What I've Learned After a Year of Prioritizing My Health
When I turned 39 last year, I knew I was in trouble, and although I hadn't recognized quite how bad my health had gotten, I knew enough to realize I had to do something about it. On my 39th birthday I vowed that by 40, I would be back in the kind of shape I had been in a decade earlier, when I'd turned 30.
Today is my 40th birthday, and I've not only hit that goal, but surpassed it. I might be in the best shape I've ever been in. I'm in much better shape that I was when I turned 30. Possibly even better shape than I was when I turned 20, back in 1995. In this blog post I'm going to share how I did what I never thought I'd be able to do: Take control of my body and health for the first time in my life, which would require me to overcome my genetic predispositions and a tortured relationship with food.
The formula is equal parts motivation + relationship w/ food + relationship w/ exercise. So let's break it down in that way:
Motivation is a funny word; it sounds like something you just do. But I've been "motivated" to be healthy for decades. Who isn't? Nobody wants to be out of shape. And so I tried to eat low fat, tried to eat smaller portions, tried restricting sugar, tried exercising. I even ran a few marathons while in the kind of shape you see in the picture above, at left. And yet my body weight (and more importantly, body fat percentage) would still creep up every year from the year before... and I really didn't know what to do to stop it, even though I was "motivated" to try.
What I've realized after this past year of intense focus on my health is that my previous "motivation" was only a shadow of what I needed to actually effect change. It took a looming milestone like my 40th birthday to get me to really prioritize my health. But even then, four months into my "motivated" state, I hadn't made any significant changes. It wasn't until May of this year (when I realized I was going to miss my goal) that I really started making drastic changes to my life: I started rowing and I started fasting. I started prioritizing my goal with actions. More on that below. But the point is, your body is never static: Every day you're either becoming more or less fit. And unless you are truly motivated to become more fit by making changes the actions around how you eat and how you exercise, over time life will by default make you less fit. And that hole gets harder and hard to crawl out of the longer you let it go.
Relationship with food:
I've come to the conclusion that one's relationship with food matters way more than one's relationship with exercise. In our modern society with abundant food, it's just so much easier to ingest way more calories than you can burn. My relationship with food is what required the largest adjustment. In July I started fasting two days per week, and have written a lot about it here. If you only do one thing to try to improve your health, start by recalibrating your relationship with food. Research is proving that fasting is healthful in addition to helping reduce your caloric overload. I've posted my best tips about how to give fasting a try in this comment.
I've also recently been experimenting with a ketogenic diet. I'm running that experiment through the end of 2015 and will report back on how it goes. I've been reading up on recent research which shows that being in a keto-adapted state can help regulate blood sugar and may help starve pre-cancerous cells, in addition to other benefits. I don't know how bulletproof the recent research is, but I do know this: It takes 17 years for medical research to reach clinical practice. This means that much of the guidance you get from your doctor is based on decades old science. I encourage you to be curious, to experiment, to see what works for you and your body. At stake is nothing less than your very life and well being. You owe it to yourself to put some time into trying to optimize it.
Relationship with exercise:
I've always enjoyed being active, but I've never enjoyed having to exercise for health. I used to run a lot but never enjoyed it much. It was always an obligation to put my running shoes on, and I often wouldn't do it even though I knew I should, which made me feel even worse. But then, through CrossFit, I realized I really enjoyed rowing. So I bought this Concept2 Model D rower and set a goal for myself: I would row a million meters before my 40th birthday. When I set that goal I didn't quite realize how much work it would be -- I ended up having to row a marathon's worth of distance every week for half a year to hit that goal.
But I did it successfully, achieving it yesterday, one day before my 40th birthday. I've really enjoyed rowing -- it's low impact, utilizing my legs, my arms, my back, and my core. And it's really good cardio; I can keep my heart rate in the 135-150 range for an hour or more. I've also found that I've gotten some of my best personal record rowing times on fasting days, which makes me think that I really do burn energy more efficiently when rowing while in ketosis. Rowing may not be the thing that does it for you, but I recommend you keep trying different types of exercise until you find something you enjoy doing, and then set a big hairy audacious goal for yourself to meet.
I'd love to hear your stories -- if you're at the point in your life where you're ready to prioritize and optimize your health-- so we can walk this path together.
Pic at top by SKO of me rowing the final meters of my 1,000,000 meter goal, at Pinnacles National Park