Fitness and working out is different for everybody. It takes more work depending on how much you’ve let it slide, and yes, the raw material, your genes. Anyone, irrespective of age or gender, can improve, whatever their current state.
No Net Worth number compensates for needing a neck, back, knee or the best brace for golfers elbow to get through the day. The good thing, unlike time, being in the best physical / mental state you can be is not a perishable commodity.
This post summarizes the best health advice I have received and implemented to see benefits.
I have been moderately physically active in some shape or form since my late teens. It started with the desire to add some zing to my bowling, be it with the white “hard” tennis ball and later with the red leather ball. It didn’t hurt that working out made t-shirts fit better. But by my early 20’s, it was more than about vanity. Somewhere, a deep realization set in that good health is not just good-to-have. It is almost literally, the foundation to doing more with yourself.
That said, I have never been a “fitness freak” (I detest that term). In fact I have been and continue to be lazy about most things, including what I do for my body. That laziness means I am not ok to block off hours of my day toiling away at the gym. I have not been inside a regular gym in over 10 years now. My workouts rarely exceed 45 minutes, and median under 30 mins. Over the years, even as my levels of activity have varied between non-existent to lung-bursting, I’ve done two things that I think have helped. One, to put my routine (including the lack of one) in the context of how I feel at any point during the day. i.e. How well (poorly) am I functioning. And, to be willing to do little experiments based on new reading about what’s supposed to be good for you.
This post is a summary of what I think works to be healthy based on my reading and my own results. I use the words healthy and fit interchangeably because I don’t think you can be one without the other.
Fitness does not mean a standard set of physical measurements
Think of fitness as being in the best state (not shape) you can be. I see people with ample proportions who are healthy and robust and “size M” wearing slim-waisted folks who struggle to walk up a set of stairs without looking like they will pass out.
Measure your fitness by what you can do rather than how you look. If you can go up a couple of flights of stairs without breaking out in a sweat, can put reasonably loaded suitcases on to overhead bins without needing help, you’re already in better shape than a lot of people.
Your genes play a big role in your steady-state health
This sounds like a bummer. It’s actually liberating. You don’t have to shoulder the burden of being in suboptimal health all on your own. But you do have to make the best of what you have.
A study compared the genomes of a set of people who had all been put through a five-month training routine to look at whether responses to the same routines varied and if our genes explain that difference in response.
Each of the volunteers had already completed a carefully supervised five-month exercise program, during which participants pedaled stationary bicycles three times a week, at controlled and identical intensities. Some wound up much fitter, as determined by the increase in the amount of oxygen their bodies consumed during intense exercise, a measure called maximal oxygen capacity, or VO2 max. In others, VO2 max had barely budged. No obvious, consistent differences in age, gender, body mass or commitment marked those who responded well and those who continued to huff and struggle during their workouts, even after five months.
One SNP in particular, located on a gene known as ACSL1, seemed especially potent, possibly accounting for as much as 6 percent of the difference in response among people, a high percentage by the standards of genomewide association studies. This gene already has been shown to play a role in how the body metabolizes fats, which might partly explain why it also affects exercise response.
It helps to think about maximizing healthspan over lifespan.
Measure the right thing
Healthy can be a set of blood test results, but they tend to be few and far between. Other than tracking your energy levels through the day, Resting heart rate (RHR) is probably the most dependable proxy for health. Simply put, it is a measure of how hard your heart needs to work to keep your body supplied with the oxygen it needs. Traditional medicine says adults should have RHRs between 60 and 100.
“In certain cases, a lower resting heart rate can mean a higher degree of physical fitness, which is associated with reduced rates of cardiac events like heart attacks,” link
More than the the absolute number, changes in your resting heart rate are indicators of drifts in your overall fitness level. Studies and experts aside, I have seen an inverse correlation in how good I feel and my resting heart rate. Periods of low sleep, no workouts, excessive alcohol intake invariably show up as increases in resting heart rate. The opposite also applies.
Note, Olympic athletes have RHRs in the low 40s. Traditional medicine can be wrong about many things.
You can’t outrun a bad diet
This is an oft-derided cliche, that I have found has a fair bit of truth to it. Excluding the impact of your genes, your health is 70% what you eat, and 30% what you do. Yet, people buy running shoes when they first get serious about their health. Apply, the 70-30 principle (I’d apologize to Pareto but then he too did a decent amount of rounding up and down to arrive at his famous rule). Start with your diet, even if you just add some supplements to begin with. Some people might prefer to take supplements such as Boluoke to promote cardiovascular health. If blood circulation has been impeded or some conditions related to chronic inflammation are present, a healthy overall diet might not necessarily support the body, which could lead to a need for added supplements. Moreover, chances are, you’re deficient in one of the key vitamins, minerals or nutrients your body needs to be healthy. If you’re lactose intolerant, for example, you’re probably calcium deficient, which is bad for your bones. Calcium Citrate Chews can help to address the imbalance, giving you stronger bones, hair and nails that are less susceptible to breakage. Similarly, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you might be protein deficient. Try protein powders to ensure your muscles are getting what they need.
Diet is a four-letter verb, and a four-letter noun
Somehow most associate the word with loading their plates with the produce from an acre of agricultural land at every meal. They then squeeze all their cravings into one binge-filled “cheat day”. Adopting a diet for the purpose of losing weight is a waste of time and energy.
Yes, you lose weight, but about 95% of people who lose weight by dieting will regain it in 1 to 5 years. Since dieting, by definition, is a temporary food plan, it won’t work in the long run. link
How can a habit that refers to deriving pleasure from food as cheating, be sustainable?
Elimination > Addition
The other end of “Dieting is useless” is not “Eat everything in moderation”. Not if everything includes stuff from typical supermarket shelves.
Someone said we live in an age where the brightest minds of our generation spend their time thinking up ways to make people click on ads. I would say there are a fair number of those also thinking of ways to manufacture “food” that will make us crave more, and also stay without spoiling for months, even years.
“Humans have an inherited preference for energy-rich foods – like fats and sugars – and thus natural selection has predisposed us to foods high in sugar and fat. Food scientists know this and create ingredients that are far higher in fat and sugar than occur in nature. The most common such sugar is high-fructose corn syrup and is therefore intrinsically addictive.” In fact, foods that didn’t used to be sweet, like pasta sauce, are now artificially sweetened to keep consumers craving the product, with sugar levels that can rival those found in packaged desserts.” link
Read that again. Foods that aren’t meant to be sweet have sugar equivalents added to them to make you consume more.
Closer to home, pick any random brightly coloured box off a supermarket shelf. Turn it around.
One I picked lists the following ingredients: Sugar, Refined Palm Oil, Refined Palmolein, Cocoa Solids, Antioxidant, Chocolate and artificial flavouring substances, Refined Wheat Flour, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils, Liquid Glucose…
Quick hack: Manufacturers have to list the ingredients in order of their proportion in a serving size.
You don’t have to be a scientist or nutrition expert to guess most of that list is not doing wonderful things for your body.
The two biggest improvements you can make to your diet:
- Eliminate processed foods from your diet. Anything that comes out of brightly coloured boxes and has ‘Refined Oil’ or ‘Hydrogenated’. Use for throwing practice, do not consume.
- Cut down added sugar. The results can be almost instantaneous. Anything that says “low fat” typically has loads of sugar. There a few other healthy-sounding labels that are giveaways that they are bad for you link
Don’t worry so much about whether kale is better than quinoa.
Your workouts have to push you
Unless you are physically restricted, your workouts have to push your heart rate up (significantly). Sedate walks while having phone conversations sadly don’t count. Short bursts of intense activity are far more effective than long low-intensity sessions. They also let you get on with your day soon. link
“Cerebral” people scoff at the idea of lifting weights saying they are for vain air-heads who want to wear tight t-shirts. That’s just plain wrong.
Two substantial benefits of lifting weights:
- Muscle sets up a virtuous cycle. Higher muscle percentage improves your metabolism making you less susceptible to adding more fat
- Putting periodic stress on your muscoloskeletal system is the most effective way to stay free from chronic pain that comes from degenerating joints (neck, back, wrists)
However, lifting weights, as mentioned, can severely damage you if you do not do it right. You could find yourself with lifelong excruciating illnesses or muscular or in most cases skeletal. Although there are some medicines out there which can help with this, and that have wide-ranging health benefits as well, it is always best to prevent something like this from happening. You could find yourself with lifelong excruciating illnesses, muscular issues or even skeletal defects.
The biggest resistance (pardon the pun) I’ve seen to weight-training is from women. The general messaging that women should only do aerobic workouts is, pardon my french, bullshit. In fact, given women are more prone to osteoporosis on account of naturally lower testosterone, it’s even more important that they lift.
But not just for the “T-Shirt muscles”
In the real world, there are no movements that engage single muscles. Yet, most equipment in gyms works to isolate muscle groups to “develop” them. That’s a waste of time.
In the real world, almost every movement needs your core, and your legs. Try picking up a loaded grocery bag from the floor and you’ll see.
A strong core is more than a six-pack. It’s all the muscles of your back. So compound movements, movements that engage entire sets of muscles, in your upper and lower body. Pull ups superior to Lat Pulldowns.
If I had to do just one move for the rest of my life, I’d do deadlifts. They are the most value-for-time exercise you can do. They engage the entire posterior chain of muscles all along the rear of your body.
Finally, don’t take any advice at face value. Resist Dogma. A/B Test your body
We are all built differently. My amaetur hypothesis is, just like some of us are allergic to nuts, some to seafood, some to gluten, specific foods cause chronic inflammation in our bodies that is too low-grade to be classified as allergies.
The only way to figure them out is to run experiments. Eliminate food groups from your diet for a few weeks at a time. Dairy, Grains, Nuts. Observe yourself. Do you feel more energy? Less fatigue? Do clothes fit better? There’s something there. Introduce things back into your diet and they will immediately let you know if they are good or bad for you. The book ‘Whole 30‘ provides an entire plan to do this systematically.
What’s more, once you feel the difference of eliminating something, you no longer need willpower to keep it out. Why would you willingly consume something you now know causes you to feel fatigued in a few hours.
My current experiment is to test the impact of restricting consumption to a window of time in the day, IF or Intermittent Fasting. Some research suggests, insulin resistance is a predictor of many age-related diseases. Fasting for periods of time, helps the body reset it’s insulin mechanism and better manage sugar levels in the blood. So far, certainly feel some difference in terms of lower hunger levels, but I’m not sure if the benefit is from the time spent fasting, or the reduction in the food I consume because I’m eating in a narrower window of time. Benefits: To be seen.
In his HBO documentary, Buffett tells a class of high-school students that your body is like this one car that you get but have to maintain for the rest of your life. Treat it well. [Ten insights from the Buffett’s HBO documentary]
Appendix: Some of my past experiments and their benefits (or lack of):
Reduced added sugar intake by switching to black caffeine (coffee / tea). Benefit: High. Less volatility in energy levels, more energy in the late afternoon. Went down one waist size.
Corollary: Switched from regular coffee to cold-brew – Less acidic taste since the coffee is not heated. Benefit: Medium. But made black coffee palatable and easier to avoid sugar. Learnt I love the taste of cold-brew.
Started the day with Apple Cider Vinegar. Benefit – Low. Not sure it brought real benefits other than a pyschological feeling of doing something good for myself
Cut out processed foods high in refined flours, vegetable oils like cookies, instant noodles, cakes (except when made at home). Benefit – High. Eliminated what used to be chronic heartburn, just overall better wellbeing
Bought a barbell, switched to compound movements. Benefit- High. Gained strength in legs and back that years of work outs had ignored
Corollary: Added strength in legs made it possible to regularly walk up 18 floors without feeling like my lungs will explode. Became a workout substitute on days when I’m feeling lazy. Benefit. High. Excellent cardiovascular move as well
Is fitness all in the genes? – New York Times
Your resting heart rate can reflect you current, and future health – Harvard Health Publishing
Food companies intentionally make their products addictive, and it’s making us sick – salon
How the food industry helps engineer our cravings – NPR
How to get the most out of your exercise time – Vox
The real-world benefits of strengthening your core – Harvard Health Publishing
Osteoporosis in women, and men? – Harvard Health Publishing
Eight reasons why women should lift weights – livestrong.com
The beginner’s guide to intermittent fasting – James Clear
Insulin resistance as a predictor of age-related diseases – Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism
How to fail at almost everything and still win big – Takeaways from Scott Adam’s book