Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Once we were sloths – a tale of slow conversion

Once we were sloths – a tale of slow conversion

“You once had a body of an athlete” said Serge from Uni Massage.

He had hit the nail on the head.


Once being several decades ago. I now had a body and fitness system that had slowly deteriorated like Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps”. I went from a non-stop stream of activity (sports, walking/running as my main transportation means and long nights living on coffee but little food) in my mid 20s to a largely sedentary work environment and sitting at the computer at home for long stretches.

All the time I thought I was simply a few steps away from complete fitness recovery.

Each decade saw the return of some activity (indoor cricket for a while, badminton on and off, a couple of seasons of heavy duty gardening) but each time less vigorous and for shorter periods.

Since 1999 there has been the travelling for work (averaging 2-3 months a year) and where most of my time (outside of the family) was largely about work.

In late December 2006 that world spun out of control. All my life I have been healthy (in the last 3 decades I have been ill for less than a handful of days – usually just 1 day at a time) and rarely saw doctors and cuts/bruises would heal quickly. In late 2006 I had an infection that I couldn’t dislodge. Finally (after several weeks) went to a GP, Dr Susan Hodgman (one of the best decisions in my life) she ordered blood tests.

All the warning signs were there.

· Late 40s.

· Weight over 100 (110+) kg

· Body Mass Index in the obese/morbid obese range

· Big spare tire.

· All my photos showed a big guy.

· I had started talking about myself as a big guy.

· Diminished healing capacity.

· Thirsty all the time.

· Avoided gyms – as being places only for the fit and slim.

· High stress both at home and at work (heavy teaching load, on University Council, lots of travelling, pressure to publish).

On Christmas Eve 2006 got a phone call could I urgently return and see Dr Hodgman.

Prognosis – diabetes Type 2.

Blood sugars in the 14-17 range. Cholesterol through the roof. Very high Triglycerides.

When asked “How are you feeling” and my response was “good” Dr Hodgman simply replied “That is surprising”.

Needed to start on medication. Needed to lose weight.

Next day, Christmas Day, was spent trying to minimise intake of sweets (a very primitive understanding of diabetes at that point).

The next few months were a whir of information overload about diabetes Type 2, weekly visits to the GP, frequent blood tests and a constant increasing list of medications and ailments – high blood pressure, kidney and gall stone problems. I started to rake up frequent buyer points at my pharmacy (I now had a ‘pharmacy’ for the first time in my life). It was like my little lifeboat had sprung several major leaks and several storms had appeared. Every visit to the GP seemed to result in a new additional medication and upping of the dosage of existing medication.

The increasing long line of medical professionals all had the same story – it was a question of when rather than if I would encounter major problems. Extremely dark period for me.

Then I discovered that I wasn’t a few steps away from fitness recovery I was light years away.

Months of trying to increase physical activity (while still focussing on work and travelling), changing eating habits etc saw small gains. I dropped a few kgs and with medication got my blood sugars below double figures (but still in the 9s and with a blood pressure often above 150/90+). Then a temporary breakthrough. 8 weeks working in Cambodia saw the +ve impact of minimising processed foods and my blood sugars dropped to the 7-8 range..

By early 2008 I had plugged most of the holes in my little lifeboat. I was managing my diabetes (just), struggling with losing weight but still getting it down (if you can call 108-110 kg down) and had dealt with the kidney problem. So for a year or so I kept a very tenuous balance.

I then learned a painful lesson. You don’t get cured and it is all about constant vigilance. The weight started to pour back on and long term blood sugar levels started to drift higher and medication started to be increased. I had walked straight into a danger zone - too much to do so the increased walking kept on being put off, badminton sessions missed due to work and travel, no time for the garden and always I would promise myself to do more tomorrow or next week.

Another round of frustrating efforts to increase activity, control food intake etc.

By October 2009 I was fighting a rearguard action but slowly losing ground.

Then my wife and daughter threw me a lifeline.

I had been reading up about Dicko’s Jenny Craig diet effort see http://www.jen4men.com.au/home/ I was impressed but I made a simple comment “Yeah easy for him he had his own personal coach.” My daughter and wife looked at each other and said “right”.

Within a couple of days I had an email from my wife setting up a meeting with Helen, who co-ordinated personal coaches, from the Unigym. Reluctantly I went to the meeting.

One look at me and Helen said ‘You need to start slowly – you are too unfit for a personal coach. We are starting a new early morning class for people like you – looking to return to exercise. It’s not bootcamp despite being run by an army guy. It is self-paced but you will be pushed to your limit. Concentrate on the fitness first and worry about the diet later. One big challenge at a time”.

I turned up to my first 6.45 am session – nervous and apprehensive (first time in a gym other than to play badminton, squash etc) and very much out of my comfort zone. I confronted the harsh reality of my condition (or lack thereof). The class was self-paced but Jim Armstrong, the instructor, gently pushed the buttons to re-ignite my own motivation. Yet I was confronted by a rusted and completely useless body. See my performance table below. I could hardly do anything I was asked to do. This from a cricketer who terrified opening batsmen and who had once played badminton like a whirling dervish. There was not a fragment of that person left except in my mind. I had never felt such despair.

Fortunately there was a 7 day break to the next class (because of Hobart Show Day) and my tired muscles and shattered ego could slowly recover. Over the next few weeks I learnt time and time again in my Tuesday and Thursday sessions - how unfit I was. I certainly learnt humility as I tumbled and stumbled at the end of our group even on warm up runs. I dreaded the warm up runs, I loathed running on the crash mat and simply failed at skipping. But Jim Armstrong and Daryll Miller (who took over from Jim who went in January to the Sinai for a 6 month peacekeeping mission) persisted with gentle encouragement.

Started to do faltering runs on the Pipeline Track at Fern Tree (to be brutally honest these runs were a few metres before I went through terrifying periods of struggling to catch a breath) and small exercise routines (x number of push ups during the week, crunches etc) outside of the morning sessions so as to be better prepared for the Warm-up/Wake-up classes. I was desperate to just survive those sessions.

A blessing was that every session was new and different. Each morning we turn up half dreading what combination of activities Jim and/or Daryll have chosen for us but walking away proud but exhausted at the end of the hour that we had stumbled through their challenge.

It has now got to the stage that I look forward to each challenge whether a Tabata routine or a savage combination of weights, spin and shuttles. I still often find myself struggling at the end of the line (dropping out early in the beep tests etc) but other times I find myself keeping up.

Along with the gradual increase in fitness and flexibility came some good weight loss. However from Feb 2010-late July 2010 I hit a weight plateau where my weight stayed in the 102-105 range. Partly due to 3 extensive overseas trips. I took Daryll’s Hotel Room exercise guide with me and tried to replicate the morning sessions. Incredibly difficult to skip in many hotel rooms (low ceilings). During my month long trip in July I was doing mini-Tabata sessions – timed with an I-Phone app - of 3-5 sets most mornings. I also set myself the task of doing at least 1 short morning run in each country I visited ( total of 6 countries) which I did except in New York.

On my return despite maximum efforts in the morning classes, regular sessions of badminton, the use of food replacement satchels and increased exercises between classes the weight was hardly shifting. I then went through the confronting experience of consulting a dietician and outlining my eating habits. Favourite food – white bread sandwiches and cheese/vegemite, amount in a snack – 2-3 double sandwiches. I could see the disbelief in her eyes and the thought process “and he is wondering why he isn’t losing weight”. She encouraged me to buy the Calorie King software - http://www.calorieking.com.au/ (a fantastic purchase) and over the past month by increasing exercise, changing foods and controlling food intake I have managed to drop to below 98kgs. Simultaneously my performance in the exercise classes has reached new levels.

As the performance Table below shows I have come a long way but have got a long way to go and there is always the potential problems of injury or loss of motivation awaiting me.

End October 2009

Middle September 2010


116-118 kg+

97.5 kg

Blood sugar average

8 + drifting higher


Blood pressure range


99-140/ 71-90+


115cm +



107 cm no belt

97cm with belt

Running capacity

50-70 metres severe breath shortage

30 lengths of badminton court – knackered in 3 mins

15 mins non-stop hill (gentle) and step (steep) running

40 lengths of badminton court in 3 mins still ready for more


1-2 slow stumbling hops

30 skips on toes very quick

Push ups

<> less than 5 poor form

Sets of 30-40 in good form

Bench Dips

Legs in less than 10 <>

50-100 legs out


less than 10


90 secs +

Side prone

<> Less than 5 secs

20 secs +


<> less than 5 head returning to ground

50-100 keeping head off ground


Light – very slow

Heavy – good pace and form

Warm up before class


Lap of oval

Beep test



Weekly exercise totals


Crunches – 1000+

Push ups 1300+

Bench Dips 1300+

Presses against kitchen counter 2000+

Burpees 28


1 hour every couple of weeks

3 hours per week


20 mins once a week

20 mins + most days



Tarting to get back into

Throughout this period I have used my Facebook status to keep up a steady log of my journey. The public sharing kept me accountable and was often one of the things that kept me going when I stumbled or felt like maybe taking a break. Since discovered that my efforts have motivated a couple of people and that makes me feel good.

Recently I was contacted by a former student who is struggling with weight and health problems – 135 kgs at 23 years old. During a facebook chat session he said that he had given up but reading what I had done at my age he felt like he could also do it at 23. Sensibly he has opted for a medically supervised approach to his diet and a very gentle return to exercise/activity. He asked what I did – below is an edited version of our chat. It is not professional advice but rather just bits and pieces and ideas that seem to have worked for me.

Advice to a former student

Start slow.

Have a lot of mini goals - fitness, weight, health -- so if you are blocked/derailed on some you still get some runs on board.

1. Never too late to start.

2. Don't try too much at once.

3. Small but constant changes to diet.

4. Get the Calorie King Diet software (about $40 aus) - I have only had this in last 3 weeks but it has been extremely helpful. Managed to lose 6 kgs after several weeks of no loss.

5. Use a Wii with Exercise Plus - start slow. Advantages are that it is self-pace, it keeps track and there are a wide variety of tasks and activities.

7. Take full measurements now - (by a professional/gp - weight, height, waist arms etc and do a full blood test (another lot of incentives to work on ). Always helpful later when you are struggling to find +ve signs of progress/change.

8. Find a gym class that does circuit or cross training and allows you to start at your own pace. Look for maybe older trainers who have experienced themselves or seen their friends etc struggle with age, weight etc.

9. Learn to accept that everyone else in a fitness class can run quicker, harder, longer - do more push ups etc - but one day you will find yourself near the front.

10. Learn the proper form of the exercise rather than aim to do lots of repetitions quickly.

11. When I started I could only run a few metres before I felt like I would never breath again (can now run at least 1 lap of oval at fair pace). It takes time to recover running capacity, flexibility etc but it happens.

12. Change diet very slowly – this is where a software program like Calorie King can work very well.

13. The big factor for me was a great exercise class 2 mornings a week for an hour each. Any class will do to get the ball rolling but keep looking for the right atmosphere/support for you. Cross training is the best option rather than concentrate just on running or weights.

14. I found it very helpful to start to build a lot of little extras into my non- circuit class time - extra badminton, a little more walking, the Wii (esp yoga).

15. Small steps and remember there will be days when you slide backwards (weight gain, less push ups than the previous day etc).

16. Share with friends your journey – it has been a real positive to share with my friends on Facebook.

17. Start small but start to add increments to each exercise. When I started I was lucky to do 2 push ups or two very slow skips in a row - I can now do 30-40 push ups in a set or make skipping rope whir for 10 secs (not a lot) but I never thought I would hear the sound.

18. In terms of diet - start drinking more water, start to reduce diary foods. Add fresh fruits and vege for snacks.

19. Get fitted for good running shoes - even if not running much -- one reason for starting slow is to minimise or avoid injury.

20. Book in for regular massage sessions to help body recover and to prevent or detect start of injuries.

21. Start with short, medium and long term targets ie 134kg to 133.5 kg (initially just to get there even if slide back - but then aim to keep below that new maximum for a few days), then 132.5 kg etc.

22. Work with GP and dietician and try and find good gym class and or personal coach you are happy with.

A follow up chat a few days later -

4.26 former student

sigh...i could only do 15 minutes of brisk walk unfortunately...but it's a start i guess?


better than just a start

given your weight etc you might be trying too much but great to push yourself without being too over the top

better to start slow and low (in terms of numbers, repetitions, etc

4:29pm former student

i'll try walking in blocks of 15 minutes

not more right now :))


1 step a day for a 1000 days is better than 900 steps in a day and then no more

4:30pmf ormer student

wow thats awesome

i'll remember that


use little yardsticks ie a couple of more metres each day in the same time or feeling slightly less winded etc or quicker recovery


or 1 push up today, 2 push ups tomorrow, 3 on the third day, 30 at the end of the month it soon builds up

My coaches tell me “do what you did yesterday + 5% today”. That 5% is the killer.


The insight for me reading back on all the above is that health/fitness recovery is not just a question of flicking the switch from off to on or turning the key in the ignition.

It is a major investment in time, energy, emotion, finances and the returns only dribble in one drop at a time.

Plus as you sink into slothdom you have no idea of what it will take to recover a better level of fitness and health.

Back before December 2006 I am not sure what my reaction would have been if a delivery truck turned up and I was presented with the following:

· A booking for 20+ blood tests

· 30+ GP appoints over next 4 years

· 10+ specialist appointments

· A blood pressure monitor

· A blood sugar monitor

· Gym membership

· New fitted running shoes

· Calorie King software

· A Wii and Fitness Plus

· 2 hours of circuit class each week

· 3 hours of badminton a week

· 5+ hours of other exercise activity a week

· Daryll and Jim suggesting I should give everything 5% extra effort.

I am not sure if I have added anything to my life capacity or length but I certainly have improved the way I will enjoy and live for the remainder of my life.

I have the feeling that the easy gains have been made and the next 12 months will be more about very small increments and dealing with the inevitable set backs.

Where I started from - see this video filmed early September 2009 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bVUNN4pjVk between 1.12-2.54 mins - is still only a few weeks of neglect or inactivity away.