Lifetime Fitness Quest

Summary
How fitness became a spiritual pursuit...

Eric Armstrong
TreeLight.com/essays

Working for Weight Loss

I graduated college skinny as a rail at 6'2", 150 lbs. After college, I discovered weight lifting and went to an ultra-fit 180. I remember lots of female heads turning, and suddenly girls always seemed to find themselves right in front of me, where it was easy to strike up a conversation.

Over time, though, things changed. I had an undiagosed gluten intolerance (somewhere between 30% and 50% of the population does). And one night in Boston when I was drinking and playing table tennis, I lunged too far and tore something in the side of my knee. That healed in a month or so, but because I was "feeling no pain", I tore some cartilage inside the knee.

I found that out when I lot doctors operate on it, whereupon the snipped out a bit of cartilage somewhere between the size of a nickel and the size of a dime. That eliminated the pressure in my knee that had made running painful, but they didn't tell me at the time that cartilage doesn't grow back. (It is only created as you are growing up, with tons of growth hormone coursing through your veins.)

After the surgery, my physical activity was so restricted that bird watching was a strain. Walking was difficult. So I took up swimming. After doing that for a couple of years, I had a passable butterfly, and the ability to swim for reasonable distances.

Still though, the cumulative effect of fast food anti-nutrition, knee pain, and gluten intolerance took an inexorable toll that not even my martial arts training could overcome. Every year, I gained a pound or two. I was at 200. Then 220. Then it got to where I was gaining a pound a month! At 237, I decided it was time to do something. It was time to focus on weight loss.

Nutrition and Fitness Research

In my nutrition and exercise research at TreeLight.com, I had been focused mostly on health and strength, for several reasons:

I got a lot out of that research. It made quite a difference.

Weight Training

The funny thing was, I found that inceasing my strength improved both my endurance my speed! With stronger legs, I could bounce around on the training floor for much longer before becoming exhausted--and I recoverd much more completely after even the shortest respite. And oddly enough, it was the training of the abdominal obliques and lower latisimus (the muscles that control twising motions) that gave me speed.

I found out about the speed connection after doing a very simple exerise: Lie on your back, arms out to the sides, legs straight up. Keeping both shoulders on the ground at all times, lower your legs first to one side, and then the other.

That simple exercise gave me something I never had before: speed. I had technique, so I was efficient. And I was great at anticipating, with a fast reaction time. But I was never really fast. Even when I saw it coming, I couldn't always get out of the way. Even when I saw an opening, I couldn't always get there in time. But with that simple obliques-and-lats exercise, that started to change.

I also investigated plyometrics, and found out how it improved the growth of fast-twitch fiber. (It's important to keep fast twitch fiber, because that's what you lose as you age. Even the very old can move slowly. It's only the young who can move quickly--and those who keep themselves young by training their fast-twitch fibers.)

Training the fast-twitch fibers is also the key to releasing growth hormone. And weight training is key to both. So I developed a few specialty exercises for my workouts:

Running Dreams

With the weight training came an increase in growth hormone. That kept me younger and faster. It also helped to regrow the cartilage that had been removed from knee. It wasn't fully restored, but it got a less painful, as time went on. Still, I had many a running dream.

In the 80's, I did a lot of running. I did it for fun and relaxation. It was my way of meditating. I'd go out and see the countryside, and let my thoughts drift, and let my cares fall away. (I found that going out, I'd be acutely aware of the issues. Then the endorphins would set in, and I'd be feeling good. On the way back, often as not, a solution would occur to me.)

During that decade, I ran for time. Not for distance. Not for speed. I'd just go out for 30 minutes. 40 minutes. An hour or two. Whatever. At one point, I went out for 4 hours. Felt so dead at the end of it that when I came to a cross walk, I didn't care if the oncoming car stopped at the sign. The worst it could do would be to put me out of misery! So I never even slowed. I just wanted to be done.

The funny thing was, my legs felt fine the next day. But the sunburn didn't go away for a week!

In the 90's, after my knee surgery, I frequently had running dreams. I'd need to get somewhere, and would suddenly remember, "Oh, that's right. I can run!", at which point I'd start gliding along in the ground-eating stride I used to love when I was running so much in the 80's. Those dreams took the place of the "flying" dreams I had as a kid, when I'd slowly float along a few feet above the ground, face down, as well as the more accurate dreams of flying I had when practicing lucid dreaming techniques.)

They came back again in 2000's, with the cessation of extreme martial arts practice.

Treadmill

I spent one winter on a treadmill. It had an incline, so I could get a really good workout without much stress on the knees. (Running uphill is good, that way.) That made the running dreams go away, for a while.

But when summer came, and I went out for a jog on the flats, I immediately tore a hip muscle!

Heck, I didn't even know I had a hip muscle--much less than it was possible to tear one. But all that uphill running had tightened it up something fierce. On the flats, it needed to elongate. It wasn't prepared for that, so it tore.

Cycling

The running dreams only stopped when I got serious about cycling. I was lucky to be living close enough to be within a couple of miles of a transit station both at home and at work. So I'd cycle at both ends. Then I started skipping a stop at either end. Then I started skipping two stops. Finally, it was easier to connect the dots and cycling the whole way, rather than wait for a light rail carrier that would only take me 2 or 3 stops.

Then gas reached $6 a gallon. I decided to buy the best bike I could afford, and cycle to work as much as possbile. That turned out to be a genius decision. Not only was the bike much lighter, but the wheels were much narrow, with higher pressure, and less weight in the rims. In effect, there was no "rolling resistance" at all. That rolling resistance turns out to be the major thing that impedes momentum, so I found that cycling was now next to effortless. I could exert myself and go very fast, or I could just let the bike pedal itself, and cruise effortlessly for mile after mile.

That exercise, plus a better diet (more plant foods, fewer fats) helped to bring the weight back under control. In 2011, I got under 220 for the first time in long while.

Elliptical Trainer

The running dreams had stopped, but I was still missing something. I didn't know it, though, until I stepped on an Elliptical Trainer.

To me, those devices had always seemed silly--like a cartoon character shuffling legs back and forth and going nowhere. I had even set a "cardio monster" co-worker/friend using one. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

Finally, after weeks of rain and cold in Northern California, I was desperate for exercise. The startup I was working for was in a building that had a teeny exercise facility, with a bowflex, two elliptical trainers, and a stationary recumbent. I decided to give the elliptical a try.

To my amazement, it was like the best running, ever! It was like landing on a cloud. It met your foot high up, the way the ground meets your foot when running uphill. Then it ever so gently receded, until at the end your foot is pushing off of a hard, flat surface. I described it as, "Landing on a cloud, pushing off of a plank".

Until that moment, the best running I had ever done was on wood chips. It feels as soft as sand when you're landing on, but then it compresses so you're pushing off against a hard surface. That was great, but the elliptical was truly wonderful. I had a new love in my life, and her name was "Ellipsis".

Plus: When I finally got back on the bike after being off for most of the previous three months, I found that my hill climbing legs were even stronger! The elliptical turned out to be exactly what I needed for my hill climbing. (I generally did the "interval" program, of course. That's the best for building muscle, releasing growth hormone, and burning fat.)

Masters Swimming

Cycling one day, I ran into a pretty young girl named Rachel, who told me about a nearby Masters Swim program. I gave it a try, and immediately fell in love yet again. One reason for going was that I was hoping to bump into Rachel again, of course. But I found a group that had coaches who gave me programs to do to the best of my ability, where no one minded if I sluffed off unmercifully until I got back in shape. Wunderbar!

Another reason for going was that Rachel said she knew Don--a triathelete friend of mine who once said that if you want to be fit, you must commit to variety. Wise words, indeed. (I was speaking of Don Dasher, a fellow who helped me get serious about weight training at "Club Oracle". I hope that's the Don she was speaking of.)

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