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Incremental changes - John C. Kirk

Dec. 24th, 2011

01:00 am - Incremental changes

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The BBC recently posted an article: Tell loved ones they are overweight this Christmas. Other people have disagreed with this, e.g. Fausterella wrote Merry Christmas, Fatty! and other festive conversations, which included this (sarcastic) comment: "People who are fat are often completely unaware of this fact, because the general public are obviously far too polite to shout insults at them in the street." I've read similar comments before (e.g. here, here, and here) and the recurring theme is that people who are overweight are well aware of it so you don't need to point it out. However, my own experience has been different: I gradually put on weight without noticing it, and I would have been grateful if someone else had pointed it out to me.

(Disclaimer: I'm not trying to criticise the "fat positive" movement here; I'm just talking about awareness so that people can make an informed choice.)

After I finished my undergrad degree, a couple of my friends went off round the world on a gap year. We met up on their return (in 1996), and one of them asked me "Have you put on weight?" I said "Oh, I don't know, have I?" and looked down at my belly. However, she then clarified that she was talking about my upper body, i.e. my chest area. That was a relief, and I realised the cause: I'd been doing 10 press-ups a day for the past few months. I hadn't noticed any outward change, because it was so gradual, but it was more obvious to them when they hadn't seen me for a while. Someone else described me as "built like a brick shithouse", which was quite flattering. I don't think that I had an amazingly heavy build, but it probably helps that I'm taller than average (6'2").

Moving on a few years, I noticed that some of my trousers were getting a bit tight, so I figured that they must have shrunk in the wash. I went out to buy new ones, and I was surprised that I needed a bigger size. However, I've heard that different manufacturers have different interpretations of the same size (particularly in women's clothing), so I basically assumed that "34 is the new 32". At the time, I worked in a company with a casual dress code, and I started wearing tracksuit trousers to work instead of jeans. In hindsight, I was obviously getting fatter, but I didn't make that connection at the time. Tracksuit trousers are stretchy, which makes them useful in a situation like this, but I initially bought them when I did cross country running in Durham so I didn't think of them as "fat clothing".

In June 2000 I went off to Egypt on a SCUBA diving course. The instructor referred to me as "big fella" but I didn't read too much into it. Similarly, I did a motorbike course when I got back to the UK (July 2000) on a 125cc bike. The instructor mentioned that I was quite big for it, so I'd probably be better off with a 500cc bike in the long run. In both cases, I assumed that they were just referring to my height, but I now think that the motorbike instructor in particular was talking about my weight. I certainly had trouble getting up to 70mph on the 125cc bike, and I couldn't manage 30mph on a particularly steep hill (near Archway tube station); I did get a 500cc bike later (after I wrote off the first one in a crash), and that could handle the faster speeds without any trouble. The point is that nobody ever shouted insults at me in the street.

I only really became aware of the problem when I was bending down to tie my shoelaces one day and the top button of my trousers went pinging off across the room. I figured that I needed to shift to the next size up, and I was quite shocked when I tried a few different sizes at the shop and found that I now needed a 40" waist. That was when I peaked at 105kg, and decided to make an effort to slim down.

I spoke to some of my Durham friends after this (actually the same two who'd taken the gap year) and mentioned that I was trying to lose weight. They then asked "Yeah, what happened there?" In other words, they'd noticed the change but they hadn't wanted to ask me about it until I brought the topic up.

Looking back on it now, I think a few of my work colleagues had tried to drop subtle hints, which I completely missed. For instance, I'd typically eat 3 rounds of sandwiches for lunch, along with a 150g bag of kettle chips (now described as sharing size). People sometimes asked "Are you eating all that?" and I just said "Yup".

Later on, I took a year off work to do my MSc. When I went back, one of my colleagues said "Wow, you've lost about 1/3 of your body weight, that's amazing!" It wasn't actually that much (more like 10%) but it was nice to hear. At that point, once I'd slimmed down, a few people did then laugh about the extremes I'd got to before, e.g. wearing tracksuit trousers.

The point is that most people (or at least the people I know) don't want to be rude, so they'd much rather give a compliment than say something insulting. Also, they probably thought that I knew full well about my weight gain, so they wouldn't be telling me anything new. However, I was actually completely oblivious to it.

Looking back on it, I'd have been grateful if someone had spoken to me in private and said "Look, I don't mean to be rude or anything, but did you know that you've put on a bit of weight recently?" That's not the same thing as saying "Hey, you need to lose weight"; some people would reply "Yes, I know, and I like being this size". Obviously it would be crass to discuss this in public, e.g. over Christmas dinner. ("You'd better not have any more to eat, you're fat enough already!") I also wouldn't bring up the topic with strangers, but the National Obesity Forum (quoted in the BBC article) specifically refer to friends and families. If nothing else, it should just act as an incentive to get some clothes that fit properly rather than squeezing into trousers that are uncomfortably tight. I remember buying a pair of jeans and lying on the bed fighting with them for about 20 minutes before I could do them up; I didn't try them on at the shop because I "knew" my size. (I thought they were just stiff, so I needed to break them in like a new pair of boots.)

I suspect that this all partly depends on just how fat someone is. Obviously there are edge cases like the people who literally weigh half a ton, and I think it's safe to assume that they're aware of their situation. However, the BBC article mentions a 37" waist (for men), which isn't really that big, e.g. you wouldn't need to go to a specialist shop to buy clothes that fit properly.

Just to forestall any comments about my current situation, I am aware that I'm over the recommended weight for my height, so there's no need to point it out. (My BMI body fat % fluctuates between overweight and obese.) I've been cutting back on Coke recently, and I plan to eliminate it entirely starting on Sunday. Hopefully the lack of caffeine will help me to adjust my sleep patterns, and the reduction in sugar might affect my waistline too.

As a related issue, I've been making an effort to do daily press-ups over the last couple of months. When I started, I couldn't do a single press-up, but I'm now doing 8 or 9 each day.

This has been on my "to do" list for a while; like I said, I was doing this every day about 15 years ago, but then I got out of the routine for some reason and my strength tailed off. Last year I attended a Rescue Day (ambulance training), and one of the exercises involved swimming along while supporting a person lying on a spinal board, i.e. swimming with legs only and using my arms to lift the board. When we got into the deep end of the pool I couldn't touch the bottom and I struggled with this. Someone else shouted at me to lift my corner up and I had to say "I'm sorry, I can't, I'm just not strong enough" which was a bit embarrassing. The final catalyst is that I had severe back pain in September, and I hope that strengthening those muscles will help to avoid a repeat performance.

My target is to do 10 press-ups a day; it's a bit arbitrary, but that's a nice round number, and it's what I used to do. I've seen some training guides that basically say "Do 1 press-up the first day, then 2 press-ups the second day, etc." However, I think that's too simplistic. If you fall behind schedule then it's just going to remove your motivation, e.g. by day 5 you might think "if I can't even do 2 press-ups then there's no way I'll do 5, so there's no point even attempting it".

My approach is a bit different. On day 1 (Thu 13th October), I got into the starting position (lying face down on the ground) then tried to push myself up. I couldn't do it, so I then shifted over to "half press-ups", i.e. I kept my knees on the ground, then I was able to do 10 of those. On day 2 (Fri 14th), the same thing happened: 0 press-ups, 10 halves. I didn't do any that weekend, mainly because I couldn't find enough floor space in my flat; at work I can nip into the server room. The following day (Mon 17th) I managed to do a full press-up. I attempted a second, but I couldn't, so I just followed this with the 10 half press-ups again. It's interesting that I did better after a short break, so there may be an "overtraining" issue here.

Basically, I carried on like this. If I could do 1 press-up then I'd try for 2. When I managed 2, I'd try for 3, and so on. However many full press-ups I do, I always follow with 10 halves. If I hadn't been able to do any half press-ups either then I'd have applied the same principle there, i.e. keep trying to do 1 half until I can, then try to do 2, and so on up to 10.

The good thing about this type of exercise is that it's quick (less than 3 minutes a day) and I don't need to change clothes. That means that it's pretty easy to fit it into my daily routine, unlike swimming at the lido (a 2 hour round trip); all I need is willpower. It's also quite satisfying to see that I'm making progress, and know that I'm doing something I couldn't do a few months ago. It hasn't been an overnight change, but I'm also not really working any harder now than I did back then, it's just that my body has gradually adapted.

It hasn't been a continuous improvement, e.g. I did 9 full press-ups yesterday but only 8 today. It may depend on time of day or how tired I am. Still, I think there's a general trend upwards, and I'm confident that I will reach 10, hopefully by the end of the month. At that point I might try slowing them down: a friend recommended taking 5 seconds in each direction (i.e. 5 seconds up then 5 seconds back down for each individual press-up).

I read an interesting article in the Guardian recently: How do prisoners get so fit?. This is based on a book ("Felon Fitness") which describes the exercise routines that prisoners use in the USA. Several people commented on that article to say that the prisoners have plenty of spare time and motivation (trying to avoid being stabbed). However, some of the techniques do sound interesting, since they don't require any special (expensive) equipment. I particularly liked this comment from the Guardian writer:

Likewise, I failed to achieve a single "celly" press-up, where your cellmate lies on your back, a personal humiliation that left me trapped face down on the floor until such time as my wife decided she had other matters to attend to.


This comment also made me laugh:

Max out with bodyweight exercises? One day I may feel the need to add weights to my workout because one arm pullups, pistol hops up stairs and handstand pushups aren't cutting the mustard. But I don't think it'll be anyday soon! Respect to those of you who have managed to "max out" though.


Similarly, I think basic press-ups are good enough for me for the time being; I just need to keep up the routine.

Comments:

[User Picture]
From:Liam Redmond
Date:December 24th, 2011 01:31 am (UTC)

Press ups

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As a qualified gym / fitness instructor, Id recommend a days rest between strength training the same muscles (ie. do press ups mon, wed, fri). You could do some other exercises on alternate days.
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