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Sunday, February 24, 2013

52 Weeks of Fitness: Lessons Learned

In my last post about my year-long fitness project (dubbed 52 Weeks of Fitness), I promised to readdress a few things I mentioned — most of all, what I actually learned from this experience. In this beast of a post, I'll cover the main lessons learned.


I looked into a few things as the year progressed. One of the main things was actually tracking every single bite of food I ate for 8 months. I used a free app from the Apple App Store called Loseit! to track what I ate. I used this information to track a few priorities, like calories in and my macronutrient balances. The app's tracking for calories burned through exercise seemed sketchy, so I only used it for baselines of calories burned during weightlifting sessions.

Calorie monitoring is a disputed subject among health and fitness authors, since there are clearly highly-unhealthy things we can consume that are low-calorie. Also, the caloric level does not take into account any time of insulin response, which Taubes and other respected authors view to be the source of fat gain. Nonetheless, I figure calories do correlate with the general nutritional value of most foods, and my time spent calorie-counting was useful (I leaned out to probably my best shape ever over the summer) and educational.
While there are a few different guidelines for macronutrient balance, I eventually settled on the Zone Diet's very moderate 40/30/30 ratio. This means my intake was roughly 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat. Once I got a feel for how the foods I was eating matched up to my macros, I typically just watched my protein number — trying to keep it around 0.7-1.5g per lb of bodyweight (I figured any day over 115 was a good day).

A few key nutrition things I tried:
  • Protein timing — protein shake as the first thing consumed in the morning did boost muscle gains when first starting out.
  • Paleo — I had an on-again, off-again relationship with the Paleo diet over the year. Paleo taught me to appreciate real, whole foods and to be wary of grains, among other things. 
  • Going lactose- and/or gluten-free — Closely associated with Paleo, pulling lactose and gluten-based products generally yielded better results.
  • Not eating as much meat — after reading Eating Animals and watching "Food, Inc." in one of my classes this fall, I also decided that forgoing meat on occasion might not be as bad as the Paleo folks would have you believe. There are a LOT of good recipes out there and only a fraction of those include meat.

Bottom line on nutrition:

Focus on real, wholesome foods — they taste better, fill you up better, and generally fuel you better. This focus should lie above any specific dieting dogma — even Paleo, which I found to be a solid standout after overcoming initial processed-carbohydrate deprivation. For anyone making a transition to healthier eating, the easiest way to do it is just to keep adding healthy foods, rather than subtracting unhealthy foods. Just like your mother made you, push yourself to eat your veggies before you look for junk food — you'll find the transition easier than you think. It's also worthwhile to gain an understanding of the psychology behind eating.

From what I've heard from Michael Pollan, he seems to have this stuff already written out succinctly and simply:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Lifting, in all its forms

 After toying with Starting Strength and Four Hour Body workouts a last year and The New Rules of Lifting this year, I've picked up a few things:
  • Compound lifts are tantamount to nearly everything else. By compound lifts I mean weightlifting exercises that involve multiple joints and muscle groups, e.g., swapping bicep curls for rows, pulldowns or pullups/chinups. Yes, isolation exercises (focusing on one particular muscle, like the aforementioned bicep curls) do accomplish something, but in the full scheme of your fitness their impact is minimal. Stick to the things that matter, the things that do the most good — compound lifts. The "Big Three" to start with are the Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift. It's possible to learn these on your own, but I would strongly recommend consulting someone who actually knows what's up — i.e., not me.
  • Lift heavy, in one form or another. While it seems like everybody has a "secret pill" or "golden formula" for weightlifting, all paths lead to Rome. The one thing every author I read could agree on was the need for low-to-medium reps (for the purposes of this post, we'll say between 1-15 reps, depending on the contextual lifting goals) in a volume high enough to fatigue your body was ideal, especially compared to the pop-exercise idea of "toning" yourself through endless reps of light weights. Pinterest Health & Fitness pins, I'm looking at you.
  • Track your progress in a way that's easy for you to keep up with. Some people use a spreadsheet, others a scrap of paper, Fitocracy, and so on... Just track it. Why? Because you're looking to improve something, and when you're a month (or less) in and feeling unmotivated, you'll be able to look at the numbers and see progress. Progress shows up faster in your training logs than it ever will in the mirror.
  • Don't waste time on over-analyzing if you're doing the right thing. If you're seeking to follow the above basic guidelines in a safe way, then you're on the right path. Keep doin'.

"Cardio" and such

I've gone through multiple beliefs on cardio and how useful and important it is or isn't, but here's where I've ended up:

Your cardiovascular fitness should be at a high enough level that it not only doesn't limit you from living your life, it empowers you to live a more fulfilling life.

This means that, for the most of us, you should be able to: play pick-up games of your favorite sport, walk up several flights of stairs, play with your kids, etc without any signs of fatigue whatsoever. Sadly, that's saying a lot for the average American. But past that point, you should feel empowered to: pick up a sport or active hobby that you enjoy, embrace physical challenges as they come, save your life and possibly the lives of others in a dangerous situation, etc if you need/choose to do so. That's the goal — a baseline level of "good" or even "great" cardiovascular fitness, with the ability to do great or awesome things that would be inaccessible to someone of lesser fitness.

So how do we get there?
  • Generally, be active and move during the day. Basic, everyday activity is ignored far too much. Take walks with your loved ones in the mornings or evenings, try biking to work or errands, get a dog and walk it, grab a pedometer and look for 10,000 daily steps — whatever you can do. Luckily, this is a lifestyle adjustment that can be made through "baby steps". It seems insignificant at first, but (forgive the cliché) it really all adds up. Park your car at the edge of the lot. Live your day as if elevators don't exist, and escalators don't move.
  • Try running, even if you love other cardio-based activities more. We were born meant to run. A fantastic place to start if the ubiquitous Couch-to-5k plan. Oh and one other thing about running — your butt muscles are running muscles, so ladies concerned about their bums should forget the leg lifts and hit the track. And then squat.
  • Once you have a decent schedule for cardio and a baseline cardio threshold, look into sprint-based workouts. Varied-intensity workouts like HIIT, Tabata and wind sprints are moving from cutting-edge research topics to mainstream fitness advice, and the news looks good all around. Look into sprinting or doing some kind of high-intensity cardio exercise once or twice a week, even if it's brief.
  • Overall, we were built to move in a variety of ways at a variety of intensities. Establish your baseline, and then have fun. If you like swimming, then swim! Do triathlons, powerwalking, tango dancing, whatever fills you with joy. That is what will take you to the next level.

The Overall Bottom Line

I write these things because I think health and fitness should be about life lived to the fullest. Eat real, wholesome foods, challenge yourself and grow through exercise, be open to new experiences and dance like Zorba.

This is the next-to-last post on the 52 Weeks of Fitness. The last post will be a collection on resources for people interested in learning more about nutrition, health and fitness.

Universal disclaimer: I am in no way, shape or form a qualified health professional. Consult them (doctors, trainers, nutritionists, etc) WAY before you think about putting the things I write here into action. I am not responsible for your stupidity or refusal to follow proper instruction from a real licensed professional.

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