Mysteries of the Gym, Part V: Two Months Later
It’s hard for me to believe, but it’s been two months since I started going to the gym. And it’s even harder to believe that I actually enjoy it! Read onward for the final chapter in this two-month experiment.
Here’s a quick recap of the past 4 posts I’d made on the gym experience:
The First Day: Although joining the gym seems expensive, I realize that going to Starbucks every morning actually costs more for less benefit. When I factor the common health insurance benefit (about $200 a year), the first year ends up being $300 invested in my health. After the first year, the cost drops to a ludicrously cheap $40/year. Convinced but highly self-conscious, I research what to wear so I don’t look like a dork. I also pay an additional $99 for eight 1-hour training sessions from a club trainer. The first week is largely about using the machines in the cardio room: the stairmaster, the stepper, the elliptical, the treadmill, and the stationary bike. The stepper I find particularly mesmerizing, though I last all of 2 minutes on it before staggering off.
The First Week: I’d heard that the gym is deathly boring, and so I purchased my first iPod (a sleek 8GB Nano) to load up with podcasts. To my surprise, I discover that I don’t even want to listen to them, as there are plenty of new experiences to maintain my interest. For one thing, I find the heart rate monitor to be invaluable in gaging my level of workout, and correlating that number with the awareness of my own body stress level is very interesting. I become aware that my body has things to teach me, now that I am actively listening to it.
The Second Week: Everything that I had feared had not come to pass, these bogeymen being boredom, frustration at my lack of progress, social embarrassment, and a feeling of failure. Instead, I feel good about having gone nearly every day of the week and putting in the time to sweat. Expending energy feels good. I’ve also learned how to tell when my body is lying to me and when it’s telling the truth. For example, the body’s claim of “ok, I’m tired, let’s stop” can be easily ignored because the body has incredible reserves; just slow down a bit, and speed up again once the complaining stops. Amazing.
The First Month: I am pretty convinced that I like going to the gym every morning. For one thing, it helps maintain the momentum of the day, which is kicked off by meeting up with a growing group of friends and acquaintances at the local coffee shop. Secondly, there are so many things to do at the gym that I can’t foresee getting bored for some time. Not only are there new muscles to test and develop, but there just isn’t enough time to do everything you want. In this respect, the gym experience reminds me of the level grind in World of Warcraft. The difference is that the character you’re working to improve is you, and that’s just awesome.
Which brings me to today, the day after Labor Day here in the United States. I’d started my gym regimen just before the Independence Day holiday, and it was interesting to look back and see what kind of progress I’ve made.
When I started two months ago, maintaining my heart rate around 135-140 BPM on the treadmill was about what I could do without starting to feel winded. I would do about 15 minutes on the elliptical, followed by 15-25 more minutes on the treadmill.
At around the one month mark, I started getting a little bored by the elliptical and treadmill. I realized that this was because I was now able to maintain that 140 BPM rate without really trying anymore. I was very conscious about how hard my body was adapting to the increased demands being placed on it, and at the one-month mark it seemed that my body had adapted itself to take it.
I started to increase my exercise in short bursts to elevate my heart rate by 5-10 BPM. I found that just a short 10-15 burst was sufficient to get the body to raise the heart rate, but it took several minutes to fall back to pre-burst levels. Fascinating. I started setting BPM targets for the week, using the handy age versus heartrate recommendations charts that are printed right on the machines. I’m about 40 years old, and the 80% cardio rate is about 145 BPM depending on which machine I’m on.
Over the next couple weeks, I started to noticed that I could maintain burst levels for longer periods of time, and that I didn’t seem to notice any throbbing in my head or running out of breath. I increased my BPM target by about 5 every week, using the heart rate monitor to set my pacing and paying very careful attention to my breathing rhythm while keeping extremely alert for any twinges or stresses whatsoever internally. I didn’t want to blow a blood vessel. I would periodically look in a mirror to check my eyes to see if I saw any increased redness there too. I also made sure to work up slowly to the BPM target over several minutes, and would take the same number of minutes to cool down back to a relatively low 135BPM before getting off the machine.
ASIDE: The prudent thing to do would have been to see a doctor first and get my blood pressure tested, but the last time I’d gone I discovered that my blood pressure was actually surprisingly low, as were my cholesterol levels so I figured I was probably OK. :END ASIDE
It was also around this time that I discovered that I really did like The Stepper. This is a machine that bounces you up and down in a leg-bumping upright position. It’s about as brutal as the automatic stair-climbing machine, except it is self-paced. It’s this self-pacing feature that I like, because it allows me to quickly vary my level of challenge instantaneously. The Stepper I’m using measures your challenge level in terms of “building floors climbed per minute”. At a moderate rate of about 7-8 floors per minute, this machine burns 1000 calories an hour. At about 10 floors per minute, it burns 1200 calories per hour. I was able to last a whole 10 minutes before staggering off, and I arbitrarily set a target of being able to do 100 floors in 10 minutes as my minimum Stepper regimen in the morning before switching to something easier.
The mystique of the Stepper continued to haunt me, so on days I was feeling particularly fresh I pushed the time to 15 minutes and 20 minutes; this latter a major milestone, because one of the Steppers uses this as its default workout length. Yesterday, as a kind of two month gym graduation exercise, I was able to stay on the machine for 42 minutes, with an average heart BPM of about 165, burning about 750 calories. And when I got off the machine, I wasn’t totally wiped out. In fact, I felt kick-ass!
I’ve noticed that my endurance and stamina has increased noticeably, particularly during this year’s summer of helping friends move. I didn’t get tired. I had learned to pace my energy through the machine conditioning, and so long as I drank enough water and had some chocolate to nibble on, I was able to maintain pace without really feeling the need to stop. At the end of these moving days, I would feel tired, but it wasn’t the debilitating “I’m going to die” tiredness that I’d had in the past. Pretty darn cool.
WEIGHT CHANGES, STRENGTH TRAINING
Weight loss, while desirable, wasn’t my main motivation. I figured that if I could learn to like the gym and develop a habit, then weight loss would start to happen as a natural side effect. While I did lose about 10 pounds the first two weeks, the drop hasn’t continued. I have, however, gotten stronger due to the weight training introduction we did at around the two week mark. Here are some things I’ve noticed lately:
I was carrying a basket of laundry downstairs, and noticed that I could swing it around more gracefully without colliding into that post at the bottom landing.
I had to reach for something on a high shelf, and noticed that when I stood up on my toes I could go a little higher and hold the position longer.
The cat seems lighter, though I know he is not.
I played volleyball in the park for the first time, and my whole body seems to know how to move.
The amount of weight I am pushing around while doing the resistance training has also risen by about 30%. My leg strength is probably the most noticeable, as I’m leg pressing 220 pounds now (I’ve always had very good leg strength). My upper body is considerably flabbier, but my shoulders and back no longer have that “half-inflated” feeling that I didn’t know was bothering. The muscles back there have been activated, which has resulted in slightly-improved posture.
After starting with the muscle group machines in the “beginning weight training” machine room, I expressed some boredom with these and was shown other machines that use slightly different mechanics. Unlike the beginning machines, the other ones tend to require more balance because the arm and leg motions are not locked together. For example, consider the “lat pulldown”, a motion that challenges your side-back muscles to pull down from the top of your head to your chest. In the beginning machine, the motion is equally shared because you grasp a single bar with both hands. In the more “advanced” machine, each arm moves independently. I found this required more concentration and tension in my “core”. We also covered individual muscle machines, like bicep curlers and so forth, but I actually found these pretty boring. My trainer told me to at least do the muscle group exercises (chest press, shoulder press, lat pulldown, leg press) regularly. It’s ok to add in the other exercises as I see fit at the stage I am at now. The way I can tell if a machine is multiple-muscle or single-muscle is to count the number of joints I’m moving: if more than one is working, it’s a muscle group.
At around the 5th week, I mentioned to my trainer that I felt like I had things to do for my legs, arms, shoulder, and chest, but the middle part felt like it wasn’t doing much. I had found the core-building medicine ball exercises really dull, and hadn’t been doing them. So, I got introduced to a few additional machines that made working the core easier for me:
- A bench that you can use to arch your back up (the motion reminds me of a dolphin jumping out of the water)
- A twisting weight machine
- The various abdominal crunch machines
- The leg crunch stand, where you hold yourself up by your arms and pull your legs up. I keep sinking, though, so I think I need to wait until my shoulder strength is up by doing “dips”.
What I’ve come away with is that there are hundreds of muscles that work in different directions and apply different forces. Right now, I’m focused on just figuring out where the muscles are, and increasing my strength in what I guess could be called “common motions”. I can see the appeal of bodybuilding now; the body is incredibly adaptable. Being able to tune your body so it does what you want is one of the coolest things you can possibly do, because you can bring that elevated level of physical competence with you wherever you go. I am presuming, of course, that you’re also working your brain at the same time to create the total package. Awesome.
OTHER LESSONS LEARNED
In addition to the physical insights, I’ve learned quite a bit about habit forming, endurance, and the connection between an active body and an active mind. I’ll likely talk about these sometime in the future, particularly the idea of designing habit-building safaris for those challenging self-improvement projects.
Another principle that I’ve become reacquainted with is that of the continuum of resistance that is a prerequisite for developing greater strength and training to higher levels of ability. However, if you don’t have an immediate feedback mechanism to gauge your instantaneous level of effort, the exercise feels a little pointless to the ever-fickle brain. For the cardiovascular work, the key mechanisms are heart rate monitoring and the 30 minute minimum time. The qualitative feedback mechanism is the experienced level of exhaustion. For the weight training, it’s the amount of weight lifted and the number of full sets of repetitions completed, qualitatively reinforced by the soreness of muscle building in the following day.
The gym is cool. I should have done this a long time ago. It would not have been possible for me if I hadn’t already formed a habit of waking up and going to the coffee shop every morning (ongoing since January). And of course, I am fortunate that I am a freelancer, and can afford to set my hours accordingly.
While weight loss is not really occurring, it appears that I am slowly sliming down and getting stronger. Pants are even fitting a little better. And just the other day, I reached down to scratch my butt and encountered an actual muscle that had apparently formed over the past 8 weeks. I was surprised and gratified in the same way one might be when happening upon a crisp 10 dollar bill hidden in a pile of old receipts.
My next habit-building safari may be to incorporate healthier and more regular eating into my daily regimen so I can actually lose more body fat. I’m currently stuck at 215lbs right now. My trainer says that with my body type, I may not actually drop that much if I continue to develop strength; apparently I have the power-lifter body type that builds muscle with the abandon with which I slather mayonnaise tomato sandwiches. Personally, I was hoping to discover my inner Chow Yun Fat, but I guess I am destined to forever be Odd Job.