(The entire Making Better Mornings Series is here.)
My To Do List:
- Become a morning person. CHECK.
- Become a person who meditates. KIND OF.
- Become an active morning person. NOPE.
The inertia of sitting has taken me over. Between the ages of 10 and 25, I required zero motivation to exercise. I used to train on my own at things I was really weak at (moving fast, jumping) in addition to team practices. I never needed prodding to make it to twice daily crew practice during university. In grad school, biking up Burnaby Mountain at 6am so I could hit the weights at the gym before 8:30 Biostatistics and then ending my day at a 90 minute Bikram Yoga class downtown was not out of the ordinary.
Then I got a government desk job and it all went to crap. Then I moved to Kabul where my exercise involved a weekly, never-ending volleyball tournament and that one time we stole balls from the ISAF base so we could have a thanksgiving dodgeball tournament. Then I moved back to Canada with huge dreams. I trained in the gym every morning at 7am for four months. I lost a few pounds and gained a ton of muscle. Then I started medical school and fell in love. I didn't gain any weight as a freshman in my first two degrees so I made up for them all as a late-20s medical school freshman.
I love my body more than ever these days because my mind is in a great place but I am getting older and weaker. And I am 40 pounds over my ideal weight for height. This has real consequences for healthy aging and chronic disease prevention.
Humans are designed to move in the morning, while it is bright and cool outside, and when cortisol levels have peaked to prepare the body for physical stress. The founder of Starbucks, Michelle Gass, runs every morning at 4:30AM. Anna Wintour, Vogue Editor-in-Chief, plays tennis for an hour every morning at 5:45AM. Twyla Tharp, a woman I admire so deeply, starts her day at the gym every single day, even into her 70s. Tharp says,
I have such clarity around why I am becoming an early riser. Ahead of the hurry, my day expands and opens. I am free to be creative and productive. I need clarity around why I want to become a daily exerciser. Vanity doesn't compel me anymore. I am so far beyond that space. My overall health is very compelling as an idea but it doesn't seem to get me out of bed on its own in the morning.
I think I just need to do it and feel it for myself. I need to see and feel why it matters for me. I know the reason will be different than it was at 15 or 22 or 25. I know the evidence, and the excellence, is in the doing.
One of the strongest popular non-fiction books I've read on the subject in awhile is Gretchen Reynold's The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer. This book has allowed me to shift my thinking on what the evidence says I really actually need in terms of daily movement. And the book is really about the evidence. She reviews several decades of exercise science all while uncovering everything we thought we knew, but really don't.
Everything else is really just incremental. So if you don't exercise at all right now, good news! You're going to have the most to gain in the fastest time.
Essential insights from The First 20 Minutes on exercise:
- Everyone should interval train. Even old people. Even people who don't exercise. It's the only way to improve your body's ability to use oxygen.
- Intervals feel like satanic punishment but they're over before you know it.
- You have to push yourself. Exertion protects against malignancy. If it's easy, it doesn't work.
- Thirty minutes every day is probably enough to avoid dying and becoming sick. Everything else is for performance.
- Weight training protects your bones.
- Overloading your muscles is the only way to get faster and stronger. Otherwise, they've got nothing to adapt too.
- Stretching is useless. You might be more prone to injury after stretching than not stretching.
- Flexibility is overrated in performance.
- Warming up is probably making you tired before the actual workout.
- If you must warm up, do a version of the activity you're about to start.
- If you must stretch, dynamic stretching with As and Bs (a la grade 9 track team) are best.
- Ibuprofen and massage don't actually help with pain after a workout. It's all placebo.
- Cooling down is definitely overrated.
- In the movies, when athletes are in ice baths, that's just for show. Ice baths don't work.
- Rest will help your muscles recover. One day of rest per week is enough. Two is too much.
- There is no afterburn. Exercise does not boost your metabolism and turn you into a furnace all day. However if you replace the calories you burn it exactly then there is a chance that the afterburn exists. But probably only for men.
- he most you're probably burning in an hour is 600 calories. In a modern diet, that gets replaced very quickly. So, for this reason, exercise isn't a major determinant of weight loss.
As you lose weight, your basal metabolic rate drops. Ironically this makes it harder to lose weight.
Your body doesn't really want a negative energy balance. It doesn't want to lose weight and so it will do everything in its power to prevent that from happening.
If you're exercising regularly, your body will probably find other ways to skip out on movement during the day.
Exercise is about weight gain prevention.
Exercising in the fasted state is probably the best way to go in terms of burning fat during exercise. The fat that you're burning isn't from your stores but from the meal you just ate. Morning exercise is probably the best for weight gain prevention.
Standing up as much as possible during the day is really important there are hundreds of calories to burn just simply through standing throughout the day.
These insights on exercise came just in time for my dad to ask me to help him plan an exercise routine. You see, knowledge is not a problem for me. I know how to work out like a beast. I just don't. Here is the workout I sent him - in all its low-budget glory. He also started using PrepDish.
Insights on food from The First 20 Minutes:
- Women and men store carbohydrates differently. Carbohydrate loading involves dumping a bunch of carbohydrate into the muscle, and this draws water into the muscle. But that's it. Muscles don't perform any better in competition the next day.
- When women carb load, the carbohydrates stay in the muscle for a little while and then get stored as fat. Awesome.
- If you're working out for less than an hour, you don't need to eat anything to replace the calories lost. Just eat your regular meals.
- If you're working out for over an hour, plan your carbohydrates carefully or the wall will hit you hard.
- Sugar is really, really bad for you. The only way to protect your liver from the scourges of sugar is to avoid it and to exercise.
- Right after exercise, you have 30 minutes to refuel because the muscles are very responsive to insulin and the calories will be burned right up. Protein stretches this to 45 minutes. Chocolate milk is the perfect refuel, but not too much.
- Antioxidants don't protect you. They may counteract the benefits of exercise.
On water, from The First 20 Minutes:
- Drink when you're thirsty. The body gets it.
- Staying well-hydrated will not prevent you from overeating or heatstroke. Even well-hydrated people get heat stroke.
- This book literally changes everything for me.
I just need to move for 20 minutes every day at an uncomfortable intensity. That's it.
And so here we go, day by day.