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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Getting back in shape! An old(er) guy's guide to exercise!

OK, this one is for the 30-somethings and 40-somethings... anyone else remember the Bazooka Joe "Make a man out of Mac" cartoon (pictured left)? Thought it was fitting.

I decided I wouldn't write about my new devotion to physical fitness until I had been consistently excising for at least 2 months in a row. Now that I've been steady through two and a half months, I feel I can adequately write about my progress in winning the battle of the bulge.
Like most people who are busy with the hustle and bustle of life and who do not or have not included exercise in their daily activity, I needed a little shell shocking to get me back in the mood. So, in February of this year, I had a "come to Jesus" realization when I began to view some of the family pictures and home video that was shot during our February vacation. Watching myself waddle across the sand pretty much put me over the edge to "do something" about my unhealthy state.

Although I am not obese, as defined by medical experts, I am - like most Americans - fairly overweight. Hey in truth I like to eat - and I like to eat carbs - I'm guilty of enjoying bread with butter, and I enjoy meats, and all kinds of bad stuff. And I enjoy drinking nice beer once in a while - such as a nice liter of Spaten, or a pint of Newcastle, Bass Ale, or even Carlsberg. I'm definitely a beer snob - and life is too short to drink cheap or carb-free beer - YUCK! - these are all topics for a future entries, no doubt.

So digressing a bit from the present, here is some history outlining my ups and downs...

I think like all of us who used to be jocks in high school, we remember ourselves as fast, thin, and in great shape. We were bio-machines, high on testosterone - models of perfection... ha ha! Then you go off to college, and begin to pick up on the bad habits like eating cafeteria style foods (all you can eat), and attending fraternity parties where the goal is to get about as silly as one can without passing out - which leads to more late nite snacking at McDonald's, Subway, and Taco Bell - and of course, let's not forget - "Domino delivers!" I can't even recall how many of those cardboard tasting "2 for ten" slices we consumed at 2 a.m.!

So as I started accumulating inches around the waist, going from a perfect wrestling/track weight of 132 in high school to an astounding 235 during senior year in college. Wow! And this isn't an unfamiliar story to many college students who find themselves buying all new clothes when it comes time to start interviewing for that new job.

And more to my particular situation, I also suffered an ACL injury while playing intramural Soccer in College for S.V. Sauerkraut (the team was named so because most of us, if not all, were pooled from either the college German language club (like myself) or were German exchange students. And I have to say that I liken the reason for me receiving the ACL injury to "putting the cart before the horse". My good intentions were to get back in shape, but my mistake was that I didn't take into account that some sports - like soccer - require that you are in reasonable shape prior to playing. My mind was ready, and my body was clearly not! So you can imagine the results of the deadly combination of total access to UConn cafeteria food with being casted, and carted around campus by the handi-van!

I have to say that post college I did make a healthy comeback. At a point in my mid 20s, I had worked to recapture my self of old and managed to join World's Gym, and exercise daily. At one point I believe I was in the best shape of my life from a stamina and overall conditioning point of view - I was able to run 4-5 times a week, generally about 3-5 miles during my extended lunch - mostly steep hills found in the backroads of Simsbury, CT. So that with a rigorous heavy weight training schedule, brought me to about 160 lbs.

After my department moved out of Simsbury, my daily runs stopped. So that coupled a family move away from the town where my gym was located prompted fewer regular visits. And I think in those days, cash was tighter so belonging to more than one gym was out of the question!

Then... I fell in love. And you know what happens when you fall in love? You get comfortable, you go out to dinner, and go for ice cream together, and you go on vacations like cruises - and you tend to get fat! So the rollarcoaster ride continued. And I gained a few more pounds perhaps getting up to around 190 or so.

It probably didn't occur to me that I had packed on the pounds until one day when I can distinctly remember an annoying scenario. It was the Spring of 1998, my then-girlfriend and I had just gotten out of my car, we were both walking up to the complex, and this lazy, welfare woman who lived one door down from me came up to me - and in an effort to make good-natured conversation with me, she said,

"Boy, you sure gained weight. What happened to you? What you been eat'n?"
And she laughed. Of course, I didn't find much humor in it, so embarrassed, I turned and walked briskly away. Observing that she had hit a sore spot and had gotten my goat, I could hear her from a distance shouting, "What you been eatin'!" - which was then followed by a loud roar of laughter! At that point, I turned to my then-girlfriend and said, I need to get back in shape. I was so pissed! I was pissed for weeks.

So that little episode combined with a move to West Hartford, and a marriage proposal combined "for a kick in the pants" or incentive to get back in shape. But this time, the weight didn't come off so easily. I think this was in part, due to the fact that I had tried to mix the Adkins Diet with exercise - instead of really putting in the work of steadfast exercise, and changing the mindset of eating properly. I swear to this day, all that gunk that I ate on Adkins - bacon, eggs, meat, and sausage and all of the high protein, high cholesterol garbage has created some other issues which I still feel plague me to this day. If you know anyone who wants to use Adkins, steer them away from it. Common sense tells you, that fad diets are not only unproductive in the long term, but some may have long-lasting effects on your system.

But by wedding time, I was back in reasonable shape. Not the best shape of my life - as it seemed that whatever it was that was going to take to get to my former "best shape" wasn't realistically achievable. I can distinctly remember wondering why I couldn't get down below 190 lbs. Why the plateau seemed to have risen now that I was ready to enter my 30s. It was a nothing more than a reality check.

Beyond that and fast forwarding, as most readers understand - settling into married life and general lifestyle changes require you to put more emphasis on career-focus (generally good careers require a stressful position that merits beyond 50 hours a week), or being a parent which is a 24/7 physical and mental role that requires time and a major expenditure of energy - even if its parental learning, thinking (about some matter or decision), or even - worry. Time management becomes a problem at just about every juncture, and some time is simply not manageable as things simply arise -- sick children, projects that run late, daycare, trips to the vet, etc.

And as you get older, the pounds just cling, clearly, the pounds do not come off as easily as they used to, and the body can't take as much punishment; recuperation of muscles and joints take more time than they did when you were in your twenties. You have to set reasonable expectations of yourself and what you can achieve over a short period of time.

And believe me, and before I explain what magic formula I'm using today, I have to tell you that on and off over the past few years I've tried a number of methods for losing weight or maintaining shape. I've tried a few of the popular ones (links to WebM.D. commentary provided) - Adkins, The Zone, South Beach Diet, and the Body for Life program. I think that all of these will provide you results, and probably good results in terms of weight loss and getting back in shape. The problem that I have found with these programs are many-fold.

For example, it's hard as Hell, to keep on the program for an extended period of time; a couple bad days or a bad week tends to disrupt results, and cause frustration. And some of these programs require that you spend hours shopping and preparing "special meals" and that you understand and divide percentages of fat, carbs, proteins for each meal. You could make a living doing this stuff. If you have lots of time on your hands, and have a rigid lifestyle then you are in luck!

You begin to find a lack of overall satisfaction with the meals and constrictive nature of rules around eating that conflict with your lifestyle or family lifestyle (I'm not going to punish my kids with these programs when at this stage of their life, they need carbs, fats, and proteins to grow and be healthy). Parents who turn their kids into veggins (vegetarians) are just plain dumb! Humans are carnivorous and the body requires that we eat and process some meat for a variety of reasons. We have not evolved into plants or plant and seed eating lifeforms! While I don't want to go down too far down this road (perhaps I have already) I would like to provide a valuable quote by Professor Thomas M. Greiner regarding discussion on human anatomy as it relates to the debate on whether man is designed as a meat eater:

"....Finally, you need to look at nutritional requirements. There are some B-complex vitamins that are available only by eating other animals. The human body requires this nutrient, but does not synthesize it the way some other animals do. Therefore, if humans truly ate no animal foods, and had no artificial vitamin supplements, they would sicken and die. In nature, there are no true "human vegetarians."

I also recommend reading this posting by John McArdle, Ph.d.

The programs often lead to quick results that lead to stagnation and quick plateaus. And lastly, there is dissatisfaction with not being able to break the rules of consumption without feeling guilty or self-destructive regression in productive gains on your program.

So the simple question is so what do I do? First of all when you fall off the bike, you have to get back on - it just takes some of us longer to realize that we've actually fallen of the darn bike. I need to eat less, and exercise more. And that's what I do. I don't overdue it, I'm old enough to realize that I'm not going to be in a fashion show, but smart enough to realize that I've serious work to do to get in shape - for myself and for my family.

So I make it a point to go to the gym at 5 a.m. Oh yeah. You read that right! 5 a.m., that's 5 o'clock in the morning.

Why 5 a.m.? There are a lot of reasons to go in the morning. To start with, it's less disturbing to our family schedule and my schedule. All I lose is extra sleep, and I don't need to short cut family time, or try and squeeze in time after work when I'm usually exhausted or annoyed from a day's work.

Second, the gym is scarcely occupied. You generally find people who are there to get in, do their workout, and get out - not socialize and tie up a bench for 30 minutes, not pose in the mirror between sets, not hog all of the equipment so no one can use it. Morning people need to get it done and get out. As a general rule, the slackers that are there for all of the above, aren't the types that get up at 5 a.m. for any reason anyway.

Lastly, as a matter of incentive and from a psychological viewpoint - when you work out in the morning, you get to spend the day knowing that no matter what happens - you've worked your butt off and accomplished something that no one can take away from you. And you don't have to do it later. Moreover, when I go to eat something I shouldn't - I think, OK, dumb-dumb, did you just get up a 5 a.m. and sweat your pants off to now go and eat candy, and kiss away your morning workout? No. Every hour that goes by where you don't eat garbage is a step in the direction of pure weight loss and great conditioning. You control your own gains after you leave the gym. No make ups for later. Later may never come if some "emergency" arrives - like need to rush the dog to the vet, or stop at the store to pick up flour, etc.

OK, so what have I accomplished so far and how? In the last two and half months, I've gone from 249 lbs (wow!) to 231 lbs. Remember that I have a larger frame, so I tend to keep the shape that large shoulders provide. And the real results are in the waistline which unless you shrink your pants every time you wash them should become readily visible nor not.

A friend of mine, a co-worker, turned me on to a simple method of counting calories using You just enter in the pertinent data, create a plan and track your progress - that's all there is to it - and they don't pester you with advertisements or spam. There is no magic formula here. Your body requires on set number of calories to function based on your height, weight, activity level, etc. So to lose weight, you need to take in less than you burn through regular burning of calories, and exercise. Using the site you can make good decisions by using section that provides data on calories, nutrition, fat and other contents. So stay below your caloric intake goal and try to make reasonably healthy decisions. Now obviously, if your target is 1800 calories, you shouldn't eat 1800 calories worth of candy. Duh? Or overeat in one meal and not leave enough for the next. And remember this is only a guide. Most of the time, you know what's high in calories, and what isn't. But there are a lot of surprises in the first few weeks when you begin to plan out your day of caloric intake!

And in any case, even from a education standpoint, this makes you read labels, and after a while you get pretty good at knowing what your limits are. At first, I admit it was a nightmare - having to record everything you eat, but its good to keep track of your goals and how you are doing.

And while I'm on the whole eating thing, remember that you need to take a break once in a while and jump in and eat pizza or ice cream; you need to reward yourself! Or go for that second helping of pasta. And please... don't start dieting around the holidays. You don't have to go nuts, but you don't need to watch everyone eating the Christmas pudding while you sit there making a statement to yourself about how much new self control you have! That's just plain dumb.

Basic rules for making good food choices include selecting products that have the following terms written on them: non-fat, low sugar or sugar free, low-carb, low-salt, salt-free, and have labels that read as having low calories. And don't forget to begin portion control - so instead of choosing a 16-ounce porterhouse, choose a four ounce strip. If you have the option - bake the food instead of frying it. And try to stop using mayonnaise, and replace it with mustard, and stop using butter and opt for Ms. Dash on veggies or potatoes, and fat free jam on toast.

As for the exercise routine. Aim for 4 times a week as a minimum, but no more than 5 or 6 times a week maximum as your body needs rest (and if you must go six times a week, make that six day a fun day by mixing it up). Focus on cardio, cardio, cardio! 30 minutes is for sissies. Go for 45 minutes at a time, if you can. Then focus on some limited weight training. For the guys, its more fun to lift weights. You see fast results and feel great about being able to lift 1000 lbs on the rack, but look around. How many fat asses do you see that should be spending less time doing curls and more time on the treadmill? How about most of the time, eh?

Oh and one last thing. If you start going to the gym in the morning, that means you need to go to bed earlier too. You can't stay up and watch late night news and expect to be spry in the morning. This takes some time to get used to, but the rewards are greater than the pain.

And to end on a cautionary note - here are a couple don'ts (O.K. I lied, more than a couple):

  • Don't compare yourself with others in the gym, you have your own goals, starting point, progress points, and metabolism. Who cares about what others are doing.
  • Don't read fitness or body building magazines and expect to look like these people. The Muscle Fitness bodybuilders or Men's Health models train to look like this for a (paid) living. Set realistic expectations for yourself.
  • Don't use one machine for all your cardio workouts during the week. Instead, change up from time to time, switch across Treadmill, Elliptical, Cross Trainer, Bike, etc. You can change up every couple days to prevent boredom and challenge your body.
  • Don't take diet pills. Diet pills may have other impacts to your body that may cause you to become hyper and lose sleep. A lot of these pills contain caffeine or similar caffeine type drugs. Natural is best. I do recommend drinking a cup of regular coffee before heading to the gym. That's my rule only.
  • Don't overdue it at the start. Use low levels selections on the cardio machines, and very light weights. You'll work up to faster speeds or inclines over time.
  • Don't use meal replacement bars. Eat food. Meal replacement bars do not satisfy you from a psychological standpoint (and you certainly won't feel full) and sometimes you'll meet your caloric limit in two bites. (Some of those bars can be very high in calories!)
  • Don't workout without a water bottle. I drink water before, during and after the workout. Dehydration is counter-productive. Also, drag that water bottle with you all day long and fill it and use it at work.
  • Don't binge eat and don't eat past 7 p.m. Throw out all unhealthy snacks.
  • Don't grocery shop when you are hungry.
  • Don't give up. If you get crossed up by scheduling conflicts and don't exercise for a period of time - just pick back up where you left off.
  • Don't choose fast food. Cook most of your meals at home; you'll not only save money, but have control over what you consume and how its prepared.

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