Monday, 29 February 2016

Keeping up with the Cardio-shians (or how to survive a pollution apocalypse) | PART ONE

No, this post is not about Kardashians. But now that I've caught your attention with my creatively catchy title, you may as well proceed to read. This post is about something far less glamorous: it's mostly about how my disposition this winter has not been unlike that of a hibernating bear.

This winter, I felt the debilitating effects of Delhi's pollution more than I've ever perceived before. I don't know if this was because the air was really that much worse than before (according to a study, this was India's most polluted year) or whether my respiratory system was simply refusing to cooperate.

I love getting my fix of outdoor cardiovascular activity. I love the positivity of setting my foot out the door in the morning. I enjoy looping through my favourite parks and tracks, acknowledging familiar faces. I relish the satisfaction of my watch vibrating to tell me that I have traversed yet another kilometre, and the triumph of occasionally learning that it was faster than expected. I chase the serenity of being atop the saddle of my cycle early on a Sunday morning, experiencing the empty roads and taking in the urban landscape at a leisurely pace. I love submerging myself in a pool to experience the meditative effect swimming non-stop till a buzzer tells me my time is up, and then sneakily squeezing in another lap or two before this infraction is observed by the authorities.

This winter, I felt that most of that was snatched away from me (barring the swimming pool experience, which is snatched away every winter). If I tried to run, dust would settle at the back of my throat, making me feel sick and causing a persistent cough. I made my peace with cycling with a mask, but on very cold mornings this was not an option either, because my nose would constantly run, and the air escaping from the mask would cause my glasses to fog up.

Dismayed, on many mornings, I found myself unable to exit my quilt until the point when I would be unacceptably late for work.

In time, I tried to make things a little better, but my absence in the outdoors remained fairly constant. The air outside made it a no-go to exercise outdoors, and the relative safety of the stale air circulated by my air purifier offered some comfort. It was clear that I would have to find my options indoors.

My hatred for gyms (crowds, ill-informed instructors, equipment covered in the sweat of dozens of strangers, narcissistic men trying to elicit looks of admiration, the typically unfriendly gaze of insecure women, inequities in who gets to use what machine for long... the list of reasons for said hatred is endless, and I think I've already made my point) ensured that my indoor workouts would have to be confined at home.

I have been fairly consistent with bodyweight-based strength training exercises over the past year and a half or so, largely to overcome and avoid injuries. But I would always use these exercises to supplement my cardio, regarding them as something of a necessity and not much more. In time, they became a regular part of my weekly routine and I internalized them without giving much thought.

For the first time this winter, these exercises almost completely substituted all conventional cardio activity, or rather, I was getting most of my cardio from these workouts, most of did not involve me leaving the confines of a yoga mat.

At first, just to re-infuse some discipline back in my life, I joined a month of open classes at the wonderful Sivananda Ashram, where I had learnt yoga in the summer of 2013. Yoga doesn't seem like much of a "workout", least of all at Sivananda, where the aim is to keep things slow and relaxed and promptly drop into shavasana (the corpse pose) lest the heart rate go up even moderately. My main motivation to join these classes was just to have a reason to try to get out of bed in the morning, and to exercise without having to expose myself to the deadly air outside.

So I started attending some yoga classes. While others in the class would relax between asanas, I would rush to close any open windows because the air, heavy with particulate matter, would make my nose run. Looking out through the same windows shortly after sunrise, I was sometimes heartened to see a cloud or two in a bluish sky. But by the time the class would end at 8 a.m., the colour of the sky would have reverted to the usual smoggy grey that has become the trademark of the world's most polluted city.

Yoga is amazing. It makes your body flexible, your mind calmer, and unlike all other exercises, it seems to infuse energy into the body rather than deplete it. I could see the positive benefits after just a few classes. Thanks to the awful conditions outdoors, I took the opportunity to re-discover an activity that I loved but had neglected due to the heavy demands on time placed by other athletic activities in my life. I did, however, find it difficult to manage too many classes in the limited time slots for classes provided by the Ashram so I did not renew my membership for another month.

I turned instead to simply focussing on short High Intensity Interval (HIIT) workouts at home comprising a variety of exercises, primarily to strengthen the core and lower body. The past couple of months have also coincided with a very busy period in office, so trying to manage the most in the shortest period of time was key. Depending on the level of intensity, HIIT workouts can make even 20 seconds seem like an eternity.

The great thing about these exercise routines is that they don't need to last more than a few minutes. Most of the HIIT circuits I did lasted not more than 10 or 20 minutes. Their beauty lay in their minimalism - all you need is your body, and a few minutes of time. You can technically roll out of bed and do these exercises while still in your pajamas. I can count several instances where I came home after a late night at work, and managed to wake up with just 10 minutes to spare for exercise, before grabbing breakfast and heading out for an early morning meeting or hearing.

I thought that in the absence of outdoor cardiovascular exercise, not only would my life seem incomplete, but that I would become terribly unfit and gain several kilos.

While it is a well-known fact that strength training provides a fillip to one's metabolism by increasing the body's muscle content and burning calories even while at rest, I didn't think I was possibly doing enough to offset the ill-effects of not doing cardio activities in the dosage that my body was used to getting.

Surprisingly, however, my worst fears didn't come true. My weight remained about the same, and I continued to fuel my massive-as-ever appetite with whatever my heart desired (and I should add that in this respect, I differed from other hibernating bears). My dependence on sugar/dessert/chocolate would probably make many crack addicts blush, but this too continued unabated. I never had to violate my personal mantra of "must eat chocolate everyday".

One of the people in the fitness industry I respect tremendously is Mark Lauren (and not just because it's refreshing to see a fitness figure speak candidly of his beer and ice cream consumption), who advocates a fitness regimen comprised exclusively of bodyweight exercises. Another reason I really appreciate him is his marked departure from most people in the same field, who only seem to want to cater to shallow goals such as a "sexy six pack" or a "bootylicious butt". Mark's book comes with a clear disclaimer 

"You’ll find no rhetorical filler in this book. No “before” photos of people pale and frowning with their glasses on, next to “after” photos of them tanned, smiling, flexing, and sucking their shaved and oiled tummies in. The proof has been before our eyes since man became man. In fact, even before that–why do you think monkeys are pound for pound stronger than humans? (Hint: It’s not because they have Gold’s Gym memberships.)...Your fitness should be dependent on nothing other than yourself.

While reading his book a couple of years ago, I was surprised to read how averse he was to traditional cardiovascular exercise. Mark is very clear that traditional cardio exercises are not the best route to being fitter, and make sense only if you are training for a goal that is based on that particular cardio exercise. He advocates, instead, the "less is more" approach through a set of bodyweight exercises to improve endurance, speed, coordination and flexibility (i.e. REAL benefits, and not some vanity-based crap founded on placing a certain body type on a pedestal). 

Mark is a military man, and he explains his stand here:

"My position on aerobic activity is the same. It should be limited to warm-ups, cool-downs, and active recovery, unless the task you are training for is an aerobic event, in which case you’ll need to perform that specific aerobic task to develop movement proficiency. Performance is task specific- running makes you good at running, the end.

Because my trainee’s “evals” included a 3 mile run, running was necessary, but that was the only reason. Running injuries were the cause of about 40% of our attrition, mostly due to shin splints and knee injuries, and it did nothing to improve their ability to move with 80lbs of gear on their skinny backs. It’s important to note that these were healthy young men that were screened and individually fitted with the latest running shoes.

While reading this book, I couldn't identify with the aversion to traditional cardio exercises; in particular, it discounts for the endorphin release that all athletes engaging in them experience and come to crave. But having dealt with my fair share of running injuries, and also having reaped the benefits of strength training, I can now understand Mark's philosophy a little better.

I guess there is a case to be made for a fitness regimen that relies exclusively on calisthenics, and it's interesting to explore that as a perspective in the cardio-obsessed age we live in.

While I would rather live in conditions that permit me to be outdoors without having to think twice, to be able to pursue these interests for the sake of getting my funzies and not just fitness, strength training too has begun to have a hold on me, not unlike my beloved outdoor activities. While previously I would look upon the endeavour to strengthen my muscles as a necessary chore, over time I have come to find it enjoyable, addictive and satisfying.

Here's hoping to carry on a bit of both, and hoping that there are interventions to improve our environmental conditions so that I don't have to give up on either.


  1. A pleasure, as always, to catch your latest. For the record, I was here before you 'Facebooked' me.
    I have a simpler reason for gyms: 'Guys with six pack abs'.

    Apart from the gym thingy, my 'in-house' running stemmed from a variety of reasons:
    1. Summers: well, that hasn't deterred me earlier. So not just summers. In fact, even indoors I ran with the fans off.
    2. Barefoot obsession: Yes, summer afternoons do restrict that
    3. (Or maybe Prequel to 2): Timings: I had to reach the college where I taught at 8:45 + My Outsourcing shift ended at 1 AM + I had to be home from 6-7 AM for my kiddo's iskool. Beat that!
    4. Availability at home: Sometimes I had to be at home for the maid / repair man / specific courier (thank God mobile phones had been invented or I would never have left home!
    Haven't run indoors since moving to a gated community in 2014.

    I loved my indoor running.
    I was inspired by a facebook post by a lady Vegan athlete in Bangalore, who even has a Facebook page to her recipes, and who's name escapes my elephantine it! Dr. Rashmi Menon. Huge thanks to her.

  2. Excellent post!!! Inspiring as always. I wish I could adopt your strength training regularity but I just can't get enough of the cardio fix!

  3. Nids - It's about finding new obsessions, while continuing with the old ones. You know we always manage! ;)