Saturday, February 25, 2012

On Exercise, Weight and Weight Loss

I've been thinking about exercise lately, since it's one of the things in my life that is more-or-less under my control (unlike my vision, say, or my balance).

Five months ago, the idea of going to the gym for an hour five times a week, followed by a 30 minute swim seemed plausible, but was far too much effort. My primary motivation then was to lose weight in order to get laid (more).

Twelve weeks ago, the idea of ever working out in a gym again seemed impossibly remote. I was still struggling to walk even a step or two unaided, and a half hour of physio would wipe me out for much of the day. The stroke damage was still overwhelming.

Six weeks ago, I began to feel like the standard fitness goal of doing 5x30m a week* was going to be difficult, but achievable within the nine remaining weeks of my excellent post-stroke program.

Today I'm about to do my 30 minutes of physio exercises this morning, and looking forward to getting to the gym a bit earlier, so I can do more work before the time allowed for supervised swimming. It's the third week I'll have been five times. Achievement unlocked!

Obviously, my persistence and determination have played a part, and it's hard to replicate my sense that my current physical deficits are unacceptable, but I think there's more going on that is generally useful.

First, my motivation has changed from "get laid" to "don't die," For me, this was a fairly easy shift to make. Having some strokes was less of a warning shot, and more of a breach at water level. It's harder if you're like the me of five months ago, where the statistics about stroke, heart disease and diabetes are difficult to absorb on a personal level. That's your problem, and not one I can really help with, except to say many of you, my friends, are too fat, and that's making you sicker, and more likely to drop dead.

Second, and actually maybe useful, has been that with the physical deficits I find so intolerable, my ability in the gym had to be completely recalibrated. I simply couldn't run on the treadmill (I still can't actually run, or even let go). That meant that I had to throw out every expectation I had about what I could reasonably do, start listening to my body, and be fine with being a pathetic cripple loser: not easy.

A year or so ago, when I re-joined the gym on my block, I took the free session of personal training. At the time, I weighed in excess of 230lb, and I hurt so much afterwards, that even though I already knew experientially that I could work through the discomfort, I still didn't want to go back three days later, let alone the next day.

Now I have to tread a balance between doing enough and exhausting myself (when everything, speech, motion, thought, it all slows down), I find I do enough to feel like I've worked, and I do notice days off, but never so much that I've been in pain. The results have been excellent. I got fitter faster than I expected, I've continuously lost weight, and I want to go to the gym more than ever.

By concentrating on the extremely low bar of basic aerobic fitness (the 5x30), and being unable to care that the person next to me might be running along at full tilt while I'm working hard to walk 2km/h, I've met goals that I couldn't otherwise have met, and not lost my motivation. You can do this, too.

TL;DR: You're too fat, my friends, lose weight or die. Care only about what you can do in the gym. Screw those other people, they're probably doing it wrong**.

* That's 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, five times a week. You should be slightly hot, slightly sweaty; that's all. The 30 minutes can be broken into chunks within a day, but nothing shorter than 10 minutes, or you no longer gain the cardiovascular benefit. That's enough to get continuously fitter. As the nurse said, "it's better to be fit and fat, than just fat."

** I pay a lot more attention to form these days, than weight. It's paid off.