September 9, 2016

Forget 100% - A Realistic Guide to Physical Fitness

Two years ago in July I made a decision that changed my life. After a ten year hiatus, I decided to start working out again. I was in good shape in my twenties, but I was never able to carry out an exercise routine for more than a few months. I would be enthusiastic about it at first and then burn out. Eventually I stopped working out altogether.

When I hit my late thirties, I was heavier than I wanted to be and felt sluggish most days. My son was on the verge of walking so greater demands on my energy were on the way. As a result, I decided to ease my way into a new exercise routine. I didn’t expect it to continue; however, two years later I’m still going strong.

With greater time constraints, a more intense job, and a family, why am I now able to sustain a routine where I couldn’t in my carefree twenties? I decided post my thoughts on what I’m doing differently today versus ten years ago. Below are six principles I adhere to, and they have made all the difference.

Don’t Put in 100%

You know those people who always put in 100% at the gym? Forget them. Giving it your all every time will lead to burnout. Instead put in a solid 60%. Occasionally bump that up to 80 for a single day, and rarely, when you’re feeling really good, put in 100%. With this approach, you’re more likely to turn physical fitness into a habit and at the same time, avoid injuries.

Now this may be a hard pill to swallow. American culture tells us to give 100% all the time. Or better yet, 110% - which, if you think about it, doesn’t make any damn sense. During every major televised sporting event, we see commercials with athletes flipping tires, pumping ropes, or doing similar bad-ass things.

Here’s a story to illustrate my point. When I was a kid, around 10 years old or so, I met a man at a Boy Scout function who I was told was a retired Navy Seal. I didn’t believe it. This supposed Navy Seal was hobbling around on bad knees, had a messed up back, and his belly was so big he was in danger of tipping over at any moment. But it was true. He used to be a Seal. He was a guy who gave it his all in the military. He gave 100% every day and joined the ranks of the most elite warriors in the world.

Fast forward to his fifties, and he could barely move. It was hard to imagine him stealthily storming a foreign compound. This is what giving 100% for years gets you. It’s unsustainable. Your mind and body will eventually burn out.

Ditch the Gym

Whatever you do, don’t join a gym. Let’s say you join anyway, and it takes you 10 minutes to drive there. Then another 10 minutes to drive home. That’s 20 minutes wasted on a useless activity - driving. That’s 20 minutes you could have spent working out. Chances are this extra time will be just enough to discourage you from going to the gym most days, and you’ve just wasted money on a membership.

Instead buy some workout equipment for home. A treadmill, bike trainer, medicine balls, etc. are a much better investment. You’ll be able to throw on some clothes and immediately start. You’ll save 20+ minutes per workout.

Watch Netflix and YouTube

When I’m running on the treadmill, I always watch Netflix or YouTube. And because I’m only putting in 60%, I can focus on the video. Normally a tablet is a bad distraction, but in the case of exercise, it’s a good thing. Instead of dreading your workout, you’re looking forward to the next episode of Narcos.

Don’t think of it as working out. You’re goofing off on the treadmill.

Habits Instead of Goals

Focus on creating habits instead of chasing goals. Goals can be discouraging because most are only attainable in some distant future. However, when you work on building habits, workouts become almost a reflex. The focus is on getting your workout in rather than doing a certain number of reps or running a specific pace. A bad day is perceived as less of a setback. As you build good habits, improvements will come naturally.

Do It When You Can

I once read an anecdote about John Wayne Gacy the famous serial killer. He was out with a shovel at 2 AM one night when his neighbor happened to see him and asked what he was doing out so late. He replied that he was gardening. When asked why he was gardening at night, he said: you do it when you can.

And that’s what you should be doing. Not burying bodies but fitting your workout into the nooks and crannies of your day. No matter how busy you are, you’ve got 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there. If you have time for Twitter, then you have time for push-ups. Divide your workout into smaller chunks and focus on one chunk at a time.

What does this remind you of? Agile software development? Agile methods break software development work into smaller increments. Iterations are short and can be completed before the next iteration. It’s a great approach for your personal life as well and fits in better with our busy routines.

Back > Abs

Don’t bother with sit-ups, crunches, or any other abdominal exercise. Most movements activate your abs to some degree. Like push-ups for example. They mainly target the chest, but they’re a pretty good abdominal workout as well.

Instead focus on your back. How many times have you seen someone hobbling around due to an abdominal injury? Never. Now, how many times have you heard of someone throwing out their back? All the time. You’ll be better off with a strong back. Pick a few routines that strengthen the back and add them to your workout.

Be careful when starting out though. Our backs are notoriously fragile.

Where I Am Today

Today I feel great. My workout is simple. I start with a light strength routine followed by a 3-5 mile run. I break up the workout as necessary. I have more energy. I don’t get sick as often, and when I do, the symptoms aren’t as bad.

I’m not going to win any gold medals, but that’s not my goal. I want to spend middle age kicking a soccer ball around with my kids and not complaining about my back. When I’m retired, I want to do more than play Parcheesi in a nursing home. And if that’s what you want too, then these are the guidelines to get you there.

© Joe Buschmann 2020