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Jan 4 / Great Apes

Getting Started Improving Your Fitness

A few years ago as I entered my mid-30s I wasn’t happy with how my body was aging. I had constant back and neck pain, I would get tired doing almost any physical activity, and I just generally didn’t feel very good. My doctor had me go for some tests that determined there was no structural damage to my neck or spine that would explain my chronic – and sometimes debilitating – pain, so he suggested that I should consider lifting weights to strengthen the back muscles and improve my posture. I was a bit skeptical, but given how I was feeling about my body in general it was enough of a push to get me to give it a shot.

That was about 4.5 years ago, and these days I’m looking and feeling as good as I’ve felt in years. My neck and back pain, which used to be so bad I sometimes wound up spending half the day in bed, has now almost entirely gone away. My overall level of fitness has massively improved too, to the point where I have some of the best endurance on my (admittedly low level) beer league hockey team.

I don’t want to bore you with personal details, but I think it’s important to clarify where I’m coming from, which is where I think most of the people reading this will be coming from: a regular guy whose body wasn’t feeling great and is trying to do a better job of looking after himself. Here’s the difference between what I looked like when I started compared to now:

One of the hardest parts of trying to improve your health is not knowing where to start. There are a million apps that promise to give you a “perfect beach body in only 60 days!” (they are lying) or help you get a 6-pack with only 10 minutes of exercise a day (they are also lying), but it can be hard to know how to cut through the bullshit and find something that might work for you.

I’m not going to go into detail about specific exercise plans, although I will provide a couple of suggestions at the end of the post. My goal here is to provide a few important lessons that I’ve learned that you may also find valuable. I can’t and don’t claim that what worked for me will work for everybody, but hopefully I can provide enough advice that some people who read this will find it useful.

1. Find something you’ll stick with

This is far and away the most important thing I can tell you. The biggest barrier to overcome by far is just sticking with it. My next few points will go into a bit of detail for some ways I found useful to help me stick with it, but I think the most important is finding some kind of exercise you enjoy enough to keep doing it long-term. I don’t like running, and I probably wouldn’t have kept that up if I’d decided it was what I had to do. But I did discover that I like weight-lifting, and I’ve always enjoyed playing sports like hockey (or ball hockey in the summer). This is one reason I’m not going to tell you to do Exercise Routine X, because I don’t know what you’re interested in.

I want to be clear here that any exercise that you’ll stick with is a good one to choose. If that means going for a 30 minute walk every day, that’s a good exercise. A lot of people underestimate the value of walking. It may not be the most vigorous activity you can do, but especially when you’re first starting out, it’s really important to just get moving.

2. Start small

A lot of people start working out by trying to find a big workout that will help them lose a lot of weight in a short period of time. That is a recipe for failure. The far more likely outcome with that approach is that you’ll stress your body out, you’ll feel bad, and you’ll quit.

I started by going to the gym twice a week for 30 minutes. I was often sore and needed time to recover. But my body got used to it, and I stuck with it.

This ties back into point 1, but the amount of exercise you should start with is whatever amount feels (relatively) good, so you’ll keep doing it. Even if you never ramp the intensity up, 60 minutes of exercise per week that you do consistently is better than 5 hours of exercise you do for three weeks and then quit.

3. Ramp up the difficulty slowly

If you do stick with it, you’ll find that you do want to increase the intensity of what you’re doing eventually, because your body will adjust and it will start to feel easier. My suggestion is to increase the intensity a little bit at a time. Don’t jump from 10 minute runs three times a week to 60 minute runs three times a week or you’ll burn out. Again, the central goal is to develop good habits you’ll keep long-term, not to hit an arbitrary benchmark of performance.

One thing I found helpful is to think of exercise as a competition with myself. I’m not in the gym to lift as much as guys who are 6 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than me, I’m there to try to get a little bit better tomorrow than I was yesterday. If you go to a gym you might feel like it’s embarassing to show up and only be able to lift a fraction of what everyone else is doing, but you’re not there to be better than anyone else, and the vast majority of people who are there are so focused on their own routine that they probably won’t notice you anyway.

If you’re going to try weightlifting, once you get into the habit of doing it regularly it may be helpful to learn about progressive overload as a way to push yourself a little bit more each time.

4. Try to stay active

A lot of people think of exercise as a kind of punishment they have to work through that’s sectioned off from the rest of their life. I think a better approach is to try to stay active in general as much as possible. This doesn’t mean explicitly doing things that tire you out all the time, so much as trying not to spend all day sitting around. Simple things like walking sometimes when you might otherwise drive, or taking a few flights of stairs rather than an elevator, can add up over time. I know that these kinds of things can be hard for some people for any number of reasons, but for me I find it’s important. My body feels better in the summer, when I can get out and walk around regularly, than it does in the winter when I often don’t want to leave the house.

5. Nutrition

I’ve focused so far on exercise because this post is about fitness, not weight. But I know I’ll get questions about eating if I don’t mention it, and most fitness guides you find will tell you how important nutrition is.

First thing first, I don’t eat any meat, and haven’t for close to 15 years. I stopped eating meat because of animal rights, not for health reasons, but I’m noting it here because it’s certainly a central part of my diet.

As far as changes I’ve made over the past few years, again it was about making small changes that I could stick with over time, rather than trying to do any kind of diet overhaul. The one big exception is sugar; I’ve been slowly reducing the amount of sugar I eat over the past few years. I would guess I currently consume about 20-25% as much sugar as I did when I first started working out. This has less to do with weight than the fact that eating a lot of sugar is bad for you regardless of what you weigh. I’ve almost completely cut soda and sugary fruit juices from my diet.

The other thing I focus on is trying not to eat highly processed foods. There’s a lot of good research on why eating highly processed foods is bad for your health. The primary theory behind it is that the bacteria in your gut (your “microbiome”) have a lot to do with how your body digests food, and highly processed food doesn’t provide your microbiome with the same good bacteria that unprocessed food does.

Aside from that I still eat more or less what I want. I eat lots of carbs, especially potatoes, which are actually full of good nutrients as long as you don’t deep fry them. I don’t count calories and I don’t try to restrict myself from eating things I like except that I do try to limit my sugar intake.

And that’s it for my advice. I know some people will want advice on specific exercise or routines for beginners, so I’ll make a couple of suggestions if you want a good place to start.

I’m fond of the Nike Training Club app that’s available for smartphones. It’s got a huge selection of workouts for all fitness levels, including complete beginners. It’s been my go-to source for workouts during Covid when I haven’t been able to get to a gym. It has a “Plans” option that will put a routine together for you based on your available time, equipment (including none), and fitness level, which I’d recommend as a good starting point. The beginner exercises are good for helping improve your flexibility, which will be very helpful as you move on to bigger workouts later on.

If you want to get into weightlifting it’s important to start small, and if it’s something you can afford I’d consider trying to work with a personal trainer for a few weeks, because they can teach you to do the exercises safely and with good form. When you’re weight lifting good form is absolutely critical. It’s better to do 5 reps at a light weight with good form than to do 10 reps with a heavy weight if you’re doing it wrong. In general you should focus on doing “compound” lifts that work out multiple muscle groups like bench press, squat, deadlift, overhead press, and pull-ups. Most of the machines at the gym won’t do much for you if you’re a beginner; focusing on a small number of exercises with the greatest overall impact will help you get better results.

If you have any more questions feel free to reach out @draglikepull on Twitter. I am certainly not an expert on fitness or nutrition, but I’m happy to help out with any questions I can.

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