(Let’s just pretend it’s more than I know about food.)
I remember spending hours in the gym.
Even then, when every minute with the weights equaled a minute well away from college textbooks, I wasn’t smiling. I felt bored. The work paid off, sure, but I started dreading getting under the bar within just a month or two of starting my workouts.
That’s not a judgment on weight lifting. If anything, it’s a commentary on me — my lack of attention span, mainly, or my growing dissatisfaction with each hour spent away from more exciting prospects (like, uh, video games).
My gym trips didn’t last. And looking back on it, too, the minute they stopped is the same minute I started putting back all the pounds I’d worked so hard to lose.
I took a few big lessons from the ordeal. I don’t think I’ve ever laid them out plain here on the blog before, so let’s change that now. This is everything I know about fitness. It’s mental stuff, honestly, more than plain physical suggestions (though you’ll see a few of those too), as I’ve slowly come to realize my attitude toward exercise might be the most important factor of all.
Ready to dive in?
1. We eat more than we exercise.
Look at it this way.
When we exercise more—no matter the age, and no matter the type of workout—we tend to eat more too. Not everyone instinctively reaches for a bigger bowl, but I’d say most of us still have the same response: “Oh, I just spent an hour working out? Time to feast.”
That’s not a bad thing. Honestly, it’s pretty normal. Where we trip up, though, is in what happens next:
- We stop exercising as much.
- We keep eating the same amount of food.
The latter point is a far bigger problem than you might think. Who consciously decreases their food intake to match their reduced levels of activity? Who among us can recognize that we’re not moving around as much and start eating less to compensate? Not many, I’d argue, and—back in college, at least—most certainly not me. During those few months of gym visits, I ate much more food to compensate. Whenever I eventually burnt out, however, I kept eating the same amount — stuffing my face with the same amount of calories as when I had actually worked enough to earn them.
Consider this a recommendation to keep exercising for as long as you live. But consider it a reminder, too, to adapt during those periods that you don’t.
2. We don’t need a gym.
Again, this is no judgment on weight-lifting in a gym environment. Weights are a fantastic way to both build and maintain muscle mass, and I’d always recommend spending some time in the weight room versus not exercising at all.
But here’s the thing: they’re not strictly necessary. It’s easy to think otherwise when our concept of ‘exercise’ is a self-contained hour or so at the end of the workday, a place to get away from the stresses of both work and home. If you’d rather not shell out for a gym membership, though, and you don’t mind sweating up a storm in your own backyard, there are plenty of ways to stay fit without spending a dime.
I haven’t stepped into a gym more than once or twice in the last two years (and even then, I just needed a pullup bar). Despite this, and despite the fact that my natural tendency is to be as lazy as possible, I’ve built—and maintained—just as much muscle mass as I had back in my college days. How? Here are the big three:
So many pushups. I started the 100 Pushup challenge, as an example, and noticed a pretty startling transformation in my upper body by the time I was done. (And because I’ll always love linking to it, here’s a video of my buddy Joel Runyon utterly failing to complete the challenge.)
If you haven’t built up to a regular pushup yet, don’t be afraid to take intermediate steps. Wall pushups and knee pushups are a great way to get started, and all you really need to do is two to three sets of as many repetitions as you can.
So many pull ups. The Iron Gym Pull Up Bar is a godsend here. Hook it up on one of your door frames and build up, slowly but surely, until you can do 5 to 10 in a row. My friend Steve Kamb over at Nerd Fitness wrote an outstanding article on how to do a pull up, so I’ll let him do all the talking.
So many squats. Stop reading this post. Take a step away from the computer and bust out 50 air squats before coming back. Your body will hate you, but I promise it’s worth the effort. Squats stand out because they work so many different parts of your body all at once (much like pull ups), and have the added advantage of being doable anywhere and everywhere — even in bathroom stalls.
These are the core three exercises I’ve pushed since day one. And the best part? That hasn’t changed. I’m convinced you can build a strong foundation with these three alone if you’re dedicated enough.
3. We do need to go really, really fast.
Do it once or twice per week, but don’t kill yourself in the process. Just one or two sprints—moving as fast as possible—will do tremendous things for your health whether they’re out on the grass or on a stationary bike, so don’t think you can’t do them if running isn’t really your thing. Try and build up to grass or sand sprints, that being said, and relish having your legs feel like jelly when you’re done.
4. We do need to run. (Maybe.)
I’m eating my words on this one.
And that’s the truth: back when I first started Primal, I adopted Mark Sisson’s caution against ‘chronic cardio’ as a kind of anti-running mentality. Combined with my deep, fervent love for low-carb diets, I just didn’t see how any kind of running had place in modern exercise, and made some pretty silly recommendations as a result.
I’ve grown up a bit since then. More accurately, I’ve realized that there is a tremendous distinction between running a few dozen miles per week and absolutely killing yourself in a marathon setting. There’s some variance even with that, too, since I have hard time believing that a one-off marathon runner is just as likely to harm herself as the type who eat marathons for breakfast for years on end.
Either way, I’ve come back to this: running is fine. It’s not strictly necessary, and I’m not planning on running more than a handful of miles myself, but if it’s something you enjoy and want to use either for conditioning or weight loss, go for it. I’ll be the guy running behind you in my funny shoes.
5. We do need variety.
I’ll admit it: I get bored.
As much as I love my big three, as listed above, I tend to get weary doing just that handful alone. The key to dedicated exercise, I’ve come to realize (and again, this might just be me), is this: mix it up.
I found a 10 pound sledgehammer in my garage and invented a new workout routine around that. I spied an old, heavy computer and made it a point to lift it several times above my head. When going for a run, now, I rarely do just that — I’ll stop every so often and crank out pushups, I’ll work in a sprint or two to get my heart rate up, and I’ve probably built a reputation around the neighborhood for being that weird guy doing pushups and dips on the jungle gym equipment.
I can’t stress this enough: try new things. Your body will thank you, sure, but so will your mind, and I sincerely think you’ll be much more likely—and happy—to try and stay fit.
6. We do need to rest.
Let’s be honest, here. Sometimes I don’t want to work out. I’m sure you know the feeling, and I’m sure it comes most often at the end of a long, stressful day at the office.
Rather than beat ourselves up, though, for taking that occasional day off, try this instead: enjoy it. Take the extra time to cook a great dinner or spend those extra minutes with family and friends. You could even do the right thing and go to bed earlier, too. And when you do eat, remember the first point of this article: maybe eat a little less than usual. Your actual caloric needs for the day will be reduced, so why not save that glass of red wine for a day when you do decide to work out?
7. We do need to play.
We live in a strange world, I think, that this might be the hardest thing on this list.
But that’s the sad truth about the ‘adult’ concept of play: we’ve digitized it. When I think of entertainment, now, my mind instinctively picks something digital, the result of many years of video gaming building a strong association between TV time and happiness. It’s a hard habit to break, but not an impossible one — we just need to learn how to play again. I’m still working on this myself, but I have a few ideas:
- Dancing. Good or bad, this is one of the absolute best ways to break a sweat and have a great time.
- Hiking. If you live in an area with hiking trails, what are you waiting for? Take some time away from your screens.
- Gardening. Not my first choice for entertainment, but I can’t deny that it makes for great low-level activity to keep you moving throughout the day.
- Sports. Use the Internet to find a local league for casual play.
My point is this: we need to play. We need to laugh and smile and enjoy ourselves as much as we possibly can, and we need to realize, lastly, that all of these things aren’t limited to kids. Those punks might have all the cool toys, sure, but we’re not exactly lacking in adult options for getting down.
8. We need to redefine exercise.
And this, I think, is the absolute most important part of this post.
When you read the word exercise, what do you think?
For so many of us, I bet, the word paints something like this:
- 6am yoga classes.
- An hour each day on the treadmill.
- Forty-five minutes with the weights.
Notice the common trend, here? Exercise, for so many of us, is self-contained. It’s a brief (the briefer the better!) period of time in which we sweat blood and tears, start to feel accomplished about ourselves, and then immediately eat a (too) big meal before plopping down on our butts for the rest of the evening.
Is that better than nothing? Absolutely. Is that good enough? It’s not.
You need to stay active. You need to redefine exercise. You need to realize that there’s nothing wrong with an hour at the gym, but that you have to do more, too. Thirty minutes of discrete exercise can’t compensate for twelve hours spent sitting down.
Start viewing exercise as something you can do every hour of the day. Stop thinking “what am I going to do when I get home tonight?” and start asking “what can I do right now?” instead. If you’re stuck for answers, here are some of my favorite choices:
- Air squats. You know the drill.
- Find a chair in your office and lift it repeatedly above your head.
- Take a fifteen minute walk.
- Find a quiet place to do some lunges.
- Finish those lunges with some (wall, knee, etc.) pushups.
- Stand up and lift your ankles to do some calf raises. Do 30-50 of these and try not to cry.
And think about it: what if you did one of the above every thirty minutes to an hour at work? Ideally, sure, we’d all be free to walk and play as much as possible during the work day, but even these little efforts alone—when taken in combination—are so much better than sitting motionless for hours on end.
This is the ‘new’ exercise. Enjoy.
So how does this all actually pan out?
I’m glad you asked!
Let me show you what I do in an average day.
When I wake up, I pause a moment to think about what I want to do that day. Am I going to work out? I might have breakfast. If I’m going to do something light, I’ll probably skip it and enjoy a few cups of coffee instead.
Come work, I drop down at my desk and start eyeing the clock. Every thirty minutes or so, I pop up and try and do something active — whether that’s taking a short walk, squatting, or anything from the list above. Given an eight-hour work day, that means I’m up on my feet no less than sixteen times when I’m at the office. Not too bad, right?
When I get home, I weight my options. I’ve been sprinting more often recently, so I could go do a few long (30 seconds in length) sprints before doing some light bodyweight exercises. I could go for a short run and jump, climb, and sprint through my neighborhood while I do. If I haven’t worked my upper body in a few days, I could break out the sledgehammer and work with that. If I’m feeling masochistic, I could even do 100 burpees in a row. And some days, of course, I’ll make it a point to not do a damn thing.
Done with that, I’ll run through a shower, eat whenever I get hungry—not out of an obligation to eat post-exercise—and try and stand up as much as possible throughout the evening while working on my projects.
Simple as that.
Wrapping It All Up
In the spirit of simplicity, let’s recap it like this:
1. Move as much as possible throughout the day.
2. Lift heavy things.
3. Run really, really fast on occasion.
4. Match your food intake to your activity levels.
5. Mix it up.
That’s all I do, now, and so far I’ve been pleased with the results: just the right amount of muscle mass and plenty of strength to go alongside it. Even if you’re not aiming to get in great athletic shape, though, the five points above should still prove useful.
You need to stay active. You also need to enjoy doing it. And when you start, now, realize one thing: it’s never as hard as you might think.