A Better New Year’s Resolution Than Weight Loss

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Losing Weight has been one of, if not the most, common new year’s resolutions, and as most of us are familiar, one of the most notoriously difficult to achieve. It’s one of those touchy topics that has garnered a ton of attention from journalists to scientists. Magazines obsess over it – their writers scrutinize celebrity waistlines, jabber about how to “get flat abs in x days” (and throw in a couple quotes from an MD to make their articles sound more credible). There is a constant influx of miracle products that make extravagant claims (some of which garner a loyal fanbase…like Shakeology) about weight loss. There are programs like Weight Watchers and calorie counting tools that try to simplify the whole process. There are societal pressures to “look like a dancer,” “get huge,” or “have an athletic body.” And it’s all very confusing, frustrating, and in my opinion, overwhelmingly complicated.

I accumulated 15 pounds of pudge in college, and spent the first  year out of college trying to work it off with a combination of Stepmania (known to most as DDR or Dance Dance Revolution, 90’s kids rejoice), skipping meals, and obsessive salad eating. I was never obese or overweight, but I felt pressure to conform to an Asian beauty standard. Asian women are frequently portrayed as more attractive if they are petite with skinny limbs, a teeny waist, a small face, and large eyes. Growing up, I was always encouraged to be, for lack of a better term, “delicate” and “ladylike.” It was never about taking care of my body – it was about being thin and pretty. Quite frankly, thanks to my work ethic and discipline, my efforts to reduce the pudge did in fact work, and I dropped the fifteen pounds I had gained in college after about 6 months or so. But it was never easy. I was never obese by any means, but I remember obsessing over the scale and the numbers. And to be honest, doing the same boring exercises every day gets old really quickly.

I was a weakling with a flat stomach. And I’ve gained it all back – in muscle!

When we talk about weight loss, we focus a lot on how we look. And when I think about women and the standard of skinny with a flat stomach, I feel discouraged by how misguided we’ve been and still are. At the gyms I’ve been to, women in general are still spending a disproportionate amount of time cardio’ing off their calories and doing core exercises to get rid of belly fat. Strength training tends to take a back seat – women don’t generally set goals to do push-ups or pull-ups because there is this perception that trying to do them will either bulk them up or simply not make them skinnier (the first is false, and the second is true, but hear me out). Now, fitness is a very personal journey and I would never flat out tell someone “you’re doing it wrong” or “your goals are bad,” but I feel strongly that as a society, the fact that women have been told to “burn off the fat” and that gaining muscle will make them look fatter and gain too much weight is misguiding us to excessive cardio hysteria and endless ab work. Sure, it’s better than vegging on a couch, but spending hours pummeling treadmills and doing a million sit-ups gets old, and well, it’s all rather inefficient and can sometimes work against you. For example, cyclists need a lot of sugar to get through their training (think energy gels, powders, Clif bars, and other sugar-heavy cycling foods) – all that cardio happens to make us crave the stuff.

Please note that I’m not saying cardio has no benefits at all – it does and I do it regularly too!

When I started my fitness journey – this was years before I started circus training – my goal was still appearance based. It was always about how I looked in the mirror. What I actually happened as I made my way through the 90 days of P90X (which I highly recommended to fitness newbies) was that I felt better. I didn’t lose weight, but I suddenly had tons of energy and it was affecting me in a very big way. I remember when I was still in school, I would constantly need naps. I struggled to keep myself awake in early morning. Focusing was hard and I dragged myself around a lot. After I finished the 90 days, the newfound energy I was feeling was exciting and I continued doing it. I realized that fitness wasn’t really about weight loss, or looking great, or having toned limbs at all. It was about feeling great, seeing what my body is capable of, and always taking the chance to be active, whether that’s biking to work or building a snowman instead of playing a video game or watching a TV show. Weight loss and being thin was largely a dietary side effect, and I learned that the hard way.

Being able to do things is a very different goal from simply losing weight. Having the ability to touch your toes, nail that yoga pose, or run that marathon. Having the ability to balance in relevé. Feeling energetic enough to not require coffee every morning. The more we focus on what our bodies could do instead of what they look like, the more naturally the aesthetic benefits will come, because when you are strong and active, chances are, you will feel more drive to hike a mountain than bog down inside with chocolate cake. Yes, we should all eat less slop, and reducing our body fat is still a formidable pursuit, but perhaps we should do that in the name of self care, getting stronger, and feeling better rather than trying to look like a supermodel.

Beachbody workouts, Expensive Barre classes, and Aerial Acrobatics: A Tale of Sweat, Lies, and Bruises

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I was not a particularly athletic person growing up. I dabbled briefly in middle school volleyball and got pretty serious on my varsity badminton team in high school, but such athletic pursuits vanished when I went to college and was swiftly assaulted by an onslaught of exams, papers, problem sets, and minimal sleep. After two years of being overworked, I earned a classic freshman 15 in the form of a pinchable amount of belly fat, but managed to work up the diligence to play enough Dance Dance Revolution to shrink it down to slightly-less-pinchable size by graduation (yes, that actually happened, and oh yes, my downstairs neighbors were not happy).

My “workout” efforts through the first 22 years of my life are best described as half-hearted maintenance, but at the time, it kept me healthy enough to get through school without getting horrendously out of shape. I was never taught anything about cardio, lifting, or any other fitness fundamentals. Perhaps if I had stuck with physical education in high school instead of substituting it with badminton, I would have gotten familiar with such things, but I remember gym class to be something like a bubbling broth of  torture mixed with passive aggressive competition, so I was happy to do anything else.

The point is, it wasn’t until I got to working life that I started seriously taking fitness seriously, and this is only because in most cases, instead of being on a sports team, adults do something called “going to the gym.” I often joke that my fitness pursuit started as a result of being bored in the dying city of Buffalo, but it was my oldest brother who introduced Beachbody workouts to me, and as someone with a naturally competitive spirit (thanks, MarioKart), I thought I would give it a try. Little did I know that it would lead to completing all 90 days of the entire P90X program which snowballed into spending 2-3 hours a day at my amazing onsite corporate gym doing HIIT workouts and group exercise classes to spending $16 for an hour of barre class once a week, to finding a hidden passion in aerial acrobatics, to where I am now: happily learning and continuing to learn about the realities of fitness and the fitness industry in general. And now I get to share it all with you!

Beachbody’s P90X: My Foray into Fitness

P90X is awesome for beginners, though some might argue it’s more appropriate for people who are not in dire health (as in, you should probably start with something easier if you’re at risk for a heart attack). It has helped me get to know fitness jargon without going through the embarrassment of asking a guru. When I first started the program, I thought it would be a great way to get through long, lonely, and dark Buffalo winter. I wondered what it would be like, and I had a friendly co-worker doing the same program in parallel, so I thought I’d enjoy sharing stories about the workouts with him. I was pleased with the prospect of doing different workouts every day, and didn’t have to spend a penny on a gym membership. As the days turned into weeks, I was astounded at how quickly I was gaining flexibility through Yoga X and couldn’t believe I was starting to be able to lift more than ten pounds (I started with 5 and 10 pound weights). I quickly got addicted because I was getting visible, tangible results. Because I lived within walking distance of work and had no other obligations, the time commitment (about an hour per day) easy.

P90X was great. I thoroughly enjoyed the 90 day commitment. But it was just the beginning.

Joining the Gym and Doing InsanityLong Nights After Work Hours

I moved to Chicago after a year and a half in Buffalo. My new job was located at a suburban corporate campus in the Midwest and included an incredible onsite gym that offered group exercise classes, an assortment of machines, supportive and easygoing instructors, and fun events and challenges. It was a no-brainer to join and it would help me get to know coworkers. Hot off the P90X program, I signed up on my first or second day, excited for a new phase of my fitness journey.

Because I’m there so often, I get to witness all sorts of people of different ages getting stronger, not getting stronger, looking the same, and not looking the same over the three plus years I’ve been there. Since I started doing that adult thing we call “going to the gym,” I’ve lost between 7 and 9 percent of my body fat, gained ten pounds (yes you read that right!), and have never slept better or felt so strong and energetic in my entire adult life. See, everyone knows the benefits of exercise, but if everyone was able to FEEL what being strong is like, I’m sure they’d make it more of a priority. Knowing the benefits is just not enough to motivate people – we really need to feel them to understand them. And boy, I felt them after hearing about Insanity.

Somebody generously left a copy of the Insanity DVD’s at the fitness center. The workouts are between 35 and 60 minutes long and require no equipment. As a minimalist, I loved the idea of using my body as my equipment and eagerly decided to try the program. Insanity is technically a 60 day program, but I was doing all the DVD’s for at least a year, so I probably did the entire thing several times. After a few weeks, doing the workouts became a no-brainer. Oddly, I craved being sweaty. It made me feel accomplished. I didn’t follow a schedule, but I knew all the workouts by heart. I managed to get my resting heart rate below 60 BPM through all the cardio, and I was feeling amazing.

Barre: A Fun, Expensive, & Misguided Pursuit

Wanting to expand my workout repertoire outside of work, I found a studio right in my hometown that taught barre classes. The philosophy of Pure Barre, Barre Code, and other such studios was basically do an hour of isometric, low-impact, low weight exercises to “fatigue” the muscles, “tone” specific parts of the body, and stretch the out at the end to achieve a “long and lean” muscles, just like that of a dancer. And who doesn’t want to look like a dancer?

After getting ripped apart by Beachbody, I fell in love with barre classes. I was already pretty fit when I started and quickly got addicted to feeling the burn. It was a safe space for me to workout, with so much positive feedback and no men around to watch. My instructors were incredible and I felt so supported.

The only problem was, it didn’t really make me stronger. At least, not in the way P90X did. It slowly became another workout of my week that wasn’t really helping me get anywhere physically. And the evidence was clear after I started circus, and realized that making my arms tired by pulsing with 2-3 pound weights was not helping me gain any muscle. Perhaps it helped me endure a lot of muscle fatigue, but I was not feeling stronger. I lamented my lack of progress in circus to my lack of strength to a good friend of mine, and he advised that if I was going to get any stronger, I needed to be lifting heavier weights. 2, 3, or 5 pound weights would not help me do pull-ups and inversions. I needed to stop wasting hours and dollars trying to “tone” my body.

I reflected on my experience in barre, and realized also that so much of the philosophy revolved around achieving physical beauty. Ultimately, despite its claims of supporting strong women, it was still a matter of how “toned” you looked and how “long and lean” your muscles were. This post basically sums it up a lot better than I ever could, but long story short, I spent my class cards and stopped buying them. How “toned” your muscles are and how “long and lean” you’re going to be is going to depend on your genetic makeup and your body fat percentage, both of which are going to be almost entirely dependent on your genes and your diet.

Women are different from men, but they shouldn’t need “specialized training” involving 2 pound weights that is supposed to make them fit a universal ideal.

Circus: A Magical Art Form that Showcases the Beauty of Strong Human Bodies

Circus arts combines gymnastics and dance and creates a form of entertainment through the manipulation of various apparatus or in some cases, nothing at all (partner acro).

I already have an entire post dedicated to the art form, so I won’t elaborate on it here. But I grew to love circus because unlike straight up sport, circus focuses on creating art with physical strength. As someone who cares more about what I am capable of doing than how I look, circus appeals to me – especially its acceptance of new and creative ideas. It’s a fun and supportive community that focuses less on competing and more on showcasing. It gives purpose to getting stronger.

Efficient, Effective Fitness

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Proven to get you stronger.

Everything I did was a part of the learning process, and I figured out what worked and what didn’t through trial and error. But for people who are just getting started, I can at least offer up a few bits of learning to prevent you from wasting your time and money.

  1. Free weights get me the most bang for your buck. Lifting heavy is the most efficient way of gaining muscle. I started with ten pound curls, and after a few years of gradual increases, I am working on curling 30 pound weights. My arms may be marginally bigger, but bulky? It is extremely difficult to bulk up and basically impossible if you’re a woman. You have to be taking steroids to look anything like an Arnold, and even then, it’s not possible. If you look at aerialists (see here and here) who are insanely strong, I really think bulking up should be the least of anyone’s concerns.
  2. Weight loss is predominantly diet, but if you’re trying to get stronger, you shouldn’t concern yourself with to the scale, and instead concern yourself with your body fat percentage. That aside, if you struggle with overeating, diet will probably end up being more difficult to adjust than dragging yourself to the gym. Plenty of people go to the gym and work hard but see no changes, but more likely than not, the lack of results is due to what they’re doing outside of the gym, and more specifically, how much they’re eating…especially when no one is watching. I’ve done it. I’ve done the chips in bed, the ice cream binges…you name it.
  3. Cardio feels great (afterwards, anyway), but after skipping strength training for a month, I promised myself I would never skip it ever again. Cardio is easy to get – any basic HIIT workout, cycling, running, or Stairmaster workout will do it. Strength will help you with your cardio, but it will also help you do useful things more easily. Like carrying groceries. Or a bag of rice. Or lifting kids.
  4. I became less concerned with how I look and more concerned with what my body can do. There is so much focus on how people look, and being thin, and being toned, and being fit but bulky…it drives me crazy.
  5. There is no “magic method” or magic “weight loss drink.” Fitness programs and gimmicks are expensive and hardly effective. And besides, if they actually worked, wouldn’t they go out of business? Put the work in, reap the benefits.

I’m still learning, as this is a lifelong pursuit, so I’d love to hear what you have to say.