Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chokin' in Chile

I just got this a couple of days ago from a reader in Chile (Chile! I love the internet!):

Hi! I love this blog. I have a question for you. I live in a Santiago, Chile, where the pollution gets so bad that they sometimes recommend that you only go outside if you have to. The only places to go running are on busy streets. I don't mind that, but I have read that it's horrible for your lungs to exercise near car fumes. Instead of running I thought I could go on long, brisk walks. Would I still be taking in unhealthy amounts of pollution? And if the answer is that I should definitely be exercising indoors, do you have any good indoor workouts? As it is, I run in place, I do high aerobic dancing, jumping jacks, anything I can to get my heart rate up. Any suggestions? I would rate myself a medium on fitness level and I have no medical problems at all. Thank you so much!

Mamacita Chilena

MC: Hi. As a guy who lives in LA -- and a lifetime asthmatic, no less -- I know all about trying to exercise in places where the air is lousy.

Unless you're incredibly deconditioned, which doesn't seem to be the case, let's forget about brisk walking as a legitimate form of exercise. I know I've just casually slaughtered a sacred cow with those 11 words, but it needs to be said. Saunter into any hospital and you'll see that people who are almost DEAD can walk. Walking is fun, it's stimulating, it's better than sitting around on the couch, but it doesn't really challenge the body unless you're charging up a hill with all you've got (which no one does). Walking is recreation, really, like playing pool or ping-pong: you're on your feet, you've moving a little, but you're not sweating, and you're not challenging the body in a meaningful, sustained way.

Now don't stop doing something you enjoy just because I said it's not really exercise. It's still good for you. Just add other forms of exercise that are more challenging, such as running or cycling outdoors.

As to the air-quality issue, basically, if I work out outdoors, which I love to do, I keep it close to places that are green. So around here that means cycling on certain roads and bike paths and avoiding others (a supreme irony of the otherwise terrific LA river bike path is that is runs alongside Interstate 5 and crosses the 134 -- two of the busiest throughways on the West Coast!). Thank god for Griffith Park, which is a huge and very green oasis in the middle of this concrete jungle. So one obvious recommendation is to choose your roads or venues wisely. I read somewhere that air quality improves exponentially each 10 meters you move away from the side of a heavily-trafficked road. Don't know whether that's right, but it makes sense based on my limited recollection from 9th-grade science class of the way gases diffuse. You mention that city streets are really your only option, so that solution might not help you much.

Your second consideration, then, is to choose the time of day that you exercise with care. If I can get myself out on the road during the 6 AM hour on Sunday morning, cycling in LA is an absolute dream come true. Just me, those big, wide streets, and a couple of other cyclists beaming back at me as if to say, "Yes, brother, it's real, and I'm feeling it too." And because there's no traffic, the air is about as clear as it's going to be all week. I try to get back home before serious church-going traffic begins, but LA is so full of faithless heathens that even the city's whole 8-AM-service-attending population barely slows me down. Should you have other plans on Sunday morning, there are other lower-smog time periods during the week, and clearly you want to choose those rather than the hours surrounding heavy traffic times. Overall, early morning is probably best.

Failing those options, indoor workouts can be very effective, convenient, and time-efficient. The modes you mention above are useful, but potentially mind-numbing: doing a thousand jumping jacks while staring at the picture of your Aunt Lily bobbing up and down on the mantle can start to feel gerbil-on-a-wheely and faintly ridiculous after awhile.

Among indoor cardiovascular training methods, I'd suggest is interval-style calesthenics over anything steady-state for many reasons. I've written a lot about sprinting in the past, the body-weight exercise circuit I recommend here is really another variation on the old 'work hard and short, rest, repeat' saw. I suggested one possible training circuit in Stealing Workouts a couple of days ago, but you can really choose almost any multi-joint upper- or lower- body moves you want, and plug them into the formula: 30 seconds of intense work on the first movement, 15 seconds rest, 30 seconds intense work on the second movement, 15 seconds rest, and so on, rotating through the moves till you've burned through whatever time you have to work on that day (I call that the "Santana" interval, because I learned it from combat-trainer J.C. Santana). You can also use the 20-second/10-second work/rest interval I wrote about in my "Tabata" entry some time ago. Or make up your own interval, tell me how well it works, and I'll name it after you. 1 minute of work/2 minutes of rest can work, too, if you're going all-out for that minute. All these parameters are more effective all around -- for fat loss, cardiovascular benefit, and muscle-building -- than virtually any form of steady-state aerobic work.

Some possible moves to plug in are bodyweight squats, step-ups, split squats, lunges, lunges with dumbbell curls and/or presses, Bulgarian split squats, boxing punches (straight punches or uppercuts or hooks; resisted using elastic bands), pushups, squat thrusts, squat thrusts with pushups and jumps, squat jumps, sprawls, pushups, bench dips, bench jumpups, stationary bike intervals, front kicks or side kicks, dumbbell curl and presses, elastic band presses, elastic band rows, elastic band overhead presses or overhead squats, elastic band curls, any ab work, planks, punching bag work of all kinds, jump rope intervals, jump rope intervals doing doubles, crosses, 1-2 pattern, etc.

A stopwatch with a clearly legible face, a sturdy bench, a couple of elastic bands, a jump rope, some kettleballs or dumbbells, and you'll be all set for thousands of different possible combinations. Add a good-quality punching bag, gloves, and a stationary bike, and the possibilities are pretty much endless. Since you're working with time rather than reps, you can control the intensity throughout the workout, so you'll really never outgrow the workout.

These workouts are very tough, and 20 minutes is a LONG time working this way. I'd advise a fairly easy warmup, 10 minutes of this kind of work at first, rotating 5 exercises, then 5 minutes of stretching. Work up to longer sessions and alternate with outdoor exercise on days when the air is clearer!

Good luck, and thanks for the question!



mamacita chilena said...

thank you SO much for the response! that really helps and clears a lot of things up for me!

I will definitely be spreading the word about your blog...its fantastic!

Its rare to meet so much knowledge combined with a willingness to share that knowledge, in one person.

Andrew said...

Thanks Mamacita!

I think I just like writing "Mamacita."

Hope the above helped. I also hope I emphasized enough that you should NOT exercise outdoors when air conditions are bad. It's worse for you than sitting on the couch for that hour. That's according to Dr. Robert Klein, a world-reknowned asthma specialist with whom I worked closely for an extended period. Good luck -- A