smart enough to affect this kind of change on their own.
Most sedentary people are not at risk of running so much that they fall into this camp. If you’re managing a limited supply of motivation or time, 20 minutes of lifting heavy things will have larger cascading effects than the same amount of time spent jogging or running.
Another reason why strength training may be superior to chronic cardio is that testosterone is in an antagonistic relationship with cortisol – aka the stress hormone – which is produced by excessive aerobic activity. Both cortisol and testosterone are made from pregnenolone, which is itself made from cholesterol (hence the importance of eating a diet rich in saturated fats). Because of cortisol’s importance in our evolutionary biology stimulating the “fight or flight” response, it takes precedence over testosterone in “siphoning off” the shared precursor pregnenolone.
Thus, any exercise that puts you in a state of prolonged stress can have a suppressant effect on T via cortisol, which may or may not outweigh the beneficial effects of increased activity.
Moving Frequently at a Slow Pace
Up until recently, survival has always required bodily effort. While the occasional burst of energy might have been necessary for pre-historic man to take down the proverbial mastodon, much of the work involved moderate effort over prolonged periods of time, such as foraging for food.
Blue-collar work likewise involves much more movement, and the fact that those jobs are being replaced means less overall physical activity is required to earn a living.
A 30-minute to hour-long workout does not substitute for this frequent movement at a moderate pace, and this factor may be one of the keys to unlocking our ancestor’s overall epigenetic potential, including significantly higher T levels.
One of the more interesting anecdotal accounts I came across in my research was of a 30-something-year-old Coloradan man named Kyle Boelte, who doubled his T levels in just one month by hiking the entire 486-mile Colorado Trail. By averaging 18 miles of intense hiking over 29 days, Kyle’s Free testosterone levels rose from 4.4 pg/mL to 9.9 pg/mL. Unsurprisingly, he also lost about 10 lbs while gaining lean muscle mass. Finally, his cortisol levels also fell dramatically – from 17.8 ug/dL to 10.8, which speaks to the calming effects of moving your body in nature, as well as the tight inverse correlation between testosterone and cortisol.
What stands out to me about this story is, first of all, how quickly Kyle’s body adapted to the demands imposed by vigorous outdoor activity. Thru-hiking would appear to be one of the best ways to mimic our paleolithic environment, and with the right gear and preparation, can be a powerful de-stressor – allowing your body to use vital pregnenolone for testosterone production, not cortisol.
Not everyone can get away for a full month of thru-hiking, but we can set aside long days to hit the trail. The 50-Mile March is predicated on the need to overcome our softening as a nation. It may be the single best way to simultaneously reduce obesity, increase activity, and boost testosterone. It’s a potent remedy for the vicious cycle behind our growing impotence — a reset button to stop the chicken-and-egg-type connection between body fat and low T. You’re either on the path, or you’re off it. It requires a commitment, but the challenge is time-limited, unlike perpetual diets and brutalizing exercise routines that are bound to fail for a lack of endless willpower.
Are Endocrine disrupting chemicals behind the End o’ men?
While nutrition and movement are squarely within our control and relatively easy to reconfigure with the right mindset and commitment, there’s a third potential culprit behind declining T levels that will be more difficult to eliminate without reforms to society writ large, in the realm of consumer protection.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals like PFAS, BPA, inorganic pesticides, phthalates, and alkylphenols – found in everything from plastic containers, to non-stick coatings and fast-food wrappers, to detergents and cosmetics – are almost inescapable in our modern world. You can switch out certain home products like Teflon pans and try not to eat too much processed food wrapped in plastic, but it’s pretty hard to eliminate them altogether.
Here, the focus should be on the biggest contributors – not every possible source – although it’s hard to come by accurate consumer reports. Just recently it was reported that many top sports apparel products including sports bras and spandex shirts and pants have high levels of BPA, which expose their wearers to many times the safe levels established by the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, California. BPA is one chemical that has been regulated for its known toxic and endocrine-disrupting effects, although the unregulated alternatives like BPC are now thought to be just as harmful.
The promise of “better living through chemistry” turned out to be a false one. Cheap, durable, heat-resistant plastics – like non-stick pans and “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” – come with hidden costs.
I’m reluctant to suggest tighter regulations on these products, given the tendency for regulations to breed new unintended consequences (like the substitution of even more harmful BPA alternatives). Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive Bull Moose Party championed the ideas of food and drug inspection under the banner of consumer protection. Today, the USDA and FDA have been captured by industry insiders who write the regulations to their advantage and often fail to serve the public good. Look no further to the FDA’s authorization of mRNA vaccines for children under 5, or its support for a variety of redundant or unnecessary vaccines containing known neurotoxic adjuvants like aluminum.
Tucker Carlson is right to link the problem of declining testosterone with the rampant cronyism and revolving door between regulators and the very industries they are tasked with regulating. This is what happens in the absence of strong leadership. In the End of Men special, Carlson interviews Robert Kennedy Jr. of the Children’s Defense Fund. RJK Jr. has taken up his uncle’s mantle in warning about the impending calamity if we continue to ignore the fact that something is making us all very sick.
That something is not one thing, and it cannot be entirely eliminated at the level of individual effort. It will take collective action, both raising awareness, and perhaps ultimately reforming the governmental agencies so that they actually serve the people.
I am least sanguine about the prospects for meaningful reform at the Federal level, where the incentives dictate in favor of special interests with dedicated lobbying budgets and a narrow-minded goal that helps their bottom line. There is hope at the state and local level to assign reasonable limits, and I’m not talking about banning straws or styrofoam. These are distractions from the real humanitarian and environmental catastrophes that are built into the food, water, and drug supply.
California styles itself as a progressive model for the rest of the country with its warning labels on known carcinogens. This is a start, but those stickers (mandated by Prop. 165) have become so ubiquitous that it’s almost a joke (did you know that those stickers themselves contain chemicals, which are known to the state of California to cause birth defects?).
Perhaps the scariest finding about endocrine disruptors is that they likely have transgenerational effects, meaning we really could be headed toward the scenario depicted in the dystopian movie Children of Men, where virtually everyone is infertile. To fight this, we really need a new counter-cultural revolution that mixes virile pronatalism with environmental consciousness. And men must lead again.
In addition to JFK and Teddy Roosevelt, we can draw inspiration from a friend and contemporary of Roosevelt’s, who was also an avid thru-hiker. John Muir, a co-founder of the Sierra Club, was an embodiment of rugged masculinity combined with poetic sensitivity and even a mystical connection with the environment. Last summer, while hiking Yosemite, I read Muir’s diary from his first summer in the Sierras. The book gave me a sense of just how much we’ve lost due to modern comfort and convenience, both in terms of natural manliness and the ability to truly appreciate nature. Muir and Roosevelt preserved the National Parks from destruction. These monuments to the strenuous life remain our patrimony, and a part of the way back to a time when men were still men.
Will you join the 2%?