November 21, 2014

Better than 80/20 - Exercise

(Warning: Remember to disregard what I said about writing shorter blog posts until after this one's done!)

Here it is, the last installment in my update on things going better than they were back when I posted about 80/20 being an improvement. We’ve already covered supplements and diet. Today’s focus: exercise. But the thing is, I hesitate to call it exercise, as I’m beginning to think of it more as movement. (To loyal reader P, pat yourself on the back.) I am “working out” less, but moving more. (But still working out. Keep reading and this will make sense.)

I saved this one for last because while I fully recognize the importance of regular physical movement for good health, I believe that for me, diet and supplementation are currently getting me the biggest bang for my buck. However, movement is not negotiable. At all. (And it is certainly getting me some bang for my buck.) If we think of health as a three-legged stool, diet and supplementation are only two legs, and without this critical third one, that stool is gonna fall down.

(I’m not going to get into specifics, like I do this many planks for this many minutes, or do this many sets of this many reps with this much weight. I’m not qualified to give advice about that, and also, I don’t want anyone laughing at me if I’m “doing it wrong.” I’ll give you the general stuff I do and why I do it. But you best believe nothing I do involves pink dumbbells.)

I am taking good ol’ Mark Sisson’s philosophy to heart and am approaching physical movement from three angles: moving frequently at a slow pace, occasionally moving my fanny at a very fast pace, and regularly picking up heavy stuff and putting it back down (including the weight of my own body). I am also trying to incorporate more movement into my daily existence, just by getting up from my chair at work more often, parking far away from a store instead of choosing a more convenient parking spot, walking to do errands instead of driving, and in general just trying to make sure I don't spend hours at a time doing the world's best impersonation of a rock.

And since, again, for me, body fat loss and maintenance of said loss seem to be influenced far more by my food than by my exercise, I can now approach physical movement as a pleasure instead of a punishment. It’s a way to feel great—physically and psychologically—and improve both my short- and long-term health, rather than a (mostly) ineffective way to keep body fat off.

I used to see exercise as a chore. I had to force myself to hit the gym, or go for a run. Why? Well, “everyone knows” exercise is good for you, but it’s also supposed to be great for fat loss, and I didn’t see a lick of that. (Remember the picture of me looking slightly pudgy near the finish line of the Pittsburgh marathon, circa 2001? That’s what lots of jogging and carb-loading did for me. Awesome.) It’s a wonder I stuck with it for so many years. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, I guess I was a bit insane. Instead of adding two and two and getting the four everyone said I would get, I ended up with five. Or three. But never four. And even though I wasn’t getting the results I wanted, I just kept going. No wonder exercise was no fun.

Now, however, NOW, I see exercise/movement as a powerful adjunct to the health and body composition my diet is establishing. (You know what they say: “Abs are made in the kitchen.” So is bacon. [Probably not a coincidence.]) Now that I no longer see exercise as a way—or, rather—THE way—to lose body fat, I see it and appreciate it for what it really is: paying respect to the glorious, wondrous body I’ve been given by moving it in ways that will (hopefully) ensure I can continue to move it as well and for as long as I need to. And instead of suffering through a workout like I did in the past, because a not-so-little voice in the back of my mind was telling me my efforts were accomplishing jack squat and were a total waste of time, I can now see it as an investment in my short- and long-term physical health, and my mental health in the here and now. (I’m too lazy to cite any PubMed studies here, but they’ve done studies showing regular exercise is as effective as—and sometimes more effective than—prescription antidepressants.)  

Other reasons I exercise:
  • Stress relief! (Achievable via all three strategies: moving slowly, moving quickly, and lifting heavy stuff! Probably also boxing/punching & kicking things, but I haven't gone that route.)
  • I like being strong.
  • I like having some muscles. (Heroin chic is so 1990s! Gals, let me fill you in on a little secret. Guys don’t want to see your bones. Go lift something heavy. And then eat a steak. With the fat!)
  • The more muscle mass I can build and maintain now, the better off I’ll be as I age. I do not want to be one of those little old ladies who can’t carry her own groceries from the car into the house. (It would also be nice to be able to get up out of a chair under my own power without grunting with effort, like every older female in my family.)
  • The more mobility I can build and maintain now, the better off I’ll be as I age. I do not want to become one of those little not­-so-old ladies who leaves things on the floor after they drop because bending over or stretching to pick them up has become a physical impossibility.
  • I like to eat! And the more muscle tissue I can maintain, the more total calories and the more carbohydrates my body can handle. This is one of the many reasons diabetes and other conditions related to poor glycemic control tend to “get us” as we get older: we naturally lose muscle mass as we age, but very few of us alter our diets accordingly. If you’re 74 and not quite the physical specimen you were in college, back when you went for beer & pizza four nights a week (and “six pack” referred to your abs and not the beer), your body likely can’t handle the same amount of beer & pizza, capice?  That said, the more muscle you can hold onto as you age, the more dietary wiggle room (and mobility/independence) you’ll buy yourself. Like Carl Lanore of Superhuman Radio says, “Muscle is metabolic currency. Go to the gym and make a deposit today.” (Or if you don’t belong to a gym, do something physical, somewhere, possibly just the bedroom your living room floor.)

Before I share what I’ve been doing, let me admit right here, straight-up, that I am able to do some of what I do because, due to lack of spouse & kids, the only schedule I have to work around is mine. I can fit in exercise whenever it works for me. I guess this is true of all of us, regardless of other demands, but what I’m saying is, I probably have more time flexibility than the average person my age. (And less laundry to do. Sweet!)

One more word of caution: I am not a personal trainer. Please do not consider this to be fitness advice on any level. I am simply sharing what I’ve been doing for myself. I hereby disavow myself of all responsibility for any illness or injury you may incur by embarking on any type of physical activity. Start any new activity at your own risk. (Except walking. Put your shoes on and get the heck outside already. Or don’t put your shoes on, if you’re one of those barefoot types. Whatever your preference, get your heinie outside and put one foot in front of the other.)

(Moving frequently at a slow pace)

As many days as possible in a week, I take a long walk. The route I’ve been taking is about 5 miles, which usually takes me just shy of 90 minutes. Since that comes out to around 18 min/mile, clearly we’re not talking powerwalking here. It’s more than a leisurely Sunday stroll, but I’m not pumping my arms and moving like an awkward chicken, like some of the “racewalkers” you might see out on the road. (It also takes that long because I sometimes do several sets of walking lunges along the way, which slows things down.) I move fast enough to get my heart rate up a little, but mostly, walking is more for my mental/emotional health than my physical health. That it’s probably one of the single best movements a human being can do for overall physical health is just a bonus. I’ll put it this way: I’ve never gone for a walk and felt worse afterward. Sometimes, if I’m in a not-so-great mood, I’ll go for a walk and feel the same when I come back. No harm, no foul. Still a decent use of the time—better than sitting inside and wallowing in self-pity. And sometimes, it’s the best thing I could’ve done to pull myself out of the funk. Maybe it’s the movement, maybe it’s the fresh air, maybe it’s the sunlight (if it’s daytime; but sometimes I walk at night), or maybe it’s the sounds of the insects and the breeze in the trees (if I go without my iPod). Whatever it is, I usually feel better afterward.

I do these walks fasted as often as possible. There are four days a week when I don’t go to an office. I don’t always go for long walks on all four days, but I’d say it’s at least three.  And I try to go first thing in the morning, before I’ve had anything to eat. I’ll have coffee beforehand, but usually no solid food, and nothing to spike the ol’ blood glucose or insulin. (Remember what I said last time, about keeping those things low-ish for as much of the day as possible? Well, the way I see it, taking a 90-minute, fasted, casual pace walk is a primo way to capitalize on starting the day as a fat-burning beast.)

If for some reason I don’t start the day with my walk, I’ll do it whenever feels right. Sometimes that means in the middle of the day, and sometimes it means at night. So it’s not always on an empty stomach. In fact, sometimes I’ll go after eating a big lunch or dinner, because I don’t like the idea of eating a big meal and then proceeding to sit on my duff. And because I walk at a fairly relaxed pace, it doesn’t compromise digestive function.

So, fasted or not, the point is, I walk. A lot. And when, for whatever reason, there’s been a span of a few days where I haven’t fit a walk in, I start feeling antsy. Once your body is used to moving, it kind of wants to keep moving regularly. (Objects in motion, and all that physics jazz.)

Walking outdoors in a beautiful space is even better, 
if you can.
One more thing about walking:  Way back in the post about Vitamin J, I introduced the idea of vitamin D levels possibly being a proxy for time spent outdoors. Probably what I love best about walking is that it GETS ME OUTSIDE. Night or day, doesn’t matter. During the day, I get the sunlight, of course, but evening walks offer up the stars (sometimes), the chirping of crickets and other insects, and the smell—that smoky smell that only happens at night, especially in autumn and winter. I’ve been going for long walks for years, and I go all times of year. Hot weather, cold weather, I just go. (Yes, sometimes that means bundling up until I look pretty ridiculous, but I’d rather look ridiculous and be enjoying a walk than sitting at home convincing myself it’s okay not to walk because, boo-hoo, it’s cold out.)

(Moving occasionally at a fast pace)

I don’t set aside dedicated time for sprinting. When I feel like sprinting (which is only once in a while), I incorporate it into my walks. I’ll sprint for a few seconds with recovery walking in between. I don’t stick to any specific interval length. There is no planning whatsoever. I pick a landmark somewhere up ahead and sprint until I get there. (My inner monologue goes something like: “Sprint to that blue car.” And pretty often, when I get to the landmark, I tell myself to keep going to the next one, and the next one after that. “Make it to that tree…then to that yellow house…”) And I don’t have a specific recovery interval planned. I walk until I feel like sprinting again. It ain’t rocket science. (And more is not always better. Better is better.)

I really love walking. And I don’t love sprinting, but I don’t mind it. It’s an effective way to get a great workout in a very short amount of time. The pace, and the movement itself—the way the body moves at that fast pace as compared to a walking pace—means that you work some different muscles in sprinting that you don’t engage through walking. It’s really a completely different mechanism. And the cardiovascular system, of course, is challenged more by an all-out sprint than by walking. That being said, both are pretty awesome ways to move your body.

The one that is less awesome (in my opinion) is jogging. The slow run. The long, horrible slog that is halfway between a walk and a sprint. I speak from experience. I’ve finished two marathons, both with a slow-ish average pace that put me squarely in the “chronic cardio” zone—not to mention the months of training runs, which is like chronic cardio to the nth degree. Jogging sucked. I’m not saying it’s outright harmful (though that case can certainly be made), but why would you do it if you can get a more effective workout in a shorter amount of time? Return on investment = crappy. Now, I’m not arguing that people should never jog (although that case can probably be made, too, hehheh). I know darn well that jogging can certainly kick in the endorphins associated with the “runner’s high,” and that the mind-clearing, soul-restoring effects of a walk can also be had from a jog. Yes, true.

That being said, I have observed many joggers on my long walks, and I gotta say, most of them look like they’re in misery. They don’t appear to be enjoying themselves. Of course, that’s not an argument against jogging. (Not everything in life is meant to be enjoyable, right? If that were the case, no one would ever sign on for plebe year at Annapolis [personal note: Hi, Tomes!], or boot camp in the U.S. Marine Corps.) Still, they almost all looked like they were struggling, and more, most of them were hobbling, bent over in a weird way, or wore a minimum of one ankle or knee brace. (Hint: if you need to wear a brace to move effectively and without pain, that might be your body telling you to not do that activity quite so much.)

Bodybuilding authority Chris Shugart put this awesome graphic out on his Twitter feed, and it sums up very succinctly why I enjoy both walking and sprinting, and don’t miss jogging one bit:

Another way I move less often at a fast pace is on a stationary bike at the gym. Yes, the bike that goes nowhere. [Leave me alone.] Occasionally I’ll do intervals on a bike or treadmill (admittedly, another machine to nowhere), which gets the heart rate up pretty quick. What can I say. I think it’s important to do that now and then, and lately, I’ve found myself wanting to sprint outdoors less often. Of course, moving on a real bike or real terrain, rather than a stationary bike or treadmill, is preferred. But if you have a choice between a stationary bike or treadmill and not moving your body at all, for the love of all that’s holy, get on the machines to nowhere.

(Picking up heavy stuff and putting it back down)

I have been a member of a gym or had access to a military base gym for the better part of fourteen years. At times, I’ve gone frequently, and at other times, not so frequently. This year, from late spring through the summer, I ditched it altogether. I was still moving, but I dunno…something inside me just didn’t want to be inside a gym anymore. (Possibly because the Pentagon gym reeks of B.O. and pine cleaner. This is especially great when you’re working out and breathing extra hard! I’m all for minimizing the use of cosmetic products with questionable ingredients and going au naturel, but fellas, if you’re gonna hit the gym, use some deodorant. “Thank you,” said every female, everywhere.)

So where was I? Oh, right. No gym for a good 3-4 months. But that doesn’t mean I became a couch potato. I used the time to do tons of walking and get better at bodyweight movements (planks, push-ups, walking lunges, dips on the back of a chair or an outdoor stoop, etc). I do have a couple of dumbbells at home, but my selection is rather limited. Still, I was able to use the heaviest one I have as an imitation kettlebell for doing swings and other stuff big dumbbells are good for.

I was worried that my extended hiatus from the gym would cause me to lose muscle. And with muscle mass being so critical for overall health, but especially for helping with glucose control (not to mention body shape), that was not something I wanted to see happen. I think I maintained pretty well, if I do say so myself. Little muscles I didn’t even know I had may have even gotten stronger, because my at-home routine involved things I hadn’t been doing at the gym, so I was probably targeting parts & pieces that hadn’t been targeted in a while. That said, I have since re-joined the Pentagon gym because I started to miss it, and there’s a bunch of equipment there I don’t have at home. And now that I’m back at it, I can say I haven’t lost strength. Some parts of me are, in fact, stronger than they were previously, others weaker.

My first couple of times back in the saddle were a bit of a bummer, because prior to the hiatus, I had finally (finally!) accomplished some unassisted pull-ups, and my first two times of trying to do them again didn’t go so well. But that was a few weeks ago, and I’m already back to where I was (and looking to surpass it). It just goes to show how much strength you can maintain (and build) by doing simple stuff at home that requires no fancy equipment, and where the air smells not of B.O. and crotch rot, but of the short ribs you’ve got going in the slow cooker.

I’ve been lifting for years, and I really enjoy it. It took me a long time to get over my trepidation of what I used to think of as the gyms “guy area”—the weights—but now that I’m there, I’d never look back. And lifting has done things for my body shape that all that damn running couldn’t even pretend to do. Exercise alone won’t get you very far. The right diet alone will get you pretty far. But the combination of the two is like Superman hand-delivering your order of grass-fed ribeye right to your door and proceeding to cook it to the perfect medium-rare with the laser beams he shoots out of his eyes, and then inviting Batman to join you both for dinner. And Batman brings the wine. Yeah, pretty much the best thing ever.

Ladies, don’t embarrass yourselves.
And at the risk of sounding full of myself, I feel pretty badass when I lift. Maybe it’s a surge of testosterone, or maybe it awakens something more primal in me than sitting in my cubicle, but something about lifting just makes me feel good. Empowered. Confident. And it is damn good stress relief as well. (If I may be so bold, and since I’ve always been embarrassingly honest on this blog, I’ll just say it: a good lifting session usually leaves me feeling um…how shall I say this? Let’s go with “hypersexual.” This is what leads me to believe it’s a testosterone thing. Is this normal? Have you experienced the same? Tell me in the comments. Or if it’s not normal, feel free to make fun of me in the comments instead.) There are some really awesome sites out there for ladies who lift or ladies who want to lift but have no idea where to start. (Check out Rachel Cosgrove, Dani Shugart, and Krista Scott-Dixon. Also: Girls Gone Strong and the Modern Woman’s Guide to Strength Training.) NO PINK DUMBBELLS! 

One thing I really like I about lifting—whether at home or in a gym—is that you can do compound movements that work body parts you didn’t even realize you were targeting. For example, a fitness novice might not realize that, done properly, push-ups—the dreaded but good ol’ go-to of grade school P.E. class—work not just your chest and triceps, but also your core/abs, and even your back. Shift your hand position and you can target entirely different muscles. Yes, I consider push-ups lifting. You’re pushing a weight (your body) against gravity, no? So it’s not like you have to do a hundred different little movements. Do a couple of the major, big, compound ones, and you’ll build a pretty good foundation.

I’m not going to tell you which exact lifts I do, or what order I do them in. First, while I feel okay giving detailed nutrition and supplement advice, recommending workouts to other people is completely outside my wheelhouse. And second, I don’t really have a routine. I probably should, but mostly, I just get my butt in the gym (or on the sidewalk) and do whatever I want to. And that’s why I would be the worst person ever to give training advice. I don’t periodize; I’m not necessarily working toward personal records in anything, and maybe the order in which I do certain lifts would make a certified trainer cringe. I don’t really care. I just move. And I just lift stuff. And it’s working—for me, for now. Could I be getting better results if I were following a structured program that would have me challenging myself more than I’m wont to do on my own? Yes, definitely. But I’m not “there” yet, in my mind. I've got much more pressing stuff to work on in other areas of my life before getting rid of my under-arm batwings becomes priority #1. (And even when I was working my triceps like crazy, those never got any smaller, so whatever.)

Earlier, I mentioned that once in a while, a walk doesn’t do much for me, psychologically. It’s still good to get out and move, but I don’t get the mind-clearing and resetting action I like so much. The same happens with lifting sometimes. Sometimes I don’t challenge myself as much as I could/should, ‘cuz I’m just not feelinit. But on those days, I tell myself any kind of movement is better than no movement. You don’t have to knock your workouts out of the park every time to get some benefit. Just move.

So that’s it. In terms of my exercise/physical movement, I’m not really doing anything I hadn’t already been doing for a long time, but it seems to be jiving better with my diet now. And because all the factors are coming together nicely, I feel like the results I’m getting (in strength and speed, but also in mental outlook) are better than at any other time. Like I said, probably the biggest difference now is my perspective on movement. It’s not negotiable, and it’s far more enjoyable than it used to be.

For a hilarious rant about gyms and gym etiquette, check out this post on a blog I maintained in a former life: Observations from the gym

Just MOVE.
P.S. Changing up your workouts movements is more important than you might realize. Just like we need to consume a variety of foods to make sure we cover our nutritional bases (and over time, get the full complement of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids our cells need and expect), it’s wise to engage in a variety of different movements to make sure we get the full complement of mechanical inputs our cells need and expect. For example, vitamin C is great, but if all you ever get is vitamin C, you’re going to develop some major deficiencies of all the other nutrients. Same deal with movement: if all you ever do is run, you probably suck at pushups, or pretty much anything that involves upper body strength. And you’re probably not all that flexible. Sure, you can stretch your quads and hamstrings, but what about the rest of your body? (Think back to the old ladies I mentioned earlier, who give up on picking things up from the floor because bending down is just not gonna happen.) You’re not a one-trick pony with your diet; don’t be one with exercise/movement, either. What might this look like? Lots of different things. Some running, some walking, some stretching, some static holds, and moving weights against gravity (including your body weight) in ways that engage multiple muscle groups in multiple ways. You don’t need to do it all every day. Just like with diet, it works just fine if you hit all the bases somewhat regularly over time. For more on this, check out this book by this lady, who is the mastermind behind the analogy of limited movement being like limited nutrition. ( I take no credit for that neat idea. It's all hers.)

P.P.S. When I’m working out hard, I sweat. Like a pig. (Someone at the gym once commented on it, but he was quick to explain it was a compliment. He said it was a sign of good hydration. What-eh-vuh! If this is true, someone tell me in the comments.) When I’m at home, I make a sort of homemade electrolyte drink. I mix water, raw apple cider vinegar, unrefined salt, and the fresh juice of a whole lemon or lime. I don’t do this in fall or winter, but in summer, when I was an especially effective sweat-generating machine, it was AWESOME. Post on salt coming soon. Probably the third most misunderstood and falsely accused nutrient in all of health science, right behind cholesterol and saturated fat.

P.P.P.S. Curious about my post-workout nutrition? A while back, when I was lifting harder than I am now, I did shakes. (Various permutations of whey protein isolate, water, unsweetened almond milk, and raw egg.) I believe they were doing very good things for me at the time, but I’ve gotten away from them for a while now. (I have nothing against them; just haven’t been in the mood. Plus, I really haven’t been working out hard enough to necessitate any kind of special “recovery” items.) Now, I usually just have real food after a workout. It’s usually a relatively big-ish meal (depending on workout intensity), but not always higher in carbs. I’m still trying to shed a little body fat, and I’m able to perform at a level I’m comfortable with at my current carb intake, so I don’t feel like I need more. 

And next up: Finally, a return to me posting about food, nutrition, and health--you know, the stuff you actually come here for. Blathering on endlessly about myself: DONE! (For now.)  ;-) 

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.

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