September 18, 2009

A Celebration of Trial and Error

Thousands of studies have been done, and vast sums of money have been spent, trying to develop methods to turn us all into slim, muscular, happy, sexy, youthful, disease-free, energetic, and brilliant humans.

Photo: Kyla Oh

So you'd think by now there'd be a simple formula to follow for healthy living, wouldn't you? Even if it might be difficult to put into practice?

Should you run 10 miles every day and become a vegetarian? Meditate every morning, fast once a week, and set aside an hour a day for yoga? Lift weights and eat lots of meat and stay away from potatoes and flour and fruit? Eat only raw whole foods and run wind sprints three times a week?

I don't know about you guys, but I've followed lots of different and conflicting advice over the years. There's no shortage of it: we're always reading about some great new approach to health and fitness that really works!

Photo: gruntzooki

The problem is, while all of these methods and programs and diets work for someone, none of them seem to work for everyone. Our bodies, alas, all seem to be different. No matter how many other people swear by a particular kind of diet or exercise plan, for many, it just won't get dramatic results.

But I had an epiphany recently: Eureka, I have already found it!

I realize that over the years, I've actually pieced together my own personal health and fitness program that works pretty darn well... for me. It's not perfect, obviously. I'm a lazy slacker, so I will never be a health and fitness superstar, no matter what method I use. However, I'm pretty darn happy with the results I get given the effort I put in. So I'm thinking the whole frustrating "trial and error" thing really does sometimes lead to actual workable solutions.

Which doesn't mean that I won't be off chasing down the next tempting bit of research that comes along. I love short-cuts, and tricks, and learning about powerful superfoods that will make me impervious to carcinogens and as energetic as a 3 year old on a Froot-Loop high.

But before I get distracted by some bright shiny new study touting kiwi seed extract or buffalo lard or or thumb-wrestling, I thought it was worth taking a moment to celebrate all that I have already learned about what works for me. And I know others of you have probably discovered completely different methods that have made a meaningful difference in your health and fitness.

So today, a break from whining! Anyone else want to share some of what you've learned by trial and error? Because I'm finally getting it that there's no one right way to do this stuff.

Here are some of the key things that I think have helped me the most:

1. I have modest ambitions. I set temporary "fun goals," which I then quickly lose interest in, but my bottom line requirement remains the same: don't lose ground.

Wow, really impressive, huh? But for a slothful slacker, this keeps me from feeling too overwhelmed and lame.

I started running when I was 17, and lifting weights in my mid twenties. But I quit many times and it wasn't until years later that I got consistent and smart about it. But these early training efforts did give me a sense of what I could do as a fit 25-year old. Now, I figure if I can hit those same benchmarks year after year, then I'm good! I'm coming up on 50, and so far, I'm on track. Of course I go up and down a bit depending on my schedule and motivation, but it all averages out: I still lift roughly the same amount of weight, run the same speed, and can do the same number of push-ups I could 25 years ago. (Though I still can't do even one f@cking pull-up!)

Note: I haven't hit menopause yet; nor my seriously senior years. I realize some adjustments in goals, attitude, or technique may be required. Or I may lose my memory first! Then I won't have to feel the least bit guilty about blowing off my cardio or lounging on the couch or setting the living room on fire trying to make S'mores by lighting up old copies of Large Print Reader's Digest or AARP magazine.

2. I Can Count Calories if I Have To. Twice in my life I started to gain weight and wasn't able to get it back down with minor lifestyle adjustments. I had to actually go on a "diet." I ate sensibly, measured things, knew how many calories I could have, set gradual, reasonable goals, and I wrote everything down. Both times, it worked. The first time, however, I hadn't mastered maintenance.

Now that I've learned a lot more lifestyle tricks, I'm hoping I never have to go back to that because it was kind of a pain in the ass. I know diets are terribly unhelpful and even damaging for a lot of people. But for some reason they don't mess with me too much, either psychologically or physiologically. I know if I ever need to again, I can suck it up and do it and it won't kill me.

3. But smart eating and exercise lets me eat plenty of food, feel great, and not gain weight. Seriously, my metabolism has noticeably changed. It's way better than it used to be. I don't start to gain weight unless for some reason I'm being completely gluttonous and making really bad choices. And even when that occasionally happens, it just takes a week or two of minor adjustments to get back on track. It's... bizarre. Almost like being a 20 year old guy! It never used to be that way when I was younger, so I suspect it's the accumulation of little tweaks that really does work to keep my metabolism pumping.

(Plus, I have way more energy than I did in my twenties; I pretty much never get sick; I sleep better; and I'm far less moody).

Specific foods and nutritional strategies that seem to work for me:

4. Lots of "good fats"--walnuts, almonds, avocados, fish oils, olive oil, canola oil etc.

5. Protein with every meal, but not too much saturated fat. I'm omnivorous when it comes to protein sources: i.e.: poultry, fish, shellfish, occasionally red meat, nonfat milk, yogurt, eggs, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts. Oh, and for some reason I don't worry about saturated fat that much when it comes to cheese, just meat.

6. Lots of fruits and veggies even if I don't feel like it. I shoot for 7-9 servings a day. The smoothie trick really helps on this one.

(Oh crap, that reminds me, it's Friday which means it's time to attempt to send y'all over to the Juice! They're giving away a $149 Kitchen-Aid blender, and this week's theme was "healthy breakfasts," something I actually have some opinions about.)

7. Limited amounts of refined flour, sugar, transfats, and saturated fats. I try to steer clear of these as much as possible, but don't begrudge myself occasional treats. Also, while I'm not on a low-carb plan, I try not to eat high-glycemic food all by itself. Nothing is totally off limits, but if I'm going to have a cookie or a cupcake, I'll have it after a balanced meal or at least have some milk with it.

8. Whole grains, not refined white grains. White bread or rice or pasta are for special occasions; for everyday meals it's brown, brown brown.

9. Whole foods whenever possible, processed foods as rarely as possible.

10. Green Tea, which does indeed seem to have mysterious metabolism-boosting, cancer-fighting, immune-boosting powers.

11. I also enjoy lots of things without guilt that others might not approve of: red wine (often) beer & spirits (more rarely); dark chocolate (often); coffee (often) eggs and cheese (several times a week); red meat (once every week or two).

The most shocking thing I consume without guilt: non-caloric sweeteners! (mostly truvia now but also some splenda). I know "research says" that this backfires for most people, but it really seems to work fine for me. I have a sweet tooth, and I used to consume a couple hundred calories a day in sugar before I used 'em. I'm still waiting for more convincing evidence that they're truly bad for me.

But diet is only part of it. I think a huge part of my feeling more healthy and energetic and developing a faster metabolism has to do with exercise. I'm not particularly hard core, but I'm consistent.

12. Cardio: I need to do something huffy-puffy at least every other day; 5 times a week is optimal but I often don't quite manage. I don't do long distances anymore; 25- 30 minutes seems to work just fine and spares my knees.

13. High Intensity Intervals: These are brutal, but at least they're over quickly. The more I read about human growth hormone, the more I suspect that doing these is part of the secret to maintaining muscle mass, pumping up metabolism, and burning excess fat. I try to get in at least one session a week as my cardio workout; two is better when I can motivate myself to do that. Three would be nifty but I can't see that happening unless aliens take over my brain.

14. Resistance Training. This also releases HGH if you lift heavy, and I think this might have something to do with my improved metabolism as well. I aim for 2-3 times a week. The key for me is low reps, heavy weights, and trying to mix things up a bit--a trick I've learned only recently, and quite reluctantly.

15. Walking. I do a lot of this, both on workout and rest days. I actually enjoy it, so I don't count it as "exercise" but I generally get several miles a day.

16. I don't overdo things. This comes naturally, being lazy, but I understand that some folks need reminding to take rest days. The "repair" part of the cycle is just as important to muscle growth and fitness as the "tearing down" part.

17. Sleep. I get enough, which I understand is unusual!

OK, so this has to be the most boring post in Cranky Fitness history; sorry about that!

So I'd be curious to hear other health and fitness tips that you folks have discovered actually work for you, or, alternatively, which advice you've followed that was supposed to work but didn't help at all.


  1. My tip it is okay and sometimes very beneficial to take a break from the gym. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed and run down and I take a week off from the gym and I come back completely renewed and on top of my game at the gym. Maybe the sabbatical is a day, or 3 days or an entire week, but it really does reinvigorate me.

  2. Good post as usual, Crabby.

    Altho my progress has been slow, I've tried to gear it toward something I can maintain for a lifetime rather than the quick start-bad finish fad. Eating less than I used to, no eating 3 hours before bedtime, lots of water and avoiding toxic people. Oh, and blogworld!

    (p.s. How on earth did you find my yearbook picture?!)

  3. Not much to offer here. I've found if I get my blood sugar in order ( eating oats for brekkie does it for me) then I have few if any cravings and don't eat quite so much later on.

  4. Not boring at all, cheerful and empowering. It's good to put the focus back on what works.

    I like that gallon can of Immortality. I wonder if it comes in Martha Stewart colors?

  5. You are where I am trying to get! Someday I hope to have a personalized plan like yours:) Although I agree with pretty much everything on your list so maybe I should just start there!

  6. Sounds like what is working for you is very similar to what is working for me (even the sweetener part).

    It took me a bit of time to get the whole "my body needs rest time too" part down, but I think I have it sussed now.

    I do wish I could get more sleep, but with a border collie that decides to start barking at invisible intruders at 3:00am, a kitten that decides he wants to wake me at random times during the night and 7 kids (4 of which are age 6 and under), sleep is going to have to wait a bit longer.

  7. I loved what you said about finding what works FOR YOU. It reminded me that just because some researcher said something, it doesn't mean I should change my life.

    Like hearing on the radio this morning that having oatmeal for breakfast will cause people to gain weight because a high carb breakfast will make you crave carbs all day long.

    Oatmeal is my favourite breakfast!

  8. Great post, Crabby! I am still casting around a little, but have a feeling my new job is going to be a BIG help in getting myself into better shape!
    Walking, walking, walking. There is a LOT of walking involved with my job. And I'm feeling better already!

  9. Sorry... no useful tips... still giggling over the term 'huffy puffy.' Sounds a lot more fun than mere 'cardio.'

  10. Plutarch, in his treatise On the Preservation of Health, tells us that Tiberius was wont to say, “A man of thirty is his own physician or a fool.”

    Congratulations Doctor McSlacker!

  11. My thing is to walk whenever possible and not use an elevator at work unless I must (carrying something dangerous/heavy). Where I work I must go up and down 3 flights of stairs about 50 times a day...but now that I've worked my way up to it, it doesn't even phase me...that and figuring out the whole breakfast is good for me thing.
    I'm still trying to figure out protein and salads, but I think I'm getting there slowly. It's tricky to know what you need until you find it...

  12. My current struggle is to try to find this personal plan for myself. On the eating side, I'm generally ok, but when it comes to exercise? oh boy. I try to get myself into new schedules and trying new workouts, but I always end up feeling a little bored with it and it doesn't last more than a few months.

    I suppose I need to just make sure that I'm adding something new and fun to my routine every month or two, but it seems like so much work!

  13. Eat. Everything. In moderation. Move. Repeat. Every day.

    Loved your post.

  14. you sound so UNSLACKERY to me. well done. amazing. what you do is my dream. actually am more or less getting there on the foods, occasionally getting there on the cardio (if by getting there i mean twice a weak...), i'm still trying to figure out that interval thingy, but i shall now cough in embarrassment and pretend i never heard the part about the weights.

  15. Just wanted to say that I'm bookmarking this page. It's great advice, without coming across as preachy, and doesn't make me feel bad for maybe not doing as much of this as I should, but encouraging enough that makes me think I can do it.

  16. Alas today my entire life feels like trial and error.

    NotSoMuch in fitness but in children and sleep.

    and Im mainly getting ERROR.

    Just wanted to letcha know Im reading and error'ing.


  17. I am so with you on this! It's fantastic to figure out what's right for each of us as individuals. I'm working on that.

  18. Great post I agree 100% we need to find what works for us in the midst of all the hype and craziness.
    Biggest thing I have learned...No matter what the plan, however perfect it may be, if your mind is not in the game it will not work.
    I am still working on my mind. I have dozens of programs sitting here waiting for me :)

  19. I have learned that there exist certain foods that I really should not eat the night before I run; they create a situation where no matter how many times I go to the bathroom before I head out, it will be one time too few.

    Also that the running shoe companies are probably really not trying to extort all of your hard-earned cash from you, and the Good Shoes really are worth it. The $60 T-shirts and $20-a-pair socks can continue to bite me, though.

  20. Nothing boring about this post. I'm still trying to figure out what works best for me but I'm finding that if I play close attention to what I eat, I don't feel as guilty when I skip the gym and the results are pretty good. I've cut out fried and processed foods and increased my veggie intake, especially dark greens.

  21. Great compilation of acquired knowledge. Here's what I've learned:

    1. Move a lot and you'll be healthy. You may not look like a soap opera star, but you'll be healthy.

    2. Earn your towel. If you're not working out vigorously you're wasting your time.

    3. Limit labels. If a food item comes with a label, chances are it sucks for you. If it comes from the Earth gobble it down. Anyone who says strawberries and bananas have too much sugar and make you fat is a boat adrift at sea. Do you really think fruit makes you fat? Come on.

    4. Don't eat more than you need. If you don't know what quantity this equates to, pinch your belly. If you come up with a few inches or less you're doing fine. If you come up with fists-full you need to revisit your math computations.

    5. Don't smoke at all or drink too much.

    6. Pills don't work. If they did, everyone would be thin.

    7. We are all accountable for our health. It's nobody else's fault; McDonald's doesn't force-feed us Big Macs, Phillip-Morris doesn't ram lit cigarettes between our lips, Anheuser-Busch doesn't pour unwanted booze down our throats. We are powerful, capable, unlimited human beings with the power of free will.

  22. Ok. Can I say I was THRILLED to read those magic words human growth hormone in your blog.

    I think you are right. It maintains muscle mass and helps to control that nasty adipose fat.

    My tip: when you don't feel like exercising -start moving anyway. It amazes me that those often end up being my most successful workout days: I can go faster in HIIT, or lift heavier in one exercise, or just accomplish something that I never could before. It's like the universe rewards me for not giving in.

    But if that "don't exercise" vibe persists another day? Then it's often for a few day's rest.

  23. Dang, what a great post - nothing to add other than to say Happy Friday!

  24. Well, being like you a lot in what you do, this was one of the most interesting posts you have ever done for me!!!

    I am so in agreement that 1 thing does not fit all & it does take trial & error to get there & when you get there, you have to change it again or tweak it due to hormones, age or just keeping it new to keep the bod guessing!

    I have not hit menopause but perimenopause is certainly trying my patience! This is where consistency & knowing your food plan helps. I do not count calories either but I know what I have to play around with to try to make things work. Lately, not working so much but I keep trying to fight the hormone craziness!

    I, too, can do the same if not more than I when I was in my 20's but I don't lift heavy weights too much because I tend to get bigger than I prefer.. not as big as when I was young but heavy weights still can add more muscle than I prefer. I mix it up though but tend to do more lighter to moderate weights with medium to high reps...again, shows how we are all different!

    I just loved this post & hearing what you do!!!! THX!

  25. Check out "Seven reasons to eat more saturated fat"

    And Canola oil? Healthy? You need to do some research...

  26. Research? We love research! Research is our friend :)

  27. Oh, sorry, I should finish my comment.

    Drinking gallons of saturated fat. Too bad it's hard at room temperature.

    Seriously, just the opposite of gallons of satfat.
    Foods as close to original as possible. This does not mean foods that state on the label, "The Original BIGFATBLOATEDFOODITEM."

  28. Avoiding toxic people is huge for me! Really helpful. But you know what else? I often have to stop everything because I have become the toxic person. And that sucks. Even if everyone in your life wants to see you succeed, you won't succeed if you, yourself are the one constantly telling yourself that you don't have what it takes. So all the special diet foods, exercise, counting or not counting calories, whatever it is that works for you, won't help you at all if your head is not where it should be.

    So the secret weapon in my health and fitness regimen is to stop everything, take a break, get some time to myself, and recalibrate my thinking to make sure I'm not undermining my own success.

  29. "slim, muscular, happy, sexy, youthful, disease-free, energetic, and brilliant" If we've got all the others, can't we just drop "youthful"? I don't want to be reminded of how far from healthy I was in my teens and twenties. Have much more energy now.

    The most important thing for me is to listen to my body. Rest when I need to.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  30. My main tricks are eating lots of fruits and veggies, and moderate fat and protein. I used to try to avoid fat, that was a huge fail in so many ways. I exercise a lot, but most would count as leisurely, such as walking, or bike riding now that I live in a town that's not steep. I try to do at least an hour or two at the gym most days, both cardio and strength. I could stand to do less fried, which I would do instead of counting calories if it comes down to that (and it's getting close)

  31. Thank you so much for the "what works for me" attitude.

    The people who make me craziest are those who claim every human body works exactly the same and so you better do it my special way or it won't work!

    It's especially bad when that is coming from a doctor.

    Meanwhile, not a bit boring, I agree with you, and I'm using what works for me, right now. If it stops working, I will search for alternatives.

  32. I've learned three things:

    1. Avoid people who have all the answers. Eating beans six times a day may work for you, but it makes me bloated and tired. Likewise, my high-protein, very-low-carb diet makes other people cranky and fat, but it keeps my skin clear, my weight controlled, and my hooves supple.

    2. Don't pay too much attention to the news. One day coffee's good for you; the next it's awful. The same with chocolate, beer, wine, and meat. You have to die of something, okay? Enjoy what you're put here to do, which is to LIVE.

    3. The perfect is the enemy of the good. Moving at all is better than sitting on your ass, so it doesn't really matter if every single rep you do has perfect form. If you can have fun being good at something, or even being mediocre, why push yourself to be perfect and thus become miserable?

    I just wish I could learn to like green tea.

  33. GREAT post! I would have to say I agree with everything that you wrote..some I need to switch up for my own lifestyle...ummm..processed-need the salt and crunch-I know BAD-thanks for the reminder!

  34. Fantastic post and so encouraging to read. I must agree that I feel fitter now at 48 than I did at 25 too.

    My biggest realisation on this journey is that exercise and eating right helps get your head right and if your head is right then the eating good and exercise thing follows.

    For a depressive like me, it has been a total revelation!

  35. Thanks for the tips :) I may steal some or all of them!

  36. anything cardio for me works... both physically and probably more mentally.

    a good overall mantra i'm adopting .. less is more


  37. Awesome post, Crankster! I think you hit it on the head - we have to make a plan that works for each of us individually. This is definitely not a "one size fits all" sort of thing!

  38. Look for opportunities to exercise, and take them. ("That's a nice pool your new condo has. Want to go swimming?" It's not mooching, it's getting your friend to exercise too. Well, OK, it's also mooching, but it's more fun to swim with friends.) And, don't buy any equipment you haven't tried somewhere first.


Thanks for commenting, Cranky Fitness readers are the BEST!

Subscribe to comments via RSS

(Note: Older Comment Threads Are Moderated)