Wednesday, July 9, 2014

For Your Health

For a lot of people, good health is a gift enjoyed by others, and the lack of such a gift is a source of shame and ridicule, but fitness is something that anyone can attain. Like so many other things, living a healthy lifestyle is a skill, and anyone can learn it.

Here We Go...

I know what you're probably thinking right now. "Great, here's another message telling me I'm worthless for being overweight/underweight/not toned enough/whatever." Heck, I've probably already lost the interest of a good portion of my readers, but for those of you who have stuck around I promise this isn't going to be another example of attacking/glorifying fat. In fact, fat doesn't matter at all, really, when it comes to being fit. Some of the most fit people you'll meet carry a lot of extra weight, and some of the least healthy people around are rail-thin. So forget about fat for awhile, and let's talk about fitness.1

We get a lot of conflicting messages about fitness in our day-to-day lives. There's a million "Real Women Have Curves" messages out there, and at the same time magazines are plastered with fad diets and miracle workout routines. Don't even get me started on the diet pill industry. As a culture, we're simultaneously obsessed with fitness, and repulsed by it. For every shirtless David Beckham ad, there's a close-up shot of some variation of the bacon cheeseburger, now available at [insert fast food franchise here]! It gets exhausting to think about our own health before we even start having that conversation because we're already so burned out on all the conflicting health messages! So I want you to do yourself a favor and pack up all of those cultural health messages into their respective bags and set that baggage aside for a minute.

Man sitting in suitcase
photo credit: striatic via photopin cc

Some of the challenges we face when we pursue a healthy lifestyle are the aforementioned cultural messages. Even if we didn't have all that pressure from society to be thin, it's still incredibly difficult to stay dedicated to a health goal. We live in a world where we have instant or near-instant gratification, so even if we can move past the conflicting messages about our health we get constantly bombarded with, we're conditioned to get discouraged if we don't see results right away. We often end up getting frustrated at the first backslide in a weight-loss program, or we get disillusioned with the benefits of a healthy lifestyle when we run out of that initial motivation.

What exactly are the benefits of good health? A longer life expectancy, for starters. There's also a significantly reduced chance of developing almost any disease or ailment.2 Being in better health also improves how much energy we have available to us throughout the day, and people in good health tend to be happier overall. Not to mention the boosts to self-confidence and, thus, attractiveness. Basically, getting fit will affect almost every aspect of your life in a positive way. So let's look at the basic components of a healthy lifestyle.

The D-Word: Diet

There's a huge misconception people have about diets. Most of the time, we use the word "diet" to refer to particular rules around what, when, and how much we eat, but really our diet is our collection of eating habits in general. When we "go on a diet" what we're really doing is changing our diet patterns, usually temporarily. This is why diets are often considered ineffective; they cause changes in our health that we aren't prepared or willing to maintain, so when we go "off" the diet that's working for us, we tend to gain everything back because we go back to the same eating patterns we had before. It's important to frame any change in diet as being just that, a change in our eating habits, rather than some tool to just fix a problem and be done with it. This is not to say that we can't adopt short-term diet changes for specific results, but we should be aware that after hitting our goal weight we can't just switch off the new lifestyle or we're just going to be sabotaging ourselves.

Massive amount of food
What? There's green stuff in there!

So what does a healthy diet look like? This is going to be different for everyone based on build, body type, genetics, and the region you live in. The World Health Organization has a few guidelines they recommend; You should eat roughly the same amount of calories that your body is using. For most people, that will be between 2,000 and 2,400. This may be higher or lower than what you personally need based on typical activity level, age, body type, etc. A healthy weight is a balance between energy consumed and energy expended. A healthy diet would be largely composed of plant foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts. Things to limit include fats,3 sugars, and non-iodized salts. If you eat meat, try to stick to lean cuts of meat. The more processed a food is, the less healthy nutrients it will have. If you can afford it, the best bet is to meet with a licensed dietician to work out what kind of needs your body has and build a balanced, healthy diet around that.

But what do you do if you need to lose/gain weight? Personally, I found it effective to manage my calorie intake and expenditure closely. There are a number of products out there that can track how many calories you consume and how many you use on a daily basis. I recommend the app myfitnesspal, which is free, to record the foods you eat. I also recommend the Fitbit, which ranges from about $60 to $130 depending on how many features you want. It's a device that tracks things like heart rate, steps in a day, etc. and calculates the amount of calories you're burning. If you're looking to lose weight, you want to shoot for between a 200 and 1,000 calorie deficit every day. Anything more than that and you're going to be sabotaging yourself as your body isn't designed to change that quickly and your metabolism will try to compensate by storing as much energy as it can (i.e. create more fat).

On top of paying attention to calories, you can also switch up the types of foods you're eating. Carb-heavy foods, especially grains, are particularly effective at giving you those extra pounds of fat, as is dairy. So cutting those out (to lose weight) or increasing your consumption of them (to gain weight) is a good option. You also want to avoid sugary foods like the plague. If it's not naturally sweet, like most fruits, then you want to limit how much of it you take in. even if you're trying to gain weight, it's better to do it with healthier foods rather than with extra desserts!

A delicious pastry
Okay, maybe just ONE more piece...
photo credit: Kirti Poddar via photopin cc

It's also important to let yourself indulge every once in awhile. What good is a long, healthy life if you can't enjoy it, right? The trick to indulgence is not to overdo it. A milkshake or a bacon cheeseburger with fries is OK to have every so often, but stick to the "small" portions. Believe me, it's plenty, and if you train yourself to take small bites and eat slowly you'll enjoy it just as much. It's important to stick to healthier foods as much as you can though. Salads are a great alternative to French fries, and grilled (not fried) chicken is generally better than beef or pork for you. Oh, and if you do overindulge? Work it off! An extra couple laps around the neighborhood or 10 minutes on the stairmaster won't kill you4 and you'll balance out that extra brownie you took when nobody was paying attention.


Exercise is the hardest part of getting fit. It can be difficult to stick to a stricter diet, but we also get that positive feedback that comes from making the decision to eat vegetables instead of chips. With exercise, there's that dread leading up to the workout, the pain in our muscles from working them hard during it, and the exhaustion afterwards, and we generally don't feel good about it until after it's all over and we're taking a shower. Despite all of this, exercise is as important to our health as a balanced diet. It builds strength, gives us definition to our muscles, which makes us more attractive, and it helps burn some of that excess fat we obsess so much over.

If you're just starting out, it's difficult to set a good workout plan. If you can afford it, meeting with a personal trainer for a one-hour session can be worth it just to identify your goals and plan a workout routine that will help you meet them. If not, then you'll have to do some research on the types of exercise that work for you. Personally, I like running, free weights, and high-intensity interval training. For others, swimming and weight-training machines are more their speed. Still others use aerobic or flexibility training to meet their fitness needs. There's no right or wrong way to approach it, really. The important thing is to put yourself out there and try different workout activities to see what works for you. I would start with walking/jogging. If that's not working for you, try weights. Explore alternatives like swimming, dancing, or yoga. Once you find something that doesn't make you feel like absolute death, stick with it!

Person stretching
"Aaaand ONE!"
photo credit: hey mr glen via photopin cc

It's also important to really define your goals and adjust your workouts accordingly. If you just want to lose some fat, then cardio and aerobic exercises are going to be your bread-and-butter. If you're looking to build strength, then weight training is going to be more your style, but be careful to balance out what muscles groups you work on. You can actually cause more problems if you overdevelop one set of muscles while neglecting the rest. For toning, lighter weights and more reps are a good bet. If you want to improve fitness overall, you're going to want to cycle through a number of different workout types. Running and an appropriately diverse set of weight-training exercises will give you an overall improvement on strength, body fat percentage, and tone. Again, meeting with a personal trainer is going to be invaluable, and if you keep an eye out a lot of gyms will offer a free 1-hour meeting with one as part of an introductory trial program to convince you to sign up at their facility.

Bringing It All Together

Alright, so you've figured out a balanced diet, and you've got your workout plan put together. What's next? Sticking to it. Depending on any number of factors, you could see a lot of progress right away, or you might not see much at all. The important thing is consistency. Even if you don't see the weight melting away or increasing your max lifting capacity every week, I can guarantee you that you're making progress as long as you're sticking to it. If you plateau out for a couple of months and don't seem to be making any more progress, it might be time to visit that trainer and/or dietician again and see if you can't tweak some things to get back on track, but you have to keep in mind that the overall effects on your health are going to be relatively slow to manifest. After all, it took your whole life to get to where you are now, so expecting it to take a few months or years to undo all of that is not so unrealistic!

Of course, there ARE shortcuts...
photo credit: Libertinus via photopin cc

You also have to keep in mind that you're doing this for your health, and for no other reason. Don't take it personally if nobody notices you've lost 5, 10, or 20 lbs. You're not doing all this work for their benefit, so it doesn't matter if they notice or care. You know that you're improving, and that's what matters. As long as you're making progress towards your goals, keep at it! And once you meet those goals, think about setting more ambitious ones! (just don't try to get to an unrealistically low weight or an unhealthy musculature etc.) And speaking of goals, it's important to set tangible ones and finding a way to track your progress. Recording your weight once a week5 and tracking it in a spreadsheet is a great way to see your progress in losing weight. Same for increasing your maxing weight for squats/presses/whatever.

What do you do once you meet your final goals? It's time to maintain that state! You can relax your diet restrictions a little, and maybe scale back on the working out, but you have to keep most of those healthy habits you've built up. If you notice you're slipping back towards your old ways, bump up your efforts to counteract that backslide. You'll find that maintaining a level of fitness is much, much easier than getting there in the first place.

I won't lie to you, getting fit is not an easy task. It takes a lot of dedication, time, and effort. You will experience setbacks and disappointments, and getting back on track will sometimes feel nearly-impossible. If you stick with it though, the rewards are well worth the pains you have to endure to get them. I know, because I've done it, and so can you.

1 I am not a doctor. The things I am writing are based entirely on my own experiences and success with weight management.
2 Obviously, this does not mean healthy people never get sick, they're just less susceptible to it.
3 When you do consume fats, you should prefer unsaturated fats to saturated or trans fats.
4 ... Probably.
5 Your weight will vary so much from one day to the next that it's unlikely that you'll notice any long-term trends by weighing in daily.

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