Fitness hacks: What if you are too busy to be fit?

Situation 

You’re busy. You have long hours at work or an unruly child or are an internet addiction. There never seems to be enough time. Not just for exercise but for anything. How do you stay fit? 

Guardian guide to running - GPS watches - video

Solution 

The long term solution is, of course, to smartly rearrange your day and make time for things that matter i.e. getting your priorities right. But what about the short term? 

Option 1 

Wear your shoes, carry a watch and get out of the house. Set a 20-30 minute timer. Start walking or running based on your capability. Every 2-4 minutes stop and do a few pushups or burpees. Yes, people will stare. At the 10-15 minute mark, turn around. Make it back on time. Don’t worry. The mess at home will wait for you.

Option 2 

Do 100 burpees. Pick a version of the burpee based on your capabilities – Beginner burpees or with pushups or with pushups and pullups. Do 100. It should take you anywhere from 6 to 20 minutes based on your fitness level and the kind of burpee you’ve chosen.

Option 3 

Set a 10 minute timer. Do as many burpees as possible. Push as hard as you can on that day. Some days you’ll get 50 and some days you’ll get 150. Doesn’t matter. Just work as hard and safely as you can for 10 straight minutes.

Option 4 

Set a 20 minute timer and do as many rounds as possible of  (7 squats, 5 pushups, 3 pullups) or (3 squats, 2 pushups and 1 pullup) if you can’t do too many pullups at once.

Option 5 

Find a building with 3 to 5 floors. Run from the ground level to the terrace as fast as safely possible. Walk back down slowly. Repeat for a total of 6 to 10 rounds.

Truth is, you don’t need a gym or 2 undisturbed hours everyday or the latest and greatest equipment to get fit. All you need is the will to be fit and you will find a way to get there and stay there!

When in doubt, keep it simple.

The best kept secrets to muscle building!

 The word “muscle” to men is as exciting as chocolate to kids. We can’t enough of it. We love muscle and everything that is associated with it. Gaining muscle, working muscles, looking muscular, sore muscles and being muscle bound are all terms that will make any guy take a second look.  But not everyone is able to gain muscle and very few men actually end up looking muscular. Why? What are the secrets behind building slabs of muscle? What is that special training program one needs? What supplements should you take? Let’s find out.

JasonStatham1

You see, building muscle is a very slow and painful physiological process. In all honesty, losing 5 kilos of fat is so much more easy than gaining 5 kilos of muscle. To be specific, it is very possible to lose 5 kilos is 5 weeks for most people but gaining 5 kilos of muscle  is a task that could take anywhere from 5 months to 3 years depending on the trainees current status, genetic make-up, training intensity, nutrition and other lifestyle factors such as sleep and stress. 

Though incredibly hard, muscle gain is a simple process and the “lift heavy, eat big and sleep plenty” is a mantra that always works. To be more specific, in order to gain muscle you will need to lift heavy loads and there is no way around it. Now, the load you lift could be barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, your own bodyweight or even unconventional objects like stones and rice sacks. The tools don’t matter much, at least not as much as the resistance they provide and the intensity you lift with do. Irrespective of what tools you use, you will need to work in the 6 to 12 repetition range and you will need to work the right movements. More on that later, but let’s get to the point here.

How fast you grow and how much muscle you build will depend on many aspects of yourself and your training self. 

Your training age 

Beginners tend to gain muscle much faster than advanced athletes who already have a significant amount of muscle on their frame. As a complete beginner one can expect to gain a good 10-12 kilos of muscle, albeit along with a very noticeable amount of fat, with a year a consistent, diligent, linear progression based training. But if you’ve been training consistently and legitimately for 2 years or more, expect to gain 1 to 3 kilos of muscle per year and not much more. As your training age increases, the rate of muscle gain will decrease and there’s nothing (natural) you can do about that. So be smart and work on getting stronger and gaining muscle right from the early days of your fitness journey.

Your training program 

Big lifts are critical for muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) mainly because they activate the most muscle fibers and hence cause the greatest testosterone and growth hormone secretion. So make sure your training program is dominated by squats, pushups, bench presses, overhead military presses, pullups, rows, deadlifts and/or heavy kettlebell swings. Biceps and tricep exercises can be included as supplementary moves but they have very little benefit since every pull you do (pullups, rows etc.,) work your biceps more than any curl can and every push (pushups, presses, bench presses etc.,) burns your triceps more than any isolation exercise (tricep extensions, for example) will.

Your lifestyle 

When gaining muscle and size is the main goal, you’ll need to make some changes to your lifestyle. In general, you will need to sleep more, stress less and move less. To be more specific, get at least 49 hours of sleep per week, keep a log to check how often you get stressed or lose your temper and limit that to twice a week and remove all forms unnecessary movement that causes energy (calorie) usage. Sports, cardio, running, cycling, swimming etc., need to be restricted to 30 to 40 minutes a week and strictly only at an enjoyable intensity. The higher the intensity in such activities, the more calories you’ll burn and that, in your case, will mean wasting calories that could potentially be used to help you recover from you previous strength training session and to promote hypertrophy.

Your nutrition 

The most important rule for gaining muscle is to eat above satiety i.e. you will need to eat more food that your body needs. Let’s say you need 2000 calories per day in order to maintain your current body composition. You will then need to eat anywhere from 2200 to 2700 calories per day in order to even expect muscle growth. Now this doesn’t mean you go about counting every morsel you eat. Generally, if you (60 to 80 kilos) eat wholesome real food which is partitioned fairly well with enough protein (~ 100 to 150 grams), good fat (~ 80 to 120 grams) and starch (200 to 300 grams) along with a reasonably well planned and intense strength training routine, you will grow and there is no denying that. But to hit these numbers without counting you will need to eat wholesome protein rich foods above satiation i.e. till you feel full and also add a handful of nuts and dried fruit as an extra snack. And just so we’re clear, junk food is a NO. Though your goal is to gain weight, junk food and gluttony will not help one bit and only result in gaining fat.

 Your supplements 

Now realize that there is absolutely no supplement that will help you if you bypass the steps mentioned above. Supplements are meant to supplement your training and nutrition and nothing more. For the common man looking to gain some muscle and look awesome, a multi-vitamin pill, some whey protein, ZMA (zinc + magnesium) and maybe, creatine is all you need.

There you have it. The most well kept secrets of muscle building are not complicated and new but simple and archaic. Drop the mass gainers and steroids and pick up a fork and some heavy iron.

Peace out.

PS: I originally wrote this article for The Week’s SmartLife health magazine. This is the unedited version.

All about daal

And by daal I mean lentils, legumes and beans. We love ‘em, don’t we? They’re such a significant part of the Indian cuisine that you can’t ever find someone who isn’t fond of them. And rightly so, from the nutritional standpoint. Wonderful micronutrient balance, extremely rich in folate and molybdenum, scarily high in fiber, excellent source of low GI carbs and a decent source of vegetarian protein! What’s not to love for a carb loving vegetarian society?

chana-pindi-recipe

(This amazing photo was shot by the author of this really cool recipe –  www.vegrecipesofindia.com/pindi-chana/)

Anyways. Let’s keep the love and pride going but let’s be careful to not get carried away because these little pods of nutrition aren’t entirely harmless.

Phytate alert 

Now, lentils contain something known as ‘phytates’. We wouldn’t worry much about these little guys if they behaved well. But they don’t. They inhibit and/or slow down absorption of nutrients from healthful foods that work so hard to consume. So in order to reduce phytate content, our ancestors traditionally soaked all lentils, legumes and beans before cooking and consuming them. If anything that changed since then, it is the fact that we consume much lesser nutrients today and it becomes even more important to ensure their absorption is not inhibited.

Carb alert 

Also, remember that lentils are only a decent source of protein but they are a great source of carbohydrates. Depending on the type, each cooked cup will contains 12-20 grams of protein and 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrates. So the ratio between protein and carbohydrates will be ~ 1:3. Now that’s not too bad for most of us.

But the problem is when we combine it with a starch like rice or roti. Since the rice or roti is basically all carbohydrate, the ratio drifts more towards carbohydrates and ends up at ~ 1:6. Which is, well, bad especially considering most of us eat way too much carbohydrate rich foods all day everyday.

Fat alert 

And who eats a plate of lentils just steamed or cooked? We like some tadka on it or we like to maakhni it up or just add some all powerful ghee to it. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating fat, be sure to not overdo it. You don’t want too much tadka or ghee on your daal or beans. And if you’re eating daal maakhni or any preparation of lentils that is rich, you want to remember that it’s not just a harmless bowl of lentils but a dish is dominated by fat and carbohydrates.

Stupid alert 

1 cup means 1 standard cup which is 240 ml. Yes, that coffee tumbler you have at home. No, not the rice bowl you’re pointing at.

Enough alerts. Time for fixes.  

But it’s OK. Not everything is lost. I have some fixes that will help you continue the lentil love saga without having to loosen your trousers.

  1. Soak lentils, legumes, beans and even grains for a few hours before cooking.
  2. Keep the starchy foods to a minimum when you’re going lentil crazy. Yup. No roti or rice. Sucks. But you got yourself into this mess.
  3. Save the rich and creamy lentil dishes for a day of indulgence, which, I’m sure we’ll all agree, isn’t too rare these days.

Cool? Now, if you’d like to understand more, here are some links for further reading.

  1. Stephan Guyenet explains why lentils are real food and how to prepare and consume them for optimal nutrient absorption.
  2.  The fine folks at the Weston A. Price Foundation take it a step further and discuss phytates in detail.
  3. And finally, the in-depth nutritional profile of lentils on WHFoods.com.

Now, you tell me. Was this helpful? Did you learn a thing or two you could use in daily life? Do you have related questions? The more you talk, the more I talk. So share your thoughts here and share the knowledge for your health conscious friends on social media.

Always remember – when in doubt,  keep it simple.

Fixing sleep

A week back we posted a test on The Quad’s Facebook page that urged folks to to calculate their health score. The test was pretty simple. Health being a result of more than just dieting or exercising, the following equation was taken into consideration.

Health = Activity + Nutrition + Sleep + Stress 

Folks were asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 on each aspect of health. 5 stood for awesome and 1 stood for awful. Here is the original post.

A bunch of folks took the test and the results were revealing, to put it mildly. It was obvious that folks who focus on nutrition and training suffer from sleep issues. For some of us it is the lack of sufficient sleep while for some others it is disturbed sleep or feeling fatigued even after a supposedly good night’s sleep. What you need to realize is that sleep is a big big part of health and fat loss. To put it simply, if you’re sleep deprived you can be sure that your fat loss efforts won’t go too far and your health isn’t going to get any better, irrespective of how well you eat or how much you exercise.

To elaborate, during all our waking hours we place our bodies under stress (work, traffic, shallow breathing, deadlines, domestic quarrels etc) or we give it work (digestion, blood pressure variability control, excessive mental stimulus etc). It is when we sleep that all repair and replenishment occur in the body. It is the time for recovery. It is the time when all our efforts towards health come together. Click here for an amazing pictorial representation of why sleep is incredibly important to health and the effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep being such a critical part of health, shouldn’t fixing sleep issues be a priority? Here are 5 incredibly simple ways to do exactly that.

Cal sleeping

Calvin doing what he does best

Dark is awesome

Turn off all lights (including night lamps), cover the LED display from your AC or alarm clock and use blackout curtains to block all night. The “glow” from electronics is the issue here. The small amounts of light from these devices pass through the retina into a part of the hypothalamus and delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. This is by far your best bet when it comes to sleep quality. The fix is simple – keep your electronics our of the bedroom. Yes, we know about your phone being your alarm. BS. Get a simple alarm clock.

Less is more

Sleep less but plan on it. Like in most things, sleep quality is much more important than sleep quantity. Look into your day and carve out the perfect time to sleep based on your lifestyle. For some, early to bed and early to rise works wonders as that is their undisturbed time while for some others, sleeping late and waking up late works better. When sleep deprivation is an issue, one is not better than the other. Find what works for you and work towards hitting the bed during that golden window.

Stay clam

Stress is directly related to sleep issues and vice versa. Sleep deprivation causes stress which piles up with other work and domestic stressors to result in more disturbed sleep and hence sleep deprivation. If you find yourself stressed out at various points of the day (angry, emotional, irritated, hungry, jealous), then it’s fair to assume that your sleep issues are a result of stress. Stay calm and sleep more.

Move

Let’s face it. Some of us don’t do shit all day long. Even though we are mentally exhausted, physically we don’t do anything that deserves high quality rest. Your body needs to work as much as it needs to rest. So do the needful – exercise regularly and stay active everyday by doing more activities of daily life. No. Lounging, sitting at a desk, driving or going for a short work don’t count. You need to breathe hard, sweat and tire yourself out optimally.

Supplement

Once you have tried all the above ideas and if none of them fix your issues completely, supplementation is an option. Magnesium is a wonder supplement that almost all of us lack in your diets today and is something that calms you down and regulates sleep quality. Look for magnesium oxide or citrate or any other ‘ide’ or ‘ate’ and supplement per RDA. For those who train hard, ZMA (Zinc and Magnesium) is a good option, as it helps with recovery too. Stay away from melatonin and other sleep inducing hormones ‘cos, well, they’re hormones and like all other supplemental hormones, will cause major issues in the long run.

Trust me. Put work away and hit that snooze button. The world will still be crazy and messed up when you wake up.

Beyond miles, minutes and medals

On Sunday, 1st December 2013, more than 7,500 folks gathered to run what was possibly Chennai’s largest fitness event – The Wipro Chennai Marathon. Firstly, kudos to the organizers for such a wonderful event. I didn’t get to run this one, but the word on the street is that the run was beautifully planned and executed. Secondly, congrats to everyone who participated in the event.

So how did you do? Awesome or awful? Did you blast through it or did you suffer your way to the finish? Did you make yourself proud or did you walk out feeling defeated?

If it’s the former, I’m here to offer you a different perspective on running. If it’s the latter, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t matter. Because the joy of running is beyond what miles, minutes and medals can capture.

TWCM3a

Photo credit: Weekend Studios, The Wipro Chennai Marathon 2013

Most of you who have followed me know that I started my journey towards health and fitness with running. I was a running junkie and enjoyed every second of being one. For the runners who don’t know me, I’m the guy who writes about smart training and how to not be a dumb runner- something running junkies are never fond of. More on the subject here, here and here.

Thanks to a lifetime of sedentarism and asthma, my entry into running was dominated by suffering. My first run lasted an amazing 100m at the end of which I found myself sitting on the pavement panicking and hurriedly taking puffs from my inhaler. A month of relentless consistent running and I broke the 1 mile barrier in (a painful) 23 minutes. It took me 6 months of hidden-running (on the side-roads post 10pm) before I could muster the courage to sign up for an official run and boy do I remember that one vividly.

It was the Skyline Ridge 14 km Trail Run which took place in Palo Alto, California. I had set myself a goal of 85 minutes.

I land up at the start all excited and I see a total of just about 150 people. Most of these folks were in pretty good shape, had hydration packs, compression shorts, dry-fit tees, funky shoes, crazy watches and no ear phones. And there I was wearing tracks I’d bought the previous week, a zipped hoodie that I wore to work, an old heavy pair of Reebok sneakers, a regular water bottle with water and a heavy-ass 1st generation iPod in my pocket that threatened to pull my pants down anytime. Excellent. I’d brought a knife bunch of old rusty crap to a gun fight.

Nevertheless, I present myself at the start line and listen to the organizer explain the running route as he points up to a, ummmm, moutain! No maps. No directions. Just a couple of colored ribbons tied to branches which are meant to keep you on track. In other words, if you’re left behind, you could be lost.

The whistle blows. I turn on the first song on my playlist and start running. With sub-zero temperatures and altitude, I instantly find myself struggling to run and in about 15 minutes a feeling of over-expanded lungs forces me to stop and use my inhaler. I see people of various ages and sizes zip past me and I can’t help but feel small. So I decide to pick up my feet.

I turn up the volume, focus harder and accelerate. I overtake a good number of folks. I feel alright. I’m at mile # 2 and I keep this going for another 2 miles. At mile 5, an unexpected hill presents itself and I’m hit. And this time I’m down and the inhaler doesn’t seem to help either. I realize I don’t have it in me to get back up.

I start to really panic. How am I going to finish within 85 minutes? What if I’m among the last few? What if I finish so late there is no one to cheer at the finish line? What if they publish the results? What if I get lost? What if this asthma episode is real bad? Do I have to call for help?

I decide to calm down and breathe. Almost completely broken, for the very first time in the last 50 minutes of turmoil, I look around me and I was breathless. But this time, in a whole other way.

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Photo credit: www.atrailrunnersblog.com

Everything that is right about the world was right in front of my eyes but I refused to open my eyes. Silence in all it’s glory encapsulated me but I rebelled with music. Water in it’s purest form hydrated me but I said no thanks to the mist and wiped myself dry.

What am I doing here? What am I trying to prove here? Who am I trying to prove it to? Who am I racing against? Is it the 70 year old man running ahead of me? The ultramarathoners who ran their way from home to the start line? The world that talks but doesn’t care?

I said, fuck it. I’m going to live this run. I’m not going remember my first run as the one that made me feel miserable. I’m going to love every remaining second of this trail. It doesn’t matter if I have to walk it or even if I have to call for help, but I was going to savour every remaining moment.

skylinefinal1

Photo credit: www.atrailrunnersblog.com

And so I did.  I finished the run in about an hour and 40 minutes. Not the first. Not the last. I placed 41 among 71. But that didn’t matter anymore. It was not about ranking and timing anymore but about collecting memories. And from then on, for me, running was about the experience.

You see, running is a sport. How fast your run your 10k means something. Running your first half marathon or full marathon is definitely something you should train meticulously for. But before all that, running is a passion driven activity and it is important that you enjoy it for the right reasons.

So for a minute, forget how well or badly you did. Forget your timing. Forget how far you ran. Forget the difference between you and the overweight unfit runners who huffed and puffed their way to the finish. Forget the many miles between you and the faster runners who you barely caught sight of.

Take a moment to look beyond numbers. Remember the weather, the rain, the darkness, the sound of your heart pounding, the bounce from each step, the wind, the views, the excitement, the motivation, the smiles, the sweat, the grit and, finally, that feeling of liberation.

Take a moment to relive the experience ‘cos at the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.

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