ESSENTIAL QUESTION (EQ): What lessons did Mr. Vo learn about getting in shape and staying in shape? Feel free to annotate this post. Please take notes in Cornell format.
For most of my life, I’ve been overweight. I have never not had a belly. My tummy and I would be best friends if not for the fact that I intensely hate it. It’s like a bad ex-girlfriend, except it’s not really an “ex” because IT WON’T F*CKING LEAVE! *Ahem*. Pardon me. Fighting against my belly and weight has been one of the longest continuing struggles of my life. But, I think I’ve finally figured the killing stroke that’ll get rid of my “un-ex”, or at least send it on vacation.
My plan has been 12 years in the making. It all started when I was training at a jiu jitsu school called Combined Martial Science in Chino, CA back in 2006. I’ve been a student of the martial arts since I was 8 years old. Though martial arts training can get you into really good shape, I had never really pushed myself very hard physically. One day during the summer of 2006, I was speaking to a nice guy named Andrew, one of my training partners at Combined Martial Science, about why I kept getting my ass kicked in sparring. He told me I had to just keep working at it, and then said something that I’ll never forget: “The harder you work, the easier it gets.” For whatever reason, what he said made sense to me. So, I did what he told me. I worked harder. I’d go in for 4 hours of training (2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the evening) in jiu jitsu and kickboxing. I even passed out once from the intensity of conditioning. But I started to kick ass instead of getting beat down in sparring. I dropped 16 pounds in 3 months. Though I was in the best shape I had ever been in at the time, I hit a plateau. The pounds stopped coming off and my un-ex was still with me. Then, the school year started back up again. I got lazy. I fell out of shape. And I stayed that way for 2 years.
Fast forward to the summer of 2008. My wife and I had planned a tour of Italy. The previous summer, we toured China. I didn’t enjoy it so much due to the heat, humidity, and poor physical fitness. I really wanted to be in shape for the Italy trip so I could enjoy the miles of walking and sightseeing. I started the 4 hours of training up again. Unfortunately, I injured my back earlier in the year, so doing jiu jitsu wasn’t an option. I switched things up a bit and attended the cardio kickboxing classes at Combined Martial Science. The studio had a full gym so I took up riding the Schwinn Airdyne stationary bike. I passed out once again from the intensity of the workouts. I slimmed down quite a bit and went to Italy looking pretty good, but my un-ex ended up coming with us. I just couldn’t shake it.
The school year started up again in August and my physical fitness declined some, but I still managed to keep up with it a bit at a new martial arts school called Kali Method until the summer of 2009. My first child, my son, was born that June. As he grew over the next 4 years, so did my un-ex. You parents out there know what it’s like to try to be damn good at your career, damn good as a spouse, and damn good as a father (or mother). Being the best science teacher at my site (not to toot my own horn, but WOOT, WOOT!), being a supportive husband, and caring for my son left very little room for martial arts, ergo physical fitness, in my life. I realized the martial arts was the only path I had ever known to being fit.
Fast forward 3 years later to the summer of 2013. My second child, my daughter, had just turned 1 year old. With two children to care for, while still trying to be a kick-ass teacher and husband, my visits to Kali Method were too infrequent to keep me in shape. As a result, I had ballooned to 185 lbs. My un-ex was more present than it had ever been. I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. Then during Labor Day weekend, I got a really bad cold that took away my appetite. I forced myself to eat grapes and fruits, and drink water and hot tea so I had energy to combat the virus.
When I completely recovered, I discovered I had lost several pounds. Eating fruits and drinking water or tea gave me energy, made me full, and helped me drop some weight, so I decided to keep the “diet”. I had never really dieted before. I love food too much. Pizza, fried chicken, burgers. YUM! However, for the next several months all I would eat (on most days) was grapes for breakfast, grapes for lunch, and a small dinner. It worked. I had stumbled upon a new way for me to lose weight. By the time December came, I was down to 165 lbs. To be clear, I lost about 20 lbs by dieting alone. I did absolutely no strenuous exercises at all. What this meant was that although I was lighter, I was still quite flabby.
Christmas of 2013 came. I watched as my brother proposed to his girlfriend. They set the wedding date for 6 months later. I was to be the best man. I wanted to look good for the wedding, so it was time to get back into shape. I needed a plan. Just before January 2014, I was at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, watching late night TV after my kids had fallen asleep. I happened across a paid advertisement for Focus T25! The exercise program promised great workouts that each lasted just 25 minutes. I was never big on “exercising”, but for some reason, T25 appealed to me. So, I got my hands on it and followed the program. By June, I was in excellent health. I had gotten down to 150 lbs when I put on my tux and performed my duties as best man for my brother’s wedding. I looked and felt awesome, but THE UN-EX STILL WOULDN’T F*CKING LEAVE!
T25 worked so well for me that I did each of its workout cycles over and over and over again for a year. I followed the plan, but I still didn’t have my 6-pack. Plus, I got boooooooored. I knew I needed to find a new form of exercise before I slipped back to my old ways. Fortuitously, Doug Gage, Running Club Advisor and math teacher extraordinaire at my school, wanted to coach basketball and asked if someone could take over Running Club for him. I thought, “This is new.” I had avoided running for decades due to a knee problem I incurred as a teenager. But that was a looooooong time ago. I may have still been carrying around the un-ex, but I was actually in pretty good shape. I was curious to see if I could handle running. So, I went up to Doug and told him I’d take our students out for their runs. I just about died on the very first run. The kids wanted to do a 2-mile jaunt from the school, out to Sierra Ave, and back again. The young, energetic 12- and 13-year-olds passed me up with ease. I hadn’t even run 1 mile before I had to slow down and walk. I could see the kids reach Sierra Ave in the distance, and then turn back the way they came towards me. We all had to be back before the late bus arrived at 3:50PM so the kids could go home, and thus I never made it to Sierra. But that lit a forest fire under my butt! I had found a new challenge–to be able to reach Sierra and return to school by 3:50PM, and show these young whipper-snappers that I could give them a run for their money. I was consumed by the challenge. I started running early in the mornings before work, and then again in the afternoons with the students. I signed up for a half marathon with my niece for the next summer, which forced me to sign up for 5K and 10K runs as practice/training for the months leading up to the half marathon. I constantly tried to keep up with another teacher who joined the club, the dazzling Amanda Isas Martinez (I never tied with or beat her because her superpower, besides teaching art, was running marathons). By the end of the school year, I was routinely getting to Sierra Ave and back with time to spare. I then ran the half marathon on June 19, 2016. It took me a little over 3 hours, but I blame my slow time on the 100ºF heat (It ended up being 111ºF that day). Regretfully, you can still kind of see the un-ex in the picture, even though I had the best endurance of my life.
I ran over 200 miles that year, but I soon got bored, probably because it was pretty much the only exercise I did for almost 10 months, and I had achieved all the goals I had set for myself. Plus, the following school year was the most difficult one I had ever had. Lots of challenging students and overly aggressive parents. I fell out of shape again (though I was still with Running Club), and rocketed back up to 180 lbs. Angry with myself for falling off the wagon, I jumped back on in the summer of 2017. I was still bored with running, so I took up weightlifting because I had recently read that strength training burned more calories than cardio. For motivation, I challenged my nephew to see which of us would look the best by Thanksgiving. This 20-something-year-old young man was already a physical specimen, so I figured I’d show him what an old man could do. I started taking pre-workout supplements to get me through the lifting sessions of my bodybuilding program, Body Beast. They made me feel like Superman. The supplements combined with the thought of possibly putting a young man to shame motivated me to work out at 5:30AM 6 days a week. I ended up winning the competition. The un-ex was still with me, but I felt like I was more closer to getting rid of it than I had ever been before.
A reality check came a few weeks later in the form of a bad reaction to the supplements. On December 13, 2017, I took my pre-workout and did my “Leg Day” exercises at 5:30AM as usual. After the workout was done and I had showered, my heart was still beating quickly as if I was still exercising. I couldn’t catch my breath and I got very dizzy. My heart eventually slowed, but it took almost an hour. I spent most of the rest of the day feeling dizzy. The evening’s entertainment included exhaustion and multiple trips to the toilet to vomit. Thankfully, the symptoms abated by the early afternoon of the next day. I think it was the combination of the low carb diet I was on, and the pre-workout formula that just threw my body out of whack.
And the answer to the EQ is….
After years of trying to take control of my uncooperative body and rid myself of the un-ex I have learned the following lessons:
- You must diversify your workouts. It’s important to set up routines, but routines lead to repetition, and repetition over long periods leads to boredom. Boredom leads to apathy. Apathy leads to laziness. The un-ex and laziness are an insidious, conniving pair.
- Unless you’re a professional athlete (or working at becoming one), you can’t stay in shape all the time. Us regular folk have full-time jobs (sometimes more than one), spouses, kids, pets. Life will sometimes overwhelm you, and you have to take a break. Don’t feel bad about it. Just know that you shouldn’t wait too long before getting back in shape, and that it’ll suck for a little while before you get back to your old fit self again.
- Keep setting goals. I’ve noticed that having something to work towards keeps me focused. I wanted to stop getting beat up in jiu jitsu so I set a goal to train harder, and I stopped getting beat up. I wanted to be fit for Italy, so I trained harder, and I was fit. I wanted to look good for my brother’s wedding, so I trained hard, and I looked good for the wedding. I wanted to run a half marathon, so I trained hard, and I ran the half marathon. I wanted to beat my nephew in a bodybuilding competition, so I trained hard, and I beat my nephew. You get the picture. But, once I achieved my goals, I would soon fall out of shape. I’ve learned that, for me, I have to keep setting fitness goals, one right after the other. My current goal is to beat my other nephew in a bodybuilding competition on December 25, 2018. After that, I have to continue working out because I want to look good for my 40th birthday on April 7, 2019. I’ll think of another goal before I turn 40.
- You have to be mentally ready to be in shape. If you’ve never had the body you’ve always wanted, then you need to know that however hard you think it will be to get it, it’s actually going to be about 10 times more difficult. I worked out to the point of passing out. I trained to grapple for 2 hours almost non-stop. I conditioned myself to run 13.1 miles without rest. All this, and I still have a belly. Every time I’ve improved my physical fitness, I did it by trying something new that I wasn’t willing to do before. Martial arts had been the only form of exercise I would do for years. When it was no longer an option, I had to force myself to try other activities like riding the Airdyne bike, dieting, T25, running, and Body Beast. I used to tell my students in Running Club every time we were about to run uphill or do exhaustive, nausea-inducing interval training, “It sucks. It hate it. Let’s do it.” I now say the same thing to the kids in my new Active Club. If you want to improve in anything, you have to be willing to suffer and endure the physical and/or mental pain that comes along with it. But there are ways to make the pain more tolerable. I made the stationary bike tolerable to do by listening to music. Dieting is okay because I allow myself a cheat day every week, and believe me, I pig out big time on cheat day. I could do T25 because it’s a short, 25-minute workout. I continue to run (though not as much as before) because it’s quick, inexpensive, and I listen to my tunes. I lift because it makes me buff as hell and I watch TV while I do it. The above help me to get through my workouts, but there is still suffering, so prepare yourself for it.
- Work harder AND smarter. I’ve proven to myself that I’m willing to suffer greatly for my body. I’ve come to understand that in order to get rid of the un-ex I have to be strategic and work wiser. My sister and her husband have been on the keto diet for months now. They’ve both made incredible gains (not of pounds but in loss of fat mass). Inspired by their improvements, I’m currently on a low calorie, low carb diet. I’ve dropped 6 pounds in a little over a week. Also, T25 and Body Beast have only one workout focusing on the abs, which is done only once a week if you follow their schedule. I’m now working on my abs 3 times a week, in addition to running at least twice a week and lifting at least 5 days a week.
So that’s the knowledge I’ve accumulated about physical fitness, and my plan to get rid of the un-ex. I’ll keep you posted on my progress in later posts. Hopefully, I’ll have good news for you. Keep me accountable. If you’re interested in getting in shape, comment away and I’ll help you through it. If you’ve got a better way, comment away and help me through it.