Why I go to the gym less often and no longer care how much protein I eat. And how that’s made me a better person.
My friend Dr. John Berardi caused a stir when he shared my “recovering fitness junkie” philosophy on Facebook:
I was appreciative and humbled by JB sharing that. I was also surprised about the reaction: 402 likes, 29 shares, and 27 comments.
My definition of a “recovering fitness junkie” seemed to stir up some emotions, both positive and negative—which is usually a good indicator that people are interested in the topic and want to know more.
So I decided to take those two paragraphs, dissect them line by line, and explain what I mean and how I got here.
Of course, this isn’t advice for you or your situation. It’s just where I’ve been and where I’m at right now.
So feel free to take what you want from it and ignore the rest.
Recovering Fitness Junkie: The Dissection
Here it is again in its entirety:
“I used to work out 5x per week, balance my ratios of protein, carbs, and fats, and considered myself a connoisseur of nutritional supplements.
Now I exercise a couple times per week and care more about sharing good food with the people I love. I also try to get a good night’s sleep, drink water, meditate, and leave my phone at home most days.”
And here it is, dissected.
I used to work out 5x per week…
I started lifting weights my junior year of high school with one goal: to gain as much muscle as possible. At the time, I was a 140-pound skinny kid, and my self-worth was tied to the way I looked. (Still is, honestly.)
So like most young guys who want to get in shape, I started working out as often as possible. My life revolved around the gym. It’s where I challenged myself. Where I made new friends. It’s where I felt in control and dominant.
(Dominance was a big thing for me back then. I was good at lifting weights and that gave me increased self worth. And because I was in my early twenties, it also occasionally made me an asshole show-off, especially as my knowledge and experience grew and I saw how misguided other guys were in the gym. I started to judge them instead of offering to help. That changed as I got older.)
This allegiance to the gym — to becoming bigger and stronger and faster — lasted a decade of my life.
It consumed me, with both good and bad consequences.
The good: I added muscle, gained confidence and felt better about my body. I became a personal trainer, started writing for fitness magazines, and eventually wrote a workout/lifestyle book for young guys.
My blog took off (hundreds of thousands of readers per year), and I took a job as an editor at T-Nation. I met some amazing people, some of whom would become my biggest mentors. I landed a gig at Precision Nutrition, which I love.
Of course, getting a job or writing for a magazine isn’t a direct result of me working out in the gym. That would be ridiculous. The point I’m trying to make is that my dedication to improving my body bled into other parts of my life. I wanted to be a fitness writer because I was obsessed with fitness and enjoyed writing.
The bad: I hurt my body repeatedly — not stretching, using too much weight, doing exercises that weren’t well suited for me, using questionable form, doing the same exercises with no progression, etc. — my self-worth became tied directly to my performance in the gym and how much muscle I had; I only focused on one aspect of health — gaining muscle — and neglected endurance, mobility, flexibility, and balance.
I became one of the “cool guys” with accolades and magazine logos on my website and powerful friends who looked down on all the “shitty” personal trainers and fitness writers out there and how stupid they were…instead of seeing the positive impact they were trying to make in themselves and the world.
Quite simply, the gym and all the things tied to it became my entire life.
Without it, I wasn’t sure who I was.
Without it, I didn’t feel important.
…balance my ratios of protein, carbs, and fats…
I ate 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. I followed a 40/30/30 (total calories for the day: 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, 30% fat) mesomorphic macronutrient breakdown. I cycled my carbs and fasted and had strategic over-feedings and all that stuff.
In short, I tried really, really hard to get the “perfect” amount of nutrients. I thought food was fuel, and I treated it as such. Especially early on in my career.
But after joining the Precision Nutrition team over 5 years ago and having a small hand in coaching thousands of people I now realize I likely didn’t need that level of obsession over my food to build muscle and get in good shape. (Literally thousands of people get in awesome shape every year with Precision Nutrition without becoming fitness junkies.)
…considered myself a connoisseur of nutritional supplements.
Between the ages of 23 and 25, I worked for T-Nation and Biotest, a supplement company.
Every month for two years my “care package” would arrive at my front door. It was full of stuff and it was all free.
Workout drinks, fish oil, sleep aids, testosterone boosters, energy drinks, creatine, fat burners, protein bars, and lots of other exotic powders and elixirs.
I took it all.
My friends were all jealous of my perfect supplement regimen.
Taking the right things at the right time became an obsession.
Preparing to go work out took 15 minutes of mixing powders, putting pills in baggies, rounding up random shaker bottles, and eating pre-workout bars.
And then I’d have to go write about how awesome they all were so people would buy them.
To be clear, everything I took was natural and totally safe. And certain supplements definitely helped me improve my performance and gain muscle. But since I worked for T-Nation/Biotest at the time, I had to write the equivalent of a love letter for each supplement I took. It was too much.
Here’s me and my friends at the gym four years ago. This is what I used to do every day.
Now I move a couple times per week…
I burned out on the gym after 6-7 years of hitting it hard. Back in late 2010, I was only going once per week. And half the time I only stayed for 20 minutes or so before leaving.
My back hurt. My elbow hurt. My pride hurt.
I didn’t know what to do.
Lots of guys find themselves in this situation where they have trouble staying consistent in the gym, especially when their identity is wrapped up in their performance.
My experience in the gym had stunted me. I thought that if you weren’t training hard lifting weights 3-4 times per week, you were wasting time. Now I don’t believe that’s true.
Over the past few years, I feel like I’ve achieved a good, healthy balance, training two times per week in the gym and maybe once more at home.
I’m no longer focused on getting bigger and stronger at all costs. Instead, I want to keep making progress while fixing old injuries and improving all the things I’ve neglected in the past 10 years, including mobility and endurance.
Another thing: I’ve stopped seeing the gym as the ONLY place where you can get in shape.
I go bouldering. I play basketball. I occasionally run sprints. I go on long walks and hikes with friends. I do handstands and bodyweight workouts in the park.
The best part: I look and feel better than ever.
…and care more about sharing good food with the people I love.
I’m still aware of what I’m eating and choose mostly organic stuff, even though the jury’s still out on whether or not it’s better for you. I buy it because I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford it.
I still eat lots of meat and vegetables and healthy fats. I even still take some supplements: fish oil, vitamin D3, probiotic, digestive enzymes, greens, and occasionally a scoop of whey protein.
But I don’t remember the last time I had a “specialized pre-workout supplement.”
My energy boosting beverages are now high-quality coffee and green tea instead of energy drinks. And I’ve started to look at food less in terms of “nutrients” and more like…food.
I enjoy cooking, and drinking a cocktail or glass of beer while I’m at it. I eat at good restaurants and spend time having meals with friends.
I don’t turn down freshly made pasta or sticky rice any more. I have no idea how many grams of protein I eat in a day. (Probably not a lot, at least compared to what I used to eat.)
Food isn’t fuel to me any longer. It’s way, way more fun and important than that.
I also try to get a good night’s sleep, drink water, meditate…
I sleep 7-9 hours per night.
I start my day with a big glass of water and drink tea throughout the day.
I sit down for 20 minutes every day, close my eyes, and do nothing but put my attention on my breathing and let my thoughts come and go as they please. (I use the guided meditation app, Headspace.)
These things make me feel healthy, alert, and in-control.
…and leave my phone at home most days.
I’m sure other people are fine with their phones, but I’m very impulsive. Which is why I don’t have internet, email, or Facebook on my phone. (But that’s a topic for another post.)
But really, I just don’t think I should be available every minute of every day.
I don’t like how I feel when I’m constantly checking my phone to see if someone loves me or is giving me attention or validating something I said
So I started leaving my phone at home instead.
Text messages go unread for hours. I have no idea how many emails I’m getting. I probably have like 10 people to call back.
And I’m OK with all of that.
Of course, I want to be connected to the rest of the world. But I want to be connected to it on my terms, and only when I’m ready to give it my full attention.
Till then, I’m trying to put my attention on whatever it is I’m doing in the moment.