Archive for July, 2013


Stripes and Stars

Last weekend I attended a seminar given by my BJJ professor’s instructor, fifth-degree black belt Professor Ailson “Jucao” Henrique Brites. As is customary, at the end of the seminar students were awarded promotions. I received my first two stripes on my blue belt. I could go on about how I feel I do not deserve them (and I don’t feel I do!), but I realize that is not for me to judge. I put my faith in my instructors and find encouragement in a quote I remember seeing but not sure where: If you feel like you deserve it, then you don’t. If you don’t feel like you deserve it, then you do.

But the real theme of this post is not my stripes, but the stars I saw on the mat that day and draw inspiration from: The new purple belts that set the bar for the next major promotion I aspire to. The newly-minted black belts that attained such a key milestone, one I intend to reach one day (even though I’ll be pushing 55 or 60 by then). The training partners I had never met before yet who each showed the spirit of BJJ brotherhood in their help and support through the techniques taught that day. And most memorably, a practitioner in his early 60s who received a certificate of honor. In presenting the award, his instructor told how he admired his student for competing in every tournament, never missing a class, and being a “tough SOB.”

I went up to this man afterwards, and told him he was an inspiration to me in my own training aspirations, given that I hadn’t really started my BJJ journey until 43 years of age. This guy told me he had started at 45 – and not long after being temporarily paralyzed by a stroke! He suffered a second stroke several years later, and knows that a third could kill him. Yet he not only trains and competes in BJJ but also kickboxing, and fully credits these pursuits with keeping him alive.

I can’t even begin to imagine what this man has been through, but I know enough from a three-minute conversation to say that I admire him and find him to be an inspiration of toughness, discipline, dedication and enthusiasm for life. What an encouraging example of the ability to overcome obstacles, remain active and keep your “edge” well into middle age!

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A little over a week ago, I was getting ready to leave on a seven-day cruise with my wife, and was talking with family members about the upcoming trip, including several that had been on the same ship before. The conversation turned to onboard dining options, and I questioned whether there were healthy alternatives, while mentioning my plans to eat reasonably healthy and exercise on the ship. I heard a question I have heard before, many times and in many circumstances: “Can’t you just miss a week?”

While admittedly this question frustrates me (“They just don’t understand!”, I scream in my head), it actually is worth pondering fitness and nutrition strategies for vacation. Most anyone even remotely interested in health, fitness or weight management probably wrestles with this question. Even the most serious fitness enthusiasts and recreational athletes must strike a balance between allowing themselves to have fun and live a little, while not completely derailing their routine or losing the gains they have made.

What are the consequences of suspending regular exercising and healthy eating for a week? Based on past experience, anecdotal evidence, and conventional wisdom, it could be anywhere from one to five pounds, with cruises being notorious for coming in at the higher end of the scale (pun intended). Let’s say it’s just one pound. Now suppose you are achieving an exact balance of calories consumed and expended throughout the rest of the year – but that one pound sticks with you. Take just one vacation every year, and 10 years from now you’re 10 pounds heavier.

Now this may seem like a silly example, and you might say to yourself, “Big deal, how hard is it to lose a pound?” That may be true enough. Weight will normally fluctuate within a greater range than that anyway, and part of your vacation weight gain may be due to water retention, especially if you have eaten salty foods. But gain five pounds or more, and it could take a month to get rid of it. I have a hard enough time just maintaining my weight, even with an exercise regimen that is above average in both frequency and intensity. Creating a caloric deficit for a month is just too much misery to endure in exchange for a week of fun.

Setting aside the numbers of weight gain and loss, I simply prefer to maintain good habits while on vacation in order to avoid the struggle of having to re-adopt those habits when I return. Take a week off from working out, and that first week of workouts when you get back will be not only miserable but probably also less intense and effective – so now you’ve lost two weeks out of your routine. Eat a diet filled with carbs, unhealthy fats and sugars for a week, and it will be tough to get back in the mood for a salad on your first day back at the office. It’s all about inertia. Add into the mix the normal difficulties getting re-motivated at work after a vacation, and it’s just too much to deal with at once. Not to mention the fact that I simply feel better and have more energy – both during the vacation and upon my return – when I have treated my body to good nutrition and exercise.

This is not to say that I won’t have any fun on vacation. There have been vacations when my only exercise was a less-disciplined blend of activities such as kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding; there have even been vacations when I didn’t work out at all for one reason or another. A vacation can be a great time to let injuries heal or allow your body to recover from hard training. But it’s a matter of making choices, finding balance and not letting it all go out the window all at once. Maybe you’ll take in some extra calories, but decide how you want to “spend” those calories: On drinking? On desserts? On carb-laden foods? Pick one, but not every day, and certainly not all three in the same day. The more you exercise, the more flexibility you earn in your diet – remember, it’s all about inputs and outputs.

While a cruise provides adequate opportunity to eat yourself into oblivion, today’s ships also provide plenty of healthy alternatives. Fresh vegetables, salads, fruit, sushi and smoothies are even more easily accessible than they are likely to be in the course of normal routines at home and work. All you need is the willpower to bypass the bad stuff, which is much more widely available. Onboard fitness centers are generally small with little open space, but with a little imagination and flexibility in the time of day you go, you can get a decent workout. And there are typically plenty of classes such as boot camp, spinning and yoga.

On my cruise, which I returned from this weekend, my plan at the beginning was to do four workouts during the course of the week, generally limit carbs and desserts, sample a few less-healthy things but not every day, and apportion my “fun calories” toward enjoying rum drinks or beers by the pool, and wine with dinner at night. I pretty much stuck to this plan, and despite some of my chosen indulgences I can also say I put a lot of fruits, vegetables and fish into my body this week. Two of my four workouts were spinning classes (which have not been part of my routine for a long time), and I took my first-ever yoga class (which I am not even counting as a “workout”).

So how did I do with my weight? Stay tuned… I weighed myself before I left, but am going to let a week go by before I weigh myself again. I just don’t want to become demoralized to see even a pound or two of weight gain, especially because that is within normal fluctuation anyway. I would rather let healthy eating, BJJ and metabolic conditioning have a week to work their magic, and weigh myself next weekend, on a Saturday morning as usual. But at least it won’t be hard to do what needs to be done this week, because I did enough to maintain momentum during the cruise.