It’s a marathon, not a sprint

It’s all so fast paced today. It’s common to expect overnight turnaround on everything. Our microwaves heat up food within seconds. Our washing machines wash and dry within minutes. Our smart phones give us access to messages in milliseconds. And Facebook provides us information about everything about everyone we don’t really care about every second of every minute of everyday.

So it’s natural for us to expect things to be done quickly and this is absolutely fine. That’s what technology is meant to do – make life convenient, efficient, better, easier and, most importantly, faster.

But when we expect physiology to match technology, we have a problem. 

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Photo Credit: LindaSC via Flickr

You see, today, everyone wants to go to bed drowsy from a dozen donuts but wake up with washboard abs. And this in all probability includes you at some level. Quick results are what you’re after. You don’t care for patience anymore. You’re all about the results.

You don’t have the patience to focus on the process anymore. It’s all about what the process results in. You don’t really about the journey anymore. You’re too busy obsessing about results, you don’t take the time to enjoy the journey.

But let me know ask you this – What’s the hurry? What are you rushing towards? Why this insatiable desire to lose as much weight in as little time as possible?

It is this desperation that makes you vulnerable – vulnerable to food manufacturers who scam you into believing their food will let you have the cake and eat it too, vulnerable to pseudo-fitness gurus and gyms/fitness centers who promise you results that are too good to be true and vulnerable to a side of yourself that is always tempting you with shortcuts.

So what’s the deal then? Focus on slow gradual results over a period of time? Absolutely! And here’s why.

Firstly, any and all of your efforts towards fat loss and health are meant to be done for a long time. 3 months? No. 6? No. It’s more like for the rest of your life. In other words, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to lose those kilos that you so desperately want to lose because if you don’t keep those kilos off you’re back to square one!

One way or the other you are going to have to keep doing what you did to get there, for the rest of your life. Let’s say you ate well and exercised consistently and lost a significant amount of weight and are now at a place where you are happy with yourself. If you choose to stop and go back to living like you did earlier, you will end up going to looking and feeling like you did earlier. No doubt about that.

The only way to consistently and sustainably stay in shape and/or in good health is to make long lasting sustainable changes to your habits – physical, nutritional, physiological and social.

With that being the case, let me ask you again, what’s the hurry? What are you rushing towards?

Realize, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon and a hard one at that. The better you pace yourself, the more you learn about yourself, the better you plan your life, the more sustainable your results will be.

It’s about skills

I think I was 7 when I first tried riding a real bicycle – you know, the one without the balancing wheels and baguette basket. I spent most of my childhood being a short kid and then I grew up to become a short adult. So I clearly remember a friend helping me climb on the machine before I pushed the pedal, experienced a magical moment of lightness and then fell face down. Little did I know that the face plant was the start of a journey. An incredible journey that will have challenged my idea of movement, distances and independence.

The process of learning this simple act of moving through three dimensional space by merely pressing on a pedal was the foundation of so many things. It taught me balance, pace and focus. I experienced for the first time that amazing feeling of speed. It made distances seem plausible. It made transport more time efficient. It ended my limited world view of just a few meters and made me look further. It made me independent. It opened up a whole new world.

That’s the beauty of learning skills. Every time you learn a skill you add another tool to your toolbox and a new perspective towards life is created. You are now capable of more. Impossible tasks now seem possible. More of the world applies to you and new interests and opportunities present themselves.

Bodily movements work the same way. Every movement is a skill and needs to be treated as a skill. You need to learn the skill before you start using the skill to help you in life. The squat, which is the most fundamental movement there is, is the most basic and important skill you can learn. Once you have mastered this skill, you can move on to bigger and better things. But first, you need to master the squat. The hinge isn’t any different. You need to learn to hinge properly, and by that I mean activating the appropriate muscle groups, tempo, breathing, stability etc., before you start using the hinge in movements like the kettlebell swing, barbell deadlift, broad jump, barbell clean and snatch.

Adarsh and Chezhiyan can squat and hinge a truck but they took their time to learn the basics.

Unsurprisingly, this is the case with any movement in any activity whatsoever. Be it the pushup or the cover drive or the forehand volley or even, running. It is absolutely critical to learn to do the movement well first before you start using the movement in life – to help you lose fat or get stronger or strike the ball faster or whatever it is that you’re looking for.

But here’s the deal – failures and mistakes are a part of learning.

You will  inevitably fail in almost each progressive step and that’s OK! The failures are what makes the process educational. If you remember, learning to ride a bicycle wasn’t easy or eventless. Countless falls triggering false alarms, innumerable bruises calling for Dettol and Soframycin and scars that serve as battle wounds till today were a part of the process. But then, a priceless skill was learnt.

Raj handstand

The handstand is a skill the demands practice, patience and common sense

This holds true for movements too. The first few weeks when you learn a new movement chances are high that you do the movement wrong. You will probably feel the wrong muscles. You may feel excessively sore. You may even strain a muscle or two. But that’s OK! You are learning a skill and you are allowed to fall and, more importantly, learn from it. It is this process of learning from your mistakes that help you move towards mastery. So don’t shy away from it. Don’t lose heart. Don’t freak out. And don’t run around screaming bloody murder. It’s OK. You fell. You will get back up. You may fall again and that’s OK too. It’s only matters that you learn from your mistakes.

At the end of the day, it’s about skills. The more time you invest in learning skills, the more dedicated you are to betterment, the more tools you will possess and the more you can do in life.

Why even eat that broccoli?!

A couple of days back I was eating broccoli poriyal for lunch and thought to myself ‘Damn! This tastes pretty bad!’. My cook is pretty good at what she does (if given sufficient time and the right ingredients, of course) and generally cooks delicious food. But when it comes to unfamiliar vegetables like broccoli, zucchini, avocado etc, she’s not quite the MasterChef.

So I’m thinking ‘Why is this broccoli dish so average?’ and I come up with –

  • The quality of the broccoli is pretty bad
  • Her way of cooking broccoli, doesn’t quite gel well with how I’m used to eating broccoli.
  • The broccoli stands out as a tongue-sore in an otherwise Indian meal.

So why even eat broccoli? Why even buy broccoli in spite of it being not great in quality, hard to source, expensive and tough to pair with a typical meal? Because we are told it’s healthy healthful.

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(Image credit: http://www.info.novu.com)

I’m going to go out on a limb and bust a little bubble here for you. Nutritious food is not what the Americans eat. Or what the Japanese munch on. Or what the Kitavans lived off of. Or what cavemen gobbled up. Nutritious food is food that is high in nutrition, period. Nothing more and definitely nothing less. But Since most of the nutrition related information and data we are exposed to are from the US or Europe, we tend to believe that a nutritious diet is one dominated by salads and broccoli and quinoa and salmon and avocados and kale and berries and other ingredients we Indians had no idea about even just a couple of decade ago. Obviously that makes no sense considering how our ancestors thrived merely and purely on foods that were easily and locally available.

The fact is that in order for you to thrive you need to feed your body the required micro and macro nutrients namely protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. Where these nutrients come from can vary greatly based on geographic location, availability and cooking methods but what matters it that you nourish your body with these nutrients. Where you get these nutrients from matter less.

Let’s break this down a little bit. Why is broccoli such an ambassador of health? Because it  is low in calories and high in a few vitamins (C & K) and is rich in fiber. See WHFood image below.

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Sure, this is an impressive spread for a vegetable but this really isn’t something we can’t get from foods that are more local, easy to source, less expensive, better in quality and lend themselves to traditional cooking. In the region where I currently live in (Chennai, India), there are quite a few alternatives. Let me name a few.

Okra, the vegetable that we’re told improves ‘brain power’, has a long list of health benefits and wonderful spread of nutrients for almost negligible amount of calories. Read more.

Bitter gourd, the weirdly textured, bitter and hated vegetable, is excellent for gastrointestinal issues, ulcers, intestinal worms, kidney stones and is protection against diabetes. 

The banana flower and stem from the banana tree are so nutritious I won’t be doing justice writing just a couple of lines about them. Read more.

Add to that the various different types of spinach and the humble and simple fruits like the many types of bananas, guavas and oranges and we have pretty much every nutrient any green leafy vegetable or berry can provide you with.  And why do I not have a fancy chart like I did for broccoli? Because these foods are specific to a part of the world that isn’t the US or Europe and, since it isn’t global enough, no one cared to showcase their awesomeness in a legitimate fashion. Not yet.

So is the case with other celebrated foods like quinoa, berries, kale, olive oil etc. They are truly rich in nutrients and have the potential to make you ‘healthier’ but they are not a need or a necessity. Trying to make these foods a regular in your diet makes it unsustainable and hence useless at some point of time.

So what is the take away here?

  • Understand what healthful eating means and do that based on where and how you live. There is no one blanket recommendation for health. Not everyone needs to eat broccoli or drink kefir or cook in ghee. Form your pantry with ingredients that you like, are readily available and sustainable.
  • Identify local and seasonal foods that are healthful. Eating local produce that is in season reduces the need for pesticides, doesn’t depend on being preserved during transport, is less expensive, is more sustainable, easier on the environment and will nourish you with the nutrients you need for that particular time of the year.
  • Keep your food life simple with a few celebrated meals. For some of us in India carrot, beans, tomatoes, tubers, gourds and spinach are on our plates year around with a few special appearances every now and then. For some of us in western countries broccoli, kale, asparagus, brussel sprouts and berries may be regulars with banana stem, bitter gourd etc being specials. It doesn’t matter. It only matters that you eat foods that promote health and stay away from foods that don’t.
  • You can’t and shouldn’t try to eat everything that is healthful but you can and should work on reducing consumption of foods that are detrimental to health.

 

At the end of the day, health is a concept and the only way to make it a part of your life is to understand it. Following plans and going out of your way to source exotic vegetables won’t work for too long. Live off what your part of the earth gives you. Don’t obsess. Don’t overthink. Don’t mess with it.

Does calorie counting really count?

During my initial fat-loss days, I cooked plenty but I knew exactly what went into every meal of mine. I would mentally split each dish I cooked and come up with caloric calculations so I worked towards eating a particular number of calories, protein, fat and carbs. The numbers were important. Very important. If my spreadsheet had numbers higher than required, I’d feel like I screwed up.

Anytime and every time my wife (then girlfriend) cooked for me, we’d get into an argument ‘cos my first reaction was “Tastes great but can you tell me exactly what all you put in it… and in what quantities?” or “Wow! This is awesome! But it looks like you’ve added a little too much cream” or “I’ll just take a bite”. God bless her for marrying me.

Whenever we went out to eat, I’d either order the blandest most uninteresting dish on the menu or I’d eat beforehand and come up with an excuse for not eating or, even worse, cancel plans after knowing that the chosen restaurant had no healthful options. If I did go out to eat, I was always confused. How many calories does 3 tablespoons of daal makhani contain? How about that roti? Or that burrito?

Basically, I was a slave to numbers, a stalker to tasty food, a pain to friends, a fool to myself and a stranger to real nutrition.

Calories

If you think counting calories is way to go then you might as well believe this too

Hello there. We haven’t met, but, if you’re reading this, I’m pretty darn sure you are or were like I was. And today I hope to help you learn from my mistakes. I hope to teach you nutrition. I hope to break your shackles and let you live free as you continue to lose fat and gain health.

Why calorie counting doesn’t really count

1. Body smart. You dumb.

Realize that the human body is a product of 4 million years of evolution. It is a machine that has been continually improved. This machine is equipped with some stunning organs and millions of cells, all working to keep you alive and well. So, in spite of whatever you do to your body, it will do everything it can to make the best out of the situation and keep you alive and kicking for as long as possible.

As shocking as this might be for many of you, this machine regulates hunger, appetite, excess energy (fat) storage, fat oxidation and energy production magnificently well. That being the case,  it should be obvious that the super computer that is your body is much more capable of “counting”, monitoring and regulating calories and other nutrients than you ever can.

2. All calories are not the same

A calorie is not a calorie. In other words, calories you get from carbs are not the same as the ones you get from protein. They serve different purposes and they serve different individuals differently. Based on your genetic make-up, athletic history, current level of physical activity, hormonal (dys)regulation etc., the effect of a calorie from different foods is different on you than it is on someone else. So, setting a caloric budget and living under that, might make you skinny and weak but it ain’t making you healthy. 

3. Consumption isn’t absorption 

When counting calories, you count the calories you eat. But what is consumed is not what you absorb! Say you eat, 3000 calories/day. Depending on your gut health, chances are you won’t be absorbing all these calories. The calories in vs calories out equation holds true, but only at the gut and not at the mouth. You will need to take into account how many of your ‘consumed calories’ are converted into ‘absorbed calories’ in order to use the equation. Your simple equation just got uber-complicated. And considering there is no easy way to find out the conversion percentage, well, your equation just became worthless.

4. Health is more than calories 

Fat loss is a side effect of good health. Nothing more and definitely nothing less. While total calories matter, providing your body with enough nutrients (protein, fat, carb, vitamins and minerals) matters more. Focussing only on calories while dropping the ball with nutrients is being penny-wise, pound-foolish.

5. It is simple math. But you will get it wrong almost every time.

A banana has 80 calories. Say you eat 20 bananas in the next 10 days. So that is 1600 calories? But what if the banana was bigger or riper than the one used to make the calorie calculation? What if the banana actually had 98 calories instead of 80? That works out to be another 22.5% calories you didn’t account for. If this is the case with something as basic and unprocessed as a banana, what about cooked foods and dishes? How many calories are you really off by when you eat that avial or Korean charbroiled chicken? Is your calorie counting software telling you the truth or just spitting out a random number?

6. Life is too beautiful to be spent counting.

The only way you’re going to stay in shape is to continue counting calories for every morsel you eat for the rest of your life? Really? Definitely not what I call healthy living.

How to lose fat and gain health without ever worrying about calories

Step 1: Eat real food

Real food is any food that we humans can eat without any allergic reactions. Now this changes from person to person and most people today don’t really know what they are allergic to. But enough studies have been conducted to prove that for most people the safest non-allergenic foods that contain an abundance of nutrients are organic vegetables and fruits, farm fresh dairy, high quality meat/seafood/eggs, pre-soaked lentils/beans and cooked white rice. As a first step, build MOST of your meals around these foods and eat others sparingly.

Step 2: Prioritize the right foods 

In addition to eating real food, it is absolutely critical that you prioritize the foods that help you walk towards your goals. If fat loss is your primary goal, then prioritizing produce, dairy, meat, seafood and eggs is your fastest, healthiest and most sustainable approach. In other words, fill your plate with plenty of these and have starches (rice, other grains, beans etc.) as a side.

Step 3: Eat only when hungry 

I know you’ve been told breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that 6 small meals a day keep your blood sugar under control yada yada. But unfortunately none of that is true. You see, we humans are adapted to the ‘feast & fast’ method of eating. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we hunted and when there was food we ate like there was no tomorrow. Following that, we fasted till we found more food. The people may have changed but our genetic make up has hardly changed in the last 4 million years. So stop listening to corporations and experts trying to make a buck out of you and listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry.

And if it isn’t clear already, it is absolutely healthful to skip a meal every now and then, not because you’re trying to eat lesser calories, but because you’re just not hungry.

Step 4: Eat to satiety 

What makes sense – eating until you reach a certain number that, as explained above, has no physiological significance for a multitude of reasons, or eating to satiety? Numbers are new. So is the science of determining how many calories are present in different foods and the pseudo-science of restricting a certain number of calories to lose fat. What is old and flawless (for a generally healthy person) is the body’s ability to regulate hunger and appetite and signal satiety. So, as far as quantities are concerned, the only thing you need to do is to eat till your satiated but never till you’re full.

Spelling it out

Here is how I like to deal with nutrition. No plans. No time-tables. No nonsense. Just a simple sensible list of everything one can eat in a day. It is then up to the consumer to figure out what he/she would eat when or how based on his/her lifestyle, likes/dislikes, cuisine/recipes, food choices, availability etc.

Here is what a moderately active 70kg adult needs to eat per day in order to lose fat at an optimal rate. Eat more/less based on bodyweight and activity.

  • Organic vegetables – 300-500g
  • Organic fruits – 1-2 medium
  • Meat/seafood – 100-200g lean meat/white fish
  • Whole eggs – 2-3
  • Starch – 1-1.5 cups cooked rice or equivalent
  • Lentils/beans – 1-2 cups cooked
  • Oil – 1-2 tablespoons ghee/butter/olive oil/coconut oil
  • Farm fresh dairy – 1-3 cups whole milk/yogurt
  • Natural cheese (in place of meat) – 40-50g of paneer or other cheese

So leave the counting to blackjack and just eat real food.

Peace out.

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PS: I originally wrote this article for The Week’s SmartLife and it was published in their November ’12 edition. 

Image credit: http://www.juxtapost.com/

It’s about time you stopped exercising!

This might come across as a rude shock to some but no one wandered away and suddenly found themselves on top of Mt. Everest. It took planning, orchestrated effort, progression, dedication and commitment. So is the case with getting fit and looking awesome. If you think you can string a bunch of random exercises together and end up looking like Ryan Reynolds, you couldn’t be away from the truth.

It’s sad but the vast majority of folks today who are fitness minded or are looking to get in shape don’t really know what they hell they’re doing. Eight out of ten people who want to get in shape do “something” fitness related and expect to look like Greek Gods within a few months. This “something” could range from running everyday or spending hours on the treadmill and elliptical machines at their gym or working their abs every other day till the cows go home or attending a yoga class 5 days a week to, the other extreme of, copying what pro-bodybuilders like Schwarzenegger and Cutler do.

If you’re one of these folks, unfortunately, results are going to be so sparse that you are sure to come to the conclusion that you are doing everything possible but no change ever occurs to your physique or performance. This is where I come in and here is what I have to say.

“You have the right idea. You have the drive. You are doing your best. But, are you doing the right thing? In other words, are you exercising or are you training?”

The difference between exercise and training

Why do you think you go to school? Why do you think there are grades and exams and reviews in school? Why not just pick up a few books and start reading randomly? Why do you work at an organization with a structure? Why are the most successful organizations the ones with the best policies and strategies? Why not just walk out into the world and figure out some random way to make a living? Why do you train to get better at an art like dancing or martial arts or painting? Why do you practice the same movements and/or strokes over and over again? Why not just move your limbs the way you want to or draw some random colored lines and hope they make sense?

Success doesn’t work that way. And a transformation from fat to fit or from weak to strong or from unhealthy to healthy doesn’t work that way either.

Exercise is as any activity requiring physical effort, carried out especially to sustain or improve health and fitness. Training, on the other hand, is way more than that.

Training is the act of learning, practicing, analyzing, monitoring and progressing per a plan that is designed taking into consideration the trainee’s current position in the relevant space and future goals. It involves research and structure and testing and commitment and adherence.

It is important to understand that random acts of physical activity, though better than a carefully planned regimen of sitting and eating junk, won’t take you too far. You need a plan. You need to learn to move. You need to learn about how your body reacts to certain foods. You need a nutritional approach. You need to self-experiment. You need to strive to progress. You need to train.

Let’s cut to the chase. What should you do if you ‘really’ want to get in shape? How do you “train”?

7 steps to looking, feeling and functioning absolutely awesome

1. Understand your current situation. Are you obese or overweight? By how much? Do you have a disease you’re fighting against? How stressful is your lifestyle? How good or bad are your food habits? Do you sleep well? How low is your current fitness levels? Can you do the basic moves (squat, bend over and touch the floor, pushup) without discomfort?

2. Make an informed decision about where you want to go. What are your goals? “I want to tone up” or “I want to get fit” will take you nowhere really. Do you want to look like a model? Which one? Are you looking to fix some systemic issues (diabetes, hyper tension etc.,)? Is weight loss all you’re interested in? Are you interested in getting in shape for a particular event be it a marathon or a marriage?

3. Assess time with cognizance. Once you know where you stand and where you want to go, give yourself more than sufficient time. You can’t expect to safely go from 20 kilos overweight to a flat tummy in a few weeks and neither can you safely run a marathon or deadlift double bodyweight within a couple of months. You’d rather do something slowly and surely than to let greed lead you into a world of dreams and disappointments.

4. Make a plan or work with someone who can make one for you. If looking awesome or getting fit is your goal, you don’t have to do much but you need to do the right things. 2-3 days of full body strength training with a day of intense sprinting or light distance running coupled with a wholesome real food based nutrition plan is all you need. But realize that the specifics will change based on the thousand variables that you bring to the table.

5. Train. Stick to the plan. Learn from every training session and from every meal. Incorporate your learnings into the next session and/or meal. Strive to get better every progressing day as opposed to trying to do the same thing over and over again.

6. Monitor your progress closely. Weigh and measure yourself on a weekly basis. If things are not going the way you want them to then something ain’t right. Analyze your findings to figure out what is wrong or talk to your coach about making changes to your plan.

7. Rinse and repeat till you get to your goals.

Yes it sounds painful. And no, there is no magic bullet involved. But this is reality. This is how humans evolved and how the human body functions. Embrace it.

And realize that at the end of the day you won’t cherish the day you reached your goal half as much as you cherish memories of your efforts that led you to the goal. The journey is the reward. The sooner you realize that, the happier you will be. 

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PS: This was an article I originally wrote for The Week’s SmartLife and it was published in their May 2013 edition.

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