Saturday, January 12, 2013

Like many Americans, my good friend recently resolved to drop some weight after the first of the year. She committed to eating better and working out no less than four times each week. She bought a treadmill and some sweet new kicks. And, this morning, she stood on the scale for the first time since December 31st:
I've only lost a pound?! No way! Sad panda.
She was disappointed, but not wholly dejected. She's got at least 50 pounds to lose before reaching the threshold of a normal BMI, and had hoped for better results after nearly two weeks of dedication. At the same time, she's a realist. She gets this will be a process.
I took a quick inventory of her efforts. Her plan is sound, and her nutritional habits are good. She's tracking calories and logging food intake. True to her resolution, she is working out four or five days each and every week. Here, however, is where things take a turn. Her "workout" consists of walking one mile on the treadmill, and then doing a lot of sit-ups, push-ups and light weights.
This is, of course, better than nothing at all. It's more activity than she is used to performing and, in time, it will pay some dividends. If she really wants to get some traction on weight loss, though, and see an improvement in her fitness, she is going to need to depart from the comfort zone of mild resistance training and a stroll on the treadmill. She's going to have to embrace being uncomfortable.
This is why people don't workout. It actually kind of drives me crazy when I hear people talk about "working out" in the context of "sipping Gatorade on a brisk walk." (It's locomotion. Not exercise.) Most people can exert themselves beyond the point they realize, even with a poor base level of fitness. Worse still is when the same group of individuals lament about weight loss or lack thereof. It's tough to tell someone that they are not working hard enough. But my friend? She's just not putting in the hard work.
The sensations of breathlessness and burning muscles, for example, correlate with the intensity of the effort. When you're out of shape, numerous receptors all over your body beg your brain to slow down. Your brain is trying to tell your body that you cannot maintain this kind of activity. As you work each system, however, fewer receptors holler for mercy because your body is no longer working so close to its maximum capacity. Eventually, the number of receptors screaming at your brain will level off, and more pleasant sensations will be able to rise to a conscious level. The signal that was once an emergency siren will become just a familiar signpost: I've pushed this hard before. I can handle it. It'll be OK.
But most people bail before they get to the happy place. They feel exhausted. They can't catch their breath. The sensation of true work produces anxiety, and it's simply more comfortable to hang out in the lower zones. This is actually the theory behind gyms like Curves, where women push to about 60% of their MAX. The idea is that a little activity will produce results for the more sedentary client, while not being so challenging as to make the client miserable, unhappy, fearful and unwilling to return.
This is also the reason that I squarely told my friend to get a trainer. She's not going to push her body toward fitness without one. Instead, she will continue to do what comes easier at the expense of her goals.
I have a power test in a week. Before I go in, I will have that same type of anxiety. I'll be nervous about how much it will hurt - about how much suffering I can take. I feel like that before races, too. But I also get the pleasure of athletics now in a way my friend cannot because, having attained a good fitness base, I can sample a number of sports and experience the various pleasures each has to offer.

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