For an unathletic, self-professed geek, I’ve made a fair amount of improvements in my physical life. Going from exercising rarely to exercising every day. I’ve gone getting completely winded after a three mile jog to being able run a half marathon. Switching to a vegetarian diet and still managing to put on fifteen pounds of lean muscle mass.
I don’t think I’ll be gracing the cover of Mens Fitness anytime soon, but I have learned a lot about what it takes to get in shape. Although anyone can cover the basics (eat right and exercise), there are some things that I could only learn through trial and error. I’d like to share a few of those lesser known tips.
What’s easier, exercising three times a week or seven? It is far easier to make exercise a habit if it is a daily one. If you aren’t exercising at all, I recommend starting by exercising a half hour every day. When you only exercise a couple times per week, it is much easier to turn one day off into three days off, a week off or a month off.
If you are already used to exercising, switching to three or four days to fit your schedule may be preferable, but it is a lot harder to maintain a habit you don’t do every day.
2) Duration Doesn’t Substitute for Intensity
Once you get into the habit of regular exercise, where do you go if you still aren’t reaching your goals? Most people will solve the problem by exercising for longer periods of time, turning forty minute workouts into two hour stretches. Not only does this drain your time, but it doesn’t work particularly well.
Exercise for periods longer than sixty to ninety minutes can change the chemical state in the body which destroys muscle and causes fat content to rise, according to James Villepigue and Hugo Rivera of the Body Sculpting Bible for Men. The majority of improvement comes from the final possible exertions, so doing more can often mean getting less.
3) You Have a Set Point, Acknowledge It
Drugged up by no-limits, self-help philosophy, many people get frustrated when they plateau in their weight loss or muscle gaining goals. Everyone has an equilibrium and genetic set point where there body wants to remain. This doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your fitness goals, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to lose weight or put on muscle. Acknowledging a set point doesn’t mean giving up, but it does mean realizing the obstacles you face.
Expect to hit a plateau in your own fitness results. When you expect a plateau you can manage around it so you can continue your progress at a more realistic rate. When expectations meet reality you can avoid dietary crashes.
4) Eat Healthy, Not Just Food That Looks Healthy
Know what you eat. Don’t fuss over minutia like whether your getting enough Omega 3’s or tryptophan, but be aware of the big things. Look at the foods you eat regularly and figure out whether they are healthy or not. Don’t get fooled by the deceptively healthy snacks just pretending to be good for you.
The basic nutritional advice seems to be:
Eat more veggies
Use meat as a side dish, not a main course
5) Watch Out for Travel
Don’t let a four day holiday interfere with your attempts to get in shape. I don’t mean that you need to follow your diet and exercise plan without any excursion, but when you are in the first thirty to sixty days, still forming habits, be careful that a week long break doesn’t terminate your progress.
This is also true of schedule changes that leave you suddenly busy or make it difficult to exercise. Have a backup plan so you can be consistent, at least for the first month when you are forming habits.
6) Starting Slow is Better than Fast
Ever start an exercise plan by running ten miles and then puking your guts out? Maybe you aren’t that extreme, but burnout is common early on. Take your time, you have a lifetime to be healthy, so don’t try to go from couch potato to athletic superstar in a week.
If you are starting running, run less than you can to start. Lifting weights? Work with less weight than you could use. Increasing intensity and pushing yourself can come later when you are familiar with regular exercise.
7) People Can Lift OR Anchor
Should you have a workout partner? That depends. Workout partners can be great motivational boosts and make exercising more fun. But they can also stop you from reaching your goals. My suggestion would be to have a workout partner, but when you start to plateau (either in physical ability, weight loss/gain, or overall health) and you haven’t reached your goals, consider mixing things up a bit.
If you plateau, you may need to make changes to continue improvements. In this case it is important to talk to your workout partner about the changes you want to make, and if they don’t seem motivated to continue, offer a thirty day break where you both try different activities.
I notice that guys working out together tend to match strength after a brief adjustment phase. Even if both are trying to improve, something seems to stall improvement once they reach a certain point. I found that I was able to lift as much as 30-50% more after taking a short break from my regular workout partner.