How do you define "fitness?"
I'm going to use this particular disclaimer five times in this post: everything I'm about to say is true for me as far as I know, but I don't know anything about whether it will work for you.
That said, I've had to give up on defining fitness solely in terms of weight or strength. My approach for the last year has been to define "fitness" as the ability to do what I want to do with my mind and body.
Using that definition, if I want to go skydiving, but I weigh too much to do it safely, I need to lose weight in order to be more fit. In fact, if you look at the ticker on the left, you'll see a countdown to 275 pounds. The reason for that is not that 275 pounds is an ideal weight; it's the maximum weight for the Grafton Zip Line, and I want to go ride the zip lines high in the air. I weighed 297 pounds this morning, so I'm not fit for that activity . . . yet. Similarly, I want to go skydiving, but the nearest schools allow a maximum weight of 225 pounds, so I'm not fit for that activity yet, either.
It won't end there, though. If I get a chance to go out west and hunt elk in the mountains, would I go? Only if I'm fit enough to walk those mountains. What if my kids move out and I want a Corvette . . . or a Miata? Gotta be able to fit. What if I find some spare time and decide I should go back into BJJ or Judo? Well, last time I tried that, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now, and I wasn't fit enough to learn much in the course of a typical BJJ class--I was just proud to survive it. But if I go back, I'll want more than lighter weight--I'll want a strong core, good balance and the ability to move my body gymnastically. That means that those athletic abilities have to go into my definition of fitness, too.
Now, if you want to win a state or national powerlifting title, or you want to run three marathons per year, your fitness needs differ markedly from mine. But most of us have some fitness ideas in common. We don't want to have open-heart surgery, so we want good cardiovascular fitness, yes? We don't want diabetes, so we need to maintain reasonable bodyfat levels. We want to be that old man who walks everywhere and tries new things, not the old man who can't lift himself out of a chair, so we all need core strength.
How do you avoid complacency?
If you haven't fought serious obesity, it might sound crazy to think of someone who weighs "less than 300 pounds" checking himself out in the mirror and thinking, "Oh, yeah . . . .close enough for the girls I hang out with." But I've gone as high as a measured 396 pounds, and I assure you, the difference is amazing even now. At that weight, joint pain is constant and normal, moving athletically is nearly impossible unless you're freakishly strong, and your heart is working overtime. By contrast, at my current weight, I feel relatively light and fast, and my joint pain is so much less that I could be tempted to "lighten up" a little and stop working so hard. That's what I've done in the past, and it has always led me to let my weight creep right back up.
The main thing I'm working on is to set tougher goals and set them publicly. Everyone I know, for instance, knows that I want to go skydiving next fall. I can miss that goal, but I can't abandon it without knowing that everyone, especially me, will know that I fell short. In the past, I've set goals based purely on weight, and I've moderated them with statements like "Well, even if I never get past 290, I've come a long way!" That's true, but it misses the point. In order to avoid complacency, then, there may be no way around periodically re-calibrating your expectations--or maybe it's more accurate to say that you have to recognize that your old expectations are not going to be useful if you're making progress. If you think 300 would be great, 275 would be wonderful, and 250 would be pushing it because maybe you don't want to work quite that hard, and moderation in all things after all, and . . . well, then, you aren't going to get to jump out of that plane, are you? Ever.
What kind of diet makes sense?
A loaded question with a million answers. But there's a reason I put it before the discussion of exercise; most of us rely on exercise to get into shape, but most of us know that diet is actually doing a lot more to determine our fitness. Exercise can't do the job of diet; it just can't. Diet is what you're made of. So what am I made of these days?
Mostly protein and fats. I've given up sugar and starch, so that leaves out sweets, breads, fruit and most vegetables. Some will say that it's impossible to get fit on a diet of meat, nuts, roughage, cheese, and only limited vegetables, and speaking for themselves, they could be right. But what I've found for myself is that when I give up most carbohydrates, I stop craving them. When I eat sugar, I crave sugar so strongly that I once sought addiction treatment for compulsive binge-eating. Same thing for starches, especially breads. There's no moderation there for me.
So now my diet is mostly eggs, chicken, beef, venison, fish, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, almonds, pecans, and various salads. That lets me eat to fullness, get plenty of protein and fats, but cut out the carbohydrates.
What kind of exercise makes sense?
Again, I'm speaking only of myself here, but I have a long history of injuries and ineffective exercise, mostly weight lifting, traditional American football drills and practice, attempts at martial arts, cycling, and the standard "gym cardio" on an elliptical trainer. Playing football works--kind of--in that you'll usually get stronger and more agile, but at the price of injuries and taking a general beating. Cycling and the elliptical trainer both had the same basic problem--I was trying to outrun my diet by putting in long bouts of cardiovascular training. Remember the part above where that doesn't work? Right.
Today, I walk daily. Walking always seemed too tame to be doing much, on a par with bowling for exercise. But the truth is that walking works.
I also work on my core daily, if only by blowing bubbles in my "belly bucket." Not sure what that is? That's OK; we'll cover it one of these days.
But the thing that has really made the big difference has been to join HIPE Fitness in Springfield, IL, and work out with Wayne Carrels. Joining Wayne's group fitness classes has given me a coach who pushes me past levels of fatigue that I would have accepted as my limits if I'd been on my own. That can put people off, because it sounds like having a drill sergeant barking at you for three hours per week, but Wayne is a professional trainer who's also looking out for my safety. My body is a map of old injuries (knees, ankles, hips, shoulders, neck, and a hernia) and in fact, I was recovering from my latest nasty knee injury when I joined HIPE. I have not had another injury. We're constantly told that we have to make diet and exercise a lifestyle, but when you're working on your own and struggling from injury to injury, that's not possible. Wayne has made it possible for me. He's also influenced my idea of safe, effective exercise by teaching me about what trainers call the "Four Pillars of Movement:"
- Level change
More on those later? Maybe.