Fit to Ride Redux, Part 3 — Exercise
When it comes to supporting our hard-working horses through miles of endurance conditioning and competition, strength is as important as leanness.
As we discussed in Part 2 of this series, nutrition is primarily responsible for a person’s body composition; that is, his or her ratio of lean to fatty tissue. If I had to choose between eating well and not exercising, or eating poorly and exercising to “burn off those extra calories,” I’d choose the former.
Fortunately, I don’t have to choose.
Good nutrition, they say, makes you look good with your clothes on. Exercise makes you look good with your clothes off. Why not have both? But seriously, aesthetics aren’t the point. Fitness is more than fitting into your skinny jeans. Fitness is choices.
Think about it: Your level of fitness is the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do. When no difference remains, you are dead.
Where do you fall on the spectrum? Can you jog the downhills and tail the uphills on a 50? Do you stick to LDs because your core gets weak if you ride farther? Have you the ability to lead your horse 10 miles to the next vet check if he goes lame? Can you haul water across ridecamp? Trim your horses’ hooves? Hold a tired horse together at the end of a ride?
You needn’t be a keen observer of society to observe that most of us could stand to increase our fitness; that is, broaden the range of effort of which we are capable. There’s no shortage of advice on the subject, either. Books, magazines, blogs, podcasts, workplace fitness clubs, advertisements…
And yet, many people don’t realize that all exercise is not created equal. Like different foods, different types of exercise incite different types of hormonal responses, which in turn affect our bodies’ tendencies to build or tear down muscle, and to release or store bodyfat.
Contrary to what we’ve been led to believe, exercise does not help us get lean simply by burning calories. You’d be surprised by how small the difference is between the number of calories you burn while jogging for 30 minutes and the number you burn while reading this blog for the same amount of time. It won’t even buy you a pack of M&M’s. Or a banana with almond butter. Or a pancake.
So why bother? Because the right kind of exercise 1) builds muscle, which spends its days burning significantly more energy than bodyfat, even while you sleep and 2) increases the fat-burning capacity of the average muscle. Muscle mass is a Very Good Thing. Loss of muscle mass correlates strongly with shortened life expectancy. And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to lose muscle mass as you age. (News flash: Common =/= Normal.)
Aside from choosing healthful foods, building muscle is about the best thing we can do for our long-term health. In fact, muscle mass is directly correlated with biological age. The more muscle mass you have, the “younger” you are, the more bodyfat you’ll burn, and the healthier you’ll be. Smart exercise builds muscle and sends hormonal signals that improve health and leanness.
When most people think of “getting fit,” they think of running, cycling, elliptical machines, or aerobics classes at the local gym. Some kind of steady-state, moderate-to-difficult work performed for 40-60 minutes, at leat 5 times per week. Right? That’s what we all grew up being told was the best way to exercise.
Depending on duration and intensity, however, “aerobics” tend to send a hormonal message that is less-than-ideal at best and downright harmful at worst. The more aerobic work you do, particularly if you restrict caloric intake at the same time, the more messages your body receives that “Gosh, life is tough right now! I’d better conserve energy (bodyfat) in case things get worse, and let’s keep muscle to a minimum.”
Muscle, you see, is metabolically expensive tissue. Your body will keep and build it only if it feels it can afford to do so. This means that you must take in plenty of good fuel — no calorie-restricted diets, please, just optimal food choices! It also means that you shouldn’t beat your body into the ground with a high volume of moderate-to-high intensity exercise. An exercise program focused on running, for example, actually incites hormonal direction to store bodyfat and minimize muscle building because times are obviously tough and we need to conserve, conserve, conserve!
If you happen to love distance running for its own sake, the advantages of doing it may, in your case, outweigh the downsides. But for those of you who run (or cycle, or whatever) because you think you “should” even though you dread and despise it, quit! There’s a better way.
By “better,” I mean more safer, more efficient, and more effective. It is entirely possibly to achieve greater gains in less time by exercising smarter instead of longer.
First, we need to understand how the body fuels itself. At any given time, the body uses a combination of sugar and fat for energy. Sugar is more accessible and best for bursts of effort, while fat is more of a slow, steady, long-lasting fuel source. In a very simplistic sense, you could say that the body burns sugar preferentially. As a result, until you run low on sugar (which is stored in the muscles and liver), your fat stores aren’t going to be tapped much.
Another goal of smart exercise, along with building muscle, is to reach a level of intensity that burns through that high-octane sugar, thereby opening the door for bodyfat to excuse itself from your belly and thighs. This is best accomplished through two means: strength training and occasional sprinting.
We already talked about how muscle is expensive tissue. The more you have, the more energy you’ll burn 24-7, and the leaner you’ll be. You will also find yourself better able to support your horse through long hours on the trail.
Fortunately, strength training doesn’t require a barbell and a pile of iron plates (though if you’re like me, you might fall in love with bodybuilding and go buy them anyway!) An astonishing amount of progress can be made, even by very fit individuals, using bodyweight alone. See the resources below for programs that adapt well to beginners and more advanced athletes.
A couple cautions: We are talking here about lifting heavy things. 3-pound pink dumbbells are not heavy things, even if they look like “weights.” We are also talking about lifting heavy things more than once a week. Hauling one bag apiece of beet pulp and Strategy from car to tack room isn’t enough. (The good news is that 20 minutes or so, several times a week, probably is enough.) Finally, ladies, although even the mainstream media now has the sense to tell us this and you probably don’t need to hear it: You will not turn into the Terminator. I promise.
Sprinting is working as hard and fast as you can for brief periods of time. My favorite method is doing hill repeats, in which I run as fast as possible up a 100 meter hill, then walk back down. 8 repeats makes for a killer workout that takes less than 15 minutes. You could also use a stationary bike — 20-30 seconds sprinting, 2 minutes easy pedaling, rinse and repeat — or do Tabatas, stair climbs, whatever you can do at max effort.
The goal is to push yourself HARD, so your lungs burn and there isn’t enough air and your muscles scream. Sounds lovely, eh? Well, it is intense. It is also very satisfying and extremely effective because your body will need to spend hours afterward upregulating fat use to restore its reserves. It will also stimulate the release of human growth hormone, which is critical to all sorts of things that boil down to good health and youthfulness.
More good news: You only need to do one sprint workout every 7-10 days to see impressive results.
There’s one other piece to an ideal exercise program to accompany your improved nutrition: Moving slowly. This is the easy part, physically, but can be tough in terms of time. The more low-level, varied activity we can engage in, the better off we’ll be, both emotionally and metabolically. This is not intense exercise, or even moderate “aerobic” exercise. It is strolling with the dog, feeding the horses, checking the fenceline, cooling out your horse on foot for the last mile of every ride, cleaning stalls, scrubbing water buckets… We horsepeople are fortunate to be “forced” into at least some low-intensity activity on a daily basis.
Okay, resources. I’m going to link you to a couple basic programs, because I’m guessing most TBW readers don’t have a lot of experience with bodybuilding and sprinting. (Five years ago, I didn’t either.) I’ve used both of these resources personally and found them to be very approachable, not to mention adaptable to a broad range of starting fitness levels. Equally important, they require little to no equipment that you won’t find sitting around your average hotel room.
Primal Blueprint Fitness is a FREE e-book (scroll down a little on the link) by Mark Sisson.
You are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren is really cool because you can pick up an inexpensive smartphone app along with the book to provide you with portable workout programs, timers, etc.
Robb Wolf’s book The Paleo Solution also includes a good introduction to strength training, as does Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint. These are go-too books for those who want to understand the science behind the recommendations in this post. Jonathan Bailor’s free Smarter Science of Slim podcast is a good one for those who prefer to listen than read.
Finally, for those who have read along thinking “yeah but…yeah but…”, please understand that this post is intended to address fitness under the assumption that the majority of your body parts are, more or less, fully functional. I’ll talk about dealing with handicaps such as old injures in another post.