Healthy Outlook: 4 fitness lessons I’ve learned the hard way

Over the past three years, I have completely transformed from your typical bacon-inhaling, soda-guzzling couch potato into a bona fide health nut.

In 2014, I realized I’d hit a weight at which I could no longer tolerate myself — nor could my budget tolerate continually upsizing my clothes — and it was time to make some changes. I embarked on that journey and quickly realized that every little adjustment made me feel even better.

I’ve traded french fries and chocolate shakes for quinoa and whey protein; I’ve quit “Legend of Zelda” marathons to instead work toward maybe, someday, running an actual marathon. The metamorphosis is complete.

It hasn’t all been a walk in the park, though. I’ve hit plenty of ups and downs, and in this column, I’m hoping to share some of them and spare others some trouble. Look for the column each Sunday as part of the Journal-World’s new Health page. In the weeks to come, I plan to be out and about in the community checking out the latest health trends in town (and even putting a few to the test), as well as talking to other area people who are trying to live healthy and active lives.

To start, let me pass along four quick lessons I learned the hard way.

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1. Buying a food scale is definitely preferable to counting out 39 peanuts.

A digital food scale like this one will save you a lot of time and guesswork.

Controlling portions is crucial to a healthy diet, and measuring by weight with a digital scale is the most reliable method. Some suggested serving sizes are more vague than others — e.g., “12 chips” (of various shapes and sizes) versus “1/4 cup oats” — but almost every package of food lists a weight in grams next to that serving size so you can get a clearer picture.

Some servings are practically impossible to measure without a scale — for instance, how big is 4 ounces of a chicken breast? “Approximately the size of the palm of your hand,” about a hundred websites say, but that’s still subjective. A food scale will save you time and help you stay on track rather than leave you guessing and eyeballing — or counting out the recommended serving size of 39 peanuts.

2. Hydration really is no joke.

Water is so incredibly crucial to feeling good because your body uses it in nearly every chemical reaction that occurs. First thing in the morning, I down an 8-ounce glass of ice water to make sure I’m starting my day right. Believe it or not, it perks me up just like a cup of coffee. It doesn’t end there, though — keep drinking the good stuff all day long.

Also, it’s important to start your workouts hydrated and stay that way. Water acts as a lubricant in your joints, helps prevent cramping and allows you to perform at your best.

Remember, though, that overhydration is no joke, either. When rehydrating post-workout, take it slow. If you drink too much water too quickly, you throw off the balance of electrolytes in your body and run the risk of water intoxication. I came home from an intense workout one afternoon, drank too much too fast and felt so sick I could hardly move for hours — don’t make that mistake.

3. Recovery is essential to the rest of your regimen.

Proper rest and recovery is essential to your overall health and wellness — don't work out every single day.

If you feel like you can keep going and going, that’s great, but don’t do it. It’s a gross overgeneralization for anyone to suggest working out “every day.” Your body needs time to recover, and taking days off to rest makes you smart, not lazy.

Along with rest days, getting truly good sleep — every night, not just on weekends — is essential. Bedtimes are important for grownups, too. In addition to its numerous long-term health risks, sleep deprivation will impact your workouts by slowing your reaction time, hiking your stress levels and increasing your risk of injury.

4. All of this is connected.

None of these things is able to stand on its own — for instance, it’s counterproductive to sacrifice sleep to get up early and work out. The brilliant part of this, though, is that it will help you find balance, whether you’re trying or not: you’ll sleep better when you start working out; you’ll naturally drink more water; and you’ll develop better self-control, which will lead to more success with a healthy diet.

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Many of these are topics that I will delve into more deeply in the future. I’m not a trained expert, so oftentimes I’ll interview folks around town who are. I’m just a Lawrence resident who — through trial and plenty of error — has come to appreciate the myriad physical and mental benefits of a healthier, more active lifestyle. It’s revitalized my whole outlook on life.

I’ve had to search for a lot of answers on my own, and now I have an opportunity to help people in this community find answers to their own questions on topics of health and fitness. I want to learn — and write — about everything from abdominal workouts to zucchini’s many nutrients.

Let me know what you’re curious about in the world of health and wellness in Lawrence, and I’ll do my best to deliver you answers … even when that means stepping into a -130 F chamber of liquid nitrogen at the new cryospa in town. I’ll tell you all about that next week.