While I had planned for a break in my exercise routine during the Africa trip, unexpected circumstances required a more holistic approach to wellness upon my return. Due to my lifelong fight with obesity, rapidly returning to my (mostly) healthy lifestyle was of paramount importance following the break. As I worked through a surprisingly difficult recovery period, I thought that sharing some detail on my project may be helpful for folks who are either planning for a break from or contemplating a return to a healthier lifestyle. As always, these tips are presented with the caveat that wellness is intensely personal (your mileage may vary) and only for the purpose of (hopefully) helping others in their fitness journey.
I knew that I would likely have no access to fitness equipment while in Zambia but, as I do for all my trips, I dutifully packed my running gear, figuring I could get out at first light and pound out a few miles before the Team mustered for the day’s activities. This fanciful notion was quickly dispelled by what I observed on the ride in from the airport – everyone in Lusaka lives behind wall fences, barbed wire, guards, etc. There would be no running during the week we were there, and especially no venturing out by myself in the dark. So, I was officially on hiatus from serious exercise.
I had also expected to be diverted from my (generally) healthy diet and had even given myself permission to take a week off from the calorie diary. Heck, in preparing for the trip, I was more concerned about making sure I had access to a sufficient quantity of food than to its statistical components. It turned out that my fears of scarcity also were wrong: food is literally everywhere in Zambia.
I quickly realized, however, that quality – as in food safety – was the nutritional issue to be concerned about. The lack of water sanitation means you can’t eat fruits and vegetables that have been washed under the tap. Worries about inspection and distribution processes ruled out fish for me and caused me to generally shy away from meat and from eating at non-chain restaurants (on the rare occasions when I did eat meat, I made sure it had been cooked to oblivion). The implication: I felt like I ate a week’s worth of processed food every day.
As an obesity survivor, the thought of taking a week off from healthy living is very uncomfortable, so I had prepared by ramping my fitness level up to peak conditioning before the trip, paying particular attention to maximizing muscle tone through increased resistance training and protein intake. As a result, despite the unplanned break from running, atrophy was minimal and, when I re-started my fitness program, “muscle memory” kicked in pretty quickly to aid in endurance. However, the diet surprise and an overall high level of toxicity from the anti-malarial drugs, processed foods, sleep aids, etc. (and, ok, a couple of glasses of wine on that 17-hr flight back), also heavily influenced my “return to normal” week-long wellness project, which ended up focusing on:
1. Cardio, cardio, and more cardio: lots of cleansing sweat (don’t worry, I wiped down the machines afterwards) produced through a mix of different equipment to ensure participation from both upper and lower body muscle groups. Given my focus on purification, the component exercises were brief and of high intensity rather than in extended burn periods.
2. Good, basic nutrition and rest: lots of lean proteins, vegetables, and water; complex carbs in moderation; yogurt, flax seeds, etc., to return to a normal digestive “rhythm;” still holding back on fish and other potentially toxic foods until I feel completely cleansed. Also, I’ve taken sleep whenever I needed it (who cares what “they” think about a rejuvenating 20-minute nap in the mid-afternoon?) and re-instituted good disciplines like the food diary.
3. Measured training ramp: After a couple of days of the above, it was time to resume strength training and longer-burn cardio. For my first resistance session, I backed off the previous weight settings slightly and chose a cardio-cross routine from MTM that included exercises of muscle groups pretty much from head-to-toe, but working only one set of twelve repetitions each, with minimal rest between sets. This workout was tiring but not exhausting, and it set the stage for a later return to more intense strength training by “waking up” the muscles but without causing soreness. Finally, I capped the week with a long run, which built upon all the elements of the cycle and set the stage for resuming a normal routine after a proper rest period.
If you’ve taken a break from the healthy lifestyle – for whatever reason – hopefully this post will help you find your way back into the game. Wellness is exceedingly personal, so you will have to tailor your approach to what works for you, but do jump back in as soon as you can. We all need a platform from which to sing, and the body is the most fundamental of all platforms.
Thanks as always for reading and especially for the comments, forwards, re-tweets, etc. Take care.