Our bodies are reactive to change but are designed to be irritatingly efficient at the same time, while being hard-wired to prepare for famine.
This has profound implications for those of us that have one eye on health and fitness and another on the latest gourmet burger special.
If our bodies were like people, they’d be those folks who do the absolute minimum to get by, like grinches refuse to spend money unless they absolutely must, and have the irritating habit of holding onto useful stuff like old wrapping paper and reusable plastic bags — because you just never know. You can force them to change, by emptying out the cupboards and forcing them to buy new glossy wrapping paper when there actually is an occasion, but as soon as you back off, they’ll be back to their old ways.
It’s not the end of the world, though, because we can manipulate this design quirk to our benefits.
Our bodies respond to change — in other words, how we eat determines whether the calories we eat go to our muscles, our love handles, or down the drain. Similarly, when we exercise, and take the efficient grinch out of its comfort zone, it will do what it needs to do to make sure that uncomfortable experience is never as uncomfortable again. It hates being uncomfortable — never forgetting that muscle is very expensive and so you need to make it very uncomfortable before it will invest in some.
Let’s start with food. As we already know, there is a growing consensus that what we eat is even more important than how we eat. Change how you eat, then what you eat, and you can — in the absence of medical problems — change the shape of your body. The grinch can only work with what you give it.
However, we know that’s not enough. It’s great to lose 10cm around your waist — it reduces the risk of a host of so-called lifestyle ailments, from diabetes to cardiovascular diseases. But we want more — we want to become fitter, and stronger, so that we can enjoy all the health benefits of exercise.
And so, we start exercising. For many of us, this will not be the first time. Anyone who has allowed themselves to become detrained (that’s when you stop exercising and lose everything or a substantial amount of what you had gained), will know how much it hurts to go for a short run or short gym session. This is because our bodies — being the grinches they are — decided that there was no need to hold onto the muscle and aerobic and anaerobic fitness we had managed to build up. Remember, these are expensive metabolically and if not pushed to keep it, the grinch won’t.
However, being a bit of a doomsday prepper, the grinch decided to hold onto every ounce of fat possible — just in case the food supply dries up, because then we will have something to survive. It is seldom the food supply dries up in leafy suburbia and so what we have is a detrained individual, with less muscle, very low levels of aerobic and anaerobic fitness, and increased fat stores.
However, it’s not all lost, because we have the final say as we can pre-empt the grinch. We start by running or walking for 30 minutes every second day. We fight through the unbearable, burning pain in our shins, calves and quads. We go to the gym and we do our squats — albeit much lighter — and other strength exercises.
It’s horrible for the first two weeks. The grinch is miserable, but we carry on because we know what’s good for it. Our secret weapon is our brain. Why? If we have exercised before, we have wired the movements into our bodies’ nervous systems and we get into the groove a lot easier than the first time. If it is your first time exercising, you must persist to wire these neural pathways.
It's a bit like driving. The first time I went to London for a year, I flew back to SA, climbed into a car and drove as if I had driven every day in between, but I hadn’t. When I climbed on a mountain bike for the first time in 15 years, I was hopping on and off pavements within a minute. It’s magic. Learn the skills of running, swimming, cycling, lifting weights, callisthenics and more. You’ll never forget them.
After a month, the grinch has come to the party and is no longer throwing things around the house. The runs are easier, the gym is enjoyable, and slowly but surely — if we are eating properly — the stockpiled fat is starting to disappear. Most importantly though, we feel better, more positive, more productive. We look forward to waking up. Life is good.
Three months later and the fitness and strength gains are very noticeable. The body has undergone a physical change — not Instagram amazing, but noticeable. You are in a routine, a habit. Don’t stop. This is where you knuckle down and aim for a year.
After a few years you have successfully found the magic pill to being in shape. It’s a lifestyle, where your body has adapted to eating well, your fitness has adapted to the need to move, your muscles have adapted to the need to exert themselves. Your body has found a new homeostasis — a new normal.
Even the grinch is no longer green but smiling.