Gym class sucked!

“Do I have a six-pack, dad?”  My son is now at the age where kids are starting to compare each others’ physiques and he’s built very much like I am.  He’s got a six-pack somewhere in there, but it’s going to take him a long time to work up to seeing it and I explained that if he does want to be in that sort of shape one day, it’ll likely happen during his teenage years (where I shot up and lost most of my gut before regaining it) and that for our endomorphic body type, it’s typically a sign of a highly restrictive diet, and what really matters is being physically fit enough to enjoy rewarding activities like rock climbing, cycling, and swimming.

When I look back at my childhood I remember loathing “PE” (physical education or “gym class”) and wonder how productive it is today.  As I learn how to transform my body, I marvel at how much of it amounts to having the right attitude about progressively increasing effort and delaying gratification.  It’s a tough mental commitment that you can’t allow yourself to back out of, but you can’t force yourself into a corner either.  First you impose some strenuous activity on yourself, keep it up long enough to see some results, and then keep mixing things up, making them more difficult, allowing yourself to recover.  You can’t just fire on all cylinders and “push yourself” out of the gate relentlessly and expect it to last.  There is no end point where you’ve done enough and can stop, but you can’t doggedly work yourself to death either.  Often that “work yourself to death” mentality goes hand in hand with envisioning some sort of stopping point where you’ve reached a goal so you work unsustainably hard expecting you can stop at some point.  But no, this is a constant process of continuing improvement.

Delayed gratification doesn’t come easily to children, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I had an “all or nothing” attitude about basic tasks like performing an over-hand pull-up and I suspect that kids with physical limitations and this attitude are shrugged off and ignored, because it’s difficult to devote time to helping them make progress.  Either you can do it, or you can’t–oh well.  If you’re fat, you’re stuck that way.  Maybe you can get stronger and overcome that fatness, but it’s a very unpleasant process, so why bother?  You’ll probably whine a lot and be annoying in the process.  Eh.

Childhood obesity is one of ten “wicked problems” in healthcare and I’d like to play a part of tackling it.  To do this we must reach the kids who don’t see physical activity as inherently rewarding enough to subject themselves to it regularly.  Apps like Pokemon Go are a great start to encouraging physical activity, but they are not the solution to the childhood obesity problem.  For those of us who self-medicate with food, we need to learn to appreciate intense exercise for its own sake, and while I believe everyone should learn to appreciate walking and should find ways to encourage themselves to walk (Pokemon Go, listening to audiobooks, whatever), I think it’s just as important that we develop an appreciation for breaking and maintaining a sweat for a prolonged period of time.  This is where you push your body to increase your production of endorphins and dopamine, where you really activate the fat burning process, and stimulate your muscles to grow.  Walking is excellent and critical and if you do nothing else, walk.  But, there’s so much more to participate in out there, and team sports are not the end-all, be-all.

I was never a fan of team sports for various reasons — I was introverted, out of shape at an early age, and intimidated by the prospect of letting others down.  To this day I don’t really get excited about team activities but have learned to enjoy many of the sort of activities you can master individually, like swimming, cycling, and climbing.  Before I saw the value in these things as “mastery activities” I learned to appreciate getting slightly better over time at things like throwing darts, shooting pool, and playing music.  I’ve also learned to enjoy these activities in the presence of at least one other like-minded person who can cheer me on, bring up my game and keep me motivated.  I suspect that people with this inclination are just easier to push to the side and ignore.  A group of kids who are motivated to play sports need coaching and resources, but you don’t necessarily have to constantly explain to them why what they’re doing is worth the effort.  Incidentally, the line of thinking that team sports are a substitute for physical education has its skeptics for good reason.  Many naturally athletic people lose interest in fitness once they hit a wall in college or earlier, and may not appreciate being healthy for its own sake, or may push themselves in ways that serve a singular purpose without keeping the most important prize (your overall health) in mind (visualize a high school wrestler wearing a “weight cutting” suit and running laps while dehydrated to “make weight” before a meet).

But when it comes to kids who show little athletic potential, there’s a tendency to tell them, without using these words, over time: “you’ll probably be successful in other ways, shy, and permanently out of shape.  That’s you!”  In college and earlier this way of thinking also can hurt athletically inclined kids — “you aren’t good at academia, but hey, you have an infinitesimal chance of being good at this sport on the level that might become a career some day, so that’s good enough, you’re keeping us all entertained.”  But every child should be given the opportunity to reach their maximum potential in multiple areas, and the better you take care of yourself physically, the more clear and focused your mental energies will be.  The more well-rounded you are in your physical activities, the more quickly you will bounce back from setbacks that may discourage you while performing one of your favorite activities, like a runner who sprains their ankle and gives up on exercising when there are so many other options to partake in while the healing process does its work.  Likewise for the “meathead” — every gym has a mix of individuals of varying abilities, but the most impressive “meatheads” are the ones who put a lot of thought and diligence into their pursuits.  They know that weightlifting isn’t the end-all be-all to fitness and that it’s important not to overdo things just to prove yourself to others.  They develop mental discipline to keep their bodies in check.  They don’t just split up their workouts into separate body parts because they want to “blast their triceps” or whatever, but because they want to allow different parts of the body to adequately recover before stressing them again.

So let’s get back to gym class, and the sort of damage it does do many of us despite its good intentions.  A formative experience is something that typically happens early in life when you haven’t quite developed a solid self-concept: a total view of yourself, your capabilities, and how you fit into the greater world.  We all change and transform in little bits throughout life, but many of our characteristics “solidify” as the result of formative events that shaped our identity like a sculpture while that identity was at its most soft and malleable. “Early in life” can mean a lot of things: typically we refer to the first few years of childhood as “the formative years,” but we have formative experiences throughout our education, when we first enter the workforce, during our first long-term relationships, and so on.  Earlier formative experiences feed into subsequent experiences, ultimately resulting in the character and personality we have in the present moment.  Mindfulness is one of the tools we have to tap into that formative history, to remind ourselves that we aren’t “stuck” in a specific shape just because it’s the way we’ve always seen ourselves.

Many of us have experienced unpleasant formative events that may have shaped an overall negative view of health, well-being, and physical fitness.  This baggage can accumulate and manifest itself in various thought patterns, some of which are described below:

  • Physically fit people teased me in school and made me feel bad, therefore physically fit people are holier-than-thou and shallow and I don’t want to be like them.  They either just naturally are in good shape, or they spend all of their free time just to feel better than everyone else.
  • Exercising is uncomfortable and I’m just not good at it, so it’s not worth doing.  Every time I’ve tried, it was painful (cramping in the sides/abdomen is a common one) or boring, so if I do find myself exercising (riding a bike, walking, etc) I have no desire to push myself into that uncomfortable zone.  Now that I’m older and more out of shape, it’s even more unpleasant in totally new ways (knee pain, delayed muscle pain, etc).
  • Many of the people I knew in school who were fit could get away with eating whatever they want, so there’s no point in me trying to control what I eat or how active I am, because those people are just genetically lucky.

There are kernels of truth behind each experience but they ultimately disempower us by leading us to compare ourselves and situations to others, rather than seeing the value of being “healthier than I was yesterday” without caring about how easily this may come to other people.  They allow us to construct boogeymen of people we don’t want to “become.”  “I don’t want to be like that!”  But “that” is a construction combining “good” and “bad” attributes that we can run away from.  Many of those daunting people from our past today are “skinny-fat,” the aging process has caught up with them, and they haven’t developed the habits to take care of themselves.  But that’s their problem to deal with, not some sort of cosmic justice or retribution.

And then there are deeper experiences they have nothing specifically to do with health and fitness when they occur, but drastically hamper our motivation and ability to set goals.  When you dig deep enough, you’ll find many people struggle with this internal narrative:

Life is a hard slog with little reward other than a paycheck and relaxing at the end of a hard day.  I see no point in eating a certain way or exercising because it’s unrewarding, while relaxing is truly rewarding.

What we fail to see living with this mindset is that the “hard slog” is infinitely more pleasant when we take care of ourselves.  We don’t always have enough time to take sufficient care of ourselves: to get enough sleep, to prepare good meals, to exercise.  But when we do invest this time in ourselves, we make it more possible to enjoy living for its own sake.  Before we can appreciate this reward we must have a taste for it, and unfortunately physical education seems to leave many of us with a bad taste in our mouths instead of the sweet satisfaction that a grown adult who has struggled for decades may experience after a long, strenuous bike ride or hike, only made possible with months of gradual training and preparation.

This weekend I went out for a bike ride with my family that involved some pretty serious hill climbs.  The kids were relaxing watching TV and wanted to put on a movie, but I encouraged them to “break up the day” with some strenuous physical activity and a trip to downtown Arvada, where we could grab lunch and capture a few Pokemon.

I could tell that my son was just about at his absolute limit because during one hill he called it a “living hell.”  This was less than five blocks into the trip.  He wasn’t miserable for the entire ride, but these hills were a bit of a brutal warm-up.  When dealing with people of varying abilities it’s important that we communicate to them that we believe the challenge we’ve put forth is something worth achieving, and something they can achieve.  There’s nothing worse than being “smoked” by someone far beyond your performance level as they mock you to keep up, not seriously thinking you can do it.

Instead of giving him a hard time and telling him “life is difficult, get used to it!” I encouraged him to breathe deeply, rest at every block (“it’s a sign of strength that you can stop on a hill, take a break, and keep going”), drink water, sit in the shade, take all of the time in the world, and to walk his bike as much as needed (which I would do with him — we saved this for some of the tough stretches home).  His attitude was completely positive and turned around as soon as we got to the downhill portion of the ride.  We ate a nice lunch, hung out in Old Town Arvada, and then made the trek back home.  I was sure to check in with him frequently, to make sure that this truly wasn’t a hellish experience for him but something he would appreciate later.  On the way back we were a lot slower, walked up some of the more painful hills, stopped at a gas station to grab some Gatorade, and had a very relaxing evening.  In this way I hope to give my son a physical education that he won’t forget, and will pass down to his own children.

Climbing and bouldering as mastery activities


climbing1_

A mastery activity is any relatively complex task or series of tasks that is initially learned by observing others doing it and if possible, being instructed or mentored, and then is refined from initial competency into a level of true mastery after hundreds of hours of practice.  A mastery activity can turn into a career, a fulfilling hobby, or a process you put yourself through simply to enjoy the benefits — many fitness enthusiasts see the pursuit of fitness as a hobby, and many see it as a discipline that they simply “exercise” with their own self-discipline in order to enjoy its benefits.  And then you have the sort of activities that are undeniably enjoyable when you are able to participate in them, which suddenly avail themselves to you as possible hobbies or past-times simply because you are more fit than ever before.  For me this was a long time coming with climbing.

As a kid, I had very limited upper-body strength and a big gut.  I liked to scramble up rock piles but had no aspirations of doing more.  When I look back, it’s easy to see how this weakened my self-concept and confidence and as I learn how one “attains” physical fitness, I realize that I just saw no logical path towards getting into better shape and resigned myself to an uncomfortable fate.  I had no real “physical education” despite going to “gym class” and having access to the internet in my teenage years, so by the time I was an adult I figured that simply running a lot and imposing calorie restriction was how you “get in shape.”  As a kid, exercise was just miserable and uncomfortable and I didn’t have a solid grasp on delayed gratification and the type of progressive effort it takes to slowly progress your way towards fitness.  I wore “husky” jeans and lamented that Levis were so sought after yet proudly displayed your waist measurement on the back, and couldn’t do an over-handed pull-up, ever.  Looking back I realize that the pull-up represented the ultimate “unattainable” milestone where I truly couldn’t see how one would work their way up to doing it.  Either you can do it, or you can’t.  How do you work through that?

I feared and loathed gym class because for the most part I didn’t enjoy it and was always looking to spot the one or two other kids in worse shape than myself and see how much trouble they were having running a mile or performing a successful high jump…it seemed that gym class was awesome if you were in shape, but if not, there was zero emphasis on teaching you how to improve.  I witnessed the same pattern even in weight lifting classes, which could very well be the ultimate foundation for learning simple progression and lurking behind the scenes, one part of the solution to “how does an out-of-shape person achieve a pull-up?”  I didn’t pursue weight training as an elective beyond a brief 8-week stint in middle school, where we were essentially told “you should be able to bench press 80% of your body weight, as in, right now, today, and if not, you suck.”  Obviously my memory is a bit tainted but I vividly remember the culture being entirely focused on praising the already-fit and mocking the rest.  As a fat kid I was already at a significant disadvantage there, and could maybe manage 50% with an obvious strength imbalance that strained my left shoulder considerably.  I vividly remember this toxic attitude in a class that ostensibly is about teaching you how to get into better shape rather than being praised for already being there: being essentially told you’re either strong or you aren’t, and you were soundly ridiculed for trying to actually manage a weight you could successfully knock out 5-8 reps with.

Flash forward to the present and after a solid year of working on physical transformation, I found myself at Earth Treks climbing gym in Colorado faced with the prospect of embracing a challenging and potentially expensive hobby with intensity.  This wasn’t my first trip there, as I’d accompanied my son for a birthday party that involved some of their half-sized walls and he did well.  He’s always shown some interest in climbing, whether pushing the limits of playground equipment rules or in trees, and at fairs and carnivals where a portable climbing wall has become an increasingly common concession.  One of our local swimming pools features a bouldering wall (I recently learned the importance of that distinction) with a difficult overhang and we spent many hours there in aggregate this winter trying to scrap our way up.  The process was exceedingly difficult and he was discouraged because it takes a lot of wingspan and strength to make any headway, but I reminded him that even just hanging on the hand-holds for awhile and just struggling to get anywhere was a form of progress that would eventually reveal some benefits.  We’d do water-assisted pull-ups overhanded and underhanded and we went on a near-weekly basis which allowed us to slowly make some progress.

The half-size walls at Earth Treks are just a bit taller than your typical carnival equipment, and if you don’t have a membership, it costs $22 for one person to climb three runs.  I encouraged my son to give the full-size walls a try to really get a workout and make the best of the cost, and he agreed, in part because he was excited that I was also going to be climbing and enjoying the experience with him.  One consequence of this is that he learned that at his current skill level matched with the walls he’s taking on, he needs to take breaks to let his arms and legs recover long enough to keep climbing.  This process of resting itself has to be learned.  You have to realize that you need to rest rather than simply giving up and coming back down, that resting is part of getting to the top and not a sign of failure, and you need to communicate with the belayer (though the instructors are pretty intuitive)  to take up the slack and hold the line, and then face the sense of vertigo that comes with letting go of the wall and letting yourself hang there.  It turns out you feel a lot more out of control and weirded-out just hanging on the rope vs. clinging to the wall.  If you don’t let go, you can still get some rest, but your muscles will be contracted the entire time and you won’t “reset” or recover your strength sufficiently to make big moves.  My son slightly freaked out a few times and we positively encouraged him to reset, shake his arms out, trust himself that he can get to the top.  This happened on two separate outings with varying degrees of intensity (“I don’t think I can go any higher!” vs. “I know you can do it buddy!”) and each time I figured “he’s getting tired and doesn’t realize that he can rest and keep going.”  He’s so confident while moving and coming down that it never entered my mind that he might specifically be anxious about the experience of resting and hanging on the rope itself.

I’ve found that you don’t experience a lot of anxiety about the height so long as you’re making progress upward, holding firm to the wall, or rappelling down.  This isn’t to say that fear of heights isn’t an issue at all while you’re climbing, but because you’re focused on the task, fear is less powerful, and it becomes decreasingly potent the more you face and develop competency in the task of climbing, overcoming a natural fear of heights in the specific setting of being belayed and harnessed.

The thing is, I didn’t realize my son was dealing with all of this anxiety because he always seemed fearless about the climbing process itself.  He just sounded “urgently tired” here and there and was thankful that me and the instructor had confidence in him.  I didn’t grasp it until my third time out to the gym, because I was getting up and down very quickly and with minimal rest and never spent much time “just hanging there.”  I was pleased that on my first attempt, I didn’t gas out, just powered my way up.  I am a total newbie and didn’t focus entirely on a single color-coded set of hand and footholds designating a specific route, but chose my own personal difficulty setting by “trying” to stay on a color while allowing myself to cheat as needed.  By the third route that first day, I could stick with a specific color, but was still choosing easier difficulty levels in the process.  At any difficulty, the process triggered profuse sweating and on the first day out, I had no desire to exercise any further after my three runs, realizing that that short amount of time scaling the wall was a significant bout of exercise for me.  Each outing, my butt was thoroughly kicked, my back felt like it did on any other intense back workout day, and I was content with how strenuous the activity was.

I determined that was able to quickly scale the wall (and was getting a lot of encouragement from the instructor on my speed) because of my height and relative strength, and because I was more deeply control my breathing.  It was a very challenging process, but I took all of my rest periods while firmly grasping hand-holds, so in retrospect, I wasn’t making it particularly hard on myself.

It wasn’t until my third run of my third trip that I decided I’d been taking it too easy and needed to do something that was more on the fringe of “I don’t know if I can actually do this.”  I realized that I was starting to listen to my own hype, enjoying the “hey, you’re fast!” and “your dad is fast!” comments from the various instructors and priding myself on moving quickly, when I really need to be doing something that I can’t do quickly to really push myself to another level.  I chose a 5.9 wall with a challenging overhang, and told myself I’d absolutely get up there.

Now I knew exactly what my son was going through during those “hang-and-rest” periods.  The process of getting up felt like an eternity and stretched me to my absolute limits.  I had many, many moments where I genuinely felt like I had to give up, that this was ridiculous.  I had to absolutely rely on the belayer to pull slack, sometimes making short gains of just a few inches before having to reset again.  The process thoroughly raked me over the coals physically, but what stood out to me is just how anxious you feel climbing a wall when your muscles suddenly fail and you have no choice but to rely on the rope.  I must’ve hung at least 10 different times and it was a task that looked increasingly impossible as I approached the overhang.  It wasn’t really the most difficult part, but was a huge psychological barrier.  For most of the climb, which felt like 10-15 minutes, my mind was stuck in a combined state of “you can do this, you will do this,” and “I don’t think I can do this, there’s no shame in quitting.”  And there would’ve been no shame in quitting, because I still would’ve come down stronger and more prepared than before to try it again.

Later that day I was explaining to my wife why climbing will quickly become a hobby that my son is proud of participating in.  We’ve always been ever-so-slightly concerned that he has very little interest in team sports (and neither did I) and that his default answer when people ask “what’s your favorite activity?” is “video games.”  Now I’m convinced that if we continue to go out there and engage in this mastery activity, he will slowly transition to a new response.  And as he becomes increasingly strong and fit due to his interest in climbing, other options will open themselves up automatically.  Climbing is a challenging mastery activity that lets you dial in your own personal difficulty level, and appeals to introverts and extroverts alike due to the value of internal drive and external motivation and coaching.

He doesn’t seem to have much fear of heights at this point:

boulder

And more importantly, a lot of fun can be had in the real world on boulders or other climbable things like trees or ropes as you gain confidence and strength

And about those pull-ups: my first day of climbing the instructor told me that with rock climbing I’d be doing my first pull-up in no time. A week later, I was deadlifting a one-rep max, dropped the weight, and almost out of instinct grabbed a pull-up bar overhead, and sure enough, up I went over that bar.  I have no endurance at this point going for reps with a full, strict, pull-up, and I have hypermobile elbows that bother me whenever I pull too hard with full extension, but I’m strengthening those suckers and absolutely did achieve something I’d never done before.

My progression prior to obtaining a gym membership

My “Gym Ready” body, October 2015, around 245 lbs

255

In my journey, I waited until I’d lost about 40 pounds before going to the gym or worrying about free weights to any significant degree.  I knew that once I obtained a gym membership I was entering that cliched realm of people who make a commitment but perhaps don’t keep it.  I figured I would focus first on obtaining a basic level of fitness completely on my own, independent of machines or complex racks that can form psychological impediments (“I need to just Buy This One Thing and I’ll Be Fit!) getting to a state where I don’t feel quite so embarrassed or self-conscious to be seen at the gym.  But really, the key for me was that it was summer time and I was able to walk outside, ride my bicycle, and did some basic “circuit training” indoors after some of my walks, which eventually turned into jogs, never much longer than 2 miles.  I don’t think you should wait until the summer to begin your journey unless you have a compelling reason to, but it’s only natural to want to start looking better and feeling better when the dog days of summer approach.

I had the luxury of nice days outside to put to good use, and found the gym completely indispensable during the winter months, so if I was doing this all over again and happened to be starting in the winter, I would just get a gym membership and use the same basic psychological strategy I used after losing my first 40 pounds (which gave its own sort of confidence): stop worrying about what other people think, wear headphones to keep you motivated and in your own world, and try to actually know what you’re doing so that you don’t set off peoples’ alarm bells when they notice you’re doing something destructive to your back, neck, and so forth!  I learned that (at least in my case as a big guy), most people didn’t bother me unless they could see I was clearly setting myself up to get hurt, doing something without a proper neutral spine that clearly loads and strains the back.  Perhaps more on that later, but let’s get back to the initial progression.

I made my walking, jogging, and cycling more difficult from time to time by wearing a hiking backpack with a heavy book in it, Arnold’s Bodybuilding Encyclopedia.  I filled it up with emergency water packets and had it up to 40 pounds at one point.  More than that was do-able but bad for my back for any long duration of time, and I typically kept it around 20 pounds.  I was not obsessive about always training “loaded” because it took a lot of the fun out of the experience and gave me a miserably sweaty back all of the time, but I tried to make things increasingly difficult, like simply running more than I walked, or bicycling further and further distances, always focusing on uphill terrain on my trek away from home so that I could push myself and then mostly coast back home after gassing my energy out.  I was incredibly slow about building up to running.  I highly recommend the run-walk approach, and don’t recommend seeing running as something you do to specifically burn calories.  You’re doing it to rev up your metabolism, which means you’ll burn more calories all day long, but don’t worry so much about going balls-to-the-wall running long distances.  Life is short, unless you really like running a long time at a stretch, you can use running as a tool without burning away the precious hours of your day.  These days, I barely run in the “long jogging” form at all, but I will do high-intensity sprints in my cul-de-sac, simply running at a full clip to the end, walking back, and repeating 5-8 times, 15 minutes and I’m done.  I try to make walking a pleasurable, relaxing activity, and save my heavy intensity for the gym or for intervals.

I focused on having good neutral spine form when riding my bike, and found it very strenuous on my lower back simply to wear a pack.  My circuit training was very simple, along the lines of:

  • 20 pushups (after building up the ability to knock out 20)
  • 20 kettlebell swings
  • 15 burpees
  • 10 kettlebell squats

I was able to handle a 20Kg / 44 pound kettlebell pretty early on but had poor swinging form for awhile and started out with 10 swings initially.  Just that simple circuit 3 times in a row would totally kick my butt and drench me in sweat, and I tried to get through it at least every other day.  In general, I tried to knock out at least 100 pushups every single day, in sets of 20, spread out throughout the day.  Spreading out your activity is a great way to keep your metabolism gently hopping without massively increasing your caloric intake requirements.

I introduced myself to the world of pre-workout supplementation and at the time was buying overpriced blends with lots of caffeine, but they helped, and I got used to the “beta-alanine tingle” which means that blood is flowing through all of my peripheral blood vessels and pumping me up to get some real work done.  I was able to lose 40 pounds in 2 months through calorie restriction, green juicing and protein shakes to replace many of my early morning meals, some intermittent fasting, and lots of activity increases and reasonable dinners.  By “activity increases” I mean finding every excuse I could to stand up (including while making my juices), walking at least a mile every single day, swimming at the community pool as often as I reasonably could with my kids, cycling, and circuit training.  By “reasonable dinners,” I meant that every dinner had a major protein component (steak, pork, chicken typically, not always lean, but more days than not) and every meal had a major vegetable component (asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and greens being the centerpiece).  Not every meal had to have a carbohydrate component, but if I did eat a carbohydrate portion with dinner, I focused on things like sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, and quinoa, and saw them as necessary stimulation for my insulin regulation system, a necessary replenishment for my muscle and liver glycogen stores, and a necessary psychological component to being healthy with the expectation that I wasn’t going to be a “low carb person” for the rest of my life and be healthy and strong and energized at the same time.  I “cheated” plenty, had plenty of desserts, sometimes day-after-day, but saved up most of my “bad carb” consumption for the end of the day, after dinner, because I could tell that the earlier on in the day I ate “bad carbs,” the stronger and more persistent the cravings were.

I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep serious calorie restriction up (I consumed around 2,000-2,500 calories during this phase, weighing between 245-285) for more than 8 weeks, and actually took a good week-long break right in the middle where I gained back 10 pounds on a vacation, going from 250 all the way back up to 260.

I didn’t see this as a major setback, just a natural thing that happens on vacation, and continued to juice while on the vacation.  What I’ve learned since then is that the single biggest determining factor for fast and furious “rebound weight gain” is indulging excessively in alcoholic beverages in addition to suddenly increasing your refined carbohydrate consumption (coincidentally the two tend to go hand in hand).  If you have saturated fat and refined carbohydrates together (think dessert, think root beer float, pie a la mode, etc), you are indulging in an “insulin bomb” and are going to be storing a ton of fat calories.  Add alcohol, and it’s the mother of all bombs.

Alcohol sets you up to rebound fast and hard, and the judgment effect of alcohol is not something to sneeze at.  You can and will continue to lose weight and still drink on the weekends in moderation, but fewer days of drinking and fewer drinks translates to better results and less setbacks, less extra work put in simply to offset the damage you’re doing.  If you’re trying to offset the damage that alcohol causes to your physique by working harder and not simply lowering your alcohol consumption, you’re in for a rough ride, because alcohol also hinders your ability to recover while raising your stress hormone levels and lowering your anabolic (growth and testosterone) hormone levels significantly.

Just this weekend I had maybe 7 beers in the course of 3 days while hosting a guest, had a couple of serious “cheat afternoons / evenings,” and put 6 pounds right back on my physique.  I was starting to see muscle striations in my inner forearms and was at an all-time-weight-low (209 pounds!), which disappeared in the space of two days and will take much longer than two days to get back.  Oh well, I can live with that.

Alcohol is a metabolic and hormonal bomb that triggers significant physiological changes, and if you want to see rapid results, you’re going to need to restrict your consumption quite a bit until you hit a plateau and want to experiment with simple everyday living.

So what happened the very first day I went to the gym?  I tried to do everything, of course.  I tried deadlifting well over 250 pounds with no experience and no concept of what “neutral spine posture” meant.  Hey look, I’m picking up 250+ pounds!  Good enough just to pick it up, right?  I tried squatting 135 right away and was pleasantly surprised that I could do it.  I realized I was unstable, and used a Smith machine to really push myself hard, getting up to 200+ in the squat my first day.  I was so pleased with myself that I completely annihilated my body that day, and then went to a comedy show that night and had exactly four beers.  Reader, my body was devastated for the rest of the week.  I already knew what “DOMS” meant — delayed onset muscle soreness.  I’d experienced DOMS whenever significantly pushing myself to a new activity level.  For example, I experienced it the day after I started kettlebell training.  I experienced it the day after I was fit enough to sprint or jog for a full mile.  DOMS fades on its own, and some people welcome it because it tells them “you really pushed yourself yesterday / the day before” and some people assume that if they don’t experience it, they didn’t work out hard enough.  This is a fallacious line of reasoning because your body will get accustomed to activity, and you can’t be constantly pushing yourself to new levels of fitness when your initial goal is to burn body fat, recover from exercise, and feel good, not miserable.  Suffice it to say, going all-out in the gym and having four beers was devastating but I was expecting it.

Knowing what I now know about alcohol, I likely would’ve still drank at the comedy show, but would’ve pushed my first day in the gym to the following day, having recovered from the night of drinking first.  I used to think “alcohol = calories, and you have to burn extra calories, and you’re drinking calories, so alcohol is like soda.”  Calories in, calories out, right?  But alcohol is a potent hormonal dysregulator, it’s a strong solvent that permeates your entire body and increases oxidative stress, and it’s a part of life for many of us.  The truth is that you can be in very good shape and still drink once or twice a week, perhaps even more, without making significant dents in your physique.  But if you want to see rapid progress, you need to reduce your consumption and make it as moderate as you possibly can.  You have to realize that “just” having 2 beers in a day is still drinking, it’s still hormonal dysregulation, and it’s still your choice to make, no judgment.  It absolutely does interfere with your ability to sleep deeply and restfully, and it’s best to “corral” it to a couple of days a week, tops, in my opinion.

Many people will say that a glass of wine every single day is healthy and fine — red wine isn’t really for me, it causes flushing and I really have the sort of personality that gets bored or tired after a single drink, and wants at least 2-3 in a session.  Perhaps that could work for some, but in the early phase when you’re trying to see rapid results, consider if it’s truly helping you or not.  Yes, there are many fit people who drink a glass of wine a day.  Did they struggle to get where they are, or are they lucky and have no trouble maintaining their level of fitness?  Are they truly fit, or just skinny-fat?  Are they coasting now, and were they drinking every day before they got where they are?  Consider the impact on your own cortisol levels, knowing that alcohol is relaxing psychologically but behind the scenes, physiologically, it is triggering a slight but measurable stress response and completely shutting down your fat-burning circuitry until every last bit of alcohol is metabolized.

When it comes to “doing this every day is good for me” logic, I would much rather get my antioxidants and other potent phytonutrients directly from fresh juices, and to get my grapey-goodness from supplements like grapeseed extract (for the pycnogenol, a potent antioxidant) and trans-resveratrol.  Those are the two elements in red wine that provide the most benefits to men and women, without the alcohol in the mix to work against your efforts.

One thing I recently learned is that people with insanely low bodyfat (under 10%) levels tend to freak out about having a single beer, because they know it triggers this cascade of counterproductive hormonal effects, and a single session of drinking and poor judgment about food and poor sleep and poor recovery can cause noticeable changes in their insanely-trim physique.  I would rather have a 10%+ bodyfat physique that I still feel good about, and would prefer to enjoy alcohol just about every week in moderation.  I just choose not to see daily alcohol consumption as moderation, perhaps in part because I struggle nearly every day with eating after dinnertime, and already have enough in the “vice department” when it comes to over-eating well past dinnertime.

Mindfulness, food cravings, and what your body truly craves

Mindfulness means many things to many people, but at its essence it’s a crucial package of concepts like self-awareness, quiet observation, and in most cases positive, reassuring (or at the very least judgment-free) self-talk, where you notice and observe things dispassionately and coach yourself through your approach in the present moment to handle those things without becoming easily stressed-out by them.  At its very core is the concept of being in the present moment.  You can’t spend every moment hindered by fear of making a bad decision.  You can’t intentionally or subconsciously distract yourself (for example, eating while watching TV) without consequences.  In this example, when you watch TV as you eat, you can’t focus on how good the food is, how much of it you’re eating, or whether you’re full.  More often than not you will eat more than you intended, or won’t be given the chance to decide “hey, I’ve had enough of this.”

I haven’t specifically read any books myself on the topic, but check out this guy’s top 9 book recommendations, because I’m working my way through them and I’m certain based on his other recommendations that his “Mindfulness” recommendation is 100% solid!

For parents this is of crucial importance because your state of being “present” or not is observable to your children, even if they don’t seem to be consciously aware of it.  You can’t enjoy your children as they grow and change if you’re constantly preoccupied by work.  One day you will be old and will lament that you didn’t enjoy them at their sweetest and most innocent.  You can’t go on a vacation to Disneyland that your kids have been looking forward to for two years and stress out the entire time about the work waiting for you when you get back, because that work exists no matter what, your family is more important no matter what, and the present moment with your family is absolutely the most important and pressing issue you should be attending to.  You can’t complain and stress out because the lines are long.  If you were mindful up-front, you hopefully took your trip at an off-peak time, and are using a paid, solid mobile device app to plan out which lines you’ll be standing in at which times.  If not, if you “winged it,” that’s OK too, you are willing to accept the consequences and get up super-early because this is a rare opportunity and you want to make the best of it.

Because you are mindful, you can coach your kids when they complain about the lines and explain to them that Disneyland is incredibly busy because every child on Earth under a certain age who is aware that Disneyland exists dreams of going there. You can tell them how lucky they are simply to be in the atmosphere, and coach them on how to best enjoy the inevitably short time you’ll spend on each ride.  If you find yourself distracted by emails or facebook while standing in line and your kids aren’t sticking their face in a mobile device, they will be aware that you’re not with them in the present moment — you’re stuck worrying about the future or past or someone else’s life, and it’s injurious to your entire experience right here, today, in the present moment, where you could literally drop dead for any number of reasons while distracted with a future that isn’t going anywhere and will be waiting for you when it becomes the present moment.

With practice you begin to realize that this isn’t a bunch of mumbo-jumbo that only works for new-age hippies and suburban bloggers, but is actually an invaluable tool that gets sharper the more you use it!  I’ve never truly practiced mindfulness meditation, but once I learned what mindfulness is, I realized that the most challenging projects and tasks I’ve tackled in life involved a constant battery of self-talk.  When you notice what’s going through your mind, and have something critical to focus on, you can crowd out all of the noise and distraction by talking to yourself, internally or externally.  “OK, I need to fill out this tax form.  I’m going to the Tax-Act website.  I’m creating an account.  That’s fine, that’s how it goes.”  Meanwhile your mind may want to drift to all of the things you could be doing right now.

You tell yourself “the sooner I focus on this task and get through it, the sooner I can enjoy those other activities.  I am an adult and this is what I need to do right now.”  With time you realize that counterproductive thoughts and moods are just like passing weather, and the more you fret about them, the stronger they get.  Sometimes you have to listen to those thoughts when they become unmanageable, and sometimes you need to simply observe that it’s normal to have distracting thoughts, and that the best way to get past them is to drown them out with positive thoughts and affirmations of what it is you intend to do right now, in the present moment.  And all things considered, you might decide “you know what, I’m truly not in the mood to get my taxes done right now.  There are more pressing issues to attend to.  I can’t focus on the task at hand and I have another week to complete it.  I’m not intentionally procrastinating, I feel bad that I haven’t spent any time with my children this week and I’m going to change that bad feeling by doing something about it, right now, in the present moment.  I will make a calendar appointment for tomorrow at 7PM to accomplish this task, but hey, at least I created an account on the website.”

You can’t live in the past, terrified of previous experiences, or in the future, terrified of what might happen, but you can certainly evaluate a situation in the present moment without blindly “playing a tape” of your past reactions, and still carefully consult your past self for advice, and ask yourself how this decision may affect your future self.  Protecting the future self is something we all spend a lot of time fretting about, but we often don’t make the connection that the best way to do this is not to lament all of the things you do that seem to work against you, but to spend more time in the present moment being aware that you can make new choices and new decisions without mindlessly acting out.  You can tell yourself that the advice that automatically pops into your head might not be applicable to the present moment, or that it’s worth taking a risk or trying something different this time.  To me, mindfulness is basically “know thyself and observe what does and doesn’t work for you, notice the world around you, be kind to yourself and don’t spend time needlessly attacking your character, try to always be aware of the present moment rather than constantly distracting yourself, and accept the things you absolutely cannot change.”  It gets far more involved if you choose to dig deeper and it’s absolutely worth delving into.

It’s absolutely key to me for solving hard problems (I literally talk out loud if nobody’s around to get annoyed) and dealing with challenges like food cravings.  When it’s late at night and you want to binge eat and attack whatever food is in your fridge (sometimes I’ll wake up at 3AM with this urge!), mindfulness is the friend that helps you decide — “how hungry am I?  What sort of choices should I make?  Did I engage in weight training or other demanding activities today which may require nourishment to properly feed myself?  Is this an impulse out of habit, or a genuine need to top off my body?  Which foods are going to feed me and nourish me, and which foods are going to exacerbate the binge that I’m embarking on?  Will I be able to sleep if I don’t eat something?  Is it a good idea to ignore this craving?”

If you worked out that day and really put your muscles to work, even if you had some adequate post-workout nutrition there’s a good chance you’ll benefit from something simple like string cheese — a very lean source of casein, which happens to have some remarkable benefits specifically when eaten at night.  But personally, I do eat pretty late at night whether or not I worked out. Just about every single night unless I’m making a “hard push” to burn some fat, but I’m sufficiently active at this point in my journey (about 11 months in) that I can literally eat every single night at 12-3AM and will still continue to slowly lose fat.  I am mindful that I won’t see any movement on the scale if I eat a bunch of my kids’ goldfish crackers.  I’m also mindful that movement on the scale ebbs and flows, up and down, with a normal existence not spent obsessing about food.  I am mindful that my weight can swing upwards by up to five pounds in a week (typically over the weekend) if I choose to do things like drink beer and eat pizza over the weekend.  I am mindful that I can make better choices most of the time and still continue to gradually lose weight.  I am mindful that by gradually losing weight and increasing my physical activity, I am losing the right kind of weight: fat.  And I am keeping the good kind of weight: muscle.

Back to the cheese!  I recommend lean casein in the case where you exercised that day not because fat is bad (sharp cheddar is quite fatty and not a terrible choice), and sometimes fat is also what you need for the sense of satiety to truly knock yourself out, but hours after a workout, it’s really the protein you need most to encourage your body to build those muscles up, and the fat can be counterproductive simply for being “calories you don’t need.”  But I won’t knock fat in principle and use lots and lots of olive oil and butter almost daily and I eat chicken thighs with the skin on 95% of the time and love every minute of it — I just choose to keep it out of my post-workout meals because it’s easier to quickly mobilize carbs and protein into your muscles with less fat-storage occurring if there isn’t a lot of fat in your stomach.  I am mindful that there’s a time and a place for everything.

I like to start my midnight snacking with string cheese, personally, and I might easily eat two without guilt, among other things on many nights that I might be more guilty about, but I don’t feel bad when I’m mindful that I’m still seeing gradual results improving my lean body mass, losing the right kind of weight (fat!).  I still see progress with weight loss, it’s just much slower now, which is also a good indicator that some lean bulking is happening.  I keep two different types of string cheese around to keep things “interesting” — a jalepeño style, and a “twist” of fake cheddar and mozzarella which really just tastes like mozzarella entirely but is fun to untangle.  I’ve accepted that I’m not a fan of calorie counting, and that when I get voraciously hungry, it’s because my body is genuinely hungry because I try to make good choices most of the day and am more likely to undershoot my calorie requirements if I decide to skip out on a late night snack.  If I fight the late night snacking day by day, I’ll see more movement on the scale, but I’m not necessarily looking for the sort of movement that is visible on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis anymore.

I tend to plateau for weeks at a time in the gym and on the scale, and then suddenly see progress either on my average, day-to-day weight, or see muscle ridges in places I haven’t seen them before due to a body fat reduction that is visibly permanent (i.e. not triggered by activity or dehydration). I’m not aggressive about seeing my lifts go up all that fast, but I push myself a bit by a few pounds per lift at around the same rate that I see new progress being held permanently on the scale.   I was looking for dramatic scale movement in the past, and it worked for me very early on for eight weeks while I still enjoy big cheat days, but I know it’s not sustainable to expect the scale to move downward nearly every day just because you were super-aggressive about losing weight that day.  You don’t want to piss off your metabolism starving yourself all of the time, especially if you’re at the stage in your transformation where you’re lifting weights and focusing more on being fit and active and slowly “leaning out” rather than constantly burning loads of fat.  It took me awhile to become mindful of all of these things about myself but I luckily ran into enough information this time around to avoid burning myself out.

Some people will say “you’re using mindfulness in these examples to procrastinate or justify eating food at night!”  But I’ve already decided in my life that my family and our quality of life is more important than everything else and that everything else only takes precedence when it hinders my ability to care for myself and my ability to provide love and support to my family.  I am continuing to get leaner and leaner regardless of my nighttime eating, and I totally enjoy the fact that I don’t religious track my food intake, and noticing that downshift into gradual progress and becoming mindful of the degree of control I had was a monumental shift in thinking.  So in my situation, that “procrastination” is choosing to enjoy life at its fullest knowing I can deal with the consequences (doing my taxes the next day) and I know that nighttime snacking works for me, and is becoming increasingly popular as a “lean-out” strategy.  I say “lean-out” because after your first few months of weight loss, your goal should no longer be “lose weight” but “increase activity and slowly gain muscle mass while slowing losing fat.”  “Leaner” is a manageable goal that you can strive towards for many months, through the cold of winter, year-by-year, once you’ve gone through your initial weight-loss-for-the-sake-of-weight-loss phase and decided to face the real challenge, not gaining weight back and keeping your muscle mass.

I began the first several months of my journey with the help of juicing, which brings me to the topic of “meta-mindfulness.”  Many people call it “green juicing” because greens tend to be involved, but one thing I was mindful of was that after drinking a good 12-16 ounces of juice, my food cravings subsided dramatically.  When restricting calories early in the morning, rather than true intermittent fasting during the first month, I’d attack the juice immediately, and maybe throw down a protein shake an hour later.  Most days I had two real and sensible meals, but some days, perhaps once a week, I’d juice and consume different types of protein shakes (vegetable or whey/casein based) for two meals a day.  Every other day or so I’d make a new batch of juice, and have continued to enjoy many benefits of juicing to this day.  But because I’m mindful of my activity level and the requirements of my muscles, most nights I still indulge in string cheese, like clockwork.  Or leftover chicken.  Or lunch meat.  I eat plenty of other things I’m not proud of, but I still maintain my weight loss and muscle mass due to my activity level.

But when I truly want to burn fat in a significant way, I’ve found that at night when cravings strike, the juice will satisfy me if I don’t putz around for hours and I’ll simply drink a sufficient amount of juice and then water in order to feel full.  I am meta-mindful of the fact that when I’m really eating crappy or carb-heavy food night after night, and can’t stay out of the goldfish crackers or chips, it’s time to get more consistent about consuming juice because I’m convinced it satisfies something deep in me that otherwise wants to pursue empty calories, and I can make the best bang-for-your-buck juice with the lowest amount of sugar by doing it myself.

I suspect it’s because the juice is so chock-full of micronutrients and phytochemicals that it “hyper-nourishes” my body and kills hunger.  Juice fasting for as long as 30-60 days is a common rapid-weight-loss approach, but I never took it that far, and never really juice-fasted for an entire day.  I used and still use juice as a tool, and as a reassuring companion that tells me “you just consumed a ton of goodness.”  I realize that fiber is important and that eating vegetables is better in many ways than juicing them, but it’s a powerful shortcut and it absolutely slaughters my desire to eat late at night.

And guess what, indulging in pure carbohydrates (like the fructose in juice) so long as you don’t pile a bunch of fat isn’t as bad at night as it’s been presented in the past and nighttime is the best time of day to take them in.  That doesn’t mean “eat whatever carbs you want all night long” but I will say from experience that during my rapid weight loss phase, I consumed plenty of juice every night.  The amount of carbs from fructose in fresh juice is a red herring, so long as your juice is mostly vegetable-based.  It’s so insanely nutrient-dense and good for you that within reason, you can completely ignore the carbs in your juice when consuming it as a nighttime appetite-killer.

Exactly what kind of “juice” are we talking about?  This recipe makes about 3 servings.  Everything here is scrubbed but the skin is left intact while juicing and I use almost 100% organic produce to ensure the skin isn’t contaminated with pesticides including xeno-estrogens (which are neither beneficial to men or the clear majority of women — anyone who needs extra estrogen after menopause, for example, should be getting it intentionally a specific dosage).

  • 2 beets (I’m a total true-believer about the benefits of beets — keep the greens and sautee them with garlic and olive oil!)
  • 2-3 tomatoes
  • 2 huge carrots, or 4-6 smaller ones
  • 1 Apple (I often skip it if I don’t have them around)
  • As much celery as you can tolerate (for many reasons), perhaps half a pound
  • 1 thumb-size knob of ginger
  • 1 lemon or lime
  • A good size handful of cilantro, parsley, or basil if you can stand it
  • 1 Cucumber (not essential, adds a lot of volume and freshness to the taste)
  • Not essential if you’re eating this in cooked form, which is superior, but: 1 bunch of washed spinach or kale, or a couple handfuls from a pre-washed bag
  • Whatever random fruit you want to put in, but your combined fruit shouldn’t add up to more “volume” in the mix than your tomatoes.  Fruit is much more satisfying and nourishing when you eat it whole, and I don’t recommend getting most of your greens through juicing (best to sautee them with butter, garlic, salt and pepper), but I like them in the juice in moderation to balance out the acidity of the lemon or lime.

I put this into glass Ball jars and squirt maybe 1-3 teaspoons of MCT Oil in each one to increase micronutrient absorption from the juice and for its thermogenic effect.  Then I drink one right away, ask myself why I put it into a jar instead of a glass, and then drink water from that glass for awhile to feel better about getting it dirty.

I arrived at this formula with the help of resources like Fit-Juice.com and I use a $100 Jack LaLanne model my wife received over a decade ago as a gift.  There are much better juicers now for close to the same price and up, and I recommend checking out Breville, but my LaLanne keeps going strong.  I did have to use a strong CLR solution to de-scale (dissolve minerals from) the shredding blade after several months of accumulated minerals — these veggies are loaded with essential minerals like zinc, calcium, and magnesium, and they will accumulate on the shredding blade even if you clean it promptly.

Yes, drinking this took some getting used to, but it’s been a crucial ally on this journey and I love it now and make increasingly “aggressive” cocktails.  As I write this, I’m drinking that exact formula, minus the apple, with “volcano” garlic cloves — spicy, sweet, raw-ass garlic.  The little tiny cloves that are a pain in the ass to cook with?  In the juice they go.

So I’m rambling on at this point and it’s time to wrap it up and back to mindfulness — the juice is a tool that I am mindful of, and I use it to control appetite and nourish my body, and sometimes as a pre- or post-workout supplement.  I’m also mindful that it’s best to get most of your fruits and vegetables in whole form, and don’t consistently juice tons of produce as often as I used to.  I definitely broke the habit of using nice fruits like pitted cherries and blueberries early on, because it’s not efficient and with sweeter things, it’s much more beneficial to consume them whole with their accompanying fiber.  I am mindful now that many vegetables are better for you when cooked, and others are better raw.  I try to eat a significant amount of vegetables in two meals a day, what would amount to three servings with each meal based on this definition.  That doesn’t always happen, but juice is far better than nothing, and I’ve seen it work in too many capacities to deny its power.  I could go on and on about the benefits of its various components but that’s a topic for another day.

I use all of this knowledge about the power of produce in all of its forms to add dimension, satisfaction, and a feeling of true depth to my dietary choices.  Literally within the past week I developed an appreciation for onions (cooked thoroughly!) that I never had before.  I couldn’t stand shallots at all, and then found myself using them in a stir-fry last night with garlic, chile peppers, ginger, broccoli, and shiitake mushrooms, and it was an amazing combination.  I truly believe that juicing works especially well at the beginning, when making your transition into actually trying to enjoy eating a lot of vegetables and fruit each day.  Part of the transformation process is realizing that while you need to eat less terrible food and that negation-based process is important, your more important goal is positive and affirmative.  Your affirmative goal is to eat a lot of good food and learn to appreciate it as your “default” especially to help crowd out your opportunities and reasons for eating sub-optimal foods, and to use vegetables as a major component in your meals for the specific purpose of satisfying you much longer after the meal.  To me I would suggest to myself mindfully, even if it’s not something that can be falsified or proven scientifically, but I believe that deep down your body “knows” just how awesome your diet has become with each good meal you put into it, and has been putting “non-essential” functions on the back burner during your long stretches of processed food in the past.

Your body has all sorts of ambitious plans to use up the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and countless other micronutrients absorbed from the juice to fight off the effects of aging through oxidative stress, feed your most fundamental energy level within your cellular mitochondria, make an abundance of the proper proportion of metabolic-regulating hormones, sex hormones, and stress-response hormones (even cortisol), and more.  A reasonable amount of cortisol is necessary in everyone and your knee and hip joints will grind to dust and your skin will peel off and die without it; you just need a good balance of the other hormones and in a typical western diet situation, we have an abundance of cortisol but a deficiency or imblance in the rest.  Because I’ve finally developed a healthy relationship with fruits and vegetables, because I enjoyed so much success with juicing early on, in the summer of 2015 while trying to rapidly shed my first 40 pounds which I’ll never forget, because I found that it partially revitalized me during the winter when my energy level would slump and kept me going to the gym, because I learned to enjoy the washing, chopping, and juicing while listening to audiobooks or podcasts, I’ve internalized the idea of “you must eat lots of produce for quality of life” in a way that never resonated before, no matter how many testimonials and late-night informercials I saw crowing about how “losing weight means eating more!  More of the right foods!”  I had to experience it firsthand.

I recommend becoming mindful of the power of vegetables, the power of eating a wide diversity of them, and the power of telling yourself no matter how veggie-averse you’ve been up to this point (guilty as charged) you will absolutely enjoy a better quality of life and will align yourself with my path to success if you slowly change your mind when it protests and complains about how complicated and obnoxious vegetables are.

You must slowly introduce yourself to more and more vegetables, and pleasant ways to prepare them, and use mindfulness to convince your most fundamental functioning adult self to consume them, and you will almost always prepare them with something like olive oil, or drizzle it over steamed vegetables, and season them with at least salt and pepper or lemon pepper or what have you, to make them appealing and to ensure you absorb every bit of goodness you can.  If you’ve struggled with weight loss for your whole life, get used to the idea that you want to train yourself to look forward to eating half a bunch of asparagus with dinner if that doesn’t sound good right now.  Asparagus is cemented into my life at this point and I literally have the sort of association with it where it almost forces me to go to the gym after dinner.  I chose to make that a habit somehow, almost unconsciously, and if I forget this habit, I will experience “Asparagus Pee” at home and suddenly I’m off to the gym.  “Eww, gross, stinky pee.”  So what, get over it, life is short and we’re all going to die one day.  Eat your damned asparagus.  Seems weird to have that sort of cause-effect relationship — smell pee, go to gym, but it’s like magic at this point, and that’s just a total tangent that I’m throwing in because at some point I became mindful of the fact that asparagus made me feel so good that it made me want to go and put my body to use in the gym two hours later.

I will cover the universe of vegetables and their preparation much more on the blog.  If you have children, you definitely want them to get used to the idea that nearly every single home-cooked breakfast (fruit), lunch (veg and fruit) and dinner (veg) involves healthy produce that varies from meal to meal but perhaps not all that much from week to week, because consistency leads to simplicity and mastery of the preparations you enjoy most.  Find your favorites that are nutrient-dense and rotate them through the week — your family will thank you for generations if they pick up and continue this simple habit.   My go-to-veggies for big filling side dishes are spinach / kale / beet greens / chard (once a day at breakfast or lunch if I can help it), broccoli (once or twice a week), asparagus (2-3 times a week) and I mix it up a bit with brussels sprouts, cooked carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and salads that typically involve the same sort of produce I might otherwise juice.  I cook with seemingly outrageous amounts of garlic when preparing something like a dish of greens.  Plenty of other vegetables come and go, but those are the ones I rely on most.  Many of those foods are incredibly nutrient dense and have been selected for that reason in addition to the fact that I’ve come to enjoy them.  Most of them would seem intimidating to me years ago, especially cramming it so often into the meals I make, or the meals I eat out.  Juice helps me fill the gap when I eat junk most of the day and just want a kick-start towards a healthier day.

I struggled with eating veggies (and fruit, but moreso veggies) every day as a consistent mindful choice for most of my adult life but now I will be forever mindful that they’ve been a massive part of my success for the past 11 months.  More to come.

The big question isn’t about losing weight: part 1

Set your mind to your purpose, and learn to trust and rely upon it like you rely upon the sun to rise every day, and can only expect it to submit and descend into night. 

sunset

Does this sound like something you’ve said to yourself or others: “I don’t have any trouble losing weight.  I can lose weight quickly.  I just have trouble keeping it off!”  I’ve certainly said it before, and have even used it to justify sitting around and being 80-100 pounds heavier than I really should for years at a stretch.  It’s fair to say that keeping it off is a challenge — it’s the challenge.  But does telling yourself you can’t do it get your closer to your goal, or keep you from ever getting close enough to see its possibility?  Like an addict, I’m basically saying “I can quit any time, and it will happen very quickly and you’ll be very impressed.  Just imagine!  When I decide, anyway, it’ll be cool.  But now, it’s cool too, just being like this (because staying off the drugs forever is gonna be miserable, the addict says to themselves).”

Food is not as straightforward as drug addiction, of course, because we must choose to eat food essentially every single day to be at our best.  Here’s the rest of the unspoken piece we quietly think: “I’m not ready to quit, because I’m stressed-out, and I couldn’t possibly reduce my stress levels by going through the prolonged agony of a health and fitness commitment.”

When you do this, you’re simultaneously visualizing success through hard work as a fantasy and enjoying your fake success in your mind’s eye, and seeing it as a painful journey not worth attempting except in a theoretical universe.  There are also a lot of loaded assumptions that need to be examined.  You’re catastrophizing fitness into something that is inherently stressful forever, an ordeal, rather than something that eventually makes it easier for you to manage your levels of stress.  Rather you should tell yourself, the pursuit of fitness forces you to grow physically as an individual in a way that is wholly positive, no matter the setbacks that occur along the way, which are inevitable and required in order for you to learn to persevere.  Perseverance for its own sake is a skill we all need to develop.  It’s a key component in “grit,” a requirement for true success.  The other component is passion — having a genuine appreciation for why you’re doing the thing you’re doing, feeling it in your heart and in your bones on your best days, and knowing it’s lurking behind the scenes on your worst days, waiting for you to draw it out and show it the world and the light you have to give it.

Your perseverance will be fueled by the slowly noticeable but accumulating results and the satisfaction of recovering from setbacks knowing they don’t end your progress but challenge you to find new ways to take care of yourself and improve using other options available to you, giving you boosts in confidence and determination that make every other facet of your life more enjoyable.  I am telling you this like it’s a fact, because it’s necessary for you to absorb and internalize this truth right now, here, today, in the present moment, as you read these very words.  All time disappears, past, present, and future, and we are simply here together.  You and I.  I believe this, I am passionate about it, and I will share and infect you positively with that same passion, because it’s lurking in your bones too, waiting for some light to give it the courage to come out.

Maybe you’ve never gotten far “in fitness” where it starts to feel self-perpetuating even though it is possible to get there and fall off…but I promise you, there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not all about “looking good naked” or “showing off at the reunion” or “proving to someone else that you can be disciplined.”  It’s about enjoying more than ever before being with other people in the present moment, feeling more confident approaching people for any reason at all, feeling warmth and positivity when others notice your results and seek advice from you, and for parents, playing with your kids with a newfound enthusiasm, showing them a healthy role model of an individual who takes good care of themselves, and for all of us, being able to do fun things at random periods in your life, if you so choose, because you can drop everything and hike with your friends at a moment’s notice without worrying about how tired your body is from just “being” a human today, or can climb a rope with your shockingly improved upper-body strength after making that a personal goal somewhere in your trek to finding more and more attainable goals, or can swim and snorkel for long stretches without tiring…

So back to the question at hand: were you able to lose all of the weight you wanted to?  Where did you set the bar?  Did kettlebells, dumbbells, or barbells ever enter the picture, or was it all about cardiovascular exercise and dietary restrictions?  When did you give up?  Did you truly experience a prolonged period where you were no longer “on a diet,” but watched your weight, tried to live a pretty normal, non-restricted life, and just saw it creeping up and up despite maintaining a decent level of activity and a half-way decent well-rounded diet that matches your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) with your activity level?

You might think to yourself “well, I see what you’re doing now, after all that cute philosophical nonsense.  I mean it’s real, but you’re feeling it, and I’m perhaps not.  So you’re saying I have to count calories forever, and deprive myself just a little bit, forever.  Big revelation.  I already know that’s how you keep the weight off.”  We’ll get to why that isn’t true, but it’s complicated, and that’s OK!  Dancing is complicated, but also liberating, and simple when you begin to get a taste for its mastery.  I’m nowhere close to a “master” of dancing, but I know that the more you practice it, the more effortless it will become.  You need to practice “not gaining weight” in order to “keep weight off,” and you need to know when the time is to practice that.  You could practice it before you even try to lose any weight at all.  Just watching it for awhile, seeing how it ebbs and flows naturally, seeing how it bumps up a little bit after a weekend of partying and drinking, and how it naturally drops back down after a few days of taking better care of yourself.

You will definitely need to re-frame “making mostly good choices about what you eat and also enjoying whatever you like from time to time” into something much better than deprivation and more like good judgment and flexibility and self-love that seems alien and scary when you’re still in a place mentally that feels threatened by making lasting changes.  You will need to learn just how much you can really get away with eating when you’re not trying to aggressively lose weight, but remain active, continue to eat a varied, high-protein, high-vegetable diet, and establish what “enough” food is for a given day when you just want to maintain your weight loss and more importantly, your lean muscle mass.

This post has sprawled into many thousands of words, so I’m going to *snip* it right here and let this be the philosophical mindset beginning component, the shift in thinking you need to make before worrying about all of the details.  “Did he say barbell training?”  Don’t rule out the possibility.  It took me months to get to a point where I wanted to mess around with barbells and now I have to pace myself each week to ensure I’m not too enthusiastic about using them to shape myself in ways I never imagined possible — from within more quickly than from without.

You don’t need so much help losing weight as you need help keeping it off.  I’ll flesh that more and more as we go on.

Getting mentally prepared to start a transformation

We’ve all experienced false starts that didn’t feel so false at the beginning, but in retrospect, we were clearly ill-prepared and as a result our effort was ill-executed.  So before you decide to get started, you need to decide how to decide to get started.  You might look for some triggering event where it really hits you “something has to change.”  That’s good, but you’re going to need probably a little more than that to get psyched up.  “Oh crap, I’m in danger” can only take you so far.  You must be excited.  Being worried that you won’t be around for your kids is one form of motivation, but it’s exhausting.  Instead, you need to be excited about how much energy you will have to play with your kids!

You might observe the success stories of others by watching YouTube videos or reading blogs like this.  It might seem strange, but I absolutely recommend watching videos of people who seem to have it all together already, who don’t appear to be struggling all that much, because they have a lot to teach.  Just be sure to keep reading here for the perspective of someone who did have to fight their way down from 285 pounds after years and years of yo-yo dieting and struggles with pain, inflammation, and willpower!

Elliott Hulse is a great example of a motivational role model who’s been “there” a long time.  This guy is an amazing person with a complex and beautiful narrative that goes far beyond physical fitness, woven into most of his videos.  He’s not full of braggadocio, so if he seems like he’s bragging, consider that he’s a pretty honest guy and honesty often looks like bragging when we, as the observer, are insecure with ourselves.  He’s not full of jokes and zany ideas, but he’s not afraid to “get weird” once in awhile either.  He is absolutely trying to help everyone become the strongest version of themselves.  He doesn’t just tell people what they want to hear, but what they need to hear, and he has the confidence to say “I know what you need to hear” without cowering and qualifying his every word.

I recommend getting really comfortable with “getting started” as an idea before you really begin in earnest.  I don’t mean to build up this giant emotional wall that you have to overcome — you already know it’s there, don’t make it more intimidating than it already is.  You need to think about how you’re going to build a ladder with time, with lots of scaffolding and rest zones, to get over that damn wall, and you’ll have to realize that there are always new walls to scale, and that’s not a bad thing.  The effort to change and transform is what ultimately takes us from survival-oriented scurrying task-workers into successful, empowered individuals.

It’s OK to make quick simple changes right away, but don’t start measurably depriving yourself too much until you’ve made a commitment to transforming and maintaining your improvements every step of the way.  Expose yourself to lots of good things and positive vibes, feel like you’re taking charge of your life just by getting fascinated with fitness, turn it into something that interests you by watching how infectiously motivated others have become, and you’ll be ready to throw yourself in headlong once you’ve put the right amount of effort into simply noticing and observing (mindfulness all the way!) what success looks like and knowing through multiple examples that it’s possible to get there.

Right now the current narrative is “1% of people who try to transform their bodies succeed,” and we all look at that and say “well, I’m screwed.”  I’m not going to bother digging up some citation or link to a study that says “yep, here’s how we define that 1%.”  What you have to do is turn that into a statement about your own willpower and determination, after deciding how large that 1% really is.

Consider what this is really saying.  Obviously it’s not saying “1% of all people in America are in good shape.”  No, one percent of people who are already starting from a bad position physiologically are absolutely able to transform themselves.  This doesn’t mean that 99% percent of all people fail after putting their heart and soul into it, either.  There are multiple categories of people who either fall outside of this entire calculation, or skew the numbers in your favor.

  • Many people simply feel fine with their bodies as they are, and that’s fine, they might be perfectly healthy within normal parameters, and so they never find themselves in the group of “people who tried and failed.”  So those people don’t fall into the “99%” — they are in an entirely different category.
  • Many people don’t feel fine with their bodies, but never really try to improve.  Doesn’t make sense to include them in the 99% either.
  • Many people are unhappy with where they are, and make some changes, but experience a false start.  That doesn’t mean they’ve failed!  They just haven’t moved themselves into that 1% yet.  This is akin to being a smoker who takes eight times to quit.  Every time you quit, you are get some experience being a non-smoker, and become a little more prepared until you truly find yourself quitting the habit for good.  Quitting smoking is not impossible, but it’s certainly in my experience just as difficult as getting into shape.  Just like smoking, you have to commit before you start, deal with the fact that you might fail many times along the way, and keep deciding to commit to success, even though you know there’s a good chance you’ll fail “this time.”

The more you think about it, this 1% is a factor of time.  It’s not a prison sentence where you’re either locked in with the 99%, or you’re allowed to escape into the 1%.  For ten years, you might find yourself in the “99% of people who have tried and failed,” but just as you can work yourself into competing with other businesses if you try hard enough to find a niche market that allows you to create and deliver value to others, with time you can struggle your way into that 1%, and consider that a large chunk of the 99% really aren’t trying as hard as you are.  Or they are ill-prepared.  Or they are simply ten years away from finding their path to the 1%.  This is ultimately about success.  It’s not handed down, it’s not guaranteed, but the only way to get there is to constantly try, fail, and try again until you feel comfortable with being the type of person who attains and achieves success.

No matter how you begin, I think it’s clear to me now that you have to have the determination of a mortal person who knows they will one day be dead and buried in the ground in order to start living in the body you want today.  That doesn’t mean you have to experience being close to death, or even that being close to death is what will make things “click.”  I was sort of hoping that I would experience some sort of catalytic life event years ago when I let slip a weight loss effort that shed 40 pounds but left me feeling constantly hungry and emotionally miserable.

But that moment of catalysis happened 4 years later, and I didn’t even catch it and seize it until more experience (another year of drudgery) had accumulated on top of it!  That past effort years prior seemingly triggered a cascade of anxiety and depression that bothered me off and on for years and left me feeling weak and incompetent.  I began to feel more competent at my job, but not at life. So again, I threw myself too deeply into worrying about what people thought about me at work and obsessed over that, at the expense of everything else including my marriage, my health, and my relationship with my children.  During that previous attempt to “get healthy,” I deprived myself of too much of what I needed to feel mentally well for too long like stretching a rubber band until it snapped, instead of stretching it just enough to make progress, and then relaxing it a bit.  For example, someone like me will lose weight very quickly if I drastically control carbohydrates.  But you can’t bring it all the way down below 20 grams a day for too long if you want your mind and body to perform, in my humble opinion.  And you can’t entirely stop eating refined carbohydrates, or at least complex carbohydrates like potatoes or sweet potatoes, if you grew up on those foods and they’ve brought you much joy.  You have to fit them into your life to be a normal, functioning human being who doesn’t feel deprived.  Or at least, I do.

You have to love the person that lives inside the body that you already have enough (and I’m not talking about some deep love affair with yourself, just a sense of self-care) to want it to stay alive and well, in order to help it get better.  You can’t hate yourself until you one day magically love yourself, you can’t force yourself uphill towards a crazily unattainable goal and then decide you will be happy with what you get once you get there, while hating yourself every step of the way.  You will have moments of hating yourself, sure, but you can’t dwell on them.  You have to realize that when you’re very down on yourself and feeling poorly, there’s a point where you need to kick yourself in the ass, and then you need to move on and forgive yourself quickly.  You also have to forgive yourself for needing to beat yourself up so often, until you’ll get into a groove where you aren’t frequently falling into “woe is me” mode.  You have to actually find some middle ground between “I’m completely happy with who I am as a person” and “I drastically need to improve and change my life in order to be happy with the way I’m spending my time on this planet” and you’ll need to get comfortable living in that middle ground for a long time, and accept that you’ll never perfectly attain your final goal and just sit there contentedly — you need to enjoy the process of getting stronger, for as long as you wish to be strong.

I had some help with this because I had a stereotypical event occur where I was stressed-out about something related to work, while at work, after one of my most critical co-workers left the organization, leaving me in a position to feel stranded and lonely because I depended so much on them to keep me productive and focused.  I actually slowly lost several people to other employers over time that served this role in my life.  At the time, I knew these people needed to move on and I needed to deal with it and move on too, but I didn’t really capitalize on it without suffering for another significant chunk of time first.

I’m a very good “do-er of things” but I tend to do best when I have guidance.  And it’s not always management or supervisory staff that provide guidance, but co-workers who own the problem from a different angle.  Those people were leaving and I was starting to feel very alone, like I did when I first started working in this position.

So I was twisting in the wind and stressing about something so “very important” and work-related that I can’t remember specifically what it was today, and my heart started pounding in my chest in a way it never had before.  There was no immediately intense fearful thing for me to be stressed about, I was just feeling bad for too many consecutive days and had something new to worry about, and now everything “peaked.”  My heart started spasming against the walls of my chest and my immediate thought was “I’ve experienced many forms of chest discomfort over the years, but this feels like my heart is stretching like a balloon that might pop.”  It felt like there was a blockage, and a stretching, and I was a dead man walking.  I’ve always been a somewhat fat guy with a fluttery, anxious nervous system, who could experience heart palpitations just from being disturbed in traffic.  I could feel the same sensation you feel at the top of a roller coaster just by noticing that the person in the lane next to me is slightly veering towards me.  I have a very strong fight-or-flight reaction which ties back to a generally anxious personality.  So I have had many “false alarm” chest pain moments in my life where I just quietly said “this chest pain is anxiety.”

I’ve even had chest pain moments where I thought “this chest pain is actually pretty bad and real.  I should take some garlic and niacin and dilate my blood vessels and stop thinking about it so much.”  As a thirtysomething I was acutely aware that heart attacks are unusual in people my age, but increasingly common, because people are not taking care of themselves and staying active the way they used to, because our society is heavily structured around sedentary work and relaxation.

And those chest pains in the past always went away, though they were likely also the result of anxiety, my blood vessels were absolutely taxed and miserable from the way I was eating.  Once I had chest pains after eating a terrible but delicious-to-me meal at Sonic — a shake, a chili dog, chili-cheese tots.  I will eat some form of that meal again, I’m sure, just for the hell of it, but it used to be a more common occurrence for me (hey, the kids love Sonic! Might as well go nuts!) and one time right after that combination I had this mix of self-loathing, anxiety, heartburn, and tightness in my chest that psyched me out and I had to tell myself “you’re not having a heart attack from eating at Sonic,” though the fact is that your arterial endothelial function can be compromised simply by eating a terrible meal, and fertile ground for heart attacks or heart failure can be slowly built up or time simply by eating too much fried food, setting you up to fall over like a cardboard cut-out version of yourself when the right amount of stress hits you all at once.  The crazy thing is that we all know that eating terribly is bad for you over time, but we don’t know that many people have keeled over and died after a particularly bad meal, the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Yikes.  But I didn’t keel over here, I felt better after taking my garlic and niacin and dare I say, I drank some whiskey and said to myself “this will thin my blood” just as my paternal grandfather wrote in his journal at one point weeks before he died of a heart attack.

So suffice to say, I’m no stranger to chest pain.  I was always more inclined to brush it off because I was a smoker until 2010, and chest pain was an occasional companion to my smoker’s lifestyle, going all the way back to high school!  But this time was different–it was the first time that I felt like I had to tell someone else I was experiencing “severe chest discomfort” in clinical terms because saying “I think I’m having a heart attack” was just too intense and too real.  I had to say something and to hear them look back at me in concern and ask “do you want to go to the hospital?”  Yes please.  I called my wife on the way there and tried to fight back tears, but I could feel my heart jumping around in my chest.  It felt like muscle pounding against sharp bone.

Here’s the really interesting thing about this story — it took nearly a year before I actually began to make serious changes despite being admitted to the hospital for chest pains!  They gave me milk of magnesia and anti-anxiety meds, and my cardiovascular markers looked “OK” so they concluded I was simply suffering too much from stress and acid reflux disease, aka GERD.  For the longest time I was taking the maximum-strength dose of generic Pepcid AC (a mild H2 anti-histamine) and friends of mine would suggest that I get onto something more hard-core like Prilosec or Nexxium.  These proton-pump inhibitors (PPIs) that come with a black box warning, with the latter being a stronger, concentrated version of Prilosec.  I resisted this because I knew deep down that completely killing all heartburn would disengage my body from the feedback loop that tells you “you’re eating terrible, stop eating so badly.”

I knew that Prilosec has a black-box warning because my mom is a pharmacist and often nudges me along the way when I ask whether or not to consider a medication — it’s not intended to be used for more than 14 days because of an increased risk of stomach cancer!  You can go to Costco right now and buy 42 tablets, but the package will tell you “contains three 14-day courses” of medication.  It’s too strong, you’re not supposed to take it continuously no matter what story you’ve told yourself about why it’s OK!

It’s too effective at disabling your own feedback mechanism, and will directly damage your ability to absorb nutrients, so you end up eating even more food to get the absolutely vital micronutrients you need to have a sound body and mind, and to be free from constant malaise and fatigue!  Prilosec Is Surrender.  It’s a bad idea for most people, of this I am convinced.  That link is very clinical, but read the abstract.  It says nothing good about Prilosec.  It leads to more stomach problems, potentially cancer, and increases your susceptibility to infection from things like pneumonia.  It tears down your body’s own defenses over time.

If you think you need to tell your stomach to shut up and never complain when you throw terrible food down your gullet every day, then you’re making a commitment to being increasingly unhealthy.  But an ER doctor (wow, a real doctor!) told me he uses Prilosec every day, so did I for nearly a year.  I eventually moved up to Nexxium when the maximum dose of Prilosec wouldn’t cut it.  I began to get sickly and run a low temperature for most of the day.  But I could eat and drink whatever I wanted!  But I could see the writing on the wall — I would be getting worse until I decided to wean myself off.  It didn’t take long before I found myself sometimes taking Pepcid on top of Prilosec.  The rebound heartburn that happens when you stop taking it is incredible, by the way, and I will likely write an entire article on how I weaned myself off of Nexxium, back down to Prilosec, back down to Pepcid, and eventually got to a point where I only take the minimal dosage of Pepcid (10mg) on days where I find myself eating a lot of acid (like tomato sauce) and excessive fat or grease together, like “Pizza Night!”

Mind you, and this is an important mini-lesson, but an ER doctor doesn’t have all that much authority to make drug recommendations, as counter-intuitive as that sounds.  Nor am I the best equipped to make every decision, but I ask incredibly knowledgeable people like my mom who has been a pharmacist for around 25 years to help support my own inclinations and intuitions, with an expectation that they will tell me when I’m being full of shit and trying to concoct a false narrative, like “I need to be on Prilosec for just awhile and then I’ll take care of myself better.”

First of all, there’s a world of difference between emergency care and general wellness and health maintenance.  The ER doctor wants to keep you from coming back to the ER in the immediate future, but they aren’t the best person to consult with about your long-term health.  Sorry!

He (or she) not an authority, and is probably not taking the best care of themself either.  It’s a brutal occupation, being a physician, especially on-call. They’re living actively in a high-stress low-sleep job and telling me what works for them, but they are not weighing the long-term consequences or a deep knowledge of how that medication works into the recommendation. This is not a pharmacist or pharmacologist or research scientist, just a person with some medical training and experience telling me what worked for them.  This is very important to understand about doctors!  A doctor is typically someone with very limited experience in pharmacology who knows very little about the actual long-term risks of Prilosec, they are often cynical and would rather you be on Prilosec for life than dare to improve your diet in any meaningful way, and they often know very little about nutrition and drug interaction (seriously) because doctors aren’t trained as pharmacists or pharmacologists when it comes to the workings of medication or the foundation of a truly healthy, sustainable, non-clinically dry hospital-style low-fat diet.  They can make general recommendations, and the damage that GERD can cause is very real, but treating the symptom (discomfort) instead of the cost (poor diet, too much alcohol) leads you down a very painful road in the end, which tends to benefit them in the long run, and not so much you.

So what’s the point?  There is much more to say here, but the overarching point is that despite all of my previous efforts and setbacks, a visit to the ER did not get me on the right track, it actually sent me further down the path I was on.  But I need to experience that final reckoning, that foray into “how much more poorly can I eat, since my chest pain was probably just panic and heartburn.”  I needed to go just a little further down the road before I realize that stress and obesity were absolutely shortening my life, and more importantly, making it terrible and uncomfortable every day.

It might take you awhile to decide that you want to join the 1% of people who successfully transform their bodies and maintain it.  Along the way, many other people might be on their 5th or 8th try and nowhere close to the 1%.  In the years it takes to get there, many people who enjoy being in that 1% will die of natural causes, accidents, etc.  It’s a moving, dynamic number.  You can absolutely find yourself there, but it won’t be an accident.  It will be a deliberate, conscientious effort to attain success and to constantly give yourself a new summit to well, summit!  And again, fear along will not carry you.  You don’t see a lot of me reflecting above about “oh no, my kids won’t have a father if I died of a heart attack” even as I’m being rushed to the hospital.  Of course I told my wife that I love her, but wasn’t about to say “tell the kids I love them too and I might die!”  I knew that I would eventually improve myself, but that my current situation was standing in the way.

By the time they were visiting me at the hospital at the end of my tests they knew nothing serious was going on — at this moment in time, and I communicated that by not freaking out and acting like I’d seen the face of death.  When I was physically in the hospital and hooked up to the IV and having my blood markers checked, I fell at ease knowing that if anything popped, I’d have that crazy scary reflection before death and the miraculous technology of the American health system that is designed specifically to handle emergencies where things blow up and you happen to be close enough to a hospital.  But I didn’t come all that close after all.

Of course my kids won’t have their daddy if I die because of stupid choices that added up to a hill of death.  But a bus could hit me tomorrow and I could die, regardless of my physical shape, and how do I want them to remember me?  As someone who was fat and lazy and didn’t play with them and got hit by a bus, or as an all-around badass to look up to, willing to endure pain and work hard in order to be a good role model?  Of course I want to be around for a long time, but more importantly, I want to be around for a long, high-quality, enjoyable time.

Some things we must figure out on our own, but

As we enter adulthood and have mastered the basics like reading, simple math, “don’t touch fire” and “be polite to people if you want to get along and make friends unless they give you a reason not to,” most things are better learned directly from observing the experience of others.  The younger we are, the more we tend to miss the subtle fork in the road when we’re faced with a decision whether to figure out some task or problem on our own or whether to see how others have tackled it.  This happens repeatedly until we learn more about learning, on our own in most cases, and get into a habit of saying to ourselves “I’m going to Google this before I screw it up trying to reinvent the wheel” after experiencing enough realization that it can take a long time to bang your head through a problem no matter how satisfying the solution may be, and is quite frustrating when you find out there was One Simple Detail you were missing all along.  It’s also disconcerting when you run out of energy to solve a great problem or to reach a great goal because you were spinning your wheels so long in the details.  There’s a reason people are so attracted to those “One Simple Trick” clickbait advertisements, and it’s not that we want simple solutions to everything and are bad, lazy people in black and white commercials looking inept.  It’s because we’ve already tried dozens of things in our own lives, often recommended by others, to specifically deal with that problem, and we earnestly hope to learn that if we just changed one thing and took it into consideration with the information we already have, everything would click into place.  We aren’t always lazy, we’ve often worked very hard and understandably expect a payoff if a simple adjustment is made.

The good example would be an aspiring or somewhat experienced cook making their first thanksgiving dinner.  You’re not in a position to simply adjust your past experiences, you’re starting from the ground up with whatever foundation to have for cooking individual dishes.  There are seemingly infinite sources of recipes online but the big challenge is pulling it all off together.  It’s a project, not a simple execution of a task, and there are many people who will notice whether you succeed.  You’ll probably find top-to-bottom blog posts about how someone else handled the entire spread all on their own.  And TV is even useful, whether online or in the traditional sense, especially if you can skip or avoid commercials, because successfully executed TV does give your brain a chance to learn in a way that closely aligns with the simplest style of learning — watching and observing.  Bad programming skips around and avoids details, so you have to seek out the good, like the stodgy “Good Eats” and “America’s Test Kitchen,” and even better, you’ll learn over the years that it’s better to ask your guests to help with some of the sides rather than to try to impress them with your willingness to stress yourself out with limited time and kitchen resources (stove burners, refrigerator space, etc).

Granted, Food Network like most cable programming has gone downhill over the years, but you stand a much greater chance of pulling off a complex first attempt at thanksgiving if you spend a few hours watching other people do it there, on YouTube, wherever.  You have to get interested in fulfilling this goal and motivated to be prepared weeks in advance.  While you thinking of tedious details like “do I want to start the oven at 450 and finish low or should I just use a consistent temperature the whole time” you will also engage your “mirror neurons” in the brain simply watching people navigate their kitchen and come up with your own approach, possibly synthesizing multiple sources of information, and your effort will show, but your results belong entirely to you for making that effort.  It’s no mistake that the best naturals in the kitchen simply had a knowledgeable parent who enjoyed cooking at least some percentage of the time, and was willing to show their child the process over years and years, involving them wherever possible and appropriate.

The simplest expression of this is this train of thought is that it’s better to learn from the mistakes of others rather than making the mistake yourself.  You get to simultaneously learn what not to do, which is often just as useful as what to do, and see the consequences of a mistake firsthand without having to bear the brunt of them.

It’s inevitable that we will confront situations all throughout our lives where we make decisions that put us on a path of self-discovery and exploration and perhaps we don’t always take in enough information from others to support the choices we make.  This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, some of those experiences leave us with novel information that perhaps nobody else has obtained, but when it comes to things like learning the basic tedious operations of a standard business process or how to navigate something with significant consequences in the case of errors such as the tax code, it is far better to use the vast amount of free information available offline, with a grain of salt, qualified against multiple sources of information, so that you can more quickly find yourself, in life, in a position where you’re solving a problem no one else has, which could be a very specific niche problem that is still valuable to others, or to solve a problem that’s already been addressed in a better way that hasn’t been attempted successfully before.  That is where you want to ultimately arrive in life, wherever you start out — a place where other people need to look up to you for guidance towards success about some subject, and you can be confident to authoritatively give back and share what you’ve experienced.

That’s what I’m trying to provide here.  I think this has been covered before but I’m going to be getting very specific about the situation I’m dealing with — being in your mid thirties, with a body that tends to accumulate fat and an anxious, restless personality that tends to accompany the obese over-stressed person which needs to be managed in order to succeed at improving my body and mind.  I’ve gone through many false starts and looked back at the sorts of flawed assumptions and reasoning that went into each attempt.  I can tell you everything I did wrong, what I think I did right, and give you concrete proof of results that will be far more sustainable than anything you see on “The Biggest Loser” or the latest fad diet to solve all of your health problems while slowly putting you into a state of prolonged deprivation and metabolic slowdown, possibly with an increase in total fat cells after falling off the wagon.

I’m going to show you how I’ve screwed up and why I think I’m on the right track today.  Namely, it’s a track where I’ve decided to fulfill an overall goal (longevity and vitality) by establishing a series of progressive smaller goals along the way.  It’s the decision to never completely jump out of that track, but to be flexible and willing to change course along the way, and to pause and take breaks while always being open to new information and ways to “confuse” my body into getting stronger and stronger.  A willingness to accept that what works in the first few months doesn’t work forever, and that this is a normal thing that isn’t “bad” but a simple fact of life that has to be accepted as we age, and that I need to go back and look at how all of this started to give you the total picture.

Many success stories start off with “I wasn’t successful, and then yada-yada-yada, here I am.”  You tend to get half of the picture, without knowing exactly how they had a foundation to truly succeed.  Fitness success stories tend to start off with detailed prescriptions without telling you how much room there is to modify the approach to fit within the constraints of your day-to-day life.  They tend to tell you “eat right and exercise!” without telling you what that really means, how you can do both without feeling constantly hungry.  They tend to assume that you’re already truly motivated and ready to go, and that you’re reading the article not for a brief moment of vicarious entertainment (it can be measurably satisfying simply fantasizing about being healthy!) but because you’r absolutely read to attack.  I know that you may not be there yet, but you are curious to know how I got there, and how many ways I’ve been able to cheat or take shortcuts to improve my results.  There are no simple cheats or shortcuts but what you really want to know is how much you can get away with not living a completely rigid lifestyle simply to feel good.  I intend to share how much you can get away with while continuing to move towards a constant state of improvement, however subtle.  This gradual improvement closely aligns with the way we get better at tackling life in all other facets.  The more you do, the more you get, and the longer you do it, the more success builds and accumulates and creates its own momentum.

Injuries tend to happen when you’re goofing around — now what?

Let me qualify “goofing around” because I don’t quite mean “goofing around” in a pejorative sense, but as I realized days after starting this post, it does imply a lack of mindfulness that leads to getting hurt while enjoying the present moment.  It’s a necessary part of life, at least for me.  If I were to say “Injuries tend to happen when you’re having fun,” I would be implying that most forms of self-disciplined consistent physical exercise are never fun, engaging activities.  I look forward to them much of the time, and so they are “fun” to me, but I’m not really “goofing around” in the gym unless I really want a problem.  I have experienced such a problem due to goofing around in the gym plenty of times without realizing I was “goofing around” until I was down for the count for the next week or four.  Typically I’m trying to just listen to my body and push things a little more in terms of weight, intensity, or variation every few weeks with plenty of lower-maintenance weeks in between to simply keep my muscle mass, burn fat, and recover generously as a 36 year-old who needs more recovery.  I also do not mean to imply that you can’t get hurt while engaging in “normal” exercise or training, but there’s a good chance you’ll be doing something that seems silly in retrospect when you do hurt yourself.  In my own life experience, it seems I always experience the greatest injury-based setbacks “goofing around.”

I’m mainly referring to the things you do with your body when you’re not relaxing, sleeping, working, or working out, but are enjoying your [perhaps much-improved] physical body and having fun, without perhaps the best consideration for how prepared you are for those activities.  Examples include playing a pickup game of basketball, tag football in a cul-de-sac, or getting all “urban parkour” during a night of bar-hopping trying to jump over stuff at random, when you have an easily-sprained or rollable ankle and aren’t bracing it.  But you’re fit right now, and suddenly you have new abilities and would like to use them.  Here are some setbacks I’ve encountered over the past 12 years or so.  It’s a long list, and hopefully provides some laughs, and hopefully inspiration with respect to the overall resilience of the human body to sustain years’ worth of setbacks and neglect due to many [mostly] minor but long-recovering injuries and still ultimately serve as a framework for building a physique in the gym, and also some cautionary details to keep in the back of your mind when you decide to just be a little “wacky” about what you’re doing today.

  • During a running/hiking centered health kick in my early twenties, I found myself often jumping up and down small stairways when running to the grocery store.  For whatever reason (I lived near the foothills in Golden Colorado) there were a few of these for pedestrians to navigate in the surrounding strip mall.  One day I just felt nimble enough to start being Mario.  Just a few steps at a time typically, and quite easy to get up (concentric movement) but far more risky to jump down — an eccentric movement, with legs extended, and knees and ankles more susceptible to injury.  I didn’t really learn how to properly land in a jump, or that when you’re jumping down from more than a couple feet regularly, you’re probably doing more harm than good.  After a week or so of doing this often I rolled and sprained my right ankle to all hell and back just before landing an interview an orthopedic clinic.  That job would occupy the next 12 years of my life and I slumped in there looking like a very hobbled patient.  Shortly after, I fell off the fitness wagon and fell into the job a bit too much.
  • A year or so later, I was back on the wagon doing a lot of indoor cycling and outdoor walking (trying to go easy on the ankle), and got cocky showing off in a dumb situation and jumped over an extremely tall fence, and it was surprisingly easy to get up after being pretty heavy again for awhile.  Coming down?  Not prepared.  There goes that ankle again, and another year off the wagon.  It just took so long to recover both times and I was so entrapped in using my lower body for all exercise that I was “over” fitness for a solid year.  I learned to use Urgent Care services instead of the ER whenever possible, because this visit cost me around $400 all said and done.
  • So now I’m cycling again, and so obsessed with the notion that I must ride my bike outdoors all of the time to be “healthy,” and find myself riding often at night after work without a helmet, or a headlight, and in some cases, without a clue as to what hazards were before me.  Had a nice over-the-handlebars moment and luckily wiped out in a bunch of dirt, spraining my wrists.  Couldn’t do that for awhile, but became more single-minded about walking and running again for awhile, and slowly fell off again.
  • Now I’m just getting back into riding and am with two others who are in much better shape.  They push themselves hard, and I get frustrated trying to keep up.  Going downhill, I gather too much speed and grab my hat for a moment (what the hell is my deal with helmets) and *foomp* I’m wrecked for a few months.  Mostly road rash and lacerations everywhere, no concussion or head injury, massively pissed off left shoulder and right knee, stitches in the incredibly sensitive philtrum tissue under my nose.  I suffered significant knee contusions and had to attend physical therapy for a couple of months.  I kicked this off with a visit to urgent care where they were seriously worried about a possible concussion (nope), $50 out of pocket, follow up with the doctors at the orthopedic clinic I’m working at.  This was a massive setback, at least 4 years before I got serious again.  No real excuse for it, but letting my body go to pieces through stress and neglect gave me the kick in the ass I needed to decide “never again.  No really.  Never again!”
  • Now it’s 2015.  I’m on the latest round, serious about keeping momentum for the rest of my life.  Changing things up frequently.  Playing catch is a whole lot more fun when you can run to every wild-ass toss your nephew and son throw in your general direction.  Whoops, stepped on a wet, large rock, and fell on my right shoulder.  I could feel myself falling the right away, tucking my neck in and rolling onto and off of the shoulder as I hit the ground.  But it was a significantly painful crunchy moment and I had to decide how I was going to think about it right then and there.  I spent five minutes beating myself up about missing this obvious hazard and then moved forward.  This was about 10 months ago and was the first stage of the genesis of this blog.  This is when it really started to click for me, because I had already established the mindset that I was never going to give up, get discouraged, feel excessively bad or guilty to myself for getting hurt, and simply took care of it with basic rest, icing, compression, and elevation, obsessively.  Only took a few days to get mostly back to normal, and then I really did a number on it, simply by trying to advance too quickly in the bench press without proper preparation with rotator cuff strengthening.  Now I would be struggling for weeks, and picked up a small TENS unit for $30 to help me get back on my feet.
  • One day at the gym I approached the squat bar and loaded it up with my warm-up weight — 45 pounds on each side for a total of 135 including the bar.  Then I realized the bar wasn’t at quite the right height for me, and pulled it safely off the rack and onto the lower rack below.  This was a relatively easy movement that involved simply controlling the weight as it went down, but when I went to bring the bar back up after re-positioning the upper rack, my left wrist gave out because my right side is stronger, and as a result was majorly strained in a way that really didn’t hurt until the next day (and so I injured it further in the gym), and I was unable to work my upper body for about three weeks.  It was very frustrating, but I’d recently listened to podcasts that reinforced the fact that anything you to do maintain your physique tends to maintain your overall muscle mass.  You don’t just “lose gains” in your upper body as a result of not being able to push it for a few weeks.  It’s not the end of the world.  You keep eating your protein and work the rest of your body, and just psychologically knowing that I wasn’t slipping up by focusing elsewhere was enough to keep me motivated, even if it was possible to prove that I somehow lost a tiny amount of muscle.

In fact, my wrist was so tweaked I couldn’t do anything with free weights — no squats, just having my hands gripping the bar was extremely painful.  Once your stabilizer muscles are injured, you realize just how intensely involved free weight exercises are against your gloriously complex anatomy.  But I could perform leg presses, calf raises, leg extensions, and leg curls, and I learned how to be amazingly precise with my body mechanics — neutral spine, minimal stress on extended joints, so that I could load up that leg press machine with 450 pounds’ worth of plates without hurting that wrist.  It was an invaluable learning experience, all over again.  The lesson was that I was not strong enough to “row” 135 pounds upright in that way without hurting myself, but now I can clean and press 135 pounds off the ground with no trouble.  Dedicated gym rats and crossfitters may laugh at these numbers but they mean the world to me, because I’m improving against my own past performance, growing as a human to fill my potential, and not worried about proving anything to them.

Today I’m using that same $30 TENS unit on my left shoulder after straining it too much playing with my daughter at “Pint Size Play,” an hour of open gymnasium play at the nearby recreational center.  I was hanging on the rings like a wannabe male gymnast, putting myself through a lot of eccentric strain supporting myself upright, pushing my triceps and shoulders to the limit.  I pushed it just far enough to feel a laxity and a loosening of my rotator cuff, and immediately went to work taking care of it, which is to say, I nearly forgot all about the injury at the time because it was pretty minor and just felt like weakness initially.

And so I went to the gym that night and did a bunch of stuff that involved my shoulder in different ways before I realized I could feel laxity and clicking sensations in the joint simply by holding my right hand over it as I rotated my shoulder externally and internally.  Whoops, but I pushed it just hard enough to avoid any immediate pain, and removed myself from the “push yourself!” environment at the gym after going through several internal / external rotation movements and feeling that looseness.  It definitely had to sink in, because it didn’t hurt until I completely stopped using it.

I’ve taken the rest of the week off of my upper body in the gym, focusing on legs, simple cardio, and a little high intensity interval training.  I’ve been suffering from some minor inner elbow pain for months anyway, and have now convinced myself that it was good that I strained my left shoulder, because I’m giving my elbows the time they need to recuperate.  That’s a “story I’m telling myself.”  Stories you tell yourself can be constructive, destructive, or simply entertaining, but having your own internal dialogue and narrative that keeps you centered is an invaluable component of mindfulness.

Before, I would keep pushing those elbows a little more each week, and the pain would nag on, ebbing and flowing.  Today it’s really starting to wear off in my elbows, and I hope they will feel stronger than ever when my shoulder is done recovering.  I take comfort in feeling that buzzing TENS unit right now as I type.

I realize my left shoulder is the one complaining and giving out now, because my right shoulder has grown much stronger through the healing process of prior injuries.  It is no longer bringing up the rear.  Even though I’m left-handed, my right shoulder has always been a little stronger and has always been the sufferer of minor injuries.  Now, it’s gotten stronger than ever, and it’s the left shoulder’s time to step up its game and to grow stronger through the process of inflammation, strengthening exercises as it starts to bother me less, and healing.

Now I’m in the groove, and I accept that injuries happen, but you have to be mindful of what you’re doing whenever your body is in play.  You will get hurt when having fun, but you will experience a far lower magnitude of injury if you’re mindful of what you’re doing and what hazards are involved in your activity and your immediate surroundings.  You will need to “baby yourself” to take care of your injuries, and push yourself to grow past your limitations.  I have much more to say on the subject, about the mindfulness that it requires to minimize your exposer to injury while having a willingness to push yourself, whether in play or disciplined training, but I’ll follow up in a later post.  I will also be talking a lot more about injury prevention and management because it’s become a huge part of my final effort to become the best physical version of my self that I can be.  It’s a logical part of the aging process, you simply can’t just automatically recover from the slings and arrows of life without taking active, deliberate steps to augment your body’s natural healing processes.  Or more accurately, you can entirely rely on your body to slowly get better with zero effort, but without taking an active role in getting better, you won’t be engaged in the process of staying fit once you do recover.  That’s what happened in the past, a slow surrender while waiting for my body to “get better.”

As you get older, you must become far more of a caretaker for your physical body than you could ever imagine in your teens or twenties.

It just occurred to me, when pondering what I said much earlier: “goofing around” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what does it imply?  Goofing around isn’t simply “doing fun stuff for the sake of fun.”  It absolutely implies a lack of mindfulness, a lack of awareness of exactly what risks are involved in an activity.  Sometimes we take a risk that makes zero sense at all in retrospect, like “let’s see if I can juggle by two swinging kettlebells, switching uneven weights from hand to hand!” but more often we’re simply enjoying ourselves in the present moment.  Yes I have attempted that with kettlebells and why?  Just to show off for my son?  Make sure you know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Playing touch football is not “goofing around.”  Playing football without wearing a $20 ankle brace or proper footwear when your ankle is notorious for getting sprained is in fact, goofing around, in a truly perjorative, “what the hell, dummy!” sense.  And yes, that’s another story that I could cram into the bulleted list above 🙂

Dealing with Setbacks and All-or-Nothing Thinking

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.

 

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

It’s been said countless times in countless ways, and cannot be easily attributed, because it’s a simple truth that makes sense without giving it much thought.

Doing anything “right, but difficult” for a long time requires inertia and momentum and effort, before it becomes a habit, and in most cases, that inertia built through work, generating momentum is needed well after the habit is established. The habit simply becomes the mental impetus and desire to do something, but the body must cooperate, and must recuperate in order to respond appropriately to the aches and pains required to stimulate muscle growth and the destruction of life-shortening body fat.

Too often we think it’s our mind that is holding us back from doing something, but sometimes you might have the willpower to work out and exercise, but physically feel drained. What I didn’t realize in the past is that it’s possible for this “drain” to build up quite a bit, and we are all very cyclical creatures. We think “oh hey I like this exercise routine and diet, I’ll just do this forever and ever!” Then one day it’s unsustainable and we freak out and give up because we were WRONG, wrong all along! Not sustainable!

But the real answer is, take a freakin’ break and then get back to it. Don’t go to the gym hardcore for 3 months and then stop going for a year and beat yourself up about it. Take an entire week off. That very well could be your body saying “please, take a week off.” You might need to do nothing physical for that week. Or you might want to do light exercises…but then you still feel your body saying “nope, I don’t want to walk either.” At this point you can grow upset with yourself for being a wimp and not handling your “minimalist exercise routine” but first consider whether you can give your body what it wants (total relaxation) for a period of time (days or a week) and then get back to the gym.

Honestly it never occurred to me in 36 years that perfectly healthy habits can be postponed for an entire week or more without giving them up entirely. I’m always either “gung ho!” or “giving up!” Not any longer. Also I paid for my first “I’m in pain” message a week ago and it was a huge benefit, but not as much of a benefit as just not going to the gym for a few days, because at first I felt “fine” again and kept pushing it.

There’s an intermediate answer here too. Let’s say you really want to go to the gym, but you don’t want to work out as intensely. Guess what, that’s totally cool too. You don’t have to destroy yourself in every capacity, you don’t have to grow stronger with every attempt at exercise.  Maintenance is important.  At my local gym in the winter time there’s a poster that says “Maintain, Don’t Gain!”  That can mean two things:

They’re telling you that during the holiday season, it’s important not to gain body fat and lose your momentum, but they’re also suggesting that it’s not important to pursue “gains” in the form of muscle mass all-year-round either.  It’s good enough just to maintain.  In fact, sometimes I slack off and gain 5-10 pounds in the course of a week.  I know I can burn it right off in another week or two, and I indulge, in the case of an actual vacation, or perhaps when hosting family or friends for a week from out of town.

Maybe I just do some stretching and cardio, taking short one mile walks. Get a foam roller at home and spend some time getting acquainted with it. Don’t be hardcore all of the time, there is a time and place for being a badass and working at your fullest potential, and then there’s every other day of your life.

The younger you are, the easier it is to think you can sustain a “hardcore” lifestyle, and the easier it is to grow disillusioned when you run out of energy. As you get older you realize you must pick and choose what you will be using your energy to do each day.  You might find that an intense workout strains you neurologically and physically, reducing your capacity to get other important tasks completed.

But consider that you are not out of energy forever, you just need to find some balance, today, tomorrow, at the moment.

It also helps when you realize that every “photoshoot quality body” that you see was sculpted and constructed to look exactly that awesome for that photo shoot. And I’m not talking about Photoshop editing tricks but actually being the sort of person who is always 6-8 weeks from looking awesome because your life’s work is to be fit; this is especially apparent when you see “before and after” photos that really aren’t all that miraculous when you consider that the “before” picture is trying to make itself look worse by sticking the gut out and looking sad, and it had an entire 6-8 weeks (or even 90 days!) to eat flawlessly and fight towards perfection for the “after” pic.  But consider I’m talking about someone who professionally keeps their body in great shape, and yet still they will “slip” or simply “bulk” for weeks on end, knowing that they are only 6-8 weeks away from looking chiseled and ripped again.

Some people can have perfect abs and fat composition all year round, but most people figure out what is acceptable for them to feel healthy and active in general, and if they need to look beautiful for a magazine spread (not a common need), they do the work.  They’ve done it before.  I used to tell myself all the time that “dieting doesn’t work” because I thought that “dieting” was a thing you’re actually supposed to do every day for essentially the rest of your life.  Yes, there are cheat days, but you’re always “dieting.”  Now I realize there are different diets for different goals, and you can change your diet nearly every day if you wish.  If you’re doing intense weight training, you will need at least 200-300 calories above your average daily calorie expenditure in order to gain muscle mass in a “lean bulking” capacity.  You will also need extra calories simply to recover and not feel terrible all of the time.  Other days, you might be inactive, but still recovering from a strenuous bought of exercise.  And yet on other days, you might be just fine, in a good mood, not particularly active, and willing to “enjoy” a calorie deficit starting with some AM fasted cardio knowing that you’ll be kick-starting your metabolism.
Just be sure you include BCAAs and/or HMB when going “balls to the wall” with fasted cardio (sprinting, cycling, etc vs. the walking approach discussed in the video linked above), to ensure you maintain as much muscle mass as possible.