Friday, August 12, 2011


This is just something of an aside and it’s going to be a bit more in depth, although also overly simplistic, I know. I think the basic point is important, though, although I feel I may fail to get it across like I want to. It gets so clear in my mind at times, but then I go to write it and all clarity seems to leave. Here I go.

I may keep saying it, but we’re all different: genes, environments, time, responsibilities, desires…yet a lot of time we’re all measuring ourselves against the same basic ideal, at least as far as fitness goes. Allow me to be arrogant enough to quote myself from an earlier post.
It's that mental picture we all have of the truly fit person, I think, that can keep people on the couch instead of even standing there at the gate, let alone pushing through the start. Fitness isn't necessarily how much muscle or fat you have on your body, it's an all-around measure of your health, both physical and mental. No one started out tremendously fit. We all started off as little babies, squishy and barely moving, spending most of our time sleeping, and slowly working to build the muscles to lift our heads, sit up, stand up, and walk. There's always a starting point; a baseline. Sure, you're not a baby anymore. But maybe you're sitting there at your new baseline--you're new starting point--and you're ready to get going.
The baseline: that’s what I want to type about.

The basics of fitness (e.g., cardiovascular improvement, fat-loss, mass-building…), they’re not a secret. They’re simple science, for the most part. Sure, there are outliers: certain medications, rare disorders, those types of things can throw a wrench into the standard theory. But for the vast majority of us, it’s a pretty straight-forward path to improving our fitness. But, given our vast differences, we all have different fitness baselines. I’d like to demonstrate with a couple of relative extremes. For the first I’ll focus on fat-loss (not weight-loss, ‘cause that can be different), mostly because that’s what so many people focus on.

Maybe you’re overweight. Or obese. You sit on the couch all day. You eat and eat. You don’t care what you eat. Maybe you’re plateaued at a certain weight, or maybe you continue to gain. I don’t know. Immobility: maybe that’s your physical baseline.

~~Okay, perhaps a digression(?)…progression(?)…teleportation(?) into a bit of science is in order. And I’m not sitting here researching as I type, but I can probably lay this out reasonably accurately. Our bodies are energy-burning machines. They burn Calories. Even if you do nothing all day but lay in bed, you’re burning Calories. That’s why, obviously, you can do absolutely nothing and still starve to death: you’re burning Calories while doing absolutely nothing, because your body is always doing something. That’s known as your base metabolic rate—it’s pretty much the number of Calories your body is going to burn in a given day just to stay alive (e.g., breathing, pumping blood, blinking…the very basics). There is a certain number of Calories you must take in each day to maintain that baseline: you know, staying alive. (Insert disco joke here.)

Okay, here, I’ll even Google it for you, because I bet there’s a website that will calculate it for you. It’s not difficult. <Pause> And done:    You can visit that site and get an estimate of your base metabolic rate, customized just for you. If, for example, you’re a 5-foot 10-inch tall, 35-year-old man weighing in at 280 pounds, your base metabolic rate is around 2,400 Calories per day. So if you do ABSOLUTELY nothing all day, not even getting out of bed, you’d need to consume about 2,400 Calories each day to maintain your 280-pound self. (Good for you if you caught that little contradiction: eating is doing something. But c’mon, I’m oversimplifying to make the point.) If you consume only 2,000 Calories each day while doing ABSOLUTELY nothing, believe it or not, in simple theory, you’ll lose about 1 pound of fat every 9 days. On the other side of that, if you maintain that lethargy and eat 2,800 Calories per day, you’ll GAIN about 1 pound of fat every 9 days. Neat, right? And straightforward: the general consensus is that 3,500 Calories, either in surplus or deficit, equals 1 pound of fat. You wanna lose a pound of fat? Burn 3,500 more Calories than you consume. You wanna gain a pound of fat? Eat 3,500 more Calories than you burn. The duration over which the deficit or surplus occurs doesn’t matter so much; it’s a net-sum calculation. If you obtain that deficit over 1 week, you’ll lose a pound of fat that week. Reach that deficit in a month, you’ll lose a pound of fat in a month. And vice versa.

The reality, of course, is you do get out of bed. You walk to the restroom, shower, brush your teeth…walk to your car, into your job, or around your house…eat…defecate…talk and laugh. You sit, stand, and lie down. You read this blog. All of these things burn varying amounts of Calories.~~

So hopping back out of that science and back into the initial example, you’re an overweight, inactive person. (Maybe YOU aren’t, but the example “you” is.) You do the minimal amount of activity you can get by with in a day: you take the elevator instead of the stairs, you drive ¼-mile to the market instead of walking, you leave the trash on the ground instead of bending over to pick it up (in your house or on the sidewalk), you sit in your car, stalking those leaving the store, and wait for the closest parking spot to open. And for example’s sake, let’s assume you balance that minimal Calorie burn perfectly with your Caloric consumption. You aren’t gaining or losing fat. You’re in perfect equilibrium. You’ve weighed 280 pounds for 3 years now, and you’ve decided you want to lose some fat. This is where I think it can get difficult for you.

It’s a daunting task. Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine how daunting it would be to want to lose, say, 100 pounds. But I’ll get to using myself as an example later. I’m sure there is no shortage of “fit” folks willing to offer advice (ahem, here I am, feeling a bit like an asshole), and you can pick up the magazines and read the information on the internet and blah blah blah. You set your sights on that cover-model body. You want to lose 100 pounds. You look at what you want to be and what you are. You look at the 100s of recommended workout regimes, the multitude of conflicting diet plans, the restrictions and additions and innumerable challenges and changes you’ll have to make in your life to reach that point…and you sit back and say, “Screw it.” At that point, I probably would, too. I’m being honest.

<I pour a glass of wine.>

What I’d propose, though, and this is definitely no new idea—I’m not that original or smart—is you forget that 100 pound weight-loss goal. Forget the regimented diets laid out in the books (e.g., cut your carbs, eat only bacon and eggs, never have dessert, do or don’t allow yourself a cheat day, jump into eating foods you don’t like such as eggplant and avocados and lots and lots of broccoli) and prescribed activities (e.g., get 30 minutes of “moderate” activity per day, or jog 3 miles every other day, or ride your bike 40 minutes every day, and make sure you throw in a bit of weight-lifting at the gym). Forget it. That’s not where you are.

Consider your baseline. You aren’t doing much of anything, physically, and you’re in fat/Calorie equilibrium. Given this (perhaps unlikely) scenario of equilibrium, you’re in a very good position to make a difference for yourself, but you have to be patient, and you’re going to have to be patient regardless, so why not go easy on yourself and make it an effort you can bare? Make one small change. Or if you’re up for it, make two or three.

If, for example, in your standard state of equilibrium, you eat whatever else and 3 glazed Dunkin’ donuts every day, cut back to only 2 donuts. Still hungry? Fill the space with a bit of water. A donut-sized amount of water isn’t a whole lot of water. Or try black coffee, even—no cream, no sugar (no Calories). You just cut 180 Calories (according to Dunkin’ Donuts’ website). Is it a lot? Maybe not, but you’re moving in the right direction. You want to speed things up a bit? Skip the elevator and take the stairs. You don’t have to take them fast. You can stop and pause a full minute on each step if you need. You’ve still burnt more Calories than you did taking the elevator. Sure, these are small adjustments. Minute steps. That’s my point: these things are relatively easily accomplished, and they’re moving you toward the change you want. Maybe cutting that one donut and climbing/descending one floor of stairs will result in a Calorie deficit after 1 day of 300 Calories compared to your baseline (I have no idea; it’d depend on your weight and other variables). Okay, it’s not a lot. But in about 12 days, you’ll lose a pound of fat. (In simple theory. There IS the complication of muscle mass gain, but as I keep writing, I’m going for simplicity here.) “Only 1 pound in 12 days!” you may exclaim. “What’s the point? I’d need to lose 50 to even see a real difference!” I understand.

Okay, so sit back down. Hop on the elevator. Eat that third donut. Stay in equilibrium, and if you can maintain that equilibrium, you’ll stay 100 pounds heavier than you want to be for perpetuity if, I guess, you’re lucky. But if you cut that donut and climb/descend those stairs and maintain that 300-Calorie-per-day deficit, in a little over 3 years you’ll be down about 100 pounds.

Admittedly, as pounds are shed additional changes will be needed—you’ll be lighter, you won’t burn as many Calories climbing/descending the stairs. Simply eating one less donut each day and taking the stairs won’t get you where you want to be in and of itself. But you’ll have a bit of momentum (and maybe even a little bump in confidence and self-esteem), you’ll have made a couple of small adjustments you’ve found you can easily maintain, and you’ll be able to search out a couple more. You’ll WANT to search out more of those little changes, because you’ll see what they can do for you. Maybe you’ll start parking a bit further away at work every day, forcing yourself to walk 100 feet further than you otherwise would. Maybe you’ll switch out one can of soda for a glass of water each day.

Surely you’re getting my point by now: your goal should not be to make massive changes and drop 100 pounds of fat. Your goal should be to make minute changes and lose 1 pound of fat. After a long series of minute, manageable changes you’re willfully making and adapting to over whatever amount of time it takes you to adapt to them, you’ll have lost 100 pounds of fat and, compared to that old baseline, you’ll have made massive changes in your diet and activity levels. Remember the movie What About Bob? Baby steps. Just not “Baby steps get on the elevator.” Try “baby steps walk up the stairs.”

“Easy for you to say, Stan. You’re already in shape. You’re fit. You run multiple times per week. You bike. You swim. You eat well.” First of all, eating well has been a long, slow struggle for me I’ll blog about some other time. (You have no idea.) Second, I’m just at a different baseline. This is where I get into the example of myself, and I know myself well.

Yes, I’m in good shape. My resting heart rate is typically in the low 50s, sometimes I work it down into the 40s. I’m slender. I have toned muscles. I’ve run a marathon, biked a century, done the tri: I’ve said it all before, and it’s not meant as bragging. Honestly. But let me take the running as an example: I have run a marathon. Great. Good for me. (No, I don’t have a 26.2 sticker on my car. My accomplishments are for me, really, although I know this blog may seem to counter that. I’ll never claim I don’t contradict myself.) I still run regularly, as you’re surely aware by now.

Can I run a marathon tomorrow? HELL NO. Can I run one next week? HELL NO. Right now, my running baseline is about 3.5 to 4 miles, 3 times per week. That’s a far cry from 26.2 miles in less than 4 hours.

If someone asked me how long I trained for my marathon, without much thought I’d spout out “16 weeks.” When I really focused in and got regimented on the training (yes, I CAN be regimented, annoyingly so, even, but I could even qualify that with further blabber), I had a 16-week training program. (And I’ve shared it with many. It wasn’t my creation.) So could I run a marathon in 16 weeks if I started that same training plan tomorrow? HELL NO. And that may seem a bit counterintuitive at first, until you realize that training plan assumes you can complete a 9-mile run before you even start the training plan. So my off-the-cuff answer of “I trained 16 weeks for my marathon” is fallacious.

About 4 years ago, I was running essentially like I am now, mostly 3–4 miles. I did some 5-kilometer runs. I started getting faster and found that encouraging and always felt like I was…a bit of a weenie compared to those doing 10Ks (5Ks and 10Ks are often run on the same day, so I’d be preparing to run my 5K and seeing these others preparing for their 10Ks, and I’ll say it: I’m competitive, but not overly so[?], so I wanted to be one of those running the longer distance). So I started increasing my distances a bit and over time I was able to run 6.2 miles (10 kilometers). It didn’t happen overnight. It took me a few months. And then I started running some 10K races, and I kept improving in time, and I thought Hey, I could probably do a half marathon. So I started running a bit further. Training…blah…obvious trend here. Ultimately, I completed a half marathon, and I turned out a respectable time. Then I backed off a bit. My distances slacked. I got bored. I focused on other things.

Then one day I got bored again, so I started increasing my running distances a bit. My long runs got back up to 7 miles…8 miles…9 miles…and I thought about another half marathon. But due to a combination of variables in my life, I decided that was my opportunity to work toward completing a marathon. So I kept running, plateauing in distance a bit, while researching marathon training programs. I found one I liked: only running 3 times per week, cross-training 3 other days per week, and taking one day off. (I typically do 6 days on/one day off of exercise anyway, although that doesn’t always hold true.) When I finally settled on that plan, customized it for myself, and then got started, I still had 16 weeks of training in front of me. So the more thought out answer to “How long did you train for your marathon,” which I’ve honestly never given this much thought before, would more accurately be about…oh, 4 years.

Changes in fitness don’t happen overnight. They take time, and often a lot of it. They take some dedication and motivation. Sure, it doesn’t have to take 4 years to train for a marathon. I’d never assert that. But ultimately, all things considered, given my 4-year-ago baseline, my desires, environment, and time, it took me about 4 years. Baselines vary from person to person, and with each person, they fluctuate.

So what’s your baseline right now? Maybe it’s complete inactivity and extremely poor eating. Maybe you just completed an Iron Man and you’ve never been in better shape in your life. Maybe you want to change, and maybe you don’t. Right now, I’m pretty happy hovering at a baseline I’d argue I’ve been orbiting since my son was born. I had a priority shift. I don’t want to spend 3 hours running or 4 hours biking in one day at this point in my life. I’m happy with my physical activity. As far as my diet is concerned, I can always make improvements. And I DO try to progress in that department. I try to eat better. Again, it’s a struggle for me. But I know my baseline, I know my goals, and I don’t set them too far out ahead. I make them manageable; attainable. And then I attain those minute goals, and I feel good about myself. It beats the hell out of shooting for the moon, only hitting the top of the trees, and settling back into the same old shit.

Figure out your baseline, and if you want to move beyond it, do it. It’s really not that hard: “Baby steps get on the bus.”

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