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Some family and friends have been asking me to write up my thoughts on the topic of nutrition and exercise. To give proper warning, I want to say right from the beginning of this that I am not in any way a qualified expert. I'm a computer programmer who was overweight and unhealthy for most of my life until my mid-twenties, when I decided to take control, did a bunch of reading, and have been (mostly) in shape and far healthier since.
I don't want you to take anything I say as gospel; it's not. Hopefully this will give you ideas of where to start, topics worth researching, and short-circuit some of the very self-defeating confusion that I think most of us have suffered through. I'm not providing sources for what I'm writing, partly because I want you to read up on topics yourself, and mostly because I'm too lazy :).
This is something of a continuation on my post on why I lift, though in reality I started on this post first. Also, I had originally intended to make one massive post covering nutrition and exercise. Instead, I'm breaking this up into three parts. This post will set the tone and give some background information, and the following two posts will dive into each of nutrition and exercise in more detail (though still as a "naive overview").
This post series is very off the beaten track for me, and I'm still unsure if I'll be writing more like it. If you do like it and want to see more, or have some specific questions, please mention so in the comments and I'll be more likely to make future posts on these topics.
I've come up with the following philosophical points about health and fitness, which guide my own decisions a lot:
- Overcomplication is a major enemy. Should you follow a vegan diet, a paleo diet, go ketogenic, or respect GI values? Should you run, jog, sprint, lift weights, do bodyweights? This abundance of seemingly contradictory advice is the most demotivating thing out there, and prevents so many of us from getting healthy.
- While these complications are real, you can get the vast majority of benefits by following many simpler guidelines (I'll talk about those later) that almost everyone agrees on. Do the simple stuff first, worry about the rocket science later.
- If you read any nutrition study, odds are pretty high there's another study that shows the opposite result. Nutrition science is greatly lacking in replication studies, so take everything you read with a grain of salt (and yes, studies on salt are contradictory too).
- You'll be best served by following basic guidelines, getting comfortable with those, and then experimenting with different approaches from that baseline. If you're motivated to, go ahead and spend a week or three on a vegan diet, on a keto diet, and anything else you believe has a chance of working. Pay attention to how you respond to it.
Who am I?
I mentioned this a bit in the why I lift post, but I want to give a little more background here. Odds are pretty good that my baseline level of health and fitness is lower than you, the reader. As a child and young adult, I was overweight. I ate junk food constantly. I hardly exercised. I had a few brief bouts where I lost some weight, but it always came back within a year, and with a vengeance.
I've been programming since I was 10 years old. I spent hours on end almost every day since then on a computer or playing video games. I wasn't quite at the stereotype of sitting in a darkened room eating Cheetos and Mountain Dew, but I was pretty close.
Around the age of 25 (give or take a few years), I decided I had enough. I was tired of being overweight. I was scared of developing diabetes. I could barely sit at my desk for 10 minutes without back pain. I woke up in the morning and had trouble getting out of bed. I finally decided that bad health—at least in my case—wasn't a curse of genetics, but something I'd brought on myself, and only I would be able to fix it.
So as you read these posts, I don't want you to become discouraged and think "well, this guy can do this, but I never could, I'm just your average office worker." It's quite the opposite. If I've been able to overcome a lifetime of bad habits and genetic predispositions to negative health conditions, you can too.
It's useless to talk about "getting healthy" or "getting fit" without some definition of what that means. Some people are going to have very specific goals; for example, a power lifter may want to deadlift as much weight as possible, even if the process shortens his/her lifespan by 10 years. If you have such specific goals, odds are this post isn't for you.
I'm going to guess that most people reading this will probably have the same three goals, though their priorities among the goals will differ:
Improve general health/increase longevity/feel better. This would include improvements in things like:
- Cardiovascular function
- Cholesterol levels
I was specific in my wording on those first two bullets. You may think you want to lose weight, but you won't be happy if you lose weight in the form of muscle mass or (worse) organs. Similarly, you may not think you want to gain muscle, but I'd argue that you do:
- More muscle = more calories burned, making fat loss easier
- More muscle makes moving around in day to day life easier
- You'll look better (both men and women) with more muscle
Caveat: I'm not talking about bodybuilder levels here.
Nutrition and Exercise
Nutrition is what food you put into your body. Exercise is what activities you do with your body. Based on the goals above, we need to acknowledge that you need to address both nutrition and exercise to address your goals. This is the first big mistake I'll address in this post.
- If you eat a bunch of junk food, almost no level of exercise you perform will burn off the extra fat you're gaining.
- If you don't do any exercise, your body will get weaker, regardless of what you're eating.
So this is important: you need to do both. Period. If you're going to pick one of them to start off with... I guess I'd say start with nutrition, but it's really a personal call. I'd recommend starting with whatever you believe you're more likely to stick with.
My next post will dive into details on the nutrition half of the equation, and the following post will dive into exercise. If there are enough questions raised in the comments in these three posts, I'll likely add a fourth Q&A post to this series.
And if you're just desperate to read more now, don't forget about my why I lift post.