Here in the relative safety and comfort of our American way of life, we’ve come to a crossroads: thanks to a strong economy and the variety of food sources afforded to us by way of capitalism, we’ve all taken to eating as a hobby, rather than a utility. Our monkey brains are hard-wired to appreciate calorie dense foods, because in the savanna our ancestors called home, a calorie dense meal was a jackpot scenario, rather than one of a dozen fast food options you drove by during your lunch break. So each time we treat ourselves to a hearty pile of fat pills, our brain rewards us with endorphins, while the rest of our body punishes us by feeling sluggish, bloated, and, of course, getting fatter.
I’m no exception. I started my Marine Corps career as a scrawny 155-pound Private First Class, and finished it as a 230 pound sergeant with a body fat percentage that just screamed “this guy only drinks clear alcohol.” I took fitness very seriously as a Marine, because, as far as I was concerned, being able to win a fight is the first prerequisite to serving in Uncle Sam’s favorite gun club.
However, six surgeries, lots of broken bones, a few slipped discs in my back and a line of work that demands that I spend twelve hours a day staring down the barrel of a Lenovo Laptop has conspired with my constantly increasing age to start making me soft – particularly in the last few months. A pretty run of the mill hairline fracture in my right wrist left me struggling to type as quickly as usual, allotting less of my day to shenanigans that help me burn calories, and severely limiting my workout options.
With my cast off and eager to try to offset the combination of muscle loss and fat gain I’ve been compiling for the past two months, I figured I’d hop on the internet to see what new revelations in workout science the world’s collective intelligence could offer me, truly hoping that I’d find some new combination of picking heavy stuff up and moving my feet around that could cut twenty pounds of regret off of my midsection before my wife got home from work tonight. Unfortunately, what I found were lots of workout pages promising exactly that sort of crap.
I’ll level with you guys, my workout game has suffered seriously from a combination of compensating for injuries, intermittent loses of motivation, an incredibly hectic schedule, and let’s be honest with each other here, just losing a step as I rack up the birthdays. Some guys continue to perform like an elite athlete well into their 40s, but sometimes I can’t help but feel like I was built with different intentions. I think I may have been best suited for the hunter/gatherer lifestyle, wherein I’d have already died in battle or been awarded the title of “village elder” by now.
Since modern civilization has cursed me with a long, fulfilling life that I’m expected not to spend hammering peanut butter cups down my gullet and being wheeled around in a little red wagon, I’ve had to find ways to keep myself working, even when it hurt, even when I was tired… even when I didn’t have the time.
And that’s the mysterious secret ingredient you won’t find in all of the websites offering you supplements, meal plans, and workout guides: to be in decent shape, you’ve got to keep at it for a long, long time. If you’re in bad shape, you’re not going to turn it all around in 30 days, no matter what your favorite Instagram model told you. Honestly, and within fitness circles this may sound like heresy, you’re better off just doing something active every day, than you are tearing yourself apart in grueling workouts you pay your Crossfit coach $300 a month to lead twice a week. Of course, you have to couple that with smart choices at the grocery store too.
Intensity in workouts is a great thing, in fact, it’s my favorite thing and why I tend to work out alone. My workouts are as much about releasing tension, anxiety, and even anger as they are about fitness. Those who know me in my day-to-day life would probably tell you that I’m a pretty nice guy – but I’m able to be that “nice guy” because of the abusive relationship I maintain with the weights in my garage. Your workout doesn’t have to be full of piss and vinegar like mine is. Yours could be a brisk walk through the park with Adelle playing in your headphones. I’m not going to judge you; it’s your workout, you make it what you want.
The thing is, whether you’re throwing weights around or strolling through the park, just doing it for a few weeks isn’t going to change your life. You may see some positive changes, but the further outside your own happiness you’re willing to reach to create those changes, the less apt you are to maintain your new healthy lifestyle. Just like switching onto any one of the (literally countless) diet fads that have come and gone over the years, if you’re struggling to make it through the day, you’re probably not going to stick with it – and any benefits you accrue will disappear once you surrender, and return to your previous, more comfortable, lifestyle.
The real solution to your post-service weight gain (or weight gain in general) is implementing gradual changes that you can sustain from here on out. Don’t tell yourself you’re never going to eat cake again, because three weeks from now you’ll be frustrated and throw the whole diet out the window in favor of a slice. Instead, cut yourself a smaller slice, and add some more activity to your daily regimen.
To boil this down to a semantic argument, instead of telling you to diet and workout to lose weight, I recommend you eat better and exercise to gain health. Dieting is something you do for a finite amount of time, either until you quit or reach your goal, followed by a return to your old eating habits. If, instead, you transition toward just making generally better choices in what you eat, that’s a shift that can carry you for longer. The weight loss won’t be as rapid, but it will be longer lasting.
Likewise with workouts. Don’t overextend yourself with your workouts to the point that you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning because you know you’re going to have to walk back into the gym this afternoon. Instead, find activities that you can look forward to doing, and try to base your exercise program on that. Those activities may change from time to time, and that’s fine, just change your regimen to suit. Again, you’ll get faster results by tearing yourself apart for two hours a day, every day, for a month – but if you’re not into that sort of thing, you’ll let those results go to waste after you trade the gym membership in for a subscription to whatever the Crate Club for cakes would be… is that a thing? Is there a Cake Club? Somebody get back to me on that… Never mind, probably best that you don’t.
So unlike fitness articles you may find other places that throw a lot of complicated jargon at you (I’m technically a certified personal trainer, and would be happy to have a more boring, technical conversation with those of you who are interested) my best bit of advice for getting back into shape is to treat yourself well. Push yourself, find your limits, but respect them – and devote as much time and energy to eating healthy foods (rather than less food) and getting enough rest, as you spend planning and executing your next workout.
Full disclosure, this method won’t get you onto the cover of Bodybuilding magazine, but what it will do is keep you healthy and capable of kicking ass the way you could back before we graduated into the modern class of village elders. Unfortunately, I realize I probably won’t rock a six-pack like I did back when I fought at 185 pounds, nor will I be able to squat four hundred pounds like a less metal-filled version of me once could, but I can still run three miles in a respectable amount of time and bench press more than three hundred pounds when I finish – so as far as village elders go, I like to think I can still rock and roll with some of the best of them.
How did I manage those (admittedly not incredible) feats of athleticism? The answer is as simple as it can be disheartening for those who are hoping for a quick solution: I’ve just kept at it for years. Sometimes I fell behind and gained some weight, sometimes I was hitting it hard and looking great, but overall, what’s staved off the diabetes wasn’t the intensity of my workouts, so much as it was my willingness to keep coming back to them.
When life got in the way and I had to take a few months off, it was disheartening coming back smaller, fatter, and weaker than before, but I’ve always tried not to tie my workouts to expectations of results. I do the workout for the same reason I eat dinner or clean my pistol: it’s the maintenance this equipment requires to keep running. Over time though, results begin to emerge, and if you’re not counting the days and the calories between you and a swimsuit, they tend to sneak up on you in positive ways.
Other tips from a salty old lifter to those of you who are looking to get back (or just into) shape: never take more than three days off, don’t forget that weight training is good for everybody (no, ladies, it won’t make you look like a man), and you’re not eating enough protein, so go get more. Shakes can work, but you’re much better off getting your protein through a healthy selection of actual foods.
So there it is – I’m not a ripped fitness model, and my methods won’t make you one either, but if you’re like me, and you just want to maintain your ability to be effective as a long-lived spouse, adventure seeking adrenaline junkie, and God forbid, the person defending your family from danger – prioritize consistency over brutality when designing your fitness plan.
And if you can be consistently brutal? All the better.
Good luck out there. I’ll see you on the blacktop.