Friday, December 6, 2013

Five fitness lies we tell ourselves

I'm a 67-year veteran of the aging process, and I've spent much of my life around gyms and other athletes.  So I'm reasonably familiar with training myths and, even more, with the outright lies that we often tell ourselves in order to feel better about our fitness programs.  Since we're wrapping up another year, I decided to share my thoughts on five key fitness lies that you might have told yourself in 2013.  Oh, and for the record, I'm guilty of at least three of them.  With some luck and a lot of extra motivation, perhaps you and I can lie to ourselves less often in 2014.
    Since I'm training, I can eat a lot more.  Every year hundreds of thousands -- or perhaps even millions -- of Americans find fitness-center gift certificates under their Christmas trees.  So they amble off to the local gym and begin walking on the treadmill, climbing the stair stepper, and generally becoming more active than they had been.  This is good.  But sometimes you get hungry after you exercise; and sometimes you tell yourself that eating more than you normally do is okay, since you're now on the fitness track.
   Well, here's how it really works.  If you want to gain weight, you need to consume more calories than you burn.  On the other hand, if you want to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume.  So let's use Joe as an example.  Joe weighs 180 pounds, would like to weigh 165 pounds, and has just begun training at the local gym three days a week.  Each time he goes to the gym he walks on the treadmill at three miles per hour for 30 minutes, burning roughly 178 calories in the process [the actual figure will depend upon Joe's age, fitness level, metabolism, and such].  He feels great after each 30-minute walk and treats himself to a healthy snack: a raisin bran muffin.  Raisins are good for you, and so is bran.  But by the time you mix the raisins and bran with other ingredients, you end up with a muffin that contains about 370 calories.
   So let's do some simple math.  It takes Joe 30 minutes to burn 178 calories by walking; it takes Joe about 2 minutes to eat a muffin that contains 370 calories.   In other words, Joe has just consumed about 200 calories more than he burned.  This is not how you lose weight, Joe.  But Joe's problem doesn't end here.  Because he's "in training," his eat-anything philosophy lasts all day every day.  He eats whatever he feels like because he's burning nearly 600 calories per week by walking on the treadmill.  But since he's now consuming an extra -- pick a number -- 5,000 calories per week, Joe will most likely gain weight at an alarming rate. 
    Since I began training a month ago, I've added 8 pounds of muscle.  A 20-year-old who begins a weight-training program and sticks to it fanatically might gain a couple of pounds of muscle mass in a month.  But that would be an exceptional gain.  A senior gaining 8 pounds of muscle in a month?  In a word, no.  You may have gained 8 pounds, but only a fraction of it is muscle.  See lie #1 above.
   But there is certainly a foundation of truth in this particular lie.  Seniors can, in fact, gain muscle mass.  It won't happen as quickly as it does for a 20-year-old, but it can happen at any age.  You need to train and eat properly . . . and then give the process months, not weeks, to kick in.  If you're 70, you don't need to look like Mr. Olympia.  But you can look and feel stronger than you did before you began training seriously.
    Once I'm in good shape, I can back off on the training.  Well, sure, you can always back off on the training.  No one is stopping you.  But if you're implying that you can back off on the training and maintain the same fitness level, then you're in for a rude awakening.  World-class athletes may switch training gears a bit and back off just before a major competition, but even their "light" workouts would hobble most seniors.  If you're 60+, you should probably aim for a training routine that you can maintain throughout the year.  If you push too hard too often, you run the risk of overuse injuries.  But if you never push enough, you'll never reach peak condition.  So aim toward the middle.  Build a challenging and varied routine that you can stick with week after week.  If you're competing in a martial-arts tournament, you may want to back off a bit just before the event.  But we're talking several days, not weeks.
    I don't need a coach.  Professional athletes always have coaches, but you don't need one?  Doubtful.  What I'll agree with is that you don't need a coach every day.  You certainly need a coach, or a personal trainer, when you first build a fitness program.  Too many aspiring athletes perform their exercises improperly, get hurt rather quickly, and then become former athletes.  Let a pro show you how to do each of the exercises in your program.  If you're a martial artist, this isn't a problem, since your master instructor will most likely pounce whenever he or she sees you doing something wrong.  Once you've built a sensible training program, consider using a personal trainer every now and then to make sure you're still executing the techniques properly and to determine whether it's time to change the routine.  If self-motivation isn't your strong suit, then by all means work with a professional all the time.  Personal trainers can get expensive, but the coaching you get from, say, a master Taekwondo instructor is quite affordable, since it's just part of the class fee.
    Aw, hell, I'm too old to get in shape.  This is the most vicious lie of all, because it keeps millions of seniors on the couch and out of the gym.  Here's my take on it.  If your doctor says you're capable of exercising, count your blessings, because there are hundreds of millions of people on this planet who will never be healthy enough to exercise.  So don't waste the gift.  Exercise.  You can benefit from exercise no matter what your age.  And you can take up Taekwondo or some other martial art at any age as long as you shop around for a senior-friendly school.  No matter what your age, you can gain stamina, build strength, improve your flexibility, and maintain a healthy weight.  Your body is a wonderful and phenomenally complex machine, and it works best when it's well tuned. 
   Since we're approaching the season of New Year's resolutions, why don't you and I resolve not to tell ourselves fitness lies in 2014?  Let's face facts, tighten up our training routines, and be the best that we can be.