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Take it to the Streets

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Back when I first started getting serious about losing weight, I had the same anxiety many people on Spark do: I didn't want to exercise in public. I was simply too self conscious about my weight and how I looked. I needed to find something I could do in my living room. Workout videos were the obvious option, but I thought I needed something that didn't feel like exercise (because I didn't love exercise yet). I took an unconventional route: I combined exercise and a video game. I bought "Dance, Dance Revolution" for my Playstation 2.

My first sessions were a disaster as I was uncoordinated and out of breath. I enjoyed it, though, so I kept doing it. An acquaintance who was a gym rat scoffed at my 'fitness' routine. "You can't get in shape with DDR - you have to go to a gym if you're serious." I had already lost 10 lbs, increased my playtime from 10 minutes to 45 minutes, and improved my coordination and balance, though. I *was* getting in shape.

One day when I put on my size 12 shorts, they literally fell off my hips and onto the floor. I did not just lose a pant size; I lost two! My size 10s were also too large. I rounded up my size 12s and 10s and took them to the charity shop. I never wanted to see them again. (And I haven't.)

Encouraged by this development, I was ready to move onto a bigger challenge. I bought a bike. I rode it one hour after work every day. It was marvelous exercise that surprisingly strengthened me from head to toe. I eventually did get a gym membership, and employed personal trainers at various intervals.

Biking was my preferred exercise of choice up until we moved to Georgia. Bike paths are not plentiful or safe where I am, the summer heat is a recipe for heat stroke, and swarms of biting bugs are not enjoyable. Our apartment had a small onsite gym, so that was my main method of exercise up until recently. I worked out on the elliptical, treadmill, and cycling machines.

Since we moved into the house, I admit that I miss the convenience of the onsite gym. However, a gym is not the only place to get in shape. My grandparents never stepped in a gym - it's a 1980's+ phenomena. My grandfather and grandmother were both in the Army. Their annual physicals required making sure they were both under a certain weight. The modern US Army rejecting recruits due to inability to pass boot camp is double the rate of my grandparents' generation. The main difference is my grandparents grew up with hard physical labor on farms. The modern day 18 year old grew up with a soft couch and probably didn't walk to school.

There is a difference in the quality of exercise you get with a gym machine versus 'taking it to the street'. If you're seemingly an Olympic athlete running on a treadmill, you might have been surprised when running outside seemed harder. I noticed the same riding a real bike versus an indoor bike. The indoor cycling machines only work out my lower body. A real bike works my entire body. Balancing on a bike builds core muscles. An indoor bike is stabilized - not much different than sitting in an uncomfortable chair. Riding outside produces subtle resistances against the wind and undetectable variations in pavement. You have to turn a bike, which shifts the load on core muscles. Standard indoor bikes do not turn or lean. There is supposedly a new 'dynamic' indoor bike that simulates turning and leaning, but I've never tried it.

My gardening project created soreness in my hamstrings, triceps, and back lats - muscle groups that are usually difficult for me to improve. This has been an unexpected illustration that our modern lifestyle is causing our more natural movements to atrophy. Imbalances with muscle strength can lead to injury. Our muscles groups are designed to work in tandem. You might have seen men who overwork their bicep and pectoral muscles to the exclusion of everything else. They eventually hunch over like an ape because they neglected their back muscles which hold them upright. Another facepalm I saw with the gym over-exercisers were the guys with big, huge upper bodies, and tiny, scrawny legs. Not a good look, guys.

If you are a treadmill runner, make sure to get outside and tackle the real thing. This is true for cycling, also. Indoor cycling is good cardio, but I don't get the muscle improvement the same way as outdoor biking. I can feel soreness in my arm and core muscle groups after a real bike ride, but almost never on an indoor bike. A standard indoor bike is lower body and cardio only. A real bike is a full body workout. Take a look a professional cyclers - they have lean, proportioned muscles from top to bottom.

What about gardening or housework for exercise? I've seen people scoff at this the way my acquaintance did with DDR. If you work to soreness, then muscles are improving, period. But whatever activity you do, eventually your muscles will only grow to the size necessary to complete these tasks on a regular basis. If you're new to gardening or housekeeping, then you'll probably gain muscle soreness. If you've been doing it a long time, then you've already adapted to the necessary level. In a previous blog, I showed that a full day of average housework can burn the same or more calories as my half hour elliptical sessions. Once you've adapted to an activity, it will be enough to maintain where you are currently. If you want to continue improving, you have to move on to something new, like my DDR to bike transition.

Experts agree that full body exercise is the fastest, best way to improve strength and lose fat. I didn't know it then, but it was instrumental to my original weight loss goals when I started out. Gym exercise is a good supplement, but it reveals weaknesses when applied to real world activities. An hour on a stairmaster is tough, but still no match for carrying boxes up or down three flights of stairs when moving house.

What is your experience with gym versus real world activity? Do you notice a difference?
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I like free weights in the gym...I should say I "used to" like them...I have not belonged to a gym in a while. The machines would bore me. Most of all I like outdoor activity like you are talking about. It is more about living life and having the bonus of exercise...or maybe it is vice versa!
    1807 days ago
    I'm totally with you on the differences between treadmills and outdoor running. Back in my marathon days, training in the Boston winter was much preferable to the treadmill....it's a totally different motion. Same on the bikes.

    And same for most of the weight-lifting machines....they're phooey! I'm a traditionalist about ST. Squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, pullups....these are the things that make for great overall, full-body conditioning; legs, back, core
    1808 days ago
    I've noticed a difference. I want to get started on walking soon. Last summer I lost more than five pounds just by walking three days a week. emoticon
    1808 days ago
    Cardio equipment has to be the worst. I like to use the free weights and a few cable machines, and use body weight. A real lunge or squat is much more work than a leg press - and I definitely feel it the next day. Ok, two days.
    1808 days ago
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