Let's Fantasize: Could You Be Batman?

One of the endearing qualities of Batman is that, unlike all other mainstream superheroes, he possesses no supernatural powers.

He had no brush with radioactivity to endow him with amazing strength and agility instead of thyroid cancer. The source to his power does not lie within a special ring or cloak, nor was it thrust upon him by Greek gods. Rather, Batman employs well-honed acrobatic and martial arts skills, muscle and wit to his zealous devotion to a life of fighting crime.

An implicit theme in the Batman chronicles, dating back to the earliest appearance of "Bat-Man" in a 1939 comic strip, is that any human could become the Dark Knight with enough physical training and a penchant for wearing tights.

Yet is it true that a mere mortal could train to become Batman?

Possessed by this question, E. Paul Zehr, a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and a martial arts expert to boot, systematically analyzed every aspect of Batman's job, from the physical strength needed to battle villains to the possibility of actually utilizing that utility belt full of Bat-gadgets.

The answer, as detailed in Zehr's book "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero" (2008, The Johns Hopkins University Press), is, well, maybe. But what's involved might surprise you, a fascinating interplay of genetics, will, wealth, environment and lots and lots of spare time.

Holy workout, Batman

Matching Batman's strength might very well be the easiest of your endeavors, according to Zehr, but this will take some time. Power training with weights every day, and knowing what you're doing, you would need three to five years to reach your maximum physical strength capacity. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, trained for more than five years before winning his first Mr. Universe title.

Genetics help here, said Zehr. You could workout as hard as Schwarzenegger or Batman and not put on that kind of bulk. This is a result of many genetic factors, such as having high concentrations of the myostatin protein in your body, which hinders muscle tissue growth. Batman likely didn't have a myostatin issue.

But Batman is more than muscle-bound. He's a master of judo, tae kwon do, ninjutsu and perhaps a few more martial arts. To master these, Zehr said, Batman would need an additional six to twelve years of training. Then there's the poise needed to bring all these skills together on the street in real-life situations, what police officers call reality-based training. Zehr tacks on another six to eight years.

Being a billionaire, pre-2008 recession, makes things easier. Batman's day job as Bruce Wayne seems to be merely maintaining a playboy facade, allowing the freedom to train daily. Nevertheless, even with Batman's inherited riches, both financial and genetic, you'd still need about 15 to 20 years to prepare for the job.

But could you sustain it?

Staying alive

The hardest part about being Batman, Zehr said, is staying Batman. Injuries would surely take their toll. The constant demand on his body likely would lead to tendonitis, repetitive stress injuries and quite possibly arthritis, as seen in older and retired professional football players.

Also, Batman gets beat up badly on most outings. He has taken many blows to the head and certainly has suffered from multiple concussions. The long-term effects of this include memory loss and depression, making crime-fighting all the more difficult.

It is in fact unlikely Batman could return to the streets night after night, Zehr said. He would need remarkable healing powers. It is possible to condition one's bones, like muscles, to become stronger. Less is known, however, of a person's genetic predisposition to heal quickly from serious injury.

Take this job and...

Stress could very well do you in, too, if you were Batman. Consider the high rates of suicide and depression among police officers and soldiers, people who have to face crime and death every day. Batman needs staggering determination. And he can't draw strength from his family — he has none, nor does he have time of any serious relationship.

Batman's likely sleep deprived. It wouldn't be so bad to always work the nightshift, although nightshift workers do have higher rates of cancer and other diseases. But Batman is up during the day, as well.

The take-home message might sound like no one can be Batman, or at least not for long. But don't let that get you down, Zehr said. Batman does teach us one thing: that we can turn an adverse event (in Batman's case, seeing his parents murdered) into a defining moment to maximize our potential and do the world a little good.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.