Back to Basics: Three Simple Steps for Getting in Shape the Old-Fashioned Way

Who out there loves Kimmy, that hopelessly optimistic, highly anachronistic, kidnapping survivor from the Netflix comedy series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? Count me as a fan. The one-liners come at you at a frenetic pace as the viewer experiences the world as Kimmy, a woman who’s spent much of her life in an underground bunker. In Kimmy’s mind, time has been frozen; it is forever 1999. And her observations as she reenters remind us of just how much the world has indeed changed.

 Photo credit: Netflix 

Photo credit: Netflix 

One of my favorite lines of the show comes from season one, when an exasperated Kimmy surrounded by change exclaims, “Even the police have tattoos!” And this is true: everyone seems to have at least one tattoo these days. Tattoos used to be the ultimate symbol of rebellion. To say about someone, “she/he has a tattoo . . .” meant that this was an individual who was wild/iconoclastic/artistic/liberal/trashy (depending on the speaker and the audience). But today, it suggests none of these. Tattoos have become mainstream.

And this is good, right? People should feel free to express themselves however they desire, including by adding ink to their skin. But a funny thing has happened along the way: now one feels like a rebel if he or she doesn’t have a tattoo. And these new “rebels” are citing some of the same old arguments that grandma used to make (“it’s awfully perminant”) among their reasons for abstaining from the trend.

In the fitness world, I remember when going down a line of selectorized weight machines with your workout card after 30 minutes of steady-state cardio was where it’s at. This was what it meant to go to the gym and workout.

But this was before the fitness industry was turned upside down by the jaugernautt Crossfit and its cousin, the high-protein Paleo Diet. People had long drifted from going to aerobics class and to “Nautilaus” and were looking for something new. So, now they would go to their nearest Box for some burpees, clean & jerk, and metcons. People like Dr. Kennith Cooper were no longer the go-to authorities. Filling the void, would be Greg Glassman, the Founder and CEO of Crossfit, a former gymnist turned multi-millionaire entrepreneur, doing interviews for the likes of Forbes and CNBC, while wearing a t-shirt and sweat pants, his ball cap turned backwards. (The revolution will be monetized.)

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And yet, as popular as this trend of scarfing down animal proteins like a caveman before going to lift like an Olympian has become, notice the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and most registered dietitians still haven't changed their tune about eating whole grains, nor have most exercise physiologists ceased recommending regular, sustained cardio, especially for individuals trying to lose weight. If you are among the HIIT (high-intensity interval training) revolutionaries, have you ever wondered why this is the case? Stubbornness on behalf of the Old Guard? A grand conspiracy to keep Americans chomping whole wheat and walking on treadmills?

Well, put me down as one of the conservatives, the stodgy professors, the still-tattooless grandmas when it comes to this topic. HIIT certainly has its place. It’s good that it is being incorporated into a variety of routines these days, and the popular trend is not without its merits. However, there are still a few time-tested strategies, ones supported by mountains of empirical evidence but not championed by the Crossfit and Paleo crowds, that people, particular those attempting to lose substantial amounts of weight, should adopt. Here are three that I (along with the American Heart Association, the USDA, and more than a few other respected organizations) would strongly recommend:

  1. Cardio is king. If you are attempting to lose a significant amount of weight — 15, 30, 100 pounds — then you have to do plenty of cardio. This must be the foundation of your routine. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 200–300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity for longterm weight loss. Around two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, and you can’t HIIT off 30 pounds of excess fat without also spending lengths of time each week with your earbuds in, watching Fixer Upper on the elliptical machine. You need these longer, moderate-intensity sessions if your goal is to lose weight. Do high-intensity intervals matter? Should they be part of your routine as well? YES. If you have been cleared by your physician for vigorous exercise and/or have one or fewer risk factors for cardiac disease, then by all means, ramp it up! Get in those more intense bouts during the week. From a weight-loss perspective, this is important because it causes your anaerobic threshold to change, and you’ll be able to workout at higher intensities, burning more total calories and fat. But don’t discard opportunities for blocks of lower-intensity activity, as well, even if it means a couple walks around the block in your business suit. As long as you have at least ten minutes to spare, then you can count it toward your total aerobic activity for the week. Again, it’s not that people shouldn’t be using HIIT; it’s that people should be using it wisely. And the accumulated amount of cardio over the course of a week (20 minutes in the morning, 10 at mid day, a 40-minute block the next morning. . . ) is what matters most for weight control and for health.
  2. Carbs are your friend. Something else that hasn’t changed, despite the popularlity of first the Atkin’s Diet and later Paleo, is the U.S. Government recommendations regarding macronutrient percentages. Ask any registered dietitian how much carbohydrate one should have, and she will likely say 45% to 65% of total calories. I will concede that government agencies don’t always give great advice, and they can even be corrupted and downright misleading at times. But again, we are talking about recommendations based on piles upon piles of empirical evidence: guidelines that the majority of scientific journals agree with, as well. So, when you hear in the popular news media that you “Must Cut Carbs Because They Are The Enemy!” don’t believe the hype. Too many simple carbs, too many added sugars — sure. But whole grains and fruits and vegetables are exactly what we need more, not less of for weight control and a healthy heart and brain.
  3. Regular old weight training is good, too. Burpees, plank push-ups, box jumps, pistol squats — all great; all impressive. If you can do high-intensity or really challenging versions of resistance and power exercises, then bully for you! I think working up to appropriately challenging exercises is what everybody should be striving for. And the more strength and power one can have — at every age and stage — the better. But this does not mean that everyone should be executing Olympic-style lifts. And even if you can, this doesn’t mean that you should every time you go for a workout. Even highly trained collegiate and professional athletes periodize their programs. They don’t workout at the same high intensity year round; intead, the intensity varies. The old addage that one should work smarter, not necessarily harder certainly applies here. And, yes, there’s still a place for those rows of variable-resistance machines at your local YMCA. For many, this is exactly what they should be doing a couple days a week for a safe, balanced approached to resistance training.
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In conclusion, here is my advice to all of you who may currently be sedentary and/or have a good 20 or so pounds to lose: You may not ever love to exercise, but you can at least ease into a regular program and eventually get to the point where it’s an established, healthy habit — one you are not likely to break, because it makes you feel good. So, please camp out on that cardio machine and watch your favorite show several nights each week. Also, do all those little things as well, such as parking in the back of the lot at the store and foregoing the elevator for the stairs at work. See how many steps you can take per day. Make a game of it! And do work in a couple of those super-popular HIIT sessions if that’s what makes sense for you, but if not, don't hesitate to be a throwback like Kimmy, and go to the health club and get a program card filled out with your name on it. Finally, forget the latest food fads, and just try to eat a balanced diet. Follow those time-tested guidelines you’ll find on choosemyplate.gov.

It’s not about being super current when it comes to exercise trends. Your focus should instead be on consistency and following a routine that you actually will do, one that's appropriate, sustainable, and proven to yield the type of results that you are after. Lose the fear over being anachronistic, get back to the health club of your choice, and see if over the coming months you aren’t feeling better than ever, while partying like it’s 1999.