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Getting Fitter, Smarter




I never expected to enjoy "working out." Gym class was a time for me to hide, run away from projectile objects and get made fun of.  
 
But somehow, as a young adult, the idea to join a gym seemed like fun. "You have to make yourself do this by spending money," I told myself. So I bought a gym bag, gym clothing and a pair of running shoes. Feeling shy, I declined a full tour of the downtown David D. Hunting YMCA and just said, "Sign me up."
 
For the first few weeks, I wandered around aimlessly. Plodding along on an elliptical seemed like a really safe thing to try. Way safer than the pool (I can't swim), and much less intimidating than the free weights. Eventually, I saw a sign that suggested someone who felt lost should ask for an orientation.
 
A friendly Y employee showed me how to use various machines. He told me that form was important, and pointed out supposed tough guys grunting and groaning who weren't getting the most out of the workout. That made me feel better.
 
And then I became obsessed. I started running every day. I quit smoking. I stopped eating fast food. I spent the summer running, hiking, walking long distances, climbing into and over things. I started signing up for athletic events.
 
In an interview about the Veggie Mobile, we talked about some of the other services offered at the Y, including the Human Performance and Personal Training Studio. Always too intimidated to take on a personal trainer before, but mostly confident, we came up with the idea that I would train with a professional for an amount of time and then write about my results. So from November until January, I did.
 
I did not enter into personal training attempting to lose weight, but rather gain muscle. I was not a stranger to exercise, having been a gym member for over a year. So, I wasn't sure quite what to expect, but I was hoping not to embarrass myself.
 
Charlie Williams has been with the YMCA since 2005, when he began as both a wellness coach and part of the general fitness staff. He attended Grand Valley State University, majoring in physical education with an emphasis in fitness. He'd always been athletically inclined and involved in sports, both in high school and college. It was in college that he decided he'd like a career working with the general public.
 
Williams was ACSM-certified as a personal trainer in October of 2010. He is now the lead personal trainer and an ACSM-certified Health Fitness Specialist on a team of 10 employees, and also manages the five-person massage therapy department.
 
The first thing we did as a metabolic test using the New Leaf Metabolic Assessment System. For this test, you both rest and walk/run with a mask that monitors your breathing. Your heart rate is also monitored. The results will provide a person's Anabolic Base, Peak VO2 and Anaerobic Threshold. This basically shows at what heart rate a person is burning fat, and the maximum capacity of an individual's body to use oxygen during a workout. The threshold is where a person is no longer burning any fat, only carbs. "Fat burns twice as slow," Williams says. A goal would be to make the body burn fat for longer.
 
The test shows "how your body burns fuel," Williams simplifies, and indicates to the personal trainer a client's abilities, making the exercise prescription accurate for the individual by establishing appropriate zones to keep one's heart rate in during exercise.
 
Other tests include the BIA (Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis) test. This involves standing on a specialized scale to determine one's body fat percentage and BMI. A Polar Body Age Assessment will test strength and flexibility to determine what age your body seems to be -- an age that could be younger or older than your actual age.
 
With these baselines established, we're now ready to work. As of Nov. 8, I was 25 years old, 5'7 and 116.6 lbs. This puts me at a BMI of 18.3. I have a basal metabolic rate (BMR) of 1310 calories -- this is the amount of calories I burn in a day at rest. I was in what is considered the normal range for the amount of muscle I have in my core, arms and legs for my gender and age.
 
So now begins the challenge: gaining muscle.
 
Every Monday for eight weeks, I meet Williams at 4 p.m. We do a brief warm-up -- usually a manageable five-minute walk on a treadmill -- and then get into strength training. It's important, he tells me, that I follow the exercise prescription he's given me. This includes a cardio program at least four times a week with activity at low, moderate and high-intensity levels. Where my heart rate should be within these levels is determined by the metabolic testing we did at the beginning of this endeavor. On two of these days, I am to do strength training in the form of a total body workout doing at least 8-10 different things. A good strength-training session might include focusing on large muscle groups (back, chest, upper legs), ending with smaller muscles, or "critique training." Our sessions are always strength-training days.
 
There are many things about working out I didn't know. Some days, we'll use a machine. To determine the weight we should be at, Williams finds my maximum ability -- at what weight could I only do one successful rep. Taking a percentage of this number finds your target weight, that is, the weight you should be using to do 12 reps.
 
Other days, we use resistance cables. Sometimes, you'll use a stability ball, and keep your balance by engaging your core, increasing the difficulty of the workout. Sometimes, I think I think I can't complete a set, but Williams is a positive and firm trainer who understands the limits in your head versus the actual limitations of your body.
 
"Variety is big," he says, "but also repetition."

So, sometimes we'll use a rowing machine, or box. Williams teaches multiple ways to work out the same muscle groups. I have my favorites, of course, but this variety helps at peak gym hours when certain machines or spaces are being used.
 
He also encourages clients to workout outdoors -- to jog, swim, cycle, hike, play tennis, take the dog out.
 
It's no secret to me that January and February are busy, but as the Resolutioners get frustrated, the added bustle of the beginning of the year drops off. Williams recommends being patient, and coming up with a long-term plan containing short-term goals. I ask him what are some common mistakes a gym-beginner makes.
 
"Not seeking what the gym is offering," he says. The YMCA, in particular, offers free orientation and several free exercise classes in addition to the testing and personal training a member might pay for. "Some people feel intimidated or shy, but our employees here are willing to help."
 
He adds, "A health professional can set up a detailed plan for you. You might have to invest in it, but these are life-long things. Building a relationship with an employee is huge."
 
He tells me about a client he had who didn't like to work out on the busy third floor, so they stuck to the quieter areas of the gym. Within 4-5 sessions, her confidence had improved enough to use the whole gym.
 
"Confidence change is a big part [of exercise] people don’t understand," Williams says, "boosting your personality in ways you never thought you could."
 
Clients learn the basics of healthy eating, and people who exercise often report sleeping better. Williams says for some, the gym becomes a home away from home.
 
So after two months of planking, pulling, pushing, balancing, lifting, sweating and panting… what do I get? I'm terrified my tests are going to show that I've failed at my goals, despite inherently knowing I feel stronger and doing my best to keep to my exercise program.
 
"You've gained five pounds of muscle," Williams says, looking over the reassessment.
 
Now, I am 122 pounds, 17.3 percent body fat, a BMI of 19.1, with over the average amount of muscle in my arms. So, call me if you need a keg changed, okay?
 
The most interesting change is perhaps the one in my BMR. I now burn an additional 50 calories a day, doing absolutely nothing.
 
If your resolution is one of the three most common goals of losing weight, gaining strength or learning to eat a healthy diet, or if you are an athlete looking to train with an individualized plan based on your abilities, Williams recommends setting up a tour of the facility. "After that," he says, "come in and have a meeting with me. I'll show [a client] what we can do, set some goals and get them set up. I'm that liaison."
 
Personal training is available for individuals or as buddy training. It is also available to non-gym members. An initial metabolic test (with mask) runs $199, but a discount is available with a personal training package. Prices range from $50 member/$65 non-member for one session, to $850 member/$1105 non-member for 20. BIA testing and Polar Body Age Assessment are both available for $15.
 
For more details information, check out the Grand Rapids' YMCA's brand new website.


J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.
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