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Getting fit

by Michael Nielsen on February 8, 2004

What follows is a long post thatís not the slightest bit academic. Itís personal (possibly to the point of self-absorption) with a few general observations throw in.

I know some people like blogs to have fairly clean cut themes, and so far mine has been mostly academic in flavour. However, Iím still experimenting to figure out what I want this blog to be about.

What I’m saying is, if youíre not interested in non-academic blogging, you may wish to skip this!

Iíve lost a fair bit of weight over the past four months Ė about 8 kilos. Iíd like to lose about the same again, at which point I think Iíll qualify as ďfully fitĒ.

To some extent, Iíve been inspired in my weight loss by the ďFitness bloggingĒ of Jim Henley. In that spirit, Iíll offer a few observations.

(Following Jim Henley, Iíll record that Iím 185 cms, and was 97.6 kg last October. Iím now down to about 89kg. Anything under 85kg will be reasonably fit, and 82kg would be great.)

My amazing super secret to weight loss is to combine increased exercise with an improved diet! Whoíd have thought?

What follows is a long post thatís not the slightest bit academic. Itís personal (possibly to the point of self-absorption) with a few general observations throw in.

I know some people like blogs to have fairly clean cut themes, and so far mine has been mostly academic in flavour. However, Iím still experimenting to figure out what I want this blog to be about.

What I’m saying is, if youíre not interested in non-academic blogging, you may wish to skip this!

Iíve lost a fair bit of weight over the past four months Ė about 8 kilos. Iíd like to lose about the same again, at which point I think Iíll qualify as ďfully fitĒ.

To some extent, Iíve been inspired in my weight loss by the ďFitness bloggingĒ of Jim Henley. In that spirit, Iíll offer a few observations.

(Following Jim Henley, Iíll record that Iím 185 cms, and was 97.6 kg last October. Iím now down to about 89kg. Anything under 85kg will be reasonably fit, and 82kg would be great.)

My amazing super secret to weight loss is to combine increased exercise with an improved diet! Whoíd have thought?

On exercise: Generally speaking, most of my exercise is walking on a treadmill, at an incline of about 10 degrees. I aim to burn 2000 calories per week, which takes about two and a half hours, at about 6 kilometers per hour walking speed. I listen to audio books while doing it, which I find enjoyable, relaxing, and informative. I wish more good audio books were available, though.

Despite recommendations from many people, I havenít gone in heavily for lifting weights. Many people believe you can lose weight more quickly that way, and they may well be right. However, provided the fat comes off permanently, I donít really care if it takes a little longer. The treadmill seems to help shed the pounds. Furthermore, I find the side-effects of weights (stiff muscles and soreness) sap my resolve.

I get some of the same problems, in a reduced form, on the treadmill, especially muscle stiffness. Iíve tried learning to stretch, which has helped some, but this is far from a solved problem. My current theory is that (a) I need to learn to stretch more effectively (anyone know a good book?), and (b) I should be more consistent in my stretching. Not sure whether itís better to stretch before or after exercising, or both.

A related problem is sleeping. I sleep on my stomach, which Iím reliably informed is terrible for back and neck stiffness. Unfortunately, learning to sleep on my back, which seems to be the best way to go, seems surprisingly difficult.

As regards consistency in exercise, I find the best way to be consistent is to record what exercise I do. Then, at the end of the week I evaluate myself against my goal of 2000 cals / week, and give myself a reward (usually in the form of credit at the local Borders Books and Music) when I achieve the goal.

On eating: Iíve gradually figured out that eating well is a surprisingly complicated process, requiring a fair bit of effort to get right. This is, no doubt, a big fat ďduhĒ comment, but itís nonetheless true that for years I treated eating as something that just happens, which is how I ended up at 98kg. Horribly large portions of my book with Ike Chuang were written using Winchellís doughnuts and Starbucks Caramel Frappucionos as fuel.

The difficulty is that eating well requires doing many different things well, not just one or two things well. I used to be under the misapprehension that it was all a question of willing oneself to eat the right foods. This is nonsense; Iím getting much farther now, with less will and more intelligently thought-out action, than I was a few months back.

The first and most important skill to acquire was a basic knowledge base. Even a few months ago I didnít know a lot about the food I was putting into myself. Just learning a little makes a huge difference.

Two small examples: asking for the dressing to be put on the side, and finding easy ways of cutting oil out of meals. An accumulation of tricks like this make a huge difference integrated over many months. Knowing what goes into foods (or asking, in restaurants), and knowing things like calorie counts, nutritional content and whatnot, are invaluable. The more one knows, the easier it is to eat well.

The second important skill is active planning. For example, in an ordinary working week, ideally Iíll have most of the weekís eating mapped out in advance. I find it particularly handy to have healthy snacks available during the day. Consuming them keeps my blood sugar high, and Iím not tempted to gorge myself on rubbish, which assuages immediate cravings, but doesnít satisfy in any long-term sense. Low GI foods are great Ė Iíve come to an enormous appreciation for the apple!

A nice trick I use is to eat a small snack immediately before going off to lunch. My blood sugar rises, I donít feel so empty, and Iím much less tempted either to overeat, or to eat junk food.

Active planning is even more important when traveling. Junk food and overeating become far more tempting when at a conference or workshop. (They also become more tempting when one is on holiday, but, well, a little indulgence on a holiday doesnít seem like such a problem. Beside, I often spend 6-12 weeks per year on work-related travel, as compared with just a few weeks holiday. )

I havenít entirely figured out how to avoid these problems, although there are some useful tricks. Iím gradually learning to select hotels which have a gym, a supermarket nearby, and preferably cooking facilities; to ask where these things are when I check in; and to make sure I stock up on good food immediately after I check in, especially high-quality snacks to tide me over during the day. Workshops often offer mostly junk food during the day, and it can be hard to resist unless youíve prepared in advance.

The best general method that Iíve found for internalizing tricks like all these is to monitor what I do. Just writing it all down really shows what is working well, and what is not. Other things (setting goals, giving myself rewards) are also useful, but seem to have a lesser effect.

One final comment is on caffeinated beverages. For me, at least, the best policy seems to be zero-tolerance. 1 cup a day soon turns into 2, and so onÖ It seems to be best just to get rid of it entirely.

From → General

10 Comments
  1. Rodney Polkinghorne permalink

    Well done Michael.

    Tamyka Bell swears that sports massage is the short-term answer to sore muscles. You also get used to them after a while. Stretching is a gradual process, by which your joints adapt to a greater range of motion. This reduces the stress on them during normal exercise. The main point is to avoid injury, but I think it helps with pain and stiffness too. The current wisdom is to stretch after exercise when your muscles are warm, but stretching and injury prevention are still active areas of research. UQ Sport run a stretching class for $5 on Friday nights.

    Weightlifting is the best way to get strong, but it’s not a particularly effective way to lose fat or improve cardio-vascular fitness. Many people find more energetic activities such as swimming, cycling or running more effective than walking, so you might want to try them as you get more fit.

    I think consistency is entirely a matter of motivation. There are too many excuses to skip exercise, and many of them, such as sore muscles, are legitimate. Its helps to enjoy what you’re doing, and walking on a treadmill sounds like hard work to me, but it might work for you.

    Summer in Brisbane is a tough time to start outdoor exercise. Swimming is about the only option. If you start walking or running outside in winter, and keep doing it through spring, you can adapt to the heat gradually. Early mornings and late evenings let you avoid the heat.

    Necessity is the best motivation of all. Have you considered giving up your parking permit, so you would have to walk to the bus stop or ride a bike to uni every day?

    The only motivation that keeps me doing regular exercise is the Army’s: the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in war. The fittest I’ve ever been was when I headed off to the NZ Alps, having read stories about slow climbers getting buried by avalanches and caught inside thunderstorms. Sign up for a half marathon, six-hour rogaine, ascent of Mt Barney, or surfing course in a few months time, and concentrate on how much less it will hurt if you’re fit. If there are activities that you can’t live without, which you need to be fit to do, the rest tends to fall into place.

  2. Oh, cutting the caffeine. Oh, my.

    I switched from Coke/Mt. Dew to Diet Coke a couple years into grad school as it had become rather obvious that my metabolism could no longer handle the extra 500-1000 calories a day.

    I don’t even need caffeine in the morning, but oh, those afternoon lows. Oh, those late evening lows.

  3. Nathan: “Oh, cutting the caffeine. Oh, my.”

    I know a lot of people swear by caffeine as a way of getting (and keeping) going, but I’m pretty sure the side-effects (on me, at least) aren’t worth it.

    I’ve read of several studies that show caffeine helps concentration. My subjective experience is that it helps for a while, but then I get mildly jittery, and my concentration is blown.

    I also read, several years ago, of a study in which participants on caffeine did less well on a “creativity test” than a control group. Admittedly, such tests tend to be rather dodgy, but it is suggestive.

    On the afternoon lows: I usually work much better in the morning and evening, with a big drop in productivity in the afternoon. I’ve tried fiddling around with my diet to get rid of the afternoon low. It does make a difference, but I’ve had trouble getting things to work consistently well; other factors definitely play a role, and I haven’t figured those out yet.

  4. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Rodney: Thanks for the tip about the UQ stretching class on Fridays. I may take it up.

    I’ve tried many of the other options you suggest for regular exercise; it sounds odd, but I find the treadmill-audio combination works pretty well for me, at least in terms of achieving consistency.

    With that said, I do find the idea of a marathon or half-marathon interesting, in a “what kind of a wreck would I be after” kind of way…

  5. Curiously, there seem to be an increasing number of studies that show the health benefits of coffee and caffeine, in particular (except of course where it is contraindicated for a particular condition). Here is one recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health:
    http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/press/releases/press01052004.html

    I have heard quite a few doctors make comments along the lines that coffee has no bad health effects…

  6. Mary Messall permalink

    I think this is a good place to share a disturbing thought that occured to me a while ago: in order to lose weight, you have to actually excrete more mass than you take in. I mean, unless you happen to be nuclear powered, you can’t really “burn weight off” by turning it into energy. For some reason this is so counter-intuitive that it had three of us physics grad students momentarily doubting conservation of mass…

    Now obviously exercize *does* work (I lost some, oh, 13 kg this summer myself. Gained a little of it back now that it’s cold here in Chicago, unfortunately…) so presumably what it’s doing is causing you to excrete more than you otherwise would — the by-products of the metabolism of that fat which you weren’t metabolizing. But think of it — those by-products have to add up to eight (or thirteen) kilograms! No wonder it takes such a long time. I wonder if exercize makes you breathe denser?

    I find this line of thought dovetails nicely with the “eat more fiber” advice that nearly all diets recommend…

    Speaking of which, I also wanted to plug this glossy magazine diet: the revised food pyramid (http://www.sciam.com/media/inline/0007C5B6-7152-1DF6-9733809EC588EEDF_3_lg.gif) that appeared in Scientific American. And the research (http://research.lifeboat.com/sciam.htm) that goes with it.

    Note that these guys recommend adding oil to your diet instead of cutting it, at least certain vegetable oils. They also recommend cutting white starches, but unlike the insane Atkins dieters, they put red meat in the “use sparingly” section as well. Which leaves fruits and vegetables, pretty much.

    I’ve been trying to abide by these recommendations (suprisingly tasty), and have been, as I said, losing weight pretty successfully even without food diaries and so on. So I tend to give it my endorsement when this subject comes up.

  7. Mary: “I wonder if exercize makes you breathe denser?”

    I typically weigh about 1kg less just after I get up in the morning than when I go to bed. (With no toilet stops inbetween!)

    I presume this loss is primarily a combination of excretion through the breath and sweat; I’ve often wondered what the relative contributions are.

  8. Rodney Polkinghorne permalink

    It’s easy to forget that you excrete and rebuild your entire body quite often (I think half your mass is replaced in a month). We’re patterns, not fixed collections of atoms. This can be measured by putting rats on a radioactive diet, then seeing how long it takes them to stop glowing. Most of the dust in your carpet used to be your skin and hair.

    Losing a few percent of your body mass in a month just takes a slight shift in the balance. The 20% of you that isn’t water is mostly carbon, and you breathe it out as carbon dioxide all the time.

  9. > Horribly large portions of my book with Ike
    > Chuang were written using Winchellís doughnuts
    > and Starbucks Caramel Frappucionos as fuel.

    Mike — that is not a convincing argument against doughnuts and Frappucino.

  10. aram harrow permalink

    i like to jog slowly (or walk) for 3-5 minutes to get warmed up, and then stretch.

    also stretch a few minutes after you stop and your muscles start to cool down.

    i hear you about caffeine.
    too bad all the good drinks have either caffeine or alcohol.

    have you tried several small meals?
    that might help with getting tired in the afternoon.

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