Before I say anything else in this post, let me begin by saying that I am not a fitness industry professional. I am not a certified physical trainer, therapist, nutritionist, instructor or clinician of any kind. Furthermore, I am not trying to put myself across as one. Instead, what I am hoping to do with this post is share with you my perspectives on the quest for fitness. I did not play sports for my high school or college, but I often played recreational and pick up games of football, soccer and basketball, though none of them very well. Now that I have said what I am not, let me say what I am; I am a 45 year old father of five with type two diabetes and a history of exercise induced asthma. I love to play golf, and I am trying to pass that love on to my sons. I am an avid cyclist, having competed in local and collegiate racing events, and am passionate about the outdoors. I love to hike, to explore, and to push myself and my limits. I have run several Ragnar relays, one marathon and one triathlon, with several 5 and 10 k’s along the way. I am also a performer on the stage, where a physical look can make the difference between getting a particular role or not, and where I have to move and sometimes REALLY DANCE! So as you can see, fitness is something that is of more than just a passing fancy to me. My journey toward physical fitness has also been one of the most frustrating things in my life, as I struggle with my weight, body image issues and unfair comparisons between me and the comic book heroes of my youth.
When I was diagnosed with diabetes, I knew something needed to change. I had been lifting weights and playing a golf, but I had been neglecting the cardio and nutritional dimensions of fitness. For me, coming face to face with a chronic, terminal disease shocked me into doing something about the level of inactivity and lack of fitness that was beginning to define my life. I worked with a dietician and my doctor to set some goals, and as I started to achieve those goals, I found myself loving my life and looking for new challenges. That perspective has become a major piece of my life in the succeeding years.
I learned that fitness was built on a combination of three components: what we eat, how we move and how well we recover. All the things that I thought made up fitness, like how much I could lift and how fast I could run and how well I could throw or shoot a ball, were all outgrowths of those three things. If I could do something well once but was completely wasted for the rest of the day, I surely wasn’t very fit. And if my body was starved for the proper nutrients that made for a healthy body, no amount of food or calories would be enough. So what does all this translate to, in terms of becoming more fit? I approached each of the components separately, but the way they work together to build fitness was amazing.
What We Eat
When we look at the average American diet, we find some interesting statistics. According to one report by the Harvard School of Public Health, Americans consume less than 25% of the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables, depending on age and caloric needs. Additionally, based on the number of soft drinks, donuts and meals at fast food restaurants, it is likely that we are getting a vast number of our calories from less than healthy sources. Reversing that trend can seem like a daunting task, but I found three simple adjustments helped a lot.
First, I drank more water. I didn’t cut out soda entirely, but I made a commitment that I would drink one bottle of water in between my soda consumptions. Some days are better than others, as my friends will sometimes remind me (especially when it comes to my beloved Coke Zero) but on the whole, this one decision has been amazingly helpful.
Second, I added one serving of vegetables to each day, generally as a snack. One of my favorites has been celery with peanut butter, but i have also developed a fondness of humus. I also added nuts to my diet, which may not be exactly vegetables, but they are also a far cry from peanut butter cups.
Finally, I made a decision to eat more meals from home. By purchasing groceries from the store (and sometimes the farmer’s market) I was able to prepare meals that were higher in nutritional value than anything that came in a box or a sack. And, as a side benefit, I saved some money too.
How We Move
In the past, movement for me was about the specific moves necessary to do specific tasks. Could I swing a golf club? I must be fit! Could I walk up stairs? I must be fit! Could I ride a bike 100 miles? Who cares, I can swing a golf club, I must be fit! Obviously, there is more to the equation than that. I learned that the first time my back went out.
I had been on the golf course, walking the course and learning to shoot bogey golf, and I was watching my glucose numbers from my diabetes go down. It was wonderful. Then one day, I played a little more competitively than was wise. I swung a little harder for a little longer, and, by the morning, I could hardly get out of bed. Sitting in the car on the way home was an exercise in agony. The next day, things started getting worse, not better.
I went to see a chiropractor and a physical therapist, and they both told me the same thing; the body often compensates for weakness and strain in one part of the body by tightening the muscles on the opposite affected area. In short, I might be working on my chest and biceps in the gym, but my core was not keeping pace with the increased demands.
My solution to this part was not to cut back on my other types of exercise, but to become extremely aware of the value of core strength and flexibility. I got a series of stretches which were designed to help my back, and that has fueled a lifelong awareness of the value of stretching for flexibility. Yoga is a part of my daily lifestyle, not just my exercise regimen. I use a time at work to remind me to get up and out of my desk chair at work every 45 minutes and stretch my whole body, even if it is just for five minutes. The results? It has been years since I have had a debilitating back spasm, even during the time of year when I shovel snow (I must be fit!)
How We Recover
This final part of the puzzle has been much less easy for me. As a parent to teenagers, I only get as much sleep as they let me, either because of their activities in the house or because I am waiting up for them to get home from activities outside the house. It doesn’t help that I am also passionately involved in theater activities throughout much of the year, keeping me up well into the morning hours sometimes, and sometimes for days in a row. Obviously, what I am talking about here is sleep. But I have also been learning that there is another aspect to this recovery piece that I had not included in my lifestyle. That piece was rest from activities.
Earlier this year, I suffered a strain on my shoulder. I decided to work through the pain, continuing my preparation regimen for an event, and found myself in increasingly more pain. It was frustrating, but I knew that I needed to stop altogether to let the injury heal.
When I came back, obviously I had lost some ground. It took me a while to make up the ground, but I did it while consciously reminding myself to take it easy every other day. For those aggressively involved in body building or event training, they know that increases in performance happen as much on rest days as they do on workouts. That is because the gains in muscle size or in muscle performance don’t truly happen until the rest session. In short, if I don’t rest, I don’t improve. So rest became vital. But I call it active rest. Yes, there are times after a good, draining run or ride that I come home and just rest, but much of the rest of the time I keep active. I walk, I play with the kids, I engage activities that are less strenuous but still require activity. Yoga has been invaluable for this, as has my stretching regimen.
When these three components are taken together, they set the stage for a change in body composition that makes a change in lifestyle and recreational activities fun and enjoyable. And that will be the discussion for next time.
What do you think of the three components? Are there things that you have done that have helped you on your way to improving your fitness? Feel free to share!