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Copyright Dennis Mitton
Maybe you’ve noticed something now that you’re forty or sixty or eighty: your body takes a little longer to do what it used to do easily and effortlessly. Use this information wisely. Be nice to yourself. Take care of small scratches and cuts as they can take longer to heal. Be patient with others as they are moving a little slower too.
This is essential advice if you actively exercise. Back in the good ol’ days that we all talk about, I could step on the scale on Friday morning, frown, run ten miles on Saturday and another five on Sunday, and smile at the scale on Monday morning. Not now. Losing weight takes a concentrated Herculean effort now that I’m pushing sixty. And that many miles will tire me out for a week.
I learned to give my body time to rest last summer in sunny, blistering, buggy, and drippingly humid, South Carolina. It’s glorious in April but by the end of May I will wake up to 85 degrees and the temperature will top at around 100. Running on paved roads adds another five degrees. I tried waiting until we had a brief shower but that drives the humidity up to where one can hardly catch a breath. Natives complain less than I do but for this coffee-infused Son of Seattle it’s a tough slog.
So I quit running. I took August off and enjoyed the air conditioning and concentrated on stretching and yoga. I ran a three-mile loop one night a week when the temperature mercifully dropped to below 85 degrees. September here is as hot as August so I started back up in mid-September to get ready for a race in early October. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was truly shocked when I turned in my best times for both a 5k and 10k run. I felt smooth and comfortable the entire race. At first, I thought it was my new Lycra tights. They admittedly look pretty sweet but I don’t think they contributed to my times. I wondered if it was the cooler temps and I’m sure that helped. What I’m most convinced of is that the time off helped. Stretching and resting gave my legs time to repair from long runs in the late spring and it took a few weeks of rest to begin feeling the benefits.
Every fitness book and trainer talks about rest. It’s when our bodies repair and recharge but few of us really believe it. We’re athletes! We push through pain! We force our body to submit to our iron will! Well, maybe not. So I’ve incorporated indolence and sloth into my weekly regimen and I feel so much better for it. When my legs feel like lead on Tuesday, I listen to them and take off until Saturday. I stretch. I get a couple hours of extra sleep. I loll about and read. Maybe even spend some quality time with the family! And I feel better for it.
So go work out. Work hard. Breathe hard. Pump your muscles. Feel your body work. And when you’ve worked enough – you’ll know when that is – take a rest. Maybe for a day. Maybe for a week. Or for six weeks like I did. It’s not the end of the world and will almost certainly make your world a little better. And isn’t that exactly what living the good life is all about?
Well, here’s good news for human beings. The MS Business Insider opines that market forces in women’s underwear are shifting away from pencil-thin models toward healthy and more normal looking women. They cite as evidence strong upticks in sales of lingerie at stores such as Adore Me and Aerie who market primarily to the non-waif crowd. It seems that curves are in. Or at least getting there.
Part of this certainly issues from the fact that we – Americans primarily – have grown fatter over the past few decades. Once anything becomes a norm within a culture, it cycles back onto itself as the de facto standard. In this case, it’s mostly a good thing. People are coming to reject the marketing mantra that you must look like this or be shaped like this to be happy and attractive. And exercise research reinforces what is intuitive: fit and strong, as opposed to wan and weak, are important components of a healthy lifestyle for all adults.
The Insiderties several marketing moves into the explanation including Sports Illustrated’s editorial decision to include different body types in their swimwear issue and a backlash toward Victoria’s Secret for putatively moving their catalog offerings toward soft-core porn. They note model Iskra Lawrence as someone who is ‘curvy’ as having success in modeling and speaking out against the unhealthy lifestyles of models forced to adhere to the ridiculous standards of advertising executives.
Keep a grain of salt handy. Popularity and fashion do and will change. What makes a healthy lifestyle doesn’t. There are controversies about diets and health and sales people like Dave Asprey will always prop up something new as an essential for what-ails-you. But the science of health is steady: good food, moderate and consistent exercise, and meaningful relationships are what make you healthy and happy.
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Starting a new workout program? 10 steps for success.
Copyright Dennis Mitton
Fitness50 is a blog series focusing on old folks like me who is interested in health, longevity, and the good life. Sign up to follow and receive updates as to when new posts are published. Thanks!
If you are a twenty-year-old bathing suit model who runs half-marathons in your spare time for fun you can probably just keep moving along. If you are like almost every other human being on the planet, and if you are just now starting a fitness program, here is some well- earned advice offered in an attempt to deprogram you from some of the silly and potentially harmful exercise advice many of us have bought into:
For starting out:
It’s said all the time and most people will ignore it: check-in for a check up. You probably need one anyway and your doctor will be impressed with your efforts at better health. Really. They will probably give you permission to start slow and that will comfort you on your first trot around the block. Get the blood-work done, too, and save the results. When you return for next year’s check-up, compare the results of your blood work. You’ll be surprised with how your work has paid off. You will look better and feel better but these results prove that you actually are better. On the inside.
Do not ignore stretching and warming up. Prep your body for the work ahead. Warm up slowly and ease into stretches. Ignore this at your peril. I will tell you from experience: it is stupid to lose a month of training time while you recoup after tearing a muscle because you couldn’t spare five minutes to stretch. If you only have twenty minutes and can’t get your full workout in then focus on stretching. You can run tomorrow. The earth will still turn.
Wear good shoes on a forgiving surface. My preferred gym is my garage when it’s ninety degrees outside. I wear heavy running shoes and have a sturdy carpet on the concrete to cushion my legs and feet. If you are doing more weights than cardio then consider a pair of heavier gym or cross-fit shoes. They will give you a solid foundation and help hold your ankles in place. They don’t have to be expensive but be sure they are of good quality.
Most guys won’t be able to do this – we’ve simply been too brainwashed about what it means to be manly – but if your program uses weights, I highly recommend going through the first day or at least the first set without the dumbbells. Learn the movements. Your body is used to doing everything in a straight line. The very best way to hurt yourself is to get excited about losing forty pounds, grab a fifteen-pound dumbbell, and start swinging it sideways. I can almost guarantee that while the weight goes in one direction, your lower back or your hamstring, which hasn’t made a turn like that since the fifth grade, is going to stay right where it is. When one part of you moves and the other doesn’t? Not a good day. You can still work up a good sweat without the weights so start in easy.
For the mind:
“No pain, no gain” is stupid. Pain means that you are doing something wrong or moving something too far or aren’t ready for the movement. I’m not talking about soreness or the feeling of pushing yourself. I’m talking about that feeling of having an ice pick jammed into the side of your left knee when doing a squat. Quit immediately and adjust if you feel pain. It took you fifty years to mold the body you have today. It’s okay to take some time to bring it back into a healthy condition. Working through real pain will only set you back as you take the time to recover from your dopey and misleading belief.
Remember that the people featured on those videos you are watching are fitness
models and fitness professionals. While true that you can reach their level of fitness, you probably don’t have six hours a day to exercise while a professional chef waits in the wings to cook your meals. Be nice to yourself and take some time. Learn to enjoy feeling your body improve.
Don’t worry if you can’t work at an 110% or 50% or 10% effort through the entire workout. Keep at it bit by bit and you will finally do it. Maybe next week. Maybe next month. Maybe next year. But to rush because of false expectations only invites injury or frustration and both will detract from your efforts and goals. Feel free to rest for a set or just to take a few breaths. Enjoy the workout! It’s not a punishment.
If you want to lose weight then you’ve got to do some kind of food plan. It’s becoming more and more clear that while exercise promotes fitness and health it does not always equate to weight loss. Eating less equates to weight loss. I really, really, like the container system used by the Beachbody programs. It takes away the guessing and calorie counting and tracking. You’ll be hungry sometimes and that’s okay. Find a program that suits you and your personality. I know that I won’t stick to anything too complex to explain to the nearest third grader. The simple fact is that if you want different results then you need to cultivate different habits.
Avoid eating at least a half-hour before your workout and avoid heavy fats or protein. In time, you will learn what your body likes. I feel best and do my most energetic workouts in the morning before I eat anything. I don’t use pre-workout shakes or meals though many people enjoy them. I doubt that they provide any real boost but experiment to find out what you like.
Do nibble on or drink some protein after your workout. The efficacy of protein for
post-workout muscle repair and replenishment is one of the very few sports nutrition guidelines that you can trust. Your muscles are hungry after a workout and as our bodies age we have a more difficult time metabolizing protein. So you want to replenish what you have burned and add a buffer for building new muscle.
Don’ t be stingy with the water. It’s free out of the tap and is the single best ‘nutrient’ to can put in your body.
You can always forget about exercise altogether. Running around the block in silk shorts while you sweat like a dog isn’t the only path to a better life. Some of us like to do this stuff. I do. But if you don’t there is golf, gardening, walking, yoga – any kind of movement will improve your health. For more on healthy living without spandex read here and here.
Humans used to stay fit just by living. Luxury demands extra work.
Copyright Dennis Mitton
Previously published but always good to remember…
Ventured out to run at 6:30 this morning and was sweating by the time I walked the hundred years to the road. Weatherbug called me a sissy and said that is was only 78 degrees out but the humidity made the air feel like jello. A mile out and my shirt carried a pound of sweat. Combine that with a strain to my left femoral bicep and it was a challenging morning. I walked a little between miles and felt pretty good by the time I was done. I’ve been doing yoga to stretch my hamstrings and that’s helping.
I thought about exercise while I watched the television show Mountain Men last night. My favorite is an old fella named Tom who lives in Northern Montana. It’s been a cold winter in Montana, and Tom’s meat stock was low. To use as much of a deer as possible, he hunts with homemade bows and arrows. A rifle, he explains, destroys much of the meat while an arrow, if shot correctly, kills as quickly and makes the entire animal usable. How refreshing compared to people who hunt elk or antelope from a mile away. On the day of the hunt, he drives into the woods, loads up his pack, and walks into the woods looking for deer. There is fresh snow so he is able to follow tracks. He finally comes upon a group of does and tracks them for a mile until he spots a buck. Just like humans, he says: when there are fertile females around a stag won’t be far behind. He approaches the buck, takes his shot, and then tracks the animal until he finds it dead. He ends the day back at his house butchering the deer in the dark as the temperature drops to less than zero.
Evolutionary psychologists refer to the EEA: environment of evolutionary adaptedness. There is controversy about the environment that humans evolved within but it certainly includes much of the lifestyle that Tom enjoys. His day begins with splitting wood for warmth and for cooking. He walked miles in the snow and cold hunting a two hundred pound deer which he then drug out of the woods. Not bad for a seventy plus year-old man. His waking time, just like our ancestors, is spent burning calories – it’s easy to see why the body wants to hold on to fat.
I exercise because I don’t do any of this. I spend my working days in an ergonomically adjusted chair at a desk with no sharp edges. I force myself to get up to talk to people rather than use instant messaging all day. I buy fattened cow at the grocery store where they give away free cookies just for gracing the front door. We prefer clean and healthy food but our schedules often make it easiest to cook up something from a box that is laden with fat, salt, and sugar. Nothing in my history has prepared my body for this onslaught of luxury.
So try to mix in a little physical hardship in your day. Do something that makes you sweat. Push the mower. It’s how you were made to work and your body will respond with a thank you and achy muscles.
This is a real question: should we wipe babies born via C-section with their mother’s vaginal microbiome?
Many health advocates and doctors are saying yes. Here’s the story:
The microbiome is that contingent of fungi, bacteria, and protists that live in and on every accessible part of your body. Sorry, gals, but there is nothing special about your lady-bits in this regard. Our skin, our hair, our intestines are all home to hundreds of different kinds of organisms that share space with our body. These squatters are very rarely harmful and are, in many cases, beneficial. It’s said that we are only 10% human and it’s the microbiome that makes up the other 90%. Their cells are much smaller than ours so we don’t notice it, but nine out of ten cells of ‘your’ body are not yours but are bacteria that are just using you as a scaffold to grow more bacteria. Don’t fret too much. That large number makes up only about one to two percent of your body weight. It’s a little weird to think about. In a very real way, we are not our own.
That other organisms call you home isn’t news. What is news is that we are learning how important this other ‘organ’ is for our health, especially for gut health. I think that the excitement and promise of the microbiome will fade over time but, at this point, it’s being hailed as the key to everything from immune issues to behavior. The reproducible, evidentiary research is thin but some say that just about any gut problem is attributable to the health, variety, and presence of the microbiome.
It is reported that babies born vaginally have a different biotic composition as children than those who skip the trip down the birth canal. This makes sense. Whereas vaginal delivery is the epitome of biology in all its messy glory, a Caesarean-section is clean and sterile. It must be. The uterus and vaginal wall form a barrier between woman and the world which is breached during the C-section. There is a question as to whether or not this vaginal contingent promotes better and more robust health later in the child’s life. Again, the research is thin, but some say that the transfer of this healthy biota from placenta to vagina to skin to nursing is as important to the later health of the baby as any other component of birth.
So to promote good health many practitioners are now ‘seeding’ newborns with their mother’s vaginal microbiome by swabbing mom’s vaginal/placental/fecal moisture to the newborn’s skin and mouth. Gladly, just like making bread with sourdough starter, it doesn’t take much for these denizens to get to reproducing. And I did write mouth. If you’ve ever seen a baby being born, you’ll know why humans who thought we were different than animals hid the event for centuries. It’s the clearest proof that you are at one with the animal world as the messy miasma of biology takes over. Everything from mom, including fecal matter, washes over and into the newborn, putatively transferring important bugs to her child. Personally, I think it’s something to consider.
For other fun poop related reading, check out Fecal Microbiota Transplantation or FMT. Without someone winning the Nobel for discovering how important this is for health and longevity, I’m passing on this one. But to each his own. Might give you something to do on a rainy Saturday.
[This is an installment in a series I’m writing on living long and living well. I expect to take about fifty years to write it. Go here to read the introduction. At this point I have no plans for scheduled installments and I’m not following any couch to marathon plan. I write about fitness and food but am also deeply interested in more nuanced things that make life good. If you would like to know when I publish please enter your email address in the follow button at the top right of any page. Thanks!]
Two stories to illustrate a point:
The first is about a husband and wife I met a few years ago. They were both overweight, smoked, ate poorly, were inactive, and, all niceties aside, were generally gross and slovenly. And happy as clams about their health. Why?
Two reasons. One was that they had hooked up with a friend who sold vitamins through a multi-level marketing plan. She explained to them that these vitamins – and only these vitamins – were all natural, all organic, and that the special processing used by the manufacturer ensured that they were the highest quality nutrients you could shove into your gut. Of course they are expensive! The manufacturing process is expensive and we don’t water down our brand through advertising or mass marketing. Besides – isn’t your health worth it?
The other reason they were so happy was their annual Mexico trip. Forget beaches and cliff diving – they went on a health retreat. Each year they motored down South of the border for a little chelation therapy¹. This is a treatment used to remove specific heavy metal toxins from the body and is marginally legal in the US for general use. And isn’t that just like the Food and Drug Administration? To keep from Americans just what they need to be healthy? So these folks spend a couple weeks in Mexico hooked up to a needle where chemicals are pumped into their blood which is putatively cleansed of toxins and other nasties. Except that it’s not. And while the FDA isn’t a fan, neither is the American College of Toxicology nor the good folks at the Journal of Medical Toxicology (Read here, here, and here.) Even the Great Bearded Health Guru, Dr. Anthony Weil, is skeptical of non-standard use and considers chelation potentially harmful (here).
But my friends believed that this cured all their ills. They were convinced that if their diet and lifestyle was unhealthy then it was corrected by chelation. So they ate and drank and made merry and then spent a few thousand bucks each winter to clean up the mess.
The other story – happier and with a point not so obvious – is about me and bicycle racing. I took up cycling in my mid-twenties and became a pretty good local racer. I kept racing in bigger and faster races until I did a well-known race where the US Team (Team 7-11!) and several other international teams were competing. I won’t even try to brag: I was beat so thoroughly it hurt for two weeks. I actually came home and gave away all of my bike racing stuff. I mean, if you can’t win the Tour de France…really, why ride a bicycle?
But along the way I noticed something truly important: as much as I drooled over Guerciottis and Bianchis I was beating the guys who were riding them. It dawned on me that unless you are elite and racing against other people in the same category then conditioning was ninety percent of the equation. A sweet bike might make you look great but it’s not going to get you across the finish line any faster.
What do these stories have in common and how do they relate to everyday health? Both stories are about people who skip the hard and often boring drudgery of the basics thinking that they can buy their goal. It simply never works. You have to put in the time for the basics.
So what do we do? Start where you are. The most important basic is food. Work on replacing processed foods with real foods. Work on getting at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Don’t fret too much if it doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve spent 30, 40, or maybe 50 years of your life building your food habits. It will take time to change them. Learn about nutrition and eschew fads. You will lose weight, can forget about costly supplements that may or may not work, and learn to enjoy real food again. Your body will begin repairing itself and – trust the FDA – you will not need chelation therapy.
Begin to enjoy some kind of activity. If you can’t run a marathon (ugh!) then run a mile. Or go for a fifteen minute walk after dinner – that’s what I do with my kids. Push the mower instead of flipping down the self-propel lever. In every case doing something is better than doing nothing. Begin where you are and make friends with your body. When you are tired, or wheezing, or sore…those are all signs that you are getting better and that your body is responding. Get the feeling more often.
Start to remove stresses from your life. Begin to adopt – to really grab on to – the stoic mantra to accept that you can only change some things. Really – ask yourself – what kind of crazy person stands in the way of a moving car? Yet how many hours and days and years do we waste trying to stop or change things that we simply have no control over? Learn to let those things happen. Learn to be happy in the choices you make.
Start today. Take five minutes to do something overtly healthy for you. Skip a cookie and have a couple slices of apple. Buy a loaf of whole wheat bread. It all adds up and you’ll soon see that you have more control over your health that you might imagine.
Note 1: Please understand that there is a useful context for medically controlled chelation therapy. The toxicological technique is used for people who are internally exposed to heavy metals like lead or copper and other metals. It works by injecting a chemical into your blood that binds to metals and helps clean them from your system. One problem is that the chelating chemical can bind to necessary chemicals like calcium and remove them as well causing severe health concerns and, in some cases, death (here).
Unless you’re French and believe that the primary purpose of food is pleasure there are two needs that food fulfills but only one is ever talked about. If you read anything about food you know that carbs, proteins, and fats all power your body. Fight it out however you want. Dietary science continues to uphold the fuzzy logic that humans are resilient when it comes to food, that there are no foods that will kill you and none that are super foods. Eat lots of different foods, avoid processed when possible, and eat lots of plants. You’ll be fine.
What you will very rarely hear about is the role of food in providing nutrition. While every cell of your body requires fuel for cellular functions they also require other chemicals. (Yes, nutrients are chemicals!) Many chemicals – minerals and vitamins – are cell, function, or organ specific while others are needed throughout the body. Many are needed in very small amounts and their use is complex and interconnected with other processes making their requirements difficult to understand. A lot of research goes into figuring out just what each person needs but the advice to eat as many different kinds of whole foods in as natural a state as possible is a good.
So when you’re sorting out just what kind of protein drink you need after your HIIT workout or whether or not you should pour turbinado or stevia into your morning tea take a little time to think about the chemicals you need to perform all day long and how our fuel choices provide the chemicals you need. Carbs, fats, and proteins are only half the story.
See the USDA good nutrition and meal prep page here. Recent post about nutritional silly business – downing charcoal.
My post with guidelines for avoiding food hucksters here.