Some things that I learned about fitness over the years

I read a lot of stuff on the web about health and nutrition, but I tend to avoid silly fashion websites, most magazines (I’m looking at you,  Shape, Fitness, etc. – all magazines full of bullshit, unfortunately), new age nonsense, and anything that looks like it isn’t based on real science and common sense. These seem to be the top suggestions for how to make fitness work for you. Please note, this is really just about fitness, not weight loss. Fitness helps, but it’s not the only thing you need to do, and, frankly, being fit isn’t dictated by your pant size.

Do what you can
If all you can do right now is walk around the block a few times, do it! Just make sure you keep trying to walk a little farther and/or a little faster. Progress can be really slow at first, but once you start seeing the progress it will be easier to find that confidence you need to keep pushing. Even when you get to the point where you feel confident about taking circuit classes or using fitness videos, do what you can. The other people may all be more fit than you are, but this isn’t a competition. Be there for yourself and challenge yourself based on your own abilities. I often only do half of what everyone else in my gym classes does because that’s all my body can take and/or I have to lift a lot more weight than they are. The important thing is that I’m challenging my body to try to do just one more whenever I can.

Do something you enjoy
There’s no point in being miserable, because it won’t make finding the energy to exercise easy. That doesn’t mean you should only do easy things that you love (challenge is good, easy stuff won’t really help you improve your fitness), but it does mean that you should find things that you like enough to stick with. You just have to balance how much you want to get fit with the effectiveness of the activities you like. For example, yoga is nice and a lot of people like it, but it’s not going to help you get in shape unless you are doing the harder versions and supplementing them with other, more rigorous activities. Another example, I don’t like most of the exercises we do in our gym classes (I hate burpees), but I like the classes because the instructor and fellow gym-goers are nice and I prefer being told what to do over having to figure things out on my own. I also like being outdoors, so I walk a lot and have started taking up jogging. But, I won’t cycle. I just don’t like it enough right now.

Do something you can stick with
Again, there’s no point in wasting energy on something if you can’t stick with it. This is why I started walking – it was easy, something I could integrate into my day-to-day schedule (I had to get to and from work), and something I could stick with. The gym I go to is really close to work and fairly close to home, so it’s easy to stick with going there regularly. Something intense like Cross-Fit would be too much for me, so despite the science being behind interval training, I would never be able to stick with Cross-Fit, so I don’t do it. Same goes for group sports. I prefer to mostly do things on my own or that don’t involve competition (example: trying to win a game).

Do more than just cardio
Cardio burns a hell of a lot of calories … while you are doing the cardio workout. You need to build muscle. A lot of people lose a lot of weight when they start jogging because they’ve become more active and they are challenging their bodies, which means that muscle is being built, etc. Your “usual” jog isn’t helping you much if it’s easy. So, add weights and/or challenge yourself on your jogs. For example, doing intervals or hills as you jog pushes your body to it’s limits which means that it burns calories while you are doing it and burns more afterwards while it is repairing muscle, etc.

Do strength training
See above. Muscles are good. They aren’t a miracle cure that will suddenly make you skinny and you have to work really hard to get even a slight bit bulky, but they are a good tool for weight loss and general fitness. That said, you need balance (both cardio and strength) and it’s always good to stick with things you like. I should note that unless you are genetically predefined to bulk up a little or a guy (full of testosterone), you are not going to get giant muscles without trying really hard to get them. Also, the whole notion of “shaping, toning, and elongating” is bullshit.

Quality over quantity
The best way to cause injury is to do something wrong. Bad form is wrong. People who are really fit and used to doing certain exercises can plow through a set of 20, but maybe you can’t. Find a speed that works for you and lets you do the movement in good form. If that means you only do 18, 15, or 10, who cares. As you get used to the movements, you will find doing them in good form is much easier. Also, don’t just swing your arms around. I see a guy at the gym all the time who does a ridiculous number of reps with heavy weights, but he’s not going to get anywhere because he does them so fast that he’s really just using momentum to swing the weight around and not actually challenging his muscles.  There’s a reason why people like to challenge themselves with holding a position or doing really slow repetitions – that forces your muscles to work and doesn’t allow for cheating with momentum.

Eat enough
This is a hard one for a lot of people. Everyone says to watch calories and get more exercise, but there comes a point when you are just starving yourself and doing more harm than good. The key is that you want to lose fat, not lean mass (muscle, etc.). So, you need to eat a lot of protein and find the right calorie balance. I’ve read a few books about weight lifting for women and articles recently. They all seem to suggest the same thing: if you start to exercise, keep your calorie intake steady for a month and then reassess as you go, but never remove more than about 10% at a time (and only adjust every month or so). The thing is this: if you start exercising AND start dieting at the same time, you may not be eating enough. Worse still you are basically telling your body this: I’m going to make you work harder, but pay you less. Much like any employee, this will reduce productivity but decreasing things like your metabolism. You can use a food tracker, which calculates calories in and calories spent (based on estimated calories burnt doing certain activities), but, again, they caution against cutting back too much. I’m actually not cutting back at all. I aim for 1800-2000 calories, which is appropriate for maintenance for my height and weight. But, I also walk to and from work, go to the gym at lunch and 3 more times a week, do things at home, walk for all my errands, etc. Anything less than that and I start having problems with slower recovery, being hungry all the time, etc.

Monitor progress
Tracking is good. Being able to say that you “feel” better is nice, but being able to see concrete, measurable changes is even better. It will help you stay motivated and help you to see where there are issues or when you’ve hit a plateau. I really regret not keeping better track of where I was when I first started working on getting in shape. But, I did start tracking my walking and have consistently used the same app, so I have a bit of a record. I can also see some improvement from the gym classes I take (both in terms of my confidence and wiliness to try new things, and in terms of my ability to do harder versions, more reps, or use heavier weights), but want a better (more measureable) record. This is why I opted to meet up with a personal trainer occasionally. Not only will she help motivate me and keep me accountable, she’ll also help me to track my progress. On caveat: don’t do too much and don’t do things that make you crazy. I tried, just to see, to track every bleeping activity I did for January and it made me want to not do things after a couple weeks. I also have a bit of a disordered relationship with tracking calories, so I’ve only been doing occasional check-ins. A friend recently suggested I try tracking the exact calories of the planned foods and just make notes of anything special or different (like the Hershey Kisses I just ate or cake at a birthday). I know that sounds like it defeats the point of tracking, but I get really stressed out when my calories counts are anything more than 5-10% above what they should be, even if it’s a one time thing. I may discuss this in a future post, because I’m sure I’m not the only one who has this problem.

Brag about your accomplishments
Seriously! I brag about things all the time. Not in a jerky way, just in a “hey, I’m so proud of myself and just really wanted to share” way. It’s nice getting pats on the back from friends and it’s good to recognize that you’re doing a good thing. And, even if no one else cares, it’s still good to acknowledge to yourself that you did something awesome.

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