Every time you open a fitness magazine, you meet head-on with at least four foolproof diets, six new supplements, seven secrets for sexy abs, and 13 foods to avoid this season. If you followed every scrap of advice, you’d be spending hundreds of dollars on supplements and 40 hours a week at the gym. You’d be carbo-loading one week and gorging yourself on high-protein shakes the next. In the end, you’d have nothing but a stomachache, disappointment and a negative bank balance to show for your trouble.
So what can you do to make sense of the myriad advice without becoming a fitness fanatic or retreating in confusion to the couch? First of all, take it easy. Don’t feel you have to learn everything all at once.
You can start with the core topics covered here: Mindset, Diet, Water, Supplements, Exercise, Rest. Then check out the “Big 10” health and fitness fundamentals on pages 26-29 of the magazine. These are common-sense concepts that are well-established in forward-thinking health-and-fitness circles, but too often drowned out by all the advertising-driven “foolproof and fabulous” media hype. These are the basics most likely to be overlooked in our endless quest for “the latest thing” – ideas you may instinctively recognize as true, but likely haven’t given nearly as much thought (or action) as they deserve.
You’re probably on the right track already, or you wouldn’t be reading this article. You lead a clean, healthy life, you work out regularly and you don’t overeat (at least not too often), so don’t fret about missing an occasional kickboxing class or flop into an existential funk just because you devoured one little Dove Bar. You’re probably meant to live a long healthy life. So enjoy it.
The latest scientific research on the link between mind and body provides a clear physiological explanation of why an attitude adjustment promotes better health. Constant worry about life, your job, your figure and every indulgent morsel of food that crosses your lips leads to an adrenaline-like pattern of anxiety that blunts your immune system, raises your stress hormones, robs you of sleep and makes you gain weight.
A positive attitude, healthy emotional processing and a supportive social environment can enhance your resistance to disease, lower your blood pressure, improve your hormonal balance and generally extend your life.
On the other hand, a positive attitude, healthy emotional processing and a supportive social environment can enhance your resistance to disease, lower your blood pressure, improve your hormonal balance and generally extend your life.
While the French devour diets that would give you or me a heart attack after just one meal, on average they live longer and healthier lives than most Americans. What d’they got that we ain’t got? Joie de vivre. As Americans, we tend to make everything we do into an ambitious moral commitment. A healthy life doesn’t have to be hardcore all the time. It can be relaxed and laid back, too.
So take time to make friends. Building a health-centered social circle also provides positive reinforcement and a psychological boost. And don’t turn every activity into a training bout: Life is not a boot camp. A pleasant bike ride with your kids may not improve your 10K time – but so what? There’s no point in living a long time if you can’t enjoy it. Take a walk by the lake with your sweetheart, join the neighborhood softball team, goof around here and there, and whenever you can, heed Bobby McFerrin’s advice: Don’t worry, be happy.
Many of us don’t dine anymore; instead we “fuel” our bodies with enzymes, amino acids, carbohydrate gels, mineral-enhanced liquids and protein bars. We anguish at every meal: Should we reduce portions, skip lunch and have a chemical shake, or eat six mini-meals a day? One nutritional expert says it’s best to start the morning off with a bowl of carbohydrates, another says a plateful of protein. Should one divide calories into 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat? Or was it 20, 40 and 40? And just how many 6-ounce grilled chicken breasts on a bed of twigs and berries can you gobble down before gagging? Nutritious food doesn’t have to become emotionally exhausting, complicated or dull.
Getting all the nutrition you need entails eating a variety of healthy victuals, including fresh, organic vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts, organic, pasture-fed meats and dairy (if you are a carnivore and eat dairy), whole grains, and healthy fats. Combined and prepared with just a little creative flair, these can result in some incredibly tasty and satisfying meals.
If you want to stay thin or even lose weight, eat more vegetables and fruits while cutting down on the grains and meats.
If you want to stay thin or even lose weight, eat more vegetables and fruits while cutting down on the grains and meats. If you want to get stronger, do the reverse. It’s difficult to do both at the same time, though, so don’t expect to double your bench-press while losing half your body weight. On the other hand, if you’re trying to gain more muscle, don’t waste money on amino-acid supplements and high-tech protein shakes or go nuts wolfing down steaks (too much protein can give you gout and kidney problems and make your breath reek). Just moderately increase your overall calories while pumping up your strength-training routine.
In general, the healthiest eating habits include stews, broth-based soups, lightly dressed salads, fresh fruits and berries, skinned poultry, pasture-fed lean meats and ocean fish. These food choices keep you trim because they contain lots of fiber and water to satiate your cravings and very little calorie-rich fat to fuel your belly. The fats you do get (and need) – from omega-3 sources like ocean fish and flax-seed oil, nuts and pasture-fed meats – power your brain cells and boost your metabolism without clogging up your heart and arteries.
Avoid simple sugars, white bread, refined pastas, processed snack foods (e.g., crackers and chips) and excessive drinking. Everybody has a different take on grains, and the truth is for some people they work, and for others they don’t. If you are having trouble losing weight, or are having digestive, joint or skin problems, eliminate some or all of them for a while and see if it helps. You might also try cutting back on wheat and eating more kamut, spelt, quinoi, millet and rice, which many people find easier to digest.
If you decide to follow a bodybuilding, six-meals-a-day program, make sure each “meal” is more of a bite than a banquet: Graze, but don’t gorge. On the other hand, if you’re attached to eating three square meals, go ahead; just make sure you grab healthy snacks when you need them (i.e., well before your blood sugar plummets), and finish up dinner about three hours before bedtime. (Going to sleep on an empty stomach helps whittle your waistline while you snooze.)
Water comes right after air on the list of ingredients required for life support. But unlike air-intake, which your body handles pretty automatically, topping off your fluids is easy to forget. Not good, because in order to live, every cell in your body must be bathed in water, which represents 45 to 70 percent of your total weight. Water affects your health and performance more than any other nutrient. It helps regulate body temperature, dissolves and carries nourishment to your cells, helps catalyze essential chemical reactions and eliminates waste. Water has zero calories, but reduces hunger. It also helps metabolize fat and maintain muscle tone.
You lose about two and a half quarts of this valuable fluid every day through elimination. And when you exercise, you can easily double that total. Yet most of us forget to swig even a few glasses daily – let alone the gallon or more that some health experts suggest. The result is chronic dehydration.
Ironically, thirst doesn’t reflect our body’s true demand for liquid assets. On average, people feel satiated after slurping about two-thirds of the water they need (if only hunger worked the same way!). Sports drinks add chemicals to stimulate thirst so athletes will drink more. But if you are aware of this tendency to shortchange liquids, you can counter it by sipping a pint of water two hours before exercise, then continuing to swig while you work out at a rate of about 6 to 8 fluid ounces every 15 minutes. Immediately after exercise, check your weight and figure you’ll need to drink 1 pint of water per pound of body weight lost in perspiration. If you average 150 lbs., and weigh in at 146 after a long, hot run, don’t get attached to that lost weight – it’s not lost fat. You’ll need about 4 pints (two big sports-bottles-worth) over the next few hours just to replenish your losses.
Nutritional supplements work primarily to correct diet inadequacies or physiological deficiencies. They can fill in some important blanks, but they can’t write the whole nutritional story. For example, vegans (strict vegetarians) can sometimes benefit from protein supplementation; women of childbearing age have an increased need of folic acid; smokers need more vitamin C; heavy drinkers benefit from thiamin, niacin and vitamin B-6. Older adults sometimes need dietary supplements because they don’t absorb food nutrients efficiently.
Likewise, people on restrictive diets often lack enough food variety to get all the vitamins and minerals they need. But even normal, otherwise healthy people have specific needs that make supplementation essential for optimal health, particularly when they are under stress.
The best way to find out if you need supplementation is to consult with a registered dietary nutritionist or other nutritionally knowledgeable health expert (not with the clerk at your local vitamin shop).
Unless you’re an athlete looking to eke out a slightly better performance level, or have a diagnosed nutritional deficiency and are under a nutritionist’s care, you can skip the cartload of expensive supplements. But do be sure to take in the basics (meaning high-quality vitamin and mineral multis)!
Assuming you’re basically healthy and eating like you oughta be, if you are taking a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, it’s unlikely you need more than one or two additional products (such as some extra C or E, perhaps an essential fatty acid or joint formulation). Depending on your personal nutrition needs, of course, you may want to look into other vitamins, minerals, enzymes, herbs, etc., but your best bet is to learn to eat right. This is not a place to make excuses or take shortcuts.
Now, what about sports aids? If you are a serious athlete (you regularly work out hard and heavy, compete or do serious endurance stuff), you may want to add a post-exercise protein shake (no nasty chemicals, please) after lifting and a carbohydrate drink (watch the sugars) after an hour or more of cardiovascular training. But if you are an average Joe or Jill doing average workouts, it’s unlikely that these products are necessary or will be particularly advantageous for you. In fact, they may cause you to gain weight, to take in extra additives and artificial sweeteners you’d be better off avoiding, and to forego healthy real foods you should be eating.
The same goes for weight-loss and performance-enhancing mixes and pills. The vast majority of these products have not been proven effective, and they can be dangerous, so don’t waste your money – particularly if you aren’t already doing absolutely everything else you should be (optimizing your workout and recovery cycles, perfecting your diet, etc.). While creatine phosphate has proven to offer real and calculable benefits (it improves fast-twitch muscle endurance), for all but the most fit, the advantages it provides won’t outweigh the costs. If you’re nowhere near your genetic potential, you don’t need performance enhancers, you need more performance: In other words, skip the pill and add a drill.
You already know that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body and soul. Even if you’re overweight, you have a better shot at excellent health if you work out regularly than someone who appears thin but never trains. So, as long as you keep coming back to the gym, don’t obsess about the details of every “Burn-Fat-and-Get-Fit-Fast!” article you read in the check-out lane, particularly if you find them overwhelming. They’re mostly variations on a theme, anyway, and chances are, you already know the basics you require to get to the next level. Dogged determination, self-honesty and common sense are the things that really count. Get customized workout advice from a trainer, and then put the time you normally slot for reading magazines into your workouts.
Remember, the benefits of exercise build up gradually as your body adjusts to the chronic demands of regular training. It’s not what you do on a given day, but what you do over the year that makes a real difference. So you’re better off training less intensely and never quitting than trying to accomplish a lot in a short time and then burning out.
It’s not what you do on a given day, but what you do over the year that makes a real difference.
One way to keep track of the gradual changes without getting discouraged is with periodic testing. Ask your health-club professionals to provide you with a general fitness assessment (GFA) every six to eight weeks. Even though you may feel like you’re running on a treadmill – working hard but getting nowhere – your body is changing every day. Testing can show you just how far you’ve come, and the results may pleasantly surprise you.
Fortunately, long before you see any significant change in your physique, you’ll already be reaping tangible health benefits – and feeling better, too. Some doctors claim that exercise trumps medication at fighting depression. All doctors agree that exercise improves cardiovascular fitness, bone density and strength. But in order to maximize the full benefits of exercise you have to balance your workouts between cardiovascular conditioning, strength training and stretching.
Most of us exercise to burn calories and keep the heart surgeon at bay. For this, cardio is still king. Dancing, walking, running, cycling, swimming, step mills, and elliptical trainers are all excellent means of cardiovascular training. But as in most things in life, the very best cardio exercises are the most basic: walking and running. Why? Because you’re bearing your body mass, which requires greater effort, burns more calories and strengthens your spine, hips and legs. Your cardio routine should last at least 30 minutes to an hour or more. Remember, keeping it simple doesn’t always mean taking it easy.
Though cardiovascular exercise should remain the cornerstone of your training, it should not become your exclusive form of exercise. Your body needs power and strength as well as endurance. For powerful, responsive muscles and strong bones, balance your workouts with weights. The best way to assure that you give adequate time and attention to both cardiovascular and strength training is to do them on alternate days. But if you decide to do both on the same day, warm up and then do your lifting before your cardio work.
Strength training involves pitting your muscles against gravity. This applies to body-weight exercises like pushups and pull-ups, as well as resistance training using dumbbells, barbells, machines and elastic bands. Usually the best strengthening methods are the most basic: calisthenics and free-weights. A simple program including pushups, chin-ups, dips, squats, lunges, bench-presses, shoulder presses and a variety of abdominal crunches can take you far before you need to make changes. Targeted, single-muscle exercises like curls and triceps-pushdowns are great supplemental training, but not essential to the overall purpose of gaining muscle, bone and connective-tissue strength. You’ll hear a lot of debate about sets and reps, but for most of us, three sets of 8 to 12 repetitions works best because this combination assures both strength gains and better endurance.
Stretching tends to be the most neglected element in conditioning, though some medical authorities regard it as the most important because it helps preserve the youthful elasticity of your connective tissues. One way to learn how to stretch properly is to sign up for a good Pilates or hatha yoga class. Either of these methods will teach you a variety of stretching and core-strengthening exercises that you can later do on your own. Incorporating flexibility-training exercises into your strength-training routine can help to stave off muscle soreness and maintain your joint mobility.
Every time you complete a set of resistance exercises for a muscle group, do a set of stretches for the same group. For example, if you just finished three sets of bench-presses, rotate your arms and then grasp your hands behind your back and pull down toward the floor to loosen up your shoulders and stretch your chest. Unlike so many aspects of exercise that require discipline and effort, stretching can actually be pleasurable. So if you’ve done all the hard work, don’t skip the reward.
Think of exercise as stimulus and rest as renovation. When you work out, you tax your body beyond its comfort zone and trigger physiological responses that urge your muscles to adapt in order to handle ever-growing levels of physical exertion. This remodeling response doesn’t occur while you exercise; it happens later, while you rest. Without rest, each session of exercise depletes your body until it has nothing in reserve. In athletic circles they call this phenomena “overtraining.”
While part of your workout happens at the gym, the other takes place in your bedroom. While you sleep, your body secretes growth hormones and does all the heavy work of repairing torn tissues and building new layers of muscle. So don’t stay up for the late show. And don’t get up at the crack of dawn to go running or to attend a spinning class if it means you’ll be exhausted the rest of the day. While exercising at dawn may build moral fiber, your muscle fibers need about seven to 10 hours of daily rest and recovery.
To maximize your daily efforts, clear your mind before going to bed. You won’t experience the benefits of optimal recovery unless you can fall asleep in the first place, and for many of us, therein lies the rub. Listening to environmental sounds, like a CD of ocean waves, a bubbling brook or a thunderstorm can slow brain-wave activity and lull you into deep, peaceful sleep. Going to bed on an empty stomach helps you stay that way. If you’re a midnight snacker, have a small portion of carbohydrates with protein – such as spaghetti with meat sauce, or cereal with skim milk. The carbs make you sleepy; the protein makes you feel full. But don’t forget, your metabolism slows while sleeping, so you may wake up wearing that snack on your hips.
Even though daily exercise improves the quality of your sleep, try to avoid strenuous exercise at least three hours before bedtime. But a long, leisurely walk, gentle stretching and deep breathing can help you unwind and let everything go.
Wake up in the morning rested and greet the day with a grin. Eat a nourishing breakfast, have a glass of water and set out to enjoy another day of life.
That’s about it, really.
Starting with this foundation, you can gradually add all kinds of subtle refinements to your routine, including circuit training, periodization schedules, performance-enhancing supplements, and creative exercise variations.
There are thousands of techniques to help you run faster, shed more fat, lift heavier weights and maximize your flexibility, and you’ll naturally acquire new fitness skills with time and experience. But fortunately, the basics of good health remain mercifully simple: Eat right, drink plenty of water, take your vities, move your body, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up smiling. True, collectively, that’s a tall order. But if you stick with this program even half the time, you’ll be doing better than most of the American population (which, granted, isn’t saying much). And more importantly, you’ll be well on your way to a better life, and a healthier, happier you. See, it really isn’t so hard after all.
This article originally appeared as “Easy Does It” in the September/October 2002 issue of Experience Life.