The Ultimate Fitness Guide
And other such BS, debunked.
I’m an idealist; the sort of fellow who still believes that a government is of, by and for the people. I believe that every human being is inherently good, and that by virture of being human, we have a duty to fulfil towards the Earth we have inherited, towards each other, and above all towards ourselves.
The human body is a unique and amazing machine. It is a marvel; so much so that those who believe in reincarnation will often tell you that the human form is the last physical form the spirit inhabits before its liberation from the cycle of life and death. To me this simply means that we are fortunate, and it is our duty to make this form the best it can be.
So what is it like, this optimized and fully primed human form? Naturally, the most obvious conclusion one would draw (and the one I drew as well) is that it needs to be the healthiest it can be, and consequently the fittest it can be. I mean after all, human beings all over the world are running ultra-marathons, sub ten second hundred metre sprints, climbing Mount Everest, and swimming across entire seas. Shouldn’t we be doing something about our physiques and general states of health?
I’ve tried to do just that for what is now a sizeable part of my life. I’ve failed more often than succeeded, and continue to do so. This is what I’ve learnt about:
1. Exercise and the Gym Culture.
There’s no getting around it. You have to move to burn the calories. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to food, but you’re also spoilt for choice when it comes to physical activity. Whether you run, practice Yog (yeah it’s actually called Yog, and it means union), swim, go for a Zumba class or just play some sport with your overtly energetic six year old child, it’s all good.
Or else, you could go with the most conventional approach and sign yourself up at the nearest gym. Now this does have its benefits; putting money down for membership of a health club is a commitment. Often the investment is motivation enough to be pushed into going there once in a while. What’s not good is believing that it’s your only option if you want to get fit and stay healthy. I know because I once made the same mistake.
I’ve been working out at a gym on and off since the time I was 16. I was a fat kid and, having struggled with weight issues my entire life, I thought a gym was a one stop shop where I could get turn my fitness habits around. It’s been quite intermittent over these nine years but I’ve become acquainted with the culture of these modern voluntary sweatshops. In India here personal trainers are more affordable than in a lot of countries, and yet I’ve seen them charge small fortunes to train clients for months together with no results. The thing is, nothing beats exercising with awareness and concentration. It’s sad to see people potentially injure themselves by whipping out squat after squat with bad form while their trainer simply stares on and counts out loud. I’m probably the fittest I have ever been now, and for a while now most of my workouts have happened outside the gym, with the occasional visit for some variety.
People have been fit without gyms and health clubs. (Remember Bruce Lee?) A recent surge in the number of equipment-free workout DVDs would attest to that. Nobody is denying that they’re great tools; no modern athletic training facility is complete without them, but you can’t be trying to bench press anything if you’ve never done a push-up in your life. The equipment in gymnasiums is meant to add resistance to your workout once you have mastered balance and control over your own body weight and the exercises you can do with it. I’ve seen guys with muscles the size of my head on their arms, being unable to lift themselves up on a pull up bar.
Which brings me to my next point.
2. Looking fit isn’t the same as being fit.
Most workout models and plans simply work on making you look “good”. The definition of this “good” however, varies. For men, it usually means having a broad set of shoulders, big pectoral muscles, prominent abdominal muscles and arms and a narrow waist but strong legs.
The thing is, every single photo you have seen in any fitness magazine or on the label of a supplement is fake. Now I don’t mean that it’s necessarily doctored or photoshopped; sure, the model would’ve looked something like that at the time their photo was taken, but you can be sure he or she is completely dehydrated, carb-overloaded and probably less in touch with reality because they’ve suddenly been salt free for three or four days. Twelve hours after the photo, they’d be almost unrecognisable.
Anyway, being fit doesn’t have just one definition. Sprinters have big muscles, but can’t run long distances like marathoners. Marathoners have thin, wiry and weather beaten frames, but can’t run nearly as fast as the track athletes. When you think of fitness you probably think of muscles and no fat, but there is more to it than that.
Endurance, stamina, strength, burst strength are all essential to all athletes in varying proportions, marathoners sometimes need burst strength when they are facing an upward climb. For someone not competing professionally though, the trick is to have a good amount of all of them. You don’t want to be the world’s fastest runner without being able to enjoy a nice casual 5k jog at sunset if the weather is lovely and calls for it.
Round your workout. Work out intensely, and sometimes work out longer. But always work out consciously. That way you’ll make the most meaningful progress you can.
3. Food and THE DIET.
You are what you eat, but I somehow doubt you are a ketogenic, trans-fat free, zero carb and artificially sweetened meal.
Your body doesn’t understand absolutes, that is to say it doesn’t deal with them well. At all. If you really want to look shredded for a day at the beach, or your abs are an instagram sensation, maybe you need to manipulate things like your carbohydrate and water intake for a few days. If you’re an average Joe however, shy away from any something-free diet. (I’m not talking about a gluten free diet here. I don’t know anything about them because I’ve never tried to go on one.)
The fact of the matter is this. You may follow a perfect diet and live a perfect life but you’re doing it in an imperfect world. You can’t choose to starve simply because your supermarket one day happens to be out of chia seed oil and your only other option is oh-so-toxic olive oil. At some point in time you’re going to travel, and the restaurant you find yourself in may not serve you skimmed milk with that coffee. You’re going to have to cheat on your diet at some point, and guess what; it’s perfectly alright. If you do things like cut your carbs down to zero, the day you give in and eat that muffin you’re going to want to kill yourself after. What’s the point?
I went on a completely carbohydrate free diet for a couple of months. I became irritable, began having mood swings, lost weight and my skin and hair started looking like I was a weather beaten nomad. I began to lose the ability to concentrate the way I used to be able to. Trust me, it wasn’t worth it. I’d feel sick after eating anything resembling normal food on my “cheat day”.
Today I’m just as cut as I was, when I eat a healthy and balanced diet. The difference is that I am able to sustain it now.
Don’t rely on measuring your food or counting your calories. Your body doesn’t.
Each day is different from the next and the one before. Your body is also changing. Just try and stick to natural foods as far as possible, with good meal timings and generally healthy habits. You’re gold. There’s no point throwing in a huge cheat meal in an otherwise spartan diet; you’re just messing with your body.
You’ll find thousands of articles claiming one food or the other to be a superfood and have hidden benefits. The fact of the matter is, among natural foods, every food is going to help you in some way or the other, and sometimes have an effect you might not want. So there are no strictly “good” and “bad” foods. It all varies from person to person. The next time you hear of a miraculous something-free diet, take it with pinch of salt; low sodium if you have to.
This of course, brings me to my next point.
Yes. I left the best for last. The fact of the matter is that the truth can be easily manipulated when you’re a huge multi-billion dollar industry that’s growing faster and faster every year, feeding on what is mostly people’s gullible nature and their desire to get a better physique.
Sure, buy into it, but know the truth first.
First of all, most supplements people buy around the world come from the United States. Now because of the wonderful way “Dietary Supplements” are (totally not) regulated there, it’s essentially possible for someone to sell you sawdust and mark it as a protein supplement. The government won’t step in unless, say, the sawdust you sold has made a lot of people sick at the same time because you didn’t check it for termites or something. So long as you have adequate pest control measures in place, you can go on selling it, writing whatever you want on the ingredients label too.
And it’s completely legal.
So never ever be sure that you’re getting what you’re paying your hard earned money for.
Now let’s give the dietary supplement companies the benefit of overwhelming doubt. Even if your supplement contains everything it says it does (I can challenge you that it most definitely doesn’t), there is no guarantee that it will actually work.
See, every time there is a scientific paper published saying that exposure to some substance may perhaps increase your metabolism or cause you to gain muscle mass, supplement companies will latch on to it as the next big thing and set their marketing team to overdrive. They will not tell you if it was tested as an injectable or an oral supplement, or that the minimal effective dose was one that would actually give you stomach cramps. Try crunches after that, won’t you?
Supplement manufacturers are under constant pressure to launch newer and newer products. Think of this; if they kept selling what they’re selling right now, and people used them religiously like they are made to think they’re supposed to, without getting any results, someone would call bullshit. So they have to launch “newer, better, faster-acting, refined and more effective” products to make you think that whatever you were having before this was completely ineffective and that you need to buy into the new fad. They feed off hope and optimism.
Assuming that they are being completely honest about that too (Seriously?) there is still a very small chance that the supplements would actually work as advertised.
Human beings’ diets have evolved way quicker than our digestive systems, and our ability to absorb nutrition from highly processed food is not as much as it is to process nutrients from natural and whole foods. It’s a simple concept called bio-availability. You think you’re getting the claimed 23 or 25 grams of protein from that post workout shake but your body is only absorbing a small quantity of that, and the reason that supplement manufacturers process their supplements so much is because they have to consider several factors like taste, shelf life, and texture among several others. What you are doing, however, is putting your kidneys and liver through unnecessary stress.
Nothing beats getting your nutrition from real food. And yet we’re so used to simply following the herd that I’ve seen people talk to me about their paleo-lithic (caveman) diets while gulping down a protein shake after a workout. I’m not completely against supplements; sure, they have their place. Because of the frazzled and hectic lifestyle we lead we are very often not able to eat properly and healthily, so they’re very relevant, but they really shouldn’t be a mainstay in any diet.
Don’t believe anyone when they tell you how much protein you need to be having every day, down to the gram. Every body is different. If you’re working towards a specific goal, go and get your blood and urine tested to find out exactly how much protein your muscles are absorbing and how much is floating around in your bloodstream as nitrogen and urea. (Yeah if that sounds familiar, you were right; it’s the same stuff in pee.) Change your diet accordingly. In fact get yourself routinely tested to see what effect your diet and exercise choices are having on your body. The mirror isn’t the only place you can tell how it’s doing.
The issue with the getting sound fitness advice in general is that most people don’t know what they’re talking about. Bro-science is the source of information on an overwhelmingly huge number of topics that people outside the medical profession really aren’t qualified enough to discuss. Anyone with a half decent physique thinks they can dish out advice to anyone who looks less fit than they do. It’s like asking someone to diagnose your chronic stomach problems because they recovered from typhoid.
But the biggest reason any person gets scammed is because of our psyche. I’m not even beginning to talk about the issues people have with their body image as a result of the media, advertising and fashion.
What we’ve defined as “fitness” has nothing to do with wellbeing, but more to do with looking the least fat and most muscular we can possibly look. It isn’t golden, this glitter.
The bottom line is this. This is the body you were born with. Use it or abuse it, it’s a choice that comes with it. Whatever be that choice though, it might as well be an educated one.