Thursday, April 16, 2015

You Gotta Put in the Work

The best thing for you is not to exercise too much and not to worry about your weight.

Perfect, right? The best route on your fitness journey, according to SCIENCE, is basically not to worry about your health. Break out the Doritos and fire up the Netflix!

OK, you probably realize I'm not buying this one. And as you also probably realize, I'm not the only one. So why did these two notions recently spread like wildfire over the Internet? If you've been following the blog, you know that I'm a big believer in doing what works for you, and a big critic of beast-mode fitspo. So I apologize if this comes off a bit harsh, but the reason these things went viral: Some people are simply looking for the easy path. And what easier path than not worrying about your health at all?

You Had to Know There'd Be a Catch
Here's the problem with limiting your exercise and not worrying about your diet: Shockingly, it's not actually good for you.

Alex Hutchinson at Runners World has been beating the exercise drum for some time now, and he's more or less dispensed with the O'Keefe worldview of limited activity. And a new study -- with a much broader set of experimental data -- strongly supports what we knew all along: It's pretty dang difficult to exercise too much. 661,000 people studied, and the lowest mortality risk was among those who do three to five times the exercise the government recommends.

Meanwhile, critics who point to the so-called "obesity paradox" -- data that suggests that overweight and mildly obese people live longer -- are cherry-picking their facts. As it turns out, COPD patients -- particularly those with peripheral artery disease -- tend to have below-average BMIs and waist circumferences. COPD is the number-four killer disease in the U.S., and about 10 percent of people worldwide suffer from it. In other words, there's strong scientific evidence that it isn't so much that you live longer if you're fat, but that you die early and skinny if you smoke. Moreover, scientists are learning that BMI is a crude measure. People who are "big-boned" aren't the ones at risk -- people who carry a lot of actual fat are.

Of course, none of this is proof-positive of anything, but for my money, when science leans in the direction of common sense, you should give it a lot of credence.

There's No Sense Complaining
So let's agree that there's only one way to improve your health and fitness, and it's really simple: Eat less and move more. Note that I didn't say "easy." I said "simple." Which brings us to the title of this post: You Gotta Put in the Work.

I hope you've been checking out FftRG's weekly Regular Guy Reads of the Week feature. Lots of good advice there from people who know much more than I do. On the same Friday I cited the articles about too much exercise and not worrying about your weight, I also linked to this gem: "So You Say You Hate Exercise." Personal running coach Debbie Woodruff  makes a point that's so simple in its wisdom that it's pretty much irrefutable: We do lots of things we don't like, because they allow us to live our lives. You go to work. You do the dishes. You balance the checkbook. You scoop the kitty litter. You clean the gutters. None of it is any fun, but you keep doing it. Why should taking care of yourself be any different? All those "have to's" aren't worth anything if you're not doing your best to live an active, healthy, happy life.

Some Other Shortcuts, Besides Not Trying at All

OK, so if you've stayed with me this far, you're on board with the idea that you gotta do the work. Yes, there are short-term strategies that can give you a jump-start, but committing to a healthy life over the long term means adopting a diet and exercise plan you can sustain forever.

Replacement Shakes: For a short-term fix or a jump-start, I have no problem with Isagenix or Shakeology or the like. I know people who've had success with them. But you can't drink two shakes a day instead of breakfast and lunch for the rest of your life. You'll go nuts. And the real benefit to these things is convenience, not superior nutrition. Once you're done with the shakes, you still have to craft a diet that hits your calorie allowances and macros. So why not just start with that in the first place?

Metabolism Boosters: As I wrote a few months ago, these are total BS. Green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and the like will leave you lighter in the wallet, but that's it. There are variances in basal metabolic rates from person to person, but they really don't have anything to do with your weight, and pills won't do anything to change them.

Low-Carb Diets: There's actually some reasonable science behind Atkins and the like, but many of its advocates make ridiculous claims about inflammation and insulin production. Your body uses more calories to burn protein than it does to burn carbs -- you can use up to 20 percent of a high-protein food's calories just by digesting it. And protein tends to leave you feeling fuller, so you may eat less of it. The problem: Your energy levels will be in the toilet, and you'll be so sick of steak and chicken that you'll be willing to kill for a single slice of pizza. Again, it works in the short term, but it's really difficult to sustain. You also run the risk of kidney damage by eating too much protein. (Before I scare you, I'm not talking about 100 or even 150 grams a day, but like 300 or 400.)

"Fat-Blasting" Workouts: Anytime I see an article promoting a workout or move that promises to "blast" or "fry" fat, I ignore it. Chances are, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of these, as long as they don't increase your risk of injury. But this one's actually pretty simple -- it's just math. Burning calories -- and thus fat -- is solely a function of how high your heart rate gets, and how long it stays there. If you're interested, you can delve into the details of aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise, but the science behind this is 100 percent clear: Cardio burns fat. It's simply a question of how much.

Cleanses: Evolution gave you a liver and kidneys for a reason. They already do a damn good job filtering stuff out for you. You are not going to lose any additional fat by drinking lemon water or eating cabbage soup for a week. You may lose weight by virtue of calorie restriction, but not because those things have any magic properties.

What Does It Mean to Put in the Work?
I know a number of Regular Guys who've made the commitment to getting healthier after years of self-neglect. Heck, I'm one of them. And that got me thinking about another Regular Guy Read of the Week titled "At Races, How Slow Is Too Slow." A few weeks ago, a story went viral after a runner was allegedly pulled from the course in mile one of a 20-mile race. (The facts are actually in dispute.)

There are two basic camps here:
  • One side says that runners come in all shapes, sizes and ability levels, and if the ultimate goal is to encourage people to be more active, we shouldn't be threatening to "sweep" them when they fall behind a certain threshold.
  • The other side suggests that at some point, you're not really running anymore, and the expense and burden shouldn't be on race organizers to accommodate what they see as self-indulgent non-athletes who didn't train.
I'll be honest: I think there's validity to both sides of this argument. We should be doing anything we can to encourage people to be more active. And by "we," I mean the running and fitness communities. On the other hand, someone who's averaging 16-minute miles is moving at less than 4 miles per hour. I have friends who would disagree, but to my mind, that's walking. 

But I think that seeing the validity of both sides of this argument is actually exactly what it means to put in the work. No Regular Guy is going to win the Boston Marathon, the Mr. Universe championship or Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash. So what you're really measuring yourself against is you. Putting in the work means trying to improve you.

And that's not really a difficult concept. It's a bunch of little things, like declining that second piece of cake, going a couple more minutes on the treadmill or bike, adding five more pounds to the bar before you lift, or incorporating progressions (such as staggered-hands pushups) into your workout. In other words, it's not settling for good enough. Or, to bring this one back home, it's about not taking the easy path.

Remember, it's not just about you. It's about all the people around you who care about you and depend on you. You're worth the effort!

Sound Off!
Have you been on the diet and exercise roller coaster before? What are you doing now to make a long-term commitment to your health? Let's hear it! Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter!

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