Ten lessons from a former couch potato
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve never enjoyed intense physical activity. I played a few years of soccer, a one year of Little League, I did Marching Band in high school and college, and I did half a season of track in high school. I did enjoy marching band in high school, but I’ve never had a competitive outlook on life. I tried sports to make friends and because that’s what I was supposed to do, but I never put in the effort to be good at any of them except marching band. Sports just didn’t appeal to me and I was bad at it so I became a couch potato.
In the last few years I have enjoyed exercising. The competition is against yourself so there’s no trash talking, I’m doing it because it’s good for me and all in all, the benefits have been relatively quick. The best part is that I feel better and it’s given me a new appreciation for healthy living. Most of this has been within the last eight months because after I finished with the recovery from jaw surgery, I wanted another challenge. As part of its winter fitness challenge, the gym I attend gave me rules, tips, tricks, and suggestions on how to lose weight. Taking it seriously worked well for me and I’ve dropped 35 pounds, 7% body fat, and reduce my resting heart rate by 30 beats per minute since January 2019. Anyway, here’s what I learned going from a couch potato to a well… not quite athlete, but getting there?
- Anyone can do it — we all come up with excuses like it’ll be too hard, I need a trainer, I don’t have time, but if I can do it then you can do it too. I’m still not a star athlete, but the benefits of good health are tremendous and not as hard as you might think.
- You can’t out-train a bad diet — this is probably the most important rule that I learned. Exercise is a small supplement to reducing body fat, it’s not a get out of jail free card for eating pizza, burgers, and beer every night of the week. You need to run a 3500 calorie deficit each week to lose one pound of fat. Eating an extra thousand calories every day because you burned an extra five hundred at the gym is still counter productive for weight loss.
- Heart health is everything — the biggest change I’ve noticed in myself is that since my cardiovascular system has improved, everything else did too. I’m no longer dying outside when it’s really hot out as I don’t sweat as badly, my body doesn’t hurt as much if I do have to engage in a sudden burst of exercise, and I’m honestly just calmer. Stress simply doesn’t get to me as much and I credit this to reducing my resting heart rate from around 85 bpm to 55 bpm.
- You make friends — a recent book I read, Everything is F**ked: A Book About Hope”, said that every person needs three things to be happy: community, values, and control. If you were like me, generally shy without much to say, going to the gym gives you something to talk about with other people that also enjoy fitness and exercise. At coffee shops, with friends, at the dog park, and at the gym itself, it’s a great conversation starter and your community of comrades can immediately expand.
- Exercise can supplement or reduce the need for antidepressants — I used to be on a high dose of one antidepressant and one anti-anxiety medicine, thanks to cardiovascular exercise, I was able to reduce the dosage of one drug and switch to a weaker drug that came with fewer side effects. I have to go to the gym every week, at least twice, even if I’m busy, and yes the gym is more expensive than medications, but it’s worth it. I’m doing something good for myself that makes the cost of the gym and the time I put into it worth it.
- You don’t have to give up all good tasting food — cheat/treat meals help a lot with overall weight loss goals. Some people say that increasing calories once a week increases fat burning hormones and keeps you out of starvation mode. I’ve read that the science on that isn’t 100% accepted across the board of fitness professionals, but most do agree that there are psychological benefits to giving yourself a break now and then. Having one (and I mean it, one) scheduled meal of whatever you are craving, once a week, gives you a well deserved break from eating grilled chicken, salads, protein bars, and oatmeal for every meal. If anything, you enjoy your favorite foods even more because they become guilt free rewards that you can look forward to! It’s also a good answer to someone who says “I don’t want to give up beer though…”
- Your taste buds change — I still have a bite of candy now and then, but I genuinely crave oatmeal, fruits and veggies, and low glycemic snacks more so than chips, french fries, beer, and pizza now. I still enjoy all of those delicious foods on treat meal night, but they’re no longer a priority. Green vegetables taste better to me now too, I never liked asparagus, but after having some as a side to grilled steak or tuna, I realized I was missing out all this time.
- You learn you can handle more — on a recent kayaking trip with my mother, she hit a log and flipped outof her kayak. The kayak then started heading towards me so I jumped out of mine, grabbed hers while it was upside down and filling with water (keep in mind that we were also in the fast section of the river), and after she floated towards me, she grabbed on to her kayak to stand up while I was holding it. So that’s one empty kayak, one kayak filled with water, one small person, and myself barefoot in the rapids on top of spiky rocks. I don’t know if it’s because I’m lighter, stronger, faster, or a mix of all of the above, but I got through all of it and I was only out of breath at the end. I’m not sure I would have been able to do that before I started exercising.
- MyFitnessPal is a great tool — MFP has every food you can think of with every nutritional fact about the food preloaded on to the app. Sometimes you have to make estimates, like the frittata on MFP is probably slightly different than the one my roommate brings home from work, but it’s close enough. It takes some getting used to, but entering everything you eat into a food journal for a week is the best way to start a weight loss journey. You see how much fat, sugar, and excess calories eaten every day and how you need to improve.
- Finally, I sleep better — for most of 2013 and 2014, I was unemployed or underemployed and one thing I noticed is that I slept poorly. Ever since I left my couch potato ways behind me, I’ve noticed that I sleep better. It’s harder to sleep when you have a sedentary lifestyle because your body doesn’t feel physically tired.