Rock Week

After an extended grind at work, it was time to take a few days to get my regular life back on track. I had several goals, from getting back on the bike to installing a ceiling fan to making appointments with doctors.

I was successful-ish. I got enough done to feel like I was catching up, but I didn’t accomplish all I wanted to. I didn’t ride my bike as often as I had planned, but I got plenty of exercise. I didn’t get the new ceiling fan installed, but I learned about alternative home wiring.

I moved a lot of rock. On Wednesday I shoveled up old rock and moved it to its new home in the raised gardens where is color would not be wasted. I was pretty blasted on Thursday, but the real cost of exercise comes two days later, and in Friday I was hurtin’.

Hello, Saturday.

The night before I couldn’t sleep. A shit-ton (shit ≡ 6.5) of rock was going to be dropped in the street. There would be no stopping until all 13,000 pounds were not in the street anymore.

I woke up feeling all right, and when the Most Wise Official Sweetie called to have the rock dropped in the driveway rather than the street, my anxiety dropped. And I felt pretty good, physically.

“Today is going to suck,” Official Sweetie said. I was inclined to agree. But if you accept that going in, you can steel yourself to the pain.

The rock arrived, deposited with great care in the driveway. Five cubic yards, 6.5 tons, 13,000 pounds. A shit-ton. “That’s a lot of rock!” The dump-truck driver said, many times.

I didn’t reply, “We’re going to rock this town!” though I probably should have. I believe that was the only pun or cultural reference relating to rock that was not spoken over the next two days.

I just wanted to be a machine. Even as the great pile of rock loomed over me, I wanted nothing more than to be a tireless agent of transport. Shovel shovel shovel, trundle trundle trundle, dump. But we weren’t there yet. There was planning to do. Brian stuff.

Official Sweetie did the brain stuff. She also pushed more than a couple of barrow-loads of rock. She is tireless. She is awesome. But it was up to me to move old rock and to place the new stepping-stones.

Once I had discussed whimsey-level for the paving stone placement, and I put some math to use to establish spacing, I spent a while carrying paving stones and digging them in to their new happy places.

Eventually it was time to move rock.

Shoveling is a skill. “Lift with your legs, not your back,” is the axiom, but for the longest time my knee heartily disagreed with that aphorism. For the first few hours of shoveling I put an enormous load on my arms to compensate for all the other body parts not ready to step up. My arm was on fire and I knew there would be hell to pay. Finally I found an odd straight-backed crouching form that did not extend my knee through its vulnerable range, and shoveling improved greatly.

Eight shovels a load, around the house and up a curb. Ten-shovel loads were tough to pull up the curb so I decided to walk more, and just roll with it. It was a big job and it was going to take some time.

As night fell I was beat. Junked. But not finished. My body was hammered enough that I knew I couldn’t assume I’d be motile the next day. I really wanted to finish. My tireless, motivated bride wanted that even more than I did.

But it was not to be. My feet hurt so bad I had difficulty walking. As the night grew darker cars were giving me less room as I pushed loads of rock around on the street. “Five more loads after this one,” I told myself. I had to call it quits for the night.

I managed the five loads, another few hundred pounds of rock moved from A to B. Completely depleted I staggered home with Official Sweetie and when we got there I greeted the dogs and just lay on the floor.

My watch was happy, congratulating me on my biggest workout ever. My dogs were happy to have a chance to bury themselves in such a magnificently redolent pack leader. I was less happy; I knew that as empty as I felt at that moment, there was still a lot of rock to move.

Sunday came round, as Sundays always insist on doing, and I was mildly amazed to discover that I could move. I could even walk. I was expecting agony and I got… okness.

My feet — I don’t know if I’ve properly communicated how they felt Saturday night. I was filthy down to my pores, but I put off taking a shower as long as I could because that required standing. I was amazed that I could put on shoes, let alone walk.

The good part about Sunday was that the job was finite and known. Three or four more hours of shovel, shovel, shovel, trundle trundle trundle dump, with occasional breaks for level level level. Two wheelbarrows, two motivated trundlers, and a few thousand pounds of pebbles.

Then it was over. I gathered up our tools and staggered once last time along the path I had blazed along the street.

The rock is spread, and it looks good. My legs were noodles, but no worries about getting exercise during my time off.

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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.

Thoughts?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Whither the Weight?

Several times a week I hop on the ol’ elliptical trainer and chug away for half an hour. When I’m done the glowing readout informs me I’ve burned off somewhere north of 500 Calories.

While recognizing that the number is little more than a wild-ass guess, I find myself wondering as I plod along, “Just how much does 500 Calories weigh?”

Well, of course it’s not that simple. Calories are a measure of energy, and while I haven’t done the math, if we apply M=E/C2 we end up with a very, very small number. But we’re not annihilating matter to produce energy, we’re oxidizing organic molecules. So, let’s think about the weight of the fuel required to produce 500 Calories.

Since we’re only dealing in wild-ass approximations anyway, let’s round things off to make the math easy. If all the molecules used to produce that energy were fat, we’re talking about 50 grams. That’s something like a shot of vegetable oil.

Not bad! If I burn off a shot-glass of fat each time I exercise, I’ll be skinny in a month!

Alas, even after many months, I’m not skinny. First problem, only a tiny fraction of those 500 Calories come from fat. Fat is long-term storage and my body hangs onto it tenaciously, saving against the month when there’s no food. For most of the history of our organism and its ancestors there have been such stretches, and the ones who held onto their fat when times were good survived when things were bad. So, when energy is needed, the first to burn is the short-term storage.

But hey! Great news! The sugars and other carbohydrates used for short-term storage weigh even more! Instead of burning 50 grams of fuel, I might be burning more like 100g.

Which are quickly and efficiently replaced by the food I eat. And while my body is at it, if I’m going to insist on burning all that energy, it’s going to build up muscle mass so I can burn the fuel more easily next time. Which increases the dense muscle tissue and makes me heavier — but healthier. Ahhh! It’s all so complicated! But I’m digressing here.

Regardless of the source of the fuel and whether I actually lose weight, I metabolize something like 100g of hydrocarbons while I exercise.

Where does it go?

The answer is pretty simple, but kind of cool. A lot of the weight I lose goes right out my nose. We breathe oxygen in, and, through a ridiculously complex system of events, that oxygen gets mixed up with hydrogen and carbon from our food. The carbon atoms, now hooked up with oxygen, are carted back to the lungs and exit each time we exhale. Food in, CO2 out.

The hydrogen atoms from the food also hook up with oxygen to form water, which leaks out of our bodies in a dozen different ways (mammals are live-fast-and-squander-water creatures). There are some other byproducts of our metabolisms, like nitrogen from burning protein, that make their way out in our pee.

But most of the mass (and hence weight) oxidized due to my time on the trainer flows out my nose. When the gentle chime tells me my travails are done, I’ve exhaled enough carbon to make a 500-carat diamond*. And each time, it’s a little bit easier.

*The mother of all wild-ass guesses!

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