Three days ago, National Fitness Day graced us with its athletic presence. Perhaps you noticed it, or perhaps it breezed past you like an unseen gym advert on the side of a bus. Either way, we’re slightly late to the party – apologies for that; things have been very busy here at MAG. Hopefully the delay will have been worth it, however, as for today’s piece I’ve been lucky enough to gain some insights from our co-founder, Dr. Haroon Ashraf, on the wonderful world of fitness. Regular readers might remember that I recently conducted an interview with our other co-founder, Jack, for World Suicide Prevention Day. Today’s topic will hopefully be lighter reading than that one, though still consisting of very important information.
Fitness goals can be incredibly difficult to hit, and even harder to maintain once you’ve done so. It took me many years to establish a consistent and regular exercise regime and learn the best ways to work out, eat well and avoid straining my body – things I’m still very much learning about. This article will hopefully do a little of that work for us, however. Without further ado, let’s get into the nitty-gritty on the matter with Haroon.
Thanks for joining us today. First of all, there’s obviously so much money behind the fitness industry, which I think can often lead to the spread of a lot of misinformation. What would you say is the biggest misconception about the subject?
You’re right – there’s a lot of money in this industry. It’s one that’s really blown up in the last five to ten years. In the grand scheme of things, I believe the positives outweigh the negatives with that - for example, there are a lot of people who have gotten into fitness who wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s very trendy at the moment to be into a healthy lifestyle, which I think is a great thing. That said, there’s a lot of information out there. The biggest drawback of the fact that many people are talking about the industry is the presence of people who aren’t qualified and shouldn’t be giving certain pieces of advice. Now generally, online, most people offer good insights and knowledge, usually providing actual value to their audiences. However, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of people who are talking about subjects that they know little about, and because they might have a big social media following or a good physique a lot of people trust their advice. Sometimes this isn’t the most accurate information, and occasionally it can be utterly wrong.
With regards to the biggest misconception about fitness, I feel as though the industry is very much focused upon the actual act of exercising and much less upon diet, which is a dangerous misconception to have. Honestly, fitness is incredibly dependent on diet. You can work out seven times a week for an hour at a time, but if you’re not eating enough calories then you won’t gain muscle (if that’s your goal). If you’re trying to lose weight but you’re eating too much in general, or too much of the wrong thing, then you won’t succeed. I know there’s this figure saying that seventy-percent of fitness is dependent on diet, which I think is a fair one to throw around – it highlights that diet is more important than the actual exercising. The analogy I give to some people I speak to is this: imagine your general fitness as a car. The tyres are the exercise you’re doing and the engine is your nutrition. Let’s say you train once, maybe twice a week – perhaps you don’t have the best tyres, but you’ll still get to your destination if the engine is decent. However, if you have no engine – or it’s faulty – then you won’t go anywhere. I think that’s the best analogy I can offer in terms of how to generally go about achieving your fitness goals.
What are the biggest challenges people face when it comes to maintaining their fitness goals?
I’d say the biggest challenge when it comes to remaining fit – in fact there are two, but I’ll focus more upon one than the other – is remaining consistent. If you can continuously practice a good fitness regime for, I’d say, about three to six months then it’ll be very difficult after that period to go back to not training. After a while you think ‘this is incredible’ and you just can’t stop. For that reason, I think consistency, especially in the early stages. What people tend to do is go to a gym for a couple of weeks, and then things get busy and they suddenly find it really hard. Life can get hectic, especially if you have a demanding job, and that can make it tough to have regular scheduled exercise sessions, meaning working out tends to be one of the first things to drop. If you can force yourself to be consistent, though – especially in the first six months – it will really pay dividends.
The other challenge is diet. Perhaps you train for four to five hours a week, and the rest of the time your regime seems pretty easy – just go to the gym, put in some work, say: ‘I’ve done my hour for the day’ and forget about it. What people neglect to consider, however, is that the rest of the time they have to be constantly aware of their diet. So that’s the second biggest obstacle. It’s a shame that, as mentioned in my last question, the fitness industry doesn’t tend to focus much on this factor because it’s not necessarily exciting to talk about in the same way that deadlifting one-hundred-and-eighty kilograms is, for example. But it’s almost certainly more important than the actual exercise itself. So that’s the hardest part to do well, alongside having to be aware of it at all times you’re also constantly enticed into having sugary or fatty meals and snacks. Particularly with a demanding lifestyle, it can become very easy to just snack rather eating properly.
Can you point to any unexpected ways that keeping fit has changed your life?
So as many people know, having a fit and healthy lifestyle has many positives - including increased energy and decreased stress, just to name a couple. Personally, one of the things fitness has really helped with is remaining mentally sharp throughout the whole day. Now, many people are aware that cardiovascular exercise and lifting weights can have cognitive benefits as well as physical; some of the most successful individuals on the planet condone regular exercise and the positive effects it has on their work and life. Right now, I’m working as a junior doctor - probably one of the most mentally-demanding jobs you can have. You’re constantly juggling a lot of information and at any moment an emergency can appear; you need to be sharp, and working out has definitely set me apart, I think that exercise allows me to stay switched on mentally throughout the whole day. I can definitely concentrate longer than some people, I feel – and that’s one of the unique benefits that people might not be expecting when they first get into fitness. You can almost call it mental stamina.
What strategies do you advise for keeping up a fitness regime, especially a particularly difficult one?
Whenever people ask me for advice on getting into fitness, or if they’re having difficulty maintaining their regime, I tend to examine their regime and ask them about their workout schedule and how they’re incorporating diet into their lifestyle. A lot of the time they’re people who’ve never worked out – not seriously, anyway – and they’ve picked up a workout guide or a workout routine online. Usually it involves something like exercising seven days a week and having an immensely-co-ordinated diet. What tends to happen is that they can maintain it for a week or so, but then it becomes overwhelming and they totally sack it off and go back to what they were doing before. My advice for all of these individuals, especially those who may not have been into fitness previously, is to start small and build up. If you’ve never been to the gym before, I suggest going one or two times a week and generally eating fewer snacks during the day. For around two months, that’s all I’d recommend. If you can keep that up, as most people can – I don’t think it’s too difficult to incorporate a weekly session or two – then you may well really start to enjoy training and realise that you can add another session and gradually build from there. People think they have to hit the gym hard straight away, but I disagree: people need to look at fitness more as a lifestyle rather than something they’re going to do until they’re fit before just putting their feet up afterward. It doesn’t work that way. You need to envision doing this for the rest of your life. So I definitely suggest starting small and then building up. If, on the other hand, you’re already working out four times a week, have a really good diet, are in great shape and you want to take it to the next level then what I’d suggest is picking up a workout plan that might push you, try that for thirty to sixty days and see what results you get.
I think the most important thing is asking yourself ‘where am I now?’ and ‘where am I planning to be in six months?’ and being realistic about it. Now, I’m definitely an ambitious individual and I know many others out there are too. And they wanna lose, say, twenty pounds in six months – which is possible. But I think building smaller goals is a lot more encouraging than having these grandiose ones that are really hard to achieve, meaning you end up giving up on them halfway through
Are there any other lifestyle changes you would suggest making that can also benefit your overall fitness?
One lifestyle change that I would suggest to everyone – and it’s probably not a surprise for those who know me – is incorporating sauna into your weekly routine. It’s had a tremendous impact on my overall wellbeing; alongside being great for my fitness, going to the sauna helps lower my stress levels dramatically. I know it’s something you’ve spoken about in a previous blog, so if anyone wants a full low-down of the benefits of sauna then definitely check that out.
But yeah, if you can only make it to the gym once or twice a week I’d highly recommend making one of those days into a sauna session. It’s nice to do, you feel fantastic afterwards and it yields so many health benefits that you don’t really get from any other exercise. If you just want a quick win in your fitness lifestyle then incorporating one to two hours of sauna every week would be fantastic for you.
Whilst we usually think of the physical when it comes to fitness, it’s also highly-important to keep our brains active too. What do you do to ensure your mind is always being challenged?
I’m really glad you mentioned this, actually – you’re right; there’s no point having a great physique and being much less mentally sharp than you could be. You definitely have to spend time focusing on the mind as well as the body. I’d say you have to ask yourself: ‘where am I right now, mentally?’ Be brutally honest with yourself, then take small steps to build your mental capacity and ensure your brain is being challenged. As noted, I have quite a challenging job – I need to be switched on all the time, and every day I’m learning something new. If you have a job like that, then fantastic! Not everyone does, though, of course.
One thing I’d recommend to everyone (and it’s really easy to do) is read ten pages every single day. Whatever it is that you’re interested in, whether it’s fitness, architecture, art, science, technology – pick up a book and read ten pages of it every single day. Not only will you be reading around one book a month, which is great – you’ll also start to realise that you think faster. You think outside the box more effectively. You’re able to problem-solve better. Simple reading yields so many benefits!
Now, I know that a lot of people may think they haven’t got the time, but I don’t think there are many excuses for not being able to sit down for twenty minutes and have a quick read of something you’re interested in each day. I know that’s potentially quite a boring suggestion – certainly not quite a revelatory breakthrough – but it’s one of the simplest and most effective things you can do to keep your brain mentally-challenged.
Many thanks to Haroon for sharing his insights on this timely subject. Getting and staying fit and healthy is undoubtedly a challenge in the modern world, particularly with regards to diet; so often, the cheapest and easiest things to eat are also the worst for us. However, as we’ve just seen, everyone is capable of making little lifestyle changes, bit by bit, that will lead them over time to reaching their ultimate fitness goals!
As nutrition is such an important aspect of fitness, keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming joint post for World Vegetarian Day and National Cholesterol Month; we’ll be sharing a number of great tips on how you can take steps towards a healthier and more eco-friendly diet, including a delicious recipe, ingredient breakdowns and a much closer look at the work with one of our resident nutritionists – Eslem!