Friday, January 20, 2012

A Break in the Routine

Just before Thanksgiving I had cataract surgery.  The procedure turned out fine but the ophthalmologist who did the follow-up exams was extra cautious and told me not to do any strenuous workouts for three weeks.  When you’re serious about staying in shape, you try not to skip workouts because you know you will end up paying for it afterwards.  A week away from the gym is no big deal; two weeks means you have to backtrack a bit; after three weeks you have to really push to get back to where you were.

I do three “big workouts” per week.  These take a bit less than two hours and consist of 35 minutes of cardio (intervals on the elliptical averaging about 88% of maximum heart rate) plus some combination of weights, strength ball training, and plyometrics.  (I do this because I like to have rest days in between when my body can fully recover.)  I also do Ab Ripper X three times a week, usually on different days.  During the winter, if this is all the exercise I’m getting for the week, I add a DVD workout from P90X.  When it’s warm out, I work outside which gives me all the additional exercise I need. 

Since all of my normal workouts had been ruled out by the doctor, I decided to do slower, longer, more frequent cardio sessions.  I went to the Y four or five times a week and did a half hour walking on the track, following by 45 minutes on the elliptical at 80% of maximum heart rate.  I figured this would burn off most of the calories that my regular workouts did so at least I wouldn’t put on much weight. 

After three weeks I went back to my regular workouts but it was almost Christmas, when the gym is sometimes closed and delicious, high calorie foods are everywhere you go.  Around New Year’s I weighed myself and was thrilled find that I had gained only a pound or two.  Getting rid of that would be no problem, I thought.  Three weeks later I’m sitting here with that same pound or two of weight, in spite of regular workouts and sensible eating. 

This situation illustrates why it is important to look at both weight and percentage of body fat.  Here’s what I think happened.  Even though I was doing cardio and burning calories, I wasn’t lifting weights.  This meant that I was losing muscle mass.  Because fat weighs less than muscle, I lost muscle mass but didn’t put on much weight.  Now that I’m doing my usual routine I’m gaining muscle mass, which may initially cause me to put on a couple of pounds.  Eventually, though, the extra muscle will burn more calories and my weight will go back to where it was. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Plyometrics and Agility Ladder Drills

Jumping, hopping, running up the stairs two at a time:  these quick, explosive movements are second nature to young children.  By the time I was twenty this sort of exercise seemed like way too much work.  A couple of years ago I decided to work on agility and quickness and discovered that exercise science has a name for this sort of training.  Plyometrics, as it is called, was invented in Russia by Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky in the 1950’s as a way to improve power and jumping ability for the track athletes he was coaching.

A plyometric move consists of the rapid stretching of a muscle (eccentric phase) immediately followed by the rapid contraction of that muscle (concentric phase).  The web site gives a clear description of how it works.  Research has shown that plyometric training, even in limited doses, can improve agility and quickness in a variety of activities.  I’ve been using several types of plyometric exercises in my workouts:  jumping jacks as part of the warm-up, hopping onto and off a small stool, and stepping onto and off a taller stool somewhere in the middle of the workout, and exercises with an agility ladder at the end.

An agility ladder is basically is series of slat-like plastic pieces spaced at regular intervals along two pieces of tape.  When laid flat, it can be used for a variety of drills including jumping and hopping routines, such as hopscotch, and stepping exercises that resemble dance steps.  I never was much good at learning dance steps and I suspect that the stepping routines are probably using an underdeveloped part of my brain, as well as helping my coordination and balance.  There are lots of good agility ladder drills on the Internet: has some here:  There is also an excellent book devoted to both plyo and agility work, Training for Speed, Agility, and Quickness by Brown, Ferrigno, and Santana, which comes with a DVD demonstrating some of the exercises.

I’m not a real athlete and probably never will be, but I think that better agility and quickness can benefit me when I’m walking around, driving, and doing other everyday activities.  It also seems to help me move with more confidence.  Stepping exercises can be fun once you get over the initial, tripping-over-your-own-feet phase; plyometric routines are just plain hard work.  I recently watched the Plyometrics DVD that is part of Tony Horton’s extreme fitness program P90X.  The DVD features Tony, then 45, in the gym with three younger, very fit people.  Three-quarters of the way through all four of them are sweating and panting.  If it’s hard for them, it’s hard for everybody!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Supplements 1

When I was in my twenties and thirties I used to get lots of bruises on my arms and legs.  I started reading about what might be causing these and learned that smoking, stress, and drinking alcohol (yes, yes, and yes) can all deplete vitamin C.  I started taking a vitamin C supplement and there was less bruising.  This experience caused me to pay more attention to  nutrition. 

In those days I would sometimes visit my parents and notice how little they were eating; such a meager diet, I thought, couldn’t possibly provide all the nutrients they needed.  I suggested to my father that they take a multivitamin.  My father refused, saying his doctor had told him that a balanced diet provides all the nutrients a person needs.  Taking supplements, the doctor said, just produces expensive urine.  I believe that my parents’ final illnesses were both worsened by malnutrition.

Even after decades of research showing that vitamin deficiencies are common and that balanced diets are the exception rather than the rule, some doctors are still repeating this wrong-headed advice.  For these individuals, “The Nutrition Source,” which is part of the web site of the Harvard School of Public Health, should be required reading.  It provides clear, sensible guidance based on the latest research.  The article on vitamin D is especially valuable.  Inadequate levels of this nutrient are common, especially among dark-skinned people, the elderly, and those who live in cold climates.  Recent research has related vitamin D deficiency to a long list of serious illnesses from heart disease and cancer to depression.  

How can I tell whether I am getting enough of a particular nutrient in my diet? I ask my doctor to order a blood test.  When the results arrive, I ask for a copy and read it carefully.  Usually there will be a range of values that are considered normal next to the actual value from your own blood sample.  If my level is below the normal range, even by a little bit, I talk to my doctor about taking a supplement.  When it comes to test results, doctors tend to focus on numbers that are strong predictors of disease, such as high triglycerides or LDL (bad cholesterol).  A slightly low protein level may not even be addressed because it seems to pose no immediate threat.  In the long run, though, minor deficiencies may have a significant impact on the person’s health.  In my case, taking a protein supplement has helped to develop stronger muscles and to improve my overall fitness.