Hard at Work, Part 2

My daughter tagged along to CrossFit with me on Tuesday. She ended up snapping pictures with my phone; I suppose this is the least embarrassing-looking one.

My body has a great sense of humor in that my legs have slimmed down a good bit but my belly fat stubbornly refuses to go away.

Six Months of CrossFit

It’s been a touch over six months since I crawled my way out of my first workout at CrossFit Nucleus. (Picture and one-word blog post here.) I thought I might put down some thoughts about my experience there and what it’s done for me, so if you are looking at doing the CrossFit thing in the future, it might be useful.

So here are some things about it I’ve noticed in my six months’ worth:

The first workout made me feel like a total chump.

The first day I tried was high-intensity cardio day. Bear crawls, ball slams, rows, jump rope, battle ropes—that sort of thing. All-out for short periods of time. What I got through felt like not a lot, but not all that bad. I remember having a hard time catching my breath and feeling really overheated.

This did not prepare me for the quad cramps I would have for the next week. I had a hard time standing and sitting, going up stairs, even getting out of bed. It was a couple of weeks of super-scaled back workouts before I was even close to doing the normal routine.

The good news is that I was not alone in that first workout surprise. I’ve seen a handful of people show up and just get wrecked by that first day or even first week.

Workouts will still make me feel like a total chump.

still have days where I wake up and am really feeling it from the previous day’s workout. They are probably more common than they should be. Missing a few days at the gym is like asking for cramps.

When I check the board at the end of the day, I’m usually way at the back of the pack. I’m doing scaled workouts and I’m having the kind of trouble that you would expect a 290-pound man who hasn’t done this kind of physical activity ever before in his life to have.

The challenge has been learning that being the last-place finisher most days is perfectly fine.

Change is slow.

It’s a big barge of health trouble that I’m trying to course-correct with increasing my physical activity. It’s hard to turn that ship. There are days where it feels I haven’t moved the needle at all. Here’s my weight chart for the last six months:

(Ignore the gap at the end there.)

You can see some plateauing in that chart. It’s been in a very narrow range of about seven to ten pounds. I’m not losing weight like crazy, probably due to a lack of diet changes.

But take into account my body fat percentage, taken with electrical testing:

There is a very slow but perceptible change in that reading over the last six months.

If you go into an exercise regimen expecting immediate change, you are probably not going to see it. It’s more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Things other than my weight were the first to change.

In the last six months, if you were to ask me what the main thing was that’s improved in my physical fitness, I would have said stamina up until about a month ago.

Today, I’d tell you it’s my flexibility.

Six months in, the biggest change has been to my form when performing exercises. I can squat deeper, rack a barbell higher, and keep my back straighter than I could at any time before. Being 35 and having been significantly overweight for most of that time eroded my joint flexibility. Today I front squatted 165 pounds, and I got that squat down past 90º.

There is no way I could have done that before I started this thing. None. And I can tell that it’s only going to get better if I keep at it—as long as I’m maintaining form and doing things properly.

I’m still having problems with anything that’s a body weight exercise, and who wouldn’t at my age and my weight? I’ve had to temper my expectations a lot. But it sounds like I’m lucky to have coaches who are willing to help me with the process.

I found a gym and coaches who emphasize form over weight or speed.

Since starting this, a good number of friends have reached out to me out of concern that I was going to go too far and get hurt, or do some kind of crazy exercise that is an accident waiting to happen. Lots of people have seen YouTube clips of stupid people doing stupid things.

I have no doubt many of these things happen at CrossFit gyms. In fact, I have heard from people joining our gym that there is at least one other gym out there in my area that pushes people to move too much weight before they are ready to do so.

The only person who knows what your body is saying is you. If you feel like you can’t do it anymore, that you have to tap out of a workout because you can’t get air or you feel light-headed, you need to say something to the coach. And your coach should respect that you are finding your limits and not push you to the point of complete exhaustion or vomiting. When working with weights, your coach should be helping you find your proper form and know what you are doing wrong to correct it if needed.

If you try out a gym and you don’t find this is the case, I would urge you to try another one. There are good gyms out there. Mine seems to be one of them. Where I’m going, there’s no macho crap, no pushing people to lift more than they are ready for. I didn’t get to put weight on a bar until I proved that I knew the form for the exercises we were doing and that I could consistently repeat that form and do it right.

If I weren’t doing that, I could hurt myself (rather easily in some cases), and that helps no one. It certainly isn’t going to get my health better than it was before I walked in the door. In fact, I’m still being discouraged from using a barbell for overhead squats and thrusters because I don’t have the form or the stamina to do those things consistently and at a good rhythm.

I am learning my limits.

Every day I’m in there, I push myself as hard as I can. The goal is to be better than last time. A bit more weight than last time. A few more reps than last time.

I know there are going to be days where I’m not going to do any better than that previous day. There will be days when my sugar crashes in the middle of a workout and I just need to sit down and call it. There are going to be days where giving it my all the previous workout means I’m in the back, rowing my ass off for an hour instead of lifting weight. And those days are just fine, as long as I know I’m doing the best I can.

I know where my limits are and I make a conscious commitment to reaching them as often as I can.

I’m learning how to find that extra bit of effort.

Once in a while, when I hit up against my limit, I say to myself “I’m not done with this yet” and pull one more rep, five more pounds, five seconds faster than I thought I could do.

It doesn’t always happen—nor should it—but when it does I know how to find it.

It’s about improving myself.

Yeah, there’s a leaderboard at the gym. But in the end, the only person I can compare myself to is me. Am I bettering myself? Am I doing things now that I couldn’t do six months ago? Will I be able to do more in another six months?

That’s the challenge in front of me. To find the next level and to do it safely, carefully, and intentionally.

That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.

It’s the Sugar, Not the Fat

Some of you know that I have been fighting to change my diet and weight because about three months ago my doctors suspected that I was diabetic (and had this partially confirmed with some blood work).

I have been trying to lose (and have lost) a significant amount of weight for about a year now. I have lost a total of about 40 pounds (it was 45 and then Thanksgiving happened and I can’t round down at the moment). For the first nine months, I did what amounts to a basic lifestyle change: I ate many of the same things but began limiting portions and attempting to be more active.

At this time I was already on two drugs: one for my blood pressure (which had been high in the past) and one for an irregular heartbeat and as a reaction to an episode of pericarditis that I had suffered in May of 2010.

After those first nine months, I had blood work performed. The results weren’t good.

The first test was by my cardiologist, who wanted a lipid profile and glucose reading (12-hour fasting). The results were:

(“Normal” healthy readings are in parentheses.)

  • Glucose: 200 mg/dL (65–99 mg/dL)
  • Triglycerides: 600+ mg/dL (<150 mg/dL)
  • LDL (“bad” cholesterol): 200+ mg-dL (<130 mg/dL)

The LDL number was considered to be “unreliable” due to the super-high triglycerides number. In any case, these numbers are bad. I also had what’s called a hemoglobin alpha-1 C test, which came back at 10% (which is solidly in the “WHOA YOU’RE DIABETIC” range).

It was at this point that I was put on a couple more drugs: one to suppress glucose production by my liver (this is why I can’t drink anymore) and the other to reduce my lipid levels (a fibrate).

I also changed my diet at this point to counting carbs and watching the sugar that I was taking in. Generally, I focused my dieting on changing carbs to between 45 and 60 grams per meal, with less in the morning. I paid less attention to the fat intake in my diet and probably ended up increasing it a bit with the increase in meat I was eating.

(In retrospect, I probably should have tracked this for curiosity’s sake.)

The medical “wisdom,” backed by the food pyramid and other aids, has been to pay more attention to the fats in your diet and eat more things that are starch and carb-heavy, such as grains and fruits (yes, fruits can be “bad” for you).

I am here to tell you that this is likely wrong.

Test results after a bit wore weight loss, change in diet to a more diabetic one (I’m not perfect), and drug therapy:

  • Glucose: 127 mg/dL (65–99 mg/dL)
  • Total Cholesterol: 145 mg/dL (125–200 mg/dL)
  • HDL (“good” cholesterol): 36 mg/dL (≥40 mg/dL)
  • Triglycerides: 218 mg/dL (<150 mg/dL)
  • LDL (“bad” cholesterol): 65 (<130 mg/dL)
  • Hemoglobin A1c: 6.2% (<5.7%)

I am looking forward to seeing what other changes will affect this, but I’m already debating limiting my carbs more to see the effects. I’m pretty sure that an overabundance of carbs and not fat in my diet was the cause of high levels of accepted heart disease factors.

Anecdotal evidence, I’m not a doctor, your health is your own risk, mileage may vary, blah blah blah.

Keeping Things Moving

As an Automattician, I spend the vast majority of my time working from home. This has its advantages and disadvantages, like anything else, but I didn’t think of my physical activity (or lack thereof) in quite the right way until I saw this tweet from my colleague Beau:


For reasons that I plan to write about soon, I have been taking a long-overdue look at my habits throughout the day in an effort to improve them and their effects on my overall health. It’s no secret that it’s not a great thing for you to be sitting down all day long.

I know this because the best shape I’ve been in for the last 10 years or so was when I was working retail at Circuit City. Being on your feet for 10 hours at a stretch and walking a store floor will do that to you. Once I shifted to a desk job, I quickly ballooned to over 300 pounds until I hit a high of around 325 in the last couple of years.

(I have since dropped a good amount of weight but that will need to wait for that other post I was talking about.)

What I have been using for about the last year or so to keep myself from getting leg cramps is a little utility called AntiRSI. It sits in your dock (and with the newest version, can sit in your menu bar instead) and has a configurable set of controls for taking breaks.

The options are pretty straightforward:

I don’t use it for the micro breaks as I don’t have any issues with strain (yet) and they were interrupting my flow a bit. Instead, I use it to force myself to take an eight-minute break every 50 minutes (so about every hour). When the 50 minutes of work are up, this appears and won’t go away unless I dismiss it, which I try very hard not to do:

When that appears, I do exactly what it says. The important part is that I stand up when prompted for a work break and walk around a bit. I check on how the kids are doing in school, take a biobreak, refill my water, or any one of a number of things, but (a) don’t work and (2) stay standing and moving as much as possible. Sometimes I will set an eight minute timer on my iPhone and take a walk outside. I walk past the desk every so often to see if the break is up, and when it is I sit back down and get to it.

Now I read tonight that I might not be getting up enough. And it’s possible that using a standing desk (which I have considered) is getting up too much. This is of course only one source of information on this, and you can always find a study or paper that agrees with you, but:

Sit to do computer work. Sit using a height-adjustable, downward titling keyboard tray for the best work posture, then every 20 minutes stand for 2 minutes AND MOVE. The absolute time isn’t critical but about every 20-30 minutes take a posture break and move for a couple of minutes.  Simply standing is insufficient. Movement is important to get blood circulation through the muscles. Research shows that you don’t need to do vigorous exercise (e.g. jumping jacks) to get the benefits, just walking around is sufficient. So build in a pattern of creating greater movement variety in the workplace (e.g. walk to a printer, water fountain, stand for a meeting, take the stairs, walk around the floor, park a bit further away from the building each day).

You can read the original text here.

So maybe I will give 30 minute intervals with smaller breaks a shot and see how it goes for a while. I’m thinking 5 minutes’ break every 30 minutes or so.

Do you have a method that works for you? Something you do to stay active throughout the day? I would love to hear about it.