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!
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!
Photo: 'No Matter' Project
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.