A year of fitness: Before and after

About a year ago I started the process of getting fitter and healthier. These posts cover why, the changes I made, how it turned out and things learnt along the way. If you’re already fit and healthy there’s probably not much here that’s news. On the other hand, if all you can see in your future is a slow descent into an increasing unhealthy middle-age, this may be relevant to your interests.

In my case ‘the descent’ was playing on my mind a bit; I knew I wasn’t doing enough. At this point I was carrying out no regular exercise other than walking our old, slow dog around the park. Additionally, I had a skiing holiday booked: an activity which punishes the unfit without remorse. My local gym was doing a three month trial membership so I signed up with a view to getting a pre-skiing boost and maybe sticking with it afterwards.

The size of the problem

The gym I go to does a health assessment at sign-up, and mine was mixed. The blood work, pressure, cholesterol etc. were fine, but weight was an issue. I was simply too heavy for my size, and my waist to hip ratio showed I was carrying too much around my middle. This is bad is lots of ways, including being a risk factor for many cancers.

Food

My food intake at the start was somewhat binary. Whilst I’d have a large, rich salad for lunch, full of a range of different fruits and vegetables (good), I’d then add a portion of chips (iffy), and then a bar of chocolate (bad). And then maybe another bar of chocolate in the afternoon (really bad). I was eating ten portions of fruit and veg a day along with 500kcal or more of crap. So the main dietary modification I’ve made is to stop doing that. That sounds simplistic, and for a while it did require a degree of willpower, but at some point my brain adjusted and I forgot about the vending machine.

The dietary changes aren’t about complete abstinence. I eat what I want when I go out for dinner and still approach my mum’s Sunday lunches like a starved dog. But those occasional events were never the problem, it was the daily, pointless junk that was weighing me down. As I’ve increased my work level at the gym I’ve started eating more on those days, and if there’s a nice dessert available I might give myself some slack.

In terms of dietary additions, I’ve consciously added oats, replacing wheat for breakfast, and eggs. I’m not taking any creatine supplements or similar.

My diet now is much healthier than it was, but I don’t think it’s right in terms of supporting my exercise. I need to take a more serious look at working out what to eat, and when.

Exercise

The vast bulk of my fitness improvement has come from gym work. I’ve settled into a pattern of two sessions a week, of around 100–120 minutes each, including five minutes of warmup and five minutes of stretching at the end. Those are long sessions by most people’s standards, but it’s been a slow increase. Initially I was done within an hour which included twenty minutes of dicking about stretching. I’m unlikely to go beyond two hours for the simple reason that these are evening sessions and the gym staff are hoovering around me as it is.

In terms of frequency, I’ve tried three sessions a week, but it doesn’t seem to work for me, and I end up with niggling little twinges and pulls. My body does appreciate that extra day of recovery.

The time in each session is split roughly evenly between cardio and strength, but those terms are a bit simplistic. The cardio exercises involve some strength work and the strength work can get the heart moving.

The majority of the my cardio is on an elliptical trainer. I prefer this to a running treadmill, which I find very hard on my knees. The elliptical is quite flexible in terms of resistance, ranging from trivially light to wading through mud, so you can tune the exercise to do different things. Aside from periods of very high resistance I don’t use the handles, making it a leg-only exercise. Going leg-only, my posture feels better, it encourages better balance and I need to save my arms for other things.

The strength part is now twelve exercises, mostly targeting my upper body and core since my legs take the strain for the cardio. With weight work, the general model is to target few reps with heavy weights for strength, and high reps with a low weight for endurance. As I associated strength with size, and I want to avoid getting too big, I’ve been working with low weights.

I’ve recently found I had this wrong in two different ways. Firstly, strength is not size, and training for strength and training for visible muscle and bulk are two different things. The actual model is very low reps for strength, medium reps for size and high reps for endurance. But, secondly, thinking of this in terms of reps is wrong as well. My ideal improvement would be to get stronger without getting bigger, so really I should be performing <10s sets.

A full list of exercises is too boring to write or read, but there are a few worth mentioning in particular. The single leg deadlift really emphasises balance and control as you’re moving the weight around as you stand on one leg. Controlling force while unbalanced? That sounds like skiing gone wrong to me, and it can’t hurt to practice that situation. The kettlebell swing does lots of things, but it’s a good example of strength/cardio cross-over as it accelerates my heart rate to peak like nothing else in the gym. Lastly, I really like the plank variants, both front and side. They may not look like much, but they work lots of muscle groups and there’s always a way to increase the difficulty as you progress.

Results

Physical

In terms of weight I’ve gone from 80kg to 68kg. That 12kg (26lb, 1st 12lb, a Cocker spaniel) drop is the net difference between fat lost and muscle gained. If you pick up a 12kg weight it feels quite substantial, it’s weird to think I was carrying at least that around all the time in the form of lard.

My waist/hip ratio is now much more favourable. Informally, before I started I wore 34in waist trousers whilst I now I wear 30in. The difference is actually more than that since, if I’m honest, at 34in there was belly wider than the waistband. Given the amount of fat remaining, I think it’s going to be 50/50 if I’ll end up at 28in. Shrinking any further certainly isn’t a goal in itself, and staying at 30in isn’t a bad thing as below this it becomes increasingly difficult to buy clothes in normal shops.

Performance

I’m certainly much fitter than I was, but the details are variable.

For the cardio I’m doing more than ever. On my first gym session the only cardio I did was a 1200m row. I still do that row, although the times aren’t massively better. The real gains I’ve made are the additional 28–42 minutes of elliptical work I’ve added to each gym session. And those elliptical runs are getting quicker all the time, from targeting a 1.0 distance for the first run in a session to targeting 1.3.

My weaker exercises tend to be those around arms and shoulders, particularly those targeting the lats. For these I’m probably only doing 10–20% heavier weights, although with more reps and as part of a longer session. This comes back to the mistakes I made in planning my strength work.

Other strength exercises have shown more improvement, particularly the plank. On my first day I could just about manage one minute of an ordinary plank whilst I now do a total of seven minutes of harder variants.

Mental

I am much happier with my fitness level, and what it means for my general health. I no longer feel like my health is slowly spiralling downwards out of any control. Although the irony is I probably spend more time worrying more about my condition, just because it’s something that I’m actively engaged with. Before, I’d effectively trained myself to think about it as little as possible.

I look better as well, which has an impact on my self confidence and esteem. In a way, that’s a hard thing to admit since tieing too much of your self image to physical appearance is a personality weakness, a sign of vanity, narcissism and general lack of substance. But in as much as I do have a physical presence in this world, it’s nice for it to be one I’m happier with.

Related to this, I’ve also started dressing better. Of course, that’s ‘better’ compared to a very low starting point. I’ve spent the last ten years (or more) in 501s and Blue Harbour T-shirts. Every jumper I owned was a birthday or Christmas present, and every non-work pair of shoes had a Gore-Tex lining. The clothes aspect has been a learning process in itself, but I’m now capable of looking presentable.

Those are long term improvements, but gym visits do provide a short term mental boost as well. It’s not so much that the gym work is ‘fun’, but it does give the satisfaction of a job well done. It also forms a mental firebreak between work and home.

Open issues for year two

One health issue I’ve had in recent months is slightly blurry vision occurring a couple of hours after returning from the gym. This has been diagnosed as acephalic migraines. These ‘silent migraines’ don’t have any associated headache so are just an irritant. They seem to be related to exertion in some broad way, but it’s not clear on the exact trigger or deficiency at work. I have a number of things to try to hopefully pin down the exact cause.

Possibly related is my diet, or more accurately my diet on gym days. I need to understand more about how to fuel myself for the exercise I’m doing. My gym performances can be quite varied, some days I feel fantastic and could easily do another half an hour of work, other days I’m dragging myself round at 80% performance. I have a suspicion that nutrition is an issue here, and if I ate in a more ‘controlled’ way, the gym performance would be more predictable.

I’m not happy with my upper body strength and frankly, the fact I still can’t do unassisted pull-ups is poor. I’ve started rearranging my sessions to allow strength focused work. Since I want to only be working in the ATP region with relatively long rests, I need to shuffle things around to avoid long periods of just sitting, staring at my knees.

Conclusions

Year one has been a success. I’m glad I did it and hope to keep going.

It has been a full year of work, so my only caution on a general recommendation would be that it’s slow progress. That’s not to claim my approach has been the most effective or effecient, but just a general warning about expecting too much, too soon.