No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

Never gymless (part 7)

Posted by Ben on Friday, March 20, 2009

Part one: quitting the gym.
Part two: sympathy and confusion.
Part three: why I left.
Part four: newbies.
Part five: searchers.
Part six: pre-made programs.

* * * * *

It has to be a “you” thing.

I admit that this has a lot to do with my own personal philosophies on life in general, what with my love of Ayn Rand and libertarian theory (not blind devotion, just preference), but when it comes to fitness, there’s a huge push in the industry toward group exercise and instruction. I probably shouldn’t explain why this is happening since I’m eventually hoping to facilitate my own group training, but I’m going to tell you anyway: it’s all about economy, both THE economy and economy in general. Most typical gym-goers are more likely to pay a little less money per unit of time and sacrifice individual attention and privacy. This (a) saves money for the trainee, (b) makes more money per session for the trainer, and (c) incorporates a group mentality so the trainees can laugh through awkward moments and/or encourage each other through the workouts and/or simply stave off any apprehensions of solitude. This is a great setup for the trainer because, more often than not, people are also more likely to return for subsequent sessions if they know other people will be there, too. If that’s something that helps you off the couch, that’s great, and it’s a good option for anyone getting (back) into exercise.

The problem is that far too often, people rely on this “other” presence as their sole means of exercising, even if it’s just the trainer. What happens when the “other” doesn’t show up? What happens to the “other” when you don’t show up? It’s not like you’re close friends or anything, and you’re certainly not being judged or held accountable for the most part, so any sting of shame is blunted by relative anonymity, which is all well and good, but now what? Even if this “other” is a good friend, if they start to lose the fire, it just makes it that much easier for you to douse the flames as well. Your motivation is gone, and you eventually find other things to occupy your time, retreat into a comfort zone, and before you know it, the next year has rolled around, and you may or may not notice that you’ve had an automatic debit drawn from your bank account each month for some mysterious reason. Maybe those nice, new shoes look like they’ve been through a war zone yet still have 90% of their tread. Do you perhaps have a really oddly-shaped clothes rack that you don’t quite remember showing up?

Let’s be honest here. Money is not a motivator, and gyms know it. You should know by now that gyms use a business model that depends on signing up as many people as possible to long-term, auto-renewing contracts while having as few of those people as possible actually show up. Other people also are not chronic motivators—sure, they’ll get you through a workout here and there, but it’s simply too easy to get derailed by depending on others. The only real, long-lasting, infallible source of motivation is from within, regardless of whatever you want to attribute to its being. That way, you get all the blame and/or all the credit. You get to think for yourself and do what you know is best for you since your goals are your own and no one else’s. There has to be an inner drive that doesn’t hinge on any external condition, whether that’s a partner, a sunny day, a childhood fear, or a busy work schedule. Now, repeat after me: easier said than done. We’ll get there, but for now, this and this article are a couple decent starting points.

It’s about the journey, not the destination (cliche, I know, shuddup).

I’m going to begin by pulling from a post I wrote in another life about part of a long motorcycle trip I’d taken:

I did mull over why I enjoyed the riding on this trip so much more than I’d enjoyed riding over the past several months, other than the fact that I was on vacation. What I kept coming back to was this: on this trip, time was not an issue––only daylight was––and with the exception of Wednesday’s down-and-back between the house and Myrtle Beach, every time I jumped on the Harley, I was going to end up somewhere other than where I started. Even before I took off to Myrtle Beach, I didn’t have nearly the sense of anticipation and excitement that preceded my rides on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Yes, I realize that US17 is flat, mostly straight, and in some areas near Myrtle Beach, highly developed, but aside from the development, that pretty much describes the US17 I rode on Tuesday from Hampton Roads to Jacksonville (business route development notwithstanding). So there it is. As long as my day ended somewhere other than where my day started, my rides seemed to be more enjoyable.

I don’t want to imply that our destinations should always differ so dramatically from one day to the next. If that were the case, then we’d have classic exercise ADHD, skipping from one program to the next every couple weeks because it was the newest and latest and greatest and OMG GUNZ N ABZ!!!!1!1!1 Of course, you don’t really get anywhere on this hamster wheel. The trip I mentioned above was my first multi-day ride, and though I was a little apprehensive at times, I always knew my ultimate destination would be “home,” wherever that happened to be, just as I know my ultimate destination in life is a fit, healthy, and hopefully aesthetically pleasing body, though I’m most concerned with proper function—form will follow. Like so many other things, when it comes to physical fitness, people want the path laid out in front of them, straight and clear as I-70 running across Missouri, and when something causes a detour (or even a backtrack), it’s the end of the world. Two immediate responses to that: first, I-70 is arguably the single most boring stretch of road I’ve traveled, more so than I-40 through eastern Arkansas and, believe it or not, more so than I-85 between Durham and Petersburg; second, as one of my college English professors liked to say, the most boring path between two points is a straight line. Boredom can be okay as long as it’s productive, but boredom is also the end of the world for some people—if it’s not kick-ass sensory overstimulation each and every time, it’s not worth doing, right? *pssst* Neither your body nor your mind can handle that on a regular, chronic basis—heck, it needs rest and recovery from just a normal life, let alone a jacked-up one. I’ll address this more later, but you’re ultimately seeking a lifestyle change, so why would you want that lifestyle to be boring? Granted, some of my own detours have been because of various injuries, imbalance manifestations, and not-so-simple changes in training philosophy, but each step has been productive, even if it may’ve seemed a little regressive. That scares a lot of people, but it shouldn’t. The fun is in the doing, not the getting there, because if you truly want to reach your potential, you’ll never feel like you have.

Sometimes, a complete overhaul isn’t necessary (at first).

What two things characterize the lifestyles of (perpetual) newbies when it comes to diet and training? First, “diet” connotates a temporary change in food intake, often viewed as a make-up for all the crappy eating that came before, and is most likely unrealistically restrictive. “Diet,” in fact, is simply what you consume, good or bad, so “diet” is a lifestyle, not something you do for a few weeks at a time. I’m not trying to address diet in this series, but it’s pretty easy to see how what we’ve discussed before and will discuss later relates as much to food as it does to exercise. Case in point: several years ago, I decided to experiment with a cyclical ketogenic diet just to see how my body reacted (very favorably). By itself, that was a big change, especially since I didn’t spend a week gradually decreasing my daily carb intake; instead, I went cold-turkey one Monday, which was rough but doable. However, on top of the keto, I was on a kick to quit caffeine as well (I’ve since recanted), so I ditched all caffeine on top of carbs. Let’s just say I was completely worthless for about three days, and I was fortunate to have an understanding boss and a fairly undemanding job at the time. All I remember doing was sitting at my desk staring blankly at my computer until I acclimated to the change. I recommend trying either or both, just not in that manner.

Second, training programs are gung-ho, all-or-nothing, balls-to-the-wall bouts of pain and torture—hey, some people get off on that, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but unless you have some other issues to deal with, you’re probably not doing that every single day. The same goes for exercise. Your body simply will not allow you to go from hours of couch time to hours of training time overnight. Know anyone who’s said they want to run a marathon, or even just a half-marathon? Did they actually do it? I mean, really run (so to speak) the whole thing, or did they even make it to the start line? Those that made it, was it an overnight thing, or did they spend months in preparation? Those that didn’t, did they even start training, and if so, how long before they faded? I can ask and say these things because I’ve “run” a half-marathon. My body is not made for that kind of activity (I’d bet dimes to dollars that yours isn’t, either, but I won’t get onto that biomechanics soapbox here—Google “Q angle”), but I still did it after about two YEARS of training. Granted, it wasn’t all targeted toward that race, but my runs did get progressively longer to the point where I felt I could complete a half-marathon (again, I did, but not without consequences). Could I have continued beyond that race distance? Possibly, but unlikely. Sometimes, you just have to know when to call it quits, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

In each of the above examples, I engaged in major lifestyle overhauls, and though I pushed through each one, I did so in different ways. With the dietary changes, life was miserable for awhile. It was simply too much, and only because I was a unique work environment was I able to stay on track. Most people don’t have that luxury. With the half-marathon, I spent a long time progressively improving my abilities. Which do you think is (a) more comfortable and therefore (b) more likely to remain a permanent change rather than something to simply get through? So why do so many people choose to follow the other path? It’s pretty simple: a defined, short-lived timeline promising extreme results that are assumed to remain after the final deadline when all discipline is cast aside to resume the former lifestyle. It just occurred to me that Billy Mays doesn’t pimp fitness products, though I guess Tony Little is the next best thing.

Hopefully, I’ve given you the “what” and some of the “why,” so now it’s time for a bit of the “how.” I say “a bit” because there are countless ways to attain and maintain the mindset necessary for long-term physical fitness. As you’ve probably guessed by now—and I may’ve even mentioned it a time or two—I lean toward the notion that a strong mind is essential for a strong body and vice versa, the latter of which gets into a whole different topic of the effects of diet on both body and mind. Again, I’m not trying to get all hooey-blooey, but if you don’t actively engage your mind in your training, then at best, you’ll just be going through the motions, led around by a carrot(cake) dangled in front of you; at worst—and this happens to even the most advanced athletes—you risk injury by not paying attention, either in the micro or the macro, and further hinder any gains you might possibly realize. Just please don’t get bogged down with thinking you have to do everything everywhere every day. Think of the children: they and you had to learn to crawl before you could walk before you could run. The funny thing is that it was almost all done in the context of play, and play is fun.

* * * * *

Next time, I’ll finally, actually, really start getting into some specifics of how to start and/or focus your training, and here’s a bit of a preview: most of it will have absolutely nothing to do with a gym.

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