Chemical Lessons

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My body reminded me of something important today. Due to unusual circumstances I ended up drinking two cups of coffee (double stovetop Moka Pot and a large mug of French Press) this morning. Today is a busy day – I’m traveling on business, and will be in the air for much of the day. I was trying to get as much done between 0700 and 0900. Within 20 minutes of the second cup I was in a near panic – dealing with things that are routine for me in the course of my work. What the hell was going on?

Sitting at my (home) work desk, I tried my three minute mindfulness meditation. It did centre me mentally, but I could feel the panic in my limbs – a scary sense of detachment very similar to being severely drugged – when your body does not feel the way your mind expects it to. I managed to get out of the house and to my cab with that lingering sense of dread. I did more breath meditating in the taxi – then it struck me. Caffeine. The jumbo overdose of caffeine.

Sitting here in the boarding lounge, it all came together. I recalled a period of three months last year when I went off all stimulants. This had been an intensely painful time for me, as I was dealing with a devastating life event. Life at that time was just work, exercise, yoga, and meditation. No sugar, no alcohol, and no coffee. The daily meditation kept me centred and functional – important when a desperate sadness is hanging over your entire life like a dark cloud. The sugar free diet kept my energy levels constant throughout the day – nice when you’re living a high-stress consulting industry lifestyle. The yoga and exercise gave me killer fucking abs.

So now I think back – perhaps that is a good way to be. Minus the chemical stimulants, perhaps I’ll be more focused and thus able to vanquish the distractions that mock my plans to study and write. There is the social impact of not drinking alcohol and coffee – but as with that time, people get used to it rapidly.

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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

Desperate Measures

Every now and then, I see posts in the social media, where people wishing to “get in shape” go on a “program”, “cleanse” or “detox” for anywhere between three and 30 days. In India, this has hit a whole new level of insanity, where brides to be embark on an extremely aggressive programme that includes weight loss and skin lightening in the weeks leading up to their wedding. It is perhaps thanks to a culture of instant gratification where people expect tremendous results in an unrealistic amount of time. The fad diets aside, these unrealistic expectations coupled with a supersize helping of slothfulness have spawned a multi-billion dollar industry of pills, potions, and machines that are supposed to give you that body of your dreams.

Coming back to the fad diets and detoxes, a large number of these are “very low calorie diets” that will cause a serious calorie deficit, and consequently some weight loss. However, the first few kilos lost are usually “water weight” which will return within days of resuming old diet habits. Frustration aside, there are potentially dangerous side effects. Sustained low calorie intake can destroy muscle tissue and weaken vital organs. Fad diets that focus on a single food or food group can leave the body deprived of essential nutrients and trigger other illnesses. Even if there is some weight loss, it is unsustainable in the long run.

In my journey from 108 Kgs to a peak-fitness weight of 74 Kgs, I learnt 3 key lessons that ALL the information on weight loss breaks down to.

Firstly, no matter what TV infomercials, pumped up fitness trainers, or that overweight diet expert in your office tell you, weight loss is a function of calories consumed vs calories expended. If you burn more than you eat, you lose weight and if you eat more than you burn, you gain weight.

Secondly, good health has a little to do with calories and everything to do with nutrition. Your diet must include a complex range of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals to ensure optimum health.

Thirdly, exercise is critical to preserve (if not build) strength, mobility, and endurance.

Getting healthy is not a weekend project or a month-long plan. It is an aggressive reprogramming of your mind and body and includes critical changes to every aspect of your life. If you make the changes and follow what works consistently, you will succeed – else, you will be stuck in the vicious cycle of crash diets and magical supplements.

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!

Don’t Shun Water!

In the quest to lose weight, curtail ageing, and deal with many chronic illnesses, one of the most overlooked tools is Water.

 The human body is over 70% water, and even a 5% deficit triggers severe symptoms like nausea, fatigue, and disorientation. It is surprising though, that most people today live in a state of chronic dehydration. Indeed, many problems, ranging from obesity, to kidney and bladder complaints have been linked to insufficient water consumption.

 Water, in its capacity as a solvent, is a potent cleanser, and helps eliminate toxins via sweat and urine. Without adequate water intake, this mechanism is impaired, resulting in an accumulation of toxins in the body that could cause other illnesses. Also, water is very important for fat loss, as it plays a major part in fat metabolism.  Additionally, when water intake is inadequate, the body may retain water to compensate, adding weight, and a visible bloat.

 Also, for those worried about the effects of ageing on skin, increasing your water intake will restore cellular hydration and improve the elasticity and suppleness of skin.

 Dian and Tom Griesel, in their book Turbocharged, suggest that people often mistake thirst for hunger, and thus consume unnecessary calories, contributing to weight gain. In fact, this diet, that worked best for me, has a very strong emphasis on water consumption.

 Those of us who work in an air-conditioned environment are most certainly dehydrated, as the air is usually dry and the temperature delays the perception of thirst till it manifests as a dry mouth. The fact is, if your mouth is dry, you’ve likely been dehydrated for quite some time, and the effects of dehydration have already started to manifest.

 The most effective way to tell if you’re dehydrated, is from the colour of your urine. If it is dark yellow or brown, you may be dangerously dehydrated. Clear to pale yellow means you’re alright – the clearer the better. Caution though, certain medications and vitamin supplements tend to colour your urine, so you may want to be careful while making such a judgment.

 If you feel lethargic in the middle of your workday and have difficulty concentrating, you are likely dehydrated. It is best to carry a water bottle and sip every few minutes, so that your water intake remains adequate. For the first few weeks, you will be dashing to the rest room every now and then, but as your system expands its capacity, you’ll be able to go for longer without even noticing it.

 If you’re working out, the stresses on your body may make it harder for you to perceive dehydration. Make sure you sip water between sets, as dehydration also saps your athletic performance and thus your ability to get a good workout. Remaining hydrated during a workout also helps your body flush the by products of metabolism accumulated in your muscles. Several studies have also found a connection between muscle cramps and dehydration, so if you’re an aspiring runner or are taking part in any form of endurance exercise, keep this in mind.

 How to get water? The simplest way, of course, is to drink water itself! Carbonated drinks, coffee, and alcoholic beverages, though water-based, may actually contribute to dehydration through the diuretic action of some of their components. Fruits are a good source, with watermelon being my personal favourite source of water. 

The Turbocharged Diet:

http://turbocharged.us.com/

PS// I have used the Turbocharged Diet, and have had good results from it. I am not being compensated for this endorsement.

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 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!