Friday Pondering

Extended exercise when your muscles are quite fatigued from the four previous days of extended exercise is…

  1. the shortest route to improved endurance.
  2. a great way to force your body to burn fat.
  3. stupid.
  4. all of the above.
  5. something else.


Zombies, Run!

Bought a new bike this weekend, an event probably worth more than a mention in passing, but we’ll see about that. Naturally, when one buys a bicycle, one must also download the right bicycle app. I mean, come on.

While perusing the health and fitness apps I stumbled across one called “Zombies, Run!”. Mis-filed, I thought, but understandably so.

Except, get this: “Zombies, Run!” is a game all right, but you have to actually run to play! You go through a series of missions that involve running (or walking, or treadmilling – whatever your style is) and as you complete the missions you get stuff to save civilization and unravel the mystery of the Zombie Plague.

I’ve not played it, mind, but I think I’m going to spring the four bucks for rainy days when I need to get my exercise on the trainer, rather than on the bike. Not only is it a new approach to fitness, it opens up a whole new form of literature. Pretty sweet.


Tweaking the Health Regimen

The light of my life and I bought a fancy elliptical trainer a couple of years ago. She has been very consistent with it, while I’ve been, well, streaky. There are times I come home from work and I’m just too wiped out to contemplate getting on the thing. (On days I do manage to get up on it, I’m glad I did, but that lesson is soon forgotten.) I’m definitely healthier, but I’m no skinnier. In fact, I’m bigger than ever.

The obvious answer, of course, is to climb up on that bad boy first thing in the morning, before I’ve had time to start making excuses. Alarm goes off (dreadfully early), I drag my sorry ass out of bed and grind out my time. So far, I’ve been very consistent with this approach, and I think I arrive at work more alert and cheerful. And hungry. Gotta love the oatmeal bar at the little coffee place in the building. More on the hunger shortly.

One thing I have observed about working out first thing in the morning: It’s much harder to meet my goals. I’m going into max energy burn after fasting for a few hours, and I hit the proverbial bottom of the tank way sooner that I do when I work out in the evening. I’ve had to adjust my expectations accordingly.

I did some research to see if there was some food I could eat only moments before exercising that could help me power through. Turns out, not so much. But I did learn another interesting thing: What I eat right after I exercise can make a big difference next time. There is a window after exercise in which the body grabs all the energy it can out of the blood stream to convert to store in muscles as glycogen. Get the carbs (and some protein) rolling during that window and things will be better the next day. Pretty sweet!

I started comparing different foods for the right carb-protein balance (nonfat chocolate milk apparently is about perfect and has nutrients the commercial sports recovery drinks lack). I was about three days into this process when I started to wonder:

Isn’t it good when I run out of gas while working out? Isn’t that kind of the goal of all this?

All the advice I’d read, you see, was targeted at athletes. For them, high output while exercising is the goal. Not so much for me. I want to create conditions where my body (reluctantly) chooses to break down some of that stored energy in my fat cells and use that to restore the glycogen in my muscles. This process is far less efficient, and the human body really is loath to give up its precious fat, but during that same window where the body will suck every carb out of the bloodstream, if there aren’t enough carbs, it will convert just enough fat to keep things running.

My muscles aren’t replenished as much, and the next morning’s workout will be tougher. But ideally the energy is coming from the right place.

By the time I get to work, that window has closed, and my insides have returned to business as usual. And I’m about ready to eat an entire pizza. Hooray for oatmeal! It’s carb-heavy, but low-fat and sticks to the ribs and by lunchtime I’m able to make more sensible choices as well.

So, with such a sensible system, the pounds must be flying off, right?

Well, not so much. Not yet, anyway. I’m absolutely certain that I’m on the right track, and like any long-term project, it’s best to keep expectations of instant and dramatic success tempered. But I have recently made one more change, a dramatic, desperate gesture of good health beyond all reason.

I have a target weight this month. Next month, the target weight goes down. Each morning as I prepare to exercise, I step on the scales. If I’m above the target, no alcohol that day. No beer after work, no wine with dinner. I like beer and wine. While cutting alcohol will definitely reduce my caloric intake, there is a second, even more powerful, indirect effect. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning and I just want to stay in bed, I remind myself that shirking on my exercise will only delay my next sip of sweet beer. On days I don’t bring lunch from home I think about the consequences of eating the wrong thing: Another meal with my sweetie, with no wine for me.

A coworker laughed when I told him this story, imagining me on a treadmill running full-speed for a beer hanging just out of reach. That’s not far from the truth. But if it works, that’s all right with me.


Why Being Fat and Indolent is Good for the Environment

I did some very rough calculations, once, about the actual mass of the fuel I burn when I exercise. It occurred to me today that the output of my exercise is greenhouse gasses.

Yep, each month I’m putting 2kg of CO2 into the atmosphere in my selfish desire to be healthy. And that’s nothing compared to my sweetie. She’s practically a terrorist with all the carbon she’s exhaling.

The Two Lines of Commitment

I’ve been on the exercise machine regularly again, and that feels great. I read much of the time (currently enjoying Kipling’s Jungle Book), but toward the end when I’m huffin’ and blowin’ it’s just too difficult to concentrate. So as I’m grinding out the last few minutes of my regimen I’m watching numbers. Minutes and seconds ticking down as estimated calories burned increases. I increase the resistance at the end, to make sure the final push takes all I have.

Watching the numbers as I slog along leads to negotiation. Make no mistake, during that last five-minute burn I want to quit. Two things keep me going: the line of shame and the line of pride.

If you quit before the line of shame, you are a lazy bum who half-assed his workout. If you exercise beyond the line of pride, you can high-five yourself as you collapse to the floor in a quivering mass. As you lie there you can’t help but smile, and dream of the day when today’s line of pride becomes tomorrow’s line of shame. Crossing that line makes anything seem possible. Between the two lines is the “that was an OK workout” range.

Recently I upped both lines. I did it in the middle of a workout. The line of shame went by so easily I had to push it up, and the line of pride as well. That was a good day.


On Exercise and Weight

I’ve read stuff, I’ve talked to Folks Who Know, and I’ve got personal experience. I’m about to drop a health bombshell on you, and I’m not going to cite sources. But I’m right.

Here’s the thing: Exercise doesn’t make you thin.

Sorry, Nautilus, Nordic Trac, Bowflex, and all the rest, exercise doesn’t make you thin. It does make you healthier, stronger, and by all accounts happier. Any one of those effects would be enough to make exercise worthwhile, and you get them all.

But exercise doesn’t make you thinner. Exercise makes you hungry. Exercise gives you the opportunity to get thinner, but whether you do or not is based on how you deal with the hunger. Just yesterday I had one of my best workouts in months and followed it with a second heaping helping of lasagna. I was starving. My heart is stronger, my muscles tighter, my outlook on life a little sunnier, but at the end of the day when the ledger is balanced, I’m no skinnier.

Say Watt?

While moving to our new home, many of my hard-won good health habits fell by the wayside, including getting on the trainer several times a week. Yesterday I got back on at last. Hooray! I’ll be doing it again today, you can be sure.

I’ve mused in the past about the physiological effects of burning 500 calories at a stretch, but I’ve been wondering just how accurate the readout is on the exercise machine. Do I really burn more than 500 calories each time, or is the number inflated to make me feel good? Well, let’s do a little math and see what comes out, shall we?

A calorie is a measure of energy. The first thing to do is convert that to a unit that’s easier to work with, the joule. Several conversion factors from calorie to joule exist (the calorie changes depending on conditions), but they all fall in the ballpark of 4.2 joules per calorie, or 4200 joules per dietary calorie. Multiply by roughly 500 and you get in the neighborhood of 2,000,000 joules. (We’re rounding things off aggressively here, because we are dealing with estimates anyway.)

Is that a reasonable number? It’s harder than ever to tell, but now we can figure out how many watts I’m generating. A watt is a joule per second. It takes me half an hour to burn the alleged 500 cal, so if we take our 2 megajoules and divide by the number of seconds, we get 2000000/(30*60) ≈ 1100 watts. Now there’s a number we can check.

I found this interesting article which has a lot of facts but no references. It seems to borrow (without attribution) from this wikipedia article which in turn cites “lab experiments”. Wherever the original source, we get that an in-shape person can sustain 3 watts/kg of body mass for more than an hour. So if we take what I would weigh if I was in shape and multiply by 3, that would be a reasonable output.

And that’s… 220 watts at the heaviest definition of “in shape” for me. Not even close to what the machine says.

OK, I could never sustain that rate for a full hour, so let’s fudge the number upwards a little and call it 250 watts.

That’s still less than a fourth of what the machine says I’m burning. Could it really be so far off?

Well, there’s another factor in the muddle. The articles above talk about the energy I’m producing, not the calories I’m burning. this article gives a once-more-unattributed (“has been measured”) number of 18-25% for the efficiency of human muscle. So, every joule a cyclist produces requires burning at least four joules of stored food energy.

By that estimate, if I’m producing 250 watts of power, I have to be metabolizing at a rate of about… 1100 watts!

Which is to say, 500 dietary calories in half an hour is probably a reasonable estimate, as long as we don’t forget the “estimate” part.

BONUS! Here’s another interesting article, in which the author actually cites his sources. Hooray!