Tuesday, September 8, 2009

To exercise or not to exercise....

There has been much hullabaloo about the merits of exercise with regards to weight loss. One example....Below are my completely unscientific thoughts. First of all, the studies are kind of missing the point. I mean, they're making an ok point, which is that statistically speaking, it has been shown that exercise makes people hungry so they eat more and don't lose any weight. But the take away should not be that you don't exercise. I think the take away should be that you fine tune your exercise to be as efficient as possible, and learn to manage your hunger and eating patterns so that you're not overeating. You don't need to be a statistic.

I will accept that reducing calories to something along the order of 1400 per day, give or take, depending on various factors, is essential, even more essential than exercise. I tried for many years to exercise in the form of power walks with 3 lb weights, eat healthy (few sweets) but not seriously restrict or even monitor my calorie intake, and the result is that I was 45 lbs heavier than I am now! Or perhaps the better way to look at is: Nine months ago I cut my calorie intake (probably in half) kept the same healthy foods, and upped my exercise to be almost daily as well as focused on muscle building, not just cardio, and I pretty handily lost 45 lbs and gained tons of muscle definition. I just can't imagine what would have happened without the exercise. Especially for people with desk jobs, where the metabolism is slowed to a crawl most of the day.

Below are some observations based on nothing more than personal experience.
  1. Exercise can be both mentally relaxing and physically beneficial. But sometimes just achieving one or the other of those two things has to be enough. We can't always have the perfect situation. So if it's beautiful out and you have a kid to watch, take a nice outdoor walk and enjoy yourself. Or if it's raining and you're feeling tubby, put in the dvd and be done with it. The ideal exercise situation will usually not present itself when you are managing a busy life. My own personal love was rollerblading along the Charles riverbank. For years after moving out Boston proper my logistical inability to do that just meant I didn't want to do anything. Those days of rollerblading along the Charles are over! Accept it and move on. Finally I did. I climbed a dusty staircase with stuffy air all winter long and just made the best of it. And it turned out to be fun. I loved my talks with Abigail.
  2. Long outdoor walks of moderate intensity are very cathartic for the fresh air, easy to do with kids who like strollers, result in some (7lbs) weight loss especially when done with weights. At some phases in a person's life this is plain old good enough! Remember I have no babies or toddlers any more.
  3. Exercise - moderate or intense - for more than 45 min will definitely make you hungry.
  4. You don't have to kill yourself right away. You can work up to killing yourself when you're thinner!
  5. Exercise does not have to mean being tortured with sprints and drills for 2.5 hrs a day like high school sports. That was what I thought being "athletic" meant and I knew I couldn't do that so I never even tried to push beyond power-walking.
  6. Short "power-sculpt" sessions burn calories and build muscles. Proponents include Jillian Michaels/Bob Harper of the Biggest Loser and Jackie Warner, as well as most professional gym trainers. Power sculpt is 20-30 min of non-stop low-weight/high-rep weight training. usually 60 seconds per exercise, with a focus on burning out particular muscles until they're completely fatigued. It's kind of in-between cardio and anaerobic weight lifting, so heart rate is always up high, multiple body parts are worked and results are very quickly achieved. A focus is placed on large muscles which burn lots of calories when made bigger, as well as some kind of embarrassing focus on vanity muscles - toned upper arms, etc. It always surprises me on the DVD how open they are about the vanity aspect of things - "You want to look good when you go out at night, don't you?" I mean, how ridiculous! But I'm ok with my vain side now.
  7. Slowly cycling through weight machines at the gym is a monumental waste of time! If you're sitting on your behind for your whole exercise routine that should be a clue that it's not an effective routine.
  8. Exercising does not mean you get to eat huge blueberry muffins post workout.
  9. Extra eating is sometimes essential. I tried to not eat the first 100 calories I burned, but maybe eat the second 100 calories if I needed it.
  10. I think there is a point of diminishing return with jogging. Perhaps around 4 or 5 miles/day? Not sure but I'm no where near that point. But muscles need some variety in order to keep building.
  11. I read someplace that swimming makes you hungry because your body is fighting to keep its temperature up in the cool water. Not sure about the scientific merit of this assertion, but swimming and skiing definitely do result in ravenous hunger for me. All in all though, it's such a great exercise if you can control your hunger.
  12. Gym memberships are generally a huge waste of money. They may work for a few months at a time but inevitably something changes - kid's nap schedule, gym babysitter you like, another external conflict, your favorite spinning class moves time, etc. Just get some free weights and clear a space in the basement or living room and use a DVD. Or jog outside. Or something else simple and cheap.
  13. 30 minutes in and out. You must be able to achieve your exercise for the day in 30 min. I now do more, about 45, but for the longest time it was 20-30 min tops.
  14. Do it as many days a week as you can, at least 5.
  15. Know your mental limits. Understand when your life is just too crazy and don't kill yourself. You will have a less busy time. Babies grow up. Work slows down. Accept it and plan to do more at a specific date in the future. For example when child turns 2.
I remember one time about 2 years ago we took the kids on the trail I guess with a jogging stroller, and Dave wanted to go jogging. This was my first day upright after a 2 week horrible sinus infection. I was so exhausted and weak. And I was WAY out of shape and overweight. I jogged for about, oh maybe 25 seconds and practically collapsed in a heap with burning lungs. I think Dave wanted to divorce me right then and there. He got really annoyed and mean and I was so upset I almost killed him. He was horrified that I was so fat and out of shape and we were not one of those families who could "do things" like go jogging together. He hates jogging by the way but it was something we could do with the kids... I was so upset that he had no comprehension of, let alone sympathy for, my weakened physical state post-infection (and these were almost chronic by the way) and I was also embarrassed at my pathetic general out of shape-ness. I mean, if I hadn't been just getting over the sinus infection I probably could have run for 90 seconds, instead of 25 seconds. All sorts of emotions welled up and I think we barely spoke all day. It was awful. He met me in my Charles River rollerblading days, and thought he married an athlete. He always accuses me of the bait and switch. Really I just loved rollerblading. Poor man.

Obviously things are better now. I can now easily run/walk on and off for about 35 min. And I arguably have a better stomach than my husband, although he has no stretch marks!! He will always be a better athlete than me. I'm just plain not competitive enough. My point is that it is possible to work up to things, but you also have to recognize that it takes baby steps. You don't need to be made to feel like you're going to die to get in shape. You do need to push yourself, but not to that high school swim team please-kill-me-now-I-beg-you feeling. And as you lose weight it gets way easier to haul your body around.

Start small, push yourself as much as you can and you will improve. And you may, like me, even start to like exercising. Stake out your exercise time with your husband as something you really need. He will come around to granting you the time, without eye-rolling, and you'll have time to yourself without guilt.

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