I am now suddenly a year older, because that’s how birthdays work. So far 46 is a lot like 45, only slightly moreso.
I’ve been trying to get in shape. Again. And for the first time in my life, I’m having success. I mean, I was in really good shape in 1990 when I rode my bike for miles every day, but I was 19 years old and people that age are basically invincible superheroes with no common sense. But this is the first time I’m having success with fitness as a mortal adult with physical limitations.
I dropped a bunch of weight a few years ago when I had to decommission one of my internal organs. The weight loss was a nice side-effect of the surgery, but it’s been creeping back up over the last decade.
I’m generally not very good at judging my body shape. My wife has a tall mirror in our bedroom, but it never occurs to me to look at it. Sometimes I’d look down at my body and think, “Yeah. Looks like my gut is starting to stick out a little. I should probably fix that.” Then a year ago someone took a candid picture of me. My reaction on seeing the photo was, “Wow. Is that really what I look like these days? Am I that wide around the middle now? That’s really bad.”
In the past I tried to get in shape according to conventional wisdom: Diet and exercise. I switched to eating crappy, unsatisfying food and got myself a treadmill. But crappy, unsatisfying food makes for a crappy, unsatisfying life. Anyone can eat salad today. But eating saladIn this case “salad” is shorthand for all of the various foods that are good for me but no fun to eat. basically forever? Sooner or later I’d say “screw it!” and eat an entire pizza. I’m sure dieters will be familiar with the resulting cycle of frustration, bingeing, guilt, repentance, and misery.
People who go around saying, “All you have to do is eat less and exercise more!” make me want to slug someone. Yes, obviously that’s what you need to do. The thing is, that’s really friggin’ hard to do. It’s like saying, “You want to be a doctor? Pfft. Just go to med school.”In their defense, people saying, “Just eat less and exercise more!” are often trying to advise people who are following an over-complicated diet plan. The hunger drive is incredibly powerful and it will shape your behavior. If your plan requires having unlimited willpower for the rest of your life, your plan is going to fail. I literally can’t work when I’m hungry, because my job requires concentration and hunger destroys my ability to concentrate.
I eventually discovered it’s far easier to just keep eating what I like, but doing so with smaller portions. Sure, it’s not ideal food. (I’m pretty sure the average Olympian-in-training doesn’t eat this many potato chips.) But for the most part the food is acceptable, and I find it’s way easier to eat “pretty good” than to chase after some idealized diet I can’t maintain. The big challenge now is near the end of the meal where I know I can eat more, but I also know that the hunger will go away in just a couple of minutes if I can quit now. Still, that requires five minutes of willpower rather than hours of it, and I still get to eat stuff I enjoy.
I think I’ve got the food under control now. On the other hand, the exercise problem was more complicated to solve.
The Rage Monster
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve struggled with rage. I’ve smashed keyboards, punched desks, screamed at my monitor, and generally suffered from an explosive temper. However, this wasn’t an all-the-time thing. Some days I’d be basically normal, and other days I’d blow my top over something irritating but not apocalyptic. Confusingly, it didn’t seem related to what was going on in my life. One day things would be going fine, but I’d be a keyboard-smashing ragemonster anyway. A few weeks later I’d have family stress and money problems and yet be able to take mishaps in stride without feeling a desire to hit something. If anything, it almost seemed like I was most rage-prone when life was going well.
Way back in 1999 I discovered that oral steroids (taken to control my asthma) were causing this. I dropped them and refused to go on them ever again. But years later I began struggling with bouts of rage with no obvious cause.
I could tell when I was going to have a bad day. I felt like I had adrenaline pumping through my veins the moment I woke up. My brain would constantly be looking for stuff to be angry about, and if it couldn’t find anything then it would start predicting stuff that will piss me off.
“I bet so-and-so is going to call as soon as I sit down to eat.”
“I’m about to reach a checkpoint in this game. I’ll bet the game is going to crash just before I get there.”
“What’s that sound? It’s probably a major appliance failing and it will cost us a fortune to fix.”
I wasn’t mad about anything in particular. I was mad by default and looking for an outlet for the aggression I was feeling. This made me think the problem was probably physiological more than psychological. Something was causing this. Lack of sleep? Some other medication? Something I’m eating?
Eventually I realized these times coincided with periods of exercise. I’d work out, and the next day I’d be a beast. The day after that I’d be almost normal again. It never occurred to me to blame the exercise. I mean, if you’re dealing with excess aggression, most people suggest exercise as a treatment.
This explains why I was more prone to rage out when life was good. When life sucked and I was dealing with stress, I’d stop working out.
Even ignoring the rage problem, exercise does not go well with my lifestyle. I’d do some very light jogging / fast walking on the treadmill for twenty minutes. Nothing extreme, but when I was done I was sweaty, tired, and my heart rate was up. The thing is, I can’t write code in that condition. It might take me an hour and a half before my brain returned to the point where I could get into the “flow” of coding or writing. So a simple twenty minutes of exercise would incur two hours of lost productivity. And that’s not even a lot of exercise! And then the next day I’d be a madman!
I walked on my treadmill on and off for years, but once I realized it was contributing to my rage problems I gave it up. I’d rather be corpulent than beastly.
About two months ago I tried again to get in shape, but this time I went for strength training rather than cardio. This feels wrong and counter-intuitive. I associate weightlifting with buff young guys who fist-bump all the time and call each other “bruh”. That’s not really my thing. I don’t want to be all buff and muscular. I just want to avoid having a pear-on-a-stick Dilbert physique. If I could adjust my body to any shape I wanted, I’d go back to being slim and lean like I was in 1990. That was easy and comfortable.
But the strength training is getting results. I’m getting slimmer around the middle. I don’t own a scale, but I’ve moved in about four notches on my belt and I’m able to wear pants that haven’t fit since 2009. My upper body is putting on muscle and that feels strange, but I’m basically okay with it. It’s worth it if I can reduce how much belly I’ve got in front of me.
I’ve never done strength training before. It’s amazing to me how fast you can see results. My wife got me a chin-up bar as an early birthday present. On the first day I could just barely lift myself up to get my forehead near the bar, and doing so took much grunting and straining. The next day I could pull myself up so my nose was even with it. The day after that I could do a proper (but very sloppy) chin-up. This morning I did 1.5 chin-ups.
I know when I was doing cardio I never saw those kinds of steady gains. It would take several days of training just to get a small boost to my endurance or to be able to handle a slight increase in intensity.
Building muscle is so much easier than endurance. In the space of ten days I went from struggling with knee pushups, to doing regular pushups, to doing pushups with my feet on an elevated surface, to wondering if I could somehow add some weights to my upper body to make the pushups more challengingThis is wrong. I’ve since learned you just keep resting your feet higher and higher against a wall. Yeah, I’m not anywhere NEAR doing a vertical pushup yet. Yikes.. Again, I’m being careful to avoid anything aerobic. If I start to get out of breath, I back off and wait for my heart rate to go back to normal.
If I’m making this kind of progress at 46, then I’d love to know how much faster things would go at 19.
This works really well with my lifestyle. I can get up from the computer, knock out a set of pushups, and get right back to writing within a minute. Instead of doing one big workout that puts a giant hole in my day, I do random tiny workouts. Whenever I get up to get a drink, I lift dumbbells or do pushups for a minute. The interval is short enough that I can resume my train of thought when I sit down again.
And best of all: No rage.
So that’s what I’m doing these days. If you’ve ever tried and failed at the “salads and jogging” approach to losing weight, maybe “eat a little less and pump iron” will suit you.
Anyway. I’m going to go enjoy my birthday. The Borderlands series will resume next week.
 In this case “salad” is shorthand for all of the various foods that are good for me but no fun to eat.
 In their defense, people saying, “Just eat less and exercise more!” are often trying to advise people who are following an over-complicated diet plan.
 This is wrong. I’ve since learned you just keep resting your feet higher and higher against a wall. Yeah, I’m not anywhere NEAR doing a vertical pushup yet. Yikes.
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