Friday, April 02, 2010

We Have Met The Enemy ...

When it comes to your health, and the care thereof, your worst enemy isn't any political figure. It's not either of the major national parties. It isn't anyone -- or any agency -- within the Federal Government. Nevertheless, it's someone you're fairly familiar with. Allow me to share a story by way of illustration:

A longtime friend of mine has a hangnail. No, that's not quite accurate; he has THE hangnail. He's had it for a long, long time. It's old enough to vote, buy its own liquor, and qualify for discounted auto insurance. Most of the time, he ignores it. The rest of the time, he attempts to treat it himself with a terrifying array of hand and power tools. I don't think he's tried a soldering iron or belt sander yet, but really, it's only a matter of time. He's tried just about everything ... except, that is, the services of a qualified podiatric surgeon, which would pretty much fix the problem for good. But that's far too easy.

His problem isn't that he doesn't have insurance. His problem is that he just doesn't like doctors.

So: my worst enemy? Like just about everyone else, it's the fool that stares back at me out of the mirror when I'm shaving. He'll be the death of me if I give him half a chance. And at the end of the day, my health is my responsibility and no one else's. I enjoy the benefits if I take care of business, and I suffer the consequences if I don't.

I've been doing a much better job of that lately. I've learned a few things since I first got serious about this last summer, and this is as good a time as any to share them with you. It's possible that you've heard it before. Actually, in summary, you have heard it all before: diet, and exercise. But the summary omits a few important details ... such as a form of exercise that's vitally important if you're truly interested in re-making yourself.

But first things first: it must start with nutrition. Steve over at Nerd Fitness likes to say, "You can't outrun your fork." He's absolutely right. This can be really hard at first, but it's really important. Like trying to run your car on scented lamp oil, you won't get far without the right fuel. For some, this was an easy step. For me, it meant changing my whole relationship with food. This has been an ongoing effort for over ten years on my part, and I've managed to stop over-eating, and basically eat the "right" thing more often than not these days. However, this by itself is not enough.

The next layer is, of course, cardio exercise. What kind isn't quite as important as intensity and consistency. It has to be vigorous, and it has to be at least three times a week. It almost goes without saying that you really need to pick something you enjoy doing for its own sake, or at a bare minimum something you can tolerate. I hate running. But for some weird reason, my brain doesn't really interpret elliptical machines as running, even though it's basically the same motion. And I love cycling and swimming. So, ten minutes of each, three times a week, and there we are.

But, as I said earlier, the summary -- diet and exercise -- omits an important detail. There's a leg missing from the tripod: strength training. I didn't get serious about this until nine months ago. Until I saw what it did in conjunction with the other two, I never realized how important it really was.

Mehdi makes a pitch for the benefits of strength training both here and at his own site. At the risk of repetition, I'll put in my own two cents. Simply put, muscle tissue is denser than fat. If you build muscle, even if you don't lose an ounce, you'll look trimmer. But you will lose weight, because muscle tissue burns fat constantly, even at rest. But that's only the beginning. I find that I have more energy. I find that I don't get sick as often, and recover faster when I do. I sleep better. And I have the confidence that comes from knowing that I have never been stronger, not even when I was half my age.

I've found the StrongLifts program very useful. It has several key advantages. First, it's free. All you have to do is go to the website, write down the routine and/or download the free e-book, and it's yours. Second, compound exercises are a great time-saver. Bodybuilders spend hours at the gym, working one or two muscles at a time. But with compound exercises, spend 30 minutes a day three times a week, and that's all you need. And third, you can start small and build up. It's great for beginners. You feel a little bit silly the first few weeks, lifting nothing but the bar and a few tiny weights. But soon, you work up to some respectable amounts. Within six months, I was squatting my own bodyweight. I'm aiming for twice that, and will probably be able to within the year.

And while it's easier with a gym, you don't need much equipment to do good strength training. You don't actually need anything: Pavel Tsatsouline's book Naked Warrior shows you a solid strength routine that requires no equipment at all. And here's a kettlebell routine that requires only bare-bones equipment.

Life's hard. It's even harder when you're weaker than you need to be. Do yourself a favor, and look into strength training. It may be the best choice you ever made.

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