Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fitness: Optimal Experience

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that she was really really out of shape. "I'm so out of shape that I get out of breath just going up one flight of stairs." Like many Asians in their mid-twenties, this person was skinny, looked great, and obviously didn't have any trouble partying all night. So I put it out of mind. After all, I remember being too busy in college holding down two jobs while carrying a full time class load to bother with exercise.

I recently thought about this, because perhaps for the first time in years, I haven't recently been in optimal condition. Now, I'm well past my physical peak, where in 2005, I did 2 back to back 100 mile days in Italy, and then went on to do 3 more strenuous days of cycling in the Swiss Alps. I think at least once in your life every person should experience at least one period of peak conditioning, just to understand how it feels.

It feels like being Superman. During that period, I could wake up and ride 100 miles or 10000' of climbing, eat like a king, sleep like a log, and wake up the next morning ready to do it all over again. Every piece of your body works well, and I don't recall being even a little bit sick. The only possible problem was that I'd occasionally feel a little cold because I had too little body fat. And One of my tour companions would complain, because I had a pace that was far faster from all the conditioning that I did. Of course, I was suffering from low bone density during that period, so I was even faster since even my bones weren't contributing as much to my body weight. I felt alert all the time, waking up in a great mood and raring to go. My mind was sharp and I never missed details, such as when navigating across Italy with a paper map in the rain sans GPS. The effect of aerobic exercise on your brain is well documented --- John Medina spends an entire chapter of Brain Rules on its effectiveness.

Since then, while I've lost quite a bit of fitness, I've actually gotten healthier. I've been forced to work out in the gym, and add calcium to my diet. The interesting bit is that the shoulder muscle cramps I used to get in my mid-twenties (when I wasn't nearly as fit) have practically disappeared.

I recently read The Longevity Project, where the authors pointed out that to gain an optimal lifespan, you quickly hit diminishing returns when exercising, so the best use of your time is to be a couch potato and exercise 20 minutes 3 days a week. I think they're ignoring the quality of life difference when you're fit, not prone to aches and pains, and deal with the challenges of the day without pain. If you're Asian, it's more important than you think to be fit, because Asians have a genetic disposition to have Sleep Apnea. My sleep apnea went undiagnosed for years because my circulatory system kept my blood O2 level well above 98% even as my apnea was triggered 50-60 times an hour! Without it, I would have lost a lot of brain cells to my apnea.

I'll end with this quote:
“If exercise could be packaged in pill form, it would immediately become the number one anti-aging medicine, as well as the world’s most prescribed pill.”

-Dr. Robert Butler, International Longevity Center at Manhattan’s Mt. Sinai Hospital
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