Motivation – A Unicorn of the Fitness Industry

A unicorn is a mythical creature. The magical horse with a single horn upon its nose. It is also a term for something that isn’t real. Or more accurately, a word used to describe something which is either notoriously hard to achieve, or impossible given the underlying conditions. For example, clean fusion power is the current unicorn of the green energy revolution. It will one day happen if enough resources are thrown at it. But for now, it’s prancing around a lush meadow where buttercup flowers are made of gold and every blade of grass is an emerald. The proverbial unicorn.

The fitness industry has many unicorns. There are myths and truths, lies and facts. Grazing among those situations are many, many horned ponies. Too many to name. I can try a few. There’s Fatamina: she’s a beauty. Used to be a size 24 but after chomping on some magical pill, she lost all her horsey fat. Can you see her? Focus…. And pooft! Fatamina is gone. A myth. There’s Protalas. He’s a big buff man unicorn. Barely has to trot to develop those big thigh muscles. Rippling skin as though an avalanche falling down the flank. Protalas chomps some artificially sweetened powder that promises to make him muscular and strong. Can you see Protalas? Focus…. And pooft! He’s joined Fatamina. He’s not real either. A myth.

So many unicorns. The only one I trust used to be awesome but now drinks booze every day and curses at media commercials for interactive thousand-dollar stay-at-home cycle experiences (they sure saw you coming, he whinnys). That’s Alcohorn. He’s my favourite. He’s also got donuts sliding down his magical nose pillar. He’s cuddly too, not like Fatamina or Protalas. Alcohorn is real. You’d better believe it.

Among this magical equine fantasy is the strangest unicorn you’ll ever see. This animal is tangible; almost within your reach. It doesn’t have a name. It told me so. What it is called is not what it is. A tricky concept. We call it ‘motivation’. I don’t believe there is such a thing. Not a real, physical thing. Motivation is a state in flux. One moment it’s there, the next, it’s gone. A candle in the wind. As Dean Lerner once said, ‘unreliable.’

Motivation, as many psychologists will try to convince you, is a very real thing. But then, as Temperance Brennan (Bones) would argue, psychology isn’t a science. I’ll sit on the fence. Yeah, it’s not real either. It’s a state of undecided commitment. For my argument, I’ll straddle both sides. To consider motivation as a real thing is to give it substance. So, what is the actual substance of motivation?

Simple. It is desire. To crave something enough to suffer a basal drive toward fulfilment. Can desire motivate you? Yes, you say. Finish the blog post and go get a beer. Not so fast, Alcohorn. My point regarding motivation as a concept is that it isn’t real. If desire is the motivation, then desire will push you to your goal. Stay with me here. If I don’t desire an outcome, does that mean I lack motivation? No. It means I have little interest in something. No amount of motivation will make me want it more. I need to desire it first.

That is the foundation step in understanding the unicorn of motivation. You cannot grasp it until you have a desire, or a profound need of something. Motivation is a shell company set up by your own basic instincts. The real currency lies in the truth of fulfilment. And that is a harsh truth. If you expect an outcome will do little for your sense of purpose or personal enrichment, there will be no fulfilment. More, and this is the next step; if there is a cost to that sense of fulfilment, the outcome must outweigh the cost of achieving it.

I desire a six-pack (I had one once). I understand the cost of achieving it. More exercise. Less beer. Being hungry more often. As a partially disabled individual, the exercise part is more laborious. I fully comprehend the cost of achieving a six-pack. What is the equation of desire here?  

The mathematics is without doubt. That, to me, is a difficult sum to justify. Sadness is not worth such sacrifice. And this is precisely why ‘motivation’ requires a grilling under intense scrutiny. There is no such thing as motivation; it is an abstract. A play of words used as a vague alternative for a very basic fundamental truth:

If the desired outcome has an acceptable cost, you will reach for that goal.

Me, just now…

People have bottled that notion and called it motivation. It is used as a whip to spur you on, or as a noose through which to place your own head. Motivation is a hybrid abstract of desire and cost. Nothing more. But by giving it a name and using it in swanky presentations, the fitness industry has tried to sell it as a problem to overcome. How many times have you been smashed in the lazy face with the ad slogan: DO YOU LACK MOTIVATION? It’s used to make you feel guilty. To make you feel less worthy. Really, there is only one way to deal the unicorn of motivation. Destroy it and start over.

Ladies and gentlemen and all the glorious in-betweens, I give you a new concept in fitness. I call it…

I call it choice because that is exactly what it has to be. Specifically, your choice. No Lycra festooned ass-hat is going to be able to extract motivation from your sweaty pores. No. They won’t. And worse, they’ll actually charge you for that grievous insult. The harsh truth (I know, I have many) is that until you decide to make a choice, your fitness journey can’t begin. Your choice. Not the choice that is thrown over you as though a kidnapper’s hood. Not a whimsical flowery mantra uttered by Mr or Mrs Fitness Pants. Only you can decide when to make that choice. Whatever choice that is. Until you do, that thing they call motivation is nothing but a phantom.

But they try, don’t they. Commercial after commercial, the message is dropped upon you; hot sticky guilt napalm because you’re not doing enough. Run, tubby run. You’ll never escape. But you can stand and face it. You can realise motivation, as used to denigrate your life decisions and judge your wardrobe choices, is just another fitness unicorn. Created in a magic field of desperation and greed. Some equine fantasy wizard with a marketing degree made this beast just for you. I ask again: Do you lack motivation?

Or… have you simply not chosen what you want to do yet? Because when you do sit down and think, “Yeah, I’m going to try that,” you create your own pony of reality. Not some mythical beast. You make your own rational decision and you get to ride it. Yes, you can actually ride your own choices. Because once you make them – you own them. Sometimes you’ll fall from that ride. Someone might say your motivation wobbled. It didn’t. Your desire to succeed was outgunned by some other factor. It’s not motivation you lack. Life just made the choice more difficult to maintain.

And when you do get knocked off that horse, I’m pretty sure someone will try and stick a traffic cone on its head. They’ll pretend it was motivation. It wasn’t. It was a choice you made. A choice you have the power to make again. A choice only you can decide upon. Get on, get off, makes no odds to me. But it should to you. It’s all about you and nobody else. Now go. Go create your own mythical beast. Give it a name. And when the time comes to ride that wonderful creature, someone will ask: What motivated you to do that? You’ll smile, look to the skies and say: Motivate? No, I just wanted to do it, you know, just because… You’ll dig in your heels and your magical mount will spread its wings and take you to the heavens.

Yeah, I know. That’s not a unicorn. But if you aim high enough you need a Pegasus. Well done you. Clippety-clop and swoosh, you’re off!

Myths of Fitness and Why They’re Not So Simple.

(A blog post side-tracked by disability)

Let me smack you in the face with a harsh truth. You are not special. You are not (to steal from Chuck Palahniuk) a unique and beautiful snowflake. Okay, perhaps you are. Your mind is most definitely unique. It may be a beautiful snowflake. But psychology aside, when it comes to your body, you’re just like me. Your muscles, your internal organs; the systems that toil away whilst you slumber—they are as common as we are human. Our bodies are vessels. Carriers of DNA. There are no snowflakes here, just a production line of evolution, physiology 101. What makes you different is the driver behind the wheel. The mind behind the machine. My point? With enough plastic surgery we can all look the same. The body is a physical device. A machine to mould. The mind is an exquisite work of art. A fingerprint of psychological identity. Nourished by education, environment, and choice, the mind—what is essentially you—is a different beast from the body.

This lack of physical uniqueness is important. Congenital and accidental defects excepted—we are all the same. To a great degree this is true. You may raise a hand to object. Or a stump. Perhaps you don’t have arms at all. This is important. Life isn’t equal, or fair. But stripping away that difference you still have a heart. Lungs. A brain that encompasses freewill. The physical determinant of life is the same for all humans. We require fuel, we require nourishment. To remain healthy, to grow, we require physical stimulus. No matter the shell, the physiology is the same. We are the same. Except we aren’t.

Revelation. This post was intended to be about exercise myths. But scribbling through the second paragraph the hypocrisy of the initial title (Monster Myths of Fitness) became apparent. Hand on cold heart, I do have a ‘get out of jail free card’. I’m disabled. A weight-lifting ‘accident’ in my teens damaged nerves in my spinal column. My left leg is now a pitiful reminder of outrageous misfortune. A bicep curl gone wrong. Yes, that’s what damaged my nerves. Easy as that. To walk distance, I require a brace. Fastidious with my study and research I found one that works well. As expensive as it is effective, I can walk for miles; just as long as 80% of my left leg is encased in aluminium, plastic and wonderful German engineering.

For the record, this isn’t a sympathy post. I’m awesome. I’m still more active than most Glaswegian men in their late forties. I can bench more than I weigh. My leg press? Not so good. Oh, you sneaky devil. You got me there. I’m far less awesome if you factor in my mobility. But that’s the point. Fitness myths often make a generic assumption: we are all equal. I tell you—we’re not. Nothing close. There are fitness truths, and there are individual differences. It is those differences that we can choose to define us, for better or for worse.

To highlight the issue, take a common ‘fact’ as an example. Walking one mile burns the same calories as running one mile. Nope. False. Time is a factor. If you amble for one mile, your energy expenditure is constant. Tame, almost. If you sprint flat out, as though a T-Rex was on your tail, you’d add in an extra factor. EPOC. Excess Post Oxygen Consumption. A debt to your energy production system. It’s what HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is based on. Basically, if you exercise at 100% intensity, or close to it, your body has an energy ‘lag’. Working at the extreme end of intensity requires huge amounts of energy. Your heart rate will be high (90%+ of its maximum). This isn’t sustainable—it’s why HIIT contains that word ‘interval’. Once that rapid mile is complete, there is a period of extended, elevated heart rate. A period of increased metabolism. One mile is not one mile. Effort is the multiplier. But there’s another disregarded factor. Disability. How much effort to travel a mile on one good leg? (I tell you, a lot). What about a person on crutches? A wheelchair user? Have you used an arm ergometer (an arm-cycle)? One bipedal mile is not the same as one pushing yourself along on wheels. Then again, downhill, the wheelchair wins. Swings and roundabouts. Poor choice of phrase, those things are never wheelchair friendly.  

Disability, accidental or genetic, is a spanner in the cosy world of exercise and activity, both myth and reality. The mainstream doesn’t cater to it. Media personalities are uncomfortable with it (it’s not a big market—harsh truth). The best a disabled athlete or exerciser can hope for is a condescending interview from an able-bodied numbskull. Didn’t you do well, they say. It’s as though the person is nothing but a comical seal balancing a ball on their nose. An item of amusement to forget when the ‘real’ athletes arrive.

In the ongoing pandemic, with lockdowns and various forms of societal restriction, social media is buzzing with media personalities prancing and dancing on two legs. Great skippy, go for it. I won’t name individuals because they’ll likely sue, not that this blog gets that many hits. But you know them. People I imagine would make a hollow sound if you blew into their ears. Nothing but air into an empty bottle. Stare deep into that lughole and you’ll probably be able to see the other side of the gym. Yeah, him, or her—those wonderfully shallow energetic bunnies. Very few—the noble few—cater to a more diverse audience other than the standard bipedal human. Kudos to them. But that’s not the road to glamour and fame. The Oscars of the fitness world isn’t a flat red carpet. It’s an assault course of hurdles and barriers, spike traps and rope climbs. Try pushing a wheelchair through that. Those less fortunate, those interesting side-projects of bastard chance and accidental circumstance are left to their own devices. Walk on Mr & Mrs Perfect, I’ll grab the wheels.

As an able-bodied reader, you might feel uncomfortable with this. You shouldn’t. It’s natural to represent the majority. It’s certainly business to do so. Besides, Johnny ‘no legs’ doesn’t want your sympathy. He wants you to look at him. As simple as that. See him. Not pity him. A disability isn’t a curse. A challenge, yes. But then, so is being stupid and many able-bodied people suffer from that malaise. I’d argue that idiocy is humanity’s greatest disability. Not something as mundane as a physical impairment.

Disability and exercise are bound to a particular fitness myth. The disabled person in the gym is somehow a hero. Myth. They’re doing exactly what you do, although their path to it is harder. It doesn’t deify or canonise them. I mean, sure, give a helping hand where required but don’t fuss. And, on pain of death, don’t pat their heads and say, ‘Well done!’. Do that to a Murderball player and they’ll show you no mercy. Again, there is a fine line between staring and looking away. As numerous UK campaigns (especially for mental health) have stated—look beyond the disability. Don’t focus on the difference. See the person.

What an able-bodied person sees as an oddity, the disabled exerciser experiences as a daily task. To them it isn’t special. By way of transposition, nor should you consider it to be special. It would be impossible to mention every conceivable disability (physical and mental) but where limbs are concerned, exercise creates the same rewards. A wheelchair user will amend their form to lift a dumbbell. The stimulus and response are the same. Metabolic (or developmental) disability excepted, there are no physiological differences between able and disabled. In that respect, the challenge is comparable.

There’s one disability myth I wish to firmly reject. It’s not universal but it is one that requires focus. There is physical disability and there is mental disability. Sometimes both. However, it is wrong to assume cognitive impairment in an exerciser with a physical disability. There are conditions that manifest in ways which are socially awkward. A person with Cerebral Palsy may find it more difficult to communicate. It doesn’t make them dumb. Ditto for the wheelchair user. Even a client that requires a companion or a carer should be spared the instant tag of… well, whatever word you’re thinking of.  Again, see the person. Not the condition. Compassion isn’t required, understanding is the key.

To conclude, I ought to apologise for a less than humorous blog post. But then, laughing at disability isn’t funny. Unless, of course, it’s to mock a fitness guru being run down by a maniacal wheelchair user. Take that Billy Two-Legs.

Calorie Purgatory

Welcome to the church of excess. It’s not so much that we’re devout. It’s just that we devour. Everything.  This isn’t an old church. It’s new. As much as that, at 46, I remember a time when hunger was common. Not because my family was poor; it’s just that things were different when I was young. If you’ve read any of my blog, you’ll understand that I view the eighties as a powerful decade of change. In the eighties, gyms were haunts frequented by fringe lunatics. Exercise was still experimental; jogging was for perverts. That’s how I saw it. Old men in too-tight shiny shorts. Sweatbands and body odour. The linchpin of a new dawn. When normal people were beginning to care about their figures. Transitioning to the nineties brought acceptance of an otherwise ridiculous pastime. The notion that men and women could grunt together in public spaces. In gyms. In dance studios. It was a brave new world. And it was necessary. By Buddha’s wise, tubby belly, it was vital.

This era brought another change. Calorific excess. Before I tread farther, it’s important to draw a distinction. There is evidence aplenty that we ate more in a domestic sense in the 50’s and 60’s. Manual labour was the dominant form of employment. Calories were vital for hard-working bodies. But these meals were home-cooked. Plenty of fats and carbs, dollops of hell into which any personal trainer would now crush your face to teach you a lesson. But that was then. Calorie expenditure was high in comparison. It didn’t matter that every mealtime you ate lard on a stick and ploughed through fields of starch. Our mums and dads, grandfathers and grandmothers; they worked hard. Damn hard. They needed food. Badly.

But those damn eighties. The cosmic herald of change. Electronics were booming. Automation was beginning to take over. When the Luddites rebelled against the evil cotton machinery, they couldn’t have foreseen how bad things would become. What was once a chore of crank-turning and box-lifting became button-pushing and QC stamping (and even that was supplanted by robotics). Manual work faded to the periphery of construction and low-tech warehouses. At the same time, what had once been regarded as a rare treat—the confectionary delight of sweets—became a marketing monster that, to this day, knows no bounds. A reverse survival metric occurred. Calorie requirements dropped but we began to consume more. And by more, I mean more shit. The staple diet of the 50’s and 60’s: meats, starch and buckets of greens, disappeared from our collective minds. Beige colours, hues of orange and yellow crept into every crevice of culinary expediency. Examine a fast-food menu. Where’s the green? Yeah, the Subway logo is green but the food is orange and brown. What’s the colour of a burger bun? Orange. A fry? Orange. A chicken nugget? Orange. Hell, even our potato-derivative crisps tend to take on an orange hue. Do you know Whatsits? They look like fluffy space-carrots and taste like a savoury sock. And if it doesn’t taste like that, it’s MSG-mageddon. MSG: monosodium glutamate. It’s what makes everything taste like heaven. If heaven is sugary salt.

These new foods, hitherto unknown in the days of our grandparents, brought an abundance of calories. It’s a sobering realisation that we in the west speak of hunger pangs when all we want is another nibble of chocolate. Whatever your foody vice, it’s excess, and the hunger you feel isn’t hunger. It’s conditioned greed. We don’t know hunger. This is an unwelcome statement but I have to say it: in the west, poverty and obesity have high correlations. In 3rd world countries, poverty and starvation bind as one. What can be common to both is malnutrition. Obesity and malnourishment aren’t the odd couple you might believe. Healthy, nutritional food isn’t likely to make you obese. High-sugar, high-fat products will. The beige stuff.

But beige is not the only colour of food to be found in the bowels of calorie purgatory. Shiny and bright, the crunchy fruits of confectionary hell pack a wallop of sugar. It’s a two-pronged attack on more than your waistline. It’s an all-out assault on your health. On the one hand, you have the power of beige; those foodstuffs associated with meals. Burgers, nuggets, all manners of crispy coated deliciousness. These are the insurgents. They’ve replaced what was once green and good. Cheaper, constructed of reclaimed animal parts, these things offer little by way of nutrition. But the shiny rainbows of sugar are the devil (and there’s brown in that spectrum too). Given the choice, looking down the barrel of a health-nut’s gun, I’d always go beige before going rainbow. Sweets, chocolate, cakes—and unfortunately, I’d throw ice-cream into that pot—are a classic western disease. They offer nothing. Nothing. Sugary Soma for the masses.

To be clear, I’m not a food fascist. My plate is more often beige than not. I’m not a hypocrite. I’m a willing accomplice to 21st century apathy. But, in my defence, I still exercise to a degree. I know how physiological systems tick. I sometimes eat healthy food. And if not, I understand the calorie weight of my food. I don’t tabulate spreadsheets of nutrition, that’s excessive. I just know my enemy (me, mostly).

Irrespective of your nutritional downfall, those foods, beige or bright, have a cost. Calories are energy. We all know that. But what is that cost? Pounds of fat? Well, yes. But, and this is a big but (pun intended) there’s another way to look at calories. If exercise or activity is redemption, then this is purgatory. A physical cost to your excess. I’d thought of using tables to illustrate but I prefer to shock through the medium of prose. So, let’s get started.

It’s difficult to give a precise number. But walking one mile will expend approximately 80 calories (plus or minus 20) for a weight range of 120-180lbs. For arguments sake, lets’ call it a round 100 calories for 140 lbs. While this may be high for some, it’s better to aim high and lose, than hit low and gain weight. So, one mile is 100 calories. Now multiply. You eat a 500 calorie 6” subway (easy), that’s a five-mile plod. A two-hour stroll. You have the time for that? But then, a 6” sub is damn tasty (all that MSG). The nibbles cometh. You buy a little cutesy muffin. Strawberry sprinkles to satisfy one of your pretend five-a-day pieces of fruit (it’s okay, I still count the hops in beer as vegetables). That’s another 300 calories. What you class as a small lunch can power an eight-mile amble. That’s almost a quarter of your waking hours spent walking. I mean, you could park your car four miles from the Subway. That’d do it. That would be the calorie purgatory for that cheeky little lunch. But I’m sure as hell you’ll not be doing that.

I’ll take one for the team here. Beer. One can of wonderful craft beer. It doesn’t matter it’s full of pretend vegetables and made from water mixed with cereal. It’s still got calories. Probably 100-150. I’ve had two today. Have I walked them off yet? Don’t be silly. I’m too busy writing this.

You can apply this approach of penitence to all junk calories. They all provide energy but far more than we need. For reference, fitness and training aside, the 26 miles of a marathon will have an immediate calorie cost of about 2600 calories (weight dependent). Other physiological factors will burn through even more for energy recovery and cellular repair but you see the point; you see the numbers. If I order a takeaway pizza, it will likely have enough calories to power a full marathon. When do I burn them off? I won’t. That’s the rub. That is calorie purgatory. You become indebted to the overlords of consumption. All that beige at mealtime. Those sprinkles of candy-coloured sweetness. They come to you with a heavy price. Literally, for many of us.

There is good news though. As long as you have the willpower of the Dalai Lama, you can refuse to bow before the rampant consumerism of the food industry. You can avoid the best-tasting foods the chemical industry has ever created. Drink water, not beer and wine. Chow down on kale and sprouts, not crisps and Maltesers. Unshackle yourself from the devil of delicacy that is 50% fat, 50% sugar. Eat starch. Colour thy plate green with leaves and other tasteless plants…

Don’t bother. Life’s too short. I have a better plan. Eat what you enjoy but understand the cost. Have your own reckoning with calorie purgatory. Mitigate your bad choices with your own redemption. Perhaps eat less beige, tone it down a little. Try some green on your plate. Start easy, lettuce is mostly water and isn’t anywhere as evil as cabbage. Broccoli’s good but takes some time to befriend. I’m proud that I can now eat those Bonzai-esque mini-trees. Might even admit I quite enjoy them. Sprouts though, they can go straight to hell. Just make your choices. Understand them. Pay for them in a way you can tolerate. Calorie purgatory need not be eternal. The devil’s in the choices you make. Remember, no matter what you tell yourself, it is your choice.

One final thing. It’s like the Matrix. You have two choices, Neo. If you take the little green fart-ball, you don’t need to go down that rabbit hole. If you decide to take the beige ball of crispy-coated yumminess, you are going to calorie hell.  

A Pandemic: Who’d have thought it could make you fat?

A new post. About time. There was a thing going around, you see. It put a halt on normality. Affecting us all with its devious ways and social awkwardness. But thankfully, the US 2020 election is over. It is, it just is. But, as of writing, the pesky pandemic is still here although vaccines are on their way. Next year, there will be more normal. Almost how it ought to be. So how has the pandemic affected you?

I thought I’d explain how I devolved during the experience. The illustration below, drawn on MS Paint with gusto and verve, sequences the four stages of being interred in Camp Lockdown.

Phase One – The Eager Beaver

If you were lucky enough to find yourself furloughed or on some form of ‘phantom vacation’ trapped by four walls, you might have begun a book, or another gloriously unoriginal project. In phase one, I set myself the task of editing and submitting my 180k word masterpiece. My fourth submission to the unfathomable daemons’ known as ‘Agents’.

Phase Two – What do you mean, no thanks?

The fruits of Phase One, be it an awesome epic fantasy novel, a homemade jam project, or a business venture involving your dwindling sanity and crocheted dolls of Victorian gallows, come to a bitter end. Phase Two is the joyless hangover of a party thrown by Hope. Except, you were in lockdown, so there was no party. Just four walls. Again.

Phase Three – I’ll survive this, even if it kills me

The dreams of Phase One are realised to be a mirage. Sure, some folk made it. But, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t. But don’t despair. I’ve throttled hope and thrown it into the bin. Expectation is now a four-letter profanity. Phase Three is here. It’s darker. The nurturing pasture of pragmatic insanity. What I failed to do in Phase One, I will succeed at now. Me? I started (and finished) another book.

Phase Four – The Pandemic’s Panacea

Not medicine. Not vaccines. Alcohol. How much did you drink? Apart from Amazon shares going stratospheric, enabling Jeff Bezos to buy a wardrobe’s worth of Infinity Gauntlets, alcohol sales also spiralled. Not surprising. Phase Four is the time-travellers hipflask. You were probably in phase four during phase one. Some were in phase four prior to the pandemic. (They have a technical name, and self-help groups).

You were doomed from the start

Back to reality. I think, similar to many people, the initial stages of the pandemic were viewed as novel. Hell, they even called it a novel coronavirus. Named so, exactly because the whole experience was, well, new. My wife and I began lockdown with a daily, early morning walk. Up to an hour, often out at 7am, experiencing the delights of a river walk in Spring. She was, and still is, working from home, I was furloughed by my employer. A full-pay holiday. Though, of course, holidays shouldn’t quite feel like house arrest.

I knew as an exercise professional that being stuck at home for months would play havoc with weight control. So, that walk was supposed to be a saviour. I’m going to repeat this right now—I’m an exercise professional—three decades of experience. You would think I should have coped better. But I didn’t. And now I have a lockdown belly. What’s worse is that I have a gym in the house, a Powertec lever gym, an awesome piece of kit. No cardio; that was the walk. I’ll say it again: three decades of fitness, a daily walk and a home gym. What went wrong?

Routine. It’s a human thing. It’s an animal thing. We need routines. Any change to an established pattern of behaviour can have unforeseen consequences. For most people, a routine is the baseline of existence. In addition, most routines place restrictions on your activity. In work, you don’t have access to a fridge, or at least if you do, it’s not full of your own food. And if it is, hell, what’s wrong with you?

Likewise, in work, even an office job, you probably have a predictable pattern of movement. Perhaps a walk to the deli (or for the UK audience, Greggs). There will be a mind-numbing repertoire of tasks and tea-breaks; things you just always do. Even in your commute, however brief the walk, you use your legs (if you’re a fortunate biped) to go from A to B in order for B to get you to C. It’s your routine. But guess what? The pandemic doesn’t care.

A ruptured routine is much like a brain injury—you develop new behaviours. Or, at least, you exaggerate existing ones. Strangely, for me, I worked out less. Being home, with more time than I ever had to train, I found it tedious to consider. As most lab-rats, I discovered a new behaviour. Fridge-raiding. Random nibbling on any convenient foodstuff replaced those jaunts to the gym-floor. Six o’clock beer became three o’clock refreshments. In fairness, I continued to support my not-so-local craft beer shop; The Grunting Growler. The owner won’t read this but I blame him. He’s my alcohol enabler. But I can’t be angry. I’m going there again tomorrow.

When we came out of lockdown and I eventually returned to work, my bodyfat level visibly reduced. In a matter of two weeks, my stomach fat was diminishing. That all-important routine was back. A strange thing to consider—you don’t choose that routine, it chooses you. It’s a symbiotic condition; worker and parasite. Although I’m unsure which role I play.

There is no magic pill for this. Not for the fat bits. I like to give advice and suggest something positive. For this situation, we just have to get back into the ruts we all thought we hated. Imagine, all that guff we were moaning about back in February. Those five carbon-copy days of the week. Time to embrace it. But if that rut is no longer for you, the best way to get going is to amble off into the woods of chance and find out which routine will wrap its arms around you. There are a few people that suggest routine is awful. Let them have their randomness. But for most of us, routine is necessary; it is tied to purpose.

One warning. For those who celebrate it: Christmas is coming. Don’t even try to get fit before then. My advice? Eat, drink, and be merry. Possibly with a small social bubble and with appropriate safeguards. But, by the fitness gods, don’t worry yourself about a few pounds here or there. January is coming. The time when people come out of their apathy cocoons and drag themselves back to the gym. For now, go spin your Christmas chrysalis of confectionary and cake. There’s still time. Next year you can work on that routine. Unfold your wings and pandemic willing, you’ll become that beautiful butterfly.

The Best Exercise in the World is…

What? You really think I’ll start the article with the answer? That’s not a very good strategy for writing. It would be the physiological equivalent of a traditional ‘Whodunnit’ when the butler pounces from the pantry and says, ‘It was me!’. You’d not be inclined to watch the rest, would you? A Scooby-Doo cartoon with old man Rivers throwing himself in front of the Mystery Machine with a sandwich board declaring his guilt. That’d be a grim cartoon; I’d probably watch it. Damn hippy teenagers and a metaphor for exuberant LSD use. You can’t disagree, Scooby-Doo is so 60’s you can practically get high just watching it. ‘Zowie’, ‘yoinks’ and whatnot.

And don’t jump to the end of the post either. You’ll not find it there. I’m going to bury it in some inexplicable paragraph. Make it so fleeting you’ll be genuinely disappointed at the mediocrity of the answer. But hopefully the journey to the truth will at least offer some entertainment.

Exercise sucks. I’ve said this before. You probably question why I work in the industry I appear to loathe. I do too. But I’m here, so let’s get on with it. Exercise is a thing best described as the means to an end. Unfortunately, for most, that end never arrives. You perish on the path of exercise fulfilment; dashed upon the rocks of rowing tedium or terminated by cycling catatonia. Exercise is boring. Consider the things in life that make you laugh and smile. A child who’s dropped their ice-cream, a cat with a lamp-shade collar stuck in a fence, a politician stuck on a zip-wire waving a union jack. That last one actually happened. Funny stuff.

Activities which are fun have one common theme—an instant reward. We eat ice-cream and chocolate cake because the taste tickles our pleasure centres. Foods with a 50/50 mix of fats and sugar send most humans into delirium (ice-cream being one such thing, accompanied by cheesecake, etc). Games that we play, competitive or otherwise, are intrinsically rewarding due to baked in evolutionary survival tactics. Physical games that require actual cardiovascular effort help to tune our bodies and increase our fitness. Technically, that in itself is a reward but more than that, the human interaction of game-play enhances social skills and, to a degree, social belonging. A game becomes fun not because of the effort involved but for the other rewards it delivers.

This is why exercise fails at being fun for most people. Granted, there are those who enjoy the repetitive nature of solitary exercise. Science would be diplomatic and say something nice. But I’m not a scientist. I am, however, a cynic, and that empowers me to be blunt. Finding pleasure in the individual pursuit of fitness is, in itself, bonkers. That’s right—bonkers. From a biological perspective, it is sheer nuttery to enjoy battering one’s body into submission. Take the marathon runner. Of note, I have nothing against those who choose to run 26 miles. Remember, this post is pure cynicism and tongue-in-cheek wickedness. You run marathons? I don’t care—either way. Running marathons is a first world excess. It used to mean something; namely, a message that the Persians were coming. Now it’s all about specialist footwear or people dressed as dinosaurs collapsing with heat exhaustion.

A marathon reduces most to rubble. You see the victims cross the line on legs not fit for purpose. Wobbly pins I’d not trust in a bowling alley. Imagine that endurance sapping feat. Take a bow, have a round of applause. Now, try running away from that bloody lion I just freed from the zoo. What’s that? Your legs are a little bit useless? Quick, here comes Tiddles, and she’s not fussed that you’re wrapped in shiny foil. To her, you’re a human Tunnock’s Tea Cake. Nom, nom, nom.

A Tunnocks Tea Cake -A very Scottish cake/biscuit thing

I’ve not lost my mind. My point is, a marathon renders the human specimen weak and vulnerable. And for what reward? One week of DOMS? A buggered back and extensive physiotherapy fees? You can see it now, can’t you? I’m right. A marathon is not fun. It’s downright dangerous. Consider also that they often occur in metropolitan cities and most of these do in fact have zoos… I’m savvy that way. Won’t catch me doing a marathon. But then, I also use a leg brace. That would likely confuse the poor lion; under my foil wrapper I’ve got proper metal parts. Nom, nom, broken incisor.

I’ve established why exercise isn’t fun. And it’s precisely why most fail to adhere to it. So, what does work? The penny should have dropped by now; you should see where I’m going with this. If you can’t, you ought to go read another blog. One about those hollow mannequins called celebrities or conspiracy theories suggesting Ireland is actually a prehistoric, fossilised Koala. It so is by the way.

Now you’ll never see it any other way – The celtic mega-Koala

If we remove the curveball of mentalists who enjoy solitary exercise, there is one stand out activity that is sure to work. Or, to better phrase it: one condition of said exercise. It has to be enjoyable. Fun is the absolute key to maintaining an ‘exercise’ habit. Performing a physical chore that gives no ‘instant’ reward is a very disappointing endeavour to undertake. Fun creates a reward for the activity and replaces the apparent lack of feedback that our biology requires. Group fitness is often the key to exercise longevity. Participating in a communal class with an energetic and motivating coach can make all the difference. Of course, there are downsides. Cliques, body-image issues and an onslaught of mirrors that allow you to see every angle of your unsavoury backend can be a spoiler for some. But, by and large, GFX (as we abbreviate ‘group fitness’ to appear cool and trendy) is a winner for many.

But what if I hate people? Don’t worry, friend, I’m with you. Let’s celebrate hostility to humanity by drinking—just not together. If you prefer solitary exercise, you’re SOL* for standard narratives for fun. That leaves a huge array of personal activity. Outdoor cycling (I suppose it’s called…cycling) will get you into nature. Or under a bus. Rock-climbing or the inferior pursuit of finding a rock-wall to climb upon (called ‘hillwalking’) are excellent for raising mood and self-regard. Walking amongst nature—a good old trek through forest and glade—can lift both spirit and heart-rate. Just be vigilant for mammals with sharp teeth and claws if you’re lucky enough to live on a continent with dangerous indigenous fauna.

If you must insist on doing gym-work, you know, stuck in an iron cavern of clanking machinery where nuisance-mongers wear colourful battle Lycra and unnecessarily insist on clapping chalk into the air, there are some key elements to note. First, and most important, understand why you’re there. The gym will one day reward you. But first it must humiliate you and poke fun at your body. If you can scramble past the initial indignity of it all, the prize will come. Set your goal: weight loss, muscle gain, do a single chin-up, run a mile, yadda, yadda, yadda. Goals are important. Grab one and note it down. Stick it on your fridge. Glare at it with prejudice on a Sunday morning. But know it. Feel thy goal.

Second, rip out the nonsense. Talk to a gym coach and ask how you can most quickly and effectively achieve your goal. If the coach is overly muscled or shredded like pulled-pork, walk away. Fitness enthusiasts don’t understand that exercise sucks. They imagine you’ll love puking up after your 50th burpee. Find the coach with the grumpiest scowl; they know the truth, it’s why they’re so unhappy. Yes, I’m talking about me. I am the truth.

Grumpy coach will tell you how to make your work-out ‘most bearable’. Not fun. Most bearable. If you can find that coach, you’re set—they will nurture your attitude and make you the gym equivalent of a cockroach. That’s a good thing. You’ll persist through thick and thin (literally) and people won’t bother you. When Cindy Squat has long since vanished after her Instagram friends abandoned her over that ‘fat-shaming’ post, you’ll still be doing your 30-minute efficiency work-out. People will nod in your general direction. You’ll hear whispers of legend. Grumpy coach’s no-nonsense routine is still working. Why? Because you told them what you didn’t like and they listened. They allowed you a modicum of ‘fun’. And that’s the key to success. Whatever you do—you have to find the fun, sometimes in the smallest things. Print a tee-shirt with ‘I’m Grumpy Because I’m Here’ on the front and laugh quietly at the enthusiasts. They won’t understand but they’re abnormal. You can hold your head high and almost enjoy yourself. You conquered the gym your way. Now who’s laughing?

SOL* – Google it. If you find a sweary word, that’s it.

Failure is always an option

If you’re a little nerdy, you’ll attribute this phrase to Mythbuster’s Adam Savage. I’m unable to verify his exercise credentials, nor would I assume to do so. And though his words had a different arena from that of which I intend to delve, the sentiment remains. Failure, in physical exercise, is always an option.

Having worked in gyms for 25 years, I’ve seen the standard model of exercise intensity, namely, moderate. There’s nothing wrong with that, at least, that’s how we encourage people to do something less enjoyable that washing dishes. The truth is, moderate sucks. In fact, in practically every arena, from politics to astrophysics, a moderate approach implies lack of effort and often mediocrity. Why should your body be any different?

To fail is to be a loser. That’s the mantra obsessive life-coaches end up selling. They’ll use quotes similar to ‘failure is an option – but you can choose to succeed’, which I personally find as meaningless as telling someone, ‘nothing’s impossible.’ Nothing’s impossible? Really. Hmm, last time I tried, I couldn’t make a calorie free pizza. Or change the body-shape of a 5’ humanoid sphere into a 6’ beanpole. I’m afraid to say, some things are impossible and success isn’t always a choice. But I digress; Failure is ALWAYS an option.

Failure has a bad rap. It’s a word synonymous with, well, ‘failure’. You know what I mean, it’s such a foundation word—everyone knows it, it’s taught from such an early age:

‘Young Billy, if you fail math, you’ll never be an astronaut!’

‘Little Samantha, if you fail physics, you’ll never be an engineer!’

‘Donald, if you fail to grasp emotional intelligence, you’ll never be…’ – scrub that one…

Anyway – you get the point. Aversion to failure actually implies a lack of effort. In any given task, reaching failure means you’ve likely tried all available avenues. In which case, you’ll adapt, or you’ll learn. Often a slap on the head from a loving teacher can knock a new idea into the brain box. Of course, that approach stopped a long time ago when it became unfashionable to hit children. Good thing to. I didn’t like getting hit in school… 

In exercise, failure is a moment of adaptation. In truth, it’s very difficult to achieve. Our bodies are machines that require fuel to perform any task. Reaching failure is tough. Our brain chomps through sugar at a crazy rate and our bodies will metabolise carbs (for sugars), fats and protein for any manual effort. There’s a hierarchy of sensation aligned to whatever physical work you’re doing. Different intensities use different fuels in different ways.

Low level effort (such as a stroll, or even typing) uses a large proportion of fat as the energy source. As our bodies are reasonably efficient at low level work, we don’t use many calories doing easy things. Therefore, we can do them for long time periods, without discomfort. Realistically, failure is not something you experience at this level. I can’t recall falling from my chair, clutching fingers and moaning about how extreme typing has caused cramp and stress fractures. Never needed an electrolyte intake and a protein bar after typing for seven hours. Just beer. Writer’s reward.

Medium level effort (a jog, or an aerobic workout) begins to use more stored sugars at a higher burn rate. This is the de facto level of exercise for 99% of people. Whether you wear lose joggers and baggy tees, or painted on Lycra and a brand-new wax, you’re probably in this category. Yeah, on that Lycra statement—don’t be fooled by apparel. Fashion is not an indicator of effort, experience, or ability. Lycra alone isn’t a crime but Lycra plus immaculate make-up usually implies low effort. This may sound sexist but it’s an observation. Similarly, guys who wear tight cycling shorts to the gym, often don’t own bikes. I wish they did, so they’d take away those obscene banana hammocks.

High level effort is all about sugars, and in extreme cases, body resources such as creatine. A rapid burst of power (100m sprint, 5 reps at maximum effort) will tank your creatine phosphate (CP) reserves. Rest for a few minutes you can go again. Slightly lower duration, or effort will be a carb fest. A whole bunch of calories will be expended but the work load isn’t sustainable. Failure is often an option here.

With a brief fashion and physiology lesson fresh in the mind, it’s simple to discuss failure. At moderate intensity, failure is hard to achieve. It hurts like hell. This is the domain of the well-known term, the ‘burn’. It’s real and it sucks. A mixture of fuel shortage, a build-up of exercise by-products (lactic acid) and lowering work efficiency make the ‘burn’ a hellish experience. Taken to extremes, you’ll suffer wobbly legs, nausea, and in some cases, you will be physically sick.  Yummy! That sounds super-awesome. It’s not. It’s awful. Yet, if you want to be the best at some sort of moderate time frame event this is how you’ll train. Now bear in mind this is also where most exercisers tend to gravitate and you’ll understand why people avoid failure. Frankly, if you puke all over the treadmill, I’ll personally send my minions to throw you out the gym. I jest. They’ll just clean your carrots and oatmeal with a congealing gel and call me an asshole boss. Hey, I’ve cleaned poop from a guide dog’s mess—I’ve done my tour of duty.

So, if I said ‘failure is always an option’ but paint it in such a poor light, what’s the point? Ah young Padwan, you forgot about the high-level, short-burst duration intensity. This is where failure works best. This is where glory is found in gritted teeth and high-pitched squeaks. This is actually where we should all train if health is your goal.

Before going any further, it would be wise to add an advisory. In all seriousness, pushing to failure in exercise carries risks to those with certain health conditions. Apathy, lethargy, and low motivation are all…. No wait. I was reading from the Fascist Gym Instructor’s Handbook. Let me get my stethoscope. So, here we are: heart conditions, unstable angina, respiratory problems, and certain joint problems, among other things will not play well with exercising to failure. In short, don’t try it unless you know you are medically sound.

Press-ups. Or push-ups. Whatever. This ‘Failure’ post came from humble beginnings. I was on holiday and thought I’d get back into the press-up regime. Every couple of nights, I’d do a whole bunch until failure. First couple nights I didn’t count. Then, I did. I pushed until about 99% effort to get 52. In my younger years, I’d reached 100—proper ones, arms passing 90 degrees, ankles, hips, and shoulders in a straight line. Regardless, 52 isn’t a huge number but it’s a good start. To make sure I was pooped, I tried more after five seconds. Managed two. I’d say I reached failure. Now here’s the golden moment; when you realise how effective certain things are. I stopped doing them for over a week, after doing them for only one week. When I tried again, I did 60, then 65 to actual failure. To be clear: I worked out ‘close to failure’ on press-ups for about four sessions. Stopped doing them for 7-9 days. Tried again, managed over 60.

What happened to get such an improvement? Simple, I trained to failure. This is how systems work. Your body works within tolerances, as though a finely tuned pedal-bin. Use it within those tolerances and it’ll give you years of carefree enjoyment. Don’t use it (be sedentary) and it’ll seize up. But if you use it all the time, things change. In the pedal-bin analogy, you’ll probably want to get a bigger bin (or eat less). But the body is a wonderful and adaptable thing. When the body is pushed to its limits, it releases hormones. These remodelling chemicals promote growth in active tissues. In effect, the system gets a message that its not robust enough, so to adapt to the immediate stresses, it rebuilds. Without those stresses—that push toward failure—it wouldn’t need to change (that mediocre level).

But what about puking? Short term high-intensity work tends to fail on mechanical grounds. Muscle fibre recruitment maxes out and the system can’t give any more. It takes grunt and a whole world of focus but it’s much less painful than the burn. Mental effort to summon your ‘maximum’ strength isn’t easy. I’d argue that compared to the ‘burn’ it is much more pleasant. Not all things suit failure. Pressing a heavy weight above your head until it collapses on you is exercise Darwinism. But you can train close to failure. It takes experience but learning your body’s limits allows you to push it close. The rewards are high. The pukiness, low.

Wait, you say, I can’t even do a single press-up. Excellent. Try one. Push as hard as you can. Create an air gap between your body and the ground, try, try, try. When you realise you still can’t move, it doesn’t matter—that was failure. You tried (really hard, with all your red-faced effort), you failed. That is good. Better if you accidentally vented some ass-gas. That’s a trumpet of noble effort. Try again tomorrow, the next day. Slowly, that push will rise higher. Your body will adapt.

Failure is always an option.

Weight Loss Shortcuts – A Harsh Truth

Let me spoil the moment. There are none. I figured a rolling intro about what you can and can’t do would be unfair. At the end of the post the message would be the same—there are no short cuts to losing weight. Well, of course, there are; however, those would be dependent on what I mean by weight. An arm weighs a fair few pounds. A leg even more. That old saying, ‘an arm and a leg’—well, that would be a shortcut. Not very practical. Not very good at all.

So, to explain why there is no shortcut, you need to understand the basic facts. One pound of fat (a very small volume of blubber) contains approximately 3700kcal. Your mileage may vary on that amount depending where you read, but that’s closer to what I learned at University. One pound—3700kcal. Got that number logged in the jogger’s noggin’? Good, because, as Hudson says so eloquently in Aliens, ‘stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.’ Running a marathon—a 26 mile slog—will consume roughly 2700kcal for your average 11-12 stone (154-168lbs, or 70-76Kg) runner. That leaves spare change on that 3700kcal. Now imagine the feeling. You’ve completed the challenge you pestered all your friends about; and, pestered further for sponsorship to raise money for that puppy shelter. What do you do? You celebrate. A great meal, cake, lots of cake, and maybe some fizz, or beer, or wine (or all of them). In your moment of celebratory glory, you shovel 3000kcal of joy down your throat. And, let’s be honest—you deserve it. I mean, it’s madness, running on a road for 26 miles. Sheer madness. You need something to make it feel worth your while.

Given the marathon example for calorie burn, you see that one measly pound of fat supplies all the energy you need to run one event, with change to walk home afterwards. If you understand physiology, you’ll be shouting at me about energy debt (EPOC – excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) but I’ll get to that. In the meantime, consider the lard family. There are 14 pounds in a (UK) stone. Fourteen marathons+ of energy in one stone of bodyfat. Working in gyms for 25 years, I’m used to hearing the plea, ‘I need to lose a stone in four weeks’. One stone of that useless (it’s not actually, but let’s pretend it is) button-popping soft body armour contains about 52,000kcal. Let’s look at that. 52,000kcal in one stone. Four weeks = 28 days. Divide them. Go on. Be afraid. It amounts to a daily kcal count of 1850 (rounded, no pun intended). To lose one stone in four weeks, you need to dump 1850kcal per day. Yikes.

Can it be done? Yes, but it’s extreme. Without considering EPOC (I said I’d explain later), you’d need to run 19 marathons in four weeks to burn 52,000kcal. One stone, four weeks… 19 marathons. Go back and read the title of this post. It’s right there. So, you’re depressed, I get it. I’ve got a lockdown belly. Probably have an extra 7 pounds of blubber around my waist. I’ve got a bad leg so cardio’s out for me. I’ll need to watch my intake to work on that. Do some mind-numbingly boring resistance training. Maybe buy some heavy cans of beer. Lifting a heavy bag, laden with beer, is still resistance work. I’ll get it where I can find it. Leave me be.

Now, in truth, I wouldn’t recommend people try to aim so high as one stone in four weeks. Our industry tends to recommend 1-2 pounds per week. A more manageable 3700-7400kcal/week, or 530-1050kcal/day. How can you drop 530 kcal from your diet, every day? Want a picture to help?

Isn’t it fun learning how bad things are?

The easiest way to do this is to lower your intake AND start doing more activity. Altering your diet will bring faster results but long term you need to make sure you do it right. Dieting is a bad word. It’s very much like exercise in that respect. Neither of them is fun and I assure you, people who go on about either need to find a more pressing concern. If you want free advice—drop 250kcal from your daily intake, or in food friendly language, something as trivial as a few less biscuits a day. Look at the pictures above… they have meaning. You can Google other munchables, and there are plenty of websites that can match calories to foods.

What about activity? Yawn. Well, if you manage to drop 250kcal from not chowing down on that packet of crisps you definitely didn’t need, you can burn off 250kcal in about 30-40 minutes of moderate activity. And that’s over the whole day. You don’t need to rack those hours in at the gym. Four, ten-minute bouts would do. A brisk walk to buy your beer. A brisk walk back. Or, don’t buy that beer (heresy!!!). Housework, a spot of gardening, chores, or if you do have a fetish for Lycra and sweaty pavilions of pain; sure, go to the gym.

Simple choices make the most difference and you don’t need to brag to (or bore) your friends about your new gym routine. Just one piece of advice—don’t do things you would never normally do; you’ll probably fail. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Imagine Nike’s evil twin’s plan for marketing: Just Don’t Do It! Make it simple, make it achievable. Don’t commit to failure.

Now, I said I’d mention EPOC. Very basically, when you burst into a high energy mode, your body lags behind with the energy delivery system. Ever wonder why when you stop running, you pant for ages afterwards? Energy debt. So, when you perform a long duration, moderate to high intensity activity, your body keeps ticking at a higher rate long after you stop. EPOC: excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. The harder you push, the higher the debt. It’s the theory behind HIIT training. But HIIT classes only work if you actually train at a very high intensity. If you book two classes back to back—you’re doing it very wrong indeed. Go home instead and climb the stairs for 30 minutes, you’ll get a work-out and keep the Chihuahua company.

It’s good to remember that the above number: 500kcal/day deficit (less food, more activity) will drop ONE pound of fat per week. Double the effort to make it two pounds. That’s still seven weeks to lose a stone. You want to lose two stone? You need a long-term game plan. Or, at least, you need to commit to that change. Shortcuts are for losers. I mean it. You can’t treat your body as though it’s a trash bin and then hope to fix it because you need to slide into that dress, or wear that tuxedo. Does anyone actually wear a tuxedo?

The best way to avoid taking shortcuts, is to avoid getting into that position in the first place. There are no quick fixes if your goal is to lose some weight. The silver lining is that when you get there, you know you can do it, so you can do it again. Though, that’s not encouragement to go on a yo-yo binge & diet plan. And running twenty marathons a month is also a bad suggestion. Common sense, long term thinking and you’ll be good in no time, I mean, months from now.

I’m Glad I’m Not Eighteen

In 1992, an excellent year for heavy-metal, techno and alternative rock, I can’t recall being happy. Not really, not like I am now. Back then, I had two working legs, an awesome head of hair, and dressed like a plaid warrior straight out of Seattle (even though I came from a nowhere, wannabe town that served as a sleeping bag for a proper city with a real identity). I’m happy now. I lost that beautiful head of hair—a mane so lustrous I could defeat dragons and dandruff with it. I’m mostly bald, a head reminiscent of an awkward potato. Still, no more hair wax, no more follicle anxiety. I was fit as a fiddle. I could run forever, jump over houses, and climb mountains. I was immortal. Now, I’m quite sure I’m not. I have a leg-brace. I’ve had a hernia. Pretty sure I have another. I’m still happier inhabiting this shell of youth. You’re probably sad reading this (I know my mum is). Well buck up, bucko—I’m not sad. I grew old. I grew up, mostly.

Happy perspective time. I’m 46, going on 3000. I can still bench more than most eighteen-year-olds. I’m more agile on three limbs than most are on four. I could do a plank until gravity gave up—for the record, planks are useless. I imagine the plank was devised by a failed personal trainer with an undiagnosed psychosis and a hatred for people with back pain. If you love planking: stop it now. It’s pointless. It’s the exercise equivalent of belly button fluff. A comedy distraction at bedtime. It’s always grey-blue, why? So, I’m not bummed I lost my hair, my leg, my abdominal resilience. No, not at all. I’m over all that. It’s 2020, and I’m not eighteen. I couldn’t be happier.

Why? Because when I found fitness, social media wasn’t even born.

I have this blog as a means to an end. And mark my words, one day I will meet that end. That sounds terminal. Suppose I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Let me rephrase. One day, my awesomeness will work out for me. Yeah, that’s better. But social media—that’s a bum rush. If I was eighteen now, surrounded by Instagram, Facebook, Tik-Tok, and god knows what else there is to inflict trauma on a young mind, I’d never make it past twenty. And yeah, I know, a lot of people will come in screaming to defend the great value of social media. How it connects you. How it makes you feel relevant in a huge world. Yet at every new turn, it appears to be all-consuming in the lives of younger (and older) people. A digital zombification of reality. Social media isn’t your friend—it’s a brain-melting industry.

In my industry, one from which I feel more and more alienated, the perversion of social media culture has destroyed what it is to understand health and fitness. When I was fourteen years-old, something other than social media changed my life. One single man influenced me. He gave no speech. Promoted no product, at least, of which I was aware. Better yet—he was an adopted Canadian (I have a soft spot for that country). He was Ben Johnson. Before Lance Armstrong, he was the most famous drug cheat of all time. But before I knew that, he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. Problem was, I was a skinny white kid. I figured I could work on the muscles—in truth the skin colour meant nothing. He was simply my hero. To some extent, he still has to be. I was mesmerised by his build, his performance. How he destroyed Carl Lewis and the rest. Ben wasn’t clean, but then, that race is considered the dirtiest 100m in Olympic history. You can Google it; I’m wary of lawyers.

This is a difficult point to make. My hero is a cheat. But I know that. I know his performance wasn’t all natural. I mean, I sort of knew. There were rumours. His build, his crazed, bloodshot/yellow eyes. He was practically leaking dope all over the tracks. The reality is, Ben Johnson is responsible for me getting a weight bench. He’s why, thirty-two years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve progressed from a folding bench, to a smith, a power rack, and finally, a lever gym. The current set-up helps with a bad back and crumbling wrists. I’ve been benching since I was 16 years-old. I am permitted to fall apart.

I lifted weights because of a dream. And I educated myself with books. There was no internet in 1988. Not unless you were a spy, or a covert nuclear specialist. And I wasn’t. What was learned was scientific. What was practiced was proper technique. It was as it was meant to be. What we have now is different. I’ve seen it; heard it from gym members. I see them doing something ‘unusual’ and ask what’s up. It’s my job to guide people down the righteous path of technique. Oftentimes, I need to suggest something other than the weird thing they’re doing. I inject some humour, if that fails, I appeal to reason. But sometimes, at some point, they’ll flash up their phone and say they’re following Handsome Anger-Chuck. He’s an Insta dude, huge and rippled like a mars bar balloon. He’s also clearly, to my educated eye, on drugs. But the gym member doesn’t think so. They flash up another influencer, or some half-wit personal trainer, called Sheila Sugarcheeks. She’s just as bad as Handsome. Both, demented caricatures of what you could achieve using natural methods. I’m not impressed by Sheila. I say so. Another scroll and another nightmare from shadowy fitness hell is staring out from the screen. Not one of these people is real. They never got that shape from their anaemic routine (the secrets of which you can buy, obviously). They’re social media billboards, glossy myths of what you can never be. And the awful part is, no matter what I do, I cannot influence the gym member. They’re sucked into that social media vortex of scroll and believe. Look, here’s Handsome Anger-Chuck squatting a whale. Wonder at Sheila Sugarcheeks deadlifting in a bikini. No, god no. Please, save me.

But that’s the reality of fitness and social media today. Most people are too lazy to research anything. They fall into the rut of believing what that false prophet of fitness says. Never once do they question why their workouts don’t appear to work. Tragically, I’ve seen what happens when the easily influenced follow the influencer. I’ve had those drug discussions. And even when it never gets that far, that intense, I see the heartbreak of failure. The petite woman who questions why she can’t look just like Sheila (who happens to be a six-foot-tall Amazonian). The guy at fifty-five who also questions why he can’t look like Sheila. I suggest other routes for him. But you see the deal? They want to be what they can’t because these personalities promise a lie.

When I was young, Ben Johnson shattered some of my dreams. But I knew what I could do, how far I could go. My idol was broken but that was okay. It meant I knew what was realistic, how I’d never be like him. You don’t get that brutal honesty on social media. Not from those that promote themselves as impossible figurines of heavenly perfection. Nifty AI filters distort things even more, lighting tricks and devious angles push the limits of preening PR. Fitness is a maze of misinformation, marketing and media celebrity. The truth, the reality, is hard to find.

For the younger generation, social media is everywhere. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real thing. You need to follow Sheila, or Handsome, otherwise you’re a loo-hoo-ser. Peer pressure and the constant need to be seen to be perfect is poison. That’s if you follow social media personalities and hang on their words.  I don’t. I’m too old for fashion, too past it for social media gurus. I’m happy now. Looking back, I see I got the best years of fitness. Before social media turned healthy bodies into unhealthy profits. I was influenced long before that circus came to town; learned my truths from my hero cheat. This is for you. Thanks Ben.

I didn’t get fatter; the world got easier

I was born in 1974. I remember having to walk to the television to change channels. Thankfully, someone invented the remote control. It served to protect the carpet from unnecessary wear. People shouldn’t scuff flooring with trivial jaunts to the TV screen. Come to think of it, I remember three channels, before Channel 4 was launched. Those were dark days. Grim days, some might say. Long before Channel 5 brought us the awfulness of low IQ TV planning. This is the UK, by the way. If you’re not from here, you’re lucky, you may have missed our entertainment drought. It was brutal. Now we have channels for everything. We went from not enough to ‘please, no more.’

And that’s just TV automation—the remote control. I knew cars before power-steering was a commonplace thing. Nowadays, you can waste rubber by turning the wheel in a stationary car. Glides like a pony on ice; namely, without friction but at great cost to the tyre. Picture the pony, poor sod. A bad thing. But in the old days, before servo-assisted wizardry was implemented, good luck trying to turn the wheel in a stationary car. That was a work out. Even in motion, a manually yanked steering wheel was a wrestle. No gentle fingers on the rim, one hand on a thermos, the other steering with an effete pinkie. No, it was as though taming a malevolent python on speed. A thick, PVC-encased wheel (leather, if you were rich) that was determined to end your life. A car without power-steering was hell, at least, that ‘s how I recall it to be.

Before the internet, there was a period known as the dark ages. This was when truth was found in books. A time in life when to learn something new, you had to walk to a place they called a library, and speak with a strange creature known as the librarian. Usually half-woman, half-ghost, these ethereal beasts would stamp the sign of the book-demon into the jacket and send you on your way. Often, they would say, ‘Bring it back in two weeks, or your soul is mine.’ At least, I think they said that. Point being, if I needed to know how to plumb a cistern, my phone couldn’t help. Because back then… there were no phones. Well, they had phones, just not proper ones as we have today. Old phones were designed by the ancestors of exercise manufacturers. Digit Gyms, they were. Bleak memories: trying not to break a finger as you toiled and spun a wheel around a dial. It took about a thousand turns to contact anyone. Plus, the phone weighed as much as an encyclopaedia. Tough, manual work just to phone a friend. Just to say, you could fix their loo.

Right now, I’m using a mechanical keyboard, crumbs and dust littered under the caps. I remember using an actual mechanical typewriter. Only briefly mind, before I bought a word-processor for Uni work. Those old devices required TLC and patience. The keys themselves were more akin to lever-gyms. One mighty push was required to launch a letter embossed on a small iron block into a wall of paper. It was a satisfying sound, a pleasant sensation. But again, just as everything else back then, it took more effort than what is required from us today.

And that is the point of this random carnival of 80’s memorabilia. Let’s take the television remote as an example. To change channels required you to stand up from your chair, or sofa, or perhaps even roll out of bed. To stand from sitting is basically a squat. That right there is what annoying gym folks call exercise. Yup, exercise, a bad word to some. One half-rep of one bodyweight squat. Whoop! Now you pace one step or two, maybe five if you’re wealthy and have a large house. But then, if you’re rich, you might ask the butler to change channels. Imagine, a biomechanical human remote control. A sort of cybernetic stone age. I digress. So, you’ve dragged your ass to the TV, pressed the buttons. Now what? You reverse that motion. That means a controlled descent onto the cushion where your bum-print is still visible. That’s what we gym commandants call the ‘eccentric’ phase of the squat. Pre-remote (or sans butler), channel surfing required one squat. Change channels 10 times a day, 365 days a year—count it—that’s 3650 squats. Think about it. That’s over 70 sets of 50 squats. Make that a 3-set portion per day and that’s 23 squat sessions per year. You see where this is going?

But that’s nothing. Walking is the big game-changer. In the nineties, I walked to work. 30 mins there, 30 back. One hour. Five days per week. In calorie terms, that’s 250 kcal/day. Add a 48-week year, and we’ve got 60,000 kcals/year. Or 16 pounds of fat. Now, imagine driving to work. No more walkies for Mr Fit. Time is precious, so we decide to sit on our bums for twenty more minutes and drive instead. In one year, you’ll pile on one stone of weight, all things considered. And that’s just the walk to and from work. Cars are ubiquitous these days, it’s normal to own one. And when you do, you drive it—everywhere. Why else own one tonne of shiny steel? Personally, I view the car as a mini-karaoke bar on wheels, without the booze, of course… officer.

What am I saying? Clearly, the correlation is between driving and getting fat. It’s called a spare tyre for a reason. The diminished reliance on walking is fundamentally linked to our downfall in the battle against weight gain. Those gym fiends (yes fiends, as in monsters, not friends) will tell you to train your way to a better shape. But it’s not true. Why? Because what you’ll do is drive to the gym, return home, and sit on your backside, making the erroneous assumption 45 mins of gym twice a week will work. Nope. It doesn’t. I’ve seen it so many times.

We used to be slaves to a domain of manual effort. But technology came along and saved us. Emancipated from the hellish shackles of ‘a smidgeon of effort’, we embraced the late 20th century ideal of ‘everything at your fingertips’. If I think back, I recall accompanying my mother to do the grocery/food shop. She had one of those weird, ’granny’ bags—a tartan-esque suitcase on wheels. But that was replaced, eventually, by the mini-karaoke bar on wheels, and now, in the days of automated Armageddon, you can arrange for unseen hands in a warehouse to pack your weekly shop and even get someone to deliver it to your doorstep in a diesel belching van. Wait—you have the gall to complain your plums are bruised? Really?

The reduction of manual labour, the reliance on automation, the lure of convenience: all of these things have conspired to make life too easy. We’re told by slick marketing to over-consume (I know I do). But in reality, food doesn’t make you fat; energy imbalance does. And in a world of zero effort, where I don’t even have to touch my phone to get it to answer me, our odds aren’t great in the war against apathy. There is, of course, an easy answer. Get up, go for a walk. Lots of walks. Forrest Gump your life away. Give it a shot, just as soon as you’ve ordered your pizza through Alexa.

Weight Loss for Cynics

This post is longer than normal. And more serious, while still being cynical. Be warned, humour drought ahead.

There are two types of people in the world: Healthy cynics, and everyone else. To be cynical isn’t a bad thing. It’s a suspicion radar, a ‘ping’ that tells you to check something out. But you have to be careful. Cynicism works on a scale of human stupidity. Gullibility lies at one end; extreme paranoia at the other. I’m centre-right, only trusting what I can investigate, or what is clear common sense. Of note, Flat-earthers don’t belong on this scale. That’s another trip altogether, beyond paranoia and conspiracy. We’re not going there. But for reference, this is the family bubble:

Gullibubbles on the left, Cynispheres on the right.

The weight-loss industry relies on an individual’s gullibility. It doesn’t work well on cynics. Cynics tend to question things, read the instructions and discover the nonsense in the PR blurb. To illustrate, there is an incredible piece of marketing magic, universally used by slimming and diet products. It is this one single line (and to be fair, it is genius):

This product will only aid weight-loss as part of a calorie-controlled diet

What that actually means is:

This will only work if you change everything else as well

It wouldn’t work in car safety:

Keeps your family safe from accidents—as long as you don’t crash

Or for arms dealers:

This armoured vest will keep you safe—as long as nobody shoots you

Be a cynic. Read the labels. There’s also another word that is heavily involved in the marketing of any weight-loss or health supplement. One tiny word: May. As in:

This product may help you…  <and really, once they have said, ‘may’, you can insert any bunch of crap right here>

I mean, we can add the two monolithic quantifiers together and you’ll see how ridiculous the concept is:

This product may aid weight-loss if you are on a calorie-controlled diet

Well, pass me that burger Sherlock, hold the poop.

The industry relies on maintaining some semblance of mystery about weight-loss. It absolutely tries to bamboozle you with science. Except, as someone who studied Sports Science at University, and has spent 25 years in the fitness biz, I can tell you this: it’s all crap. What follows is known by everyone. My ageing Chinchilla understands it. My coffee cup knows it. It’s such a basic premise, the industry needs to polish it to make it sexy. But it’s not. It’s dull. And it’s a fact:

Consume fewer calories; expend more energy, and weight loss will follow

There are caveats to that statement but the basis is valid. So, if you had a stable but hefty weight issue, (i.e. not gaining pounds) all you need to do is obey the above rule. If you were getting heavier, you may need to cut even more calories, or do more activity, but the fact remains.

Instead of giving you the truth, the industry relies on pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is a special branch of science in the same way that astrology sounds like astronomy. In other words, it’s not science at all. PR companies will use terms they have often coined themselves, or they’ll float actual science but wrap it up in a shell of shiny nonsense. They need to do this because it makes it sound more legitimate. I mean, if you look at the logic of it all (or lack thereof), what the weight-loss industry is trying to do is sell you their calories, when all you need to do is cut down. Weight-loss should save you money, not cost more!

But that’s where the cynicism works, or more, it doesn’t for them. They need a gullible audience. And they can use special tactics to make you a little more susceptible to their marketing ploy. This is the sinister side of things, where you are socially manipulated to loathe yourself for having a spare tyre. Well, it used to work that way. Nowadays, social media fills that role. A whole host of awful people will gladly prance about to make you feel inferior. Shiny, plastic, vacuous personalities exist to make you question your own body image. It’s a trade-off for the ages: what was once done by weight-loss pros is now performed by social media bandits, all of them after your cash. And once you stare at that small phone screen and see buns of steel and glorious abs, you might cry a little into your chocolate fudge lasagne. So, you promise to be a better person and lose some weight. You turn to the industry, and it welcomes you with open arms. Nutrition companies will sell you expensive Bam-Bam Nuggets, filled with protein and despair. Online Personal Trainers will take your cash and give you a diet & exercise plan that they’ll say is personalised to you. Hint—if an online PT doesn’t communicate personally with email – there’s nothing personal about it. Regardless, nobody will tell you the truth. None of them care to educate you. Because they know that when you learn how to lose weight, their industry is finished.

So, how do you lose weight? Well, for only 50 bucks… Kidding! I’ll lay it out right now, right here. Professional advice without any sugar-coating or a plastic wrapper. This is weight-loss for a 21st century cynic. And, of course, none of it’s easy.

  1. Stop snacking. You’re a human being, not a cow—you don’t need to graze.
  2. Learn to appreciate hunger. Constant eating is bad for our bodies. Fasting is good.
  3. Become a Fibre fan. Eat more plant-based foods that require some effort. That’s why we have molars—to grind food into a more digestible pulp. Fibre also works wonders inside of you.
  4. Eat slowly, take your time. Your body has got a terrible ‘tank full’ gauge. If you shovel food, you’ll fail. You’ll feel fuller, if you eat slower. Drink water with a meal to amplify the boredom.
  5. Cut down on:
    • Sugar. Look at the food label. If a product has more than 10g of sugars per 100g, put it down. Sugar is nasty. Tastes awesome. It’s the crack-cocaine of the food world. You should feel guilty for splurging on the white stuff. Cut it out. Every time you eat sugar, a Unicorn dies.
    • Fat. If it sizzles and drips, it’s fat (or possibly plastic, and you should NOT eat that). Full of calories. When you eat fat, a cute Amazonian species goes ‘pooft!’. Actually, if you eat Brazilian beef (most animal fats come in meat form), you’re probably displacing animals and indigenous people.
    • Dairy. Cheese is basically just fat and protein. If you want to be weaned off it, think of it as though a cow pooped a solid block of milk. Milk Poo. The white dung.
    • Booze. My personal failing. I like beer. But booze is liquid food. Not very nutritious food. But, if you want very unhealthy advice, which if you follow, you’re a fool, and you can’t sue me—if you know you’re going to have some cans, reduce your calories elsewhere.

These are just a few things that will help. You need to work on all of them to succeed. Doing one or two should have an impact but follow them all and your chances are far greater. In fact, technically, if you do all of the above in good faith—I guarantee you’ll succeed. If you don’t, you’re not being honest with yourself.

There are a few more radical things you can do. I’ll call them the Nuclear Options. These are big red reset buttons that will require substantial life changes (and further guidance).

The Exercise Tactic. Eat what you want but exercise as if your life depended on it. Because it will. One hour of hard graft for your average Joe will expend about 750 calories (very rough guide). That will get trashed by a single Big-Mac meal. Or one-and-a-half choc-chip muffins.  You want to eat Snickers all week? Then run a marathon every day. (See what I did there?).

Calorie Arithmetic. Tedious, but methodical. Count your calorie intake—all of it! You’re liable to fail, because you’ll not remember ‘that small wafer’. Even though you ate fifteen of them. You need to count everything. But there are Apps that can help you. For average Joe, consume <1800 kcals/day. For average Jane, drop to 1500 kcal/day. AND, be active.

Learn to Cook. Seriously, it’s a manual task, so you’ll burn calories while you prep your own dinner. You’ll also find the goodness in raw ingredients and learn that plastic packaging doesn’t grow in the ground. Who’d have thought it? Potatoes aren’t cuboids. And Bechamel isn’t in Lord of the Rings.

Become Vegan. It’s very difficult to be a true vegan and be fat. Or have friends. Kidding!!! But seriously, as drastic as this is, it’ll work, but it needs serious commitment to succeed. Veganism is more than a dietary choice for many. Kudos to them for that.

Now, of course, I never said it was easy. That’s why you’re probably already looking at some weight-loss chocolate bars. Hey, guess what—it won’t work. Fads don’t work. If all you can do is remember the simple equation, you’ll have a head start. And you can save your hard-earned cash. Remember:

Consume fewer calories; expend more energy.

Prove the cynic in me wrong.