How Long Did It Take?

 
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There’s one question that people ask me that gets me smiling (because it is a nice compliment), but at the same time also frustrates me (because of the myth that usually leads people to ask this question): “how long did it take you?” There are variations to the question people ask me. The most common of which is, “how long did it take you to get to where you are?”, “how long did it take you to get that body?”, “how long did it take you to get abs like yours?”, “how long did it take to get as fit as you?” and other versions of these. I don’t highlight this to show off the number of compliments I get, I highlight this point because of how baffling it is to witness the strength of this myth. People are led to believe that achieving optimum fitness and health can be done within a specified time frame, but this myth is what’s stopping so many people from achieving the body they want because reaching your optimum level of fitness and health is a lifelong endeavor.

Whether it’s a couple of weeks or a number of days, there’s a strong belief that to achieve health or some type of fitness goal I will only need to commit myself to ‘x’ number of fitness-focused and healthy eating days. Here’s where the confusion lies: health and fitness do not have a definite end.

Remember health and fitness exist within an indefinite spectrum that’s specific to each individual, so how long I take to lose ‘x’ amount of weight might not apply to another. The other issue with this is that a lot of the common ambitions aren’t specific enough, “I want to lose weight,” “I want to lose fat,” or “I want to be more toned and lean.” These goals, although relevant, are too generalized. Instead, state a specific weight you want to drop to or state the range of fat percentage to body mass you want to achieve (that’s within the healthy range). The goal can even be more related to routine, like how many sweat sessions clocked in during the week. The main insight to understand here is that health and fitness take thought and commitment. It’s not about setting realistic and individualized goals for yourself. When people ask “how long did it take you?”, for the most part, what they’re really asking is “how long will it take me?” I am here to tell you that that’s not how fitness or health works because, at the end of the day, it’s about finding a routine that works for you. Not for me or anyone else. It’s about finding what you enjoy, what works with your schedule, what works with your circumstances and once you find what sticks to commit to it for as long as you’re living, breathing, and are able.

This means committing to regular sweat sessions with varied intensities, listening to the body when it needs rest, dedicating enough time and effort towards proper recovery (yes, that means quality sleep as well), eating right (at least 80-90% of the time because we all know indulgence is just a fact of life sometimes) and understanding that it takes more than just a couple of weeks or months to truly be healthy. Health is a never-ending spectrum, we can either be healthier or less healthy but there’s no definite health which every person can strive towards in the same way. Health is an individual achievement that’s also dependant on so many other biological, psychological, environmental, and physiological factors which is out of most people’s control. Our task is to appreciate and value the body we’ve been born with, to care for it as best we can, and to elevate the body to the best potential it can reach. Overall the main thing to take away is not “how long will it take,” rather, the question to ask is, how much longer will I wait before I start to elevate my body towards its full potential?

 

How Do You Know If You're Doing Enough

 
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Here are some of the questions that linger in my mind after my sweat sessions: “how effective was my workout?” “why are things getting easier?” “why don’t I feel as challenged as I did a few months ago?” “why am I not dropping weight as fast as I was?” “why am I not seeing results as fast as I was?” Honestly, the whirlwind of unanswered questions used to multiply in my mind when it came to evaluating the effectiveness of my fitness routine.

Like most people, I am eager to see results and keen to feel the difference the next time I workout, but what I found challenging was how to evaluate myself because I’ve always been active all my life. I never lost my fitness routine, even after my days as a high school athlete, aside from when I was ill or injured. Measuring effectiveness became an afterthought (or sometimes not a thought at all), because what I knew was that I was meeting the minimum recommended hours by health experts. All I thought about was as long as I am working out and sweating I am improving my fitness. Not until my education in personal training do I now understand some of the important principles to think about when evaluating the effectiveness of my routine:

#1 - Progression

What’s important to consider in regards to progression in fitness is, “how am I progressing my fitness?” or “how am I progressing the challenge I place on myself?” As humans we tend to complain about boredom when things get too ‘routine’, but the truth is we are also uncomfortable with change (whether mentally, physically, or in other aspects in life).

In fitness, it is important to keep the body challenged. The body naturally adapts to exercise, think about doing your first push up (or lack of ability to do a proper one), then think about the progression between the first attempt to the most recent attempt (that is if you’ve been working on them of course!). There’s a drastic difference in ability thanks to our body’s ability to adapt!

This is why progression is important, without progression, the body becomes stagnant. Progression is the key to improving our level of fitness and this can be done is so many ways, but here are some tips:

  • Increasing repetitions
  • Increasing weight(s) used for a specific exercise (e.g. I can complete 12 repetitions of chest presses with two 7kg [approx. 15.4lbs] dumbbells, therefore I can induce progression by increasing my repetitions or to increase the weight I lift).
  • Increasing frequency of training (e.g. instead of twice a week move up to three or four)
  • Incorporating new workouts (e.g. if you’re a yogi, maybe adding a circuit class into the week would be handy)

#2 - Regularity

It is important to maintain regularity in training routines because any progress made or any physiological adaptations the body makes is impermanent. Yes, you heard me right! What’s at play here is the principle of reversibility and the principle of diminishing returns. In simple terms, these two principles outline the unavoidable physiological truth in which the body operates with; adaptations can happen positively or negatively, it is part of the body’s natural state of development.

This is why I advocate for fitness as a lifestyle choice rather than a method for weight loss because the strength of the weight loss industry tends to cloud this distinction.

#3 - Overload

Overload identifies the specific need in strength training to increase the weight load or resistance in order to maximize the capacity for strength development. This is important because not everyone does strength training, especially as a female in Asia, there’s a certain taboo to the idea of strength training.There’s a great fear in getting too big or too muscular, but the reality is in order to achieve more strength and get stronger, strength training, whether with weights, body weight, or resistance is important (remember: the more muscles we have the more calories we burn at rest). There’s a whole lot to gain with weights and strength training in general, but the main benefits are to assist in progression and more importantly the health and physiological benefits which come with it; like an increase in bone density.

There are plenty of reasons to train and sweat but having a better understanding of the full scope of the benefits which go along with training is also beneficial in helping to create longevity in routine. These guidelines helped me to understand the value of getting comfortable in discomfort. Following the same routine is always what's comfortable, but it’s more important to challenge the body in order to catalyze positive development in my health and fitness. We all want to make all our efforts count, so it’s time to stay conscious about what we do!

 

My 3 for 3 Rules & Principles for Fitness

 
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If you read my posts, there’s a recurring theme to the message I advocate for: health and wellness is a lifelong journey! Here are the rules (some slap in the face truths):

  1. There are no shortcuts.

  2. There are no quick fixes.

  3. The length, consistency, level of effort and commitment will likely match the result

Here are the key principles to understand:

Principle #1 - Reversibility

“The principle of reversibility pertains to the losses in function experienced after the cessation of a training program. Regardless of the gain in fitness achieved through a regular exercise program, those improvements will be reversed to pre-training levels…”

This is why when someone tells me, “Oh I used to do HIIT sessions 3 times a year ago” or “I used to run everyday a few years ago” becomes-- within the context of fitness level-- becomes insignificant. The good news is, our muscles do have muscle and motor memory, so people who have done some type of training or was an athlete in their younger days will generally fare better in terms of movement compared to a complete beginner, but in terms of fitness level, unfortunately (depending on how long you’ve stopped) you might be back to square one!

Principle #2 - Diminishing Returns

First and foremost it’s important to realize that fitness is a personal journey. From birth, we possess a unique genetic makeup which are factors to our fitness journey and potential. Furthermore, the combinations of these factors, like resting metabolic rate, muscle to fat ratio, and so much more are attributed to the individual. Here’s the truth: no two persons are the same. There’s no way two people can react in the same exact way to any exercise or nutrition program. There are common goods which are shared, but ultimately health and fitness is an individual journey, in which “performance outcomes among various exercises are highly individualistic.”

“The principle of diminishing returns suggests that the rate of fitness improvement diminishes over time as fitness approaches its ultimate genetic potential. The response to physical activity is not only associated with heredity but is also highly influenced by an individual’s current level of fitness,” because the capacity to improve also depends on the starting point. This means two things. One, what were gifted with at birth is a major component to the rest of our fitness journey. The reality is that there are just some of us who were born to be athletes and some of us who aren’t.

Secondly, although our genetic basis matters, training, in general, is proven to improve overall health for everyone. The only real reality to face here is that the more fit a person is the smaller the window of improvement is versus someone who’s starting from sedentary. In other words, the beauty is that no matter where you are, there’s always room for improvement! (Unfortunately, it just doesn’t mean we’ll all be the next Usain Bolt by committing to training).

Principle #3 - Specificity

First, of, it’s important to understand that in regards to the energy used during exercise, the body relies on three energy systems: phosphagen, anaerobic glycolysis, and aerobic glycolysis. For the current purpose, I will only go through the latter two very briefly. In simple terms, anaerobic means producing energy without the need of oxygen, while aerobic means requiring oxygen. The reason why this is important in regards to training programs equates to how the body uses energy through different training programs. “The principle of specificity explains the outcome of a given type of training program such that the exercise response is specific to the mode and intensity of training. In other words, only physiological systems emphasized during a training program will improve.”

Why does this matter to this discussion? The principle of specificity really emphasizes the three points above: there are no shortcuts, there are no quick fixes, the length, consistency, level of effort and commitment will likely match the result. If I want to train for endurance, I need to put in the work and hours that will help my endurance. If I want to train for strength, I need to commit to the right kind of training to achieve strength. If I want to work on getting bigger (i.e. aesthetically increasing the size of my muscles), I need to train in a specific manner to focus on muscle hypertrophy.

What I am trying to highlight is what the health and wellness journey really requires. There’s no such thing as minimal effort to produce optimum results. The real questions are on understanding what do I desire, what is my goal, what is realistic, and how much commitment am I willing to put in?

Source:

Bryant, Cedric X., and Daniel J. Green. ACE's Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals. American Council on Exercise, 2012.

 

The Real Power Of The Mind

 

The following commentary is part of my series of reflections after reading the incredible book The Emotional Life of The Brain by neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson and contributor, science journalist Sharon Begley. I am mesmerized by the profound truths discovered through Davidson’s thirty-year commitment to understanding emotions and personality through his work on the brain. What’s even more exciting (at least for myself) are the revelations which support the importance of the mind in relation to the brain.

Davidson's research agrees with a hypothesis I have always believed and try to advocate that my attention is due to how my mind operates because thought alone is enough to change how I experience the world; and even more compelling, how the brain functions. What I found so fascinating about this read is the deeper education I received in expanding my understanding of the brain.

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The newer findings in neuroscience prove just how powerful the mind is in relation to the functions of the brain. The research revealed in The Emotional Life of the Brain confirms the heightened connection between the mind and the brain. Therefore, the attention given towards the well-being of the mind is even more important as research points to the significant implications of the mind over brain function, as “thought alone can increase or decrease activity in specific brain circuits that underlie psychological illness.”

Dated neuroscience dogma falsify the widespread understanding about the connection between the mind and the brain. The problem which has permeated through the decades is that most are uninformed of the specific advancements in this field, “the decades-old neuroscience dogma” promoted “that the adult brain is essentially fixed in form and function,” but the latest research confirms that this “is wrong.”  (The last time I learned anything about emotions – in a textbook and classroom setting, was back in high school and there was no mention on how the brain is involved because the research was dated).

What’s accurate to say is, that “the brain has a property called neuroplasticity, the ability to change its structure and patterns of activity in significant ways not only in childhood, which is not very surprising, but also in adulthood and throughout life. That change can come about as a result of experiences we have as well as of purely internal mental activity—our thoughts.” This is an incredible departure from the past understanding of the brain and of mental activity. The profound discovery is in how the brain is constantly able to change and adapt “throughout life.” That in itself is a riveting truth!

The adaptive capacity of the brain is illustrated by how the brains of people who were blind from birth was able to adapt, despite a lack of sight. For the blind, reading braille, “the writing system based on tiny raised dots that the fingers slide across,” is an experience which witnesses “a measurable increase in the size and activity of areas in the motor cortex and somatosensory cortex that control movement and receive tactile sensation from the reading fingers.” From the deprivation of sight, the brain adapts its functions and the blind’s “visual cortex—which is supposedly hardwired to process signals from the eye and turn them into visual images—undertakes a radical career change and take on the job of processing sensations from the fingers rather than input from the eyes.” Who would’ve thought that no part of a functioning brain will go to waste despite other functional misfortunes. If it’s a working brain, it’s smart enough to adapt use its capacity for worthwhile and significant endeavors.  Even more so, the adaptive capacity of the brain is influenced by more than just sensory stimulations.

What the book goes on to clarify is how “the brain can also change in response to messages generated internally—in other words, our thoughts and intentions.” The example used in the book is how athletes are able to “engage in mental imagery, focusing on the precise sequence of movements required to execute, say, a forward two-and-a-half pike,” can cause “the regions of the motor cortex that control the required muscle [to] expand.” This is a tremendous shift in my understanding of how the brain works, because this validates the strength of the mind’s influence. Further, how much value and importance is necessary when considering my mind and how it impacts the quality of my life because, “thought alone can increase or decrease activity in specific brain circuits that underlie psychological illness.”

If thought alone can create such an impact, then doesn’t the quality of thoughts matter more than ever. If thought alone can influence change my brain’s networking, then isn’t investing more time and energy to devote to my mind’s well-being become even more significant. Paying attention to mental health—or the health of our mind (which I feel is an underrated topic)— is paramount. Investing in our mental state is a worthwhile endeavor.

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Resource: Begley, Sharon, and Richard J. Davidson. The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live - and How You Can Change Them. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2012.

 

Remembering The Authentic Self

 
East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia

An important realization came about when I was reading a chapter from the The Artisanal Soul by Erwin Mcmanus. The message I took away from the book is tremendously logical, completely obvious (if paid attention to), but mysteriously out of mind. The book goes in depth about why finding your authentic self before being able to explore the creative genius waiting to be unleashed inside of you is crucial to our purpose as humans in this world. The key assumptions delivered in the book (and which I want to focus on) is to never doubt that there is creativity in all of us; a creative expression waiting to be materialized into existence.

It is not just about finding inspiration from the world, rather it is about finding yourself in the world and drawing from who you are and your unique intuition to create for the world. This is a simple, but significant shift in the habits my mind defaults to.

With the access and abundance to information I have access to now, the ways of the world tends to overcrowd my own voice. The reality of being swayed by everyone else and how society moves is much more apparent in today’s world than in previous generations. If I live in the modern world, it is hard to silence the over-stimulation and escape the bombardment of information on how to just be - what’s cool, what’s in, what’s not, and the list continues to what seems like infinity. Where it’s easy to fault is to think I am already living a life of my authentic self.

What I need to remind myself is not to fall into the trap of thinking I am already and always living as my authentic self. Rather it is more important to be realistic about the weight of influence society, culture, circumstances and others have and to remind myself to take time to take a step back to reflect who I really am. What are my qualities and characteristics which are truest to who I actually am versus those which are only a reaction or a reflection to the world around me.

To lose myself amongst the rambles of this world is easy. To maintain my most authentic self is the challenge at hand. What is important is to know who I am if everything else around me doesn't matter or does not exist. It is important to consider how I will be if I am free from society's verdicts, free from the demands of others, free from conformity, and to ask myself who is my authentic self?