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Let me tell you why I am a reformed Paleo & exercise guy

10 Mar

It was about 10 years ago when I found myself living in a very stressful period of my life. My work was tough and the company I worked for was new and unlikely to ever pay me what I thought I deserved, the demands of a new project manager were over the top and it was clear he didn’t have a clue about how to adequately manage a software development team, and of course because he was new he was “asserting” himself quite strongly to make his mark and secure his position within the company. I was starting to wonder if moving to the new job was a mistake, and to make matters worse, my home life offered me no respite because my wife at the time (now thankfully a long and nearly lost ex) was doing her best to fight over every little thing, where all I wanted to do was rest and spend time with my kids and to de-stress from a hard day at work, so in the end I actually believed that I was going to work in order to de-stress from my home situation instead!!

The thing about stress and in particular with long term stress is the effect it has on your metabolic processes. Your liver for example can start to play up, and you’ll see indicators of stress in your blood work, but that’s IF you can be bothered to see your doctor to get a blood test. For me though, the real kick in the guts at the time was less about liver function, and more about the news that I had very high levels of cholesterol, with a total count somewhere in the vicinity of 13 mmol/L where it would have been better to have seen it well below 5. At the time my dad (then aged 56) had recently undergone surgery to have a stent inserted into one of the arteries of his heart. His cholesterol was at a less unhealthy 8-9 at the time, so you can imagine my concern as a young 30-something faced with the possibility of things like angina, stents, coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and all of those other nasty situations that can arise when your cholesterol is messed up!!

I made a lot of changes to my diet which mainly involved cutting out what I thought must be excesses of fatty red meats such as lamb and beef, I cut out all pork, and limited my intake of chicken. I read all of the ingredients on the oil bottles, and went for the least fat and trans fats in particular. A lot less effort was made to improve my exercise, and unfortunately I found my carb intake getting higher as I tried to replace all of the protein I was missing with other foods. Even so, by about this time in 2011 I had managed to slowly claw my total cholesterol down to a high yet less scary 6. While my HDL cholesterol was low, at 1.1, it was still considered acceptable, however my triglyceride was high at 2.2, and my LDL cholesterol was also high at 3.9.

There was a problem with this approach to food however. Lower protein with higher carbs meant that my weight started to grow out of control, and no amount of exercise seemed to prevent this. What made things worse was that the more I exercised, the more I found I needed to eat, and without a good source of protein I felt like I was hungry all of the time. I didn’t really understand how to exercise either, so the other problem that I had was that I kept getting recurring injuries in my back, knees, elbows, shoulders, and feet, and so I would find myself at rest more often, and physically active only when the injuries seemed to have resolved. So in short I got fat, but surely I should have been happy that my cholesterol was at a less dangerous high, right? Well… no. I was fat, uncomfortable with my own body and my body image, and it seems I was eating my way into malnutrition and what felt like starvation.

At about September of last year, my wife was browsing randomly at some on-line coupon site, and found a guy selling 6 weeks of his boot camp program for about $20 per person, and when she told me about it, I said to here that we should do it. I knew that I needed some help getting my fitness kick-started again, and perhaps this guy might be able to show me where I had gone wrong in my training. So Through November and a bit of December, we attended the boot camp. The workouts were hard, I was the oldest and fattest guy there for the first couple of weeks, and after that I was simply the oldest guy there. I was also the least fit person.

In my first session, I found that I couldn’t physically push myself to complete the exercise set out for us to do (I was in the easy group). I felt nauseated, but even pushing myself physically, willing myself to keep going no matter what, I reached a physical limitation early where I simply couldn’t move my muscles any further beyond the pain and the muscle shakes. By the end of the week, I had attended only 3 sessions, and I felt completely wasted. My back gave out on me, and I needed to rest it up for about a week because I didn’t understand at the time where the back pain was coming from and why, and yet a strange thing happened during the rest of the boot camp. Not only did I find myself getting stronger, I found myself wanting to do better.

I also started to learn more about recovery, and somehow my injuries started to slowly go away and my efforts at the boot camp became easier to handle. The only thing that was failing me was that I was still struggling with a really messed up diet, feeling hungry all the time, and craving things like biscuits and chocolate. It seemed that the harder I worked out the more of a sugar junkie I became, and the weight loss seemed to be a very slow thing given all of the physical activity I was getting. Cutting out all of the sweets and the better exercise did have a very positive effect, because for the first time in a long while my cholesterol levels dropped below 5. The problem however was that my HDL levels had fallen below the recommended minimum, while my LDL’s and Triglycerides still remained too high.

It felt so disheartening to see all of that effort only to find that my body chemistry was still a mess, I was always hungry, getting paranoid about food, and found trying to figure out how to exercise and eat such a complicated mess that it made me wonder both what it was that all of the leaner people knew that I didn’t, and whether there was enough time in the day for all of the exercise that it seemed I would need in order to become and maintain a leaner person. So I did what any modern day person does when searching for answers in life. I went seeking answers from that mighty “oracle” that we call the Internet!!

Cover of "The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and...

Cover via Amazon

At about mid December, I came across the idea of the palaeolithic diet. The webpage that mentioned Paleo was a little… to say “odd” is doing it a kindness… but for all it’s strange over the top new-age-ish evangelical vibe, it had a few statements that kind of flipped a switch in my brain. Something seemed a little odd, yet the root concept seemed to make a lot of sense. So I dug around, found out all I could about the Paleo diet, read Loren Cordain’s book, and by the end of December realised that I was going to try doing it. I’d give this Paleo lark a 30-day trial to see whether it lives up to the hype, and then see how it goes.

I’ve blogged several times about how well the Paleo diet has worked for me, but what I haven’t been able to show to you so far is some real science to back up the claims, and whether the stuff that I feel and that I now believe is real, or simply a lot of empty words on your computer screen. So I went to see my doctor and had a full blood work-up done. Samples were taken recently on the 1st of March, and I got the results back yesterday. Everything came back listed as Normal !!!

In only two months of an easy to managed healthy diet, and with a bare minimum of exercise, I have cured all of the abnormalities in my blood, apart from a slightly elevated bilirubin which is consistent with hereditary Gilbert’s Syndrome (which means my liver behaves funny but that’s normal for me and most people of Mediterranean descent). I also found out that my total cholesterol is now only 3.9, my LDLs are safely normal at 2.2, triglycerides are fractionally above the desired range at 1.6, and my HDLs are now right on the minimum at 1.0. So all of that effort I made to avoid animal fats according to the long-held knowledge that the medical community had been telling us really was the wrong thing to do and was very unhealthy for me. What I should have done instead was get rid of excess hidden sugars, eat those lean meats (including the red meats I had been avoiding) and ingest only healthy fats to get my cholesterol back on track.

I now feel confident that my cholesterol will be much healthier when I go in for a check-up at the beginning of next year. I am 100% convinced that I have proven that the Paleo/SANE approach to healthy diet is the best way to recover from health problems relating to diet and that it is also crucial to recovery after exercise. Yes, I know that I am only 1 person with one set of results and that this is hardly a peer-reviewed scientific study. Frankly I don’t care whether or not if you would draw the same conclusions that I have. I know what I feel, and what it has taken for me to reach this point. The reality is that I am the healthiest I have ever been, and I am getting healthier and stronger every single day.

I have a system that works, I can show the world how well it works, and I’ve been documenting my journey here to offer some empirical evidence that it works. It’s relatively straight forward and doesn’t require a herculean effort to achieve. So why aren’t more people doing this? Why is it that the world seems to be convinced that only Brand X supplements, Brand Y fitness tools, and Brand Z diet systems are the only way to go? I have a feeling that the problem is in the message of “eat healthy and exercise”. It’s just too glib, even if completely true, and has been said so many times that it’s now easy to ignore the underlying message. It really does seem too easy that you can deal with all of the cravings, eat as much as you want, exercise as much or as little as you want, and still be completely healthy. It goes against everything that the medical, pharmaceutical, diet, and fitness industries have been telling us for the last 20-30 years, and it just seems too good to be true.

The real issue though, is that a Paleo/SANE diet is sustainable activity. It’s not something that you need to work at. It doesn’t require special attention to “cheat days”, weighing and measuring food, counting calories, understanding the finer complexities of food labelling, abstinence, denial, obsession, or any other thing that makes the simple act of eating food so difficult to manage or understand in a modern world. Most people who go on a diet fail to achieve their goals, and most dietary changes where there are difficult to manage restrictions, and complex systems of measurement are abandoned as soon as a goal is reached. Inevitably most diet’s are fads that fail to deliver long term sustainable results, and make the dieter feel like a failure when goals aren’t reached when it is a failure of the dieting system itself that sees poor results and a high rate of abandonment.

Likewise exercise need not be overcomplicated, and should be able to be easily incorporated into the daily activities of your life. You don’t need to go to a gym and do an hour of cardio every other day to maintain your health and fitness, and you don’t need to attend every single fitness class, or to become an expert on the use of all of those complicated fitness machines. Do those things because they interest you, or because you want to, but not because you feel like you are supposed to. Instead, move some furniture, do some gardening, paint a fence or a house, chase the kids/dog around the park, go for a hike and climb over a boulder just for the hell of it. Everyday activities that will keep you fit and will match the effort you are making in the kitchen.

So why am I a reformed Paleo and exercise guy? Because it’s simple to do, and it’s easy to sustain as a lifestyle rather than as a task. Perhaps most importantly however is that compared to everything else that I have tried over the years, its because I KNOW that this works, and I now have a healthy body to prove it.

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Today’s awesome and unscheduled workout

25 Feb

I decided to have a good solid workout today… and then it was only after I had worn myself out completely that I remembered that it was almost the end of the month, and that I had planned Tests and measurements between today and Thursday. Oh well, so much for sticking to my workout plan.  The trouble is, that I keep seeing things that I would like to try out or do, and I keep getting the urge to work out. So much so that I feel kind of out of sorts on the days that I really should be resting.

One of the things that I have realised though, is that my plan was a little naive. Where I had tried to space certain things out, I had either not allowed for enough of a workout on some days that the rest days seemed a little silly, while on other days I had a hard workout which made me feel like I needed a rest day out of my schedule. Half way through, I decided to seriously examine what CrossFit was about, and realised that my planned pattern of workout days and rests are in keeping with the CrossFit way of doing things, but the majority of the workouts didn’t really provide me with the stimulus required to get the most out of this pattern of workouts, and that a more dedicated HIIT approach with extra flexibility exercises outside of the schedule might have served me better.

The plan hasn’t been a total write off however. I’ve been able to use it to learn a lot about what makes a poorly designed and poorly executed plan, and I can fine tune it from here to get more out of the idea. On the other hand, I could take a leaf out of the CrossFit book and simply follow a HIITx3 + Rest pattern, and try to avoid doing the same workouts. I can still schedule in days for testing and measuring, using those days to get in workouts that are the tests themselves, and using a few benchmark workouts to help me gauge my fitness improvement.

I’ve often said that it is OK to encounter failure in your journey, and better to accept the failures in order to learn from them and to improve overall.  In my own case, I feel a sense of achievement from this because not only have I learned from my failure, I also live by the example that I try to teach to others. These are things that I can personally take pride in and use to encourage myself to achieve even greater things on my journey.

The workout

So today I decided to do a fixed number of reps for 4 different exercises. This is relatively new ground for me because I usually prefer to work to time and intensity rather than counting the reps, and I guess I am still digesting all of the CrossFit stuff that I had been looking into, and so I guess that really influenced my choice of workout for today. So the workout was basically the following:

  • 200 Rows
  • 100 Squats
  • 50 Push-ups
  • 100  Reverse Flys with a side stand
    (50 per arm)

I don’t have a rowing machine, so I used my heaviest resistance band and did a full row in a sitting position. While it doesn’t work the legs the way a rowing machine would, the upper body, arms and core are all still fully engaged. I also used a lighter resistance band for the reverse fly. 

To ensure I did not overwork muscle groups by using them continuously, I broke the workout down into 5 sets so that the exercises were alternated and would give certain muscle groups a rest. I did however complete the exercise without stopping for a rest between sets, worked slow enough to ensure I maintained form, yet quickly enough to work to the maximum intensity that I am capable of. The workout took me 15 minutes and 24 seconds to complete, and left me feeling sweaty and completely wasted. You know that feeling when everything including your hair is hurting?

Recovery

As I write this post, I am making my way methodically through a plate full of fish and mixed vegetables which is full of colour and protein and in keeping with my Paleo leanings. And of course I’ve been standing by my own advice with regards to post workout rehydration, making my way through an extra 600ml of water that I won’t count towards my minimum daily requirement. Now that I am a little rested from my workout, I’ll go through a process of stretching those muscles that I have worked the hardest, which is mostly my quads and shoulders, and I’ll be sure to work on my Psoas and Hamstrings which have always been very tight and where all of my recurrent injury problems have come from in the past.

Post workout thoughts

My shoulders now feel like an elephant has been trampling on them, and yet I know that this is the good soreness, and not the bad one that means I need a surgeon! While I thought that the workout had totalled my shoulders, I’m now feeling a delayed reaction from my legs and belly, so I KNOW that I’ve worked everything really hard. So while I’ll need to wait a couple of days before do my fitness tests, I know that the muscle ache will pass quickly, and that I’ll be ready and able to do my testing.

I am very pleased to have avoided any sort of injury over the course of the last month. I have worked my body harder than I can ever remember, and yet I have not been forced to skip workouts or avoid movement as I used to whenever I had tried to do regular exercise in the past. This is a huge accomplishment for me which shows that I have really learned a lot over the last few months about how better to work my body efficiently and more importantly to work it safely. Having effectively cured myself of chronic back pain, I am able to recover much more quickly from strenuous exercise, and by sticking to my post workout recovery regimen I am able to do a workout daily that would have left me resting for a week in the days when I was an injury-prone noob. Every little win that I have had over the past few months has made it easier for me to build momentum with my journey, and every failure has been less of a setback and more of an encouragement to keep learning and trying harder. So much so, that today I feel as if the momentum continues to build and so to does my health and fitness.

I’ll be taking photos in a couple of days to add to my progress page, and I expect to log improvements to all of my measurements and tests. Truth be told, I take girth and skin-fold measurements weekly, and the numbers have been showing me that my progress has been quite steady. I won’t spill the beans early – even though I’m tempted to – because I’d rather analyse the results all together, but I’m really excited about sharing the results with you in a couple of days time.

🙂

Working out with Resistance Bands

19 Feb

A bit about resistance bands

I’ve become a big fan of resistance tube/bands/straps/rings, and all of those other rubbery, stretchy items that are available as an alternative to weight for strength and resistance training. I  bought myself a small set of resistance bands a couple of years ago, and for me the biggest plus has been that they are very strong, light, can be packed into the tiniest space, and this makes them extremely portable, so that I can take them literally anywhere. Whether you’re on a long distance trip and need to squeeze in a late workout after the hotel gym has closed, or simply out away for a weekend and you don’t want to miss your scheduled workout, resistance bands are the ultimate in ultra compact and portable fitness equipment.

One of the things I like about resistance bands is that they are easy to use anywhere. If you have a door, a pole, a fence or a park bench nearby, you can easily secure your bands to a fixed point, or you can simply use the bands detached and use your feet, knees, arms or some other creative positioning to use the resistance material to get a good workout.

Something else that I like about resistance bands is that they can literally replace an entire set of dumbells, because they offer varying levels of resistance. The more you stretch the band, the more resistance it gives you. If you have the bands which can be clipped to handles you can increase resistance by adding more bands to your handles, and with any resistance material you can also double the resistance of any band simply by folding it in half if it is long enough. Literally any weight training exercise that you can think of can be done with a little creative thinking, positioning, and an appropriate resistance selection. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the following video:

Now before you think I’ve given them up entirely, I really do enjoy using free weights and I’ll often use dumbells and barbell in my workouts. I keep a small set of weights at home, however I’m a minimalist and I prefer to stick to bodyweight and light weight exercises, particularly while I am still rebuilding my fitness. I also like to set an example, and I don’t want to be the sort of trainer that tells his future clients that they need to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on expensive fitness equipment that will work just as well as a $50 weight set or a $30 dollar resistance band set.

One of the criticisms I have against resistance bands is that they can feel a little awkward to use when attempting certain compound movements, because the handles and/or the bands themselves can get in the way of certain natural body movements. My only other problem with bands is that you need a lot of little extras to make them really useful, such as anchors for doors, poles/trees and other places you might like to fix them to. These are really only minor problems though which are far outweighed by the versatility of the bands themselves. So while I will continue to use my free weights, I will also be using resistance bands to mix things up a little and ensure variety in my workouts.

My workout for today

For today’s workout, a did 3 sets of the following using 30 second intervals with 10 second rests between exercises:

  1. Left Leg Reverse Lunge + Row
  2. Right Leg Reverse Lunge + Row
  3. Forward Lunge + Chest Fly
  4. Arm Curl + Shoulder Press
  5. Resistance Squat
  6. Left Side Plank + Reverse Fly
  7. Right Side Plank + Reverse Fly
  8. Split Stance Tricep Extensions

This workout is a slight variation of a workout which inspired me to write this article, and which I found accidently on Youtube today while looking for something else:

What I really enjoyed about this workout is that it really gave my core a good going over, as well as getting me to do more lunges and squats which I don’t think I use enough. I also particularly like that nearly all of the movements are either compound movements, or combination movements. By the end of the workout, my heart rate was nicely elevated, I had a good sweat and body heat, and I could really feel the effect of each of the movements on my muscles. My only complaint today was that my shoulders are still feeling a little sore from a workout a couple of days ago, and I found that I had overestimated the amount of resistance I needed to use with the Arm Curl + Shoulder Press, so I dropped the resistance and then dropped the shoulder press so that I would not risk damaging my shoulder, which had a rotator tear a few years back and which still gives me occasional trouble.

Recovery

I always make sure to hydrate well after my workouts. today was no exception, and I drank about 600 ml shortly after my workout. I also did some light stretching and mobility exercises for about 10 minutes to make sure I don’t get too tightened up in the shoulders, knees and hip. I followed all of this up about 30 minutes later with a smoothie made from bananas, a couple of hard boiled eggs, a little salt, water, and a little honey and cocoa to give it a nice chocolatey flavour, and blended on high speed for about a minute. I had a good high protein meal a couple of hours later, which was a paleo pizza inspired by this recipe, and loaded up with good iron and amino acid rich meats and vegetables. Yum!

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