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Know what you can control to better control your health

Published June 27. 2015 09:00AM

This column has espoused two beliefs for more than 20 years.

Belief #1: What works for me will work for you if and this is a big if you experiment with the practice, recognize how your goals and abilities are different from mine, and adjust the practice to suit your needs.

For instance, I've previously written that I've programmed my body to burn a higher percentage of body fat as fuel during all but all-out exercise by cycling hilly and hard for a minimum of four hours on a minimum of calories. To get my blood sugar level to the point where I burn fatty acids for fuel, I'll only eat a 280-to-415-calorie breakfast three hours before the ride, consume nothing else until I'm riding 45 minutes (about four hours after eating), and then I'll sip from a 125-calorie carb drink but only as needed.

While the benefits of burning a higher percentage of body fat during any physical activity for anyone are obvious, my personal prescription probably isn't for you. So modify it.

A mother of two with less time on her hands and no desire to cycle outdoors might roll out of bed early, slug down some coffee, and attack the treadmill after making the kids' lunches. She could use the first 10 minutes of exercise to acclimate, and then do her equivalent to my "hilly and hard" for 20 to 35 minutes afterwards.

On some days, the hilly and hard segments could be so demanding, that she would need to slow the pace to a walk in between to recover. Other times, she could increase the pace incrementally so that the last few minutes before her cool down is tougher than her finishing kick in a 5k race.

A recent college grad with a cross-country background and a long-enough commute to his job to make early-morning weekday workouts impractical might use my fat-burning formula before the 90-to-120 minute trail runs he does on the weekends.

In either scenario, the body learns to burn a higher percentage of fat during anything but maximal-effort exercise. This not only improves appearance by reducing body fat, but also enhances performance by conserving a more efficient fuel, the glycogen stored in the muscles.

Belief # 2: Some of the best health-and-fitness advice comes from applying concepts intended for other areas of life to health and fitness.

Many of my biggest health-and-fitness breakthroughs, for example, have resulted by understanding the fundamental concepts contained in different philosophies and incorporating them into my life.

Possibly the greatest good that comes from the meditation featured in Far East philosophy is increased overall awareness, something that has allowed me to make subtle adjustments in my eating habits, bicycling rides, weightlifting workouts, and recovery regimen to improve the end result of each.

But the focus of today's column comes from a philosophy far west of the Far East. The Stoic philosophy that began in Greece before the birth of Christ and is skillfully explained by William B. Irvine in his book, A Guide to the Good Life, has served me well. For his purposes, Irvine calls one of the central beliefs espoused by Stoicism as the Trichotomy of Control.

Now don't let the complex-sounding concept turn you off. It's the explanation of a simple observation that the Greek philosopher Epictetus made: "Some things are up to us, and some things are not." Irvine discusses the implication of the quotation this way: "There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control, and things over which we have some but not complete control.

Each of the 'things' we encounter in life will fall into one and only one of these three categories."

Another simple sounding statement? You bet.

That's the beauty of the best philosophy. The most helpful ideas are usually easy to understand.

So one sure-fire way to enhance your health is to consider every potential pitfall to it, determine which of the three categories it falls under, and work around it.

Let's say that stay-at-home mom who started working out on an empty stomach to burn more fat finds herself forced to work part-time because her husband's hours have been cut. That's something over which she has no control, so she really should not stress about it (even though doing so may require constant mental reminders). As a result, she needs most of her early-morning time to do housework.

Now this is something over which she has some but not total control. She can't have a dirty house, but maybe certain tasks once done every week could be done every 10 days or two weeks, creating one morning where she still could work out.

Since her husband is working fewer hours, she could ask him to be in charge of the kids during early mornings on the weekends. That would allow her to follow the former weekday workout routine then giving her a total of three fat-burning workouts.

If her other one or two workouts for the week occur after she's consumed food, so be it.

In short, you never really lose control of a change of circumstance. Recognize what elements you still control and work from there.

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