THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE FITOCALYPSE

If you’re interested in starting a healthier or fitter lifestyle but don’t know where to start, here are a few basics. If they seem super obvious, it’s because they are. People tend to start looking for drastic and uncommon explanations for their problems before nailing down the fundamentals. And, although these are simple and straight-forward, I know that doesn’t necessarily make them easy to accomplish. We all struggle with one or more of these, but they’re still important and worth giving some extra consideration.

This image appears on tumblr every now and again. I love it. Whenever I feel like I’m going astray, I always come back to these four essentials.

DRINKING WATER
I never used to drink water. Doing so never crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I started drinking coffee that I began getting headaches, and it wasn’t from the caffeine – I was so dehydrated all the time. Actually, I didn’t realize how lousy it feels to be dehydrated until I learned what it feels like to be hydrated. I feel less sluggish and irritable. I don’t feel compelled to emotionally eat anymore. This sounds strange, but I feel cleaner: I don’t have bad breath and my body odor isn’t especially bad, even without deodorant. My skin got a lot clearer, too.

If you struggle with hydration, here is a way to manage your intake: buy a water bottle and write timestamps along the side, so you’ll have had x amount of water at 8AM, 12PM, 4PM, etc. I used to do this by hoarding and refilling 17-ounce plastic water bottles. I tried to go through 8 or more in a day – three before lunch, three after lunch, one while working out, one after dinner. It seems like a lot, but, when you think about it, it isn’t. “Three before lunch,” for example, meant half a water bottle every hour. It might be hard at first if you “don’t like water,” but, like all good habits, once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you went so long without it.

How much water, though? A good place to start is half your body weight in ounces of water. So an 150-pound person should aim for 75 ounces of water every day, plus some if she’s particularly active. That’s a little more than four of those plastic water bottles spread out throughout the whole day.

Still not convinced? Drinking water helps with portion control; it regulates your digestion and keeps your kidneys healthy (ever pass a kidney stone?); it alleviates headaches and fatigue; it improves circulation and maintains body temperature; there’s even research linking hydration to a reduced risk of cancer.

In the words of the infamous “READ A BOOK” video (NSFW): “Your body needs water – SO DRINK THAT SHIT!”

WORKING OUT
Let’s assume, with the help of an overwhelmingly supportive array of scholarly material, that exercise is good for you. It’ll make you healthier, look better, and live longer. You feel good about yourself when you do it, even if the exercise itself wasn’t all that pleasant, and you feel guilty when you don’t. In fact, long periods of inactivity make you feel kinda crappy in general.

If “exercising daily” meant “running every day,” it would be very, very hard for me to stay motivated about exercise. In fact, I would probably quit after two weeks. I don’t hate running but I don’t enjoy it, either. I usually dread it. It feels like a chore and, even when I know I’ve accomplished something, it brings me no joy. On the other hand, even after a long day on the ship and in the midst of a very low level of motivation, no one can ever convince me to skip weight lifting or swimming. Those activities make me feel hugely empowered. I leave the gym or get out of the pool feeling like a million bucks. Swimming in particular brings me so much peace and joy that sometimes I get into a rhythm where I completely forget that I’m “exercising” and get lost in my thoughts (and lose count of my laps).

I encourage you to find some physical activity that you enjoy. Just doing it will feel pleasant and rewarding; the health benefits are just extras. As long as it gets you moving on a regular basis and gets your heart rate up, you’re doing it right. Don’t worry about finding the best program or workout; just do something! Do something that you love and that you’ll look forward to every day. This may take a little bit of experimentation and even stepping outside of your comfort zone, but it’s worth the risk.

If you’re already moderately active and want to take it to the next level, you might want to consider improving your strength or cardio conditioning. It might help if you set a specific goal: “I want to be able to lift the bags of dog food without anyone’s help,” or, “I want to run for 20 minutes without stopping.” People seem to have the most success – in terms of health and well-being – when they do both strength and cardio training with some regularly. How you incorporate that into your interests and schedule, though, is totally up to you.

Here are some resources for beginners:
Four Steps to Weight Room Dominance for Women, or I’m a girl and I want to lift! Wat do? (The advice here is unisex!)
Referenced in above link: Girl, Get Your Lift On: Why Women Should Lift Weights
Couch to 5K Running Program or A Beginner’s Guide to Running
One Hundred Push-Ups Training Program
How to do a pull up finally!

If there’s something in particular you that want to get better at, drop me a line! I might have a more specific reference for you!

And, if you struggle with motivation but don’t want to be bombarded with images of thinspo girls in workout gear, here is a link to my tumblr. It’s all inspiration and positivity without having to compare your body to someone else’s!

HEALTHY EATING
When I first tried to lose weight, I counted calories. It was outrageously time-consuming and it radically altered my relationship with food, but it worked: I lost about 20lbs by eating essentially whatever I wanted, as long as I kept it under a certain amount of calories everyday. I don’t consider this dieting strategy to be particularly successful, though. I didn’t eat well and I was constantly hungry because I was restricting myself without much consideration to nutritional value or satiation. A few slices of pizza would constitute an entire day’s worth of eating because I didn’t understand calorie density. This was not an easy or healthy way to live, and it proved to be unsustainable.

Years later, when I wanted to shed a few pounds again, I took a different approach: I kept a food log to keep myself accountable for what I ate. This turned out to be a lot more successful than I anticipated. Committing my food choices to paper opened my eyes to things like satiation and portion control. It prevented me from rationalizing away desserts and high-calorie but nutrient-lacking food. I started eating things that made me feel full in small amounts. Paired with a lot of exercise – I just started swimming again – I lost another 15lbs, but this time it was nearly effortless and I was never hungry.

I feel like my eating habits are my biggest secret, but they’re not secret at all. People see me filling up my tray at the galley. I talk about food more or less incessantly. I really enjoy eating and feeling full. I’ve learned that, when you eat a certain way, you can eat a lot and not worry about it. It helps that I’m active, but I think these things go hand-in-hand – that is, my appetite tends to be proportional to my level of activity.

You won’t find a lot of research or articles here for two reasons: one, eating is highly personal, and two, nutritional science is just as dynamic as exercise science in the “dos” and “don’ts.” Aside from a few time-tested guidelines, it’s up to you to discover what works for you and what you can sustain in the long-term without a huge time or emotional commitment.

So what do I eat? I do my best to “eat clean,” though that can mean a lot of different things to different people. I eat an obscene amount of fruits. I’m not as crazy about vegetables but I know they’re important so I always choose the veggies if I’m given an option. I think I eat almost two dozen eggs a week and this will probably kill me someday. I prefer lean meats (chicken, turkey, fish) over red meats. I eat breads, pastas, and starches in extreme moderation. They make me bloated, and once I stopped eating them, I realized that I didn’t miss them much. But I’m not perfect. I have a serious sweet tooth and I’m prone to overeating. As long as I maintain some general principles, though, I don’t feel the need to count calories or keep a log anymore. Once you familiarize yourself with your body’s needs and how to choose foods that are nutrient-rich and highly satiating, you might be as enthusiastic as I am about eating!

SLEEPING WELL
I swear, articles surface on the web every day detailing the importance of sleep and how little of it we get. Do a Google News search for “sleep” if you don’t believe me. One recent article went so far as to call lack of sleep “a public health epidemic.”

It sounds like a lot of hysterical hand-wringing, right?

Sleep is time-consuming and even dangerous from an evolutionary perspective. It consumes almost a third of the day, during which we are totally inactive and vulnerable. The twenty-first century is full of stimulation and supplements: you might function just fine on a few hours of sleep and an energy drink. But at what cost? An article in this week’s New York Times details the vitality of a good night’s sleep: forming “new neuronal connections” and cleaning up others. The article quotes Dr. Veasey saying, “when we skip sleep, we may be doing irreparable damage to the brain, prematurely aging it or setting it up for heightened vulnerability to other insults.” Lack of sleep is almost certainly linked with obesity, depression, and heart disease. Study after study links sleep deprivation with hypertension, diabetes, and even premature death. We might not understand fully and exactly what transpires on the physiological level when we hit the hay, but it’s more or less indisputable that sleep constitutes a crucial part of our well-being.

Even if you care only about losing weight, you ought to be diligent about rest: lack of sleep and interrupted circadian rhythms contribute to weight gain and hinder weight loss – a strong argument for a consistent sleep schedule. Sleep deprivation has been repeatedly linked to overeating and obesity. One article in the New Yorker even describes how people appear less attractive when they’re sleepy. (Don’t you hate it when people tell you that you “look tired”?) A recent Huffington Post article lists all the consequences of missed sleep here – it’s in the “hysterical hand-wringing” category, for sure, but it’s still worth looking over.

If you’re serious about fitness and training, you already know the value of rest days and a good night’s sleep – your body needs that time to recover and repair.

So how much sleep is enough sleep? I think that depends on the person. There seems to be some consensus that adults need around 7 or 8 hours of sleep to be considered well-rested. A full NREM/REM cycle typically takes 90 minutes, and we tend to feel more rested when waking up at the end of a cycle as opposed to in the middle of one. It’s for this reason that 7.5 hours of sleep feels best for me – it means I wake at the end of an REM cycle. There are tons of apps that can help you figure out what amount is best for you and your schedule. Unfortunately, there’s also some evidence that too much sleep isn’t good for us either, so you have to find the golden mean.

Here is what “sleeping well” means to me: going to bed around the same time every night, sleeping at least 7 hours and no more than 9, refraining from caffeine after mid-day and liquids an hour before bed, sleeping in a dark, cool space, and doing something quiet and relaxing before bed (usually reading). I’m definitely far from perfect – duty days and inconsiderate roommates make it more or less impossible to have a perfect sleep routine – but good sleep is important to me and I do my best to get the most out of it. I always feel better when I do.

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