Getting Fit - A Scienceblogs Challenge

As you might have seen, there's a fitness challenge going on here at ScienceBlogs. A few years ago, when I first started blogging here, my non-participation in any fitness-related activity would have been a safe bet. But that was then.

Over the last couple of years, I've come to realize that the numbers coming off the blood pressure cuff were not actually figments of the doctor's crazed imagination. I've also started to recognize that the number "2" should not be appearing in my weight twice, and it probably shouldn't be the first digit in the number. I've finally acknowledged, in other words, that I'm not that young anymore, and not that immortal.

And I've been working at a gym.

That's working as in employed, not working as in "working out". When we relocated to Alabama, I discovered that, for a number of reasons, the hours and schedule for lifeguards at the base Physical Fitness Center was the job that best matched our family circumstances. That means that I've been spending an average of 40 hours per week at the pool.

Adding some workout time to that wasn't too hard. This is good, because although I might be a lifeguard, the only way I'm going to get close to the Hoff's bodytype in the near future is with photoshop. I'd already decided that I need to get into a shape that's not round, so when Ethan proposed a fitness challenge, I actually took notice.

Some people might like calisthenics, and some might like free weights, but neither of those is my kind of thing. On land, I'm all about the machines, because the machines let me multitask my way through the workout - the thing that I hate the most about exercise is knowing that I could be doing something else that interests me a lot more. But that's the minor part of my exercise plan. Mostly, it's about the swimming. (Go figure.)

If you're looking for a whole-body workout that will get your pulse rate up without putting undue stress on your bones and joints, you might want to think about swimming. A good swim workout will simultaneously work your arms, legs, and core. Kick-boards, fins, pull buoys, and paddles can be used to focus effort on specific parts of the body, and you can set workouts that will build strength, endurance, or both.

If you do decide to start swimming for fitness, I'd suggest a few things. To begin with, I'd suggest that if you don't know how to swim at least three of the four basic competition strokes (breaststroke, front crawl [aka freestyle], back crawl, and butterfly) you look for an instructor. It's not as easy to injure yourself swimming wrong as it is if you're lifting free weights wrong, but it's far from impossible.

Like any other form of exercise, you should start off slow and build up gradually. Swimming can look deceptively easy, but swimming too hard for too long can be just as painful an experience as overdoing any other form of exercise.

If you have the time to swim regularly, and swim well, you also might want to look into masters swimming. Even if you're not interested in competition, there are a lot of benefits. There should be someone there to help you develop your form, and the workouts will be designed to accomplish specific goals. Swimming with the same group of people is also good, particularly if you need a little motivation.

The important thing is really just to do it. I'm going to try to keep working out through this year, and keep writing about it. In the short term, my goals are:

  1. Work out for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, every day. I'm not always going to have time to swim a full 30, and I'm definitely not always going to have time to get over to the gym side of the building, so I'm going to use a very, very simple definition for 'work out': activity that elevates the heart rate to at least 125% of my normal resting rate, and keeps it elevated at least that far for the duration of the exercise.
  2. Drop weight. I'm not looking to lose weight fast, but I'm looking to lose a lot. I'm going to start by increasing the exercise, and as I get used to that, I'm going to start changing my diet. My thinking is that I'm trying not to make too many changes at once. Instead, I'm trying to develop healthy habits a little more slowly, and give each major change time to become part of a new normal before I add another one.
  3. Improve my swim endurance. It's not too bad right now, but there's definitely room for improvement. I can swim breaststroke comfortably for long distances without stopping, but I'm not as comfortable with the front crawl.
  4. Lower my resting heart rate. Again, it's not hideously bad, but there's definitely room for improvement.

Anyone else have fitness goals to share?


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My goal: lose 15 lbs this year, ie. ~150-->135 (at 5'5" and slightly built, that's probably a good weight). I'm 52 and the BP is starting to creep up. I joined the company gym last year and the goal is to go after work every day that I don't have an evening commitment (ie. 3 or 4 times/week). My preferred workout is a recumbent exercycle that gives a 20-minute program at selectable resistance, or if that's busy power walk for a mile or so on the treadmill (actual running bothers my back). All the other machines strike me as time-consuming ways of building up exactly one muscle at a time, which is not my priority at the moment.

I should probably invest in one of these heart-monitor wrist watches so I can track how hard I'm working.

My diet is pretty good these days: heavy on the vegs and lean meats, lighter on cereals and low on red meats.

I've also started to recognize that the number "2" should not be appearing in my weight twice, and it probably shouldn't be the first digit in the number.

Especially not if it's kilograms...

I can't swim, so that's out. But as soon as my knee gets better, and the snow disappears, I'll start running again. One thing that helped was to have a target - a few years ago some friends and I decided we'd run the Stockholm marathon. Just having that target kept me going - and I did it!

I also got stupidly fit as a post doc, when I lived 25km from work and cycled each day.

since i went and got married, i ruined my two main ways for keeping weight off: poverty (read: hunger) and nonstop worrying. but fortunately, i've also developed a few habits throughout the years that really work well for keeping weight off. first, i exercise and do weight training every day. second, i never drink any sodas, sweetened fruit drinks or "sports" drinks. ever. i drink either water or coffee, or juices that i make myself. i eat meat no more than once per week, but i eat unlimited fresh fruits and vegetables any time. i also do not eat any sweets, except once per week when i eat a particular granola bar by a particular company that i can't resist (unfortunately, i cannot find those damned granola bars anywhere here in germany, WTF??? i thought this was a first-world country!).

i live 13 stories above a large swimming pool and sauna that i can look at all day every day and would love to go swimming there every day but alas, i don't know enough german to be able to learn whether i am allowed to use the pool. i guess i gotta get my shot together and make a concerted effort to learn to speak german! fweh!

@Bob O'H: try a proper rowing machine (Concept 2) if your gym has one. All-over body workout, also non weight bearing.

While not on scienceblogs, I did take up the fitness theme over at my blog. A few thoughts here:
* It is indeed possible to injure yourself swimming. Hard, but not impossible. I managed the impressive (to my doctor) feat of getting a rotator cuff tear while swimming (front crawl with a particularly bad arm motion while in particularly bad condition for swimming). As you mention, building up steadily is the way to go.

* Swimming is an excellent exercise, for reasons you mention. There is one drawback to it, which is also its great virtue for getting started -- it is not a weight bearing exercise. Your muscles can get a good workout. But particularly if you're female, you need to investigate adding running/walking/weights to a swim program in order to help your bone density.

* Younger (than 30) women, and men: Don't ignore this concern. Your bone density at 30 says a lot about what it will be later on in life. The stronger your bones are at 30, the better off you are at 50, etc..

* My preferred exercise is running. But I also do other exercises, including swimming. Who knows, maybe some day I'll do a triathlon. (Fortunately they also come in sprints, not just Ironman distance. 400m swim, 20 km bike, 5 km run is way more doable!) I like variety, plus maybe the pool is more limited as to times it's open and clear enough, or the weather outside for running gets ugly, etc.. Swimming is a great backup exercise.

* While I do prefer running, swimming is excellent when (as I've done recently, for the first time in 14 years running) I acquire an injury that interferes with my running. Keeps up the aerobic conditioning and works the big muscles even though I can't go for my nice run.

It's a long time since I took german, but you want something like:
Darf ich die Schwimmbecken benutze?
But grabbing your suit and stuff and heading towards the pool, and pointing to it, yourself and the pool if you see someone who might be a lifeguard or pool manager will probably be sufficient.

How far do you live from your workplace?

By Charlie B. (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

Hi Mike,

I was forced into swimming by the Intelligently Designed right knee joint that is now ready for is 4th surgury. I gues the same god that designed MG's got the knee account.

I have been swimming 4- 5 times a week for about 3 years. I range 2.5K-3.2K each workout with lots of anaerobic high intensity sets. I am 5-8 in my very late 40's and want to avoid a 2 at the begining of my weight. Yet I have been struggling keeping my weight down. I am now knocking on 190. I stared at 178. Now I do have more muscle, but I have mor fat as well.

So I researched around and found this article.

Sorry I don't know how to do links. So it seems the Desigher shafted us in swim and lossing fat. That Desigher must have worked at GM.

@Charlie B.

Very close - as in under 2 miles. I frequently bike to work. I would do it all the time, but my regular shift starts at 0500, and at that hour of the morning I typically find myself unable to sacrifice the extra ten minutes of sleep.

Aha, you got me. :-) I'm about 6 miles from my workplace and ride all the time pretty much whatever the weather (old cyclists' adage: "there's no unsuitable weather for cycling, just unsuitable clothing..."). Takes me 20 - 25 minutes depending on traffic lights. I get your desire for a little extra kip, however... You'll probably find as "Operation Reduce Waistline" progresses you'll just ride a bit more as you get quicker at it, even at lunatic o'clock in the morning - 2 miles is about 5 mins for a reasonable cyclist. My trick for when I'm on an early shift at work is to pack the bike the night before and stick it inside the front door. Crawl out of bed straight onto the bike!

Best of luck, I'm sure you'll be getting plenty of support and encouragement from your regular readers!

By Charlie B. (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink