If you missed part 1 where we talked about sleep and nutrition, check it out here.
Exercise in Accordance With Your Goals
The only thing crazier than nutrition culture might be exercise culture. Most people are as loyal to their exercise routine as they are to their blood relatives. You’ll hear that you’re destined for failure unless you are doing hours of cardio per week, a member at a Crossfit Box, doing resistance training, HIIT workouts, tabatas, swimming, or any other number of miracle cures.
The truth, as it so often does, depends. A great place to start this conversation is to think about what kind of movement you enjoy. Running, biking, lifting, exercise classes, yoga, hiking, skiing, and pretty much every other form of movement are infinitely better than not moving. If you are doing any of these activities (or something I didn’t mention) out of joy, passion, or love, by all means keep doing them, and sprinkle in some gratitude for an indulgence that promotes health.
People who do not exercise out of joy are generally doing way more cardio than is necessary. On top of that, a chronic exercise pattern may well be antithetical to whatever your health goals are. Most folks are looking to burn fat, promote heart and overall health, and improve body composition through their exercise patterns. (I mean, check out that picture.) To that end, start with the awareness that somewhere in the neighborhood of 80% of your body composition is determined by diet. In other words, you can’t outrun a bad eating strategy. If your goal is improved body composition, start with diet and get in whatever movements for which you have energy as you eliminate the excess carbohydrate and sugar most of us are eating. This may look like getting in a walk everyday or just doing some pushups when the mood strikes. Once your diet is in order, be aware that working out relatively hard for a relatively long time (i.e. a 45 minute jog at 80% of your max heart rate) burns almost exclusively sugar. Once you are done, your body is tapped of stored sugar and it promotes a craving that can only be satisfied by more carbs…which prompt an insulin spike and most of those calories end up being stored as fat. Your body thinks something along the lines of “this joker is probably going to force me to use up all my sugar again soon, so I’m actually going to overeat carbs to make sure there’s enough energy kicking around next time. And the cycle continues.
The next big problem I see with people trying to improve their body is falling into an “old guy workout” pattern. This usually looks like a lot of time on the elliptical combined with some weird stretching and probably some sweat bands. Getting older is not a reason to stop exercising hard. Get yourself to a trainer who focuses on proper form and safety and tell them you want to be strong. This will go so much further in terms of improving body comp than fighting to get another 400 calories (of sugar) burned on the elliptical.
Mark Sisson’s mantra that I love is “make your short workouts shorter and harder, and make your long workouts longer and easier.” Turn that 45 minute job into an hour and a half walk. If you have the urge to go hard, get on the exercise bike and full out sprint for 15 seconds, rest for three minutes, and repeat that until your gassed. The body’s reaction to sprinting like this is a cascade of hormones that promote fat burning and muscle growth. In addition to that, pushing your heart rate by sprinting gives you a bigger boost in cardiovascular fitness than a normal cardio workout. This, in most cases, is a lot closer to what people are wanting from their workouts.
Finally, make resistance training part of your routine. This might look like five wall pushups, five air squats, one assisted pull-up, and a plank on your knees for ten seconds when you start. Resistance work builds lean mass, which is a predictor of nearly all kinds of health. If you move past a place where body-weight exercise is enough, find a trainer someone you know trusts and go get some advice on lifting safely. A common reason people (usually but not always women) hesitate with this idea is the fear of getting too bulky. Don’t worry. Putting on muscle is really hard to do, actually. You need to be overeating and lifting really heavy stuff really frequently to make big gains. If that’s happening, there are ways to slow down, but those of us getting started with weight lifting are usually a long way from getting too thick.
A couple final notes on exercise. If you are willing to increase the maximum effort you make during a workout, you can get way more bang for your buck in way less time. Most Wednesdays I do 8 minutes of exercise following a five-minute warm-up, and the tank is EMPTY. Mondays and Fridays I lift heavy stuff for around half an hour, and that is about it in terms of “workouts.” I get in some other movement by going for walks, playing with the kids on the floor, or sneaking in a basketball game every once in a while.
Lastly, be aware of your sleep and lifestyle as you are exercising. When we are sleep deprived, we are more likely to get hurt, lose weight in the form of lean tissue rather than fat, and feel terrible while exercising. Remember, working out is, by design, a stressor. If you are already stressed because of short sleep, your body’s reaction to a workout will likely promote sugar burning and an unhealthy amount of inflammation. For health’s sake, you are probably better off shutting the alarm off (or never setting it in the first place) to exchange an extra hour of sleep for your morning run through the neighborhood.
An ex-distance runner myself, I found a transition to lifting and sprinting to be incredibly liberating. My body composition was trending in a negative direction as little injuries were piling up before I changed the way I exercise. Most importantly of all, I find my workouts invigorating and fun while knowing they are serving my larger goals including a long, active life.
This one might be the most difficult to talk about because stress takes so many forms and the solutions can vary so widely. Stress can come in the form of bosses, excessive workouts, marital problems, money problems, fretting about your children, short sleep, job changes, not being able to change your job, an unhealthy diet, peer pressure, and I could go on and on.
There is a correlation between perceived stress and cortisol levels. The focus here is on the perception of stress. We humans are not great a judging what warrants a stress response, and it takes a great deal of work to reframe the experience of feeling stress. If stress is a constant and real problem for you, get some help. The impact of chronic stress on pretty much every part of our health is real and very detrimental. Weight gain, depression, anxiety, heart disease, and a whole host of other health damaging symptoms can arise from feeling stressed all the time. When you think about your long-term health, keeping stress at bay should be at or near the top of your list.
How do you do this? Control what you can lifestyle-wise. Remember, poor sleep, over-exercise, and a pro-inflammatory diet are all stressors. In terms of things outside your control, finding a way to manage your response is key. Hiking, time outdoors in green spaces, martial arts, yoga, connecting with a partner, and a whole host of other things have all proven effective in coping. Heck, even psychedelics have demonstrated some potential benefits.
Some or none of these things may be part of your solution. I know I have found that the trials of parenting young children demand that I meditate every day if I want to be the father, partner, and human I hope to be. My sister described meditation as teaching her to observe her reactions rather than be subject to her emotional whim.
I’ll leave the stress section here with the message that this is something for which getting help is worthwhile. Your stress response is largely hard-wired into you through millennia of evolution telling you to be on the lookout for whatever the next danger is. Your reptilian brain doesn’t really know the difference between a charging puma and a traffic jam on the way to a parent-teacher conference, so it takes some real, intentional work to keep things in perspective as life comes at you.
If you’re still with me, kudos. Looking at these four aspects of wellness and health will get most people, most of the way to where they want to be. By the time these things are in check and you are on your way, chances are you will have done your research enough to figure out the tweaks that will allow you to optimize your experience whether that is an extra lifting session on Saturday mornings or a carb-refeed once a week in exchange for your normal dinner.
I would add that at some point in this journey of creating new habits, they begin to take care of you the way that you used to need to take care of them. A dinner of whole, nourishing food dwarfs the joy a plate of pasta used to bring. The sustainable energy that follows workouts aligned with your goals makes you look forward to your next set of deadlifts, and the stress that used to keep you up after taking a leak at 2 a.m. becomes the next exciting challenge you get to tackle.
Hopefully this provides some ideas about a foundation on which you can build a healthier version of yourself. I’ll leave where I started by saying that the perfect is not the enemy of the good here. Make the tweaks you can in your life as it is now, and look to expand on the things working for you.