Thursday, March 18, 2010

Losing weight as a grad student (part one)

This morning I was in the Med School cafeteria for my brunch... Usually brunch takes place on weekends, in fancy restaurants and cool people. Not in my life though. For me brunch actually means I woke up 30 mins too late to make breakfast, had to go to the lab to check on my experiment (or start it) and by the time I am free to notice I'm hungry it's almost 11am. Also, the food choice is limited since most of the breakfast goodies are gone, the lunch goodies are not ready yet. Since it's a hospital there were a lot of the perma-ready food... And that's pretty much what I had to work with... and here's the rationale I followed: salad for nutrients, chicken soup for some protein and a stale doughnut on sale for the energetic requirements, since there was nothing similar to bread, pasta or rice  for less than $2. Yes, doughnut was, at that point, part of a balanced and thought through diet. As I ate that I was thinking about how much of these weird dietary decisions I have to make because of the life I have. My decisions on what to eat factor the standard calories/nutritional value, but it also depends on time, availability and price... that led me to make a quick google search for grad+student+diet and not finding anything useful. So I decided to write about what I've done to lose about 20kg in one and half years. Still, I managed to lose about 20kg in two years, from 97 to 77kg. (My height is 1.80m, so you BMI geeks can go wild and find out how much more I need to lose)

Well, since the target audience for this are grad students somewhat unhappy with their body image, I'll trust your intelligence. The way to lose weight is simple. It's a matter of spending more energy than you consume. If you keep doing that consistently for long enough, your weight will go down, you'll shed layers of fat and you'll soon enough find yourself lining up at Macy's instead of Best Buy on Black Friday. Not really a hard concept, right?

So... one of the things you need to do is to actually spend more energy. Yes, that means increasing your activity level. I use increasing because for me, I wasn't actually sedentary - I used to swim often and run and lift weights every once in a while. If that's your case, you need to challenge yourself a bit more. If that means run longer, increase the weights or swim faster then do it. If you are sedentary on the other hand, start doing something, anything. And keep challenging yourself more.

The first thing you need to understand is that there are three types of activities. I call them weight-loss, muscle-building and yoga-like:

  •  The first category includes things like running or playing basketball. There is some muscle building, but you'll more easily lose weight. That's the type of activity that will make you lose weight faster and more visibly. For these activities, you'll have to put effort for very long times. At least more than 20 mins, ideally 45 mins. It's also the type of activity that will lead to injuries more easily, because of the long times you'll be doing it. But on the plus side, there's a good chance you'll find something that you actually like (as running and swimming are for me). Then it will feel less like a sacrifice.
  • The second group is weight training, abs and that kind of thing. It's boring like hell. It will make you look hot IF you are already lean enough. It will not make you lose weight at once, but there is some legend about a result it increasing the basal energy expenditure, which will produce long term results. I don't care about any of these reasons. But I occasionally hit the weights because they help in protecting the muscles engaged in the activities I enjoy. Abs and planks are wonderful to solve back pain issues and gives more stability when swimming. Leg weight training got rid of the knee pain I used to feel after running for +30mins.
  • The third group includes all that yoga and stretching and stuff. I don't care for them. I don't see much use in being able to scratch my ear using my toes. But if going over the whole Kama Sutra is one of your life goals, than this will help. Don't expect to lose weight this way, though.
The second thing you need to understand is that you need to increase your level of energy spending. If you've been doing the same routing for six months, your body will get extra efficient doing it. I'm like that with walking. I can easily walk a whole full day and it's not tiresome at all. That's because I walked a lot in my life. So, while power walks might work amazingly well for you, for me it's just as good as watching TV. Which is a pity, because I love hiking. Of course, if you are running slow, you can run longer or faster, so you don't have necessarily to switch your activity. The more you challenge yourself, the better.

On this note, I feel I have to say one thing: say you have a conference deadline tomorrow and you need to finish some data to get nice plots, do you sleep?  No, you keep working until you're done. Despite the fact your brain is demanding some rest. See where I'm going here? Before I started losing serious weight, I had to break a mentality I had. I used to think that I should stop whatever I was doing once my body started complaining. Then, some emo stuff happened with me and I started running 30 mins everyday on the treadmill to get some peace of mind. By the end of the week, my knees were gone. Did I stop running? No. I went on the internets, learned about icing the knee and taking aspirins and kept going because I still needed that peace of mind. My body ended up getting used to that punishing. And the knee stopped complaining. Well after two months it actually got too bad, I had to give a rest, and it took three months for me to be able to run again, but my point is that our body complains a bit too early. So don't stop as soon as you get tired, go a little more and you'll get used to it.

The third thing is the time problem. There are two fronts in which exercising is going to attack your schedule. The first one is that you have to find time for the activity. The second is that you'll get physically tired and you will want to sleep more. There's no real solution for that to be honest. The sleep quality will increase... and you could stop watching Big Bang Theory, or give up on the time you spend trolling on the internets. I increased my efficiency on my office/lab so that I can go home earlier. But that's because I am inefficient. If you aren't then... I don't know. The fact that running or swimming are things I can do alone helps because if there's a impromptu meeting or my bacteria decides to take their time growing, I don't have to skip that day, I just go later. Not to say I don't skip. There are seasons when I spend two or three weeks without being able to do anything. Hopefully, for every month of being good, I earn a two weeks buffer time during which I can afford not doing anything. During this time also, I can watch a little bit closer my diet. Which leads me to the food part. That I'll write some other time because this is already huge.

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