No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

Never gymless (part 8)

Posted by Ben on Tuesday, March 24, 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.
Part seven: mental foundations.

* * * * *

The ideas we discussed last time aren’t exactly the easiest in the world to embrace for a lot of people, especially if it’s something you have to consciously do, and that’s okay. Maybe you can do some of those things. Maybe you struggle to do just one. As long as you have SOME inkling of making a change for the better, you can also do one or more of what follows here.

Addition by subtraction

I briefly mentioned last time our propensity for overstimulation and pill-form compensation to get through our daily lives. I’m not about to pretend I don’t enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning, mostly for the taste of the good stuff I do splurge on, but also partly for the wake-up call (plus it’s actually hydration-positive and doesn’t appear to be an insulin bomb). I usually have two or three cups of a half-caf blend I put together; if I have more, the subsequent cups are usually decaf-only. In fact, the only times I knowingly have fully-leaded coffee are the mornings I have to get up at 4:30am for work, which happens every other weekend right now, and on the rare occasion that I buy a cup of coffee when I’m out and about. I tend to avoid fully-caffeinated coffee because I tend to drink a fair amount of it (six cups a day at the absolute most). I love the taste of good, strong coffee in the morning and occasionally in the afternoon, but I don’t want the extreme highs and lows of stimulants coursing through my veins. Yet some people depend on this substance, physically at first but eventually mentally. The same goes for a lot of the supposed energy drinks and, of course, alcohol. All of these provide a fleeting sense of euphoria to varying degrees while allowing the body to do things that normally wouldn’t be expected, whether it’s improved focus, heightened motor awareness, or simple numbness.

I don’t suppose I need to say what all this falls under, but I will: addiction. We’ve all heard stories from both camps: the alcoholic who tries to sober up or the caffeine-aholic who tries to get some restful sleep by giving up the stuff—cravings, headaches, tremors, stomach problems, lethargy, and so on. The alcoholic by night might be a caffeine-aholic by day, using one to offset the other. The caffeine-aholic may opt for some kind of sleeping pill, either over-the-counter or prescription, or some hooey-blooey pseudo-scientific farce such as feng shui, playing a “nature” soundtrack in the background, or whatever other add-on they can find.

What I’m getting at is that whether it’s a substance abuse issue like mentioned above or just the seemingly simple ritual of exercise, our tendency is to employ the add-on, meaning we do all we can to cure, remedy, mask, or ignore problems by just piling on more stuff (without thinking through it first), including some of the things I’m going to mention later in this post, without even considering the idea of taking something about. so the first little tweak I’m going to suggest here is addition by subtraction—basically, you’ll benefit more by doing less. Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, isn’t this whole series about improving physical fitness? Yes. Doesn’t that mean getting off the couch and doing something? Yes. Anything? Compared to nothing, yes. So wouldn’t I be doing MORE instead of LESS? Generally speaking, yes. So aren’t you contradicting yourself? Nope, and here’s why: while the goal is a lifestyle change that will bring about physical (and mental) health, it ultimately involves an EXCHANGE of living, not adding on to what’s already happening.

Addicted to TV? (If you do ANY kind of scheduling around a TV show, or if you spend more than a half-hour per day watching it, you are.) Take that time and do, ya know, something else, even if that means *gasp* turning off the cable or satellite service. Seriously, give it six months. You’d be amazed at all the other stuff that life has to offer, not to mention being able to enjoy that stuff and forming lifelong memories, and doing so with the money you saved.

Have a zoo for a household, filled with kids and pets and who knows what else? It may hurt a lot, but consider adopting out the pet(s)—I’ve taken in dogs who’s owners didn’t dislike them, but they simply weren’t able to give their pets enough time and attention. Pets do offer significant health benefits, but only if they’re fully-appreciated family members and not just something to have because it’s expected. Maybe the kids don’t have to have ten extra-curricular activities at a time, or even five. Just because the kids are busy doesn’t mean they’re learning or otherwise benefitting from these activities; it may simply be that they’re being babysat and/or just spinning their wheels killing time. Adults are bad enough about their own overstimulation, so why burden the kids with the same condition when all a lot of them want to do is play (meaning GTFO of the house, not sloth around in front of the Xbox). Use that time (and money savings) to maybe, oh I dunno, hang out? Sit down together at the supper table? Be an engaged parent?

I also wrote awhile back about the bare minimum needed for personal upkeep during chaotic times, so in a dietary sense, get rid of all the junk food and easily-prepared stuff (read: opening a bag and/or nuking for a minute). It should be pretty apparent that subtracting empty calories adds a considerable amount of livelihood (more on this later). When something adds more stress than benefit, it’s time to do a little prioritizing and closet cleaning. A happy consequence of all this subtraction, alluded to in the TV example, is that you start to “see” and “hear” things that you didn’t before. I live next to the busiest highway in the Charlotte area. Guess what I hear all day and all night? In my recent house hunting (which has actually taken an unexpected turn for the better), one of my criteria was what I could hear while just standing outside. As long as it was something other than tractor-trailers, sirens, and horns, the place immediately got Brownie points. Sure, I’ll actually have to start commuting to work, but it’ll be worth far more than having no commute while having to put up with traffic noise. The same goes for your body and mind. Take away the commotion, and you start to listen to what you’re telling yourself as far as an ache here or a tweak there, which leads me into…

Shed the shoddy shoes

Man, if this dead horse gets beaten anymore—wait, what am I saying? I’m going to wail on it until there’s nothing left, and it’s a BIG horse, by the way, so no disappearance anytime soon, not when I’m going up against the likes of Nike and Puma and Adidas and so on (I’ll actually give those companies some credit for having fairly decent options for footwear: Nike’s Free line and the motorsports shoes from both Puma and Adidas). I don’t know how many times I’ve said it or how many articles I’ve linked about it, but this is one of the easiest, most cost-effective lifestyle changes you can undertake. I shared some recent writing on the subject not too long ago, and support against traditional footwear continues to grow. Sure, shoe stores will tell you that you need thick-soled shoes and to heelstrike so you don’t get stress fractures (a completely erroneous statement, Run For Your Life in south Charlotte). Sure, podiatrists and chiropractors and reflexologists will happily continue to “fix” and “adjust” everything under the sun and claim that the chronic issues simply can’t be helped—if they could, these people would be out of business (if you want an idea of my true opinion of these folks, go find “Alternative Medicine”—Season 1, Episode 2—of Penn & Teller: Bullsh**! on Showtime).

I won’t lie: the first couple weeks are going to hurt, but do everything you can to spend as much time as possible barefooted (Vibram Five Fingers are a great next-best-thing). Use “motorsports” shoes as your casual footwear for their thin, pliable soles (I also use these in my workouts if I’m not wearing wrestling shoes). If work dictates a certain type of shoe, just do the best you can, but every chance you get, lose the shoes.


Okay, here’s the hooey-blooey part. I don’t just mean to meditate in the stereotypical fashion (you know, the bald-headed guys hovering in mid-air with their ankles on their knees), though that’s fine if that’s your thing—in fact, if you can do the hovering thing, call me; I might have a great marketing opportunity for you. No, I’m more concerned with something I mentioned in the first section above about finding focus, whether that’s through immobile introspection (sit, think, quiet), dynamic regeneration (qigong et al), or simply finding your Element. Again, I’m sure some of you are thinking that this is another add-on when, again, it’s just an exchange. It’s also highly personal. I, for one, simply cannot do the whole seated meditation thing, and I even tried it—twice—in arguably the single most conducive environment for such an endeavor. The only thing that comes close is something I discovered for myself—and read about later—called progressive relaxation, where you actively focus on parts of the body and will them into relaxation. I usually do this if I’m having trouble falling asleep for whatever reason, and it seems to work fairly well for me.

Instead, I do much better with dynamic regeneration, namely the little bit of qigong I learned at last year’s JP Fitness Summit. It hails from the Little Nine Heaven Wu Tao and was taught to me by Steve Cotter; there are, however, many other iterations of qigong. The reason I favor qigong over its yin-yang opposite tai chi is that qigong is inherently regenerative and restorative whereas tai chi is inherently destructive as a combative martial art. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try tai chi if moving meditation is something that interests you, but my thinking is that I’ve done and do enough destructive things to my body and mind that I want my recovery to be as pure and simple as possible. In a similar vein, yoga is not evil as some in the fitness community might insinuate, but it’s just not enough stimulation to induce positive, long-lasting physical changes in the human body, namely bone density; it is, however, a good starting point and a great supplement to other training. Additionally, there are a lot of gimmicks and hucksters out there who want to differentiate themselves as a marketing ploy. Hey, I’m all for turning a profit, but if you want the most benefit, start out simply and don’t fall for the hoo-hah of “hot” yoga or “tantric” yoga or whatever. If you think a system or DVD looks too easy, then it’s probably for you. If the movements aren’t difficult, then you can concentrate less on learning the sequences and more on your kinesthetic awareness, developing a sort of hypersensitivity to your body’s movements and location in space. The idea here is to give your mind a break as well as your body by focusing on ease and simplicity rather than the normal din of modern life.

As for your Element, that’s hyperpersonal, in that only you can decide what this is for you. I mentioned my own Elemental places in a previous post linked above, but they are mine and mine alone. It’s up to you to find yours, but the mental relief and release of finding it seems to have similar benefits to more traditional means of meditation.


As in do-it-yourself physical therapy. I’ve already mentioned my dislike of chiropractic—it treats symptoms without treating underlying conditions—but aside from major issues that only real physicians and specialists can address, you can pretty much do it yourself. There are five key areas I want to address—self-myofascial release, trigger point therapy, mobility, stability, and flexibility—but I want to focus on the first two here and leave the other three for more directed discussion on physical training in another post.

Don’t worry about the term “self-myofascial release” other than in your Google searches. Think of it as taking a rolling pin, large or tiny, to your muscles and connective tissues, the purpose of which is to make the tissues more pliable, less stressed, and subsequently capable of more strength and quicker repair from microtrauma. Common implements used to do this are foam rollers, variations on The Stick, and various balls (tennis, lacrosse, etc). It’s best to start with foam if you haven’t done this before and gradually use firmer tools (I use PVC pipe wrapped in a thin layer of foam for my roller), most of which can be found at any big-box department store and numerous online retailers (I prefer Perform Better). There are plenty of free resources on how to properly use these tools (look for Eric Cressey on YouTube), and SMR is increasingly being incorporated in all sorts of training programs.

Related to (perhaps a subset of?) SMR is trigger point therapy. In a clinical setting, this is a specialized form of massage, but with the right tools and know-how, you can easily do almost everything yourself. TPT zooms in to the level of individual muscle strands where tiny knots form for a variety of reasons, from chronic poor biomechanics to acute trauma. The trick with TPT is that where you experience pain (often dull and long-lasting though not always) isn’t always the area that needs to be addressed, which is a blunt example of how the body is a single, cohesive unit (think of athletic training) rather than something to be sliced up into individual, separate parts to be trained separately (think of stereotypical bodybuilding). I’ll get into this distinction more in a later post. TPT is more intricate than SMR and requires a little bit of reading to learn (and perhaps another tool or two to add to the toolkit), but the long-term benefits are substantial (less pain, more mobility, fewer doctor visits). The source I recommend for TPT is linked in the first paragraph of the Mediation section above.

Junk the junk food

I know this series is geared more toward directly doing things with and for your body, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that anything you ingest is potential fuel for your body, and as quantity (likely) decreases, quality should increase. I hinted at this above by suggesting a cupboard cleansing, but this applies to everything you consume, most notably soda. You can easily Google the effects of soda on the body, and lately, there’s been some unfavorable research results regarding diet sodas as well (sure, you don’t get the calories from the drink itself, but your body still craves calories due to the sweeteners’ effects on the the body’s hunger mechanism, meaning you just consume those calories elsewhere, and the insulin reaction appears to be similar to regular sodas). Learn to love water, tea, coffee (in moderation), and even some of the water flavor packets (in extreme moderation/dissolution). A little fruit juice is okay for flavor, but regular fruit juices are hidden calorie bombs disguised by a veil of health. As for food, I’m mainly thinking of typical fast food. Even though Supersize Me is a tad sensationalistic, it’s still a good watch; The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a much better read; I recommend both.

Dietary changes are arguably the most difficult to bring about, especially with how difficult getting actual fact-based information really is. Fundamentally, food is the basis for survival, and the human body is evolved to deal with unexpected bouts of famine, hence we tend to hold fat very easily (look up some of the studies and writings of John K. Williams for some great reading on human dietary evolution). Food also provides a sense of comfort, which is largely a hormonal response that triggers hunger as well and lends itself to easy addiction for some people. Food further offers a reason for gathering, and congregation is a primal activity that humans seek out. There are plenty of reasons for why diet is as difficult to change as smoking is to quit, but if you choose to do a single major lifestyle change without anything else discussed before, after, or elsewhere, this is the one worth doing. In a lot of ways, diet is more important than any kind of physical training since you have to adapt your diet to fit your activity level, and doing so intelligently can make and keep you ready to start physical activity at any time.

* * * * *

That’s pretty much the non-workout stuff I can recommend offhand. As always, feel free to add on to this in the comments. Next time, I’ll get into some actual workout-type stuff you can be doing, and again, you don’t need a gym for any of it. In fact, you probably only need a few square feet of space for most of it.


2 Responses to “Never gymless (part 8)”

  1. My gosh you’ve covered it all! Great rundown on a whole slew of topics – stumbled!

  2. Ben said

    Thanks! The traffic bump is always nice :)

    I did keep remembering and forgetting to suggest using smaller eating utensils. If you don’t have rigid dining decorum, use the salad forks and teaspoons for everything. It works for me, anyway.

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