Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Fitness: Be Moderate in Your Moderation!

12 June 07

“We believe in moderation in all things, including moderation.” (Mr. Chang, the Chinese guide in James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon, to Conway, the protagonist of the story.)

I have been thinking about the limits of moderation recently.

I have been a moderate runner on a regular basis for approaching 38 years. I am proud of my consistency, but I note that my average mile time has drifted from 7 to 7-1/2 minutes at the outset to 10 to 10-1/2 minutes now.

A 10-1/2 minute mile is no shame for a baby boomer approaching 60, but, all things being equal, I would rather still be running the 7-minute miles of my youth.

The truth is, physical changes related to aging make it very difficult to maintain a single standard of performance lifelong. I also weigh 40 pounds more that I did at age 20, when I began running. If you had strapped a 40 pound pack on my back at age 20, I would not have delivered a 7-minute mile very easily.

So, to quote another literary figure, does that mean we can only “go gentle into that good night?”

In fact, I think not.

The truth is, our bodies respond best to moderation in moderation.

What do I mean?

Well, if we were to push to our maximum level at every turn, we would face the risk of injury, and with age, possible incapacitation. So it is good to be moderate overall in a regular exercise program.

But an exercise routine of uninterrupted moderation permits the kind of slide that adds 3 minutes to the time required to complete a mile. As a 58-year-old who desires to continue feeling young as I enter senior citizenhood, I am trying to discern how it may be possible for me to be moderate in my moderation.

I have come up with two strategies so far.

The first strategy: I have begun to pepper my runs with vigorous sprints on approximately an 8-minute rotation. That is, every 8 minutes, I sprint for a “moderate” one minute, but this will move my pulse up from the 125-135 range to the 155-168 range. As they say, that is not bad for an old man.

Two years ago, I overdid the sprinting. I was doing hill training in Scottsdale, Arizona, and was pushing my heart rate into the low 170s in several-minute runs up lengthy hills in the autumn desert sun.

The problem? I developed premature ventricular contractions which lasted for several months, and ended up getting checked out medically with a Holter monitor. By the time I actually had the test (about 8 months after the fact), they were just beginning to go away of their own accord.

Don't worry, premature ventricular contractions are rarely serious, and you can have hundreds a day (which I did have for about 8 months) without being outside the normal range. However, they remain uncomfortable and disturbing.

Premature ventricular contractions are caused by the (left) ventricle contracting prior to filling fully, and thus this very powerful region of the heart muscle contracts on an inadequate amount of blood, and it feels as though one’s heart is “skipping a beat.”

So the problem is that I was not moderate in my immoderation. I pushed too hard, too soon, for too long.

This time, I decided to reduce the duration of the vigorous sprints, and so far (the past two months) it has worked fine.

I now feel much more vigorous both during and after runs, and there are several subtle benefits. For example, I enjoy a “supercharged” sensation for several hours after the run, and I didn't get that with moderate running only. It is a feeling of vigorous well-being, and I’d much rather obtain that feeling through exercise than by turning to such “artificial” highs as chemical use, risky behaviour, etc.

I also notice that regular running has become a little bit easier, and my weight is stabilizing or perhaps dropping a bit. I notice my belt fitting more loosely around my waistline even without a change in weight, and these are small clues indicating that my body is responding favourably to “moderate immoderation.”

My second strategy has actually been to reduce the duration, but not the intensity, of my weight workout.

My usual weight routine includes 30 exercises (40-45 on holidays) over a period of one hour up to two hours. The problem – when I'm busy, I can't do such a lengthy routine, so I end up doing no weight training at all for days at a time. This was not working.

So, on my wife Susan's suggestion, I pared the routine down to a core 10 exercises, plus 6 relatively undemanding supplemental strength/flexibility exercises. Now I am back to getting in three weight workouts most weeks, even when I'm working 12-14 hours a day, and most days have been like that since returning home from California in late April.

That is, as a result of being moderate in the duration of my weight training, I can maintain the intensity, and increase the frequency to the point that my total hours of exercise probably match what I was achieving through my regular routine, but I am now much more consistent. This factor probably also contributes to that comfortable feeling of my belt fitting loosely rather than snugly about my waist.

What's the next step?

I think I need to be a little bit more moderate in my hours of work, and then I can be more intense in my exercise routine, and sleep more than 5-6 hours a night on average (I'm a sound sleeper, but don't have sufficient time in a day to squeeze in more than 6 hours’ sleep when I'm busy). I think all of that would help considerably!

Obviously you'll have to find your own way to stay physically fit.

But honestly, don't believe it when the fitness gurus tell you that all you need is a daily walk. That may be a good start if you are out of shape. But if you truly desire to preserve fitness into the later years of your life, you have to include some physically demanding and immoderate exercise several times per week (but of course, only a moderate amount of such immoderate exercise!).

Have fun, and think of Shangri-La the next time you exercise!


  1. I agree with "I think I need to be a little bit more moderate in my hours of work, and then I can be more intense in my exercise routine, and sleep more than 5-6 hours a night on average"

    Everyone needs some "down" time when you're not working, running or sleeping .... time to just enjoy being.

    Hmm ... which makes me think .... I need some moderation in my down time ... maybe I should toss in some running! LOL