Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Something Everyone Knows

Some things are repeated so often you stop hearing them.

Or at least, that's my theory based on the kinds of things many people believe when they darken the door of the gym for the first time.

On some level, we wish--fervently--that getting in shape could be easy. That we could somehow fob it off on someone else, buy, or cajole, or bargain our way to glowing health and drool-worthy physiques.

And while some people inarguably have a genetic leg up on that score, and others may start out a few steps behind, the bottom line is you get out what you put in. You're not going to get a great body because you charmed your way through an interview, or because the parking attendant thinks you're cute, or because you pledged Kappa Pi Epsilon. Nope. You've got to put in the hours.

In a weird way, that cold, hard nuts-and-bolts formula remains a major part of the appeal of the fitness game to me. The weights make sense: effort + time = improvement. Lots of effort + lots of time = lots of improvement. No cheating, no shortcuts, no easy ways out (save pharmaceutical ones, I suppose--but, incurable square that I am, drugs have never held the least bit of appeal to me).

When I first started exercising, in my early adolescence, I suppose I was freaked out about growing up, about what lay ahead, about where I stood in my family and in the world, and somehow the simple, daily confrontation with iron or pavement or heavy bag made it all seem a little more manageable. If I could apply myself with focus and determination in the fight against these intimidating, inanimate objects, making incremental improvements in my physical abilities, I figured maybe I could do something similar in the subtler, less concrete conflicts that attended my young adulthood. I'm convinced that pumping iron--and perhaps more importantly, the lessons I derived from the time I spent lifting weights--made me a better student, a better artist, a better guy to be around.

Poke just about any guy who's spent a significant portion of his life getting and staying in shape, and I bet you'll get some version of this same formula: weight room as metaphor, as microcosm of life.

So, on to the thing that everyone knows but no one believes, or acts as if they believe: what you do OUTSIDE of your exercise time can either enhance and improve, or completely undermine and undo everything--absolutely EVERYTHING--you do INSIDE the gym.

Say two identical twins hire me to train them. Say they have identical goals--fat loss and muscle gain--and say they happen to come to me in identical shape: completely sedentary, deconditioned, with similar postural and flexibility problems.

So I put these guys on the same program, they each show up three or four times a week and work out to the best of their ability each time they come in for six months.

Now: let's say that Twin A starts eating small meals every three hours, starting with a good breakfast, with plenty of high-quality protein, vegetables and fruits; he starts taking a protein shake after his workouts; he starts drinking green tea and fish oil tablets regularly; he cuts down significantly on floury, sugary carbs; he starts cutting down on his late-night TV binges and sleeping a full eight hours; and he figures out ways to carve out more healthy ways to relax at work and in his off-hours.

Twin B, on the other hand, does none of these things: he eats erratically--long periods without food interspersed with huge binges replete with lots of unhealthy carbs and processed foods; he collapses at night in front of the TV or computer; his downtime is filled with activities centered around excessive eating and drinking; finally, and unsurprisingly, given the physical stresses he's putting on himself day in and day out, he's constantly fretting about his job and his personal life.

Six months after these two hypothetical clients start working out with me, Twin A could be well on his way to acheiving his goal: better health, a leaner and more muscular physique that people are starting to seriously notice. Maybe he's even considering joining a team or a club sport and getting into the competitive fray once a week.

Twin B would most likely be lagging far behind. He stalled out at a point that his brother passed months before. He probably misses workouts due to illness and injury. He may be still going to the gym as much as he can, but of necessity the workouts are now focused on undoing the stresses he puts on himself outside the gym than on progress and improvement.

Now, I'll happily create a workout for pretty much anyone in any condition: hung over, separated from their spouse the previous day, stressed out after 20 hours on the job, homeless, helpless, unemployed in Greenland. Give me your tired, your poor, and all that. And I'm reasonably confident that those workouts will be beneficial, even if I have to dial it all the way back to an hour of PNF stretching to relieve tension and the effects of stress.

And believe me, I understand being stressed out, depleted, and feeling as if you don't have time or energy to do anything for yourself, much less eat well, get enough sleep, or balance the stress in your life. I don't want to sound like Malvolio here, because everyone needs fun and freedom from rules and restrictions in their lives once in a while. But look, guys, if you're serious about your health (and if you're not, uhm, why aren't you?), it's imperative that you figure out ways to make the stressed out, poorly-nourished, sleep-deprived version of yourself the exception rather than the rule.

Yes, go to the gym and work out for several hours a week. Yes, find a trainer who challenges you and designs solid programs tailored specifically to your goals. But the best program in the world designed by the best trainer in the world can't compensate for bad choices outside the gym.

The hope of every trainer is always that the bug will get every client: that all of them will become addicted to the positive changes they see in their bodies and start improving other aspects of their lives to support their efforts in the gym. Sadly, of course, it doesn't ALWAYS happen.

But hey, there's no reason it can't happen to YOU.


Anonymous said...

I can manage to go to the gym regulary, actually I am enjoying my work out pretty much. Eating well is also (generally)not so difficult. But I cannot manage to sleep enough. Normally, I just sleep 5 hours and 30 minutes. I try hard to sleep 6 hours, 7 would be perfect. It is just htat I dont know how to do all the things which I have/want to do (Work out! Family! Reading! Watching movies! Going to the theatre! Play an instrument! Meet friends!).

For me, this is a crucial point: Am I willing to give up so many stimulating (our mind/knowledge needs as much care as our body, too many fitness freaks seem to forget this) activities just because my body will not get 100% healthy and in shape?

What is the best trade off? I am still looking for the perfect solution.

BTW, your blog is quite cool and for me it is one of the best, keep on posting, pls.

Madley said...

Ee gads, did you just steal my life to describe Twin B? Yuck, yuck and double yuck (she said, just waking up from her few hours asleep at the computer desk).

I know my doppelganger exists somewhere... right?

Andrew said...

Good point, Anon. I think most Fitness Freaks are making a plea for balance, just as you are. Generally speaking our jobs and lifestyles (commute, the Internet, videogames, TV, fast food) seem to be pulling us inexorably towards inactivity and poor dietary habits, and we FF's are for the most part trying to counterbalance those forces. If in the process I sometimes sound like I'm encouraging a monk-like existence, I suppose it's an occupational hazard, but that's not my intention: I'm just trying to nudge the pendulum a few degrees in the other direction.

Relative to the general population, it sounds like you've got it mostly figured out for yourself. Sleep can be an individual matter, so maybe you just don't need that much. On the other hand, if you feel spaced out, run down, and unable to function without frequent caffeine infusions, you may want to at least experiment with catching a few more z's on a more regular basis to see if it helps you function better. After all, sixteen enjoyable and engaged hours of waking time are a hell of a lot better than twenty hellish ones where you can barely keep your eyes open.

Thanks for your comments on the blog and thanks for reading!


Jonathan said...

I know how Twin B feels. My workouts lately have felt like penance, to try and counteract my late-night junk food binges. I know I'm just spinning my wheels (and even slipping backward overall) when I can't get the other 23 hours of my day in line with the 1 hour I spend working out!

Overall, I've seen lots of progress this year, "on track" for long stretches, but it's still possible to fall from Twin A behavior into Twin B behavior. Thankfully it's just as possible to move from Twin B back to Twin A.

Really enjoying your blog, Andrew, thanks!