Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On Metabolism, Exercise, Perseverence... and Inspiration.

I know, I've been a real Debbie Downer lately, telling you to put down your fork and being such a  meanie about it. I feel your pain. I'm living it right along with you. But today we're on to happier lands. We're going to talk about exercise and what a rock star it is at kicking your metabolism into gear.

Ironically, tonight I'm coming to you from my couch. I usually blog from my kitchen counter because, you know how I feel about moving around. But tonight I decided to have a good sit. I'm watching old episodes of Foyle's War. I ask you, why can't the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave come up with such good television?? So informative and educational, like my blog (I flatter myself.) Not to mention the fact that it's very inspirational:
Mmmm.... Sgt. Milner is cute.

Ok, moving on. Apart from simply moving around more (I don't want to beat a dead horse on that one, so I'll just remind you that it's important), the best thing you can do for the mighty metabolism is...

Get yourself some muscle. Did you know that starting in your mid to late 30's you lose 1-2 pounds of muscle a year?! Some people say it starts even earlier than that. Yes, it's true. This is assuming you don't strength train. So please, build some muscle. This is largely why the metabolism slows with age, because people are losing muscle mass, and muscle mass keeps things humming. Increased muscle mass elevates your basal metabolic rate, meaning you burn more calories even while you are sleeping. The bulk of the calories you burn everyday comes from your BMR. Plus, it's fun to be strong. So, go lift something heavy. I have small people I could loan you for this purpose. Call me and we'll work something out.

And then there's cardio. It seems like people are always recommending cardio, but the truth is, not all cardio was created equal. All types involves movement, of course, and movement will increase your metabolism in the moment. Once you sit down and take a break, though, it does, too. (Your metabolism doesn't cease completely--then you'd be dead--but it relaxes when you do.)

However, certain types increase your metabolism for hours. Yes, people, I said hours. This is called the afterburn effect--a delightful and scientifically proven response to intense exercise. You work so hard that you create a metabolic disturbance, from which it takes time for your body to recover, so you burn more calories even after you've hopped out of the shower. The fancy science term is exercise post-oxygen consumption (EPOC) and it's a beautiful thing. Feel free to call Dominos, but just have a slice or two, not the whole pizza... unless you are our 15-year-old boy babysitter who can eat more than any human alive, except maybe Michael Phelps.

So here's a little primer on cardio:
 
1. Steady-state cardio is when you perform some activity (walking, running, biking, dancing, etc.) to the point that your heart rate is elevated to 60-80% of it's maximum capacity and you cruise there for a while. This is called your 'aerobic zone' and you don't have to do crazy math to tell when you're in it. A good, old-fashioned 'perceived exertion test' will do the trick. You should be able to carry on conversation (at least in short, breathy sentences), but if you can sing a song, you're not working hard enough. Steady-state is what a lot of people think of when you say 'exercise.'
 
2. Interval Training involves more intense spurts of activity alternated with periods of recovery. Interval training has pretty much blown steady-state out of the water in terms of both cardiovascular benefit and calorie burning potential. Forcing your heart rate up and down like a yo-yo is very effective, and in my opinion, it's significantly more interesting than steady-state. You can play around with the duration of intervals, but it's important to allow your heart rate to drop sufficiently during the recovery period. Some people get really gung-ho during the rest phase and try to keep the heart rate elevated... but then, of course, you're no longer doing intervals. You're doing steady-state.
 
3. High-Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, is one of the darlings of the exercise world. It is like interval training, but involves working anaerobically during the work phases--this means above 80% of your maximum heart rate. In short, you're seriously sucking wind. The research on HIIT is very encouraging. It significantly increases your EPOC, which again means you continue to burn more calories well after you have finished. The only problem: it hurts. Majorly. However, you can get a lot accomplished in not a lot of time, so at least it's over quickly.
 
4. Metabolic Cardio involves using intervals of strength training exercises to elevate the heart rate. A good metabolic cardio workout sequences moves like squats, lunges, kettlebell swings, pushups, squat thrusts, etc. followed by short rest periods. Metabolic cardio can simultaneously build muscle while significantly elevating your heart rate, giving you the best bang for your buck. Exercises are typically performed a little faster than they would be a in a straight-up strength workout, and you'd use lighter weights. I really like metabolic cardio. You're constantly switching up your activity, so it doesn't get boring.
 
Ok, so those are the facts. Of course, I'm not going to give you just the facts. I'm going to share my opinion because this is my blog. 
 
As you see, the research indicates that HIIT and Metabolic Cardio (which is basically a form of HIIT) deliver the best 'results' scientifically, but if you hate them (and you very well might because they're hard), you won't do them. And actually doing it is more important than whatever uptick a workout you're not going to do is going to give you metabolically. Follow me?
 
Really, I feel very strongly that exercise should be fun. If someone is just starting out, it might not be very fun at first. Let's face it. It's not fun. But initially people don't seem to mind. They're fired up. They want to get in shape. They've been reading my blog (again, I flatter myself) and they want to be able to bounce quarters off their thighs. They think, yes! This time I'm going to do it! I'm going to get in shape! Hurrah!
 
Then they go wild, do way more than they really should and wind up cripplingly sore, but it's ok. They're in the honeymoon phase. Fast forward a few days and all bets are off. They've burned out. It hurts. It's not fun because it hurts. Life has gotten in the way, and the love affair is over.
 
This is  true of learning foreign languages. The beginner classes are packed. Yay! We're going to learn French! Won't this be fun? At first, it is fun. You're learning to say all kinds of useful things like where is the toilet? How much is this cheese? I like red wine!
 
Then the bloom falls off the rose, and it gets hard. You try to tell the waiter you don't want dessert because you're full, but what you really say is you're 'knocked up' and everyone laughs. You feel stupid. You want to quit. (I'm not saying this ever happened to me.)
 
But if you persevere, it gets fun again! Really fun. You learn to laugh at yourself. You become willing to look a little bit silly because the rewards are so great. You start to learn idioms and you make a funny in French. People are laughing because you're actually amusing, not just because you're inadvertently vulgar. You begin to make friends with the natives and some of them are still your friends and actually read your blog. All because you pushed through the hard parts. You persevered and got stronger, and you're glad you did.
 
And so it is with exercise. It hurts at first, but you go back and do it again, and you get stronger. Before you know it, you're doing things you never knew you could, and before you know it, it's fun. Research is helpful. Knowledge is helpful. You might be ready to try a few intervals here and there to take things up a notch. Push through the discomfort a little and see what happens. If you hate it, you can always scale back. But you might just get stronger, and strength is inspiring. 


3 comments:

  1. One thing that keeps me going is knowing that while I often don't 'feel' like exercising pre-workout, I'm pretty much always happy I have exercised post-workout. The trick is getting to the other side!

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  2. Indeed, Aimee. I'll say this has been a silver lining of having small children--I have such a limited window of opportunity to workout that, when it comes, I can't even think about not doing it. I just have to go go go!

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