As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve gone through many “health kicks” in my life, and have fallen off the wagon each time.  When I trace back my repeated failures, which were really the building blocks towards success, I can easily identify where I went wrong.  “Wrong” is not death, I am doing “wrong” things every day, and learning as I go.  There is no “right” path without endless “wrong” choices along the way, and very few choices on the path to fitness are irrevocable.  Just keep moving.

I encountered setbacks, and allowed all-or-nothing thinking to discourage me from continuing a path towards success.  I also learned each time, years later, that my approach itself was “all-or-nothing.”  Here are some examples of all-or-nothing thinking in my previous health kicks — these go across multiple phases in my life and do not represent a single effort all combined:

  • “Health” is something you pursue, and fight for constantly, and embrace to the death, bitterly clinging to all of the habits and patterns you’re trying to establish along the way.
  • Caloric deficits are all it takes to lose weight — calories in, vs. calories out.  Just keep grinding forever until you reach your target weight.  Just suffer until you get there.  It’s OK to feel hungry.  All the time. Fight your mood changes and negativity, always.  Just keep fighting until you weigh “the right amount.”
  • Use exercise to increase your caloric deficit, try working out for hours and hours whenever you can.  Cardiovascular is all you really need.  Maybe throw in some yoga to protect your joints.  Walk and run, hike, walk, run, just spend as much of your free time moving as possible.  Weight training is for bodybuilders and will make you too hungry.  Work up to running and hiking, and run or hike yourself to death.
  • Refined carbohydrates and high-glycemic carbs in general are evil.  Try Atkins (this was 2009), stick with it as long as you can stand it, and good luck finding a way to maintain a sustainable diet when you exhaust your glycogen stores and are surrounded by mental fog.  Just fight to the death through Atkins and then figure out how to eat “right” one day.
  • Stationary bicycles are the best way to get cardiovascular exercise, because running is high impact, and will damage your joints, and you can do stationary cycling all year round and will burn calories!
  • Elliptical trainers are the best way to get cardiovascular exercise, because running is high impact, and high impact is evil, and your stationary bike is broken, so definitely you should spend $1,000 or more on an elliptical trainer to “Get Healthy.”
  • Regular bicycles are the best way to get cardiovascular exercise, because elliptical trainers are bad for your hips, and stationary bikes are soul-sucking machines of death and misery.  Definitely buy an expensive bicycle and ride that thing to death until you have a significant accident, and then just stop.
  • Summer time is the time of the year to “Get Healthy.”  Fight to the death all summer and be miserable until you get there.  If you miss the window, sucks to be you.

In retrospect that seems pretty silly and obviously I wasn’t consciously thinking these things, but I was living them, in separate phases, all along. This time around, I learned that you have to constantly bob and weave, changing your tactics, changing your diet, changing your expectations, changing your goals, selecting manageable targets along the way.  I learned that weight training is tremendously effective at managing the mood swings that come with trying to “Get Healthy” and that it leads to a long, drawn-out boost in your metabolic rate.

I also learned that it’s incredibly easy to get too excited about weight training, and to suffer from common ailments like muscular imbalances, tendon inflammation (including the dreaded golfer’s elbow and tennis elbow), and that it’s important not to constantly push through the pain because I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself.  I’m getting older, and need to have a solid foundation that carries me into my 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s — not six-pack abs and 20″ arms.  This means stretching and perhaps yoga, two things I embraced quite a bit in my 20’s, are more important than ever.

I learned that sustained caloric deficits lead to metabolic re-calibrations that make it easier and easier for you to get fatter and more miserable on a restricted-calorie diet.  I learned that not eating sufficient carbohydrates leads to mental fog, reduced exercise performance, reduced recovery from exercise, and zero muscle mass improvement.

But most importantly, I learned that you will constantly face setbacks on your path towards fitness, and the path doesn’t have any endpoint.  It has to be manageable all along the way, for the rest of your entire life, and you can completely deviate from the path and “fall off the path” for even weeks at a time without throwing all of your success out the window.

I learned that if you sprain your ankle from running, you can still do all sorts of resistance training in the gym to use the rest of your body and enjoy the benefits of exercise.  I learned that if you sprain your ankle repeatedly, each sprain makes it easier and easier to destabilize your ankle, and you should take basic measures to protect them, like using a soft ankle brace [Amazon].

I learned that if you sprain your wrists or strain your rotator cuff (which you should be building up before doing bench presses, overhead presses, etc), you can burn tremendous calories and boost your metabolic rate by using your damn legs, and of course, try not to skip leg day, and in my case, do some of your leg work on one day (squats, presses, calf raises) and extensions and curls on another day, because my legs hate doing extensions after being heavily used for squats. Of course you can exercise the parts of your body that aren’t injured in such a way that protects the rest, if the rest of your body is up for it.

Instead of constantly walking, running, cycling and wearing out your joints as a pure chore rather than doing those things for leisure, why not spend 20 minutes doing squats or leg presses and really beat the shit out of your stubborn fatty areas, and turn them into calorie-burning machines that keep going for the rest of the day and into the next?  I realized that your legs are massive fat-burning machines that trim fat from every region of your body, and that by using them to lift heavy weights, you can shrink your stomach quickly.  I learned that doing crunches and sit-ups are largely counterproductive, because I don’t want to have tightly-contracted abdominal muscles that interfere with my ability to breathe deeply and pull my spine in an unnatural direction.  I want to have a stable core that allows me to deadlift and squat heavy weights, both of which burn far more calories and belly fat than thousands of crunches and sit-ups.  Spot fat reduction doesn’t work, unless you’re looking for surgery or cryotherapy.

I learned that when your knee(s) hurt, you should (of course!) ice them periodically, and avoid alcohol because it causes additional inflammation.  As a twentysomething, I’d work myself to the brink of passing out and then drink beer, thinking I’d “earned it,” but I was counter-acting the very improvements in my physique that I was trying to pursue. That doesn’t mean I quit drinking, or became neurotic about it. Now I enjoy alcohol more than ever, because I know how to enjoy it in moderation, not because “I deserve this” but because I enjoy it sometimes, and it has its place. I’ll even drink after exercise or when slightly injured just because it’s the kind of day where I’m going to enjoy it, not because I think alcohol is doing anything good for my pain or state of mind. I know that alcohol increases cortisol levels and blood pressure and decreases testosterone and makes fat burning very difficult, but I’ve found my peace and moderation with it and don’t intend to squelch it out of my life with the desperation of a man fighting off imaginary demons, because it has a place, and all-or-nothing thinking for the most part is not welcome in my mindset.  That’s right, I said “for the most part,” because even saying “all-or-nothing thinking is always bad” is a form of all-or-nothing thinking!  You can never convince me that Ayurvedic supplement preparations that intentionally include lead are somehow good for me because they’ve been blessed and imbued with special powers, lead has no place in my life, except where it’s inevitable and can’t be avoided in trace amounts.

I also learned that after 48 hours, don’t  waste your time icing, but use compression sleeves [Amazon] or ACE bandages, and use them often, even when you feel fine.

You should use compression sleeves to protect your knees in the first place if you’re getting old and constantly screwing up your knees.  I worked at an orthopedic clinic for 12 years and it never occurred to me until I left the job that I should apply basic sports medicine principles like RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) to deal with minor traumas like sprains, strains, and inflammation.  I learned that just because I’m allergic to NSAIDS like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, doesn’t mean I’m stuck with Tylenol (toxic liver poison) or alcohol (toxic liver poison and testosterone destruction) to kill pain.  I can use Turmeric and Bioperine [Amazon] on an empty stomach to squelch the pain of inflamed joints, tendons, and muscle tissue.  When it comes to refined carbohydrates, besides alcohol they are the number one contributor to stubborn body fat, but they also feed your muscles, especially when aided by glucose disposal agents (or insulin sensitivity boosters) like R-Lipoic Acid [Amazon].

I learned that I can increase by ability to do work by intelligently using caffeine and pre-workout supplements before going to the gym.  I learned that it’s much easier to create my own pre-workout drinks by combining cheaply available supplements like L-citrulline, agmatine, and beta-alanine [Amazon], and that if I buy these in a pre-packaged formulation, I’m either going to pay through the nose, or get under-dosed with insufficient quantities.  I only recently learned, within the past week, that I ought to be supplementing with taurine [Amazon] too, if I’m using beta-alanine daily, and I ordered some from Amazon right after reading that, because I believe in the science that explains how beta-alanine works to form carnosine, while potentially depleting taurine levels.  It turns out that there are countless NIH studies where beta-alanine is used specifically to deplete taurine in animal subjects to study the effects of taurine depletion, so you should apparently take them both together — live and learn.  Perhaps that explains my addiction to at least one huge can of Rockstar Zero-Carb every day or so?  It’s not the best source, but it’s in there.

I also learned that many pre-workout substances contain questionable stimulants (not likely derived from plant sources, as was also the fake story with a fiendish substance called DMAA) that can cause heart palpitations, extremely high blood pressure, and anxiety, and that I’m better off buying plain old caffeine [Amazon] and using it alongside my citrulline, agmatine, taurine, and beta-alanine.  Eventually I even learned that creatine is maybe just a tiny bit more effective overall if you take it after your workouts rather than before, but it’s not quite that simple, and not really a big deal when you take it, so long as you use it consistently each day whether or not you’re working out to maximize its benefit until you’re ready to cycle off of it.

Finally, while I’m giving you a stream-of-consciousness overview of what I’ll go over in more detail in future posts, I learned early on that zinc and magnesium are heavily depleted during intense exercise and you will be miserable emotionally and physically if you let them fall too low, so I keep magnesium glycinate [Amazon] on hand, one of the most bio-available forms, along with zinc picolinate [Amazon] taken typically once a day with a meal, and take a ZMA [Amazon] supplement most nights on an empty stomach, especially after hitting the gym.

I will be dealing with the topic of setbacks and motivation more and more, and realize that all-or-nothing-thinking is going to be a huge theme here…to get started you must tackle the inherent dilemma of “all-or-nothing thinking,” a common behavioral pattern in very intelligent people who struggle with anxiety, making decisions, or just sticking with them.

You must realize and embrace the fact that this is a constant game (and not merely a chore) to stay alive and well that requires a constant effort to change things up, but you can in fact take breaks and allow yourself to “cheat” frequently, in sustainable and reasonable ways.  In fact, you should rest occasionally for days at a time, and you must in order to continually improve and become the strongest version of yourself.  The harder you work, the more you can “cheat,” and the more your “cheating” can contribute to your muscle-gaining and recovery goals, so long as you aren’t constantly struggling against the ravages of inflammation.


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