Life Fitness Tips for Software Developers in 2019
I’ve seen the need for education and encouragement in the realm of life physical fitness in the software development community for a long time. When I first started programming, the typical stereotype of a software developer was a nerdy, skinny guy with thick-rimmed glasses and a pencil protector.
Now, many people think of software developers as fat guys with a beard going down to their neck, wearing a stained white cotton t-shirt while eating pizza.
There are plenty of software developers, male and female, who don’t fit either of those molds—but the second stereotype scares me more than the first because in a way I think that some developers start to think that they’re supposed to fix it.
Physical fitness is the most important keys to a healthy body. This blog explores the best 50+ Life Fitness Tips for Software Developers and coders.
The goal of this blog is to give you a basic education on fitness and to encourage you to break out of the mold and realize that just because you’re a software developer doesn’t mean that you can’t be healthy and perhaps even dashingly handsome or if you’re a female, strikingly beautiful. You can get in shape, you can be healthy, but it all starts with education and the belief that it’s possible.
You might also wonder what makes me qualified to write about diet, nutrition, and physical fitness. I don’t have any degree in nutrition, I’m not even a certified personal trainer, but what I do have is an experience. I’ve been learning about fitness and diet since I was 16 years old. I entered my first bodybuilding competition when I was 18.
I’ve also coached and helped many other people, including software developers, to get in shape, lose weight, gain muscle, and reach other fitness goals. While I’m not an expert, my knowledge in this area is fairly wide and it’s tempered with experience.
Why you need to hack your health
Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, but it is also the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.—John F. Kennedy
How can I motivate you to get in shape? Let me see. How about that you’ll live longer because heart disease is the number one killer in the world, followed by stroke? How about that exercise has actually been shown to make you more creative and boost your mind? Vain?
I’ve got answers there as well. Who doesn’t want to be more physically attractive— I know I certainly do. Lifting weights and losing some fat can make you more attractive and give you more options for extending your…legacy.
And, let’s face it, most software developers spend quite a bit of time at a desk, sitting down all day. As software developers, we stand to benefit greatly from learning how to get fit and healthy, because our jobs tend to push us in the other direction.
Getting fit can make you a better software developer. Here’s why.
I’m not going to start by trying to appeal to your actual desire to be healthy. We all want to be healthy, and most of us have at least some idea of what we need to do to become more healthy, but we still pick up that slice of pepperoni pizza or make the late night Taco Bell run. Being healthy, by itself, isn’t a strong enough motivator to get into shape—at least, not until your life is directly jeopardized, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Instead, I’m going to start off by focusing on one of the most important benefits of healthy eating and exercise: confidence. You might think confidence isn’t that important, or perhaps you say “Hey, I’ve already got confidence, bro.”
But whether you already see yourself as having some extra to spare or you don’t see why it’s so important, I’ll tell you why you’re going to want to have it and have as much of it as you can get.
A study performed by researchers at the University of California Berkley’s Haas School of Business showed that confidence was a better predictor of success than talent. There have been other studies that show a similar correlation.
But how can be fit gain your confidence? Simple: getting in shape helps you to feel good about yourself and the fact that you can accomplish the goals you set out to accomplish. That self-confidence carries outward and is projected in your conversations and interactions with others. Also, for a less scientific explanation: when you look good, you feel good.
Imagine how good you’ll feel when you’re fitting into those skinny jeans or popping the threads on the arms of your shirt. Feeling fit, feeling like you’re healthy, changes the way you act.
It changes how you view yourself and how threatened you feel around others and by their accomplishments, and it changes the way others see you and feel about you as well.
Much of this blog is about going out and doing things that require some degree of confidence. It’s difficult to conjure confidence by thinking about it, but almost every person I’ve ever trained in the weight room or helped to lose some pounds has suddenly found the confidence they didn’t know they had.
Is it really true that exercise can make you smarter? Well, I’m not sure about smarter, but a recent study at Stanford University showed that walking was able to substantially increase creativity—by about 60%.
In the study, Dr. Oppezzo asked a bunch of students to complete some creativity tests. The tests involved coming up with uses for objects and other activities that could be attributed to creativity.
Students first sat at a desk and completed the tests, and then they were asked to do similar tests while walking on a treadmill. Almost all students showed a large increase in creativity. Even when the test was performed with students walking and then sitting down, the results still showed an increase.
What does this mean? It means that walking has a significant effect on at least one function of your brain—creative power—but I suspect that it also affects quite a bit more.
I can tell you from personal experience that the more I exercise and the healthier I am, the better I seem to perform at my work. I notice that I’m considerably better at focusing and being productive when I’m at my best physically.
I can’t say for sure whether the actual exercise or body-fat percentage of my body causes chemical or structural changes in my brain that make me smarter or more focused, or whether I just feel better and therefore work harder, but does it really matter which it is?
If you’re always feeling tired and unmotivated to work or you just don’t feel like you’re performing at your peak, you might find that a change of diet and exercise can renew both your body and your mind.
I didn’t want to pull the fear card right away, but I think it’s still important to mention that if you’re overweight and generally unhealthy, you’re putting yourself at considerable risk for all kinds of preventable diseases.
I run a podcast about fitness for developers called “Get Up and CODE”, and on that podcast, I’ve interviewed many developers who eventually got in shape, not because they wanted to be more confident and increase their brain power, but because they felt like they were knocking on death’s door.
In particular, I remember talking to Miguel Carrasco about his journey to fitness. He was a software developer who never paid much attention to his weight or his health until one day he had a really bad scare that put him in the hospital and forever changed his life.
He was driving his son home from daycare and all of a sudden his left hand started feeling numb. He figured maybe it was just cold outside or he had banged it on something, so he ignored it.
Later that evening, he went to lie down to take a little nap—which was strange for him, because he almost always stayed up late. His wife questioned him about his odd behavior and he said that his whole left side of his body felt really numb. His wife convinced him to rush to the hospital—fearing he had had a stroke.
When he got to the hospital, he found out his blood pressure was 190/ 140—which isn’t good, not good at all.
It turned out he was okay. It wasn’t a big deal. They performed some tests on him and let him go the next day, but monitored him and administered more tests over the next month. But that experience scared the heck out of him and forever changed his mindset.
I clearly remember Miguel telling me that it wasn’t a workout program, a special diet, or going to the gym that caused him to lose the 73 pounds he lost in 180 days, but rather a state of mind.
The scare caused him to take his health and fitness seriously, so much so that he quit his career as a software developer and became a fitness coach, motivating and helping other people to reach their fitness goals.
I don’t tell you this story to scare you—okay, actually I do—but I hope that I can scare you through Miguel’s story rather than through your own, when it may be too late. Miguel was lucky because his scare wasn’t a big deal. His scare was a warning that kicked him into gear. But many people aren’t so lucky.
Sometimes you don’t get a warning. Sometimes you drop dead of a heart attack or are seriously harmed in another way before you take things seriously. Sometimes it’s too late.
Don’t let it be too late for you. Get serious now. Don’t wait until you have a health problem to start caring about your health. I know you might not have bought this blog with the primary motivation of getting healthy.
But seriously, if I help you get a better job or career, that’s great and I’m happy for you, but if I can also help you to get in shape so you can be around a little longer to see your kids grow up, then I’ll count this blog to be a much bigger success.
Before we get any further into this section, make a commitment to your health. Maybe you’re already healthy and the following blogs are just review for you, but if you know that you need to get healthy, make a commitment to take your health seriously and to make a real change in your life. I can give you all the fitness and health advice I know, but if you aren’t committed to change, it won’t matter a bit.
Picking a specific goal
It’s common to hear someone talk about starting a fitness routine or a diet with the goal of “getting in shape.” While that may seem like a fine goal, it’s not specific. After all, what does it really mean to be “in shape,” and how do you know when you’re in shape?
It’s not that exercising and eating right without a specific goal won’t still give you good results, whether you have a specific result in mind or not, but that not having a specific goal will make it much less likely that you’ll stick with any program and see any real changes.
There are quite a few different goals you can pick for your fitness endeavors. Don’t try and pick more than one at a time. If you want to lose weight, focus on losing weight, not on gaining muscle. If you want to improve your cardiovascular health by running, focus on that goal, even though you might drop some pounds in the process.
POSSIBLE FITNESS GOALS
Lose weight (fat) Gain muscle
Increase strength (not necessarily the same as gaining muscle) Increase muscular endurance (for sports performance)
Improve cardiovascular health Become better at some sport
About six years ago, I tore my right pectoral (chest) muscle. I was doing some heavy dumbbell bench presses when someone offered to spot me. I accepted the spot but immediately regretted it when the spotter tried to help me by pulling my arm outward instead of up. I remember distinctly hearing a popping sound as my limp arm fell to my side—the muscle was completely torn away from the bone. Ouch.
Needless to say, I wasn’t lifting weight for a long time after that incident. I lost quite a bit of motivation because I now couldn’t even lift the bench-press bar, so I did what some would do in that situation—I stopped exercising and got fat.
It took a lot of two-week periods, but I eventually lost the full 90 pounds I set out to lose—and even a bit more. I never missed my goal even once along the way. The key was breaking my big goal into smaller milestones that marked my way to success.
Once you’ve decided what your primary fitness goal is, you should figure out how you can create a series of milestones that you’ll reach along the way to your final destination.
If you’re trying to lose weight, you might decide on a certain amount of weight you want to lose every week or two weeks—like I did. If you’re trying to gain muscle, perhaps your milestones will be based around gaining a certain amount of lean weight on a similar interval.
Just make sure the milestones are achievable. If you set out trying to lose 10 pounds a week, you’re going to get discouraged quickly when you don’t come even close to hitting that number.
It’s better to commit to a less ambitious milestone that you can easily achieve than one that will be nearly impossible for you to reach. The momentum of success can help carry you forward and increase your motivation to reach your overall goal.
Landmine: What if you don’t have time?
As a software developer, you might have a hectic schedule and you might even travel quite a bit, so how do you find time for diet and exercise and to pursue your fitness goals? There’s no easy answer to this, but my best advice is to make it a priority.
I used to create meeting requests specifically on my calendar for things like going for a run or lifting weights. If you’re having trouble sticking with a plan, I’d advise you to do the same. No one has to know your 7:00 a.m. meeting is actually a run.
Living a healthy lifestyle
Hitting a fitness goal can be a great feeling at first, but that great feeling can quickly deteriorate into hopelessness, depression, and eventually regression. Trust me; I’ve blown it plenty of times in my life after achieving a big fitness goal.
In fact, many dieters who lose weight eventually gain it back, partially due to hormones that make them hungrier but also because they revert back to their old habits.
After reaching your fitness goal, your battle isn’t over. You can quickly lose the progress you made if you don’t change your actual lifestyle. You can’t live on a diet forever, so you have to find a way to live your life in a way that will maintain the level of fitness you worked so hard to achieve.
I’d recommend that after you reach any fitness goal you slowly taper off of the diet or program you’ve been on, rather than switching to “normal living.” The goal is to make “normal living” somewhere in-between what you were doing to achieve your goal and what you were doing before that. Binge eating after losing 50 pounds will send you on the fast track to gain it right back, and perhaps more.
You have to figure out how to incorporate healthy habits into your life so that regular exercise and a healthy diet are normal parts of your life.
It’s not easy to do, especially if you do an extreme diet or fitness program, so even though you may lose weight a lot faster by starving yourself, you might want to try to incorporate a diet and exercise program that will only be slightly stricter than what you could do perpetually.
In the next few blogs, I’ll give you some tools that will help you do that. We’ll talk about how to figure out how many calories your body needs to maintain its weight, how to eat healthily, and how to exercise.
With that information, you can learn to achieve your fitness goals, but more importantly, you can learn how to create a healthy lifestyle based on a routine you can continue for the rest of your life.
Identify one big fitness goal and write it down.
Next list a series of realistic milestones to achieve that goal. Identify one action you can take to reach your first milestones.
Thermodynamics, calories, and you
If you want to lose or gain weight, you need to have an understanding of what exactly makes you pack on pounds or melt them off. Surprisingly, there’s a huge debate in the fitness industry over whether or not the amount of your weight gain or loss is directly a factor of how many calories you eat versus how many calories you burn.
It seems like it would be a pretty easy thing to settle—I mean, to some degree we know that calories are responsible for changes in weight—but the debate about how much of an effect calories have isn’t something that can be settled so easily.
I can’t promise you an absolute, smoking-gun answer in this blog, but I can give you some solid reasons why I tend to subscribe to the viewpoint that calories are the most important factor in gaining and losing weight. I’ll also help you to understand what calories are and how to determine how many of them you burn in a day.
How many calories are you consuming?
Calculating how many calories you’re consuming isn’t all that difficult. Most of the food we buy has a label that tells us how many calories per serving the food contains. For the foods that don’t have a label, you can use an application like CalorieKing to look up the number of calories a particular food has.
Unfortunately, food labels aren’t always 100% accurate. You should plan for a 10% margin of error on packaged food labels. If you eat at a restaurant, you should expect a much higher margin of error—you can’t trust a chef to measure everything perfectly. Adding a little more butter to a dish could increase the total calories by a large amount.
Also, the more complex the food you eat, the more difficult it is to accurately measure the calorie count. That’s why I try to eat fairly simple foods when I’m dieting. I also try to eat the same foods frequently so that I don’t have to keep looking up calorie counts.
Utilizing calories to achieve your goal
Suppose I wanted to lose weight. Let’s say I had a goal of losing about a pound a week. Using what you know now, how could I create a fitness and diet program that would allow me to reach my goals?
Well, first I’d want to start with the calories I burn each day. If I don’t change my routine at all, I’ll burn about 3,500 calories each day. If I don’t eat anything all day, I’ll lose a pound—I’ll also is very grumpy.
A variety of reasons could cause me to not actually lose one pound a week, even though the numbers show I should. I could measure my food wrong and be off by about 100 calories at each meal, which could make my calorie count 300 calories higher than I expected. I could also not work out quite a much as I estimated, which could bring my calorie burn down—although I’ve already compensated for that a bit.
What I might actually want to do is reduce the calories I eat by about 10% or 250 calories, just to make sure that I’m going to meet my goal. That would mean that I’d try to eat around 2,250 calories a day and I could be pretty confident of hitting my goal.
You can apply the same steps to create a plan for yourself for losing or gaining weight. Be careful, though, because as you start to lose weight your BMR will drop, so you’ll need to eventually reduce your calories further or increase your activity to keep losing weight.
What motivates you?
We’re all motivated by different things. What motivates you might not motivate me and vice versa. It’s important to take some time to think about what kinds of things motivate you the most. What is it that makes you want to wake up and start your day? Conversely, what is it that makes you want to run away and hide?
If you can find one primary motivating factor in achieving your fitness goals, you can use that motivator to help get you out of your chair and start moving. If I asked you to go to the store to pick up something, you might not be that motivated to do it.
But if I asked you to go to the store to pick up $1,000, you might be in your car and on your way before I could finish asking you. The right motivator can make a big difference.
Rewarding yourself too early
If you want to kill your motivation, make the mistake of rewarding yourself for a job well done before the job is…well…done.
Just last week, I did some work for a client that paid me up front. They paid me for about 24 hours’ worth of work before I had actually done the work. Normally, I’d be motivated to get 24 hours’ worth of billable time from a single client in a week, but this time, I wasn’t motivated at all. Why?
It was because I already had the big, fat check in my bank account. I received the reward before I actually did the work, so I wasn’t as motivated to do the work.
The same thing can happen to you. I see it all the time. It’s common to buy a nice, expensive pair of running shoes or a brand-new treadmill to motivate you to start your new workout program.
But while you might think that getting that new $400 blender is going to motivate you to eat healthily, the opposite happens. You already got the reward, so the motivation is gone. You can actually demotivate yourself by giving yourself the reward before you earn it.
Instead, try telling yourself that once you’ve been running consistently for three months, you’ll reward yourself by getting a new treadmill and some running shoes.
Tell yourself that if you can eat healthy for a whole week, you’ll get to go on a shopping trip to Whole Foods and buy a bunch of healthy groceries. Always try to make it so that you have to earn a reward and you’ll be much more motivated to reach your goals.
There’s actually some scientific evidence to back up this viewpoint. For an interesting read on willpower, check out The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. In this blog, the author cites several studies that show that rewarding yourself before reaching a goal can make you feel like you already achieved the goal.
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Even though you might have already come up with a great motivator to get you started on becoming a new, healthier you, that motivator may eventually lose its effectiveness—in fact, I know it will.
I’ve lost my own motivation more times than I can count, and if you talk to anyone who has started and quit a diet, you’ll probably find the same problem. You’ll need to figure out some other ways to hack your motivation.
One good way to stay motivated is to post pictures all over the place that serve as reminders of what you want to look like. Those pictures can help keep you on track and focused on your goals. The next time you’re looking at a piece of chocolate cake, Arnold Schwarzenegger will be staring you in the face saying “Are you going to eat at cheek, you weenie?”
It can also help to chart your progress and constantly remind yourself how far you’ve come. Tonight I didn’t feel like writing any more blog. Sometimes just knowing that you’ve already traveled very far down a road is enough motivation to keep traveling down that road. Everyone hates to break a long winning streak.
Another powerful motivation technique is gamification. The idea behind gamification is simple: take something you don’t like to do and make a game out of it. There are actually quite a few fitness applications that help you to gamify your workouts and healthy habits.
Habit RPG: Habitica - Gamify Your Life
It can also help to get a lifting or running partner, or even to start a new diet program or challenge with a friend. Having someone to talk to and share your experiences with, good and bad, can make the journey seem more enjoyable and keep you motivated. I’ve always found that I’m more consistent in making it to the gym when I have a lifting partner.
Just get it done!
It’s great if you can keep yourself motivated, but sometimes you just have to suck it up and stick with the plan, motivated or not. Try to make decisions ahead of time that commit you to a course of action that you want to take.
When you wake up in the morning and are feeling tired, it isn’t a good time to decide whether or not you want to run. When you’re at the office presented with free doughnuts, it isn’t a great time to decide whether or not you want to stick to your diet.
It can help to decide ahead of time that no matter how you feel, you’re going to stay the course until some predetermined date in the future.
Try to remove judgment as much as possible from your life by planning things out far in advance. Know exactly what you’re supposed to eat and do each day and you’ll be less likely to make bad decisions and won’t have to rely as much on motivation.
Utilize principles in place of motivation when your motivation runs out. When I’m tired and don’t feel like finishing my run, sometimes I have to remind myself that one principle I highly value is that of finishing strong. Create a set of maxims to live your life by and stick to them when things get tough.
MAXIMS TO LIVE BY
Always finish strong.
Winners never quit and quitters never win. No pain, no gain.
Time is short if you want to do something in life, do it now. This too shall pass.
A consistent process produces success.
Come up with a list of reasons why you want to get in shape or improve your health. From that list, identify the three biggest motivators. Print out those three motivators and put them in several places where you can see them every day.
Pick a few motivation ideas mentioned in this blog and incorporate them in your life. Perhaps try to find pictures of people who motivate you and post them where you can see them, or find a new fitness app that makes working out fun.
Pick a reward to give yourself after you reach a certain milestone in your fitness journey. Chart your progress to the goal, and when you reach it, reward yourself.
When tempted to break your stride, stop and ask yourself how you'll feel in three months, next year, and so on if you don’t give up. That time is coming either way.
How to gain muscle: Nerds can have bulging biceps
Pssst! Hey, you. Yeah, you—over there. Do ya wanna gain some muscle? Well, do ya? Good. I can help—no illegal substances required. You just need to learn the basics of resistance training.
In this blog, we’ll talk about how to build muscle. It’s not that hard as long as you’re willing to put in the work. We’ll cover what causes muscle growth and learn how you can stimulate muscle growth in your own body. We’ll also go back to diet a bit and discuss what kinds of foods you should eat to maximize your “gains.”
As a nerd—err … computer professional—having muscles can be a big advantage. Not only will you look and feel better, but you’ll be able to break out of the stereotype given to many of our profession and that uniqueness might even help your career.
If you’re female—look, I know that you don’t want to look huge. I agree it’s not very attractive for a woman to look like the Incredible Hulk—but don’t worry, lifting heavy weights isn’t going to make you huge unless you have a bunch of extra testosterone to go with it.
Whether you’re male or female, everything in this blog section applies to you. Men and women don’t need to lift weights differently. If you’re a woman, lifting heavy weights will accentuate your figure and improve your physique.
It’s very, very difficult to get to the point where you look huge— you don’t have the chemical hormones to do it. So, don’t worry, lift heavy—and don’t forget the squats!
How muscles grow
Getting started with weightlifting can be a little intimidating. There are all kinds of different exercises and it can be difficult to know what you’re supposed to do. Fortunately, the basics are pretty easy.
First, we need to talk about some of the terms involved in lifting weights. When you lift the weight, you usually break up the workout into different exercises. For each exercise, you do a number of sets, and for each set, you do a number of repetitions or reps.
The definition of an exercise is pretty obvious, so we won’t waste time talking about that. A set is basically one continuous session of performing an exercise. Reps are each one full cycle of the exercise.
Typically, you’ll do a certain number of reps of an exercise and then take a rest. You’ll call that a set. For each exercise, you’ll do a certain number of sets. Let’s look at an example.
Suppose you were going to do a common lift called a squat, which is basically where you go from a standing position to a squatting position. Your goal might be to do 3 sets of squats of 10 reps each. That would mean that you would do 10 squats, then take a rest, and you’d repeat that three times.
What to eat
You can do a great job lifting weights and still not see any gains if you don’t eat properly. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to do. You just need to make sure you’re eating a surplus of calories and that you’re getting enough protein.
I recommend eating 1–1.5 grams of protein each day for each lean pound of your weight. If you weigh 200 pounds and you have a body fat percentage of around 20%, you’ll have about 160 pounds of lean mass, so you should eat a minimum of about 160 grams of protein to make sure you eat enough to gain muscle mass.
Try to eat healthy foods so that a majority of the calories you eat go toward building muscle and not gaining fat, but you should know that gaining fat is inevitable. When you gain muscle, you also gain some fat with it—that’s just how it is.
As far as supplements go, you don’t need any. It can be helpful to have a protein shake right after your workout. You also can try out creatine if you like. It’s one of the only supplements I’ve ever found to actually be effective. It can help you lift a little more weight and can make your muscles look fuller.
Finally, you can take some BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) to help make sure you have enough BCAAs to build and repair muscle. But, again, you don’t need any of these things, and everything else is almost certainly a rip-off.
Go get a gym membership and set up a personal lifting plan for yourself. If you feel intimidated, invest in hiring a personal trainer for a few weeks to get you started. But do something now. Don’t wait.
If there’s ever one fitness question that everyone seems wants to know the answer to, it’s “How do I get six-pack abs?” Abs seem to be the quintessential indicator of physical fitness and overall physical attractiveness. Having abs makes you part of a special club not subject to the normal laws of human interaction.
But how does one get abs? How does one transcend to that higher plane of physical fitness—the one reserved for swimsuit models, Hollywood celebrities, and ancient Roman statues? It’s not easy, but the answer, surprisingly, has little to do with sit-ups or crunches.
Abs are made in the kitchen
I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you can stop doing those stomach crunches and grueling midsection workouts— they aren’t working anyway.
The bad news is that to get abs, you’ll have to do something infinitely more difficult—you’ll have to have the discipline to drop your body fat to a very low percentage.
Most people think you get abs by repeatedly working your ab muscles. While it’s true that just like any other muscle, you can increase the size of your abs by working them with progressive resistance, most people don’t have abs not because their abs aren’t big enough, but because they can’t see them.
You can do all the sit-ups, crunches, leg lifts, and other ab exercises you want and never see your abs if you don’t significantly drop your body fat.
Most people who lift weights have wonderful abs even without doing any direct ab training—I almost never work my abs directly. The problem is that the abdominal region, especially for men, is one of the main areas of fat deposits in the body.
Unless you’re genetically gifted and happen to not store much fat in your midsection, you probably will need to have a very low body fat overall to even begin to see your abdominal muscles.
Even if that weren’t the case, from what we know about weight training, you can probably guess that crunches and sit-ups mainly build up muscular endurance in your midsection, because the resistance isn’t enough to produce muscular hypertrophy.
If you want to get six-pack abs, your journey begins in the kitchen. We’ve already discussed quite a bit about how to lose weight, but there’s a big difference in what you need to do to lose weight when you’re 10, 20, or more pounds overweight and what you need to do to lose fat when you’re already in pretty good shape.
Before you can even think about getting abs, you’ll need to reach a point where you’re already in good shape. If you follow the advice in the previous blogs, it won’t be that difficult to do—it just takes time. But once you reach an average level of body fat, getting lower is going to require some strict discipline and probably quite a bit of sacrifice.
Your body doesn’t want you to have abs
When we look at a picture of a fitness model with stunningly visible abs, we think “Hey, that person looks great.” Our bodies, on the other hand, think about it a little differently.
If your body had a mind of its own and could speak for itself, its reaction might be quite a bit different than yours. Your body would probably look at the same picture and say “Eek! That person is dying. He is starving to death. Why isn’t his body saving him?”
You have to understand that your body is a very complex machine that doesn’t care whether or not you look good in a swimsuit. Its chief concern is centered on the goal of keeping you alive. To your body, washboard abs are a serious problem. Washboard abs indicate that you’re a few weeks away from starvation and death.
You might be quite confident that you’re going to have plenty of food to eat tomorrow, but your body prefers to be prepared for long-term disasters. That’s why it stores fat. It wants to save it for a rainy day—just in case.
As a result of this selfish goal of keeping you alive, your body does all kinds of subversive things to halt your fat loss.
Anytime you lose fat, you lose some muscle as well—it can’t be helped—but when you’re already at a low body-fat percentage, your body, in an evil plan to thwart your attempts to kill it, cranks up the muscle cannibalism to a higher degree. Your body basically throws more muscle on the fire to burn as calories to preserve its precious fat stores.
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Muscle requires a certain amount of calories every day to maintain it.
The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, so if you’re short on calories and it seems like you’re trying to kill yourself by starvation, your body kills two birds with one stone by utilizing your muscles for calories, thus getting some extra energy and reducing your overall energy requirements.
Not only does your body subvert your swimsuit-body transformation attempts by getting rid of your muscle, but it also does some other nasty things like increase your amount of ghrelin, a hormone that makes you hungry, and decrease your amount of leptin, a hormone that makes you feel full.
Basically, the more fat you lose, the hungrier you get and the more difficult it is for you to feel full.
I won’t go into all the details here, but I think you probably get the point. Once you get below a certain threshold of body fat, your body starts kicking in all kinds of extra defenses in a crazy attempt to keep you alive.
What can you do about it?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet. Professional bodybuilders who get to extremely low body-fat percentages do it mostly by taking steroids and other drugs that you probably don’t want to mess with, as they can be quite harmful and dangerous.
In fact, if you’re curious about some of the extreme cutting agents that some professional body-builders and fitness models use to get “cut,” do a quick Google search on DNP.
This extremely toxic chemical basically shuts down your mitochondria, halting that ATP cycle you learned about in grade school, and turns your whole body into a toxic furnace. (Disclaimer time: don’t mess with DNP, anabolic steroids, or any other illegal substance to lose fat or gain muscle—it isn’t worth it and you could die.)
But what about average, normal Joe who doesn’t want to shut down his mitochondria? For you, the answer lies in being strict with your diet and sticking it out for a long time.
If you want to drop your body fat low enough to see your abs, you’ll need to carefully calculate your calories and make sure that you aren’t losing weight too quickly or too slowly. It will take some discipline forged from Bethlehem steel to do it—especially with the increased hunger—but it can be done.
Not only will you need to dial in your diet and pretty much forgo any cheat meals, but you’ll also need to make sure you’re lifting weights as if you’re actually trying to gain muscle.
You can reduce the cannibalization of your existing muscle to a decent degree while losing weight if you continue to do heavy weight training, which can be difficult to do on a restricted-calorie diet. By continuing to lift heavy, you’ll signal to your body that you still need to keep that muscle around.
You may also try what’s known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) training to lose fat. HITT is cardio that’s done in very short, intense bursts—think running sprints up a hill or running as fast as you can for a minute or two at a time. This kind of cardio has been shown to burn fat while preserving lean tissue better than regular cardio sessions like running for long distances.
Overall, though, it’s going to take a lot of discipline if you want washboard abs. You’ve literally got to fight your body in a battle to the death.
Why you might want to run
You’ll have to excuse me if my viewpoint is a bit jaded because I don’t actually like to run, but even with my less-than-enthusiastic attitude about running, I can’t ignore its many benefits. Obviously, I run for some reason besides torturing myself, right?
One of the biggest reasons why I run and why many people do is for cardiovascular health. Obviously, running isn’t the only way to strengthen your heart and to increase your lung capacity—any form of exercise will do—but it’s one of the easiest. It’s pretty easy to get out there and run, no matter where you are.
Along the same line, running also provides a good way to burn some extra calories. Running alone isn’t going to make you lose weight— most of your weight loss efforts should be focused on calorie restriction—but it can make an impact.
Running has been shown to suppress appetite, so if you get hungry and go for a run instead, you can get a double whammy in getting closer to your weight-loss goals.
While I don’t actually usually enjoy running while I’m running, I do feel pretty good afterward. I find, and several studies back me up on this, that running makes you happier in general. Running is a good natural cure for mild depression and can make you feel better overall about yourself.
If you’ve ever heard of runners’ high, then you probably know that running can also actually lift your mood in a chemical way as well, although I usually don’t run long enough to experience that effect— perhaps why I don’t like running.
There are a bunch of other benefits, like strengthening your knees and other joints, increasing bone mass, reducing cancer risks, and potentially increasing your lifespan.
Getting started running
If you’ve never done any kind of distance running before, the idea of running for several miles can seem impossible. But almost anyone can get to the point where they can run a fairly long distance—even a marathon.
But before you can even begin to think about running a marathon, you need to get to the point where you can run three miles or about five kilometers. That’s a good starting point, and once you reach that point, you can enter many different 5K races and decide if you want to train for something more ambitious.
When I started out running again—after a several-year hiatus—I used a running program that has become popular lately, called Couch-to-5K. The original Couch-to-5K program was created by a running group called Cool Running
The great thing about this program is that it’s designed for someone who doesn’t have any experience running and might not be in good physical shape. The program takes about two months to complete. For the program, you do a 20- to 30-minute running session three times a week.
When I did the program, I was able to find a mobile application that made everything extremely easy. The app kept track of where I was in the program and told me when to run and when to walk.
Advice for getting started
When you get started running, the most important thing is commitment. You can start doing the Couch-to-5K program and never actually make any progress if you don’t consistently run three times a week.
If you don’t consistently run, you’ll make backward progress instead of forwards progress. It takes time to build your endurance and it doesn’t take much time to lose it.
Also, don’t worry too much about progress when you’re first starting out. You’ll probably have to start by mixing running and walking together for the first few weeks—there’s a reason the Couch-to-5K program advocates that approach.
Over time, you’ll eventually increase the amount you can run and you’ll reach your goals. You have to be persistent and patient. If you push it too hard, too early, you’re likely to become discouraged and not continue.
If you’re interested in starting running, download the Couch-to-5K app and plan out the days you’ll run each week on your calendar. Make a commitment to complete the program. You might get someone else to start the program with you. Having someone else do the program at the same time can help you be accountable and make it more fun.
Standing desks and other hacks
As a software developer, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably interested in any shortcuts or hacks that can help you reach your fitness goals faster or with less effort. I’m always trying to come up with a way that I can enhance my results and reduce my effort.
Over the years, I’ve come up with quite a few tricks I utilize in my daily routine that make losing weight, gaining muscle, and keeping up with my fitness goals a little easier.
As an added bonus, most of these tricks will help you improve your overall health, because most of us spend way too much time sitting in front of a computer all day. In this blog, I’m going to share some of those tips and tricks with you.
Standing desks and treadmills
Have you ever thought that if you could just walk on a treadmill while doing your work you could burn so many extra calories? I have; in fact, I decided to give it an actual go. Right now, I happen to be sitting at my desk, but I have a treadmill just a few steps away with a shelf on it that can hold my laptop.
During the day, I’ll often spend an hour or two walking on the treadmill at a very low speed while I’m working. By doing this, I’m able to burn quite a few extra calories each day with very little added effort. I keep the speed on the treadmill low enough so that I can easily walk and type or move my mouse at the same time.
Originally I planned on utilizing the treadmill desk all day while I worked, but it turns out that isn’t very practical. While it isn’t a huge amount of effort to work while walking slowly on the treadmill, it’s some effort, and it isn’t as convenient as sitting at my desk—especially with my big monitors.
I figured out that I could actually burn quite a few extra calories by slowly increasing the incline of the treadmill. Because the pace was the same, it was still easy to type and use the mouse or trackpad, but I was burning many more calories. I also could compact my time down to about an hour or so a day.
Landmine: What if you don’t work from home?
Of course, to be able to do this you need to either work from home or have a very flexible working environment. For many, an easier alternative is a standing desk. A standing desk doesn’t offer quite the same calorie-burning benefits of a treadmill desk, but you do burn considerably more calories standing up most of the day.
Plus, as an added bonus, apparently standing is much better for your health than sitting. There have been numerous studies that have shown that sitting for prolonged periods of time can be extremely harmful to your health.
Also, as an added bonus, if you do the Pomodoro technique as I do, you can take the five-minute break to do some stretching, pushups, pull-ups, or another exercise.
One of the most difficult things about getting into shape is dealing with food. Eating healthily normally requires quite a bit of cooking and preparing meals in advance. It’s much easier to go out to a restaurant than it is to cook your own food, but if you want to be healthy, you have to do a large degree of cooking for yourself.
I’m always trying to find ways to make it easier for me to eat healthily, so I’ve developed quite a few food hacks that I find useful.
Eggs in the microwave
The first “hack” I have for eating involves eggs. Eggs are an excellent food to eat because they are high in protein and you can control the total calories and fat by adjusting how many whole eggs you eat versus egg whites. The only problem with eggs is that separating egg whites from yolks and cooking eggs is a big pain.
I’ve figured out a way to make things much simpler, though. First, instead of buying whole eggs, you can buy eggs substitute, which is basically just eggs whites. You can buy this in cartons at the grocery store. Although the egg substitute has to be refrigerated, it’s a great way to get an almost pure protein source that’s pretty convenient.
But what about cooking it? Well, I’ve found that I can actually cook eggs and egg whites pretty good in a microwave. At first, I was skeptical about doing this, but it turns out that once you get good at microwaving eggs, you can get to a point where you can barely distinguish them from eggs cooked in a pan—as long as you’re okay with scrambled eggs.
Most days, the first meal I have is microwaved eggs with frozen spinach. I’ll first take some frozen spinach and put it into a microwavable container. Then I’ll heat that in the microwave for a couple of minutes until it’s thawed.
Next, I’ll pour in the egg substitute, real eggs, or a combination of both. (I find adding at least one real egg tends to make things taste a bit better.) Finally, I’ll microwave the eggs for a minute or two, mix them around, and then microwave them again until they are a decent level of firmness.
My final step is to add some cheddar cheese or salsa to the eggs. I’ll use low-fat cheddar cheese if I want to keep the calories down. I can make this meal in less than 10 minutes, and it’s portable because it doesn’t involve many ingredients. The spinach makes a great filler that adds quite a bit to the eggs, so I’m not as hungry—plus, spinach is pretty good for you as well.
Most of my hacks are based on trying to get a lot of protein without having to do much cooking, because I’m usually either trying to gain muscle or preserve muscle when losing weight, and both of those cases require a high-protein diet.
Plain nonfat Greek yogurt
My next food hack is to utilize plain, nonfat Greek yogurt as another highly portable, no-cooking-required protein source. I’ve found that the plain, nonfat Greek yogurt that you can find at most grocery stores is an almost pure protein with very little calories.
The only problem is it doesn’t exactly taste great. The flavored Greek yogurts taste fine, but they’re full of sugar, so they aren’t healthy at all. But don’t worry; I have a solution for you.
It turns out that if you put a little lemon juice, vanilla extract, or other low-calorie flavoring and add a little bit of calorie-free artificial sweetener—my favorite is Truvia—you have a pretty good–tasting yogurt that’s extremely high in protein and low in calories.
You can even add your own fresh fruit or frozen fruit if you like. Adding a little bit of fruit will add quite a bit of flavor, but very few calories.
For a quick, tasty, and healthy meal, I’ll just pop a couple of frozen chicken pieces in the microwave and I’ll be ready to eat in minutes. While freshly cooked chicken might be slightly healthier, the convenience of this precooked chicken saves me from instances where I might be tempted to run out and get fast food. Plus, it tastes great.
Along the same lines, I’ve also been able to find frozen turkey meatballs. I got the idea for this food item when I read about Ryan Reynolds eating mostly turkey meatballs when he was getting in shape for one of his roles.
It seemed like a good idea, so I looked into it and it turns out that turkey meatballs offer a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
You can find turkey meatballs at most grocery stores. They are extremely convenient as you can pop a few in the microwave and be ready to eat in a few minutes.
Tech gear for fitness:
This blog section is all about the tech gear that can help you achieve your fitness goals or just make your journey a lot more fun.
Step counters and pedometers
There are many different kinds of wearable step counters and pedometers available today, but perhaps one of the most popular—especially in the developed world—is the Fitbit.
There are many different kinds of Fitbit models available, but basically, Fitbit tracks the number of steps you take in a day. You can automatically sync your Fitbit with your phone and have instant access to your data.
If you don’t already have a Fitbit or a similar device from one of Fitbit’s competitors, I’d strongly suggest getting one. They’re fairly cheap, but the insight they can give you into your daily activities is priceless.
I’d recommend getting one of the models that take a watch battery and lasts several months on that single battery because I found that when I was regularly wearing a Fitbit the biggest hassle for me was remembering to charge it.
One exciting area of technology for fitness that isn’t even close to mature yet is the combo devices that are slowly being introduced. These combo devices can measure multiple data points through various sensors and give you quite a bit of information about yourself.
Having all this data available to you can help you to optimize your workout and know much more about how what you’re doing is affecting your body. I can’t wait to get my hands on an actual Angel device to try it out.
Google and Apple are also heavily invested in this area. At the time of writing this blog, Apple is rumored to be making a smartwatch that will most likely have an array of sensors related to fitness and health. And Google has created a special version of the Android operating system designed to be run on smartwatches.
I predict that in the future we’ll eventually have smartwatches that will be able to give us all kinds of data about how many steps we take in a day, what our heart rate is, and anything else that can be measured.
Another device that I’m really excited about is PUSH. I also had the opportunity to interview the CEO of this company for my “Get Up and CODE” podcast and I was able to learn quite a bit about this unique idea for a fitness device.
What I found interesting about the PUSH device is that it isn’t a device that tracks your steps and your activity, but rather is designed to improve your weight-lifting workouts.
You basically put this device on your arm or leg while you’re lifting weights and it tracks your reps and sets. But it also tracks things like the amount of force and power you generate, how good your balance is, and how fast you’re moving the weights around.
One major piece of tech gear for my workouts is headphones. I often listen to podcasts or audio blogs when I’m working out, so I like to have a good set of headphones that I can plug into my phone.
There are running apps that track your runs. I actually created an Android and iOS app that was originally called PaceMaker and now is called Run Faster (trademark dispute). This app tracks your runs and helps you keep a certain pace by telling you to “speed up” or “slow down” while you’re running.
One of my favorite run-tracking apps is called Edomondo. It’s the primary run-tracking app that I use now. It has many different features that allow you to see quite a bit about your runs—including split times and elevation changes.
Another type of app I utilize is one to track my weight-lifting workouts. I used to use a pen and a notebook, but it’s much easier and more convenient to have an app that can track your workouts, tell you what to lift next, and let you know what you lifted previously. If you aren’t tracking your weight-lifting workouts already, you definitely should start.
The reason why I like this app is that it allows me to create the actual workout online through the website and I can save and share that workout with anyone. It could still use a bit of work as the app isn’t all that intuitive, but once I figured it out, I found that it works nicely.