It is the New Year and time for resolutions, chief among them the annual promise to lose weight and get in shape. Having invested my share of brain cells to the topic of diet, and finding myself a bit of an amateur evangelist for reforming one’s health following my physical breakdown in 2006 following my bike vs. automobile incident, I thought I’d succinctly offer some unsolicited advice to those of you thinking about turning over a new leaf. My credentials? I went from a whopping, life-threatening 280 pounds in August 2010 to 228 in February 2012 by going on a disciplined regimen of paleo diet on Zone block calculated portions with vigorous Crossfit training. This is not a “diet” but a life style change.
1. Log: You can’t manage what you don’t measure so start a food log. Be religious about logging everything that enters your stomach. I use Livestrong’s “MyPlate” — it has a great database for calculating the caloric content of nearly every food imaginable.
2. Weigh: Treat food like medicine — a drug you administer to yourself five times a day. You need to know your “dosage” so weigh your portions. After a while you’ll learn to eyeball it. Get a decent digital food scale.
3. Study: nutritional theory is being turned on its head. The old FDA “Food Pyramid” is under attack and it is very likely that your doctor doesn’t know what he or she is talking about any more. Ignore the diet books — you need to stop thinking in terms of “diets” as in plans or gimmicks. Get off the yoyo cycle of South Beach, Atkins, etc. and instead aim for a sustainable approach to eating for the rest of your life.
Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes. This is the most important book to come along in years.
Enter the Zone, Barry Sears. The Zone was one of the big “low-carb” diets of the last decade. It’s formula of apportioning food into “blocks” of protein, carbs and fats calculated againt your lean body mass is the best method for determining how much you should eat. Combine it with the paleo principles of whole foods omitting dairy, sugar, grains, and legumes and you wind up with what the Crossfit community considers the A-1 best diet model for the rest of your life.
Robb Wolf: one of the “deans” of the paleo movement.
YouTube series of Crossfit and the Zone/Paleo Combination. This is very useful.
4. Understand: To do that you need to understand the science behind nutrition and accept certain new emerging truths:
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat
Grains are not good for you
Hormonal response to food dictates where that food’s energy is stored. Timing of meals is important.
Eating clean doesn’t mean eating organic, it means eating “whole” unprocessed food whenever possible
Finally — this is all quantifiable and comes down to the simple truth of all diets — to lose weight you need to expend more calories than you consume.
5. Exercise: figure out something that will burn a few hundred calories and keep you interested. If you’re really off track, just get into a routine of walking and work up to something more aerobic. Just get moving. Crossfit is not the answer for most people. It’s expensive, it’s a commitment, but it is effective for former athletes and type-A personalities. Just make daily movement and creating a calorie deficit as much a plan as the menus you build.
6. Commit: Dive into the Whole30 January challenge. Purge your refrigerator, buy a scale, find a farmer’s market and load up on the essentials. Detox yourself for a week, then settle into a routine that can stay with you forever. There’s no weirdness — no cleansing, no grapefruits, bacon and steak — just a logical routine that once learned will help shape your most important contribution you can make to your health: your diet.
Saturday I competed in my first CrossFit competition — one for Master’s ages 50 to 55 — and failed miserably, completely humbling myself in front of a big crowd when two key movements failed me and disqualified me more or less. CrossFit is the dynamic fitness regimen that has burst out of its humble garage origins in Santa Cruz and has now spread to become the fitness fad of our times, with corporate sponsorships proclaiming it as “The Sport of Fitness.” I took it up in 2008, did it alone in my garage by following the workout of the day posted on the Crossfit site, and eventually joined a local affiliate, Crossfit Cape Cod, in February 2010 after getting drubbed at the CRASH-B Sprints and realizing I needed to get serious to get competitive.
Competitive impulses are going to be the death of me. All jokes about “mind’s making promises bodies can’t fill” apply here. I ripped my left bicep off of the tendon that anchored it to my forearm last January, I’ve trashed my back countless times on the rowing machine, my shins are ripped apart from deadlifts and rope burns, my shoulders feel like they’ve been beaten with sticks … all in the hope I can actually get faster when the truth is I am doomed to get slower.
The morning competition started with thrusters. I thought I was doing pretty good with 27 in one minute. But no. That was only good enough to tie for fifth place out of eight. It was just about the only thing that went well all day.
Then came six rounds of jump rope, pull-ups, and 85-pound cleans. Rope, I can endure. Cleans I can also endure. Pull ups? Total failure. I made the first round okay, but kept failing the subsequent rounds as my arms gave out. I kept throwing myself at the bar, but the judges wouldn’t give me the movement and I came in last.
Second round a few hours later started with an overhead snatch followed by three overhead squats. I had two minutes to hit my max. I did an “insurance” round at 115, then went up to 135 before calling it quits. That got me a third place in the third workout.
The fourth and final workout involved burpee box jumps, wall balls and toes-to-bar. Basically hanging from a pull up bar and swinging my body up until my toes hit the bar I was hanging from. I made it through four rounds then could go no further, and spent most of the time on the clock fruitlessly swinging, and missing. Again, last place. I finished seventh out of eight for the entire competition.
The agony of defeat. I slunk off the floor, tail between my legs, determined to fix my issues on the bar. And so it goes as old age approaches. Here’s the final results at CrossFit New England. They were awesome hosts.
Here is a way to ruin a perfectly fine July afternoon. Take one iron sled, load it with two 45-lb. plates, grab rope, and drag like a maniac down a shopping mall parking lot, turn at the other end, and then push it back. Follow with 12 kettlebell swings, nine chest-to-bar pullups, rest a minute and do it again four more times. I weighed myself before and after and managed to lose four pounds of sweat (note the drip forming underneath my chin) Emesis nearly followed which would have shaved another couple bulemic pounds off. I recovered with margaritas and mexican food.
I’ve been logging my physical activities and diet for a while, moving from spreadsheets to programs to web-apps to device apps in search of the best way to keep consistent track of my progress in the belief that if I don’t measure it, I won’t stick with it.
One of my former rowing coaches, Tom Bohrer, an amazing oarsman and former Olympic-level athlete, told me the first step towards success in losing weight is to log every bite. The discipline of noting what one puts in one’s mouth forces an awareness of what is on the plate and the high number of random, thoughtless calories that can creep onto the plate during the day. Tom had me write it down in a simple $1.00 spiral notebook and not bother with calories counts, ounces and grams, or totals. Just have the honesty to admit to the bag of Swedish Fish and the courage to show that transgression to him every week.
In this Moneyball era, some sports are very number/goal based and others are getting more so. Any of the racing sports — swimming, rowing, running are stark time-over-distance efforts that can be timed, charted, and plotted over time. Team sports — football or lacrosse for example — are subjective and don’t lend themselves to improvement-metrics the way baseball does.
I’m most interested in the trend of personal tracking and the rise of technology that allows a person to track every step taken during the day, every session completed on the machine, every moment spent in deep sleep, down to blood glucose levels. Tim Ferris’ bestselling The Four Hour Body exemplifies the degree to which a person with enough motivation and money can obsessively test one’s self. This is a guy who flies to Central America where he can gets a lot of expensive tests performed cheaply. A guy who is open to any device or toy that will help him plot performance and levels over time.
I learned the discipline of logging early on thanks to the early efforts of Concept2 — the Vermont maker of the Concept 2 rowing ergometer, the standard indoor rowing machine adopted by most teams because of its high quality and very capable digital monitor, a device called the PM4 which was developed for Concept2 by the Pennsylvania company Nielsen & Kellerman who also make monitors for on-the-water rowing and portable meteorological instruments. Concept2 was smart in opening up the code interface to the PM monitor and equipping it with a USB and ethernet jack. Third party software such as RowPro followed, giving devoted rowers and coaches even more data about their performance. Concept2’s smartest move, in my opinion, was serving up an online logbook that allows a rower to enter their workouts and compare themselves on public leaderboards against other rowers of the same weight, gender, age over set benchmark times and distances. The online logbook at Concept2.com sees billions of meters logged every year, and gives a disciplined rower a clear sense of progress and goals.
For more than a year I have been logging my diet through a free tool offered by the Livestrong Foundation called MyPlate. The web-service is designed and managed by Demand Media and is buried in a content site that delivers nutrition and health stories and social network functions which I pretty much ignore.
The calorie tracker combines the functions of a log book with a deep database of calorie counts and nutritional levels for essentially any food one could imagine, including branded food such as a quarter cup of Trader Joe’s organic dried white peaches to a Five Guys Bacon Double Cheeseburger. I can combine ingredients into standard meals to ease the logging of frequently eaten combinations, set nutritional targets ranging from the amount of sodium to the number of net calories consumed per day, and log and plot my weight, body mass index, and specific physical measurements such as the diameter of my neck, check and abdomen over time. MyPlate will calculate calorie levels to achieve specific weight loss or gain goals and does a good job of plotting progress on X,Y charts. A subscription version offers richer functionality.
To log my exercise progress — I could and do use MyPlate as it calculates calories expended and deducts those from my gross calorie count. Hence I can log a two mile run at 13 minutes, 43 seconds, and it will cough up a calorie expense of 438 and subtract that from the inputs.
Since I am spending most of my workout time in Crossfit — I also need to track my performance and progress against a lot of benchmarks ranging from my personal records for weight lifting such as deadlifts, back squats, snatches, presses and cleans, as well as specific Crossfit workouts such with names like Fran and Kelly. I had been logging that work in a paper notebook I leave at the gym, but a fellow crossfitter introduced me to a site called Beyondthewhiteboard.com which does an excellent job of letting me log my progress against my gym’s prescribed daily workouts. There is a food logging capability on the site, but it isn’t driven by a crowd-sourced calorie database, so I tend to ignore it. I do throw my weight in there though to keep a record of progress there as well.
The Four Hour Body piqued my curiosity about the role of supplements in physical well being and improvement. Ferris prescribes some fairly outre tips ranging from his so-called PAGG Stack (policasonol, alpha-lipoic acid, garlic extract and green tea extract) to induce a state of fat-burning thermogenesis , to eating three brazil nuts in the morning and at night to improve selenium levels and testosterone production. I personally agree with the man who said people who take vitamin supplements have the most expensive pee in the world, but I also spend a lot of cash on stuff ranging from Omega-3 fish oil to all sorts of pills, protein powders and vitamins. Since I don’t have the free cash to spend on a lot of blood tests to see exactly what is going on in my metabolism I take this stuff as an article of faith.
A good source of deep and usually impenetrable advice about supplements comes from the forums at Longecity.com which is where I learned about the online log service, CRON-O-Meter. This service is essentially MyPlate taken to another level of specificity for total nutrition geeks with automated tracking of very specific vitamin and protein information for those who believe food is essentially culinary pharmaceuticals and who like to geek out by reading every word of Dr. Barry Sears, the Zone diet founder or Gary Taubes, the au courant dispeller of the why we get fat myth. I tried CRON-O-Meter for a while, but I’m just not that anal retentive or well-heeled to figure out if I need more lysine or niacin or vitamin D in my life and then buy it.
Rising in popularity are sleep monitors as the fitness-measurers are pushing the idea that sleep quality and duration has a big effect on health, recovery from exercise, and general well-being. The owner of my Crossfit gym, Mark Lee has been using a sleep monitor, and there are some that track the time it takes you to fall asleep, how many times a night you wake up, when you go into deep sleep, etc.. One brand I’m aware of is Zeo with a $150 bedside setup.
Then there are the new breed of pedometer like devices that track every step, capture all the data, and can be uploaded and tracked online. Fitbit is probably the best know of these, and at a $100 seems reasonable enough as it also purports to track sleep but I’m not compelled to wear one on my belt.
One can obviously go overboard on the personal tracking obsession and I know I am coming close to being too geeky about the whole thing, but you can expect to see and hear about more of it, not less, as awareness over dietary and supplement chemistry rises thanks to people like Tim Ferris; the paleo diet craze expands because of Reebok’s commercial embrace of Crossfit “the Sport of Fitness (Crossfit, aka “Cultfit” to its detractors, embraces paleo principles as part of the program); and the device makers push their meters, gauges, wireless scales and pedometers at you more and more.
My personal testimony to whether any of the tracking works is this: I’ve dropped 50 pounds in 18 months, cholesterol levels have plummeted (I took myself off prescribed statins and have yet to see if I can manage my HDL/LDL levels through diet and exercise alone), and I eat a fairly strict paleo diet that restricts calories to around the 2,000 per day level. My rowing times are as good, if not better than they were ten years ago, and my running times have improved from a sluggish ten-minute mile pace to a 7 minute mile in a matter of months. Yes, this is insanely narcissistic, but it is efficient, it beats the old method of carrots and cottage cheese, little paper calorie counter books, and endless jogs around the block with a daily visit to the bathroom scale.
A year ago I could barely raise my right arm over my head due to a partial tear in my rotator cuff suffered one icy day when I slipped and fell on my ass while filling the bird feeders. A trip to the surgeon, a claustrophobic half hour in the MRI machine desperately fighting the urge to squeeze the claustrophobia panic bulb, and next thing I knew I was scheduled for surgery and what veterans of the procedure said was a nasty multiple-month recovery involving sleeping upright in a chair and being incapable of performing a certain unmentionable act of ablution.
I decided to cancel the operation and fix the issue myself. I think I’ve done it. How exactly, I can’t say, but for the most part it’s been a lot of work focused on shoulder strength, stretching, and some quasi yoga poses. A piece in today’s New York Times by Jane Brody confirms what I learned myself over the past eight months: you can fix yourself with some simple moves. A basic yoga stretch promoted by a New York physiatrist, Dr. Loren Feldman, has helped other rotator cuff sufferers avoid the knife (or scope).
I’ve gone through physical therapy for various muscular-skeletal ailments over the years, stretching rubber bands and lifting light weights, but nothing has done more to help me fix my messed up body more than Kelly Starrett’s Mobility Work Out of the Day, or M-WOD blog. Starrett is the owner of San Francisco CrossFit and a guru to CrossFitters for his simple message that “every human being should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves. If you have a lacrosse ball, a foam roller, some pylometric bands and the will, his daily video posting will unmess your joints and muscles in no time. His first work out of the day, posted a year ago, is humbling and very, very primal — sit in a squatting position like an Afghani villager in the dust for ten minutes. Try it. I made two minutes the first time.
I just read Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body, an interesting exercise in one man’s obsession with understanding his physiology and improving it without wasting hours of fruitless labor and bad diets. The punchline is this: time expended does not equate to results. A paleo diet (no grains, sugar, dairy, legumes) administered like a drug (time the intake of protein, boost the metabolism with lemon juice, cinnamon and certain supplements), a CrossFit like regimen of short, intense, but functional movements, and an obsession with measurement can yield significant results in very little time.
Anyway, self maintenance is a good thing, it’s cheap, and it can deliver great results if you stick with it. So get a lacrosse ball, bookmark the MWOD blog, and read what you can about the science that is turning the FDA food pyramid on its head.
Nearly six months of formal Crossfit training and the results are pretty remarkable. I won’t post pictures of my oily muscles, but let’s just say the day I was able to execute an unassisted classic pull-up was a big personal victory. Now, it’s all about the Work Out of the Day and getting stronger and ready for the next big Churbuckian athletic goal — the 2012 World Indoor Rowing Championships.
Yesterday I embarked on what may prove to be my undoing: the 100 Day Burpee Challenge. If pull ups were my first goal, mastering burpees is next on the list (that and doing a lot of consecutive double-under rope skips, but that’s a digression for another day). What is a burpee? The New York Times recently asked the question : “What is the best single exercise?”:
“Ask a dozen physiologists which exercise is best, and you’ll get a dozen wildly divergent replies. “Trying to choose” a single best exercise is “like trying to condense the entire field” of exercise science, said Martin Gibala, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
“But when pressed, he suggested one of the foundations of old-fashioned calisthenics: the burpee, in which you drop to the ground, kick your feet out behind you, pull your feet back in and leap up as high as you can. “It builds muscles. It builds endurance.” He paused. “But it’s hard to imagine most people enjoying” an all-burpees program, “or sticking with it for long.”
Burpees suck. Especially for big, tall people like me as it involves throwing oneself to the ground into a planked push up position, performing that pushup, and then leaping to one’s feet and jumping in the air with an overhead hand clap. Here’s the video demonstration:
I hate burpees. Dread them. Nothing destroys me faster or more completely than a round of burpees. They make me feel sick, panicked, and woefully old. Hence I love them. This morning’s Cape Cod CrossFit WOD (called the “Airforce WOD”) was a simple round of five relatively light weight exercises, 20 thrusters, sumo high pull deadlifts, push presses, front squats and overhead squats at 95 pounds. Doing 100 lifts against the clock is hard, very hard. But leave it to CrossFit to make it horrible by specifying that every minute, on the minute, you stopped what you were doing to perform four of the evil Burpees.
The origins of the Burpee are in dispute, but I like this explanation:
“The exercise may have been originated by a man named Lieutenant Thomas Burpee (1757-1839). He was an officer in the New Hampshire Militia during the Revolutionary War and was described as “having the innate Burpee fondness for martial exercises” in A History of the Town of New London, Merrimack County, New Hampshire. Lt. Burpee may have used the combination of pushups and squat thrusts as a means of drilling, conditioning, and disciplining the troops under his command. In addition, the exercise may have also been used by the troops as a way to stay warm during the winters in wartime New England.”
Being who I am and believing in attacking weaknesses head on, I am embarking on the dreaded 100 Day Burpee Challenge. Simple enough. One burpee on day one. Two on day two ….98 on day 98, 99 on day 99 ……
I am on day two and all is well with the world. Then again, I managed to have 52 inflicted on me this morning at while doing the aforementioned “Airforce WOD.” I promise not to blog every dreary day ahead. And yes, there is a cult around this particular silly challenge or, at the very least, a blog.
I’m dieting, done in by the Florentine mime, so my ballpark fare has been restricted to a paltry bag of unbuttered popcorn this summer. Go to Yarmouth-Dennis and get your Lipitor on with a “Hurler” — a cheeseburger on a jelly donut topped “with the finest canned cheese on the market.” Eric Williams and CapeCast explains: