Sunday, December 27, 2015

Fitness vs. Exercise: Know The Difference?

Several years ago I was an instructor in a program that taught/certified fitness trainers.  I asked the class a fundamental question.  One that I anticipated being too easy for this class of eager, up-and-coming fitness professionals:  "Do You Know The Difference Between Exercise And Fitness"?

I expected hands to raise immediately.  Instead, not one hand raised, and the room was silent.  Each of the students looked at one another, bewildered.  "Really?" I asked.  "Not one person?"

I went home that night, and thought about the question.  Its an important one for anyone whose interested in taking control of their health.

My Dad has a saying.  One which I ponder a lot.  It goes like this:  "You will always get a mediocre answer, if you don't ask a lofty question."   Think about this.  If the question hasn't had some thought put into it, how does one expect to get a thoughtful answer?  Its for this reason I'm raising this question.  Exercise and fitness may not be your life, passion, or career.  However, no one can escape it, if longevity interests you.  If you want to live a shorter life, don't exercise.  Studies back this up.  If you want to live a long, healthy life, you'll want to incorporate it, at least to the level of "maintenance" or "exercise."

If 2016 is the year that you vow to make healthy lifestyle changes, pursue your athletic goals, or even begin the weight loss process, then I invite you to ponder this question.  It will be pertinent for you.

I'm going to use a family member of mine to illustrate an example.  I'm going to share a personal story, because I believe stories drive home points.  Diabetes runs rampant through my mother's bloodline.  A woman in my family, on my mother's side, was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.  She is a beautiful woman, however, grossly overweight.  Carbs were her thing:  pastas, breads, cocktails, always with dessert at the end.  She is a high powered business lady, after all.  "Happy hour" with colleagues, "power lunches," and decadent catered business dinners were the norm.  One day, a great shift happened in her life.  A loss.  A devastation.  Her world was turned upside down.  She was forced to examine her life, her choices, her habits.  On the outside, her habits seemed benign.   What harm is a "power lunch," really?  It isn't.  Its how many of them added up over the weeks, months, years, that left her body sore, her migraines at night painful, her lungs out of breath, going up the stairs, her energy low.

A carbohydrate give you approximately 45 mins. worth of energy.  So, then is there really logic behind "carb loading" the night before a race?  Not really.  Be aware of how you use carbs.  They're not bad.  You just have to know when to use them, and to what to what end.

This incident in her life, provoked her to examine her daily routine.  A "facing of demons" occurred, and she decided to make some lifestyle changes.  The circumstances in her world ignited a "sink or swim" feeling for her.  She decided she was going to swim.

She signed up for a dance-cardio exercise class.  Something outside her comfort zone.  She hadn't exercised in awhile, and she felt a bit self-conscious, but decided she was going to do it anyway.  She bought herself a bike.  She lessened her refined carbohydrate intake.  She still ate plenty, but it was a start.

She began to notice the pounds dropping off by the week.  She was pleasantly surprised.  Her headaches lessened at night.  Her pants were a bit more loose.  She began to walk with a little extra "pep in her step" each day to work.  She began to feel like her old self again.  She signed up for a few sporting events.  Again, reaching outside her comfort zone.  She began to achieve goals she'd given up on "because, they were for fit people."

Everytime I would see her, she looked more and more radiant.  Her confidence level went from high to "cloud 9".  I would always compliment her on her success, and offer my verbal support.  Then, one day, about 10 months into her weight loss journey (aka "take back your life journey"), I got a phone call from her....

"Almine, I've hit a plateau.  I've stopped dropping weight.  I've hit a snag.  I don't know what to do."  "Have you changed anything?"  I asked.  "Stopped exercising, Increase in your refined carbohydrate intake?  Have added stress at work?"

"No.  Nothing like that.  Well, maybe I have been eating a bit more bread and pasta lately." She said.  "You do realize you walk a razor's edge with refined carbohydrates (anything other than what comes off a tree, or grows in the ground), I replied.  "I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, in that regard, but its true.  With blood sugar issues running rampant in our family tree, you simply don't digest sugars like those who don't have that issue."

"I know, but, I don't want to stop enjoying my food.  I don't want to sacrifice anything."  she exclaimed.   "No one does," I answered.  "Therein lies the difference between exercise and fitness."

"What do you mean?"  she asked.   "You will not attain to a level of fitness, if you're not willing to sacrifice.  Its that simple.  You will forever be on the level of 'maintenance,' or 'plus 1, minus 1' with your metabolism."  I responded.    "That's so depressing," she sighed.   "Is it?"  I wondered.  "Why is that depressing?"  I asked her.

Therein lies the issue to be examined:  "Does one have to sacrifice, in the areas of food and exercise to move from an "exercise" phase to a "fitness" phase.  The unavoidable answer, no one wants to hear, is unequivocably, YES.

This is a disheartening thought to most.  I find that, however, sad.  One one hand, we have the American premise that this country was built on hard work and sacrifice.  However, the modern day American, is not super excited on the notion that giving up something is essential for success.  We don't like the thought of giving up anything.  Therein lies the core issue of our national obesity epidemic.

Americans like the notion of being able to REDUCE vs. ELIMINATE.  This is nice, in theory, however, when you start with something of poor quality to begin with, reducing it is a start, and you will see success, initially, but overtime, that success will plateau.  Then frustration ensues, and you typically see people revert to their old patterns, and "abandon ship" with their newly initiated habits.  Thus, the frustration "negative feedback loop" begins.

If you want progress to continue, there will have to be sacrifice.  No getting around it.  I liken the body to a devious, highly intelligent child.  It will do everything to outsmart you.  It will plateau, when you've done several months of the same exercise class.  It will plateau again, after a few months of reducing certain unhealthy foods in your diet.  You'll stop seeing gains, when it predicts you'll walk up to the free weights.  WHY?  Because the body is constantly meant to be kept "on its toes" (see "PALEO FITNESS" blog post).  Specialization in fitness...and eating is dangerous to progress.  Why?  It means you've become predictable to your body.  Predictability means plateau.  Guaranteed.

You must put as much thought into varying your physical activities, as you do when you plan your child's.  You must constantly "tweak" and "refine" your nutrition, as your gains are made.  You're a dynamic, ever progressing machine, and your diet/exercise should reflect this constant adjusting.

If you exercise, with the notion that your body will keep showing gains, after 6 mos. of doing the same thing, then you will stay in "maintenance" mode.

Make your fitness constantly varied.  Never consider aerobic exercise to be where you see gains.  In other words, I always say, "Aerobic exercise is for clearing my head.  Anaerobic is for fitness."  When I do a long, slow distance run, its not because I expect to get any fitness benefit from it.  Sure, its good for my heart, etc., etc., but I count it merely as a "head clearing" activity.  High-intensity, "breathless," anaerobic exercise is where I achieve fitness.  (unless you have some heart/pre-existing medical condition), you should plan on incorporating anerobic activity at least 3x a week, preferably 4, to begin to move from "maintenance" to "fitness."   Anaerobic exercise (while its happening) is generally no fun.  Its breathless, mentally intense, and not very relaxing.  "So why do it?" people ask me.  "Why do something if its not fun?"  Because anaerobic exercise trains the mind to become mentally strong.  It gives you the confidence, over time, to stick with things that aren't pleasant...for the long-term benefits.  It teaches you to persevere.  All qualities that have been generally lost in our modern world.

"CrossFit" pushed me from "exercise" mode to "fitness" mode, 9 yrs. ago

We give up so easily, nowadays.  We all want to believe that the ethic of America is still one of sacrifice, hardwork, and perseverance.  Yes, some still embrace these qualities, but, overall, culturally, this has become a diluted way of life.   These are qualities that have to be reignited in us once again.  They teach us to be hearty, and to move through obstacles in our life, when we think we can't.

When I mentioned to my relative on the phone, that her current "plateau" status is now calling for her to "step it up" another notch, she recoiled.  "Are you going to tell me that I have to sacrifice certain things I like to eat, and to begin exercising differently,  outside of my cardio dance class, if I want to move past this plateau?"  she asked softly.  "That's exactly what I'm telling you." I answered.  "It all boils down to how badly do you want to move from 'maintenance' to 'fitness'."   She replied "Well, I won't then.  I won't give up the amount of bread I eat, or change anything else."  she hung up on me.  I've seen her several times since that conversation.  She's been slowly gaining weight again.  You can see it in her face.  The panting up the stairs has returned.  She looks tired.

When your body reaches a new level of health, it will ask you to step up to the next.  This involves giving up some things, but gaining much more in return, as a gift for your sacrifice.  Many people are unaware that they're scared to begin their weight loss journey, because unconsciously, they know, at some point, they'll have to let go (sacrifice) certain behaviors.

People ask me, often, how I achieve the things in my life that I have.  My one word is "sacrifice." There is no way around this word, if you want to achieve a certain level of success.  This is a word I invite you to make friends with in 2016.  Don't be afraid of letting go of certain foods, behaviors, lifestyle habits, etc.  You will gain much more in the process.  That is a promise.  Confidence, self-esteem will follow  you.  No one can take that from you.

People look at physically fit people and say "He/she is full of himself."  "They're so egotistical."  I look at that person and think of the following adjectives:  sacrifice, dedication, perseverance, discipline.  You can't fake fitness.  It's your calling card to hours of hard work, and sacrifice.  Its like sculpting a beautiful work of art.  You're the clay, and the artist.  Its an empowering process.  Be expected to be asked by your body, now and again, to "step it up."  If you're not willing to do this, you will stay in "maintenace" mode.  The choice is yours.  Maybe you like "maintenance" mode, and that's okay.  Just be aware of it, and okay with that mode, then.  Don't complain that you're not at the fitness level of some athletes, if you're not willing to make the sacrifices they have.

It brings to mind people who say water aerobics isn't difficult.  You're right.  It isn't...when you're there to talk to your friends, barely listen to the teacher, rarely use additional resistance devices, and do it mindlessly.  Its a brutal workout when you focus, use resistance gloves, wear shoes for extra resistance drag, don't talk to your neighbor, and give it your all.  The choice is yours.  The first way of doing it is still in "exercise" phase.  You're there.   You're in the pool, but you're half-ass.  The second option is you achieving "fitness."  You're mentally and physically present, you're doing everything you can to get the maximum out of your workout, and you're giving it 100%.

Bring Focus And Attention To Your Training To Skyrocket You To Fitness

Here's a question for you:  Would you ever say "I'm going to put bad oil in my car, but, only in moderation?"  Be careful with the word "moderation"   We would rarely use that word with our loved ones, or things precious to us.  So, why would we use it for ourselves?"  No mother ever says "I'm going to give my child love, but, only in moderation."  The question is how do you define "love"?  Many, knowingly/unknowingly, do it through food.  We've all heard the term "comfort food."  Is it really that "comfortable," when your jeans are more tight after eating it?  That's not self-love.  Its avoidance.  Your task is to figure out the motive behind your actions.  No one else can do that for you.  This journey is about owning your own health, and taking it back.

An excellent point was raised by one of my fitness program students.  "Okay, but what about the French?  They eat pastries in moderation."  Yes, lets talk about that.  There is actually something nutritionists term "The French Effect."  Why can they eat eclaires and puff pastries (not to mention smoke like chimneys), yet their rates of lung cancer and obesity are lower than ours?  There are many factors that go into "The French Effect":  longer meals times (slow eating), eating around the table with loved ones more often, higher quality ingredients, more walking throughout their day, longer paid vacations throughout the year, etc.  We know, via studies, all of these things contribute to overall longevity, and higher quality of life.  Here's a key that the French have, that Americans generally don't uphold:  nationally, they hold very high standards for the word "quality."  Their cuisine ingredients are generally of exceptionally high quality.  Think this doesn't affect weight?  It does.

 When you start with poor ingredients, you start with items devoid of nutritional density, mineral profile, and amino acids.  Poor quality ingredients create a poor quality meal.  This leaves you devoid of satiation, and satisfaction, which causes you to eat more to try to obtain satiation and satisfaction.  Overeating is the result.  Its a vicious cycle.  Let yourself be called a "food snob."  You deserve high quality food.  We all do.  You deserve to be nourished from the ingredient to the bite on your fork.  The difference is, the French are unapologetic about it.  If you start with high quality ingredients, you will feel fuller, faster.  You won't be devoid of energy.  If you think your incredible body-machine is only worth "McDonald's," or low quality ingredients, don't be shocked when  it doesn't operate the way you want it to.  You wouldn't pour oil in your car gas tank, and question why the car isn't running.  Its obvious.  Food is your preventative medicine, and your fuel.  Its not just "calories in, calories out."  Its the quality that makes all the difference.

Its okay to be in "exercise" mode some days.  Those are the days I go dancing with my girlfriends, get my dog out, take her for a relaxing run, or a nice hike.  We all need those days.  Pressure free, feeling the sun on our faces.  But, what I'm advocating is that you not mistake that for "fitness."  They are different.  I want you to have this information, so that you can make an educated choice, on any given day, what you want to achieve.  Its OKAY to just want to move your body, get some exercise.  Its also okay to push it a little harder, get uncomfortable, and take it to the next level. They both have their place in your life.  I just want you to know what each entails, what to expect from each, and then proceed to make a choice as to how one, or the other, will fit your 2016 goals.

It's OKAY to just have a day of fun exercise vs. going for fitness.  They both benefit you  in different ways.

Next month's blog post, co-written by fellow fitness trainer/strength coach, John Odden, of "Empowered Strength" will assist me in taking this topic to the next level with you.  We'll flush out generalized vs. specialized fitness, even more, and each offer our perspective on the pros/cons.

Look for great, collaborative blog posts, with fellow health/nutrition/wellness/fitness experts coming your way in 2016.  Its going to be a great year!  :-)