Friday, April 29, 2011

How to Lose Weight, Feel Better, and Get in the Best Shape of Your Life

A while ago, I let you all know that I was on P90X, a workout program that you can do via DVDs in the comfort and privacy of your own home.  Before I could start P90X, though, I had a long, arduous, uphill climb to reach a basic level of physical fitness.  When I started, I had put on about 45 pounds (!) from my college weight, and wasn’t feeling too great about myself.  I had several “low points” before I decided to get my shit together, one of which was stepping on a body-fat scale and having it tell me I was 35% body-fat (!!).  Another happened when I tried out Wii Fit—they make your little avatar fat or thin based on the height you put in and the weight the scale detects.  The Wii made me “Obese,” and made my little avatar blow up like Fat Albert in front of my eyes.  When my video game system told me what a fat fuck I was, as part of my overall plan for self-improvement, I thought it was necessary to put down the spoon and get in shape.

Unfortunately, losing weight is a lot harder than putting it on.  It’s not really as simple as, “DURRRR, EAT LESS EXERCISE MOAR!”  That’s certainly part of the equation, but if you eat 1500 calories worth of muffins and bagels every day, you still may end up feeling shitty and putting on the pounds.  I figured my diet and exercise plan may be of use to some people, so I wrote a post about it.

I started off by exercising religiously pretty much five days a week.  My building had a gym, so I joined it and started working through lunch and working out in the afternoon when it wasn’t as crowded.  I could plow through a workout in about an hour.  The exercises I did were pretty tough at first.  I lifted maybe half of what I could at my peak.  I could barely put in ten minutes on an elliptical.  This is coming from a guy who used to run two miles of intervals every day in college. 

On exercise alone, I only lost five pounds, and though I exchanged some fat for muscle, I still wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted, so I figured more drastic changes were in order.  Here are some of the things that worked for me.

A Hybrid Primal/”Slow Carb” diet: I had been neglecting the “diet” portion of “Diet and Exercise,” so I started researching various diets online.  What I settled on was a hybrid of the “Primal” diet advocated by Mark Sisson and the “Slow Carb” diet proposed by Tim Ferriss in his book, The Four Hour Body.  For those of you that don’t know, the primal diet is part of a lifestyle that is based upon a simple idea: what did cavemen eat and do?  They lacked the tools and know-how to process grains, sugars, and preservatives, so looking at what they ate should give us an idea of how our bodies are evolutionarily wired to digest food.  The diet is big on eating lots of animal parts, vegetables, and things like nuts and berries, and cutting out pretty much anything processed, including almost anything with sugar or grain.  After trying it for a while, I think that I had a mild intolerance to gluten that was making me feel like shit most days, so though it was painful at first, after a while I felt much, much better on a day-to-day basis.

The “Slow Carb” diet similarly rules out sugar, flour, and other sources of carbs.  As Ferriss puts it, you can’t eat anything white except egg whites, beans, and cauliflower.  This includes pasta and potatoes, a tough pill for me to swallow, as those are two of my favorites.  The wrinkle with Slow Carb is that you get one “cheat day” per week to eat literally whatever you want.  This has the twin benefits of keeping your metabolism boosted for the other days of your diet and preventing cravings from getting the better of you, as you can always tell yourself “wait ‘til cheat day.”  Combining the two was the foundation for my overall fitness plan.

Interval Training: As mentioned above, I used to run two miles of intervals per day in college.  “What the hell are intervals?”  Intervals are long periods of low-intensity exercise, followed by short bursts of higher-intensity exercise.  I figured since it worked for me in college, it might work again now.  For me, this means two minutes of jogging followed by forty-five seconds of sprinting.  On most days, I did this on the beautiful streets of downtown St. Louis, armed only with the timer on my MP3 player.  If it was too cold or bad weather, I used a treadmill instead, set at 4 mph for the slow periods, and 8.6 mph for the fast.  I generally did 5-6 of these, depending on how I felt in a given day.  Combined with the diets above, I finally started to see results.  With these two methods alone, I got down to about 205—a loss of 20 pounds from my peak.

Body Weight Exercises: I previously had been focused on so-called isolation exercises, where you use machines or weights and isolate a certain muscle group.  Curls, for example, isolate the biceps.  After reading a number of online resources, though, I determined that body-weight exercises (pull-ups, push-ups, squats) were a far superior option. They work many, many more muscles than isolation exercises, and force you to work on balance and agility as well as strength.  Though these didn’t help me lose any more weight necessarily, they did help me in terms of speed and agility.  I basically did pull-ups and dips one day, squats and push-ups on day two, and did each “day” twice per week. 

P90X: After a year of the above, I had reached a plateau.  I hovered around 200 pounds, and though I felt much better than I had previously, I still felt like I could do even better.  Whenever I’d wake up early on a Saturday, I caught the P90X infomercials because the Tivo was still on CNBC from whatever it had been recording the night before (60 Minutes on CNBC, I think).  I was always intrigued, but I thought I’d never do it if I got it, it was silly, and it cost too much.  Then, one day, I was talking to my brother and the topic came up.  He’s an actor/model, and though he also runs to stay in shape, he mentioned that I should take a look at P90X for the discipline it instills and the results it provides.  I figured it was worth a shot and ordered it. 

The P90X system consists of the DVDs and a diet/nutrition guide.  Since I was basically already on the diet it advocates, I started doing the DVDs.  It kicked my ass.  Even after training for a year, I felt out of shape and lumpy.  It generally focuses on body weight exercises, though you do need a few weights for a lot of the discs.  After a while, though, I started noticing those odd fatty deposits going away, replaced with…well…usually “nothing,” but that’s a good thing.  My arms started filling out more, and I started feeling better.  And the added bonus is the high comedy that Tony Horton brings to the table—largely unintentional, but still, it’s good times.  I’d highly recommend it for those of you looking to take “the next step.”

The Future: Insanity.  I’m leaving today for my big whirlwind trip to Australia.  I wanted to bring P90X with me, but since it requires weights, it’s not ideal for travel.  That’s when, on another groggy Saturday morning, I discovered Insanity.  Led by “Shaun T,” who to me seems like a skinnier, more effeminate Albert Pujols, it’s a more cardio-based program that claims to burn up to 1000 calories in 45 minutes (!), without using any weights.  I’ve started doing it in lieu of the P90X cardio days, and it’s kicking my ass even more.  I guess this brings up a good point: it’s good to have variety in your workouts.  No matter what you’re doing, if you do the same thing over and over again, it can easily get boring or become a chore.  Running outside helps with this, as you constantly can see new scenery and people if you so choose, but even running can get boring after a while (“Really?”  I know, right?).  If you continually mix things up, you’ll find that you’re willing to stick with a program much longer.

Anyway, Insanity is…well…insane.  Also, since there’s no delicate way to put this, the ladies on the DVDs are smoking hot.  Though it’s not that big of a deal, it can help motivate you through some of the tougher segments.  I end every workout just covered in sweat, and though I feel bad for about five minutes, I feel great for the rest of the day after that.

So that’s pretty much it.  I plan on keeping up with Insanity during my trip, and complementing it with healthy doses of surfing.  I’m between 190-195 right now, and I hope to be back down to 180 by the time I get back in three weeks—I’ll let you know if I reach my goal.

Any other workout tips or tricks?  Leave them in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at  Follow him on twitter @djgelner.  Friend him on facebook here.

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