2013-07-15

Fitness Advice For Beginners

Although the most important fitness advice I have for anyone is to stop being a beginner, that doesn't alter the fact that everyone is at some point in their lives a novice when it comes to physical fitness, diet, and exercise. Because most fitness advice out there - on the internet, on TV, in magazines, etc. - is aimed at beginners, I have taken to filling a void left by the fitness media by attempting to answer the question, What do I do when I'm no longer a beginner?

This morning, however, I realized that in neglecting beginners' concerns, I risk tacitly condoning the mostly horrible fitness advice that beginners tend to receive.

Recently, a member of the Google+ fitness community took to G+ to ask them what she should do to lose thirty pounds. The initial results were predictable: A few denizens suggested that she "eat clean" and exercise daily. Excellent advice, but not very specific. So the original inquisitor went on to ask whether she should do crunches in order to reduce fat.

The response she received from some well-meaning but thoroughly ignorant respondents was that "abs come from diet, not exercise," and that "you can't spot-train fat reduction." Next, our heroine asked whether she should do cardio, to which some replied that cardio will burn fat, but will also "burn muscle" and that doing more than 20 minutes of cardio exercise was nonsense, and that she only needs to do cardio twice a week.

Why This Is All Bad Advice
If it's not totally obvious to you, let me quickly summarize what is wrong with this advice. Imagine that you are the person who had asked the questions. Upon reading these replies you would come away with the following exercise plan: (1) Don't do crunches; (2) Do less than 20 minutes of cardio, twice a week.

So what do you think: Do you think she'll lose 30 pounds by following this advice?

The answer is obviously no, and the reason is because the respondents are all either horribly confused or are not attentive enough to give someone complete information. This appears to be generally true of the fitness industry: either they sell you bad advice or they can't be bothered to tell you the whole story. The result is, unfortunately a lot of fitness misinformation.

Allow me to give you the quick-and-dirty about the advice I've just described. First of all, doing crunches is a great idea for anyone, no matter how much weight they want to gain or lose. Second of all, doing less than 20 minutes of cardio, two times per week, is very similar to not doing any cardio at all. Third of all, cardiovascular exercise DOES NOT "burn muscle," and anyone who thinks it does lacks a fundamental understanding of exercise physiology.

Generally speaking - and this is a good principle to apply to many things beyond just fitness - If it doesn't make sense, then it probably isn't true. I try to spread that idea as much as possible.

What Beginners Need To Know
Leading a healthy lifestyle is a very easy and very rewarding thing to do. It does not take a fancy science degree to do your body good, nor does it require becoming a thoroughly well-versed and Kool-Aid-drinking advocate of unorthodox dieting (*cough*MarkSisson*cough*). All it takes is a little common sense.

Now, as a person gains experience with fitness and develops an interest in pushing beyond his or her current limits, that person may want to tweak his or her fitness regimen such that it reflects an overall set of goals: Do you want to be a faster runner? Do you want to climb Everest? Do you want to build more muscle mass? Do you want to do a lot of fun CrossFit exercises? Whatever your ultimate goals end up being will determine how you ultimately decide to train, your having fully accounted for all fitness trade-offs.

But before you ever come to the point of making those kinds of choices, you have to start somewhere. Thus, below is a list of general guidelines that will help anyone progress from couch potato to novice. Follow these guidelines until you're ready to stop beginning, then come back to Stationary Waves and see about reaching the next level.
  1. Losing weight means expending more energy (i.e. exercising) than you ingest (i.e. eat). If you want to lose weight, you have to do more of the former or less of the latter. If you want to lose weight quickly, you have to do both at the same time.
  2. When you first start exercising, any amount of exercise you do will be of benefit to you. It's only after you grow accustomed to what you're doing that you have to change or increase the difficulty of it. In any event, start with something you can do, and then build from there. 
  3. Choose activities and foods that you enjoy. You will never be able to drag yourself to the gym if you hate being there; you'll never be able to force yourself to eat something that makes you gag. Your responsibility is not to frown through a joyless life of painful exercise and unappetizing foods, but rather to find something that makes you happy and do it every day.
  4. Whether you do "more cardio" or "more strength training" depends entirely on what you want to look like and how you want to feel. There are benefits to either approach. Most people prefer a mix.
  5. Nobody is an expert on your body except you. Listen to the advice of others, then give it a try. Set aside anything that doesn't work for you, and keep everything that does.
  6. You never have to buy fancy products or supplements in order to get fit and healthy. If you have a good pair of shoes and access to a walking path and a public playground then you have absolutely everything you need to be in excellent shape.
  7. Diet and weight are important, but don't obsess over either.
  8. For that matter, don't obsess over anything.
That's really all there is to it.