Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Finish Line

I've been chatting with a coworker lately about fitness and diet. Her approach has been pretty gung ho so far: juice diets and four hour death march cardio and resistance-training sessions. Hard-core to the point that Navy SEALS drop out like flies during her routine, calling her a mad woman. NASA engineers probably have her workout clothes wired so they can develop better materials for space-flights.

Never mind that she looks pretty great already and it's probably a needless amount of pain and misery. She's kicking herself into gear and there's nothing wrong with that as long as nobody gets hurt and there's no UN interventions necessary.

It's a pretty common approach to getting back in shape and usually almost entirely wrong. Not in the specific details--everything looks fine on paper, the workouts are good, the diet works just fine even if it's rather extreme. Her approach makes a lot of sense. It's mostly wrong in degree and magnitude.

The problem is that going balls deep into a problem is not a long-term plan. It's something you do every once in a while as a change or a personal challenge. It's definitely not something you want to do every day: your resources are fairly limited. You can only recover from so much stress, even if it's the cool kind which makes you stronger.

Willpower itself is a limited resource--usually the average person can follow an extremely inconveniencing resolution for a week or two before it gets untenable.

You have to strike a balance. If you make yourself dread the things you have to do the next day, you're not going to follow through on them. You'll go off the rails, a bit. Then, once you've given yourself permission to go off the rails a bit, you're going to go off the rails a lot. It's just how we're wired.

Any change worth making is worth planning for over the long haul. If you're not happy with your shape, then do a little bit of work every day for a very long period of time. Not enough on any given day that you hate yourself and life, but enough to nudge the drifting iceberg that is your life into a new direction. Find habits that are acceptable, that remove you having to make conscious choices to follow them. If they're actually fun, something you look forward to, so much the better.

For example: I tend to schedule my workouts to last less than an hour, and that's including time spent changing clothes. When I head out to work in the morning, I pack a gym bag so I can hit the gym on the way back from work. This is because I know that if I have to stop home for my gym clothes, that's one more excuse I have to not exercise. Once my ass hits that couch, it ain't getting back up, folks.

When I do exercise, I keep a short list of important exercises to get through and then there's optional stuff at the end that I can hit if I'm in the mood, which I usually am. But even if I have a bad day and I'm hurting or sore or tired, I know that I can go to the gym, just bang out something quick, leave and still feel like I've made progress.

If the weather's nice and I haven't run yesterday, and I have a spare hour, I'll go for a run. No big deal. I don't track mileage or time, I'm simply out there enjoying fresh air and people-watching.

I handle my diet in a similar way: I shop on Sundays when I'm feeling more responsible than usual--Sundays have always been the days I handle random chores and adult stuff. I have no idea why, that's just the way I've always done it. When I grocery shop on a Sunday, I just tend to buy less junk. Less junk in the apartment means I cook more, eat healthier. If I have healthy food available, I tend to resort to restaurants much less, which is cheaper and better for my body fat ratio and ability to fit into my pants in general.

The difference between this and a more gung-ho approach, if you look closely, is that all my fitness/diet routine revolves around very minor cues: keep workouts short. Don't buy junk food, or at least don't keep it in the apartment. Don't get stressed about routines, just do a bit every day or so. Be honest about energy levels and build in points where it's okay to ditch out and take a mental health break. Don't sweat the small stuff.

This is entirely opposite to what you see about fitness in the media.

We live in a pretty goal-oriented society.

When you see people get into shape on television, it's usually part of a montage these days. You never see the day-to-day stuff. It's all part of a challenge, or a contest. People beat themselves flat and come out five minutes later totally buff.

I blame Rocky for this one. It inspired an entire generation to have the attitude that all it takes to really get results is to kick your ass into gear just one time, man. Success is something you can get if you put yourself through several short weeks of misery and then you've won the game and don't have to think about it any more.

Most of the fitness industry these days is geared for this shit: P90X, for example. Get buff in 90 days of total hell. Every office has a weight-loss competition. The Biggest Loser is pretty highly rated and has spawned a ton of imitators.

Problem is, there are some things in life that just don't lend themselves to finish lines. I'm not going to say this is the reason why America's fat. It isn't, but it does contribute to the problem. A lot of peoples' only exposure to how fitness training and diet works is through television and other popular media.

So you get people who have no idea where to start--who've not had any sort of exposure to proper diet and training--go to the first place they see...let's call it television...and the only thing they have are things like the Biggest Loser. They give what they see on TV a shot without realizing that it's entertainment at best, and they fail miserably. Just crater.

You can't really base a major life change around montages. It's all about small daily changes that won't make you miserable over the long run but add up after a while.

Speaking of finish lines, I've definitely got a second wind about the book. Okay, probably a third, fourth or fifth wind. Whatever. Going pretty well. Current section is pretty entertaining. I might just finish this damn thing after all.

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