Simplicity

Since December 2014, I’ve been working on two fitness goals – first, to drop the flab that I’ve put on since mid-2013, and second, to strengthen my left shoulder after a round of physiotherapy. I’ve had a lot of tools at my disposal – because of my background in the martial arts, I’m a strong believer in bodyweight exercises; I also have kettlebells that I’ve used to shed some serious weight in the past. Additionally, I’ve always supplemented any weight-loss effort with High Intensity Interval Training, usually in the form of sprints.

Since February though, I’ve faced trouble with my left foot, which made me drop sprint training. To compensate, I built a weekly programme of alternating bodyweight and kettlebell training. This went on for a while, but the lack of gains in strength and endurance sent me back to the drawing board. After all, to come home on Friday evening with sore shoulders and no energy is not what I expected from my exercise regimen.

Two weeks ago, I stopped the Kettlebells. My exercise regimen now comprises only bodyweight workouts, with alternating days of upper-body and lower-body work. For weight loss, I relied on a high-protein / low carb diet that has served me very well in the past.

The change has been amazing. With a good 48 hours between workouts, my body now has time to recover, and I’m able to push the performance envelope, with data to prove it. I’m also losing fat. The best thing of course, is the improvement in temperament, which makes me look forward to each day’s workout.

There is a lesson in this – simplicity.

My goals were simple. I had enough (too much?) information. I wanted to try everything to get the maximum effect; however, what I did was to just wear myself out. It’s scary to think that I brought myself so close to another injury that would have taken me out of action for 3-4 months.

This is what my current workout looks like:

Upper body: Push-ups; Pull-ups; seated dips; Scapular pull-ups. I do two failure sets of these exercises in this order, with a timed one-minute rest between sets.

Lower Body: Deep Squats (butt to heels); forward lunges; single-leg Romanian deadlifts; side lunges; calf raises. I do two sets of these exercises in this order, with a timed one-minute rest between sets.

Further reading

Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym is a fantastic resource for bodyweight exercises. This is a well-illustrated book suitable even for beginners. A related app available for iOS and Android helps users build workouts and follow a 40-day plan.

Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym (Flipkart): http://fkrt.it/Ggn4MBNN

Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym (Amazon) http://amzn.to/1CycgJ2

Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras is for athletes who want to get more into the dynamics of each exercise. This is a great resource for instructors and trainers.

Bret Contreras: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy (Flipkart): http://fkrt.it/GA~kXYNN

Bret Contreras: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy (Amazon): http://amzn.to/1BR8ZK5

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A Fitness Lesson From The Red Queen

In Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland, Alice complains to the Red Queen about remaining in the same spot despite running for quite some time.

“Now, here, you see,” the Red Queen Retorts, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

How like fitness.

For the past month or so, I’ve been following an upper body training programme to recondition my shoulders and arms after about six months of disuse in the aftermath of the latest episode of my pinched nerve acting up.

I’ve been doing two sets each of push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and hanging scapular retractions. In case I encounter muscle failure before hitting my target, I cut intensity – moving from push-ups to kneeling push-ups and from pull-ups to negative pull-ups for instance. For the few days I seemed to have plateaued – though somewhat smug about the numbers that I hit.

Today, however, I decided to push harder, and raised my targets by 25 per cent, counting my reps backwards. Interestingly, I hit my enhanced targets on push-ups without any issues, and exceeded my previous counts on all the other exercises. This means that for the past one week, I wasn’t really growing – silly, silly me!

Sometimes, in the absence of an instructor or pace-setter we tend to be too easy on ourselves. This temptation is particularly strong when one works out solo in the privacy of a home. Fitness is like the Land Beyond the Looking Glass – you must run twice as fast just to stay in the same place!

So, here’s the change in strategy – my new targets are a minimum of 25 per cent beyond my highest good-form reps, with targets revised every 10 workouts.

Let’s see how this works. Watch this space!

Slipping Off The Wagon

OK, so I went on a regimen of diet and exercise, lost a lot of weight, and made tremendous improvements to my athletic performance. These weren’t easy changes to make, but I pushed, and was able to stay on the wagon long enough to see some pretty remarkable results, but then the slide started.

 

Normally, I’d allow myself one ‘cheat’ meal every week. At this meal, I’d eat a small portion of one food that I absolutely love, but is prohibited by my diet rules. Soon after this meal, I’d get back to my usual programme, with perhaps a couple of slightly more intense workouts thrown in. However, over the past few weeks, I’ve become a little more casual about what I eat. I found myself breaking my diet rules ‘ever so little’ but much more frequently.

 

Now, instead of the one bite of dessert while dining out, there was a humungous piece of cake at a birthday party; instead of a little bit of Biryani I had a pretty substantial portion with lots of other things that would temporarily alter my body chemistry and take me out of my fat burning zone. Instead of sticking to a single beer and a few glasses of water to restore hydration, I went on a drinking spree almost as extreme as my bar bankrupter days.

 

The results were predictable – my gains have tapered off. I have made no gains in either inch loss or weight reduction in the past two weeks. Thinking back on all these events made me realize that I’m slowly slipping back into the pattern of behaviour that resulted in me being overweight in the first place! I’m back on the wagon now, but this has been a frightening lesson in how easy it is to slip back into old habits, and reverse the gains I have fought so hard for.

 

I have been uncluttering my life, hoping for more time to ‘stand and stare’. This has given me far more free time that especially on weekdays has resulted in moments of utter boredom. While restructuring my life a few months ago, I had been able to link this boredom to smoking and ‘grazing’, both of which I have cut quite drastically since. Maybe I do need to keep myself occupied, and perhaps this is the best possible time for me to get back to finishing that novel and screenplay.

I love my new body, It’s totally worth the fight to keep it like this 🙂

Lifestyle U-Turn

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.” – Benjamin Franklin

September 2010 (93 kilos)

April 2012 (76 kilos)

Hardly a week goes by without someone familiar looking at me from head to toe, smiling wistfully, and saying that they should really get back to the gym to get in shape. Even more frequently, people ask me for advice on losing weight and ‘getting in shape’.

The former usually never get to the gym, and the latter tend to tune out when I get to the importance of diet in any weight-loss programme.

“Oh man, dieting is not for me”

“The gym? Went for three days, it’s not for me”

“I’m a foodie, I just can’t help it”

The truth is that your body is in the shape it is because of a set of habits that you have picked up and followed for years. It could be the Friday night drinking spree, the 2 litre bottle of carbonated beverage that you go through in two days, the dessert binges every other day, or as in my case, all of the above!

‘Getting into shape’ often needs sweeping changes in habits, and not all of these come easy.

In my opinion, the desire to change is the most important. It is this desire that inspires changes, and ensures that you get back on the wagon every time you fall off. Your desire for change must be stronger than your craving for your favourite junk food, a slothful week, or anything that gets in the way of your fitness goals.

Another important thing is your support structure. It is very important for those close to you to understand the changes that you’re trying to make, and if not help you with them, at least not try to pull you down.

A year ago, when I decided to give up all alcohol for a month, a long time friend wouldn’t buy any reason for me not having a drink. I had to tell him that I was on antipsychotic medication that reacts terribly with alcohol before he stopped badgering me! I wouldn’t blame him though, there was a time when the two of us were called ‘bar bankrupters’, because between us, we could drink a small home-bar dry.

Like him, many friends will not understand the ‘change’ – some might resent it, some might try to roll it back, but if you’re lucky, you’ll find those who will pat you on the back and help you deal with it.

Luckily for me, most of my friends though, have been very understanding of my diet choices, and even help me work meal/activity plans around my needs.

The most important thing is persistence. There is a strong possibility that you will fall off the wagon. I did, every weekend for six months. When you do mess up, don’t get back on your programme from ‘tomorrow’ or ‘Monday’, do it right then. Stop what you’re doing and fix things from the next meal itself.

Suppose you miss a couple of gym sessions, don’t let the guilt get to you, just get back to attending from your next session. Every day off your program will subtract seriously from your gains.

The best way to manage a lifestyle U-Turn successfully, is to ease into it. If you make too many changes at the same time, things will become difficult.

Say, on a given Monday, you decide to hit the gym, start a diet, and quit smoking, by Thursday, you’ll be faint from the sugar/carb cravings, sore from the exercise, and psychotic from the nicotine deprivation.

The best way to do this is to start simple – eliminate the harmful stuff first. Say on day 1 you quit smoking. Once you’re properly off cigarettes for a month or so, begin a diet. Once you’ve been able to stick with the diet for a couple of months, start working out. This will ensure that your body beats these stresses one at a time instead of all at the same time, increasing your chances of success.

The SixPack Project

After I successfully cut my waist from around 42.5 inches to 35 inches, I wondered if it would make sense to take this a bit further and push it all the way to having a well-defined torso – commonly known as a six-pack.

In the past year, I’ve dropped a fair bit of weight and a pretty serious amount of body fat, and I think that with a little more self-control, I’ll be able to drop the rest too. So here are the mission parameters:

Objective: Six Pack Abs

Deadline: 4 Calendar Months, July 25, 2012

Key Performance Indicators: Visual Data (obviously), body fat percentage <10%.

Metrics: Daily body fat readings and 5-day moving average.

How am I going to accomplish this?

1) Diet:

I have realised that diet is going to be 90% of this. I will be cutting all empty calories like fast food, desserts, alcohol, etc, until I come down to the body-fat levels required for this to happen. I will be sticking to mainly natural and unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables for calories and nutrients. My protein requirements will come from eggs, fish, and cheese. I have found plain yoghurt to be a very healthy way to feel full without consuming too many calories. I’ll be sticking with my favourite – Nestle A+ available here in India.

2) Exercise:

Not being a fan of the health-club culture, I am going to be using a combination of Kettlebells and bodyweight exercises to get a workout. This gives me the ability to mix and match components of workouts. The only equipment I have is a canvas punching bag, 8Kg and 16Kg kettlebells, and a pull-up rack.

My most important tool here is my Gymboss interval timer. I use it to time intervals on my kettlebell workouts and also the ’rounds’ for my boxing workout.

I’ll soon be sharing my data logs in another post on here.

My diet is loosely based on ‘Turbocharged’ by Dian and Tom Greisel http://turbocharged.us.com/

Gymboss interval timers are an awesome workout tool, and can be bought online from http://www.gymboss.com/. Shipping is very fast, even to a country like India. I have bought several of these without any issues. Because of the loud alarm, they’re great help in the kitchen, and often remind me of something that I’ve left on the fire!

The Eat-Exercise Cycle

In my 7-year struggle with my weight, I have used all kinds of methods to try to drop the flab – running, weight training, interval training, HIIT, and kettlebells. The only method that gave me sustainable results was a combination of diet and exercise.

For example, a 30 minute interval running session burns about 300 calories. One snickers bar though, has about 270 calories. So do a number of fitness enthusiasts live in a diet/exercise cycle where they consume, and then have to exercise to get rid of the excess calories? And if their activity ceases, would they gain weight rapidly? I think so – in fact, that’s my story! Plagued with a chronic spinal ailment, I’d find my weight shoot up every time I had to stop exercising because my back was acting up.

So really, a low-calorie diet like Turbocharged may be the best way to maintain optimal weight when one has a sedentary lifestyle, n’est-ce pas?

I think so. Vigourous exercise has other costs to the body – mainly in wear and tear. Now exercise is important for optimal health and function, I would never dispute that, but how much is too much? Lots of people who I know have been training for many years have a number of injuries. Body builders generally have mucked up shoulders and backs, marathon runners have their knee and heel problems, and sportsmen usually have a list of complaints typical to their sport.

For people stuck in this diet/exercise cycle, it might make sense to actually break out of it by cutting back on calorie intake. Remember, fitness is not just about weight or medical indicators, it is also about ability and being injury free.

So break out of that Eat-Exercise cycle. It’ll do you good!

Exercise And Depression

Modern medicine seems to have moved away from a ‘cure’ approach to a ‘disease management’ approach. What else would explain the increasing number of people on perpetual medication for hypertension, heart disease, depression, pain, and a host of other problems.

Especially with emotional and psychological issues, what in the yesteryear was simply called melancholia has now been branched into several forms of ‘depression’, each treated with drugs that have frightening side effects. As tolerance to these drugs builds, more are added on, as are other meds to control the side-effects of the main ones. More worrying now, is the trend in certain countries where drug companies are allowed to market potent prescription medication directly to consumers!

At least for depression, we now have a number of studies that show how moderate exercise and a generally healthy lifestyle can deal with most of its effects. The Duke University study on exercise and depression is one that I love to quote.

http://today.duke.edu/2000/09/exercise922.html

“After demonstrating that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week is just as effective as drug therapy in relieving the symptoms of major depression in the short-term, medical center researchers have now shown that continued exercise greatly reduces the chances of the depression returning.

Last year, the Duke researchers reported on their study of 156 older patients diagnosed with major depression which, to their surprise, found that after 16 weeks, patients who exercised showed statistically significant and comparable improvement relative to those who took anti-depression medication, or those who took the medication and exercised.”

This article dates to 2000. What really concerns me is that in the years since, the number of antidepressants available in the market has exploded, and what’s more, they’re now being prescribed to children!

Could it be, that with increasingly sedentary lifestyles and diminishing face to face contact, our minds are not receiving the kind of social and (natural) chemical stimuli needed for happiness?

Could it be that the guy who spends his time playing video games instead of field/court sports and interacting on Facebook instead of inviting friends for dinner or hosting a cocktail party is actually setting himself up for depression or aggravating his existing loneliness and melancholia?

Coming back to exercise and depression – is it that hard to fit an hour and a half of exercise into a week? Lets see if there are options that can help fitness AND improve social contact.

1) Aerobics Classes: Old School, but works, you get a decent workout and have the opportunity to interact with other people in a class – a good opportunity to make new friends. Also consider the new avatar, Zumba.

2) Dance Classes: Find something vigourous with the potential for social dancing, like  Salsa, Bachata, or the Tango. Many other vigourous dance forms like Jive, and Lindy Hop are enjoying a resurgence too and are a fun way to be active and social. With the emphasis on posture and form in most dances, you will look better and more graceful.

3) Join the neighbourhood soccer game (India): All over the country, young men congregate in open spaces to play soccer or volleyball every now and then. Apart from an intense workout, you’ll also enjoy the camaraderie and will forge new friendships.

4) Martial Arts Classes: Most martial arts are very intense, and apart from strength and stamina, also build balance, reflexes, and co-ordination. They’re also a tremendous way to build self-confidence. Choose something like Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or Krav Maga. Make sure though, that your instructor is not mean, and lessons don’t involve humiliation and/or brutality. (disclosure: the author is associated with the International Krav Maga Association in India)

5) Join a running/cycling club: These two forms of fitness are really exploding in popularity. Again, this provides a good opportunity for fitness and mingling. Often, the veterans go out of their way to ensure that you’re comfortable and help a lot with equipment and training choices. Running has to be the cheapest fitness activity out there. If you join the barefoot movement, you don’t even need a pair of shoes!

These are just a handful of options that any city-dweller can use to improve their mental health and aim for a healthier lifestyle.