There’s more to this than just watching what you eat and doing moderate exercise for getting fit.
Once you’ve quit smoking your body starts changing. It metabolizes slower and slows even further as you age. It’s a good plan to counter this change by dieting and moderate exercise, but this doesn’t always work well for some, like myself.
I’m the type that usually goes all in, or none at all. I was committed and determined to be at least my uni weight and be fit enough to hold a squat for more than a minute by the time I was 50.
I already beat cigarettes and my body starting to heal from the years of damage I did to it. I was already watching my diet by curbing snacks, as well as reducing overall intake. I also started doing things like parking further away from the office entrance and taking the stairs instead of the elevator to my 5th floor office.
I even resisted overeating as a response to highly stressful situations such as in large proposal efforts and ensuring the department was meeting it’s monthly numbers, but staying focused and working through them productively. You would be surprised how much energy your body burns in those kinds of situations. It helps not to counteract the effects of that by eating a lot of junk.
It was hard at first, but I knew that wasn’t going to make the fat go away by that alone. My body needed a little extra push to thin down and firm up given my sedentary lifestyle. This consisted of three basic things that I still do today: pushups for upper strength, crunches to firm up and strengthen my core, and ‘running’ on an elliptical for lower strength and overall cardio.
Upper Strength – Pushups
At the time I began, I hadn’t done proper pushups since I was in my teens. The first few weren’t hard, but it soon became a complete struggle. I think I was able to do maybe a total of five or seven each morning when I got up, and I was really sore for a number of hours afterwards. I remember flying back from being on travel after a morning session and being so sore that just dragging my luggage to the airport was an effort – and it had wheels.
Eventually this became easier over time as my muscles started to remember what they were put there for. After a week or so, seven became ten. Then ten became fifteen. Fifteen eventually became twenty-five.
When that became easy, I came up with the concept of how many sets of 25 I could do in a timeframe that fit my busy schedule and perhaps do more on the weekends. I limited myself to no more than 20 minutes a day with about a half-minute or so in between sets.
Core Strength – Crunches/Sit-Ups
Getting rid of the spare tyre was more of a priority for me than building my arms. If you’ve ever seen anyone whose middle is bigger than the rest of them and wasn’t pregnant, sit-ups, even just V-crunches are not a pretty sight.
For this, I got some help at the local sporting goods store: I bought what was sold here as an Ab Lounge. It’s basically a lounge chair hinged at the center, with hooks for your feet and straps for your hands/arms, with thick elastic bands that provided some resistive tension for the two halves of the platform. This way, when you hinged into a crunch, the ‘lounge’ was providing some extra resistance to your upper and lower body.
Now, before anyone starts laughing at such a contraption, let me tell you that with regular use, and given the program I had set for myself it worked tremendously well. It didn’t get me all of the way there, but at around £70 (~$100) it sure was a great way to start the journey. I truly believe this was specifically designed as a starter for people like myself that had little to no core strength left, but were looking for ways to improve.
At first, you start reps that have you basically pulling yourself up, using hand straps, in three different ways: flat on your back moving forward, and then on either side bending through your hips. When that becomes too easy, an arm strap is there to reduce your reliance on pulling your self up, and allowing your core to get a better workout. Three sets of 25 crunches of each and you were basically done for the day.
Like anything else, working this device was easier said than done at first. After a number of months of regular use I began to start showing real signs of losing the tyre and gaining some core definition – particularly at the oblique muscles along the sides.
Eventually, this became too easy and I wasn’t getting much benefit from it anymore. The Ab Lounge had done it’s job as a starter tool and wasn’t giving me enough of a challenge to get me the rest of the way. It was time to move to real sit-ups. I soon then adopted the same approach as with pushups: get to 25, and then do as many sets of 25 reps as possible in 20 minutes.
Because I was missing the oblique workout that I was getting with the Ab Lounge, modified the way I did them: standard forward-bending sit-ups on odd sets, and alternating ones – where your left/right elbow hits your right/left knee – on even sets. This all became very effective.
Upper and Core Strength – A Perfect Marriage
In theory, it’s a good idea with any strength exercise to push hard and then take breaks so your muscles break down, but don’t fail after too long. There are plenty of high intensity exercise programs out there based on that exact principle: high intensity bursts of activity, then do something else, then something else, then go back and restart the cycle.
I was already doing bursts of pushups in sets of 25, then taking a short break, then doing another set of 25 – same for sit-ups. Well, if you’re looking at getting the most out of 20 minutes, that’s not very time-efficient, is it?
It occurred to me, while I’m resting my arms on a pushup break, I could be doing a set of 25 sit-ups to work my core, and vice versa. This then became my daily strength for many years. I still do this today.
Cardio – Running, or, Something Like It
Just about the same time that I bought the Ab Lounge, I also bought an elliptical. I originally started using a rowing-like contraption that we had from years ago, but it was boring and I wasn’t convinced it was doing anything for me. I wanted something that would do more to accelerate the process of losing weight and getting fit.
For those not familiar with an elliptical, it is basically a big stepper device, but the foot pedals are on rails, and are connected to a circular wheel buried somewhere in the base of the device in front of you. The wheel provides an elliptical action to the pedals (or sinusoidal action, to be technically accurate), which are supposed to be easier on the knees. The wheel is then restricted by a computer-controlled, magnetically applied breaking system to simulate the resistance of running up a hill. Most also have something akin to ski poles that are synchronized with your stepping motion, and give your arms something to do.
Several different models have other features, such as being able to change the slope of the pedals in addition to resistance and others provide electronic features that measure your heart rate and other metrics. Some even provide a TV for you to watch whatever you want (this is partly how I became an Arsenal supporter, but that’s another story). Some of the elaborate ones now even have the video of specific running trails around the globe and change the resistance and slope according to the terrain elevation data acquired by GPS.
Most modern elliptical machines will have various settings for when and how much resistance is applied. Some programs are flat and even over the time period. Others are nearly random in resistance from minute to minute. I gravitate towards a typical weight loss setting on mine, for obvious reasons. This setting performs a gradual rising and falling amount of resistance in a 12-minute cycle. Aside for being purportedly for weight loss, it seemed like the best simulation for the hilly terrain here in the Virginia Piedmont.
If nothing, an elliptical is one hell of a cardio workout that will absolutely torch calories. Because the resistance varies, it will also do wonders for strengthening a portion of your quads and hamstrings. However, it is still just a stepper and you’re not able to vary your stride as you would to tackle hills and slopes. Therefore, you’re not going to get the kind of calf workout that you would if you were really running distance on hilly terrain.
I’ve also found that depending upon the particular model of elliptical, you can put in as much effort and energy as if you were running, but not go nearly as ‘far’. This greatly depends upon the stride they restrict you to, as well as how well they interpret the step rate and resistance within its computer display. If you’re addicted to performance stats and other metrics like me, the resulting speed the elliptical says you are doing can vary as much as 1 or 2 miles an hour from your actual terrain speed. This can be a little disconcerting.
A treadmill, as an alternative, is essentially a moving running trail. It is a conveyor belt like the one at the supermarket, but bigger, and one that you can actually run on. It allows you to change the length of your stride and work different leg muscles. Except for taking up a lot more space than an elliptical, it does solve most of the simulated running problem – you are running – except treadmills don’t give you granular control over belt speed. This makes it potentially more dangerous than an elliptical, but only if you’re not paying attention. I like to zone out while I’m on these devices and concentrate on whatever game is on TV. Clearly a treadmill isn’t for me unless I really wanted to look like a cliché: rocketing off the back of one.
All of these tools have benefits for simulating different aspects of running, but neither actually comes close to taking its place. They, like the Ab Lounge serve as good starters and even temporary replacements, but there is nothing like the real thing. The elliptical, treadmill, or any similar gym equipment for that matter, are good for days when the weather is too cold or rainy, or you just don’t feel like going outside.
The key, however, is starting. Whether you buy your own equipment, go to a gym, or decide to just put on a pair of shorts and running shoes… just do it (speaking of clichés). Do it with the expectation of going as far as you can at a steady pace initially, and work from there. Don’t kill yourself on your first few runs. Whether that’s a half a mile or a mile, just remember to keep track of your time and distance of each workout so you can measure your personal improvement over time.
Exercise Regularly, Exercise Routinely
Pushups and sit-ups were at the ‘core’ of my daily strength routine for quite a number of years, also working cardio 3-4 times a week. By keeping these activities to a set time limit, it gave me the challenge to see how many or how far I could feasibly go within 20 or so minutes. As things got easier, I just increased the intensity and went for more reps in less time.
This is where I came up with the 20/200 Rule. 20 minutes of intense strength or cardio will burn an average of 200 calories. Naturally, this will vary with age, weight and heart strength, but it’s a pretty good planning figure.
The bottom line is: If you can do just 20 minutes daily, you will have given yourself the option either having one healthy extra snack a day, or none at all – your choice. But you’ve given yourself the mindset and put yourself into an easily scheduled routine. This is half the battle towards losing weight and getting fit.
Last Week: Step 2 – Beginning a Diet and Exercise Program.
Next Week: Step 4 – Technology to Help You Succeed in Getting Fit and Losing Weight.