This article is part of a series on physical fitness and physical culture that I’m working on. To see a convenient summary and listing of my previous articles, please click here.
There’s a lot of junk science and fancy marketing out there about losing weight, getting “fit,” and even getting “ripped.”
In my professional work, I edit many highly-technical medical documents, and I transcribe a lot of medical dictation for patient health care documentation. As a consequence, I am constantly looking up health-related terms and concepts. I also look up a lot of information on newer drugs, experimental therapies, and new surgical techniques not already in my rather extensive library. And as many patients take so-called “alternative” medications and herbs, the doctors want to document them, and they dictate them into the reports I transcribe, and I often have to look these up too. I also write on public health, medical-related, and exercise-related topics both here and elsewhere.
Naturally, I look like a goldmine to a lot of electronic snake-oil sales-bots. The search engine cookies notice that I am constantly searching for information on such topics as weight loss, strength training, medications, surgical procedures, pharmaceuticals, experimental medical trials, and even herbs.
As a consequence, I get literally hundreds of targeted ads and not a few spam messages touting this or that “miracle” breakthrough. These ads have pictures of young men with rippling arms, chests, and abdominal muscles. They promise that I, too, once I know the secret, can look like them in a matter of weeks. Beautiful lonely young women will fling themselves at the new me. These ads offer to let me buy the secrets of amazing breakthroughs to enhance my manhood, my chest, reduce my gut. They offer business “opportunities” to make $70 an hour at home, doing easy work on my computer in my spare time, and methods to make me irresistible to the opposite sex, have them begging for more of me, if only I’ll part with a few shekels, but I have to act now, offer limited!
You may get similar ads if you do much Googling or Binging for fitness and health-related information.
Here’s my take. Don’t believe in miracles. If your medical condition allows it, a sensible approach to nutritional eating and a well-designed exercise regimen will reward you with results you can be proud of. Even if your medical condition imposes certain limits, you can make progress.
But unless you’re an adolescent undergoing a growth spurt, progress won’t be spectacularly rapid. It will come, but it won’t come overnight
Nevertheless, you’ll feel proud of your progress and feel more control over your life. It will be easier to move, and you’ll feel lighter, have a spring in your step, because you’ll have a lot more strength, coordination, and flexibility than just the mere minimum required to haul your carcass through your daily activities of life. You’ll have more respect from others as you develop the personal poise that graceful strength and coordination can give.
And more importantly—much more importantly, getting there will be a whole lot of fun!
Two years from now, you’ll be 2 years older. The question is, will you be enjoy being in your skin, moving your body through space more than you do today, or will you decline over the next 2 years? Will you suffer the decline aging brings so many? In large measure, that’s within your control. Even if you are ill or have physical limitations, there probably is something you can do to strengthen yourself, modest though it may be. And it’s you exploring the limits of your own capabilities that’s important, not what somebody else can do. So act for yourself on behalf of yourself! I just know you can!
SUPPLEMENTS VERSUS A VARIED DIET
I also think that getting nutrients from food is preferable than getting nutrients from pills and potions.
I’ve written about coming up with a sensible diet here and balancing calorie consumption to activity level here and here. The three things I’ll add about diet is that it should be (1) basic, (2) varied, and (3) home-cooked.
- Basic means unrefined carbohydrates such as whole grains and beans, vegetables you cook yourself, or even quick-frozen vegetables. Fresh veggies, of course, are better, but frozen vegetables are picked, cut, minimally steamed, and then frozen shortly after picking and can also be very good. And they’re not canned!. Basic also means as unprocessed and unrefined as possible. Why drink canned concentrated orange juice when you can eat a fresh orange? Why get a frozen whatnot that has noodles, rice, meat, and veggies all together with some magic cream sauce when you can get them separately and assemble them yourself? Why eat white rice when you can have brown rice? Why eat white balloon bread when you can eat whole-grain bread?
- Varied means lots of different fruits and vegetables, smaller portions of protein like soy, fish, lean meat, and different kinds of whole grains. The more colors your food naturally has, the better. I love bright green vegetables, red peppers, deep purple plums, blue potatoes, yellow and orange squash. They’re a joy to look at, a joy to cook, and a joy to eat.
- Home-cooked means the guys at McDonalds didn’t cook it for you. For example, make your own breakfast cereal. It’s so much cheaper, so much tastier, and it’s not full of fluff, added sugar, added high-fructose syrup. See below for a great hot-cereal recipe idea. Home cooking allows me to feel gratitude for the labor that went into raising and transporting the food, even gratitude to the chickens and plants that I eat. I know that sounds corny, but that’s how I feel. It’s such a privilege to be alive, to be sentient, to cook food and eat it. It’s a ceremony of that great feast of life, a feast where we first are the honored guests and then eventually become the main course. Beautiful is the cycle of life!
Here’s what I had for breakfast this morning:
- 1/3 cup masa harina (Mexican corn meal, the kind used in making tortillas),
- 2/3 cup oat bran.
- Half a cup wheat bran
- Half a cup of cottage cheese, nonfat.
- Half a teaspoon of vanilla extract
- A pinch of salt
- A tablespoon of peanut butter
- Sweetener (I used Splenda, zero calories)
- Cinnamon powder, about a teaspoon.
That’s not faddist. But it’s sound nutrition. I assembled it in 5 minutes and then cooked it 15 minutes in the microwave, and it came out steamy and creamy. The cottage cheese and peanut butter broke down and disappeared into the hot cereal as I stirred it, adding a wonderful creamy rich texture, and the lovely odor of cinnamon, vanilla, and peanuts floated into my nostrils. I had done a couple of sets of pushups and squats while it cooked. My breakfast had about 475 calories. It stuck to the ribs, had plenty of fiber, kept me from feeling hungry for hours, is basic, and I just loved it.
I eat meat at lunch, and about 90% of that meat is either lean chicken or lean turkey breast. I make it into a soup with greens and mixed veggies, beans, and sometimes a tablespoon of peanut butter.
I eat oat bran, beans, Mexican corn meal (masa harina), cottage cheese, egg-whites, lots of vegetables and a fair amount of fruit, chili peppers, bell peppers, hot peppers, a cocoa drink made with unsweetened cocoa mixed with cinnamon and cayenne and vanilla and Splenda, green tea, and coffee.
My added fats are olive oil and sesame oil.
I usually don’t eat meat at dinner because my wife fixes that meal, and she’s a vegetarian. She roasts squash, potatoes, tofu, and various vegetarian entrees of her own invention. And I think she’s absolutely beautiful, even as an old woman! I choose to not drink alcohol or use any drug other than caffeine.
SUPPLEMENTS AND VITAMINS, DO YOU NEED THEM?
Think about supplements for a moment. The health-food stores push them hard and label them “natural.” But really, they’re not “natural.” They’re actually highly-refined and highly-processed food items that contain unnatural concentrations of vitamins, minerals, etc (and that’s assuming they’re honestly labeled).
For a half million years, we have been evolving to derive our nutritional needs from food we cook and prepare. Our digestive system derives those nutrients from food. So our job is to make sure we eat a wide variety of quality, multicolored, nutrient-dense food, and that means varied, basic, and home-cooked, as I said above! So go easy on the highly-refined sugars and added fats.
You probably do not need vitamin supplements unless you are deficient. As I live in a very northerly part of the United States and don’t get much sun, and as my blood tests tend to show a slightly low vitamin D level, I take an ordinary low-potency vitamin D supplement on the advice of my family doctor. I also take a low-potency senior multivitamin when I remember, and I often forget it.
PRINCIPLES OF STRENGTH TRAINING
As a senior citizen, strength training is important to me as it builds muscle, and muscle burns much more fat than other body tissues, even at rest. Studies seem to indicate that exercise has a positive effect on cognition and the brain, especially as we get older. Strength training also helps me stand straight, improves my circulation and coordination. That makes me less susceptible to falls, and helps me to maintain my bone structure. I think it has actually helped me to develop my endurance. And if I do fall, I’m much more capable of breaking that fall than a few years ago, now that I can do 100 push-ups in a day and I weigh 70 pounds less than I did, when I could barely do a single push-up.
The principle of building muscle is simple: You challenge the muscle to contract maximally or near maximally against resistance. If that muscle meets a challenge near the limit of its capacity consistently, it develops to be able to meet that new challenge. The muscle adapts to that demand by becoming bigger and stronger. Although this is not a rapid process, especially as we get older, one can make progress over time.
The muscle has no idea where the resistance came from. It just contracts on a command from the brain. That resistance can come from a dumbbell, a barbell, an exercise machine, a spring or rubber exercise band, the weight of your body, or even another muscle.
STRENGTH TRAINING WITH WEIGHTS
I’m into strength training, but I don’t lift weights. It’s not that I’m not against lifting weights, but I think weights are overrated. They’re fine if you’re going out for Olympic lifting or power lifting. But unless you’re willing to spend hours in a gym doing a wide variety of lifts from a wide variety of angles, you’re likely to over-develop some things and under-develop others. And there’s the constant danger to the joints, especially if you lose control of a heavy weight. Safe weight lifting requires expert direction, and lots of “experts” are really not that expert.
There are several reasons I don’t lift weights:
- I find it boring. I constantly have to change plates or wait my turn for a weight or a machine.
- Weights take up too much room and are ugly in my house, and I don’t want to go to a gym, get undressed in front of a bunch of strangers, take a shower, or deal with a bunch of guys who are into heavy lifting and look down on guys like me. And I don’t want to clutter up my house with a bunch of weights, pulleys, and benches. I have one small bench in my basement, one chinning bar hanging from my overhead beams in my basement, and a few 5-pound dumbbells for aerobics. That’s it!
- When in the gym, I find it’s all too tempting to deal with weights that are too heavy. Maybe that’s just egotism, but hey! I’m human.
- Weights make my joints hurt sometimes, and I’ve lost enough cartilage between my vertebrae over the years that I don’t want to do squats with heavy weights. I actually am 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) shorter than I was 50 years ago. A bit of pain in the muscles is okay, but pain in the joints is a sign of injury, often long-lasting or even permanent injury.
- If you are anything more than a casual lifter or go to a gym for more than 6 months, people are going to start hustling “supplements” to you, and lots of times, those “supplements” are some kind of steroid. And a lot of the supplements that aren’t steroids are untested for efficacy, overrated, or even quackery. This contributes to an atmosphere of crass commercialism.
- Weights provide unidimensional resistance. That’s why weight machines like Nautilus were invented, but they also have their limitations. I cover that below.
The last point, about being unidirectional, deserves a bit more expansion. To illustrate, consider an exercise called the dumbbell curl, an exercise where you flex the biceps muscle against resistance that a dumbbell provides
The dumbbell curl starts with your arm hanging straight down at your side, a dumbbell in your hand. Your arm looks like this (dumbbell is not pictured).
Without moving the elbow, you flex the forearm, bringing the weight up to your shoulder. As you do that, your biceps muscle contracts. That’s what moves the arm.
When the forearm is parallel to the floor, the biceps are under the greatest stress, as the hand is holding the dumbbell further away from the fulcrum of the elbow. The arm looks like this:
You continue moving the weight by bringing your hand to your shoulder until your arm looks like this:
Note that the maximum resistance the dumbbell provides is during that very short part of the range of motion when the forearm is parallel to the floor. That’s because gravity resistance is straight down, toward the center of the earth, instead of circular, like the movement in space the hand travels in doing the curl.
To get around that limitation, various weight machines, such as the Nautilus, were invented. The virtue of the Nautilus machine, as well as similar machines, was that it provided resistance throughout the arc, but its limitations were that it isolated muscles too much and could not adapt sufficiently to the unique anatomy of any particular individual. It was adjustable, but not adjustable enough, in my experience. Other machines were invented by other people, and they all had these considerations in mind. None of them, in my opinion, really solved more problems than they created.
Muscles are made up of muscle fibrous strands that contract when the brain commands them to do so. These fibers contract 100% when they contract. So to move a light weight, only a few fibers contract. But to move a lot of weight, more muscle fibers need to contract, And as the muscle shortens, more muscle fibers contract. The brain sends signals to the fibers to contract, and a great part of strength training, no matter what modality, lies in teaching the brain to send commands to more and more muscle fibers so as to challenge the muscle as a whole.
STRENGTH TRAINING WITH BODYWEIGHT AND SELF RESISTENCE
I find other ways of strength training to be more versatile, more enjoyable, and better for me than weight training or machines. But then I’m not aiming to become an Atlas, a super athlete, and I’m not into something like Olympic lifting. I’m just an ordinary older guy wanting to achieve a reasonable level of fitness, and I’m actually more fit than most men 30 and 40 years younger than me. I did it through self-resistance exercise and bodyweight exercise. My approach is based on Charles Atlas’s dynamic tension, John Peterson’s Transformetrics system, Greg Magnan’s Visualized Resistance Training (Megapump) system, and Dr. Leonard Schwartz’s Heavyhands system. Personally, I feel I’ve made more progress and had more fun with this approach than I ever did with weights or weight machines, although when I was lifting weights and using weight machines, I did not go for super heavy or for body building.
I’ve already discussed Transformetrics a bit. In my next physical culture essays, I will be describing how I use these four systems further and how I’ve adapted them to my own needs.
Until then, may you grow in health and wellness.