If you are looking to improve your fitness levels this year but the prospect of an intensive training regime seems overwhelming, start with a simple walk
One step at a time: catch a treadmill to fitness
When Gerson Castaneda moved to Abu Dhabi three years ago, at the age of 41, things were at an all-time low in his personal life. The Venezualan-born engineer was overweight, so out of shape that he couldn’t walk for prolonged periods, and very unhappy. He hadn’t done anything active since playing football in his early 20s. “At that time, I was in a life-changing and heartbreaking reality, because I got divorced when I came here,” he says.
“But instead of allowing the sadness in my life to take over, I decided to improve the quality of my life and focus on my health.” These days, Castaneda is about as fit as they come, having dropped 20 kilograms to a trim 65kg. And he does between five and six CrossFit workouts a week at the Abu Dhabi warehouse gym MProve Fitness.
So how did he get from there to here? How did he accomplish the one thing that so many overweight people dream of, but ultimately fail at? Well, first off, he started walking, on a treadmill, for just half an hour at a time. “Cardio is the best way to burn fat,” he says. “That was the reason I focused on the treadmill.”
Those who are overweight, and dream of getting healthy and in shape in 2018, may believe they need a complicated regime that includes a personal trainer and lots of gruelling classes. But if you ask the experts, the people who have been there and who have successfully kept weight off for years, the truth is that it doesn’t have to be complicated at all. In fact, it turns out that just putting one foot in front of the other can be one of the best courses to improved fitness.
When an overweight PhD student and fan of The Howard Stern Show called the American radio host earlier this autumn, the bold-talking, 63-year-old Stern – who is a long-time advocate of disciplined eating and exercise, and has millions of listeners – gave it to him straight. “Do a lot of walking,” he told the frustrated 24-year-old. “You’re too fat to run. Work up to about an hour a day.”
Cassey Ho, the American celebrity trainer behind the website and app Blogilates, who visited the UAE during the recent Dubai Fitness Challenge, says people need to remember that any significant weight loss is going to take time. “I think, first of all, people need to not feel so guilty about it,” she says. “Just know where you are, be aware of it, and aware there’s a future, there’s change, there’s potential. And so the key is to start a little bit at a time; even if it’s just walking every day; it makes such a big difference.”
The Australian celebrity trainer Kayla Itsines agrees that starting out slowly is a great way to boost confidence and to avoid self-sabotage. “It’s something as simple as just going for a walk,” she says. “People put too much pressure on themselves when they want to start working out.” When Itsines has clients who have never worked out before, she starts them out walking on the treadmill for at least three months, getting them to compare how they feel about their bodies and minds at the end, versus the beginning. “I love the comparisons,” she says. “They feel better, they are healthier and happier and more confident, and it’s good to have that comparison.”
Sylvie Eberena, a single mother of four who is also a trainer and fitness blogger in Dubai, is opposed to the “eat less, train more” philosophy that informs so much of personal training today. “It is important to keep in mind that we can never out-train a bad diet, and that dietary and lifestyle changes are much more beneficial,” she advises.
She argues there are many more reasons why people become heavily overweight than poor diet and lack of physical activity. “There is growing evidence that multiple factors such as stress, food allergies, lack of sleep or hormonal disorders must be taken into consideration when aiming for fat loss,” she explains.
The obese can be insulin-resistant, which alters the way the body functions, increasing hunger and decreasing satiety. Another issue is high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can increase hunger, cravings and fatigue, as well as fuel hormonal disorders and fat storage, especially in the abdominal area.
So when setting out to lose weight, Eberena believes that it is more important to eat smarter and stay active, without necessarily focusing on intensive training. She advocates cutting down on carbohydrates and sugar, and of boosting protein, fibre and high-quality fat to reduce insulin secretions, hunger and cravings.
“The only way to succeed in addressing obesity is to understand all the specificities of this condition, and implement changes that are appropriate and sustainable,” she says. “It takes patience, practice, constant positive self-talk and detachment from preconceived and guilt-inducing ideas.”
She believes an overhauled diet paired with a “slow-paced walk, meditation or playing” can be as effective as a more strenuous fitness routine. Eberena also warns that some medium-intensity, long-duration efforts, such as running or cycling, can increase hunger and cravings, and even exacerbate hormonal disorders – a condition known as “chronic cardio”.
“Added to the fact that overweight people already struggle with low levels of energy, it can be very challenging and counterproductive to commit to an exhausting fitness routine,” she says. “By putting too much pressure on themselves and getting involved in a routine that is not sustainable over the medium to long-term, people can compromise their efforts and eventually give up.”
Positive self-talk is also important, says Eberena, and that is something that was and is a big part of Castaneda’s success. He calls it his “3-D” philosophy: keeping lots of discipline, devotion and desire in his life.
Back when Castaneda was just starting out, he also added strength moves – at first he could only do three push-ups and five squats – then started switching things up on the stationary bike and elliptical. After six months, he tried a CrossFit class, finishing strong and in good time. Five squats have become 50, three push-ups are now 25, and 30 minutes on the treadmill is now a 10-kilometre run. Two years ago, he completed a 5km Spartan Race and was on a team that completed the Desert Warrior Challenge.
Lately he’s enjoyed noticing other members of his gym trying to beat his workout-of-the-day scores. “I’m really proud of this,” he says. In addition to setting a good example for his 11-year-old daughter, Daniela, he has another big goal in mind: to compete in the CrossFit Games by the time he is 50.
And for anyone who might be where he was three years ago, Castaneda offers this simple piece of advice: “Mentally, it’s all about discipline. Focus on what you want.”