Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Fat and Out of Shape Middle-Aged Guy's Guide... being somewhat less "fat and out of shape".

H/T to WSRA today for poking my muse with a sharp stick so that she could poke me.  The unwritten statement in that article is that if you're old or injured, handicapped or disabled, or otherwise not able to put on a ghillie suit and head for the back country, you should give all of your stuff to someone who can do that and then be a good sport and off yourself. To borrow a quote, I don't think so.

There's a reason the armies of the world rarely use guys my age (I'm 57 - some days feel closer to 100, some days closer to 50): with a few exceptions, we simply aren't able to match the fitness, strength, or endurance of the average guy even 20 years younger than us.  Plus, they never created a MilSpec for Depends.  I celebrated my 50th birthday by running a 5 k (3.1 miles) followed by a 55 mile bike ride.  I didn't do that on my 57th.  I could go on and on about "with age comes wisdom", or "old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill", but I won't. 

Do you move well?  I have arthritis, but am still pretty mobile. The worst of my arthritis affects my hands; mostly thumbs and a couple of fingers.  My right hand is worse than my left, and my thumb and pinky finger are the worst.  It makes many common tasks painful.  Many folks have had hips or knees replaced by the time they get to be my age, and I'm lucky in that regard, although I feel I'm working on needing a hip.  Mrs. Graybeard has had both hips replaced, and has a pound a of stainless in her mid-back from a time we were run down by a light pickup truck while riding our bikes (the day before New Years Eve of Y2K).  I walked out of the ER 3 hours later - she was hospitalized 3 weeks.  I know I'm lucky to get around as well as I do. 

So here you are, a middle-aged guy or gal with somewhat of a paunch, and would like to be a little tougher for the coming problems. Do I need to state the obvious?  If you're listening to some random dude on "teh Interwebz" without checking to see if you have problems that prevent doing any of this stuff, you're out of your freakin' mind. 

The first thing you should do is either buy or check out from your library, "Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It".  Author Gary Taubes is an award-winning science writer who shook up the world when he first started researching this and wrote an article for Science magazine called "The Soft Science of Dietary Fat".  (If you're not familiar with it, Science magazine is the house journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, - a very prestigious journal).  He followed that up with a easier version for the NY Times called, "What If It's All Been a Big Fat Lie?" and followed that up with a full-length book, "Good Calories, Bad Calories".  (standard disclaimer about Amazon links - just so you can see the book, I don't get money, yada, yada)  "Good Calories/Bad Calories" is written like a scientific paper and has tons of references; "Why We Get Fat" is more of a how to/what to do book. 

If you want the short version, everything the nanny state tells you to eat is what you should avoid; everything Dr. Atkins tells you to eat is good.  To quote comedian Chris Rock, red meat isn't bad for you; green meat is bad for you.  Fat doesn't make you fat; dietary fat doesn't cause heart disease, "over eating" doesn't cause obesity, and all the dietary wisdom the has been pushing since the 1970s is why we're getting fatter and have so much diabetes in our country.  Corporate wellness programs are well-intentioned but wrong; BMI is a meaningless number and overweight is probably a meaningless concept.  Reading all that background will help you understand why the more closely the general population follows the federally recommended diet the less healthy they become.   

This is going to be a big change for most people, and it can be an expensive way to eat.  You're probably going to go through some carb withdrawal.  Depending on how much insulin resistance you have (read those links two paragraphs up!), it might take some time to make a difference.  At one time, I lost about 70 pounds on the Atkins diet.  Stopping it was a stupid thing.  Now I need to lose 40 or 50. 

Now that you've dropped the idea that eating red meat is a problem, let's take on exercise.  The first thing you must do is decouple diet and exercise in your mind.  This has been pushed as the gospel for so long, that even people who don't care about their weight believe fat people wouldn't be fat "if they'd just walk around the block instead of having that second portion".  Yet most of us are familiar with the expression to "work up an appetite".  When did we get the idea that exercise doesn't make us hungry?  I joke that I was drawn to endurance cycling because it's the only sport where you have to eat during the events to compete! 

Exercise is worth doing for a mess of reasons: better ability to handle the tasks of life, muscle helps keep joints from being damaged, better support for all of your skeleton, and weight-bearing exercise helps prevent osteoporosis.  For the target group I'm addressing, I recommend weights and walking for starters.  Chances are everyone in this audience has all the weights we need with ammo boxes and cans; you don't need to go join a gym and work out on Bowflex or Nautilus equipment.  Avoid plyometric exercises - at least for now.  These are the jumping, lunging, high impact movements that you'll see on some TV products.  These are for people who are already in shape, not people trying to get in shape. 

How much weight?  Another point of contention where one group says light weights done many times and others say to increase the weight until you find you can't repeat the exercise more than five times without losing form.  After many years in the first camp, I'm moving toward the second.  There is no such thing as "toning", but you'll see places say to use light weight just to improve "muscle tone" and base that on physical therapy.  If you ever get therapy for an injury, you'll probably be surprised to see they usually work with light weights: a pound or two most of the time.  Yes, you really can protect your joints with that little weight.  But all weight lifting is intended to build muscle.  You either build muscle or you don't. 

Do core strengthening: bent-knee sit-ups or crunches.  If they get too easy, do them against weight.  Carry ammo cans around your house - work up to carrying them around your yard.  If loaded ammo cans are too heavy, bring boxes, or half-full cans.  The nice thing about weight lifting is that everything has weight.  It's just a matter of how convenient it is to work with.  

"Cardio" workouts: running or cycling or walking are pleasant things to do, if you enjoy them, but I suspect that's over-rated, too.  In my case, I know it didn't prevent the usual conditions that set in when you're over-50.  To quote myself:
My favorite story in the wellness and health screening arena is that soon after I turned 40, I decided to get a physical and it included a cholesterol test.  It came back that my total cholesterol was moderately high, but my HDL was considered way too low.  They recommended that I do some exercise, perhaps walk around the block.  It struck me funny because I had ridden 100 miles on my bike over the weekend between getting tested and getting the results.  Clearly, the cause is not related to exercise. 

There you have it: a starting point.  Losing weight might be completely cosmetic, and it may help your health, but it will probably help you if you have to do some moving to keep from being a target.  Fitness and muscle strength will help in manual labor and other things that may be coming.  It will help us be useful - to family, friends and community. 

Don't just be prepared, be prepared to be useful, and a blessing to those in need.  


  1. Inspirational, SG. I've requested the book from my local library. I'd love to lose 40 or 50 pounds, but I also love to eat. With one disc almost completely missing, and two others damaged (one herniated, one bulging) I am limited on what I can lift (just finished three months of physical therapy and can walk without much pain once again.) Any work with weights requires isolating my back from the weight. Arthritis isn't too bad at the moment, controlled with medication.

    I'm a few years older than you, but have no plans to immolate myself any time soon. If you hear I have made a burnt sacrifice out of myself, suspect the local FBI ;-)

  2. Like!
    I was in bad shape this last January, overweight and out of shape. This was all foriegn to me as I had been a guy who worked out daily but after a couple os serious softball injuries with lenghty recovery times I let things slide. I got to the point where I really did not want to do anything. The the MBWITW made me go to the MD. Got on the scale ! 245 ??? Holy BigButt Batman!!! Then came the crushing news, Your diabetic, your Blood Sugar is way high and you need to do something or else!!
    Well I did. I started dieting, exerising and taking Metformin.
    My weight is now 209, I am full of energy and having a blast playing softball on the same team as my 16 yo son.
    Was well noted last night by younger team members how "that old dood, hustle arounf the basepaths!!
    I have a bad back, arthritis in my back and one hip.
    But I am having fun again and I'll be damned if I will ever roll over and give it up!!
    I'll be 54 in a month.
    SO all you young whippersnappers remember "Age and Treachery wins out over Youth and Talent.."

  3. I'm nine weeks into the routine at - essentially three times a week doing three out of five compound lifts and incrementally raising the weight. They have a loose diet guide that amounts to eat whole foods, lose fat by eating fewer calories than you burn, and gain weight by eating more calories than you burn (I'm on that one).

  4. Likewise, if I'm ever found immolated, suspect the fibbies or some other group.

    MaddMedic, - excellent story. Are you able to get off the Metformin now that you're down by 40 pounds?

    Xenocles, I still recommend Taubes' book. The whole paradigm of eating fewer calories than you burn is broken. He goes over case after case, careful lab study after careful lab study that shows it's just not a useful model. IIRC, you're another technogeek, so I'll say, "Calories in vs. out" is an open loop, single degree of freedom system and neither one of those terms applies to humans.

  5. I'm 55 this year, not in as good as shape as 25 years ago but not ready to give away the inheritance yet either. I'm not what you would call fat although the belly hangs over the belt line(just a little). I'll get by in the boonies or the concrete jungle with what I know and what I know I can do. Won't be runnning from this fight,I'll just be fighting it smarter.


  6. I haven't read it, but my wife's a fan. I got the feeling from what she was saying that sticking to whole foods and avoiding refined ones you by and large accomplish the same thing as Taubes advocates. (This seems to go especially for refined sugar, which we have mostly cut out except for some preserving and fermenting we do.) I like to do simple lifestyle tweaks because I'm personally more likely to hold to it if it's easy to track.

    Whatever strength program you do, it seems that three things are important: do compound lifts rather than isolations, start very light to build a foundation, and work out consistently.

  7. Xenocles - just eating whole foods is about a 75% approximation. Definitely avoid refined sugar and stick with whole grain flours. Watching glycemic index and minimizing insulin response is probably the big take away. Guys like Dr. Sears (The Zone) and the Dr.s Eades (Protein Power) are close. Sears is way higher in carbs, but understands the insulin/glycagon action. The problem you don't avoid is fruit, which is what I'm having difficulties with - or withdrawal from. Beer is out, but I take enough Tylenol for my various arthritis pains that I hardly drink anymore, anyway.

    The Appendix to the book is the "Lifestyle Medicine Clinic, Duke University Medical Center No Sugar, No Starch" diet. I did a quick search and found this pdf of recommendations.

    At this point, I'm going to go hard core zero carb on this for a while. It sure won't hurt anything, and maybe it will help. I have a garden full of fresh tomatoes, and they're starting to taste sweet, like fruit!

    Dennis - that's what we call Dunlap disease, and I have that, too. The name is because my belly done lapped over my belt!

  8. I'll take a look at that. As it is, I'm young and healthy so a 75% solution is probably all I need.

  9. Speaking of fitness: I found The Couch-to-5K ® Running Plan on (Ten Things Update: 2011)

    I hope it won't be needed but I wouldn't be surprised if it was.

  10. For BS and anyone else who comes across this - the couch to 5k plan is nice, but I've personally done that a half dozen times in my life and chances are any old guys who are runners already know this and could help you. The problem is that many older folks can't run, and it has nothing to do with being a "Fat and Out of Shape Middle Aged Guy" - it has to do with medical problems. Anyone who has had a hip or knee replaced can't run. Mrs. Graybeard has been told by the doc who did her hips that running is acceptable in only one case: a car or truck bearing down on you. In that event you run a few steps and that's it. If it's raining in the parking lot, "you'll get wet", as he said.

    Anyone with arthritic knees, ankles, hips or other low body joints, shouldn't undertake a running program - they could run if their lives depended on it, but the program itself would be too damaging. Take up cycling; it's not low impact, it's zero impact. It will get you aerobically fit so that you can run if you need to. And I should point out that the whole idea of "cardio" as a type of fitness separate from other types is up to some question these days.