Monday, March 30, 2015

Getting Older, Getting Better

We all complain about getting older. But how much is reality, and how much of it is just Regular Guy kvetching?

When I go to the gym, or am out on the roads or trails, the other fit-minded folks I see fall into two basic age brackets: 20-somethings, and people who are 40 or older.

First Off, Let's Own Our Shortcomings
Let's acknowledge a basic reality here and get it out of the way: The guys in that middle group, in their late 20s through early 40s, are often in the midst of building their careers and their families. That's the time when you really set up your career path, and it's the time when you're busy with childcare, playdates, driving kids all over creation, and all that fun stuff. I'm going to talk more about this in a long-promised post about the challenges to getting and keeping fit, I swear. But not today.

Today, let's just accept that for a lot of guys, your 30s is when you go from being that trim, good-looking young man to a kinda squishy, not-so-fit middle-aged guy. And it's not just because you don't have the time for fitness -- your body isn't cooperating the way it used to, either. Experts say that after age 25, your basal metabolism (how many calories you burn with a basic existence) drops by about 2 percent per decade. Your maximum heart rate drops by about a beat a year. And by age 30, you start losing about 1 percent of your muscle a year.

But Accepting That Reality Doesn't Mean You Can't Change It
There I am blowing out the 4-0 candles!
There are a lot of advantages for Regular Guys who've hit the big 4-0:

  • Generally, you're starting to hit the point in your family life where your kids require less constant supervision. They're in school, they're more self-sufficient, and they have their own stuff going on, too. 
  • You have a better sense of how to set goals, make a plan and follow through, because you've done it before.
  • You're simply more mature, and that means you're more likely to stick with it.
  • Many of your friends are also getting to the same general point in life, too, which means you have a built-in support structure.
  • Let's face it: The days of hitting the bars four or five nights a week are over. You're not dragging yourself out of bed hung over, and that makes everything easier.

Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon about a year ago at age 38. And the average age for a male marathon finisher is actually older than 40. This is really just a confirmation of what should be common sense, but it's never too late to embark on a healthy lifestyle. Not only are you increasing your odds of living a long life, you're increasing your odds of living a happy, active life.

Let's Get Down to Brass Tacks
As we've discussed, a solid exercise plan for a Regular Guy includes a mix of cardio and strength training, tailored to your specific goals. There are a lot of details about frequency and intensity you can get lost in. But for most Regular Guys, the idea is to improve both aerobically and anaerobically. That last link is pretty technical. So, in simpler terms, what are we actually trying to accomplish here?

  • The most obvious: You're burning additional calories, which contributes to a calorie deficit -- i.e., weight loss.
  • You're building lean muscle mass. Muscle does burn more calories at rest than fat does, though the difference is negligible unless you've put on serious muscles. However, you'll look better and you'll have more functional strength to do the things that are important to you. You'll also increase your ability to push your aerobic exercise further, meaning you'll have more ability to burn more calories.
  • By strengthening your heart and increasing your aerobic capacity, you're reducing your risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • You're increasing -- or at least maintaining -- bone density. This, of course, is important as you grow older and your body steals more and more calcium from your bones.
  • You're staving off Alzheimer's.

Let's Tie It All Together
Regular Guys, we are all getting older. Nothing we can do about that. But we can all commit ourselves to getting better, too! So let's sum this thing up:
  • Although your body isn't as cooperative as it used to be, getting older puts you in a much better position to commit to keeping fit and living your life.
  • Even if you've been mostly sedentary for a while, you can reap just about all of the benefits of being active if you get back into it now.
  • A solid mix of cardio and strength training will help you look better, feel better, be more active and set yourself up for a longer, happier life.
So if you haven't started a fitness regimen yet, it's OK! You can still do yourself a lot of good by getting going now. It doesn't have to be complicated to start. Find a few minutes in your morning to do some basic bodyweight exercises. Work a little extra activity into your day by walking a few blocks or taking the stairs. Find a friend who'll give you inspiration and support. You owe it to yourself and to your family, and you can do it! You've got this!

Getting older means getting better!

That's me finishing the E. Murray Todd Half Marathon

How has getting older affected the way you approach fitness? What's more challenging? What's easier to deal with? Sound off in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Regular Guy Reads of the Week: March 27th

Here's what I've been reading in the past week. I'm linking to a couple of motivational articles -- not something I normally do, but no knowledge is worth anything if you don't put it into practice. As always, if you have something you'd like me to link to, give me a heads up!

How Many People Get Enough (Or Too Much) Exercise? There's yet another article out there on the supposed dangers of too much exercise. Guess what? No new data, just more baloney.

Settling the Great Grain Debate: Repeat after me: Wheat is not bad for you.

Why It's Time We Paid Employees to Exercise at Work: Hear, hear! A healthier workforce is more productive and costs less in health insurance.

Just Because It's on the Internet Doesn't Mean It's True - Part One: Donuts: I've said it before, and I'm not the only one: Anyone who tells you there's only one way to get results is full of it.

The Weight of the Evidence: Diets Do Not Work: I'm not buying what's being sold here, but I need to do more research. It's all about the so-called "obesity paradox": Mortality rate data supposedly shows that mildly obese folks live longer.

Cardio Makes You Fat and Apples Will Rise: Sort of a misleading headline -- this is a pro-cardio piece. There is literally NO scientific evidence suggesting that you gain weight doing cardio.

So You Say You Hate Exercise: Suck it up, buttercup! You probably hate cleaning the bathroom, getting up before 9:00 a.m. and many other things you do because they make your life livable.

10 Habits of People Who Love to Work Out: My favorite: They don't think about how much weight they're losing.

Five Cures for Gym Intimidation: I'll admit that I still get intimidated by the free-weights section of the gym.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Don't Be a Hater

I don't have all the answers. And neither do you.

The sooner you acknowledge this, the happier you'll be in your fitness journey -- and the happier the people around you will be, too! It's all about doing what works for you, and what works for you may not work for your best friend, your wife, your co-workers or that guy you see all the time at the gym.
Haters gonna hate, hate, hate...

There's No One Right Way
As I've suggested before, you should ignore anything and anyone suggesting that there's only one way to do something -- particularly when that advice comes with ridicule for anyone doing it differently. Two basic reasons:
  • The best exercise is the exercise you'll actually do. If you dread it so much that you avoid it and stay on the couch instead, it's not a good exercise.
  • Every form of exercise has benefits, and everyone's goals are different.

The Stuff Haters Hate On
Cardio: Wander into the strength-training area of the gym, particularly the free-weights section. You will find someone, and probably a lot of someones, who believe that cardio is the enemy of muscle and of fitness in general. The logic goes that when your heart rate is elevated, your body will choose to burn muscle over fat, and you'll actually become weaker. There are two problems with this theory, which I've discussed more in depth before:
  • Your body doesn't burn muscle exclusively during cardio, nor does it burn fat exclusively during resistance training.
  • It ignores the fact that the exercise itself builds muscles. For example, as a runner, I can move a lot of weight on the leg press -- more than many dedicated lifters can.
Using Weight Machines: Many hardcore weightlifters will insist that lifting free weights is the only right way to do strength training. And there is some logic to this: When you lift free weights, your body has to recruit "stabilizing" muscles -- areas around the actual muscle you're working. So you can work on stabilization while you're also gaining explosive strength. But the advantage to machines -- whether they're the Nautilus type with cables and pins, or Hammer Strength with racks for plates -- is that you can isolate a certain group of muscles. Our bodies will naturally overcompensate -- i.e., cheat -- when we're trying to overload a muscle. Having a machine that defines the plane of motion forces you to work out the right muscles and gain the improvement you're looking for. And there are certain lifts, such as leg presses, that simply require a machine. My suggestion: a mix of both, favoring whatever you're more comfortable with.

Treadmills: I've found a pretty strong correlation between runners who thump their chests in "beast mode" and runners who look down their noses at the treadmill. Don't be a baby, they say. Or they'll insist that you're not getting the same workout. It's all crap. 
Lily and I have done a few snow runs. It's not so much fun.
  • If weather conditions would make you miserable, don't run outside. I've run in as cold as 20 degrees, in snow, in rain and in heat, and I can say that there have been plenty of times when I would've preferred a nice dry, climate-controlled atmosphere. Again, if you hate it so much that you don't do it at all, it's not beneficial.
  • Safety can be an issue, too. If your work schedule precludes you from running in daylight, and you don't feel safe on your local roads, don't run outside. There's only so much that reflective gear and pepper spray can do for you.
  • You will get a good workout. Despite a litany of anecdotal evidence, studies have shown that treadmill runs are as effective as outdoor runs
  • Treadmills are great for interval training, when you want to run specific speeds for specific amounts of time. They're also helpful if you want to push the pace -- your choices are run at the speed you've set or fly off the back of the machine.

Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezghi
Foot Strike: I believe strongly that there is such a thing as bad running form -- I'll talk about that in a sec. However, no two people are alike (except for twins), so it stands to reason that everyone's ideal running form is going to be a bit different, too. But don't tell that to mid-foot strike zealots. You may have heard about the best-selling book Born to Run. It's largely responsible for the barefoot-running craze in the past decade. The idea is that if you land on your heel -- which most of us do -- you are more susceptible to injury. But experts say that posture is far more important. In other words, you want to land with your weight above your feet, to get the best shock absorption. There's nothing wrong with mid-foot striking, but most recreational runners are going to have a tough time with a transition to a mid-foot strike, and the benefits won't be as great as advertised. Shorten up your stride and let your foot land how it's going to land.

Eating Carbs: I've written before about all those specialized diets out there. But in my experience, the anti-sugar, anti-carb crowd is the worst when it comes to proselytization. These "clean eaters" are convinced that the only means to good health is to cut out all bread and pasta, and anything with any added sugar. They'll also jump up and down about "processed foods," but good luck getting anyone to explain exactly what the specific harm is. Don't get me wrong -- I think you can succeed with a low-carb diet. But it means cutting out a lot of foods you probably like, and it means feeling like crap while you do it, especially on workout days. As I've said many times, do what works for you. If that's the way you can create a calorie deficit, cut out the carbs! Just ignore those people who have you convinced you're doing it wrong.

The One Thing You Should Hate On
Now I'm not suggesting you be that guy who goes around correcting strangers at the gym, but there is one exception to all of this: bad form. Bad form isn't doing what works for you -- at best, it's inefficient, and at worst, it's a good way to get hurt.

If you don't do the full exercise, you won't get the benefit. For example, I saw a guy at the gym the other day doing squats with enough weight to cause the bar to bow. But he wasn't even getting his quads parallel to the floor. He was missing the most beneficial part of the exercise, pushing the weight through your glutes. Another example: Have you ever seen someone on the elliptical who's simply shifting his weight from one foot to the other? He's using gravity, not his body, to do the work.

If you don't maintain the proper body position, you can hurt yourself. I saw another guy in the gym bench pressing more weight than he should have, and he was bowing his back so badly I thought it might snap. You're much better off lifting what you can and doing it right.

If you try to run too fast, your form will suffer and you will hurt yourself. As we discussed above, there's a raging debate about running form, particularly foot strike. But one thing I can guarantee: You need to keep your weight over your feet if you want to avoid injury. That's the only way to ensure that your whole body absorbs the shock of landing. And the most common way to overextend is to try to go faster than you realistically can. Sure, you'll be fine in a dead sprint for a couple hundred meters, but if you try to keep that up over miles, you'll be sorry.

So Don't Be a Hater
People have their own reasons for doing the things they do, just like you do. Chances are, there's someone at the gym or on the trail or the road who sees you and does a mental eye roll. But as long as you know you're not taking shortcuts and you're working toward your goals, you should keep doing what you do -- and you should assume that everyone else is, too.

Ever encountered a serious hater on your fitness journey? What did that person try to convince you of? Was it totally ridiculous? Or did you take it to heart? Sound off on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments section below!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Regular Guy Reads of the Week: March 20th

Sorry I haven't given you guys a full blog post this week. I have two in the works. Meanwhile, here are some great fitness reads. And as always, I'm looking for suggestions -- particularly if you've written it yourself!

Fast Twin, Slow Twin: A recent study suggests that genetics isn't the dominant factor in fitness. Caveat: The sample size is extremely small, so you can't really draw conclusions.

Normal-Sized Guys Who Are Freakishly Strong Tell You How They Did It: I'm less concerned with the how-to than with the basic message: Worry about functional strength, not bulging biceps.

The 8 Basic Types of Runs: An oldie but goodie. Muscleheads look at us runners and assume all we do is plod along. But different exercises help you in different ways.

Body-Weight Training Is the #1 Fitness Trend: Who's been telling you this for months?

How to Get Your Spouse to Exercise: This is a somewhat misleading headline. It's more about how married folks influence each other's fitness habits.

3 Strategies for Sticking to Your Health and Fitness Goals: This is some basic stuff, but it's never bad to help yourself get re-focused.

9 Reasons Your Gym Routine Isn't Helping You Lose Fat: There's a lot of debatable "info" in here, and some good suggestions. The important thing is to think rationally about what works for you.

At Races, How Slow Is Too Slow? This is an old debate that got re-kindled this week when a Facebook post went viral. I have my own thoughts on the subject and will do a blog post about it soon.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Regular Guy Reads of the Week: March 13th

I'm continuing with my plan to do a weekly roundup of good articles I've seen on the Web. Hope you get something out of it! And hit me up on Facebook or Twitter if you've seen (or written) something you think would work for the list!

The 100 Laws of Muscle: You have to get past some of the musclehead bias against cardio and running, but there are some great pieces of advice, like: "People get great results and build impressive bodies with many different training philosophies. But they all have one thing in common: they bust ass. Working hard works. Period. Don't forget that part."

The Truth About Overtraining: I'm not sure how much of this I agree with, but it's an interesting take on an oft-discussed topic. Are you really overtrained or are you just making excuses?

Prolonging Running Injuries With Strict Rest: Another unorthodox perspective. But my experience with piriformis syndrome jibes with this, so I'd give it some credence.

Why We Still Need Cardio Training: A More Effective Approach: There's some good and bad in here. The good: Let's dispense with the musclehead mantra of no cardio. The bad: HIIT is the only "effective" cardio.

Get Over It: Some common-sense advice for getting past mental roadblocks. I would have liked the article to address the biggest obstacle to exercise: life.

Weights, Cardio or Both? I think you'll find that this blog post -- from another RunJersey contributor -- echoes my thoughts. Some good basic physiology info in here.

Achieving the Mission Impossible: This one's about how to fit serious training into an otherwise busy life. The author assumes you have obligations you can't just schedule around, so the focus is on getting the most out of your workouts, not on the life-training balance.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What Is Your Core and Why Is It So Important?

Stop me if you've heard this one before. The one exercise mantra you probably hear more than any other is: You need a strong core.

The problem is that everyone has a different idea of what your core is, how best to work it, and what exactly you're trying to accomplish. It truly is a moving target. But the short version is that your core is the base of your body and the base of your fitness. It's what stabilizes you. Think of it as your body's version of a house foundation -- everything you do builds on it. 

One thing everyone agrees on: The core is more than just your abs. If you're looking for info on how to get a six-pack, this ain't it.

What Exactly Is Your Core?
I want to try to sort some of this stuff out. First off, let's acknowledge that there's no one right answer, and this is not one of those that-guy-is-full-of-BS arguments. Regardless of how you define the core, you're going to find exercises that are beneficial. And chances are, your definition of core is going to hinge at least partly on your overall goals.

That said, I'm going to differ with the idea that it's everything besides your extremities. We already have a word for that: torso. What I think of when I think of the core is the stuff that provides balance and stability so that you can do more specialized exercises. In short, I think of it as the part of your body that helps you with functional strength.

So I don't actually see the chest as part of your core, but again, that's just me. 

And I would probably extend it down beyond your waist into your glutes and quads. Yeah, you need those things to do stuff like squats and deadlifts. And yeah, the more power you have in your glutes and quads, the better a runner you'll be -- if that's your thing, like it is for me. 

So for me, the core is everything from the bottom of your sternum down to the bottom hem of your boxer shorts -- front, back, sides and middle.

Why Is Your Core So Important?
Think about just about any activity that requires physical exertion -- picking up your kid, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn, walking up stairs, anything. Now imagine trying to do those things with just your arms, your chest or the lower two-third of your legs. Could you? Maybe. Would you hurt yourself? Very likely.

So let's agree that you're not going to be able to do much without a strong core. And the stronger your foundation, the more house you can build on it.
  • Having that foundation is what allows runners and bikers to maintain form when everything inside the is screaming, "Stop!" And it's the magic potion that helps you climb those big hills.
  • If you're doing isolation strength training (e.g., dumbbell curls), having strong balance is what keeps your body stable so you can work that one part of your body.
  • And if you're doing compound lifts (e.g., deadlifts), you're both relying on your core to provide strength and strengthening it further.

How Can a Regular Guy Strengthen His Core?
Compound exercises like deadlifts, kettlebell swings and squat presses are fantastic exercises, and if you're doing them now, don't let me try to talk you out of them. But they all involve advanced movements that you should learn from a trainer or experienced lifter. And if you're starting from the beginning with core strength, you are probably better off building up a bit of a base before moving on to those bigger lifts.

So what is my suggestion? You guessed it: A good bodyweight routine. A few I would definitely focus on:
  • Basic plank: Look to increase the time you can hold a forearm plank until you can do it (at least once in a while) for 2 minutes. Then think about adding some variations
  • Side plank:. Look to increase the time you can hold a basic side plank -- supported by just forearm and the outside of your foot -- for 1 minute. You can also add in a set of dips (lowering and raising your hips).
  • Mountain climbers: Yup, just like grammar school gym class. Go slow and pull your knee as far forward as you comfortably can. 
  • Pushups: I'll admit that I flat-out stink at pushups. But they work almost every major muscle group. 
There are probably hundreds of other bodyweight moves you can do, and I have a bunch in my repertoire, but these will hit all of your core muscles, plus some others.

Questions? Comments? Disagreements? Insults?
As I said, there's plenty of room for different interpretations and approaches to core strength. A lot of good, experienced fitness pros come at it in a lot of ways. And so do Regular Guys. Hit me up in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter and let's get the conversation going!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Regular Guy Reads of the Week

As I mentioned on Facebook, I'm going to do a weekly roundup of good articles I've seen on the Web. This is my first shot at it. Hope you get something out of it! And hit me up on Facebook or Twitter if you've seen (or written) something you think would work for the list!

How Many Calories Does Running Burn? Distance is a greater factor than speed is, but you also have to weigh the risk of injury.

Should You Hit the Gym Hungry? Short answer: no. If you're training for an endurance event like a marathon, consider it once in a while, but otherwise, there's no benefit.

How to Set Good Running Goals: 2014 Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi's words of wisdom really can apply to any goal in life.

Does Greater Fitness Increase Longevity? LDO. But after the recent hubbub that too much running will kill you and the new "five-minutes of exercise" craze, this is actually a necessary read.

What 2000 Calories Actually Looks Like: This is an older article but a real eye-opener. Are you being honest with yourself about your intake?

Five Things a Dietitian Would Never Say: If you're a conspiracy theorist or a fad-diet chaser, you're not going to like this article.

The Problem With "Cheat Days": I was actually going to do this exact idea as a blog piece. A big key to fitness is a healthy relationship with food.

Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat: Low-fat works only if it helps you feel fuller for longer. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Blasphemy? I Joined a Gym

Say it ain't so! I've joined a gym.

I used to belong to a gym -- two actually -- but dropped those memberships last fall. I belonged to a full-service gym, but it was a bit far from my house, and the upkeep of equipment was getting to be an issue. The other one was a bargain gym that I used for access to a treadmill. But I really prefer running outside, and as FftRG readers know, I've become a big proponent of bodyweight exercises -- which you can do anywhere you have a six-by-two area of clear space.

But the New York Sports Club near my house was running a special, and it's really dirt cheap. So my favorite Regular Gal and I took the plunge.


Now wait a second, you might be saying. Isn't this a sellout? Doesn't it contradict the FftRG ethos? I say no. One of the key aspects of being a Regular Guy is that you should do what works for you. Yes, you can accomplish a lot by simply using your own bodyweight. But that doesn't mean it's the only way to do it, and it doesn't mean you can accomplish everything. For example, there's simply no substitute for lifting heavy stuff, no matter how many pushups you can bang out or how long you can hold a plank.

Belonging to a gym has some other benefits, too:
  • You have more flexibility. There's nothing stopping you from doing your bodyweight routine at the gym. But you have free weights, Hammer Strength machines, Smith machines, nautilus machines, medicine balls, kettlebells and lots of other stuff right at your fingertips.
  • You don't have to worry about the weather. OK, so in true Andrew fashion, I went through basically the whole winter, then joined a gym. But it's nice to know that I can still run even if it's frigid, pouring rain or whatever.
  • You'll learn stuff. You'll pick up lots of ideas just by watching other people at the gym. And most people, I've found, are happy to offer you a tip if you ask.
  • You'll be more disciplined. It's easy to slack off -- in both intensity and frequency. Paying a membership -- even a cheap one -- gives you some skin in the game. So you'll be motivated to go. And I find that when there are other people around me working hard, I'm less likely to take shortcuts.
Now the gym isn't for everyone, and that's OK. Perhaps you just don't have the time -- or at least free time when the gym is open. Maybe nobody's running a good deal in your area and you'd rather do crunches than lay out $30 or more a month. You may not feel comfortable leaving your kid in the gym's daycare -- if the gym has one. Not every gym will have the equipment you're looking for. And some people are just really self-conscious and don't feel comfortable at the gym -- especially when there are a ton of gym rats hanging around. 

But the most important thing for any Regular Guy to remember is that as long as you're getting your heart rate up and tearing some muscle fibers -- and you're keeping good form to prevent injury -- there's no bad way to exercise. It all depends on you, your likes, your dislikes, your goals and how things fit into your life.

So I joined a gym. And I'm good with it.