Sunday, September 9, 2012

It takes a village to raise a child... and make me exercise

As I share my regimen for healthy living, it would be remiss if I don't talk about my workout regimen, though in all honesty, it wasn't an individual effort. I joined a CrossFit gym in October 2011 and go 3x a week for an hour. My philosophy of exercise is very similar to my thoughts on diet. I'm an advocate of whatever works for you, but no matter what that is, regular activity is important for our health. I personally love CrossFit mainly for its community, but will share my experience and the characteristics of CrossFit that makes it right for me.

As outlined in my last post, I really do believe that a healthy diet probably has a bigger impact on "weight loss". The amount of calories we eat tends to sneak up on us, and small changes can cut more calories than a lot of us can reasonably burn with exercise. That doesn't mean exercise isn't important though, because the goal is to be healthy, not just losing weight. I'm on my neurology rotation this month, and this week saw an MRI of the brain for someone in their 50s coming in with a stroke. The stroke itself was a pencil circumference white spot on the MRI, but there were also all these tiny white spots scattered through out. When I asked if they were part of the stroke, I was told no, those spots were damage from uncontrolled high blood pressure that's accumulated over time. No single incident would be noticed like a stroke, but over time the tiny dots would accumulate to accelerate cognitive decline or dementia... all from high blood pressure. Guess what helps lower blood pressure... exercise! Just half an hour of moderate exercise (getting your heart racing and sweating a bit, even if from just walking around), 3-4x a week, will lower your systolic blood pressure (the bigger number) by 5-10 points... which is as good as any medication we have. Point being: exercise is important for your health in general, in ways you might not even notice in your day to day, and has beneficial effects in seemingly unrelated ways, like preventing depression, gallstones, and cancer, as well as has health benefits that might be more intuitive, like heart health, preventing osteoporosis, and controlling diabetes. In addition, I find that as I've exercised more, I've begun to build strength and endurance to do more, and as that happens, I imagine I'm burning more and more calories to contribute to weight loss.

Even knowing the health benefits, the only time I've been able to workout regularly was when I hired a personal trainer back when I still had a income before becoming a student again. Left on my own, it was too easy to go, "I'll do it tomorrow instead," which turns into next week, then next month, and a regimen of exercising once every 1-2 months.  I suspect many people also struggle with motivating oneself as well, otherwise people would already be exercising regularly right? Wanting to change this, I decided to find a personal trainer again, and searched "gym Palo Alto" on yelp, and just started calling about prices. I came across a gym called CrossFit Palo Alto, and remember not really understanding it. Was it a gym? Yes... except I could only go during my designated time. Huh? That sucks. So is it like a class then? But why would I do that when normal gyms offer group classes? And what is a CrossFit workout? Oh, a little of everything and it always changes? Great... that makes no sense. And the website has pictures of rings people use in gymnastics... I can't do stuff like that... is this for super fit athletes? The person on the phone insisted it wasn't. I was curious so I went in for the free introduction, after all, what did I have to lose?

I started CrossFit in November 2011 and have been a member since. It wasn't a panacea though, and I faced the same challenges I did before. For example, I first joined the 6pm class, and kept skipping because I couldn't make it out of the hospital in time. To adapt, I switched to the 7pm class in early 2012, which helped a lot. Now that it's been close to a year, and I've integrated it into my regular routine, let me try to explain CrossFit in my own words. First and foremost, I feel CrossFit is about community. I remember being a little nervous about being judged by the veterans my first few sessions because I was so out of shape. Instead, those scary veterans were cheering me on by name to keep me from giving up. Since everyone attends the same times, I've gotten to know the members of my class, who have become my friends that keep me accountable to show up and give good effort. CrossFit is also about doing what I can safely, but always trying to improve. For instance, at first, when everyone else ran 400m, I would be advised to walk around the block (240m), but always had a goal to work towards doing more, which for me, meant walking faster, then jogging, and then trying to jog the full 400m with walking breaks, and then cutting down the number and length of walking breaks. This happens with every activity at CrossFit. I do what I can, but always with a longterm goal in mind, and seeing my friends give full effort inspires me to do the same. Finally, what is a CrossFit exercise? Typically it is around 20 minutes of stretching, 20 minutes of a strength/skill exercise that includes working on improving my form on some activity, from olympic weight lifting to gymnastics or normal pullups. In the last 20 minutes, we do a WOD (workout of the day) that is a mix up of skills we've worked on, and maybe some running or rowing as fast as you can. Depending on the activity, we also add a weight that we can handle. At the end, we take a few minutes to stretch again. What I appreciate about CrossFit workouts is that there's a mix of cardio and strength, that a lot of the exercises involve my own body weight like pull-ups, push-ups, lunges, running, etc., and the variation of activities in WODs keeps things new.
Photo of me performing deadlifts courtesy of Trish (@TrishPM on Twitter)

In the end, I guess all I had to lose from going to that introductory session was a few pounds, a few misconceptions, and a lot of self-doubt. I'm not saying CrossFit is for everyone, but it's what worked for me. The most important thing is to find a way to exercise regularly, safely, and rigorously enough to impact your own health, in whatever manner that works for you.



References:


1. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-blood-pressure/HI00027 (last accessed on September 9, 2012)
2. http://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-the-benefits-and-risks-of-exercise (last accessed on September 9, 2012)

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