Exercise will not make you happy

In mortal life there are some universal truths. The sky above, the ground below; though, I suppose even that can be rebuked by an astronaut (or someone flying on ridiculous ‘space’ flights laid on by egomaniacal billionaires—I’m not fussy who you imagine that to be, but there are three of them). Such fleeting rarities aside, there are truths to which the vast majority of human experience has been conditioned to accept. Most make sense, most are there to keep us in line and temper our expectations; for without realistic ambition, humanity would be chaos.

In my industry, we sell a lie every day. In fact, we sell more than one. That’s not to say we do it with malice or malcontent. No, the messages the fitness industry delivers to the masses are there to ‘align’ expectation to the upper margins of what you may one day achieve. The problem with the messages we deliver is that they miss out so much of what will hamper you, what will disappoint you, and ultimately, what may defeat you.

A conservative estimate from my own experience would be that 90%+ of all gym users attend their local torture centre for one primary purpose—to lose weight. We are told this through almost every portion of practically every media source: exercise and weight loss go hand-in-hand. This message is foisted upon the many to elicit a response of exercise compliance, but—shock horror—it’s just not true.  I’m sure you’re trying to grapple with this statement. To make it super easy, I’ll lay it out in practical thermodynamics. And, I’ve covered this before. In fact, I’ve probably hoodwinked you in an earlier article. Well, if I did, clearly, I lied. People assume if they jump on a bike, go for a 5km run, or do some weights a few times a week, they’ll see a tangible metamorphosis. However, three weekly sessions might only make use of 1000 Kcals (if you’re being enthusiastic). Across the scope of one week, I can easily consume that 1000 Kcals. If starting exercise from scratch, you might actually end up eating more food to compensate for the sudden energy demands. Post work-out ‘munchies’, if you prefer. This is the first inconvenient truth: exercise uses energy that can be replaced far too easily. If you replace what you ‘burn off’, you’ll find it very awkward to shift the blubber.

So, given exercise on its own won’t work—surely dieting will? Absolutely. However, that also falls into the realm of thermodynamics and energy conservation. If you were consuming a stable calorific intake and your weight was also stable, then a reduction in calories would facilitate weight loss. Notice, I don’t say fat loss. Dieting alone will result in the body being unscrupulous with where it finds the calories it needs. Fatty tissue, stored carbohydrates (glycogen), and protein (muscle tissue), will all be catabolised in a low-calorie environment. But hey—at least you will lose weight. For a while. Once again, practical physiologically will kick in. As your body sheds weight, the energy cost to mobilise and move around is reduced; whether it be shopping for soulless diet food or having a depressingly fatiguing work-out, you’ll be expending fewer calories. The truth is, as you get lighter, you need less food, therefore your diet becomes less effective. To lose more weight, you need to eat even less, and that’s not really something to be enthusiastic about.

If you’ve got some smarts you’ll be shouting at the screen, telling me that you need to do exercise and diet to lose weight. And yes, that is true. There are some in the scientific field, however, who rally against that approach and suggest obesity is not affected by diet or exercise. They point to hormonal imbalances and other factors that result in becoming heavily overweight. Suffice to say, I disagree and while I accept there are some cases where metabolic disorders affect weight, the vast majority of cases are bound by thermodynamic laws (energy balance is everything). My case is very simple: the prevalence of obesity is a modern condition. It can only be found in cultures with an abundance of calorific food. Obesity exists because we have the capacity to over-consume. Case in point to shock the system: There were no obese prisoners of war. It’s a grim statement to make but it validates the case for thermodynamics. As does famine, drought, and any number of horrendous human inflicted atrocities throughout the ages. There’s no way I can make this a humorous point. But it is damming evidence to argue against obesity as a purely hormonal defect. No food = death.

The above paragraph started with the obvious statement: exercise and diet will help weight loss. Mostly true. But once again, there are calorific realities: How much exercise, at what intensity, and how strict is the diet? These things matter. Cutting down on pies while walking an extra mile won’t do a great deal. Run a marathon instead and there will be fairly rapid changes but that would be a drastic step. Which conveniently leads to the opening title.

Exercise will not make you happy. If it does, I’d suggest you see a psychologist. Exercise is a tool, much as a brace helps to straighten teeth, or a bone lengthening operation will grant someone an extra inch in height. Are they fun? Perhaps for the sadistic doctor involved but for the patient, I’d imagine the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. The end result is the gain. And yes, while some will say ‘but I love exercise’, I would say to you—awesome—you’ve got it made. But to sell that as a thing; to suggest to the wider audience that it is fun becoming hot and sweaty, to experience fatigue and muscle pain, is a great mistruth. Exercise is anathema to species survival and while in nature it is used by certain animals to develop ‘skills’, this can only happen when calories allow. Exercise for its own purpose is an unnatural state of being. Games and socialising are fundamental to a human experience but the exercise part is just a tool. And those in my field, or those who read this blog and tout various solutions to their own readers need to understand that. For thousands of years we have survived, learning how to conserve resources and energy. We’re primed to store the damn stuff (calories) but in evolutionary terms, we’re loathe to use it up (it is why we put on fat so easily—it is what nature intends).   

If we want to improve ourselves, or we want to help someone else to do so, the primary focus needs to be: What will I, or they, enjoy doing? Exercise and diet are only tools—they are not solutions. The solution is more holistic and more personal. On top of all of that, you’ve also got the motivational unicorn to contend with (another story altogether – link might be broken on mobile, post from March 2021).

What is today’s lesson? The fitness industry likes to massage the harder truths. Most ‘life’ or gym coaches think you’re just like them, when the last thing you want is to run a marathon or eat Gwang-Gwang berries (not a real thing – don’t bother with Google). People are unique and exercise isn’t fun. Diets suck and so does preaching.

Go have fun. When we stop fussing over perfection, we’ll all be so much happier.

Time to call it a day?

Not the blog; at least, not yet. I’m talking about lifting heavy. Those big presses and pulls that draw blood and sweat from every pore. Isolation work that burns with infernal intensity. And even if you don’t train that hard, there is still a point in life when you just have to accept the harsh reality—one day you have to go light.

Now, to be clear, growing old does not mean giving up. It doesn’t mean you can’t be strong. But there are changes in our body as we age that require some reflection. As I approach my fifties, to me, that change is how long it takes to recover from injury. Not serious damage but those little niggles that prey on your tendons and joints. That insignificant twang when you were eighteen years old becomes a cacophony of pulled tendons, a resounding chorus repeating for months on end. It’s as though every injury from the past thirty years developed a photographic memory; each bundle of abused fibres suddenly recalling what it was you did wrong with a bicep curl in 1995. Oh, the folly of youth to think we were indestructible. We might forget that we never warmed up properly, or that we trained too frequently, but one day your accumulated exercise foibles will come back to haunt you. And once Scrooge, the ghost of exercise past, drags his chains around your creaking joints, there can be no happy ending to your tale of glory.

Damn, is it really that grim? No, of course it isn’t but this is my blog and I like drama. Though, it is still a pertinent point that as we age, we need to consider the structural integrity of our bodies. No matter how careful we are with our physical endeavours, there are consequences to every lift, pull, skip and jump we do. Our articulated joints have a covering of cartilage which reacts well to moderate exercise. This self-healing surface can absorb and protect us from physical stresses. Consider when we jump from a height to the ground, such as when we were children and those things were just plain fun. Or, as adults, when we drink a little too much and think we’re kids again. Jumping from shed roofs while being filmed by a giggling accomplice, the result being a hit on social media as you writhe in pain afterwards. You get the point. Heavy, infrequent impacts are diminished by our cartilage. But what about heavy, frequent impacts?

We are not jackhammers. I’d say ‘pneumatic drill’ but jackhammer is a far cooler word to use. Say it; jackhammer. Ooh! I’m pretty sure there’s a crappy pulp-fiction detective with that name out there. But anyway, we’re not one of those. Machines are designed and purposed for repetitive action and even then, those machines will also wear out. Unlike machines, our parts are not so easily replaced, and when they are, they’re never as good as the real thing. The cyberpunk future is not yet here—the metal joints they drill into your bones in surgery are not cool. You are not Johnny Silverhand. Or Cable. And if you don’t know who they are, go and Google. Yeah, you’ll never be as awesome as them.

All those repetitive impacts, delivered without proper attention to technique or recovery, pile up a multitude of problems for later life. Ageing itself begins to break down those protective articular surfaces, and what we do in youth, is compounded on top. To sum it up: the harder you train, the greater your pensioner pain.

So, you’re approaching fifty and want to know how to stop the damage. Not just to cartilage but also your tendons and muscle. Can you turn back the clock? No. Go back and read the last paragraph, it should make it clear. If you’re like me, it’s too late. That’s exactly why at a point in time you have to reconsider how you train. You’ve put in all those hours; you made the grade and lifted the weight of a small brown bear. But now the bear’s nibbling your shoulder joints. It’s clawing at your tendons. It’s time to put the bear down. Besides, who the hell lifts bears? Actually, isn’t there a religious cult that does that? I think they’re Scottish – the Press-bear-tarians. I may have lost you on that one. I apologise.

Dropping the weight and lifting something lighter is, for many men and women, the equivalent of that moment in a Hollywood starlet’s life when the phone stops ringing. One wrinkle too many and the jobs dry up, just like your skin. Relegated to playing support roles or alcoholic mothers-in-law—be in no doubt—the glamour days are over. It’s hard to take. Most gym nuts will refuse to accept the truth and keep going heavy. I’ve seen the damage that does. A woman who trained far too hard in her forties, who one day ripped a tendon trying to pick up an ankle strap that had ‘Velcroed’ itself to the gym carpet. All because time had caught up with her arduous days of lifting super-heavy weights. It’s a terrible dawning of realisation: when Velcro is stronger than your connective tissue.  

So, if I lift lighter will I shrink? Yes. To an extent you will. But you’ll not look feeble. I think that’s a fear all lifters have. You have to rationalise what it is you’re trying to achieve, namely, longevity. Sure, you looked beefy as hell in your twenties, all rippling like a skin-coloured tide. Your thirties were spent being well-above average, lording it over your age-peers even as your hair was thinning. Up and into your forties you were still something special. But what do you want to be in your fifties or sixties? How about on crutches, or in a wheelchair? You only have one body with a sub-standard selection of replacement parts. If you want to enjoy the next thirty years, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your ego. And to be utterly blunt; steroid abusing pensioners look ridiculous.

You don’t have to give up too much size. Or strength, for that matter. You can lift lighter weights with a slower cadence. Instead of grunting a 1:1 up/down ratio, you can try the oppressively difficult 2:1:4. Pioneered by the guys that brought you Nautilus in the eighties, training that accentuates the eccentric phase of a lift is beneficial to strength but restricts the load you can move. And for those that don’t know about resistance training, basically, it means go slow on each lift. What was once a 100Kg bench press will become a 60Kg load. And it’ll feel harder to boot.

You could also diversify your exercise portfolio. Go mad and try Yoga. By all accounts it’s an excellent system. In truth, I know it to be true but it’s not for me. And I know, if you’re used to lifting anything remotely heavy, something as ‘airy’ as Yoga might be a stretch too far, no pun intended. So just lift light and slow, okay? You can try Yoga in your next reincarnation.

And if you’re young and haven’t yet reached the decrepitude of a 47-year-old former exercise enthusiast, what should you do? Ignore me, of course. You’re young, you’re indestructible—you don’t even make a noise when you bend over to tie your shoe-laces. Just make sure you come back here in twenty-five years so I can say, ‘I told you so.’ Because I will—it’s one of the pleasures of growing old; chastising others for repeating the same mistakes we made. By then perhaps I can be Johnny Silverhand. Who? What do you mean, who? Good grief, I give up.

When is ‘Fat’ a bad word?

A lot has changed in 25 years. That’s how long I’ve been involved (professionally) in health and fitness. Let’s take it back a little. In Secondary School (High School), I could name the two ‘fat’ kids. I mean, back then it was an acceptable slur. One of those guys was called ‘Chunk’. No joke. Looking back, that was pretty harsh. Yet, he seemed to not mind and he was never bullied. He was actually a very likeable guy. Mostly. How times change. These days, you’d not dare openly label someone by that nickname.

So, that raises the question: when did ‘Fat’ become a bad word? This is a philosophical question and it doesn’t have shiny wrapping to uncover the story within. It’s much more complex. It’s about societal fragmentation, consumerism, rampant capitalism, and a worryingly changing physiological demographic.

I want to step forth on my one good leg and be blunt. Being heavily overweight is not a good thing. Don’t fool yourself. Don’t be misled by hand-wringing apologists that it’s ‘okay’ to have a BMI of 40. Of note, I’m 1.8m tall. I’d need to weigh 132Kg, or 20 stone 10 lbs to have a BMI of 40. Clinical obesity (normally a consequence of a high calorie diet based on sugars and fat) is a killer. In the UK it’s become one of the leading co-morbidities in terms of lifestyle, overtaking smoking as a primary health concern. Dismissing obesity as a problem is akin to ignoring the terminal health issues of smoking. I could link articles but you can Google it yourself. Find your own truth.

It’s not a secret that obesity is a detrimental state. It has an impact on heart disease, cancer, blood pressure, diabetes, (recently Covid-19) and other issues such as mechanical damage to the body. A 25 stone man will incur far greater stresses on their joints (back, hips, knees and ankles) than a 12 stone man. The exact same is true for women. Females produce less testosterone than men and generally have a lower muscle mass therefore exaggerating the wear on those joints. Grim. But true.

But (a poor word to start a paragraph in any context except rambling blogs) this isn’t the point. It’s true, being obese is unhealthy. It’s a life-changing condition of being. Yet, you’ll possibly notice—I’ve not commented that it’s ‘fat’. There’s a simple truth for that explanation. Fat is a substance, not a state. To have an excess of fat is to be overweight; itself a term that requires context. Someone is not fat. They may be fatter than another. Or less fat (in which case we say ‘slimmer’). But to label an individual as fat is no more coherent than calling someone ‘bone’. You’ll already be thinking about calling someone ‘muscley’ to counter my point. Let me slap you. You call someone ‘fat’. You don’t call someone ‘muscle’. That’s just poor grammar. Nonsensical, even. So, the label already has connotations beyond the obvious physical state. When you call someone ‘fat’, what you really mean is they’re lazy. And that’s why ‘fat’ is a bad word.

If you’re asking, ‘why can’t I call someone ‘fatty?’’, it’s obvious you’re a dumbass. And that’s only fair. If you want to be a body fascist and decree that people need to meet your physiological expectations, well, it’s only right that I can call you names too. Being called ‘fat’ lies in the same ballpark as so many other slurs, many of which would get you a punch in the face. If you follow this blog, you’ll know I consider myself a cripple. Sorry mum, I am. My left leg has atrophied due to spinal nerve damage. I wear a leg brace, ergo, I’m a crip. I’m also very short-sighted (optically and in terms of life decisions). So, I wear glasses and could be called, ‘specky’. You call me that, I’ll knock you on your arse. Let’s face it, unless you’re more awesome than me, I’m definitely stronger. I’m also from Glasgow, so I’m more than likely way more aggressive. And I drink most days, so I’ve become a very typical, grumpy Scotsman. My temper is easily inflamed; a plastic pack of sliced ham that’s hard to open can unleash my fury. Even the unpredictable paper wrapping that entombs a tower of Weetabix makes me fume. Short fuse? I say, why bother with a fuse—just explode, apologise later. Anyway, I digress.

Calling someone ‘fat’ is an insult. It always was. In my profession, we say ‘overweight’. Or, incredible to consider—we don’t judge that way. In the gym, talking to colleagues, we might use terms such as the ‘larger lady’. Or the ‘big guy’. We describe a physical attribute based on size, not composition. Now, don’t get me wrong. I know if someone is obese. And in discussion with my colleagues, we’ll acknowledge that. But here’s the kicker; we’re discussing overweight people who have come to the gym. That should be a light-bulb moment. If it’s not, I’ll let you find the switch and pop on that eco-friendly LED. Yes. You understand. In my context, in the gym, you can never assign the ‘fat’ tag to someone who has made the effort to try and get fitter. Huge philosophical moment coming up: there are no ‘fat’ people in gyms, there are only people trying to better themselves. And posers. They’re the real muppets.

So, when is ‘fat’ a bad word? A simple answer. It’s when you use it to describe an individual. To say they are fat is to infer a state of apathy. To imply their choices made them that way. Wait, you say. Aren’t fat people fat because they eat too much? Well, yes. Of course. Technically that is very true. A calorie surplus will lead to weight gain. Though, I ask you to consider the current state of the world. I ask you to look around, go for a drive. How many unnecessary fast-food outlets are there within five miles of you? How may drive-thru coffee shops? For the record, if you’re in the Netherlands, I do mean coffee, the drink. And on that point; a drive thru coffee shop? Seriously, when did that become a thing? I could rant and rave but what’s the point? The fact is, rampant, indulgent consumerism is a global, multi-billion-dollar market. By the end of this decade, it may be worth one-trillion dollars. Holy cheesecake, Batman! Corporations do everything to make you consume. Look at the evidence: a McDonald’s will appear in an old bulldozed lot, then, in a year or so, a KFC will appear. Give it another year and a third fast food outlet or coffee shop will appear. All in the same one-hundred metre radius. It’s nuts. People will drive one mile in their SUV to get a not-so-quick brew. Some sugar-laden monstrosity that pushes the definition of ‘a cup of coffee’. Yeah, I’ll have a super caramel latte with cream, chocolate, and sprinkles—hold the caffeine. What the actual f…

There are many reasons why someone puts on weight. A lack of understanding of calories is often the key. But that lack of understanding is a by-product of an industry that revels in your lack of comprehension. The salt, sugar, and fat content of fast food is well-known but to the masses it gets hidden under slick marketing and PR. And yes, it is often quite delicious. But so is a tub of condensed milk but hey, I know how bad that stuff is. You know it too but the powers-that-be will sell it to you anyway. It’s all about advertising the end-product and obscuring the truth of how it gets into that box/packet, or plasti-cardboard cup.

There are also a multitude of medical, situational and psychological reasons why people gain weight. It’s far too easy to judge, far too convenient to blame. It’s important to accept that people aren’t fat. People are susceptible to their environment, their upbringing, their culture. So don’t blame, don’t stereotype. See people as people. Judge what you know, not what you presuppose.

Is fat ever bad? Hell, yes. As a bodily component it is a fuel. An essential transport system for vitamins A, D, E, and K. You need a minimal level of fat, females more so than men. But too much of it is a health hazard. In that respect, it’s important to understand the conflict; we mustn’t judge but we mustn’t accept obesity as normal. Obesity is a health risk. It is a consequence of lifestyle, culture, psychology, and nationality. The burden on health systems is severe. In the UK, obesity related issues cost the NHS over £5 billion annually. To me, that’s an unacceptable thing. But regardless, to be fat in the Western world, is to be subject to a relentless campaign of targeted advertising and low-cost snacks. It’s not so difficult to see the problem. It’s being metaphorically rammed down your throat.

Fat. Slim. Skinny. Tubby. Buff. All words. No meaning. Just lazy descriptors that bulldoze over a person’s true worth. Next time you see a ‘fat’ person munching down on a burger, stop and pause and consider; don’t you eat burgers too? Or pizza, or the odd takeaway. Of course you do, because you’re human just the same as them. And if you honestly don’t eat those things, well, you’re definitely missing out. Weirdo. 

How to Succeed in Your Fitness Journey to Becoming the Body Beautiful

It’s very probable you’ve already read a dozen such blog posts as this. Go on, open another browser tab and look at some new shoes. You’re already bored of what I’m about to say. Except you can’t possibly know what I’m about to say because I’m unhinged. I’m the Martin Riggs of fitness. You might need to Google ‘Lethal Weapon’. And you’ll want to skip Mr Gibson’s less than savoury historical remarks. I digress. Yeah, I’m a Kosher Riggs. When he was lovable.

Where was I? Oh yeah—this isn’t another motivational blog post with the bog-standard rules about getting fit and how to do it in 5 reps. Nope. I can’t lie to you about all that nonsense. Getting fit isn’t a bloody soundbite—it’s a mission. And it’s not easy; if it was, everybody would be in good shape and I wouldn’t feel the pressing urgency to write more blog drivel. But I am, so lace up your gutties* and stare with utter disdain at those bronzed Instagram airheads. It’s time for a ride.

*Gutties (noun): Scottish slang for sneakers or training shoes

To quote Chuck Palahniuk, “You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake”. Well, if you are, you probably suffer from a genetic birth disorder or life has otherwise altered your capacity for activity. I can say that without fear of reprisal—I have my nerve damage and use a leg brace. I’m still not unique, though. Mobility impaired, but otherwise I still have goals. And all humans have the same initial propensity to achieve those goals. So, what is it that makes it so damn hard to be just like Dwayne Johnson or every other body beautiful icon?

Time. “Time is the fire in which we burn” (Delmore Schwartz, though, more famously used in a Star Trek TNG movie). Today’s a day of stealing quotes. To achieve an incredible physique takes time. We’re not simply talking years of toil. It’s the hours per day, days per week. If you want the physical appearance of a demi-god, you better hope you can work out for 2-3 hours a day, 4-6 days a week. The exquisitely honed forms you see on the big screen, or more likely these days, on your own streaming device, are a product of fantasy. Fantasy and investment. I have nothing against Dwayne Johnson. In fact, I hope he reads this, learns I have a book in the works and wants to play the title character. He’d actually work. Dwayne, or Jason Momoa. Henry Cavill would be great but he’s white. Damn shame, Cavill’s a PC geek like me that does weights. But the lead role is dark-skinned. Come on guys, email me…. Anyway, what Hollywood provides to us as perfect body image is practically unobtainable for the average Joe and Jane. You have a 9-5 job, maybe kids. A small yappy dog that needs walking. You need to fit in your online gaming/gambling/shopping addiction. In short—time is of the essence. Let’s not forget, most folks don’t have a home gym. Even if you do, it’s probably not fit for purpose. Nor will it give you the scope of activity to make you worthy of your seat on Mount Olympus. That means going to a gym. Good god, the thought of it… A public gym. The fact that most celebs that look awesome train for hours a day means time is the first barrier to your own success. So, how do us mere mortals achieve our goals?

Get Realistic. Get used to being a homogenous humanoid flesh sack. You need to look at the life you have now and decide what time you can sacrifice to the gods to allow you to focus on your physique. If you can only offer one hour a day, three days a week, you’ll need to rein in those aspirations. Or, take a lot of steroids. DON’T DO THAT! In fairness, even pro-bodybuilders (who absolutely do use anabolic drugs) train for 2-3 hours per day, 4-6 days per week. And they train hard. If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of vomiting after each workout, you’ll never be a proper bodybuilder. It’s incredibly icky. So, you need to be realistic about what you can achieve. Even if you don’t desire the build of a condom stuffed with walnuts and you decide upon a simple six-pack, you’re in for a shock. ALL muscular stereotypical templates require huge sacrifice. So, you ask, what can I achieve?

Athleticism. To weigh as much as a normal man or woman and look ‘fit’ is the pinnacle of fitness aesthetics. To be a man-mountain requires a hefty weight penalty. If you and Dwayne had to cross a rickety wooden bridge, I’d make him go second. Though, of course, that would prove awkward unless he wanted to wrestle and you brought a gun. Point is, being light and looking good is achievable. Imagine not having to turn sideways to walk through a narrow doorway. See? There are benefits to not being built like a brick shithouse. Making your ideal physique an achievable goal is the first step on your fitness journey. Dreams are wonderful things but you need to understand they are only dreams. So very few of us get what we want. But, if you can focus on something you can actually achieve, when you get there, you’ll feel on top of the world. But… it still requires graft.

Effort. You’ve scheduled your training time. You can do 4 hours a week. Guess what? Yup, those four hours must count. You want to look amazing? You’ll need to work out until you feel so far from amazing it hurts. If you wanted a health outcome, that’s great. It’s so easy to be healthy you practically only need to walk at a brisk pace for 30 minutes a day. Whoop! Bronze star for you. Healthy and looking ‘okay’? All you need is mediocre effort with some push ups, squats and what-not thrown in. Silver star for you. If you wish to achieve the Gold award, you need to put in some top-level effort. Again, people who look good, no matter how odious they are, train hard. If you can only train for four hours a week and you want maximum return on your investment, you need to train near maximum as well. But what is maximal effort?

Failure. I’ve not quoted someone for quite some time. Let’s quote Mythbusters. Particularly Adam Savage.

Failure is always an option.

But more, in application of effort in exercise, failure is everything. Now, I’m not suggesting you die on a treadmill or burst into flames on a rowing machine. That’s not failure—that’s voodoo. But to push your body until it cannot complete a set of 10 reps… that my friend, is failure. And it means you have pushed the system beyond its energy or strength threshold. What does that mean? Apart from being really sore for a day or two, it means you pushed the limits to the point your physiological feedback mechanisms will try to compensate. Whaaaaat? Yeah, it’s a bit technical. However, in brief, when you ask your body to perform beyond its limits, biological mechanisms will be put into play that will try and adapt to the new stress. The way your body adapts to physical stress is to become ‘fitter’ for that purpose. You become stronger, or develop more endurance, depending upon the training stimulus. Sounds awesome. But there is one massive caveat.

Fuel and nutrition. If you don’t know already, athletes and bodybuilders have the most boring and dull diets. Body fat and muscle mass are intrinsically tied to the stuff you cram into your mouth. You don’t need any supplements to look good. I mean, that’s a separate article and by god that industry is the devil. Stay well away from it. But you do need to eat well. A diet rich in lean meat and starchy carbohydrates is essential. More, you‘ll need to dispense with the pleasures of cheesecake and pizza unless your calorie expenditure is higher than the GDP of a small nation. In short, if you want to look really good, your diet needs to become really strict. As in, awful and dull strict. I also need to address the vegans among us. A vegan diet is incredibly beneficial if done well but it is a challenge. Anyone who says otherwise is a stooge. But if you choose that path (and I absolutely praise you for it) please do your research. Now, you train hard and your diet is good. What next?

Patience. We’re not building Lego here. The only things that grow fast are plants, fungi, and national debt. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Of course it wasn’t—that’s a stupid expression. My garden fence wasn’t even built in one day. Idiots. Not my contractors, the philosopher that came up with the Rome example. A city, in one day? That’s just lame. Patience is required. I’ve mentioned calorie burn rate in previous posts. I’ll not repeat them here. Yeah—go trawl through my blog. I took the time to write it, you can take the time to find it. The penultimate challenge is being patient. Building muscle takes time. Burning fat takes time. Fine tuning your diet to get that balance takes time. In short, ironically, it takes a long time. And the farther you are from your goal, the more patience you’ll require to get there. It will be worth it. Yet, there’s a niggle bothering you. I said patience is the penultimate challenge. As Yoda said: There is another.

Relapse. It will happen. You’ll see gains for a while and then they’ll stop. You’ll question your approach. You’ll doubt your application, your desire. You’ll say, “Ah, screw this!” and then plunge head first into a pizza laden with so many toppings the delivery guy pulled a groin strain delivering it. Pizza first, then a cheesecake, fifteen beers and a night in the garden arguing with squirrels and fighting sparrows. Never fight sparrows, their sheer numbers will overwhelm you. And the squirrels will steal your smartphone and take candid pics and send them to your mum. That’s the worst part of relapse—we’ve all been there. Your geographic location may require a change of animal voyeur. I pity those with bears for neighbours. Or raccoons. Or skunks. I saw a Skunk while on vacation in downtown Vancouver once. Truly weird.

But don’t worry. Relapse is normal. In fact, as a fitness professional with 26 years-experience, I can say that if you don’t relapse, you’re a liar. It’s human nature to question the futility of endeavour. But it’s also human nature to overcome that doubt. I mean, look at you now, you’ve read almost 1800 words of drivel posted by a guy you don’t even know. By the gods, you must have some crazy mental stamina. I know you will succeed.

Ultimately, the key to achieving fitness success is to understand the challenges you face and to ensure your aspirations are practical. Set yourself a realistic goal. Set aside a few hours a week to work on that goal. Forgive yourself your slips and relapses and climb straight back on that unruly steed. You’ll get there in the end; you’ll ride onto the savannah of success. And in that amber sunset, with the hot breeze on your face, Dwayne might even be there too. He’ll pat you on the back. Say how well you’ve done. And you’ll both stare into the sunset. Just don’t look at his arms. Or his shoulders. Remember, you achieved your goal. But you’ll never be Dwayne.

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.