The Hardest Step In Exercise

A lot of fitness industry information out there, crafted as it is for the consumption of beginners, claims that the hardest part is just getting started. However difficult it might be to develop healthy physical fitness practices, though, transitioning from a daily maintenance routine to a routine geared toward improvement and optimization is far more difficult than just getting started.

I don't say this to minimize the effort required to get started. I believe it definitely is difficult to get started. It is precisely with this level of difficulty in mind that I make the claim that the next step is even harder.

Many people spend years just getting to the point where their daily exercise routines are something to look forward to. Even once that routine has been established, the body plateaus and people find themselves in a situation where just maintaining their current level of fitness is progressively more difficult. At this point, many will choose new forms of exercise, be it a new workout plan, or a new sport, or something else. Switching to something new, though, is much easier than the alternative.

The alternative is focusing in on what you've managed to accomplish thus far, and designing a new plan to get even better at all of the same stuff. Honing one's craft, if you will.

I'll use running as an example. Going from "couch-to-5K" is difficult enough that people have formed whole support groups to emotionally buttress that transition. It's a major undertaking to teach oneself to run 3.1 miles without stopping, and without feeling miserable. Once accomplished, it is a major success. And yet, at that point, a runner's only ability is to run for about 3.1 miles per day, and finish without stopping.

In order to run faster, that person must identify problems with his/her running form -- and that requires analysis. That person must identify or approximate his/her VO2-max and heart rate zones -- and that requires some testing and analysis. That person must then use this information to develop a feasible training plan aimed at addressing his/her weaknesses: interval training for speed, threshold training for VO2-max improvement, long runs and two-a-days for muscular endurance, form exercises for better running economy, and so on.

Needless to say, all of this requires a time commitment, an expense of mental energy, possible consultation with experts, and then -- yes, only then -- the physically difficult and often painful process of training hard.

This is such a difficult process that many people don't even attempt it. They don't "want" to be that serious about what they're doing. They'd rather just go for a daily run (or engage in some simple daily maintenance activity).

And the fact that so few people do it goes to show just how difficult it is.


Supplementing My Life Away

For a while now, I’ve been adding supplements to my diet, and I’d like to dedicate some space here to the supplements I’m taking and why.

I started taking a multivitamin some years ago. While I recognize that there is little evidence that these vitamins are actually absorbed, they don’t cost very much money, and I am a diabetic. Diabetic people don’t absorb vitamins very well. There are two ways to think about this: The first is that we diabetics have even less of a reason to take a multivitamin; after all, if “normal people” can’t absorb the vitamins in a vitamin pill, diabetics are even less likely to be able to do so. The other way to think about it is that, since I’m getting fewer vitamins from my food than “normal people do,” I should throw more vitamins at the problem in hopes that it does some kind of something for me. I chose the latter way of thinking about it, although I concede that the former is probably more logical.

For a long time, that daily multivitamin was all the supplement I took. Then, one day, a colleague of mine at work mentioned that he was taking milk thistle. He didn’t strike me as being the voodoo-hippie-supplement type, so I asked him about it. He said that milk thistle was good for your liver, and from this I gathered that my colleague started taking milk thistle as an insurance policy against his appetite for weekend partying. No judgement here, he was a virile twenty-something guy doing what virile twenty-something guys do. But it was enough to cause me to do some research on milk thistle. As it turns out, milk thistle is genuinely excellent for the liver. The data is pretty clear on that, it successfully lowers the primary marker for liver disease. I’m not a hard-partying twenty-something, but we diabetics, in addition to poor vitamin absorption, often suffer from liver failure. So, I started taking a half-dose of milk thistle daily as a preventative measure.

That brought me up to two daily supplements, but after a short while, that wasn’t enough for me. I started to wonder, if there are legitimate supplements out there, like milk thistle, what else might I be missing? I started to do some more research, ruling out all the useless supplements and getting curious about the ones that had data to back them up.

One supplement I discovered was called “phosphatidyl serine.” According to some research, there is some weak but not terrible evidence that phosphatidyl serine reduces the cortisol response in the body after exercise. If true, this would prevent my blood sugar from spiking after a hard workout. I bought a bottle and started taking it daily, but eventually looked at the ingredients list. There was only one ingredient: soy lecithin. After some additional research, I realized that the reduction in post-exercise cortisol was something that could be achieved by eating some protein; so the main benefit of phosphatidyl serine is that it’s a miniscule amount of protein.

So, I struck out there. But no big deal. It was a harmless health experiment.

Next on my list was glucosamine. Glucosamine is often prescribed to arthritic dogs, and since it’s over-the-counter, arthritic humans also sometimes take it. It’s not a cure for arthritis, not by a long shot, but it has strong evidence in its favor. That is, the evidence suggests that it very definitely does some good, but only a little bit of good. It’s also cheap and has no side-effects, so I bought a bottle and started taking one daily. This time, the experiment worked like a charm: I have literally not had tendinitis since I started taking glucosamine, despite increasing my exercise frequency and running perhaps more than I have in the previous ten years. To be fair, I don’t know for sure that glucosamine is what made the difference here. Maybe I somehow managed to improve my running form after 30 years of great form. Maybe. But my family is prone to arthritis, and my anecdotal experience suggests that the glucosamine is doing some good. So I’ll keep taking it.

The next one I thought I’d try was coenzyme Q10. Coenzyme Q10 is a coenzyme that the body naturally produces and that helps the heart do what the heart does. Some people have a medical issue wherein their bodies are deficient in coenzyme Q10, and for those people the CoQ10 supplement is actually a total solution. The supplement restores their CoQ10 levels and they return to living normal lives. For most other people, there is no harm in CoQ10 supplementation, but it’s not clear that anyone really benefits from it. I did some research and discovered that, at least epidemiologically, diabetics tend to have lower than average CoQ10 levels. So, when it went on sale at Costco, I bought some. I figured, there are no side-effects, the price is right, and it might do me some good. I’ve never had my CoQ10 levels checked, but I am diabetic, so why not.

Here's where things get interesting. After several weeks of daily CoQ10 supplementation, I observed a very small improvement in my blood glucose control. In addition, I simply felt better. Was this a placebo effect? Possibly. But when I go on vacation, I don’t take my CoQ10 supplements with me, and I always feel a little worse. Then I get back home to my supplements, and I start to feel better again. I repeat: this might be a placebo effect. But it’s working for me, so I’ve been keeping up with my CoQ10. It seems to give me a little more energy and… I don’t know… spry-ness, maybe? Virility? (Not like that, perv.)

Two days ago I started taking Niagen. Niagen is nicotinamide riboside, i.e. a form of vitamin B3. The thing about nicotinamide riboside is that, as it gets absorbed in the cell, it “activates” some genes associated with anti-aging. Every form of B3 activates genes in order to absorb the B3, but only nicotinamide riboside activates these specific genes. This much is factual. The speculative theory is that, by activating these genes, nicotinamide riboside actually gets the body to do “anti-aging stuff.” If true, it would prevent some cell aging, notably in the brain, but also in the body, thereby preventing cognitive decline, and also physical decline. People self-report that nicotinamide riboside supplements make them feel younger, look younger, perform at a higher level of athleticism, get better sleep, and many other things. I have no idea whether these claims are true. But I decided to try a bottle and see what happens.

Finally, today, I started adding creatine to my post-run protein shake. The benefits of creatine are thoroughly described elsewhere. The short story is that creatine really does cause muscles to retain more water, and thus improves their ability to absorb nutrients and create ATP during exercise. In the end, this causes people who exercise to get a little bit more out of their training sessions. The reason I had previously avoided creatine was that it was supposedly contraindicated for diabetics. According to more recent research, however, that’s not true.

Another cool thing about creatine is that it is associated with higher levels of insulin-like growth factor, which has anti-aging properties, and which also (as the name suggests) lowers blood sugar levels. So, I’ve been keen to try creatine, and today I finally did.

We’ll see where all this gets me.


P90X Again

I’m on vacation, and boy, is it fun and relaxing.

Just before I left, I checked my physical progress as I finished up P90X2. I suspected that I had lost quite a bit of muscle mass over the previous three months, but to my delight I had actually put on a little more muscle. I was also more toned and had a stronger core compared to when I had finished P90X earlier in the year. So, six months of Tony Horton workout programs has made a huge, felicitous impact on my physicality. I’m so pleased.

Just looking at the before/after photos, which I will not share here for decency reasons, reveals what a difference these programs have made to my life. If you’ve got six months and a DVD player or streaming video player, you can reshape your body.

So, I’ll start my second round of P90X — my third round of Tony Horton workouts — this coming Monday, once I’m fully recovered from traveling. This time, I’ll be doing it alongside my wife and in tandem with a friend of ours. If you’d like to join in with us, reach out to me and you can join our Facebook group or whatever. Do join us.

And if you need to purchase P90X to get started, we can help you out there, too, either with a link to a discount, or a free video streaming trial, or just some advice.


I’m Just Not Very Interested Anymore

I’ve taken a step back from social media recently, including this blog.

Why? For one thing, I came to realize that forums like Facebook and Instagram were rotting my brain in exactly the same way that TV was rotting my brain fifteen years ago. What began as a medium with the potential to enrich has gradually become a receptacle of lowest-common-denominator thinking and behavior. If reality television had run its course in the early 2000s, social media – which is for all intents and purposes a constant, ongoing reality TV broadcast – has now runs its course several times over.

Think about a woman or man you find particularly attractive. You see them every once in a while. Part of the appeal is the mystery of who they are, everything about them that you don’t already know. The fun of getting to know a new romantic partner is learning about their interests, their hobbies, their quirks, and their beliefs. Over time, this morphs into even the smallest details, from the way she stirs scrambled eggs with a spatula to the way he clears his throat every time he’s about to say something sarcastic. The mystery can go as deep as you want it to, but the relationship often thrives on that mystery. As time goes on, the surprises wane, but there’s no mistaking their role in falling in love.
If you were allowed to follow a potential romantic partner around via live video feed, twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, observing and evaluating them, and becoming acquainted with even the minutest detail of their daily behaviors, it’s unlikely that any such partner would pass the test. The mystery would be removed before it ever served its purpose. It would no longer inspire conversation. Rather than bother asking anyone about themselves, you’d simply tune in to the video feed and answer the question yourself, through direct observation. You might even come to believe that you know that person in a superior way than you would have if you had relied on face-to-face conversation and personal interaction.

In this way, the always-on world of social media plays itself out to boredom. But it need not be this way. You could uninstall Facebook and go back to asking people what they’re up to when you see them. The mystery would return. You’d pass the time in conversation, rather than in observation. This won’t cure all social ills, of course, but it will help you retain the value of really sitting down and talking to someone.

There is an element of this in my relationship to my blog, too. Early on, the blog helped me organize and catalog my thoughts. This was important when my thoughts needed better organization. It produced a rather extensive personal philosophy, which I refined over the course of ten years, and which I have implemented in my own life. It helped me keep track of important running- and fitness-related ideas that I could refer back to later. It even inspired me to conduct some formal research in pursuit of serious knowledge.

Now, though, I’m familiar with my thoughts and my ideas. They’re still evolving, but much less needs to be stated explicitly. These days I am more apt to apply existing principles than develop new ones to handle new situations. So the value of explication is much lower, and as a result of that, I’ve discovered that I’d much rather do than say. I’d rather be out there, exercising, running, playing music, playing with my daughter, having a good and fulfilling life. I don’t really want to waste time talking about it, I want to live it.

Maybe I’m just older, and I see more value in carpe diem than in carpe dictum. Or maybe I’m finally getting comfortable with myself and no longer feel the need to justify every thought and action. Or maybe I’ve been running a blog without a real audience for ten years and have better things to do than figure out how to SEO my way into libertarian super-stardom.

Who knows? The point is, I’m not here. I’m out there.



He bought a subscription to the newspaper.

Every day, the paperboy delivered the newspaper. He’d walk outside on the porch step every morning, find the newspaper, bring it inside, and read it over breakfast. It was a simple pleasure, but he made it an important part of his daily routine.

It’s not that the newspaper was always full of lovely things that made him happy. Sometimes the newspaper made him sad. Sometimes the stories it told were more bad than good. But it wasn’t really about that. It was about how the ritual of interacting with the daily paper enriched his life. It made him a more informed person, a more well-rounded person. Damn it, it made him a better person.

Sometimes the paper came late. On those days, he might not get the chance to read the whole thing. Sometimes the paper didn’t come at all. If it happened a time or two too often, he’d wait until business hours, ring up the newspaper company, alert them to the fact that he hadn’t received his paper, and the company would correct the problem. He never faulted the paperboy for this, even though it likely was the paperboy’s fault. He reasoned, nothing and no one is perfect. Sometimes the news will make you upset. Sometimes the news won’t come at all. This is life, and life isn’t perfect. He was fine with that.

But, one day, the paper didn’t come, and he tried to get on with his day, even though he was really looking forward to reading the paper that day. He was a little bit rattled. Okay, he was annoyed. He admitted it. He wanted to read his newspaper. He paid for it! But he knew that sometimes these things happened, so he tried not to ruminate on it. The next day, though, the paper didn’t come. So, he rang up the newspaper company on the telephone to alert them.

“Hello,” he said, “I’ve not received my newspaper for the second day in a row. Please make sure I get tomorrow’s paper.”

“I’m sorry,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “but we didn’t print newspapers today or yesterday. We didn’t feel like it.”

He was a little taken aback. He hadn’t expected an answer like that. “Was there something wrong?” He asked.

No, the voice told him. They simply hadn’t felt like printing a newspaper that day. Maybe tomorrow. Then the line was disconnected. He had been hung-up-on.

The next day, he received the newspaper. He received it again the following day. He decided it was just an anomaly.

The following week, however, it happened again. Two days in a row, no newspaper was delivered. He rang the newspaper company and was again informed that they hadn’t felt like printing newspapers that day. Then they hung up before the man could protest.

Then, again, the newspaper was delivered reliably for the rest of the week.

This went on for several weeks. Eventually, the newspaper stopped arriving for a third day, and then a fourth. Frustrated, the man decided to pay a visit to the newspaper office. When he got there, he was greeted by a pretty woman who introduced herself as a general manager. He explained his problem to her, and she nodded with understanding. She let him vent out all his frustrations, and she listened kindly and attentively.

When he was finished talking, she replied, “I know this must seem very frustrating for you, but you see, sometimes we don’t feel like printing the newspaper. Sometimes we’re tired. Sometimes we’d rather do something else. Sometimes we just go to sleep. So that is what we do. We have delivered many newspapers for you over the years. Why, this year alone we have already delivered over one hundred newspapers to you! I understand your frustrations, but you really have no right to complain. Things change. People change. We used to produce newspapers every day, but now... Now we deliver two or three papers per week. You should make do with that.”

The man tried to protest, and they got in an argument. She ended up slamming the door on him. He went home. The next day, he received a newspaper, even though it was on an “off” day.

An off day, he thought to himself? I bought a subscription to a daily newspaper! What is this?

In time, the newspaper dwindled to once per week. Then once per month. Eventually, he was lucky to get a paper at all.

This was all very frustrating for him, of course, but a funny thing happened while he was not receiving his newspaper regularly: He replaced that part of his morning routine with a book of crossword puzzles he found at the bookstore. It wasn’t quite the same as his daily paper, but over time, it didn’t much matter anymore. The newspaper company wasn’t delivering a daily paper. No matter how frustrating it was, he had to accept it. Truth be told, he didn’t really even know if they were still charging him for the paper. The crossword puzzles were good enough for a morning routine. He adjusted. Life went on.

One morning, on a lark, he decided to go out for a morning jog. On his way out the door, he saw the paperboy. He had the morning paper in his hands. The paperboy said, “Hey, mister, I’ve got your paper, here you go.”

“No thanks,” said the man. “I’m going out for a jog.”

“You can read it when you get home,” said the paperboy.

“I know,” said the man, “but I won’t read it. I’m jogging today. I do crossword puzzles on the other days.”

“Well, what should I do with it?” Asked the paperboy.

The man gave the boy a puzzled frown. “I don’t really know.” He beeped on his watch and started off on his jog. “And I don’t much care,” he thought.


Swipe Right

I was thinking about 80s movies tonight, and how much narratives around romance have changed.

The core romantic conflict in 80s movies was either that the guy didn’t have the guts to ask the girl out, or he wasn’t cool enough for her to agree to go out with him. Really, this is two versions of the same story; after all, a cool guy wouldn’t lack the guts to ask a girl out. Over the course of the movie, the guy would have to figure out how to be cool enough to captivate her attention.

Initially, he’d start out by trying to fake it. He’d pretend to like the same music she likes, or have the same interests as hers. He’d act like a jerk, try to display some knowledge about her interests, and then she’d roll her eyes and say, “Get lost, you creep!” Then he’d fall down or something, and a crowd of people would laugh at him, underscoring the fact that he was not cool enough to get the girl.

But the movie would always offer our hero a path to being cool. Either he’d learn to display some skill or prove some talent, or he’d learn to stand up for himself in the face of various bullies (parents, rich squares, a school jock, that sort of thing). Often the girl he thought he wanted would turn out to be shallow; she’d like him only when the crowd liked him, and despite him otherwise. Meanwhile, the girl he ultimately gets ends up appreciating him for who he was even when he wasn’t cool. He’d realize by the end of the film that he’d been a jerk the whole time — a “jerk” here being a type of uncoolness. And by the end, they’d fall in love.

However, exactly, the old movies told these stories, it was basically the same narrative. What strikes me about this narrative in hindsight is that it offers a path forward to people who are unlucky in love: By demonstrating coolness, we find the people who appreciate us. “Coolness” is a broad concept that encapsulates whatever happens to be important to you: your talent, your dignity, your ability to triumph over adversity, whatever. Prove that you’re cool enough, and you’ll get the girl; and if you’re true to yourself, you might even get a better girl than the one you wanted in the first place.

Modern romance stories do not function like this.

For one thing, if you’re not already cool, you have no chance with the girl. The message conveyed is that if a woman isn’t interested you from the beginning, you shouldn’t try to win her affection through personal merit. No means no; get lost, you creep.

For another thing attraction is instantaneous in modern love stories. A lot of these stories mask this assumption by having either the guy or the girl be “unaware” of his or her own feelings, until late in the movie, when he or she realizes that the whole reason all that emotion was bubbling to the top in the first place is because he or she subconsciously loved the other person.

And finally, the hero may win or lose (he usually wins, of course), but winning has no direct relationship to getting the girl. Sometimes he gets the girl before he wins, and they lie together and brood. Other times, he gets the girl after winning, but only on her terms.

So the modern love story is about two people who are already in love, deciding to act on their feelings, while other important plot-stuff happens to them independently of the love story. The message this is bound to convey to young people who unfortunately end up learning about love from the movies is that love is something that just happens to the heroes of the story, and nothing anyone actually does has anything to do with it.

Swipe right.


A Message To My Prior Self -- Hair Edition

In my early twenties, I somehow managed to apply my will power to the project of growing my hair out. It took a long time, but eventually it grew out to the point where it could be considered “long hair,” could be assembled into a ponytail, etc. It only lasted this way very briefly, though. In a fit of self-consciousness, I shaved it all off and went back to short hair from then on out. From time to time, over the ensuing years, I’d attempt to grow it out again, quickly grow frustrated, and let it be short.

I most recently shaved my head last summer. I can’t really recall my reasoning, other than that I wanted a change. As it grew back out, I kept the sides short and let the top grow, until it became what they refer to in haircutting circles as an “undercut.” At that point, my wife suggested that I let it grow long and see what happens. I’ve been growing it out ever since.

There are a few things I’ve learned from this, which I’d like to share with all those who might consider growing their own hair out in the future.

First, there is no “awkward phase.” More precisely, nobody cares what your hair looks like, as long as it’s clean and combed. When your hair is short, you can put some gunk in it and mess it around, and it looks good no matter what, because that’s the style: messy. Once it achieves a critical length, you can start combing it. Comb it back, to the side, or whatever else. Whatever you do with it, it will look like hair that you take care of. It might fall short of your GQ Magazine dream, but no one is really evaluating your sense of style on that level. So, just relax about awkwardness. If you stand up straight, and comb your hair, it will only be as awkward as society’s tendency to weigh in on your hairstyle, which society almost never does. So you’re good.

Second, starting with an “undercut” was a good idea. I remember that the first time I grew my hair out, the back and sides always appeared longer than the top, risking a sort of mini-mullet look. That look persisted until my hair got long enough to need to be cut, mostly to correct this very problem. But starting with an undercut type style ensures that the top is always a bit longer than the back and sides. As it starts to grow longer, everything will have an overall more natural appearance, almost as though it’s all closer to one length (even though it isn’t). I wish I had had this foresight in my early twenties; if so, I might have had long hair for many years.

Third, you only need enough patience to grow your hair out to the point that it looks like it’s being grown out. After that, the eye perceives “long hair,” even though it’s short. Put another way, short hair that has grown too long looks messy; but long hair that isn’t long enough still looks like long hair. It took me roughly 9 or 10 months to get to this length, again, from a starting point of “completely shaven.” But a lot of that time was easy to sit through because I had clean-cut short hair styles during the period of growth. So it’s really powering through 2 or 3 months of final growth from “short hair” to “longish hair” that requires any patience. If you can keep yourself busy for those 2 months, then you’ll finally reach a point that requires no additional patience.

Long story short: If you want to grow your hair out, but you’re worried about how difficult it is, don’t worry. It’s surprisingly easy.