Hitting the Gym

18 March 2016
When I changed companies just under a year ago, I decided to make it coincide with major life-style changes, and one of those was building a get-fit regime into my usual routine. Below is a collection of things I wrote during this time, and have decided to publish before they go to waste. There are contradictions, and some of the views below are actually outright wrong, but it is representative of the psychological changes that happened as part of the process.

All about calorie deficit

Each kilogram of fat corresponds to around 7,000 calories, so simple maths means losing 1kg means your body using 7,000 more calories over a set period of time than it receives in food & drink. The bigger the deficit, the bigger the weight loss. Doing this via dieting is ineffective because it involves having an intake within quite a narrow range, influenced by two major things:
Base-line metabolism
The body needs around 1,500-2,500 calories daily to maintain itself and allow you to do basic functions.
Starvation dieting
Eat less than around 1,000 calories, and your body starts doing things you don't want it to do.
I am not sure of exact numbers above, but once an allowance has also been made for hidden calories in things like snacks and coffee, anyone with a stable weight can only realistically create a calorie deficit of around 500 calories. Dieting is thus a waste of time for two reasons:
Porton control is a non-starter
Unless you want to be anti-social and never eat with colleagues, a lot of the time you have no actual control. Decades of guilt-tripping by teachers about having food that those in Abyssinia don't means that people are conditioned to consider not finishing food as bordering on sin. You either eat the whole meal or don't eat it at all.
Calories are not where you expect them
A 250ml glass of orange juice has more calories than two rashers (50g) of bacon. Having to think about the number of calories in everything you consume, you have to think more about food at a time you should be thinking less.
Any serious weight loss has to be done via increasing output. Anyone who claims otherwise is trying to cash in on something. Over time my views have softened a bit, but the above is the view I would still give to anyone who wants the executive summary.

The regime

Going to the gym 5-9 times a week, or in other words most days and sometimes more than once a day. My favoured machine seems to be a cross between a stepper and cross-trainer, and I would typically do 2km (later 3km) but have gone higher on a few occasions. For a significant length of time I was routinely getting up on weekdays at 04:45 and getting back around 19:00. By any measure this was brutal.

What to eat?

When I first started I was already on one major meal a day, and I maintained this as my lunch was both my daily treat and the time I got to talk to my then-new coworkers about non-work things. It was not exactly the best of things to eat, being rather biased towards various forms of meat & potatoes, but at least it was not the type of thing seen on ThisIsWhyYou'reFat.com. At the time I decided that if I did not include myself some slack I would go insane, and in any case I was losing weight at fast rate anyway.

After a while when the effects of exercise start to become significant, in comes the motivation to reinforce these gains by further dietary modifications. At first it might be switching from sugar to sweetener for coffee/tea/cocoa, but later on the bigger changes come in. It was around six months in that I switched over to having simple soup for lunch, and since then tweaked around with various combinations of breakfasts & dinners.

In hindsight diet becomes more important the closer to the target weight, particularly when shape rather than kilogram-reduction becomes the priority. However I still hold the view that dieting is a waste of time, because a diet-led weight reduction regime is both depressing and ineffective.

Empty stomach workouts

It is controversial, but I personally subscribe to the idea of doing a morning cardio workout on an empty stomach, at least for the first 2-3 months. Basic idea is that overnight low blood-sugar levels cause Glycogen stores to be depleted, and with insulin levels also low, the body will be more inclined turn to fat reserves for energy. Exercising with low insulin levels also tends to increase insulin sensitivity, which goes some way to alleviating the type-2 Diabetes risk associated with being overweight.

The major practical down-side is that the body might not actually have the energy for a particularly vigorous workout, and in cases can make people feel faint. I have on occasion found that I have had to stop at a point that I know I have easily passed many times before, and this is particularly noticeable with resistance training. Other down-side is that at low-Glycogen levels the body will also start consuming protein (i.e. muscles) to get energy, which I initially considered an acceptable side-effect.

Bringing in the weights

My own view is that cardio is all about getting body mass down due to its far higher raw calorie burn, whereas resistance training (i.e. weights) is all about shape. The original motivation for bringing in resistance training was to offset any muscle-loss that the cardio sessions might result in, but in the longer term particularly as I approached my target mass, it was clearly better for the type of all-body fitness I was really after. Unlike intense cardio, resistance training targets more than just the leg muscles.

I eventually settled on morning workouts almost always being cardio due to the difficulty of doing a proper early-morning workout without having eaten much (if at all), and afternoon workouts usually being resistance most weeks due to the lower time requirement. Tweaking is as much about avoid monotony as getting a good balance of exercise types.

Separating workouts & eating

As a general rule, any eating should not be done immediately before or after a workout. Not sure of definite numbers, but 30-60 minutes seems to be the commonly quoted range. The last thing you want is increased metabolism from the workout using up energy from food rather than fat reserves. However there are also psychological reasons for leaving a gap between working out and eating, and that is to avoid eating becoming a conditioned reward for a workout. A lot of people are wasting their time at the gym due to them “rewarding” themselves.


At first such a massive increase in physical activity is inevitably exhausting, and this will require a lot of motivation to sustain, but sooner or later the more positive & surprising effects will becomes noticeable. Below are notes regarding various ones that I noticed myself.

Variance in weight

One thing that became apparent early on is that the daily variance in weight due to food and hydration can be as high as 2kg, which is big considering that most medics don't recommend losing more than 1-2lbs (0.45-0.9kg) per week. This is why I recorded morning and afternoon weight readings separately, and why it takes quite a sustained period of time to actually notice a downward trend. Unless you also drink a lot of water, all the exercise will leave your body a lot less hydrated compared to when exercise was not in the equation. This is a further 2-3kg that is easy loss when first starting but suddenly bounces back as soon as the pressure is off.

Sore muscles

Muscles are constantly getting torn and regenerated, but with untoned muscles there are (I think) a lot of cross-connecting fibres that get torn en-masse when someone first tries upping the weights they are using. The worst I ever had was when I did my upper back muscles, and being well-connected even the slightest twitch anywhere else such as in my neck or arms was immediately felt. This lasted two days, but it has now been several months since I had anything remotely comparable.


There have been some mornings where for whatever reason I have missed a morning workout, and I actually feel substantially worse than other days that week which I did not. I'm not sure which hormone is involved, but suspect it is some subset of Adrenaline, Serotonin, and Dopamine. From what I remember of undergraduate Psychology, this was caused by what is basically addiction: body & brain accustomed to the higher concentration of hormones. From what I remember this happened more often with cardio than resistance training, but that could have been influenced by external factors.

Pleasure or Pain?

Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone on record about “The Pump” which he compares to a sexual orgasm with blood making muscles feel like they are about to explode. While I think Arnie's characterisation is a bit over the top, with my own resistance training I have noticed that at times the boundary between pain & pleasure is very unclear. The burn of squeezing in an extra repetition into a set giving way to the release afterwards. It is unusual for me to now finish a workout without feeling something at least somewhere, but that is now associated with better muscles than a day of not being able to move.

Belt sizes

A sure-fire sign of things going to plan is when you not only find old clothes too big, but even have to replace things like belts, because their tightest fitting is still too loose. What I found is that once this starts, it accelerates: I had to reduce my clothing size a second time a mere two months after the first reduction. A constant weight reduction means a roughly constant body cross-sectional-area reduction, but rearranging 2πr and πr^2 results in the diameter reduction accelerating. Toning via abdominal exercises exaggerates the reduction further.

Looking back

My approach was far from optimal, but when it comes to life-style changes as drastic as the ones I made, it is a balance between end-goal and maintaining sanity. For all the faults, losing 20% of body weight is still a major feit, and it is one that psychologically has to be done in stages.