Fargo fit small.

Ross's big 5.

My personal dumb choices list.

Like many people, I've tried all kinds of fitness routines over the years. And failed at a lot of them. I've also followed all sorts of fitness fables and fallacies. And all have failed me. From all the dumb ideas I've tried and poor presumptions I've made, I've come up with a list of the top five. Just in time for new year's resolutions!

Number 1

Mistaking health for fitness.

We've read it everywhere, and from some pretty high-up authors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no less, says you can reap health benefits by accumulating only a half hour of modest physical activity a day. It's so simple! Walk a few stairs. Park farther from the office. Try some toe touches during coffee breaks. Fitness made easy!

Well, not quite. I tried adding a few extra moves to my day. It did nothing for my growing girth. The reason, I discovered, is that this official advice is misleading. Note: health benefits, NOT fitness. The CDC reasoned that about two-thirds of Americans live lives of my cat, sprawling motionless like roadkill on the easy chair for about 22 hours day. Any, ANY movement could have health benefits.

"Exercise lite," as the American College of Sports Medicine calls it, is good for sedentary folk. That is, most of us: only 10 to 15 percent of Americans actually exercise vigorously three times a week (American Council on Exercise, Personal Trainer Manual, 328). That means for most of us, anything is better than zilch, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in desperation, perceived that people didn't exercise because it sounded too hard. So they made it look sorta easy.

Exercise lite does statistically lower risks of sedentary diseases. But it doesn't do much for fitness, defined as increased strength and aerobic ability. That is, the ability to do physical work, or to simply get through your day free from fatigue and nagging pains. And, alas, it doesn't do much to shrink the spare food tube around your middle.

Number 2

Mistaking exercise for exercise.

I used to be a regular swimmer. I swam three miles a week. It's great exercise, swimming. But for me, I still was gaining weight. So I moved to aerobics. I did step class three times a week. But I still gained weight. So I added some weight machines. I still gained weight. I was now up to 174, from a high school weight of 157.

Maybe this doesn't sound too bad, only 17 pounds. But my BMI had tipped into the overweight range. And most of the weight went right where it always goes in guys: a nice thick wrapping around the tum-tum. Worse to me was that even size 36 trousers started to feel tight. I once wore 33. If you're in denial about your weight gain, try shopping for pants, right?

So many of the mass media's exercise how-tos exhort folk to just jump on the treadmill and start walking. Or the stair climber. Or the cycle, the elliptical, the track. And we do! I go to the gym, I see the same people, every time, on the same ol' treadmill, walking or climbing the same hour while reading magazines or watching TV--maybe even the same programs. Define drudgery for me? I know; I've been there.

Or maybe the lifters work a five-pound dumbbell for about 150 reps while chatting with the floor staff.

And we wonder why we can't lose weight or build muscle.

What I didn't realize then was how the body cleverly reacts to our attempts to change it. That attempt might be strapping on roller blades, raking fall leaves, digging out peonies or joining an exercise program. Your body is shocked! Whoa, This is not same old. And It's not something you're just thinking about, talking about--you're actually moving differently. The body is literally forced to adapt to the new pattern of movement.

And that's hard. Hence you feel really sore and stiff a day or two later, and maybe the first few times it seems like hell to get back to that new exercise.

Our bodies are lazy. Yeah, I know, it tells us it would really prefer to pork out on deep-fried bloomin' onions at the bar. But it's also lazy on a cellular level. Or we might want to sound more clinical, and call it efficient. It very sensibly does not put energy into systems it does not expect to use much. For example, if you seldom use your biceps, the command center says, well, no need to shore up those unused guns, let's conserve energy.

That sounds sensible, but on the grand scale of your multi-billion community of cells, it's not. It's what encourages your muscles to atrophy, your heart to weaken, your arteries to stiffen, and your hips and knees to groan when you ask them merely to take you from the Lazyboy recliner in search of a Coke.

In fact, dozens of studies show steady-state exercise--that's that hour on the treadmill stuff--does little for weight loss or metabolic adaption (Miller et al., International Journal of Obesity, 2007). It might work great at first, because at first, it's new and shocking! After that, to our bodies, it's just...meh. If nothing changes, nothing changes.

We need to give ourselves a good slap--on the cellular level, that is. High intensity training is the key. We ask that our body--really we DEMAND that our body respond to unfamiliar intensity. Only in bombarding our bodies with new and fresh routines will most of us see a greater response in lower fat and higher aerobic or strength fitness.

We do this by taking that ol' treadmill and punching the grade up to 10 percent, the speed to 10 mph, and hanging on as long as you can. No holding the railings, please. That should be no more than a minute, maybe less. Rest. Do it again. Do it six, seven, eight times. Then quit. We're done with the workout. Don't waste any more time.

When we're lifting weights, we lift no more than 12 repetitions, and no more than a minute and a half. But when we reach the last few reps they should be so hard we can barely pull that weight with decent form and limited expletives. Stop when you can't do anymore--when you literally CANNOT do one more rep.

That is the only way to call on the fast-twitch muscles that give us the growth and strength we're looking for. (European Journal of Physiology, August 2004).

Hey, I'm not saying this kind of exercise is a snap, despite the gym franchise going by that hopeful name. It's hard. So now that I know this stuff, do I actually do this kind of high-intensity interval routine? Well, somewhat. But we don't have to go to extremes to get some benefit. Just a couple sprints during jogging, or two or three bouts of intense exercises during aerobics helps a lot to remind my body not to get complacent.

Number 3

Expecting "six-pack abs."

What do we want from exercise? Well.... Good health...sure. We're supposed to say that. But really, guys? You know you want it: you want to look like a Chippendale.

Well, I did, anyway. At first I kicked butt on the crunch routines. Now most of us have heard the old saw, "spot reducing doesn't work." Yes, and no. A lot of core work does build stronger abs. They would look pretty good, actually. If it wasn't for that big slab of lard covering them.

To uncover those great abs, we have to lose that fat nearly all of us have around the abdomen, at least to some extent. And to do that, we need intense weights to kick up the metabolism, intense aerobics to kick down the fat, and a careful diet to avoid undoing our efforts.

But you say you've done all that, and still nothing got ripped but your Under Armours? Yeah, me too. But let's see what that prescription above REALLY means.

A few years ago at the gym, a passing trainer asked how it was doing. "Working on that six-pack!" I volunteered. "You want to pop those abs, really?" he responded. "Well, let me tell you two things. One, you need to get down to about 10 percent body fat. Two, you need good genes."

Ten percent body fat. What is 10 percent body fat? To reach 10 percent, you have to seriously consider your diet. And I mean seriously: no doughnuts, no cookies, no pie, no bagels, no chips, no fries, no gut-bombs, no bloomin' onions and--this will be the final straw for some--no alcohol. Seven calories a gram, doncha' know. Instead, lots of veg and lean meats. Go ahead on the raw eggs, like Rocky, but give the yokes to the dog.

Most of us who already think we eat a pretty healthy diet--and we may be right--still don't eat a diet that will allow us to reach that fat percentage. Body builders will tell you their hobby is 80 percent diet.

So I worked hard enough to test at 14.7 percent body fat. I looked pretty okay. But I saw no washboard emerging from environs of the belly button.

Let's say for the sake of discussion that you do manage to reach that fat percentage, and you do work to make the abs strong and hard. Unless you are genetically lucky enough to have abdominals fairly near the skin, they still won't show--no way, no how. Some athletes of superb fitness still don't always have washboard abs, just as some people will never be able to train competitively for a perfect physique. They just don't have the genetic raw material. I also would like hair on my head. Ain't gonna happen.

If this makes you sad, take heart: check out Michelangelo's "David." The best physique in history, hands down. Except he didn't have perfect six-pack abs.

Number 4

Making an entire workout plan out of cardio.

Used to be, fitness experts thought this was the best idea. In the 1970s and 1980s, aerobics was the hot ticket. Few thought about resistance work, that is, weightlifting. (American Council on Exercise, Personal Trainers Manual, p. 328).

We now realize just how wrong we were. At least, some people do--the fitness experts and trainers. The public, not so much. I didn't. Weightlifting was for the beefy guys who grunted in a windowless room filled with clanging heavy metal that could have doubled for a medieval torture chamber. So it seemed.

Today the advice is different: weight training is absolutely necessary to everyday fitness. But why it's necessary is not as obvious as people might think.

It is true that when we weight train, we gain the strength to lift more pounds with less effort throughout the day. That includes even the legs, as we walk. Consider that when it takes less effort for every step, and we take a few thousand of them each day, we will be less tired by evening. Add some usual jobs like shoveling the snow, mowing the lawn, digging the dirt or scooting kids around and we see just how useful it is to easily lift that 25-pound plate instead of straining with the fivers.

But I found out weight training works on levels less obvious. Surprise! Strength training is cardio training. Studies in a variety of journals, including Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise and the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, showed good strength training produces better aerobic fitness and lower blood pressure (reported in On Fitness, May-June 2009, p. 46).

Because trainers usually recommend cardio training for weight reduction, a link between cardio health and weight training might suggest lifting can help people lose weight. And it does. Muscles burn more calories than fat, even when they aren't being used, a lot more. Bigger muscles=more calories expended just watching television.

Ever seen the commercials? "Lose weight watching TV!" Well, you can!

But there's more. Muscle and bone are linked. Like I have to tell you that, duh. Tendons hold the muscle to the bones, and the joints flex based on muscles pulling or pushing, a series of pulleys.

Weak muscles strain to handle weight. When they are called on to do demanding chores, they handle the stress badly. What stress they can't handle is transferred to the bones and cartilage where the articulation occurs. That is, to the joints. So muscles protect joints. Want strong joints that will serve you through a pain-free lifetime? Well, we can't train them directly. But we can train our muscles to protect our joints and give them an extra chance to avoid the orthopedic surgeon.

People who like one kind of exercise sometimes believe anything worth doing is worth doing compulsively. Runners, case in point. Research shows 70 to 80 percent of runners suffer some injury during a year of distance work. Many of those are injuries to joints based on inadequate muscle development, or muscle unbalance. Fitness trainers recommend folks who dearly love a single sport still add weight work and cross-training to their program. This is the best assurance that they will be able to do their sport without fair risk of overuse injury that sometimes sidelines them for good. It also gives them more complete fitness.

Number 5

Thinking if you exercise you can eat anything.

The August 17, 2009, issue of Time fairly shocked the fitness training industry with its lead article, "The Myth About Exercise." For good reason. It themed the statement as summed up by an exercise researcher from Louisiana State University, who said, "In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless." (p. 14).

Wow, that's fantastic news for those of us who find a regular exercise routine to fall anywhere between nuisance and torture. Heck, doesn't matter anyway! Never mind that weighty stack of research saying it does.

The thing was, Time's premise wasn't exactly wrong. I know, because I'm an example. It's not physiology. It's psychology. We think that if we exercise, we can eat more. Just a wee extra slice of that pizza. Just one donut. Just a second (or third, or fourth) brew-ski. Hey, it's only light beer!

What's hard for me to believe is that even small morsels of calorie-dense food add up, and fast. We know donuts and pizza are fattening. Beer is famous. But that single, little Lindt chocolate truffle can't hurt, can it? Better check: it lists at 70 calories. One Oreo cookie? 52 calories. Bet you don't know how many calories, one, ONE, tortilla chip has. 25. 10 for a single potato chip. One teensy mint nougat from the candy dish? 20. (But who has just one?) The times you tasted your soup for adequate salt, or your dessert bars to make sure they were done? A hundred calories plus.

Like my impulse buys at the mall, these little dainties add up, and work to cancel out exercise. Can we eat more if we exercise? To this extent: we can eat a little more and not gain weight. But we can't eat whatever.

In my case, I tried cutting out just one thing, the York Mint Pattie I snacked on every day after lunch. Actually, mint patties are low-fat candy bars, 140 calories instead of the usually 240 for regular bars.

But one crummy mint pattie? In a year, I'd lost three pounds. Seriously, I did nothing else differently.

Oh, and by the way, if you take a careful look at the Time article, you might notice something else. The author's self-described exercise regime apparently consisted exclusively of steady-state cardio done at moderate intensity. What does it take to lose the gut? See Note Two above.


Those are my five biggies. Now here are my five smallies.

1. Not putting exercise at the top of my list of things to do.

I struggle to remember this. Sure, we can skip for a sick kid or important meeting occasionally. But we must put exercise first in our lives, or we'll never establish a routine that we can live with through thick and thin.

2. Pushing through the pain to look, um, like Brett Favre?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is what fitness trainers call the pain and stiffness we feel a day or two after exercise. That's okay, if mildly annoying. It shows we did, indeed, surprise our bodies and called on them to adapt. But a sharp pain while exercising, or dull pain that gets worse with exercise, needs to be tended to. Overuse injuries more often than not launch the death spiral to an exercise program: it hurts, so I don't exercise, and then it hurts more, so I really don't want to exercise, then, pretty soon, hello, couch-dude! So far I've been sorta lucky on this one, but as everyone knows, I can hardly be accused of overtraining.

3. Throwing yourself into a new routine, and limping around in pain for a week after.

Unless you're so desperate to be on TV that you are willing to suffer the Jillian Michaels drill-sergeant style of gym-based brutality, take it easy at first. Otherwise sure as the statistics bear out, you'll be back on the couch within a couple months. I also keep forgetting that the body responds best to progressive training. And I regret it.

4. Never taking a rest.

Some gym rats are like Americans and pro football games: if a little is good, more is better. The body does not grow in strength or aerobic fitness while we are exercising. It grows while we are resting. We need to take a day off a week, we need to rest between sets of intense exertion, and we need to avoid weight training more than every other day.

5. Medicating with pills first, and exercise last.

Many of us who feel nagging pain or other vague symptoms make an appointment with the doctor. That's okay. Yet often these conditions are hard to diagnose and chronic, and most of the time the doctor does what you expect her to: she prescribes a pill. But that might be our last resort. Try exercise first. Give it a chance for a month or two. If that doesn't work, you might need the pill. But I'll bet you won't.