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WARNING Believe it or not, this post is about health and fitness, not monad transformers.

Anyone following me on Twitter over the past year has probably noticed that I've started weight lifting. At the request of some friends and family, I've been meaning for a while to write up an in-depth blog post on some topics around exercise and nutrition. But after some discussions with others at LambdaConf last week, I decided to start off with a much smaller blog post: why I started lifting, and why I think most developers—or anyone with a desk job—should do the same.

My background on this is, unfortunately, pretty standard these days.

  • I have a family history of medical conditions such as stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
  • For the majority of my life, I've been significantly overweight, at times bordering on obese. I've tried losing weight on many occassions, but historically always gained it back.
  • Slightly more unusual: I have a specific injury (I fell down a staircase onto my shoulder when I was 18) which required surgery and can cause me issues when unattended.
  • And perhaps the one almost every reader will nod in agreement to: my back used to go out regularly.

About five years ago, I decided to stop ignoring nagging health issues, fight off the laziness, do research, and make myself healthier. I've learned a lot in that time, much of which I hope to share in an upcoming blog post. In this blog post, I just want to motivate why I am so passionate about this topic now, and why I think you should be too.

While the main focus here is on weight lifting, in the sense of going to the gym and picking up heavy pieces of metal, I'd like to point out that it's hardly been an isolated activity in this journey. Highly related changes have included:

  • Significant improvements to my nutrition (again, more on this in a later post)
  • About three years of doing bodyweight workout routines (pushups, bodyweight squats, pullups, etc)
  • Performing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which can basically be described as short bouts (~20 seconds) of intense sprinting with quick recover periods (~40 seconds)

Most of the benefits I'll list below are more generally about resistance training, which will include bodyweight training, resistance bands, and weight machines. If for some reason you really don't want to lift weights, consider those as good alternatives.

NOTE Despite many stereotypes out there, my comments here are not targetted specifically at men. I believe that barring specific male advantages (like spiking testosterone production), weight lifting is just as important for women as for men. The points I list below are gender neutral. If you read any of them and think they don't apply to women, I encourage you to rethink your stance.

We have more control than we think

I can't speak universally, but I definitely know this for myself and a number of people in my life. There's a pervasive idea in the modern world that our bodies just break down, and we need doctors and medicine to fix them. While this is certainly the case sometimes, I think we've often become overly reliant on pills, where lifestyle changes could be more effective with less side effects.

Weight lifting and the other changes I mentioned are a way of taking that control back.

Strength protects us

I think there's often a negative stereotype of a "meathead" or similar who trades in brain for brawn. Besides being contradicted by actual correlative studies, this stereotype implies that strength isn't an inherently good thing for our bodies.

The main thing that got me to start going into the gym was my bad back. I would wake up some mornings and be almost unable to move. It would happen seemingly randomly. I also have a family history of this, so I just assumed this would be a regular part of my life, and I would pop ibuprofen as needed.

But then I started deadlifting. As I raised the weight (meaning I had gotten stronger), an amazing thing happened: my back didn't trouble me as much. Focus on good posture, sitting correctly at my desk, and regular heating of my back muscles have all contributed. But I believe that the most important change I've made has been the deadlifts and, to a slightly lesser extent, barbell squats.

I should also mention the negative side of lifting on this topic: if you aren't careful, you can injure yourself in the gym. I've unfortunately done this. My advice—which is ripped off from others—is to start off with very light weights and focus on perfecting your form. Don't "ego lift," meaning don't lift more weight than you can handle to feel good about some number. Lift what you can safely handle, and add weight as you get stronger and are ready for it.

Increased muscle mass is healthy

If I had heard "increased muscle mass" 10 years ago, I probably would have thought of some bodybuilder, and thought it was a vain pursuit of aesthetic beauty. And while increased muscle mass can in fact be an aesthetic feature, I believe the health benefits are even greater.

When we get sick, we'll often lose muscle mass. Having a little extra reserve prevents us from getting into danger levels. Increased body mass also leads to increased caloric requirements. Meaning if you eat a specific number of calories but have extra muscle on you, you won't put on as much fat.

Nutrient partitioning

We've all heard back-and-forths over the past decade about whether carbs are good or bad for us. I don't want to get into that now. However, I will say that elevated blood glucose levels are clearly unhealthy, as is insulin insensitivity.

One of the great things about lifting weights is that it burns muscle glycogen, your major body storage of carbohydrates. When you do this, your muscles will quickly soak up the glucose in your bloodstream, instead of it getting turned into fat or, worse, harming your body organs.

Psychologically beneficial

We all have stress in our lives. Family, work, finances, and hundreds of others. It can be difficult to cope with it.

Lifting weights is also a stress, but it's a completely different kind of stress. It's physical (though sometimes a bit mentally terrifying as well). And it's short-term, instead of the really unhealthy, cortisol-producing chronic stress many of us have.

But here's the best part for me: lifting is an escape, in a way that most other "leisure" activities (reading, watching TV, etc) are not. When I'm doing a bench press, it is a simple battle between me and gravity. There are no complex deadlocks to debug, no decisions around corporate strategy to make, no challenges with children's education.

There's a heavy thing. I pick it up. I put it down. I do it again. Its simplicity is its virtue.

More productive

Far too many of us developers spend our entire lives on electronic devices. We wake up and check Reddit/Hacker News/whatever. We watch some TV or YouTube videos. We spend all day in an office (or, in my case, home office) writing code or discussing issues on Slack/IRC/whatever. We're constantly answering emails on our phones. And then when work is over, how many of us either play video games, read Reddit some more, or work on hobby programming projects.

Far be it from me to tell people not to have open source development they do outside of work (that would be pretty hypocritical). But having something which is explicitly different from the rest of our electronic activities is a much needed break, and at least for me leads to better producitivity in the rest of my day.

A new challenge

I mentioned ego lifting above, and this section is certainly bordering on it. But it's also one of the things I enjoy the most about lifting: it's a constant new challenge. I can set new goals all the time: increase the weight on my lifts, do more reps at the same weight, or even modifying my tempo.

I need to regularly remind myself not to be stupid and push too hard. And I also need to admit that I have done stupid things in the gym in the past while trying to challenge myself. But if done safely, the constant challenges can be invigorating, exciting, and fun.

Life is more fun

Speaking of fun: when you get stronger, life is just more fun. I have four kids. They like to play (well, the three month old is slightly less active than the others). They like to play physically. And the fact that I can pick them up, toss them in the air, run around with them, and even climb through play structures in the park makes that play so much better.

Since lifting, I can play with them for longer, despite the fact that they've all grown bigger and heavier. (Though I'll admit that tossing my 4 year old is significantly easier than tossing my 9 year old.) I can't imagine what life would be like if I was unable to do more than a half-hearted game of catch for five minutes.

I've never really been into sports, so I'm not using that as a personal example. But I'd imagine those of you who do enjoy sports will find much more enjoyment in it once you've increased your strength and endurance.

Learning how to use our bodies

I remember reading a tutorial on deadlifting, and seeing the comment that it teaches you the right way to lift objects. I now regularly find myself, while moving objects around the house, naturally using deadlift techniques and cues. This helps prevent injury, and makes me a more useful person.

I have a genetic history that leads to an achilles tendon which is overly short. This leads to such issues as toe-walking, foot pain while standing, and lack of mobility/flexibility. In line with the comment above of taking control of our bodies, working on my squat has drastically improved the situation with my tendon, leading to improvements in all mentioned areas. (Though to be fair, I do still have issues here.)

In order to lift correctly, you'll need to learn how to tighten your core, tighten your lats, engage your glutes. You'll discover muscle groups you can control that you didn't know you could. You'll need to perfect your posture to nail down form.

Don't think of weight lifting as learning an isolated skill. It's a transferable activity with payoff in almost every aspect of your day to day life.

How to get started

I'm hoping to dive into details in a later blog post, but if you want to get started, my advice is: don't overcomplicate! I have a theory that a significant part of why so many people are unhealthy is the confusion around the topic (think of the paradox of choice). Choose a resistance activity and do it.

I personally think that StrongLifts 5x5 is a great place to start with weight lifting. If you want to start with bodyweights instead, I had a lot of success with the Start Bodyweight program.

This blog post is obviously an anomaly versus most of my other development-related posts. If this is something you like and would enjoy more of, please let me know. Depending on interest in it and the volume of posts on the topic, I may put the health and fitness posts in a separate part of my site. Feedback welcome!

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