The Hierarchy of Women’s Health Mags

I know so many of us in the blogosphere have talked about women’s health and fitness magazines and all of the ridiculous information they sometimes spew, but I do think there’s a difference between some of the mags out there. I had been meaning to write this post for a while, but at a staff meeting this weekend, another trainer I know reminded me of how completely silly these publications can be.  After she told me I looked like I was leaning out a little bit, I said thanks and then promptly whined that I kept hearing that but wasn’t seeing it on the scale.  She shook her head at me and asked if I was a trainer or a client.  Fair enough.  I know that as a trainer, I should be focusing on body composition and changes other than those on just the scale, but there is a always a little client in me — namely a female client who has been conditioned to equate a downward change on the scale with success.

She then picked up the issue of Self we have sitting in the lobby, and said, “Help me, Kim Kardashian, how can I lose those last 10 pounds?  How can I make it easy? What do I doooo?”  OK, OK, I got it.  I shouldn’t be so focused on the number on the scale, even when it’s what these women’s mags have drilled into my head.  So in that spirit, I started thinking of which ones have actually given me good information, and which ones have just regurgitated what I already know (and have already read a million times) from their last 20 issues. Starting at the bottom, here’s my hierarchy of women’s health magazines:

Health: To me, this one is all the way at the bottom because it is seriously the most generic of them all.  They tell you the same thing every single month, and it’s always about shrinking some part of your body, but doing it the easiest way possible.  ‘Sub in skim milk for whole, and you’ll save hundreds of calories!’  Well, thanks, Health — since I couldn’t have figured this one out from reading the nutrition facts.  If you’re an absolute newbie to health and fitness, then this might be good for you, but after a while, even novices will catch on that they’ve already read the newest issue… last month. Consider this the tricycle of health mags.  A decent start, but it won’t be long until you’re onto a big girl bike with training wheels.   Oh, and they have super random celebs that aren’t doing much other than commercials (Brooke Shields) or trying to sell their new book or reality show (Bethenny Frankel).  I do love Lauren Graham, though.

Fitness, Self: These two are on the same level for me.  They might give you a new tidbit of information every month, but it’s usually something that would have been common sense if you really thought hard enough about it.  They both tell you that you can have your dream body if you tack on an extra 10-minute walk on your lunch break, which, well, isn’t true.  At all.  Those women with your dream body?  They put in the WORK.  Or have amazing genes.  Either way, the tiny tweaks they suggest aren’t going to do it. Both of these mags also have otherwise very intelligent women fearing fat, protein, and heavy weights. Yeah, that 10-lb dumbbell is tooootally going to bulk you up, better grab a three!  And the amount they talk about happiness and how it will help you melt away weight and other health issues is ridiculous.  Don’t get me wrong, I think mental health is so important to overall wellbeing, but at some point after you’ve worked on your head, you will have to work on your body to see real results. Even the celebs they have on their covers repeat the same happiness speeches over and over again.  I was reading Self last month, and Minka Kelly (who I normally adore) was talking about how she finally came to terms with her body… and then got in amazing shape! I had to flip the cover over to make sure I hadn’t already read this issue, because there was some serious fitness mag deja vu going on.

Shape: I like Shape, I do.  It’s better than the others previously mentioned, but frankly, I still don’t buy it off of the newsstands.  One, because my gym has it, so I can just read it when I’m there.  And two, I probably can still get all of the info I need from one of their back issues.  They give you a little more science-based information with the diagrams of the muscle groups in their moves of the month, and they do tell you to strength train.  However, they still equate skinny with sexy and healthy a little too much for my liking. They also talk a little too much about style and beauty for a health mag — if I wanted to know how to get beachy waves while wearing my shape-flattering bikini, why wouldn’t I just read Glamour? Or Elle? Or another style magazine?  And I roll my eyes every single time I see an ad for Skinny Cow ice cream or 100-cal packs juxtaposed with an article about eating real, whole foods.

Women’s Health: As far as mainstream women’s health publications go, WH is my absolute favorite.  I would totally get a subscription to this one…if, again, my gym didn’t already have it.  I do feel that they provide new information (at least a little) in each issue, and they don’t coddle their readers quite so much. They get a little more scientific and explain muscle groups and chemical processes in the body in depth and don’t seem to be afraid of scaring readers off by getting technical. They also aren’t constantly ramming ‘think positive thoughts!’ and ‘go easy on yourself!’ messages down their readers’ throats.  It’s clear that the editors at WH think you have to work harder if you want to look or perform better.  The other topics they talk about like sexual and mental health aren’t covered up by cutesy euphemisms either, which I appreciate, since I think any of us reading the mag are big girls. And while they do have some skinny fitness models featured, they also have some women with kickass abs, quads, and biceps that you know didn’t come about by just taking walks or curling 5-pounders.

Oxygen: This one isn’t quite as mainstream, but as far as women’s health magazines go, I think it’s the best one out there.  I actually buy this one every month, and think I’m just going to go ahead and get a subscription.  They cut out most of the beauty and style stuff that we can find in, uh, beauty and style magazines, and pack each issue full of new workouts, clean eating recipes (no 100-cal packs to be found!), and new research.  The cover models are always ripped, and are usually someone whose fame has come about because she’s an athlete (Dara Torres, Jamie Eason) rather than a movie/pop/reality star. I know being jacked isn’t everyone’s ideal, but I think this publication does a much better job of educating its readers so that they can make informed decisions on their training and diet based on how they want to look and feel. I’ve found a lot of exercises that, as a trainer, I love to incorporate into my own workouts as well as my clients’. I also appreciate that they don’t always tell readers to find the lowest calorie item, but the cleanest calorie item– meaning whole foods! And they make it clear that looking a certain way takes work, and lots of it. The only other thing that might turn people off is the excessive number of ads for protein powder and fat burners.  But if you can get past that, you’ll learn a lot more reading this magazine than Health or Self.

What do you think?  Which mag is your favorite and which ones can you do without?  Did I miss one? Spill!

About Heather

My name is Heather, and I moved from a big Midwestern university to a GIGANTIC Midwestern city. I'm working at a gym as a personal trainer, and I work as a freelance writer on the side. Sometimes I pretend to be an adult. I'm also figuring out how to keep my mouth shut every once in a while -- not here, though. How boring would that be?

Posted on March 21, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I subscribe to Oxygen and Muscle & Fitness HERS. I love both of those magazines.

  2. Muscle & Fitness HERS is my favorite mag! I was a huge fan of Oxygen but then I started feeling like it was turning into the “Tosca Show” so I stopped buying it.


  3. I know it’s more of a niche magazine, but I actually LOVE Runner’s World. There’s tons of helpful advice and really well-written articles. I subscribe just as much for the great reading as I do the fitness advice. If you haven’t already, you should really check it out.

    • Runner’s World is great for sure! I just don’t really run anymore, so I didn’t include it. But for the runners out there, it’s a fantastic nutrition and training resource!

  4. I tend to think they’re all pretty much crap and avoid them like the plague. Nothing like a hit to the ol’ self-esteem when diet and exercise tips are juxtaposed with airbrushed photoshopped 15-18 year old models with bodies that don’t actually exist in the real world.

    Exhibit A:

    Don’t fall for the hype, ladies. These magazines are toxic for your mental well-being, and the worst part is they’re DESIGNED THAT WAY. People who are insecure about themselves and depressed/dissatisfied with their lives tend to SPEND MORE MONEY trying to ‘buy happiness.’ They tear you down in the ads so you will attempt to build yourself up by buying their products! The subtext of ‘buy this purse/these shoes/this jacket/that makeup/those sunglasses and look like me/this model/that celebrity/the body you always dreamed of’ is dripping from the pages. It really is insidious and toxic.

    • You know, I used to think the same thing! With Self and Shape, etc, I still do because the models are just SKINNY, but with the mags focused more on strength, I actually get a little inspired, as cheesy as that sounds!

      • And for the record, I do know that these magazines are designed to get us to think buy, buy, buy and improve, improve, improve, but this is just my opinion on which ones I think are better than others if you’re going to buy them, which I do, at least in the case of truer fitness mags, not the ads disguised as mags (Health-Self, and even WH sometimes). Great example, though.

  5. This is really interesting. I’ve read Fitness since I was thirteen (coincidentally the year I developed an eating disorder) but I kept reading it for some reason. I got a two year subscription right before discovering intuitive eating, so now I mostly read it for a good brain workout in media literacy, and occasionally some recipes or the great stories they sometimes run. I read half of the stuff they advise and think either “dangerous!” or “duh!” It’s an amusing little game.

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