As mentioned briefly in my last post, over the last couple of years I’ve made several healthy changes and am now probably the fittest I’ve been in my entire life (minus one short-lived season on the junior varsity tennis team in high school).
Growing up, I was never particularly athletic and, for the most part, hated PE and team sports. But after packing on the freshman 15 plus another 15 pounds during my last two years of college, when my diet consisted of pasta with cheese and 365 vanilla sandwich creme cookies, exercise was maybe a monthly occurrence, and I was lucky to get 6 hours of sleep a night, I spent about a year feeling pretty miserable about how I looked and felt before finally implementing a few simple changes. Here’s what I did.
1). Accepted that exercise is necessary
Believe it or not, this was a big barrier to overcome. I’d always thought that only those who were naturally athletic, or actual professional athletes, needed to exercise on a regular basis. Spending a year in New Zealand had a HUGE positive impact on my thinking in this regard. Kiwis are super into fitness and the outdoors, and the prevailing attitude is that exercise is something you do as part of everyday life, not to mention a great way to engage with nature.
In contrast, Americans act like exercise is torture: you go to a gym, feel miserable lifting weights for half an hour, shower off the sweat immediately, and then brag about your biceps to your friends. No. That’s a thoroughly unhealthy approach and unsustainable in the long run (at least for me).
My first forays into fitness were, appropriately, hikes in some of New Zealand’s beautiful parks and forests. I worked my way up gradually, starting with a 2-hour hike on mostly flat terrain, to shorter, more intense hikes going uphill, and finally to a 5-day hike through Abel Tasman National Park carrying a 30-lb pack the whole way. Hiking is a great way to build up leg strength & endurance without incurring the panting and sweating that accompanies more high-cardio forms of exercise. In other words, I think hiking is the perfect beginner workout.
2). Likewise, recognized that moderate exercise is just as valid as high-intensity workouts
Expanding on the typical American attitude to fitness, many Americans seem to believe that there’s no point in exercising unless you feel the pain. You know, all those stupid motivational t-shirts that say “pain is weakness leaving the body” and “suck it up so one day you won’t have to suck it in.” Again, I can’t think of an attitude more unhealthy, more insistent, or more discouraging!
Not every workout has to result in sore muscles and drenched clothing. In fact, it’s better if they don’t! The second form of exercise I adopted, after hiking, was good old yoga. I’d been doing yoga on and off since high school, and I have to give my mom and a fantastic yoga teacher at the local YMCA credit for helping me see through the mumbo-jumbo pseudo-religious nonsense that clouds the activity. Never mind the prana energy and the inner heart chakra; it’s all meaningless when disconnected from its origin and mildly infuriating when regurgitated by a wealthy white yoga instructor. If you can ignore that side of it, though, yoga is an amazing form of exercise.
I kicked off my reimmersion into yoga by doing the 30 Days of Yoga challenge on the Yoga with Adriene YouTube channel. Apart from a few to-be-expected ridiculous asides, Adriene is a great instructor with well-planned, well-filmed videos. Best of all, the videos are free, meaning no gym membership required. If you’ve already been doing yoga a while and crave more challenging content, then I’ve amassed a playlist of my favorite videos on Adriene’s channel here.
3). Started running again
After I’d been hiking and doing yoga for a few months but wasn’t losing weight as quickly as I wanted, I decided to start running again. This time, though, I wanted to do it properly; in the past, I’d typically never run more than a mile at a time, and it was the only form of exercise I’d do. Now, I stretch before and after every run. Adriene has a Warm-Up Yoga Sequence for Runners as well as a corresponding Cool-Down Sequence. As you would expect, I’ve found that stretching before and after running helps to minimize soreness, and I haven’t sustained any injuries so far, which is great.
In addition, instead of trying to run a mile immediately (as I’d done after running lulls in the past), I started off doing interval running. I wore a watch and timed the intervals. My first workout went something like this:
Run 30 seconds; walk 30 seconds
Run 45 seconds; walk 45 seconds
Run 1 minute; walk 1 minute
Run 90 seconds; walk 1 minute
Run 2 minutes; walk 1 minute
Run 90 seconds; walk 1 minute
Run 30 seconds; walk 2 minutes
This ends up being a 15-minute workout, which is pretty good. I did intervals the first 3-4 workouts, gradually increasing the running intervals over time. And from there, I built up my distance slowly until I was running 4 miles without stopping. I also try to do a mixture of distances, and ideally would do one long run on a Sunday afternoon (ca. 4 miles) with a shorter midweek run as well (ca. 2-2.5 miles). I suppose my eventual goal is to run a 10k.
4). Exercised when I could
After I started working in November, I was afraid that I wouldn’t have time to work out and that the excess weight would return. I’ve always heard that exercising in the morning is better, and I thought that unless I woke up at 5:30 am to do a yoga video, there was no point in working out at all.
Then I read a couple of articles that pointed out that yes, although working out in the morning might be marginally better, what’s most important is that you work out, period. I took that simple advice, and now I work out as soon as I get home from work in the evening because that’s what works best for my schedule.
5). Combined strength training and cardio
Of all the bits of advice peppered throughout this post, this is perhaps the most important one. In the past, I’d done either cardio or strength training, but never both at once. And you HAVE to do both if you want sustained, healthy weight loss. Cardio, short for cardiovascular (aka aerobic exercise) is high-intensity exercise designed to elevate your heart rate. While excellent in terms of burning calories and keeping your heart and lungs healthy, it doesn’t do much in terms of building muscle. In contrast, strength training (aka anaerobic exercise), is designed to tone and, as the name would suggest, strengthen and increase the size of your muscles. I don’t want to elaborate much more than that for fear of saying something inaccurate, but Wikipedia is always a good source on the difference between strength training and cardio.
Yoga is in fact a very gradual form of strength training, and I do that 2-3 times a week, along with the occasional BeFit or Ballet Beautiful video (some of my favorites can be found on my Challenging Workout Videos playlist). Running, biking, hiking, and tennis, my other most common forms of exercise, all fall into the cardio category for the most part. I am very careful now to make sure I combine both types!
I aim to work out 5 times a week, and a typical schedule might be:
Monday: 30-minute yoga video
Wednesday: Ballet Beautiful Swan Arms + Ab video
Thursday: Bike to/from work (ca. 6.5 miles), plus 15-minute yoga video
Saturday: 30 minutes of tennis
Sunday: 30-minute run
Mostly for myself and because I have an affinity for leather journals, I keep a written Fitness Log where I write down the exercise I do each day of the week. This helps me keep track of which yoga & workout videos are my favorite, whether I’m increasing my running distance, and whether I hit my goal of 5 workouts per week.
Hopefully none of this came across as unreasonable. All the workouts I do are free and, for the most part, fairly moderate. My goal isn’t to run a marathon or to build a 6-pack; I just want to sleep better, be able to eat more, and have more energy. Speaking of which, sometime in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be discussing the changes I made to my diet. Best of luck to those eager to undertake similar fitness changes, and feel free to comment with questions below or get in touch on Twitter. Cheers!