Editor’s Note: this is a long ‘un folks! Brace yourselves for lots of fitness-related rambling.
Wikipedia defines a non sequitur as an argument in formal logic in which its conclusion does not follow from its premises. Its original Latin meaning is “it does not follow” and that’s exactly the sentiment I get when reading this article from Time: Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin. I only came across it while reading the Daily Burn blog (I highly recommend their service- you can see my sad little profile here. Friend me!). I could tear the Time article apart easily, but Susan on the Daily Burn blog did a pretty good job already. I highly recommend reading the Time piece, then her response. Instead I’m going to talk a little about what I had to do to get back in shape and let you draw your own conclusions about the Time piece.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a fitness guru by any definition. At best I’m a “fitness enthusiast”. I work out 3-4 times a week and I track what I eat pretty closely, but I’ll readily admit that it’s for completely shallow reasons and that the overall health benefits are a secondary goal as far as I’m concerned. My major form of entertainment is gaming and I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s a very “fit” hobby. I was tired of being a lump on the couch, and while I don’t think I was fat, the extra weight I carried definitely had an affect on my state of mind. Luckily for me I’ve had the added benefit of working with a great trainer and getting advice from friends who are far more experienced than me, so any sort of success I’ve had has been 70% encouragement and advice from them and only 30% effort from me. Of that 30% effort, probably the three most important factors for me to get back in shape was education, organization, and willpower: not what I ate or what I did.
When I first tried to exercise for a few months by myself I quickly found I had problems sticking to a schedule or I ate badly (willpower). When I did manage to exercise, I was often doing the wrong exercises or doing the right ones incorrectly (education). Even if I managed all of that, I would lose track of what I did the preceding week (organization). I was floundering and not making much progress all of which contributed to demotivating me from continuing. To combat these three issues I decided to hire a personal trainer. Working with a trainer allowed him to handle the organization and education portions, and willpower was up to me. Willpower quickly became a function of my bank account; if I deviated from the diet the longer it would take and the more it would cost me. That was all the motivation I needed to stick to the diet and work my ass off. While I had a shaky foundation gleaned from friends/books/magazines, working with the trainer improved on the foundation I had and gave me a fair amount of confidence that I knew what I was doing. By the time I was done (8 months later), the base education was there and the willpower was more habit than anything. That left organization and better education left to conquer.
Once I wasn’t working with a trainer full time anymore, I needed to set and track my own goals since there wasn’t a 3rd party giving me the necessary organization and structure. I had tried spreadsheets when working out on my own before the trainer, but I didn’t have easy access at the gym to follow a workout or update my progress. Enter Gyminee. It had a great website for tracking my workouts/exercise/food but it still wasn’t “in the gym”. In time they became Daily Burn and now have two great iPhone apps. One, Daily Burn, lets you update your nutrition and exercise info (including tracking your workout process) while the other, Food Scanner, is a barcode scanner to let you look up nutritional information. I’ve added all the food I eat including some custom recipes to my favorites so it’s easy to track / update what I’ve eaten each day on the fly from my phone. My diet stays pretty constant as long as I don’t eat out, and I only tend to buy the groceries I need to make my food for the week. Without extra food in the house willpower and binge eating suddenly isn’t an issue. Thanks to the Daily Burn website/app I can pre-plan my workouts at home online then just follow the workout instead of standing there in the gym like an idiot trying to figure out what to do. Due to the habits I formed while working with the trainer, I’ve now managed to knock out the necessary organization and willpower to exercise on my own.
Education was probably my biggest hurdle, and still is to this day. There’s a glut of information out there, and 99% of it conflicts with itself. Exercise routines, diets, cardio, strength training, yoga, pilates… the list is infinite. There’s no easy answer here as basically you just have to learn what works for you by trial and error. There are a few key concepts that are good to know though:
- Body types. There are three major body types, known as ectomorphic, mesomorphic, and endomorphic. Body type is determined in a few different ways, but basically it has to do with how close to the joint your muscles taper and how your body processes/stores fat. It’s a sliding scale with ectomorph at one end and endomorph at the other. Figure out which one you are! It will have a pretty significant impact on how you need to reach your goals. A good primer was made by my friend Jaerik here.
- Building muscle vs losing weight. These are two distinctly different and conflicting goals. Building up of muscle will not necessarily cause fat burning. Don’t believe me? Check out endomorphs in the link about body types. While it’s true that 1lb of muscle will burn more calories than 1lb of fat, in general it’s only about a 10-50 calorie difference. Cardio, core exercises, and endurance training are all great for weight loss but not so good for makin’ your guns huge. In fact most body builders go through periods of “bulking” and “cutting” where they alternate between packing on the pounds then trimming the fat. Both the exercises and the diet for these two goals are completely different
- How muscles work together. Seems obvious, but not always. There are some exercises that involve many groups of muscles (compound movements) vs exercises that involve single muscles (isolation movements). Your workouts can comprise of both, but it’s important to understand that your shoulders workout is doing crappy today because you over trained on triceps during your chest workout yesterday. Triceps are a supporting muscle and involved in the compound movements for both of these groups! Once you’ve decided on how many days a week you’re going to work out you can divide your body into days, and never do the same area in a row. My four day schedule is back/biceps/abs one day, shoulders/chest/triceps another, and legs (quads, hamstrings, calves) another. The fourth day is a core/cardio/calisthenics day mostly, or I might work an area that didn’t get enough attention.
- How food is processed by your body. This one is pretty hard, and I’m still digging in here to educate myself more. As I mentioned before, there’s a big difference here if you’re just exercising to lose weight vs exercising to build muscle. Your body turns calories in your food to energy, and you have three primary sources of calories: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Based off your unique metabolism there’s probably a perfect blend that will be optimum, but in general a 1/3 ratio of each is probably a good starting point. When I’m trying to build muscle I’ll skewer this and try to make sure more of my calories come from protein, then fat, then carbohydrates last. While cutting the order changes to protein -> carbohydrates -> fat. Everyday usage however, 1/3 of each is a good rule of thumb.
- Know how many calories you need. If you’re working out 4-5 days a week, and doing cardio 3-4 times a week, you need calories. You can’t exercise without energy. Another handy tip for those wanting to exercise: take your current body weight * 15. With that level of activity, that’s the amount of calories you need to maintain that weight. To add a pound of muscle, it will take an additional 3,500 calories. Want to lose a pound? Same deal. You need to add or subtract ~500 calories a day to lose/gain a pound. Your body also handles food better in multiple small doses, so try and change your eating patterns to 3 smaller meals + 2-3 snacks throughout the day. By eating all your calories in large lumps, the body doesn’t need that many calories RIGHT THEN and can store the excess as fat.
So there you have it, the three biggest factors that I had to overcome to become effective at exercising. I know that I learn best by mimic and rote, so it made sense for me to get a personal trainer to get started. All the books and advice in the world didn’t help until I could watch and be “taught” the first few times. Unlike the Times article author, I realize that nutrition and exercise are both equally as important, and that rewarding yourself with food is broken thinking. Try rewarding yourself with being happy to see your reflection. I’ve done both, and the latter is far more satisfying.
Useful links in this post:
Daily Burn: http://www.dailyburn.com They have a blog and twitter and I’m sure a Facebook page.
Muscle Chow: http://www.amazon.com/Mens-Health-Muscle-Chow-Workouts/dp/1594865485 A pretty good cookbook for people looking to build muscle by Men’s Health. It also has good general nutrition information in it. Google Books has a preview here.