A boom in men's health mags suggests the average British male is a well-toned Adonis. Katy Guest has her doubts

It is a truth universally acknowledged: that a single man in possession of a decent salary must be in search of a six pack. Gone are the days when all a chap needed were a stately pile and an unusual line in swimwear. Now the modern man, if he is to stand any chance of leading a full and rewarding life, is working on his abs. Which should make it easy to find the perfect male.

So how do we know this? Because while tawdry rags such as Zoo and Loaded were shamed last week by circulation crashes of up to 21 per cent, the body-conscious, slightly mumsy Men's Health proved an exception in the men's magazine market. And it has succeeded by damning carbs and pushing pecs.

This is good news, then. With 235,833 readers every month finding out how to "snack on Aoste meat snacks for a filling and flavoursome protein fix, or try some pumpernickel bread" (I did say it was mumsy), the women of Britain should be in clover. So where are these rippling abdominals? Who can show us the "revolutionary tricks to drive her wild"? Well, not any of the men's mag readers I find.

Believe me, I try. I meet David, 27, in a bar in south London's trendy Balham. He is lovely. But he doesn't have a six pack. "Yes, I buy men's mags," he admits sheepishly. "But it's like people spending 200 quid a year on a gym membership and never going. They make you feel you're doing something healthy by buying them, but it costs less."

It is not rocket science. With the male grooming market exploding and the late Dr Atkins proving that boys are as much suckers for a fad diet as girls, it is obvious that some men are finally paying attention to the way they look. A survey this spring found that 60 per cent are unhappy with their figures (the other 40 per cent are kidding themselves). They wanted to look like David Beckham, they just didn't want to train like him.

And that is where the magazines come in. Publishers know, as well as women, that a good way to get a man's attention is to promise him something for nothing. Men's Health is good at that: "60 seconds to extra energy ... A genius IQ in 7 days... Update your wardrobe in minutes... Cheat to win", it says. Men are going mad for it.

I am hopeful, then, when I find Chris, drinking cabernet sauvignon with a friend. He is 30, with devastating blue eyes and a bum like two hard-boiled eggs in a hanky - but no abs. He wants them, though. "Ooh, can I steal the free exercise tips sheet?" he says, as if it will make him fit by osmosis.

So how do the people behind the magazines explain it? Men's Health's features editor, Toby Wiseman, says: "Some people might say that we're doing well because men are more vain now, but I think they're just more aware of everything that comes with health - the idea that it is more than skin deep."

It is an old trick perfected by the women's market: show a reader an unattainable image, make him feel rubbish about himself, then promise to fix the problems he never knew he had. Matt Roberts, a personal trainer, is concerned that men are striving for unachievable perfection. "There is more pressure on men to be in great shape now," he says. "It's partly media pressure, but with women more equal and independent, men have to raise their game. Footballers have become important male icons, and someone like Beckham is obviously in terrific shape. But how realistic is that? You can change shape slightly, but you'll never look like him."

Finally, I find Richard, who is 31, gorgeous, but sucking on a full-fat latte. He thinks he might have the answer. "Men's mags have good tips," he says, "But, to be honest, I'm thinking of cancelling my subscription. Getting fit and losing weight is basically getting off your backside and eating properly - no matter how many ways you say it."

THE LOWDOWN ON FITNESS

NIK CONNELLY, 25, PROJECT MANAGER, LONDON I enjoy reading men's health magazines. I play tennis three times a week.A lot of guys are scared of going to the gym.

JAMES EYRES, 19, STUDENT, BATH I'm not against men's health magazines but a lot of them are unrealistic. You'd have to be a fanatic to look like one of those guys.

DR LEN BABEN, 55, GP, LONDON We do have men's health magazines in our waiting room but I think they project an image that most men can't achieve, rather like women's magazines and skinny models.

MARK FITCH, 47, FITNESS COACH, SURREY I read health magazines to keep up with the latest information. I'm a boxing and martial arts coach - but I like to keep things in proportion.

GARY MCKINNON, 45, CERAMIC TILER, GLASGOW I used to read men's health magazines but the more you read, the more you worry, so I stopped. There's no point in torturing yourself. I eat curry and chips and enjoy a beer.

FRANKLIN EVAGLE, 22, CAMEROON I do like to read fitness magazines. But you can't be fit without a lot of effort and pain. I don't drink or smoke, I exercise and I am the proud owner of a six pack.

ROBERT GORDON, 43, ENGINEER, EDINBURGH I don't really have time to read fitness magazines, but I'm interested in the subject. I'm not as fit as I'd like to be. I'd like to go to the gym twice a week.

CAMERON JETHWA, 25, STUDENT, LEICESTER I browse men's health magazines because I am a fitness instructor. But they're expensive and offer the same basic advice. It's not rocket science.

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