Friday 10 June 2016

Not So Hardcore! (10 fitness core concepts for the rest of us)

The other day, a beautiful woman complimented me by calling me "hardcore" and she wasn't referring to how much junk food I can consume, which was a nice change. You'll be even more intrigued when I tell you that I surprised her in the shower. But then, a lot less intrigued once you know that she's the cleaning lady at my gym and this exchange took place while she was refilling the soap dispensers. For almost five years, I've watched her roam about making everything shiny and smell like flowers but this was the first time we'd really talked.

My take away from fifteen minutes of conversation was that she is as sweet as she looks and that she called me "hardcore!" I've never felt more macho.

The sad truth, though, is that I'm not hardcore at all. I work out, for about an hour, four times a week. The guys who come in at 6:00 am, heft my body weight in metal for two hours, and have been doing so every day since they were eighteen; they are hardcore!

I'm no jock and I dislike almost every minute of my workout, but I'm 58 years old and had kids late in life, so I truly believe that I need to keep fit in order to remain healthy enough, long enough to escort my kids into adulthood and then to enjoy retirement. Why I think I'll need muscles to lie in a hammock on a tropical beach sipping Corona, I'm not sure. Maybe it's because, despite my best efforts, there is little evidence that my retirement will include hammocks on tropical beaches and a lot of evidence suggesting I might be working until I die. I'm pretty confident, though, that beer will figure in.

I think and write a lot and, consequently, lead a largely sedentary life. I'm so much in my own mind that actually doing things feels like a rude interruption. My relatively intense one hour at the gym keeps me fit and gives me a break from a never-ending barrage of thoughts; like a relief valve for my psyche—sorely needed, because sometimes I get bored of my own voice inside my head: It's all nasally and judgemental.

I made the decision to shed my pudgy executive body and lifestyle, about 25 years ago, and since that time I've made a concerted effort to stay active. For the past five years, I've been working out regularly. Along the way, I've learned a few very basic things which I'd like to share. Many of these things might seem obvious, but almost every day I witness newcomers wasting time and effort and needlessly torturing themselves in misguided efforts at getting into shape. When you don't have the proper expectations, regime or technique, the results are discouraging and, eventually, you don't do it at all. Which is the worst outcome possible.

What follows are ten core concepts that I have discovered. These apply to all of us less-than-elite athletes and are the essential ideas that keep me safe and fit and—most importantly—keep me coming back to the gym.

1 THE MOST BASIC QUESTION—WHY?: My grandmother was a crafty old lady who never shied away from a good lie if it would get her what she wanted. In order to make sure the grandkids turned the taps off, she told us that water was five cents a drop. You never think to question things your grandmother tells you and, one day when I was 24 and in a business meeting, the topic of water bills came up. I hadn't yet bought a house and had never had a water bill of my own, but I commiserated by telling the others that I was sympathetic, considering that water cost five cents a drop. All conversation suddenly stopped and every head turned my way. It was not the kind of limelight I had been seeking. Then someone did some quick math to set me straight while I turned fifty shades of red.

When she was about 85, well after my grandfather had passed, she started dating but didn't like confrontation. When she wanted to dump a boyfriend, she told them that she was a secret agent and had to leave the country and change her identity. They either bought the story or got the message—I don't think she cared which, just so long as they left her alone.

She was full of energy and had always looked much younger than her age, so because she wanted to work ten years past the usual retirement age, she knocked ten years off her age and told everyone her birth certificate had been destroyed in a fire. Consequently, when she died, no one knew her exact age. By our family's best reckoning, she was either 94 or 98.

She taught me a lot of things—some even turned out to be true! But the most important truth was to come at her expense.

She was unusually fit and active and no one I ever met who was her age could ever keep up. But then, one day, she fell. She would have been about 90 at that point and the fall broke some ribs, and glass from a cabinet she fell against tore a large hole in her thigh. She was stitched back together but, probably based on her age, the Doctor told her to rest for at least three months. And that was the beginning of the end. She never really got back out of the chair she was forced to sit in for months. She had a sharp mind until very near the end, but she certainly lost the majority of her vitality in one fell swoop.

That her recovery was so much less than 100 percent startled all of us. And for me, it graphically demonstrated an old Chinese proverb: The best cure is...don't get sick. 

Aging has reinforced this lesson. At 58, I rarely have any aches or pains, but I notice that those around me started having chronic complaints soon after reaching forty. When I'm among a crowd that is over 50, I am usually the only one not complaining about some ache or pain, or talking about medical procedures, or pharmaceuticals.

The only discernable difference between me and most of my friends is that I have tried to balance my sedentary work life with regular exercise. If you sit at a desk all day, like most of us, you need to counter the negative effect on your body or else you will become injured. Once you are injured, you must rely on your body's recuperative powers to restore balance. The effectiveness of this strategy diminishes as we age. If that doesn't work, you will need assistance from the medical system. Once you are at that point, restoring balance becomes even more difficult because all medicines have side effects. Sometimes, the side effects seem minimal, but eventually, they cause injury; and the spiral tightens.

2 WORKOUTS vs. DIETS: Nothing you do at the gym will control your weight. Don’t start with the goal of reducing your weight: Only dieting can do that. The body is so efficient that you could strenuously lift weights for an hour without losing a single pound that you wouldn't later gain back. To give you some perspective: I use the treadmill or stationary cycle for 18 minutes and according to the display panels, I burn about 250-275 calories. It's a rigorous workout for me and by the end, I'm half-drenched in sweat. One can of fruit juice is 140-160 calories; a chocolate bar; close to 300. (For us Canadians: a large Tim Horton's double-double is 280 calories!)

That walk from your car to the office, up the stairs, swiveling about in your cubicle, then back to your car, up the front stairs, turning the key in the lock, plus stooping to retrieve the newspaper and later lifting yourself out of your recliner and the ten steps to the fridge and back—your entire physical day—would probably consume less than 50 calories. The average person burns the majority of calories through nervous energy and body heat.

There is just no practical way to burn off excess fat by working out.

What exercise will do for you is convert fat to muscle. So if you are happy with your weight, you can alter your shape into something healthier and more attractive.

If you are unhappy with your weight, reduce your food intake.

I'm human and my eating habits are less than perfect so, though I really do have abs, a couple of them are still hidden beneath a layer of flab which would best be removed by curbing my junk food habit. Also, manboobs. Always, a work in progress. What you can't see is my improved stamina, which is the thing I notice most in my regular life.

3 GO OFTEN: The easiest way to commit to a gym is to focus on the long-term goal of extending and improving your life and to consider the gym membership a lifestyle choice, rather than a quick means to a short-term end. Getting in shape for bikini season, or your grad reunion, probably won't work as well as you hope and will not be motivation enough to keep you attending the gym once your goal date passes.

To stay in shape, especially as you age, you will need to exercise on a regular basis. So don’t try a routine that is so harsh that you dread it. You're far better off to step it down a few notches so that you look forward to the workout. Twenty minutes of moderate exercise every day will contribute more to your long-term health than a rigorous one-hour workout, three times a week. And, of course, it's better than a workout so onerous that you never do it.

4 STRESSORS: Nowhere is it so apparent that mental and physical health are connected than at the gym. After five years, my muscles are used to my workout and there is no doubt that I can perform the same series any day of the week. However, sometimes I just don't have the mental energy required to ignore the fatigue. On those days, I may have to break a set into smaller portions or lower the weight. It's always disappointing, especially as I know that it's entirely mental. What's happening is that I am reaching my maximum stress load.

Stress is part of life. And the right amount of stress is a good thing; it keeps us motivated and focused and helps us achieve things. But there is a limit to how much stress an individual can endure without it having a negative impact. Exercise is a stressor, and a strenuous workout does not always relieve stress—it can add to it. Take note of your accumulated stresses from things like maintaining relationships, your job, health issues, frantic schedules, and financial issues. If some of them are peaking, then don't worry if you have to lower your load at the gym. Continually powering through may add unmanageable stress to your life which may damage more than it heals.

Stubbornly sapping your mental and physical energy may ultimately put your gym routine at risk. Above all, the goal is to continue going.

5 CARDIO IS NUMBER ONE: I’d say that at least ⅔ of the good in my regime comes from the cardio: treadmill/cycles. If you can’t make yourself do anything else, do this. Fifteen minutes on one of these machines will make the largest difference to the quality of your life, as well as life expectancy.

If you've ever seen charts showing the leading causes of death as we age, you may have noticed that the largest killers, after the age of 65, are respiratory- and circulatory-related: the result of what we've done to ourselves. As we age—and as the price of Netflix drops—we tend to become more sedentary. This results in shallower breathing, a slowed heart rate, and reduced circulation. The arteries harden, all the related essential muscles weaken and, eventually, something fails. Cardio exercise keeps your lung-expanding muscles in shape which deepens your breathing, it also moves the blood through your system which feeds the tissues, scrubs the artery walls, purifies the blood, and exercises your most important muscle group; the heart.

The theory I'm going with—and this is entirely my own perspective—is that if everything is in good running order then when something finally fails it will have racked up the maximum mileage and then, either things will be repairable because the rest of me is healthy enough to withstand the procedure or the end will be quick. The one outcome I hope to avoid is slowly and painfully fading away.

6 WEIGHTS vs. CARDIO: While lifting weights, take lots of breaks and do not allow yourself to get short of breath. Weight lifting is for external muscle building, not for cardio (internal muscle building.)  Being short of breath will just make it more painful and will not build any of the external muscle you were hoping for. In fact, if you exhaust yourself during weights, you will tend to get sloppy in performing the exercise, thus reducing the benefit. Leave the heavy breathing for the cardio portion of the routine. (cycle/treadmill)

7 REPS vs. WEIGHT: Heavier weights build more muscle. Lower weights are less likely to cause injury. Find the balance that works for you.

If you lift a total of 300lbs by doing 100 reps of 3lbs, you are doing the same amount of work as doing 10 reps of 30lbs, but you are less likely to get injured. While the lower weight/higher reps contributes 300lbs-worth of fitness to your body, it will not result in large muscles that show. To gain showy muscle, as you get more fit slowly increase the weight and decrease the reps accordingly, making sure to calculate that you are doing the same total amount of work, or more. As your weights increase and the reps decrease, muscle growth will become more obvious.

I am very cautious in increasing weight because it's better to proceed slowly but steadily than to have to take a week off to nurse an injury. In the regime I follow, I mostly do 45 reps of each exercise. To increase the load, I usually start by doing only 15 of the 45 reps at a greater weight. I continue this for two weeks to a month. Then I step up to 30 reps with increased weight. A month later, that entire exercise is done at the new, higher weight.

I don't rush because I have no short-term goals: This is for life, in every sense of the phrase.

8 CONTROLLED MOTION: Do not allow yourself to use momentum when lifting weights. Don’t let the weights swing loosely, always make the movements slow and controlled. Otherwise, you are “cheating” and not getting the best workout: By taking advantage of momentum, you might actually avoid using the muscles which most need the workout and for which that exercise was intended. Better to do fewer reps perfectly than more reps sloppily, because that is just a waste of time, and the lack of results may be discouraging.

Also, be conscious of your posture. Keeping everything straight and un-hunched will help isolate the muscles you are working on, as well as giving smaller support muscles a workout.

9 INJURIES: The two most common injuries are stiff muscles and pulled muscles. You need to recognize the difference and treat them accordingly.

• Stiff muscles: This is due to a build-up of lactic acid in your muscles and the best way to shorten the suffering is to keep moving. Continue your exercise routine, but reduce the load a bit so that you are not exacerbating the problem. As you move the blood, your organs remove the excess acid and relieve your pain. Resting also works, but is slower and, of course, allows your conditioning to slide.

      • Pulled Muscles: A pulled/torn or overextended muscle will often feel as if you could sort it out just by stretching more. Do not stretch these injuries. Instead, leave them alone and rest. You can still exercise, but avoid using that group of muscles.

To aid in healing, applying cold and heat alternately at 15-minute intervals is very good therapy. The cold reduces internal swelling while the heat encourages blood flow to deliver healing nutrients and remove damaged cells.

I'm not one to pop a pill, but occasionally, when there seems no way to relieve a sore spot (especially in my back) I have found it helpful to take an anti-inflammatory drug like Advil, Aleve or aspirin because some injuries take place in spots that are continually in use which exacerbates the condition. Chemically reducing the swelling can give relief to the problem and allow the healing to start.

10 HIRE A TRAINER: I'm simply too cheap to pay $60 a session to have a personal trainer continually at my side, and I'm not sure what is achieved by this. It seems to me that after a few sessions, once you've got the routine down, they are little more than highly paid cheerleaders. I prefer to do some work, achieve some results then go back for a session in which they watch me and critique my technique or tweak the program.

However, when first starting out, I definitely recommend you hire a professional trainer for a session or two in order to establish a safe and effective exercise regime. Most gyms will be able to recommend a trainer. All the ones I've encountered have given me great advice. I am still working on a routine given to me three years ago. I've made slight alterations and increased my weights, but it is essentially unchanged. A great value, and something I'd consider essential.

I go to the gym 4 times a week. My routine is made up of four different sets of three exercises. I do two of the four, plus18 minutes of treadmill or cycle each day. I'm no Adonis, but this keeps me fitter than most men, and as I age, the difference between us exercisers and sedentary individuals becomes more obvious.

Stretches: I do a few basic stretches just to limber up. I stretch areas that are prone to damage. This will be different for each person. I made up my own stretch routine and none of the trainers ever thought it was important enough to alter. For a long time, I did 15 minutes of stretching but found the benefits to be minimal. Now I'm down to about 3 minutes.

*NOTE: You can find pictures of all of the exercises mentioned below by typing the exact names into a search engine.

Tri-set #1:
Dumbell Squats (1 x 20 reps): squat while holding small (5lb to start) dumbells in each hand. Keep your back straight and go as low as you can.
Walking Lunge (2 x 15 reps): Extended stride that will take our butt down to knee level. Leg forward until knee joint is at 90 degrees. Then lift to standing and repeat stepping forward with your other leg. Move forward one step at a time in this fashion. Once you've mastered this one, you can add hand weights. (I still do this without weight.)
Hamstring Curls (1 x 20 reps): Lie on your back with a large rubber ball under your heels. Lift your body until you are straight as a board. Then, bend your knees, rolling the ball under your feet and in toward your butt.

Tri-set #2:
Incline Dumbell Press (3 x 15): Lie on a bench, flat on your back. Use a comfortable dumbell weight, one in each hand. Your arms should be perpendicular to your body, elbows bent so that the weights are even with your body... then lift the weights up by straightening your arms upwards, then down.
Seated Cable Row (3 x 15): Use the machine that has a seat close to the ground and allows you to pull a weight toward your chest, as if you are rowing. Try to keep your back straight, and try not to hunch your shoulders.
Mountain Climb (3 x 15): Set yourself up in a stance as if you were about to start the 100-yard dash in the Olympics, then jump slightly and shift your front foot to the rear and your rear one to the front, as if you were actually running.

Tri-Set #3:
Seated Dumbell Shoulder Press (3 x 15): Sit on a chair-like bench with a weight in each hand, your elbows bent, so the weights are near shoulder level; as if you were about to press 500lbs. Straighten your arms upward, then back down to shoulder height.
Lat. Pulldown (3 x 10): Find the machine that has a large metal bar hanging from it and a seat for you to sit on: you will be facing the machine. Set the weight where you want it and pull that bar down to nipple height. Keep your back straight and try not to hunch your shoulders.
Double Crunch (2 x 20): Lying down flat on your back, fists against each temple, body curled so that your knees are at bent at 90 degrees. Then use your stomach muscles to curl yourself so that your elbows touch your knees. Make sure to keep your knees as close to 90 degrees as possible. Be careful when you first try this one as you can easily bruise your stomach muscles without knowing it. I'd suggest trying two sets of ten until you're ready for the full 20 in a row.

Tri-Set #4:
Dumbell curls (3 x 15): One small dumbell in each hand, arms hanging at your sides. Bend your elbows to bring the dumbells to shoulder height, then back down. For best balance, alternate arms. Of course, then two curls counts as one.
Tri-cable Press Down (3 x 15): Find a machine that you can stand at, but has a short metal bar that allows you to pull the weight downward. Place your hands on the bar so that they are in line with your shoulder. Pull down, as far as you can, keeping your back straight and not hunching your shoulders. This is one of the only exercises where I would suggest you lock your muscles at full extension to get the maximum benefit.
Burpee (1x15): Start in a standing position. Fall into a pushup position, keeping your body as rigid and straight as possible. Then jump back up to standing. Do this 15 times. You'll be surprised how winded you will get.

I only do two of the above Tri-Sets each day. That takes about a half hour. Then I head to the treadmill or stationary cycle and set it for a 15-minute program of hills. The machines add a 3-minute cooldown at the end, so this adds up to 18 minutes. From start to finish, I exercise for about an hour.

Then I hit the showers.

Then I go grab a donut, coke float and side of fries because that's the area in which I  truly am hardcore.

My stance when headed for the fridge.


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