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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reflections On Exercise And Fitness

I have been fortunate in that I have always been reasonably healthy and fit for as long as I can remember. I was also born thin and grew up thin. I was probably close to being the lightest person in my class throughout my school years.

I never gave a second thought to my fitness through most of my first 25 years of life. I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, and my main problem was trying to put on weight, not trying to lose it.

Most of my exercise during the first 25 years of my life came pretty much without my giving any conscious thought to getting exercise or sticking to an exercise or fitness regimen. When I was a child and even through my teen years, I remember playing outdoors a lot with my friends. We were always running around and playing various games (all the way from tag, soccer, cricket, etc., to games we invented just to keep ourselves busy).

In those days, computers were not part of my life at all. Personal computing was pretty much unheard of. The internet was undreamt of. My family did not own a television until I was almost in college. So, whenever I was not reading a book or writing a homework assignment or studying for an exam or something like that, I was playing, either indoors or outdoors. Since the weather is usually quite hot during the day where I went to school, playing outdoors was quite a tiring ordeal. It was a lot of fun, but it kept the calories flowing out with minimal internal accumulation as fat.

During my last two years in school, I picked up ping pong, and it soon became my favorite sport. First of all, it required only two people to play. Since my brother was also a ping pong player, I had ready access to a playing partner. It was cheap. The school provided good facilities for playing ping pong, including professional quality tables. Our expenses were limited to the occasional 6-pack of ping pong balls.

My love affair with ping pong continued on into my college years. My college hostel had a nice rec-room with 2 or 3 ping pong tables. I had several hostel-mates who were interested in playing ping pong, so there was no shortage of partners either. Ping pong might seem like a sedate sport that does not provide much exercise, but actually it is quite an active sport once you get past the beginner stage. In any case, when you play the sport for 3 hours a day or more, 2 things happen: first, you don't remain a beginner for too long. Second, even if all you do is stand around doing nothing for 3 hours a day, you get more of a workout than most people (who spend their days seated except to get from one place to another) do.

My years of playing sports did have a good impact not only on my level of fitness, but also on my overall hand-eye coordination. Good hand-eye coordination, I have noticed, translates pretty well into various other day-to-day activities, particularly driving. I can usually tell by the way a person drives whether they are used to playing sports or not. To me, driving is a game: your aim is to put your car where there are no other cars, by predicting your position and that of everybody else on the road at the same time. And by successively putting your car closer and closer to your destination, you get there eventually.

After I came to the US, I was disappointed that ping pong was not as big here as it was in college. Ping pong tables were hard to come by and good partners were even rarer. One of my seniors in graduate school introduced me to basketball at that time. And for as long as I was in graduate school, that became my dominant sport.

Basketball is a sport best learnt young. I had never played basketball until I got into graduate school. I played it with my friends for almost 6 years. The only charitable way to describe my game at the end of those 6 years was to say that I sucked! All the hand-eye coordination I had could not get me dribbling the ball more than a few steps with my left hand. I could get from one end of the court to the other dribbling with my right hand, but only in a straight line. Forget about any fancy dribbling, dribbling around opponents or changing directions.

But I had a blast, nevertheless! I used to play twice a week for 2 or 3 hours at a time. I used to be a fast runner, so I loved going on fast breaks (my initial basketball skills though did not allow me to shoot the ball while running, so I would pull up before the opposite basket and then take a shot while stationary! Later on, I did figure out how to do a finger roll, but I was never great at it and missed more often than not).

I also learnt tennis when I was in graduate school. The university actually offered credit courses in tennis with a professional coach, so I actually learnt tennis from a pro. It is pretty much the only sport that I have learnt professionally. But tennis never became a huge part of my sporting regimen because there always seemed to be a shortage of partners at my skill level (tennis is absolutely no fun when your opponent is much stronger or much weaker than you).

I also did a whole lot of hiking during this part of my life. I used to go on hiking trips with like-minded friends once a month or more often. We would sometimes go on short trips, sometimes long and exhausting ones. During this time, I have climbed up Mount Whitney, Mount Shasta, and various other smaller and lesser-known mountains. I have been to pretty much every national park in the US and done various hikes in all of them.

I am not a natural-born mountain-climber by any stretch of the imagination. I know because I tried my hand at rock-climbing and never liked it. I stick to trails, and like to hike light and fast. I have been on a couple of hikes that lasted more than a day, and I invariably hated them. I hate carrying a heavy backpack with camping gear, mainly because I am light to begin with. Once you load me down with a backpack that weights 40 to 60 lbs or more, I am carrying one-third to half of my own weight as an external load, so it is not surprising that I hate it. I prefer a light backpack with just one day's worth of food and water. I don't mind doing a day hike from 3 AM to 8 PM (I have done that a couple of times!), but I would rather not do two days of 9 AM to 6 PM hiking with camping in between (unless I can employ somebody else to carry my backpack for me!).

Much of this changed after I got a job. First of all I moved to a very different part of the country. There was not much hiking to do in and around this place because it was too flat. I was also hard-pressed for time because my schedule was that of a working man rather than that of a student. I could not compress all my work into 3 days of the week and take off on a 4-day weekend whenever I felt like it!

Since I had never exercised for the sake of exercising in my life, I just hadn't gotten into the habit of doing so. I was also getting old and my body was changing. Pretty soon, the combination of these factors had me packing on the pounds. I probably added 10 pounds to my weight in the 2 years after I got my job. I developed a noticeable belly too!

The problem is that I love food and am an inveterate snacker. I love chocolate (anything with chocolate is fine) and fried foods and pizza, so my calorie intake was always high. It stayed high through those 2 years while my calorie output went down significantly. Regardless of the excuses obese people can find to blame their weight on all kinds of other factors, ultimately the science of it is unforgiving and irrefutable: calorie intake > calorie output => weight gain. Calorie intake < output =""> weight loss. It is as simple as that, but you would never guess it if you look at how much money is spent on diet plans in this country and around the world!

That was when my wife decided it was time for me to do something about it. We went out and bought a good treadmill for home exercise. She also enrolled me in the karate class I still attend. The latter is probably responsible for my current state of health more than anything else.

As I have written about previously, the karate class is what motivates me to stay fit. I actually hate exercise for the sake of exercising. I hate running, bicycling, rowing, climbing stairs, whatever exercise you can think of, I will probably end up hating after trying it a few times. But I started using the treadmill reasonably regularly just to make sure I could keep up with my karate class.

In general, I have come to the conclusion that one needs three main types of exercise to stay fully fit.

The first is weight training. Weight training builds up muscle mass. Exercising with heavy weights helps one accumulate and define muscle mass while exercising with lighter weights helps tone the muscles. Muscle mass is important because muscles burn calories on a continuous basis even when one is not actively exercising, so they keep the body's general metabolism rate up.

I have tried weight-training on and off since I was in graduate school. But, I have never succeeded in putting on much muscle mass. My muscles have never been well-defined and I have now lost hope that they will ever be. I have tried heavy weights, light weights, free weights, machines and all combinations of the above, all to no avail. I have chalked it up to genetics and moved on.

The second is flexibility training. This kind of training includes activities like yoga and tai-chi. Flexibility training helps keep the joints supple and helps avoid joint problems in later life. Here again, my genes work quite actively against me. When I joined my karate class, I was probably the least flexible member of the class. I could barely bend down and touch my toes with my finger tips. After 10 or 11 years of weekly karate classes, I can now do that and more, but I am still not as flexible as I would like to be. I am envious of other students in my karate class, but feel that my body has reached the limit of its natural flexibility. There are machines available to stretch out various joints in the body and supposedly increase one's flexibility, but I rely primarily on stretching exercises that do not involve any machines or other stretching aids.

The third is cardiovascular training. This is the most common form of exercise most people engage in. Most people associate exercise only with this form of training. Cardiovascular exercise keeps the heart and lungs healthy. And when the heart is healthy, the whole body is healthy. It also helps build up stamina and endurance.

During my karate class, I get plenty of flexibility and cardiovascular training. As part of our stretching before we get into the class fully, we isolate and stretch all the major muscles in our body, particularly the major muscles of the back, thighs and chest. We also do a little bit of weight training during the stretching because we do 75 pushups and 50 situps. Unfortunately, this covers only the triceps, pectorals and abdominal muscles, but I will take anything I can get.

My sensei emphasizes the strength of the abdominal muscles in every class and it is surprising how many new students have trouble doing even 10 or 15 situps for the the first few sessions of our karate class. My abdominal muscles are probably the most well-defined muscle-group in my body because of the situps we do in my karate class.

Sometimes, my sensei will bring dumbbells to class and have us do blocks and punches while holding these dumbbells in our fists. This has helped provide a little bit of weight-training for my biceps, arms and shoulders. I still get no weight-training for my legs or back. I know deep inside that I should try to rectify that situation, but I have never gotten around to it.

To supplement what I do in karate class, I usually exercise 3 or 4 more times during the week. Most of my exercise is in the morning, as soon as I wake up. It is either on a complete empty stomach or after a glass of cold soymilk. In the beginning, my exercise at home consisted purely of running on the treadmill. This treadmill is a pretty advanced and heavy duty model with a maximum speed of 12 mph (adjustable in 0.1 mph increments) and a maximum incline of 12% (adjustable in 0.5% increments).

I used to warm up by walking at 4 mph for about 3 minutes, then running at a fixed speed for about half an hour. I started out 10 years back running at 7 mph. Then, after a few years, I slowed down to 6 mph. Somewhere along the way, I also went down from half an hour to about 20 minutes. The problem is that I found out the hard way that running on a treadmill was hard on the knees. I have had aches and pains in my knees while running pretty much since I started. I know now that I should have bought an eliptical trainer or a stationary bike, but I didn't know at that time.

More recently, I have sometimes stopped running entirely. Instead, after the warmup, I incline the treadmill to its full 12% and walk up the incline at 3 mph for about an hour. This is pretty close to what I do in hiking, so it is not only exercise, but is also the right kind of exercise to keep up my fitness for hiking. Even now, whenever I get a chance (when the stars align just the right way!), I get together with my friends from graduate school and go on a hike. Because of my efforts at keeping fit, I am easily the best hiker in the group (I used to be pretty close to being the best even back then, and my friends have slackened up on their fitness regimen quite a bit), so we usually get to do things that are not as challenging for me, but pretty challenging for my companions. I still enjoy going on these hikes for the company of my friends even though the hikes are not as interesting or challenging.

In the past few months, instead of using the treadmill, I have thrown some variety into my workout routine by doing my karate class warmup routine as my morning exercise. This gives me a bit of cardiovascular training, flexibility training and weight training, all in one reasonably quick package I can complete without running into time constraints on workdays. On some other days, I might decide to practice a few of my karate katas for about half an hour as my workout.

Actually speaking, the intensity of my workout has been on a steady decline ever since I started it. I always seem to find an excuse to ratchet down the intensity, whether it is to protect myself from injury or to mix in other forms of training in addition to cardiovascular training or whatever. It is probably part of my mental makeup, going back to my dislike for exercise for the sake of exercise.

I was thinking about this gradual decline in my exercise intensity when I heard a program on NPR recently about interval training. From what I could make out of the program, interval training is used by professional athletes to get better results than normal cardiovascular training. In essence, running at a constant speed of 6 or 7 mph elevates your heart rate to a constant and keeps it there. In interval training, you spend a short amount of time elevating your heart rate (by running or sprinting), then you spend some time bringing it down, then you repeat the process.

This process of varying the intensity of the workout on a constant basis has supposedly been shown to have very good effects on the fitness of exercisers of all ages and abilities. They cited examples of heart patients and diabetes sufferers benefiting significantly by alternating 8-second bursts of activity with 12-second stretches of relaxing, packaged into a workout of 20 minutes. The article also said that doctors have found that the total fat loss during interval training is much higher than that during a constant-intensity workout even if the duration of the exercise and the maximum heart-rate during the workout are identical.

I had never tried interval training before. But I liked what I heard about it on the radio. Given that I wanted to exercise for about half an hour in the morning each day, if I could find some way to increase the effectiveness of that half hour, I was all for it. Moreover, I was finding that because of my ratcheting down of the intensity of my workout over time, my workout was not preparing me as well for the kind of exertion that was needed or expected of me in my karate class. Sparring bouts in my karate class last for 2 minutes, and during different phases of the bout as well as between bouts, there was a large variation in the intensity of my physical activity. Interval training seemed like the ideal way to train for that kind of activity.

So, I got down to programming my treadmill to get a good interval training program. First I did a 20 minute program that consisted of alternate minutes of 5 mph and 10 mph runs. After the first 5 minutes, I quickly realized that 10 mph was pretty much at the limit of what I can do for only a couple of minutes. After the first couple of minutes at 10 mph, I just could not keep up with the treadmill and threatened to fall off entirely! I then tried 5 and 9 in alternating minutes and managed to go a full 10 minutes, but it was still too intense for me.

Ultimately, I settled on alternate minutes at 4 mph and 8 mph. I managed a full 20 minutes without getting the feeling that I was going to die or at least faint off! I was sweating like a pig and I sounded like a steam engine that was about to blow a cylinder, but at least it was doable. And that is important because if it is not, I will just find a way to never do it and interval training will just remain one of those ideas that is never tried out.

Now that I have found a routine that is doable, and have programmed it into the treadmill, ready to execute, is just a matter of dragging myself out of bed on a regular basis, dragging myself onto that treadmill and doing the routine. My sensei keeps talking about a possible black-belt test in November and I have realized that pulling my fitness level up a notch or two is going to be important to getting through it successfully. If it has other overall health benefits over the long run, all the better. Wish me good luck!

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