Archive for April, 2012
The most frequent question that I am asked when I tell people that I’ve lost over 150 pounds (so far) is “How did you do it?” The short and possibly glib answer is that I eat right and exercise. The truer answer is a bit longer and more abstract.
Before I can address the real answer, though, I’d like to rephrase the question to: “How do you change from being overweight and out of shape to being fit and healthy?” The real answer is easier to understand now: By becoming a fit person and then acting naturally. Your body will catch up.
Of course, that’s not quite it either. The real question is the follow-up “Well… how do you do that?”
It’s a decision. Losing weight is simple, but it’s not easy. I’ve struggled with writing this post because it’s hard to explain. I think I’ve found a shortcut, though. If you change yourself you’ll change your body. If you start to change your body, you’ll change yourself. Either way you’re going to be on the road to being fitter.
I could prescribe exactly what you should do – certain things like walk two miles a day, or track everything you eat, count your calories, and only intake so many per a daily budget. There are innumerable specifics that would likely result in your weight loss, at least temporarily – but that wouldn’t be useful to you in the long term because doing those things would be outside your nature, and eventually those habits that aren’t yours will fade away. You won’t keep up my habits. You have to make them your own. Losing good habits and re-introducing bad habits has happened to me, too. Any time you try to fight nature, even your own, nature wins every time.
Instead, I’ll offer this general bit of advice that will lead to your inevitable success. I believe this advice is pertinent to success in all things, not just weight loss or general fitness, but I’ll talk of it in these terms. In order to be a success, you must:
Make Things Harder Than They Need To Be
We live in a culture of convenience. Every product, service, program plan, diet, exercise regime, class, and so forth are meant to make your life easier. Work is treated like a four letter word. Companies are happy to take your money so that they can help you do less work. Unfortunately for you, you’ve been conditioned to be fat, dumb, and happy. I can’t help you with the latter two.
Losing weight is like swimming against the current. You have to fight against every impulse, instinct, societal convention, the food service industry, and even other people’s expectations. You’re basically a salmon, except that you don’t have a spawning ground to look forward to once you reach your goal. Although, if you get fitter along the way, maybe you do.
What does it mean to make things harder than they need to be? It means walking when you could drive. It means taking the stairs instead of the elevator. It means cooking instead of eating out or ordering in. It means taking ten steps when five will do. Squaring the corner instead of rounding it. Doing things yourself instead of relying on someone else (or a machine) to do them. It means when you come to any fork in the road you need to take the path that sucks.
Granted, I haven’t given up every convenience. I still use TV remote controls (given modern electronics you kinda have to – most TVs and media players don’t have many buttons anymore). I like to eat out sometimes (sometimes too often). I have texted my wife from a different floor of the house rather than go talk to her. Doing those things doesn’t make me any healthier, though.
If I know what the Right Thing is, and it’s not that hard to do, why don’t I do it all the time?
I fail whenever I try to deny myself something I want. I fail when I give into despair instead of acknowledging my setback and moving on.
How to Resist Temptation
If you give up everything you enjoy you’ll never keep up with it. Oh sure, you can sacrifice what you enjoy for a while, but eventually your old habits, the things you want to do while you’ve been doing things you don’t want to do, will come screaming back with a vengeance.
You’re never going to succeed if you punish yourself to get there. The “yo-yo diet” effect of losing weight and then gaining even more back again (lather, rinse, repeat) is a common theme in most diets because they’re all about giving up stuff you like to eat. That sounds like a shitty life to me. No thanks.
Much better is to adjust your desire. Change what it is that you want. Remember that scene in The Matrix when Morpheus was explaining the nature of what being The One and how that works in the Matrix?
Neo: What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?
Morpheus: No, Neo. I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready, you won’t have to.
A lot of weight loss advice I’ve read suggests getting rid of unhealthy snacks when you’re trying to lose weight – literally throwing them away – because if you don’t have them in the house, you can’t eat them, right? While there’s a certain logic in that, you can’t really fool yourself into doing the right thing if you really want to do the wrong thing.
If you’re trying to avoid the foods you really enjoy eating because you know that they’re bad for you, you’re doing it wrong. You can always eat the unhealthy thing later. It’ll be there. They’ll make more.
When you’re just starting out doing is almost as good as being. It’s hard to make new habits, but if you can keep the momentum going for a few weeks to a month you’ll start being what you’ve been doing. You’ll be the success you’ve been pretending to be.
When you’ve truly embraced Clean Livin’ you won’t need to avoid the bad foods because they will no longer be a temptation. I’m the guy who can eat a single potato chip. Fear me.
<Lawrence extinguishes a match between his thumb and forefinger. William Potter tries it and burns himself.>
William Potter: <screams> It damn well hurts!
Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Potter: What’s the trick then?
Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
— Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The word “willpower” comes up a lot when people talk about dieting.
Your body burns fat far more efficiently than it stores it. Metabolically speaking, losing weight is a lot easier than gaining weight. You just have to let it. As soon as you create a caloric deficit (eating less food than your body needs to power itself) you’ll burn fat (well, sometimes you’ll also lose some lean muscle mass, but we’ll ignore that for now). The system works if you work the system. Your body is burning calories just to keep you alive. You burn calories even while sleeping, although not nearly as many as being more active.
Remember Newton’s first Law of Inertia: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. He wasn’t talking about a human body, but it still applies. Keep your body in motion.
The best part about Clean Livin’ is that it’s not a diet. It’s a means of replacing bad habits with better habits without missing the bad. Diets have a shelf life, like any fad. Diets have an assumed end date. I mean, you’ll just diet for a while and then you can stop, right?
Clean Livin’ means eating healthily and being more active… forever. Well, most of the time. Hey, why not try it just for this next meal. Just for today. See if you can do it through the end of the week. We tend to have an “all or nothing” mentality, especially where our diet is concerned.
It’s hard to do the right thing all the time. It’s much easier to do it at any particular moment it’s at the forefront of your mind.
Make The Right Thing The Easy Thing
There are some simple and easy things you can do to immediately improve your health that stack the deck in your favor.
Some “right things” that are easy to fit into your life:
- Walking – Adding just 30 minutes a day of extra walking is usually pretty easy. You don’t even have to do it all at once. Take a five minute stroll around the block before you eat lunch, or walk to the store down the street instead of driving there, or hop on the treadmill for 15 minutes twice a day.
- Easy Elimination – Cut out bad foods you won’t miss. There were a lot of unhealthy foods that I ate and didn’t even enjoy very much. If you choose to eat something that’s unhealthy, and it’s going to count towards your daily budget, at least make sure it’s worth it. If you eat unhealthy things you don’t even enjoy that much, cut them out! It’s easy to eliminate the foods that are just there for convenience (especially at the office when you may not even choose them) and spend those calories on something you’d prefer to eat. Make the most out of your calorie budget. Don’t squander those precious calories on something you consider less than delicious. For instance, I used to drink a few cans of Coca-Cola per day, and eat a bagel or muffin every morning. I’ll still have a bagel from time to time, but it was something I could eliminate and not even miss.
- Easy Additions – Rather than concentrating on what you can’t eat, just start planning meals around vegetables, beans, and other high-nutrition food. By the time you get to the meat or fish you should already have a healthy meal. Then you can more easily reduce your portions.
- Get Moving – Whenever you need to do something, ask yourself “Could I do this while moving?” Pace around while on the phone. Get up and walk around during commercial breaks. Use the bathroom on a different floor. Park at the end of the lot. Wash dishes by hand. Fold your laundry. Read while standing.
- Cook – Buy real food from the outside aisles of the supermarket – fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, dairy – and then cook it yourself. Not only will you know better what you’re eating while you likely eat healthier food, but you’ll also burn calories while cooking it. By keeping fruit on-hand you’ll also have a readily available snack for when you feel peckish.
- Drink Water – Drink lots of water to flush out your system. Pound down that water. If you drink soda, get a Sodastream instead of buying bottled soda and make your own fizzy water. Replacing sugary drinks with water will not only hydrate you to help you lose weight, but water (even carbonated water) has zero calories. Plus, drinking a glass of water before, during, and after meals will fill you up more than you’d think.
- Start Slow – You didn’t put excess weight on in a day, so it’s going to take time to take it off, too. Don’t make a thousand changes at once. Make a few small, easy to live with changes first and then add a few more in a little at a time, like when adding dry to wet ingredients while baking.
- Shrink Your Plate – This one sounds stupid, but if you use smaller plates you’ll probably eat less, and it’ll look like you still have a full plate. I use 8" salad plates for most meals even if I’m already serving a fixed portion size. They’re a good size without being too small.
- Write It Down – Before you start restricting your calories, just log everything you eat without concern for how many calories it all adds-up to. If you want to get a little helpful reinforcement you can share your food log with a dietician or even just post it on your blog. The simple act of writing everything down may make you think twice about what you choose to eat. Or not, but at least it’ll make you more aware of what you’re putting into your body. I tend to keep a log in a text file in my Dropbox so it’s available everywhere, but if you work better writing in pen on paper, Field Notes notebooks are small, cheap, and sturdy. The best note-taking system is the one you have with you.
- Make Things More Delicious – Add some umami to your food to increase the flavor while increasing nutrition and decreasing overall calories.
Do or do not. There is no try.
You can’t really fail at this. Even if you don’t do everything right you’re going to make yourself healthier just by paying attention to what you eat, attempting to be more active, etc.
Let’s say you set a goal to go to the gym every day after work. We’ll ignore that setting a goal like that is a bad idea, but you’re just starting out so you’re likely to keep it up for a couple of weeks out of excitement and momentum. Eventually, though, you’ll miss a day. Maybe you have to work late, or you’re meeting friends that night at the time you’d usually be at the gym, etc. You haven’t failed. You just missed that one time. It’s okay. Instead of beating yourself up about it, just go tomorrow.
If you find yourself always putting today’s workout off until tomorrow, maybe you need to find a new workout. Some activities are more fun than others.
Most important, though, is that you can’t change the past. You ate poorly for lunch? It’s not over! You can still eat better for dinner. Don’t give up because you slipped up. Doing the wrong thing is part of the process of doing the right thing. It’s built-in. You don’t need to feel bad about it. Just do the right thing next time. And the time after that, and the time after that you may screw up again, so pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back on that bicycle.
What Success Means
Keep your eye on the prize. You’re doing this because you want something. Maybe you want to feel better. Maybe you want to look better. The key word in this is you. You can’t do this for someone else. You have to want it for yourself.
Start slow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can make small changes and those will compound like interest into bigger savings down the road. I don’t just mean a longer life (although there are innumerable statistics demonstrating just that) but a better life as well.
I guarantee that once you make even a few simple changes that you’ll begin to feel better after only a few weeks. Looking better may take a little longer, but you have to be patient. Even small positive changes add up over time.
How To Set Goals
Let’s say you need to lose 40 pounds. So what’s your goal? It’s not to lose 40 pounds. Your goal is to lose 1–2 lbs per week, or to create a calorie deficit of 500–1000 calories per day. Your goal is to eat right for your next meal. It’s hard to plan far into the future, but it’s easy to plan for a few hours from now. Doing the right thing now means a payout toward your goal later.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be mindful about your overall goal – just that smaller goals are more realistic and also more likely to be goals you can achieve.
Beware of setting deadlines to your goals too. I was going to write “unrealistic deadlines” but deadlines in general are probably a bad idea if it’s a particular date and not a range. For example, saying “I need to lose 20 pounds by our vacation to Mexico so I can fit into this swimsuit” isn’t realistic. Losing four pounds in the next four weeks, though, is perfectly doable. The more you have to lose, the farther your finish line, and the further in the future, the hazier the goal. Work for now, plan for soon, and you’ll be prepared for the future.
No actual guarantee or warranty is offered or implied. Cancel any time. Void where prohibited by law. ↩
In terms of weight loss the most important thing to measure is the intake of food vs. expenditure of energy. Let’s make sure we understand what all of these things mean.
The dictionary defines food as “any substance your body can translate into energy.” By this definition water isn’t a food, but let’s say that it’s “anything you can eat or drink that supports your body’s energy needs.” Your body is a complex amalgam of many systems, but to simplify we’ll only be interested in the body as a mechanical and chemical system. To use a car analogy, your body needs fuel in order to function. The best part about food energy is that it can be measured, so we can know (albeit sometimes with some difficulty) what’s going into our gas tanks (stomachs).
You’re probably familiar with the unit we use to measure the amount of energy in food when consumed. It’s listed on the back of every pre-packaged food item in the form of Calories.
Cal or kCal?
The Calories in food are actually kilocalories in the scientific sense. Sometimes these calories are divided into small calories and big (or large) Calories, and it’s customary to use a capital C when referring to that unit of measure, although I’ll probably use the lower-case more often because it’s less obnoxious to read that way.
Nutritionists’ calorie, kcal, or just Calorie, is the amount of energy needed to increase 1 kilogram of water by 1° C. While it’s a metric measurement, in scientific circles the use of the SI-unit “joule” is more common. In current usage the calorie almost always means the amount of energy in food, specifically.
Input / Output
How much energy does it take to burn a pound of body fat?
There are 453.6 grams per pound. You have to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories to burn one pound of fat. Dietary fat has nine calories per gram.
9 calories per gram × 453.6 grams = 4,082.4 calories.
Since burning a pound of body fat only takes a deficit of 3,500 calories, we can do some more simple math: 3,500 calories divided by 453.6 grams = 7.7 calories per gram of body fat, which is less than the 9 calories that we know fat to contain per gram. So why does it take fewer calories to burn the fat than it does to intake the same amount of fat?
The reason is because stored body fat, called “adipose tissue” by scientists, isn’t pure fat like the dietary fat you consume. Adipose tissue is comprised primarily of fat, but also contains protein and a lot of water. Protein only has four calories per gram as opposed to fat’s nine, and water doesn’t have any calories, so that’s why it’s biologically easier to burn body fat than to store a pound of fat due to an excess of food intake. Of course, it’s easier to sit on your ass watching TV and eating potato chips than it is to exercise, and calorie-dense & nutritionally vacant foods comprise far too much of the average diet, making losing weight harder from a psychological and practical standpoint than gaining weight is for most people. Nature is on your side, but Human Nature is against you.
Time To Lose
If you only created a calorie deficit of 100 calories per day it would take five weeks to lose a single pound of fat. To lose 1–2 pounds per week, which is the most you’ll want to lose safely (i.e. without causing harm to your body) you’ll need to create a deficit of 500–1,000 calories every day. You can do this with a combination of calorie restriction and exercise. Just keep in mind that exercise will only do so much. The 80/20 rule applies here: 80% of your weight loss will come from your diet, and 20% should come from exercise. Walking briskly only burns about 100 calories per mile. Since you’ll have to walk almost six miles to burn off one Big Mac, altering your diet will result in greater results than exercise. That doesn’t mean that exercise is useless, just that if your only goal is weight loss, exercise is less important than diet. One advantage of exercise, though, is that it increases your metabolism.
Metabolism is the way your body breaks down food, determines its constitution, and gets the right nutrients to the cells that need them. Your body burns energy all the time, even now while you’re reading this. The more physical exertion, the more energy it takes.
I was going to take some pictures of 100 calories of foods to show volumes of various foods that all have the same number of calories, but someone already beat me to it (with a gallery of what 200 calories of various foods looks like).
Take This To The Bank
Caloric intake is like having a per diem. Every day you get a certain budget, and then it resets for the next day while you sleep. The amount of calories you require on a daily basis varies from person to person, but the USDA’s guidelines for nutritional labeling of food items bases the amounts on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your needs may be more or less than that based on your weight, gender, or age. There are even variations in the metabolism of individuals, so any talk of measuring your intake vs. calories burned will be ballpark figures.
Some foods are more calorie dense than others, meaning that you can eat larger amounts of some foods without taking as big of a hit in your daily budget.
|Nutrient||Calories Per Gram|
|Lipids (fats)||9 calories|
Water, insoluble fiber, cholesterol, vitamins, and minerals don’t have any calories but provide other vital nutrients. Practically all foods contain some combination of the above constituents, and food calories are calculated based on the amount of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that they contain.
How Much Of Each Nutrient Should I Eat Daily?
The Institute of Medicine provides a recommendation table called the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) which specifies the percentages of each macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs, etc.) people should consume daily based on their age and gender. For adults, on average, you should base your percentage of macronutrient intakes on:
|Macronutrient||Daily Caloric Consumption|
As you can see, the totals of the maximum range exceed 100%, so depending on your age and gender you’ll need more or less of each nutrient. Remember, however, that your body weight is a simple balance of caloric intake versus outtake. Calories are calories whether they come from fat, protein, or a jelly donut. You can get all of your calories from eating potato chips and still lose weight. You may die of malnutrition, but you’ll lose weight.
Your metabolism is working all the time, burning energy just to keep your vital functions working, your body heat constant, heart beating, and lungs breathing. The amount of energy needed to keep you alive is called your basal metabolic rate. BMR varies in individuals, but a good average figure is that your BMR constitutes about 60% of your total energy consumption. You also burn energy digesting food, and of course through activity.
The average woman burns 10 calories per pound, and men burn 11 calories per pound.
Let’s assume for example a 150 pound woman (because the math works out conveniently). Her BMR would result in a caloric consumption of 1,500 calories (150 lbs x 10 calories), which is 60% of a total of 2,500, which is the amount of calories she’d have to consume daily to maintain the same weight.
But like I said above, BMR varies based on a great number of factors, including genetics, body frame, height, weight, etc. It’s widely known that the BMR of overweight people is actually much greater than that of fit people since it takes more energy to keep more mass moving, and being overweight stresses the body causing an overweight person to burn more energy than if they weren’t carrying the extra weight. If you’re overweight, this is excellent news.
Your BMR constitutes about 60% of your daily caloric needs. Another 10% goes to digesting food and carrying nutrients to your organs. Only 30% of your daily caloric intake goes to powering your muscles to move your body around through activity. So it seems that you’d be well-served by figuring out how to increase your basal metabolic rate. Of course, to know how to increase it you’ll need to know how to calculate yours first.
Some fancy scales can determine your BMR by sending a small electrical current through your body (one foot to the other) and measuring the resistance caused by water in your cells. It’s a rough estimate. There are also handheld devices that can measure your body fat percentages so you can calculate your BMR more accurately. Your doctor can prescribe far more accurate tests that require expensive equipment, or by suspending you in a tank of water like Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back.
Personally, I base my intake on an 1800–2000 calorie diet and have been losing weight more rapidly than is recommended by my doctor. I’d have to recommend that you talk to your physician or dietitian to figure out how many calories you should be consuming daily, and what percentage of macronutrients you should target.
Raising Your Metabolism
Here are a few ways to boost your metabolism:
- Exercise – Not only does exercise help make you stronger and feel better, but you get a small metabolism bump that lasts hours after you’ve finished exercising. That’s why it’s better to work out in the morning rather than at night after work (if you have to choose).
- Build muscle – Every pound of muscle burns about 6 calories per day through general use, while each pound of fat only requires about 2 calories a day. While you can’t turn fat into muscle (they’re completely different tissues) you can increase your muscle mass through exercise and thus raise your metabolic rate slightly. The more muscle you have, the more energy you burn.
- Don’t starve yourself. – You burn excess fat by creating a calorie deficit, but if you create too much of a deficit your body thinks it’s starving and slows down your metabolism in order to keep you alive for as long as possible.
- Get enough sleep. – Sleep depravation slows down your metabolism. Even though you burn fewer calories while sleeping than while awake, you’ll burn fewer calories still if you don’t get enough sleep. Most adults need 7–9 hours of sleep per night.
- Eat smaller. – I don’t mean eat smaller portions (although you should do that too) but eat smaller meals more frequently. Your metabolism slows down when you’re done digesting food, so eating smaller amounts of food spread out throughout the day will actually keep your metabolism going stronger for longer.
- Eat more fish. – Especially those containing omega–3 fatty acids. Salmon, sardines, and other rich in omega–3 fish oils have been known to raise your metabolic burn by as much as an additional 400 calories per day.
- Spice it up. – Studies have shown that eating spicy foods actually raises your metabolism. Some diet pills actually contain pure capsaicin, the protein that makes food taste hot & spicy. Spices also have the added benefit of adding a tasty kick to some blander (but healthier) foods.
- Drink green tea. – Drinking green tea before a workout is said to increase the amount of calories you burn between 15 and 20%.
- Drink coffee – The caffeine in coffee is a stimulant and slightly raises your metabolism.
- Eat more protein. – Proteins take more energy to burn than fats or carbohydrates, which extends the amount of time you spend metabolizing your food between meals. Plus, protein is essential for promoting muscle growth, which also burns more calories.
- Be younger – Metabolism slows with age, so the best way to speed up your metabolism is to grown younger. Oh yeah, that’s impossible. I guess you’ll have to stick to eating right and working out, then.
OR WILL YOU?!??!?
Burning Calories Through Inactivity
Did you know that you burn calories all the time? Right now reading this is burning more calories than you’d burn if you were sleeping or just sitting still on the sofa. This is sometimes referred to as NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This is the activity that you wouldn’t consider activity – fidgeting, shivering, pacing, talking – all of these things burn a small amount of calories.
No one is going to suggest that you replace your daily 30 minute workout with fidgeting on the sofa, but by keeping in mind that just about everything you do with your body burns calories you can make a game of it by trying to burn as many calories as you can per day.
The following figures are based on the Compendium of Physical Activity, a reference that assigns a MET value (defined as the ratio of activity to a standard resting metabolic rate) to various activities based on their intensity. Sitting still is the baseline of 1.0 METs per hour. The METs are considered an average over time, which is why gardening is higher than surfing – surfing may be higher intensity for brief intervals, but constant gardening beats out waiting for that perfect wave to come.
I’d argue that sexual activity is rated far too low in terms of physical intensity, but then I’d be bragging.
|Sex (moderate intensity)||14.3||13|
|Sitting (Reading or Typing)||16.5||15|
|Cooking (while standing)||22||20|
|Walking (light stroll)||27.5||25|
None of these things are generally considered “exercise” (except maybe bicycling, which I included because it’s not work if it’s fun, right?) yet all of these activities burn some calories. Cooking burns more calories than sitting. Reading burns slightly more calories than watching TV (I wonder if that’s because of the page turns). Walking tends to burn more calories the faster you walk, but the interesting part about walking/jogging/running is that you burn the same calories over the same distance no matter your intensity. So running one mile burns the same number of calories as slowly walking that same mile (although running will burn them faster).
So get out there and burn some calories. Or just sit here in front of your screen and burn slightly fewer calories.
If you’re reading a book or article about nutrition and the author refers to the “energy” in a food in some vague new-agey bullshit sense, like “carrots contain so much positive energy,” that book is garbage and should be thrown away, composted, or burned for heat. The only true “energy” in food is measurable in Calories. Also beware anyone who claims to be a “wellness expert” as that generally translates to “totally and completely full of shit.” ↩
Butter has only 7 calories per gram instead of 9 because it contains about 25% water and other solids. European butters contain only 20% water so are slightly more caloric (but creamier and more delicious). ↩
Of the 20–35% of fats, only 0.6–1.2% should be polyunsaturated, and there is no safe recommended amount of saturated or trans-fats. ↩
As a follow-up to yesterday’s post some people have asked me how noisy my treadmill, the True PS300 is in actual use.
I took a short video with my iPhone to demonstrate:
As you can hear, the audio is a little exaggerated by the iPhone mic but it’s pretty obvious that my heavy footfalls are much louder than the sound of the motor (which I don’t really hear at all) or the deck itself. If you’re lighter than I am (and at my current weight of 298 lbs, you probably are) it will probably not even be as loud for you.
Something to note is that our treadmill is in the basement, sitting on a vinyl treadmill mat, on top of a carpet, on poured concrete. So your mileage may vary if you place it on a hardwood floor that isn’t the basement. I have no idea what it’ll sound like to your downstairs neighbors, but it’s not really any louder than I imagine it would be to walk on a laminated plywood board (which is what I believe is the material of which the deck is constructed).
When I first joined a gym using the treadmill was my least favorite exercise. I found the treadmill was not as much fun as the elliptical or other machines that give you a more novel range of movement. After using any of the other machines for a while, though, I always returned to the treadmill as a way to warm up and cool off. It engages your entire body rather than isolating some part of you for a specific movement (like an exercise bike) since walking is considered a weight-bearing exercise – more muscles are engaged which results in a better workout. Elliptical machines are lower-impact than treadmills, though,and tend to take up more room length-wise than a treadmill. We could’ve gone either way.
Why A Treadmill Versus Some Other Piece of Exercise Equipment?
I don’t know. Anything that you have room for and that you’ll actually use will work for you. Anything that will collect dust because you won’t use it probably won’t. My wife and I found that the only two pieces of equipment we used consistently were the treadmills and elliptical machines, and the latter seemed less practical if we had to choose only one for home use.
When it came time to decide what machine to get, the treadmill was the one piece of equipment that both my wife and I would likely use more often. Of course you never know how much you’ll use something until you buy it…
Treadmill Buyer’s Guide
Before I begin to offer advice, keep in mind that I use my treadmill solely for walking. I’m not a runner (yet) so my needs may differ from yours. There are some general tips that I picked up while researching my purchase, though.
- Determine Your Needs: Are you a runner or, like me, primarily going to use the treadmill for walking? Runners or heavier walkers will need a beefier treadmill.
- Budget: How much do you have to spend? I found that in late–2011 (and this still holds true for 2012) that $2,500-$3,000 is the sweet spot for getting a quality treadmill that will last you many years (hopefully) without having to spring for all the bells & whistles. You can spend less, but know that a $1,000 treadmill that you get at a sporting goods emporium may not last long, and if it’s really cheaply made, could cause injuries.
- Where To Shop: Department stores and sporting goods chains all tend to sell lower-end treadmills. Some of them may work for you, but keep in mind that the clerk may have worked in the furniture department the prior week and may not be able to answer your questions. The better brands tend to be sold like cars – only in fitness equipment dealerships.
- Brand Names: Some of the better brands include Precor, True, Life Fitness, Landice, and Cybex. I’ve heard mixed reviews about mail-order and department store brands like NordicTrack, Bowflex, Smooth, Sole, Horizon, ProForm, and LiveStrong. There are dozens of other brands, too, some of which are owned by some of the other brands mentioned above.
- Stack The Deck: Most treadmill manufacturers differentiate their product lines not by changing the motor, deck, or anything else in the base of the machine throughout their model lines, but rather the models get more expensive as the electronics and display in the “head” get more advanced. We went with a fairly simple model since we didn’t care about a built-in touchscreen or LCD TV. If those things are important to you and you have the money, go nuts and spring for a fancier console computer. Just know where your money is going. Most threadmills include a book shelf where you can put a magazine, iPad, or eBook reader. Can you put a TV in the room with the treadmill? A stand-alone television will likely be a lot cheaper (and better quality) than a built-in display.
- Go Pro?: Commercial treadmills that are meant to stand up to a multitude of abuses are much more expensive than consumer models. The trick is to find a solidly built consumer model. If you can find a commercial model for sale at a discount just be aware that it has a lot of miles on it and may not last as long as you’d like.
- Treadmill Lifespan: This also greatly depends on the quality of the parts, how often you use it, etc., but consider that this is a big purchase that you don’t want to have to make again in a few years. Shoot for a model that will last you at least 7–10 years. Preventive mainetnance will extend the life of the better models.
- Know When To Fold ’Em: We bought a non-folding treadmill because the folding models tend to not be as sturdy or well-built. If you don’t need a super sturdy treadmill (e.g. you weigh l00 pounds and plan to only walk on it) and have limited room to keep a treadmill a folding model may work for you. Just know that you’re paying more for less. Convenience has a price.
- Inclination: Most decent treadmills offer an option to incline (ours goes to 15%). Some of the really fancy decks also do a decline to better simulate terrain. You’d be surprised how much a 3–5% grade makes a difference in your walk, and to avoid boredom you’ll definitely want the variety various inclines and speeds offer.
- Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Breaka My Stride: Are you tall? If so, you’ll want a deck that’s at least six inches longer than your stride length on either side. I’m 6′3″ My treadmill’s desk is 60″ long. Also important is the width of the deck. Generally wider is better, as you don’t want to accidentally step on the edge of the belt.
- Space: Do you have room for a treadmill? Make sure you measure not only the treadmill itself, but also a good 1–2 feet on either side of it (for your arms) and another foot or two behind it in case you trip and get flung into the wall or other furniture. Space in front of the treadmill need only be limited by how much you want to stare at a wall, although keep in mind that some measurements only include the length of the body of the deck and that the console may hang outward of the manufacturer’s measurements.
- Whiz-Bang: Sure, the feature that simulates the terrain of the south of France by changing the incline as you walk is nifty. It’s nice to have a small TV screen built into the top of the machine, too. Do you really need these things, though? Will you actually use them on a day-to-day basis? The hard part about trying out something like a treadmill in a store is that you won’t really know if you really like it or not until weeks or months into your routine (especially if this is your first treadmill).
- Try Before You Buy: You need to walk on a treadmill before you buy it, for as long as you can. While most gyms will stock larger commercial models often times the console for a manufacturer’s home series is similar (or in some cases, exactly the same). Try out models in various stores, but see if you can get a day-pass trial membership to a couple of local gyms so you can try a couple of different models for a more extended workout. I’ve also never heard of a treadmill salesman kicking someone out of the store because they walked on the display models too long.
- New Or Used: I’m of the opinion that you can’t go wrong with new gear. I’d rather go without for a while and save up for something new (which is what we did) than get something cheaper that may or may not have problems. Having said that, a lot of people buy treadmills as part of their New Year’s resolutions and then use it a few times before it gathers dust in their basements, so you may be able to find a nearly new deal on Craigslist. Consider, however, that treadmills are heavy and you’ll need to move it yourself if you buy it from an individual.
- Delivery: I’m going to say that delivery is always free when you’re buying a treadmill. I’m sure not every store offers free delivery, but I’ve found that enough do that you should shop at those places rather than pay a delivery fee. If they want to charge you extra for setup, walk away. The machines almost always come with the head removed and the delivery guys assembled ours and set it in place in less than five minutes. That’s part of the price of the machine.
- Hold Your Horses: You wouldn’t buy a car without knowing what kind of engine it had (would you?). You should know what you’re getting in the treadmill’s motor, which is its most important part. Raw (peak) horsepower isn’t as important as its “continuous duty horsepower.” Most manufacturers of better treadmills will brag about their continuous duty rating because that’s the amount of HP you can expect to get consistently under load (i.e. you walking on the belt) and not the motor’s peak without being stressed at all. Keep in mind that there’s no law or standard for rating treadmill motors, so it’s hard to research. One tip for determining the relative quality of the motor is to examine its…
- Warranty: Most treadmills will come with some kind of manufacturer’s warranty, and usually they’re split between parts, labor, and the motor. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, since crappy treadmills will come with poor warranty terms, and good models will usually have a good warranty, often a Lifetime Warranty, for important parts like the motor. That’s confidence. You can tell how confident a manufacturer is by how long they’ll warranty the machine. Of course, if something’s going to break it’s going to break in the first few months, or after many years. Make sure you know what you’re getting.
Lies Treadmill Salesmen Told Me
- “This is the same deck as their commercial machines.” Yeah, sure it is.
- “If you need service we’re just a phone call away. Our service to you continues long after you leave the store.” This location was a mattress store three months ago, and will likely be an aquarium supply store six months from now. Base your purchase on the manufacturer’s warranty, not on the service that the salesman claims comes with your purchase (unless they’re willing to give you a service agreement in writing, but even that may not be worth anything if they go out of business).
- “These machines are the best. That’s why we only sell this brand.” Translation: this manufacturer pays us the highest commission.
- “I own this one myself.” Sure you do. You also owned a different model I was interested in last month. How many treadmills do you have? This is just the salesman’s way of telling you that they have personal experience with the machine. Who cares how much they like it?
- “I have ten years experience as a personal trainer and recommend that my clients only walk on RunJogger machines.” The salesman’s employment history doesn’t make the machine you’re looking to invest in any better. They want to assure you that they’re an expert in all things fitness, but make sure they can answer your questions about the actual treadmill you’re looking to buy.
- “I don’t work on commission.” There’s nothing wrong with selling stuff on commission. I expect that the salesman is getting paid based on sales. The only reason anyone would tell you that they don’t get a commission is to seem more trustworthy. After all, why would anyone who stands to gain nothing from your purchase lie to you about which model to buy? It’s not a bad sign if your salesman doesn’t get paid on commission – a lot of larger retail stores don’t pay commissions. Be leery of anyone who makes it a point to tell you that as a sales tactic, though.
- “I can give you a special deal on this one.” Regardless of whether this particular model is discontinued, has issues, or what have you, the truth is that the price on the treadmill is really just a starting point. Fitness equipment salesmen can haggle just like car dealers, and you should expect to pay lower than the asking price. Don’t be stirred into making a rash purchase because a model is deeply-discounted or on sale. They’re always on sale. Now or next month is as good a time to buy as any, so pull the trigger on your own time, not because a salesman pressured you into it.
How To Research Treadmills Online (or not)
While there are innumerable websites which will sell you a treadmill you should under no circumstances buy a treadmill from an online store. You’d think the Internet would be the perfect place to do research for treadmills but most “review” sites are actually just thinly veiled ads for treadmill and fitness equipment stores, or affiliate marketers looking to send you on your way to a real store wherein you can buy a new treadmill (while they get a small cut of the sales price).
Consumer Reports may have treadmill reviews, but you can’t read them without being a paid subscriber. The only reasonably interesting site that gives annual awards for treadmills in various price ranges is TreadmillDoctor.com, which is also a merchant but they sell parts for treadmills and elliptical machines rather than the equipment itself, which makes them somewhat less partial.
My point is that a treadmill is something you’re going to have to walk on to find out if it’s a good fit for you. I can tell you how much I like my treadmill, but until you’ve tried it for yourself you just can’t tell.
My Treadmill: True Fitness PS300 Review
After researching as much as possible online and trying a few models in stores we decided on the True Fitness PS300. We paid about $2,500 for ours. It’s $200 more than the True PS100 but includes an orthopedic belt that felt a lot more cushiony. Also, from what I determined from online forums that the ortho belts tend to last longer. I’d recommend it especially if you currently weigh a lot as I’ve found it puts a lot less stress on my ankles than a standard belt. If you try it and don’t like it, though, the True PS100 is a fantastic machine as well (the only difference between the two is the belt).
Besides the orthopedic belt providing a nice cushion it’s grippier than standard belts as well. The deck is very long (60″) and reasonably wide (it’s 21″ which is more than wide enough although I liked some 22–24″ models better – but only for the generous width of the deck). This treadmill is a consumer model but our salesman told us that it uses the same motor as their commercial machines. I’m kidding. Of course it doesn’t, but that’s okay. It’s beefy enough at 3 horsepower.
It’s super-sturdy – the frame is made of heavy gauge steel. The head is made mostly of plastic, but it’s a good sturdy plastic, too. When grabbing the handrails there’s no shake or jitter. It really feels solid (not that you should be grabbing onto the handrails while you’re walking – that eliminates a lot of the workout!). The specs say that the maximum user weight is 350lbs, which is ample for most people but when I first started my Clean Livin’ routine I would have to have waited to use this machine. The PS300 itself weighs 308lbs, which means it stays in place while you walk on it. It also means it’s nigh impossible to move to clean under it, so be sure to use the free mat that the dealer threw in to sweeten the deal, especially if you’re not using yours in the basement and have to worry about making noise for people below you.
The warranty is above-average:
Frame – Lifetime;
Motor – 30 Years;
Parts – 7 Years;
Labor – 1 Year.
I don’t know why they don’t offer a lifetime warranty on the motor. I mean, 30 years is pretty good – I doubt we’ll have it that long – but why not go the extra mile and support it for longer than most people will own the machine.
The controls are very simple to use. When my mother-in-law came to visit she was able to just hop on and start using the machine with no prior training or having to read the manual. There are quick start buttons for setting various speed and incline increments, along with easy to reach up and down arrow buttons to increase or decrease speed and incline. The display also shows your walk’s duration, the number of calories burned based on your weight, METs, and of course distance. It has a safety clip that you’re supposed to clip onto your clothing so the machine stops if you slip. I tried it once and it seems to work. Since then the clip’s been sitting in the console’s cup holder.
It comes with a wireless heart rate monitor that I’ve never used. It also comes with a water bottle that fits the two built-in holders well, and a tool you can use to open the motor compartment for maintenance. I may take my dealer’s advice and have someone from their store come by once a year to do some preventive maintenance, if they’re still in business by the end of the year.
Regarding the heart rate monitor, the brochure says:
TRUE HRC Cruise Control allows you to “lock in” your targeted heart rate. Once your target is entered, one touch TRUE HRC Cruise Control will adjust speed and incline automatically throughout the duration of your workout to maintain your target heart rate.
So that sounds pretty cool. I’ll have to try it sometime.
I tend to just put it in manual mode and adjust the speed and incline myself as I go, but my wife loves the “Glute Buster” and “Calorie Burner” modes because it does a warm-up and cool-down period and adjusts the speed and incline at various intervals to change things up. I think having multiple program modes on a treadmill is like carrying a hand gun. It’s better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them.
I’ve used fancier treadmill computers and have never once missed and kind of programming or a full-color display. Of course, I bring my own entertainment.
There’s not much advice I can offer to make walking in place more fun. I find it better to watch something rather than read or listen to music. My iPad fits on the treadmill’s book shelf and I catch up on TV shows or movies I want to watch. It covers most of the display, but I tend to adjust speed and incline based on feel anyway, and I can always slide it to one side or another to see my incline or current speed.
Whatever you do while on the treadmill – reading, watching TV, listening to music, talking on the phone – I’ve found that anything that’s immersive is better at combating boredom than anything that makes you focus on your walk. For me, it’s watching videos on the iPad, reading a novel, and then maybe surfing the web.
When the weather’s nice I still prefer to walk around outside rather than walk indoors on the treadmill. There’s not a treadmill in the world that beats beautiful weather and fresh air. Then again, I can’t catch up on Parks & Rec while walking in an actual park for recreation.
Since buying the machine last November I’ve gone from using it a couple of times per week to using it every morning. I like to just hop on a bit at various times throughout the day whenever I’m home too. I’m definitely a convert despite initially finding it awkward and monotonous. Walking on a treadmill definitely takes some getting used to. You probably don’t realize how much you adjust your pace as you walk since the Earth isn’t moving at 3–4 mph beneath you. Of course, the Earth is moving much faster than all of the treadmills on it combined, but the ground doesn’t move relative to you. That’s probably not a relevant detail.
If you’ve owned and have regularly used a treadmill for longer than 30 years, please contact me. I have questions for you. ↩
This post was dictated and transcribed by my iPad while walking on the treadmill over the course of a week or so. Well, the first draft was, anyway. If you’re wondering where dictating an article lies on the boredom scale, it’s behind watching videos but ahead of reading. Having said that, writing an article and dictating one are two very different skills and I’m unlikely to do a lot of “writing” while walking on the treadmill. I also edited-out the mistranslations and “ums” later. It was an interesting experiment that would work better as a means of jotting down a quick note about an idea that I had while working out in the morning. I would not recommend trying to do any serious writing while walking on a treadmill. ↩
There’s going to come a time when you’ll stagnate in your fitness. You’ll stop losing weight (before you reach your goal weight), or exercise less and less frequently. You’ll stop tracking your caloric intake, or even stop thinking so much about food.
While losing weight and getting fit is simple, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. In order for your body to burn stored fat you have to create an energy deficit on your intake. In plainer terms, you have to expend more energy than you take in (in the form of food). We measure energy that the body uses in terms of calories (technically, kilocalories, but most labels ignore the kilo- prefix). Obviously, if you’re going to keep under a certain caloric limit you’re going to have to know how many calories are in the food you eat each day. On top of that, you’re also going to have to track it cumulatively so that you know when you’ve reached your limit. Ideally, of course, you’d also log your food before you eat it so you can make decisions based on your caloric needs.
Looking up a food in a reference to see how many calories it has before you eat it? Simple. Doing it every single day before every single meal? Not so easy.
I’ve found that when I track my caloric intake and stick to a daily hard-limit that I lose weight pretty consistently. When I get lazy, though, and stop actively logging everything: I either gain weight or stay the same.
For the last few months of 2010 through the early part of 2012 I remained relatively stagnant in my weight loss. Actually, to be completely honest, in the latter months of 2011 I actually gained about 15 pounds back. Ugh. I stopped logging my food because quite frankly, it’s annoying and a bit of a pain in the ass to do it all the time. It works, but it’s a pain.
Where I Went Wrong
I had some major life changes in that timeframe. I got engaged, and then 13 months later got married. My then fiancée and I bought a house. Having moved to a new neighborhood, we of course wanted to try out new restaurants that were within walking distance. Eating with a partner instead of eating alone meant that my ridiculous habit of eating the same meal for five days in a row because I still had the ingredients for it wouldn’t fly. All of these things are excuses, of course, for why I wasn’t losing weight. Obviously, my stagnation was my wife’s fault.
I kid. I have no one to blame but myself, and the worst part of it was that I was a bad influence on her, too. We decided to get a treadmill instead of joining another gym we’d stop going to after a few months (I’ll have to write more on gyms later), which turned out to be a fantastic investment. No longer will Chicago’s harsh Winters be an excuse to not walk.
Back to stagnation. I’ve heard that dieters often face plateaus as their bodies get used to their new diet. That’s fine, but I’m not on a diet. I’m just adjusting my eating habits and activity levels. So why have I stagnated?
Was it any of the excuses I listed above? Eh, I’m sure they all played their part, but really I stopped succeeding because I stopped working the system. It happened slowly over time. I started to guesstimate calories in a meal rather than look it up. Doing the math in your head is fine if you’ve already looked up the food and know its caloric intake – I still do this when eating out sometimes – but over time I stopped doing even that. Then of course the unhealthy meal every once in a while became more frequent.
The habit that didn’t break for me was being more active. I kept up other habits too, like weighing-in nearly every day and wearing my FitBit so I could track my steps. Of course, I stopped trying to hit my 10,000 steps per day goal. But I was wearing the FitBit all the time and at least tracking how little I sometimes walked on a lazy Sunday.
So those are the things I internalized and made part of who I am. Tracking calories? Not so much.
How I Got Back On Track
I got back into Clean Livin’, full-swing again when I got the results of the blood test taken during my annual physical. Everything was pretty much normal except that my cholesterol was high for the first time ever. Not super-high, but my LDLs was a little on the high side, and my HDL (good cholesterol) wasn’t as high as it should be. My doctor said that if I should adjust my diet and increase my exercise levels to try to correct my cholesterol naturally, and if I couldn’t affect results within three months that I’d have to go on a statin drug in order to correct it with medication. Immediately I made changes to my diet and started exercising more.
I was scared straight.
I’m now four weeks into doing the right thing and I’ve lost 15 pounds so far. I’m still not down to the lowest since I’ve been tracking it, but I expect to be soon.
Writing this is clearly an integral part of Clean Livin’ for me. I’ll keep you posted.