There are a lot of changes going on in the BRO office these days. Physical changes. It’s like puberty all over again for some of the staff. In our May issue, we told you about a little experiment we were undertaking. Basically, we wanted to see if one month of exercise and diet manipulation would significantly alter our health. Martha Evans went from being a couch potato and social butterfly (lots of beers and dinners out) to working out five days a week. Will Harlan went from running 50 to 80 miles a week to running none. I put a stop to my carnivorous ways and adopted a vegetarian diet, and Chuck Lee went from being an organic food health nut to eating like Elvis Presley. In this second installment of the Mountain Makeover, we dish the dirt on our results and what it was like to change our habits so drastically.
It was on day two of my vegetarian diet that I started dreaming about pork chops. Literally. I woke up in the middle of the night with a disturbing urge to roast a pig. Forty-eight hours without meat and I was already contemplating going back to the dark side. This is nothing unusual for me. I have no will power. One time in college, I decided to fast for a day. I would consume nothing but water for 24 hours. By 9:30am, I decided it was okay if I drank juice. By 11am, I decided it was okay to eat brown rice. Nothing but brown rice and juice—it still sounded good to me. Almost monastic. It was a slippery slope from there. By 2pm I had convinced myself it was perfectly legitimate to eat steak burritos from Taco Bell during my fast. So when I started my portion of the Mountain Makeover, I was convinced I’d be sneaking pork into my barbecue tempeh.“Cheating is an inevitable part of being a fledgling vegetarian,” says Jeremiah Leroy, a friend of mine who hasn’t eaten meat in close to 10 years. (Unless you count that time I applied an overwhelming amount of peer pressure in order to get him to eat a hamburger at a cookout. But that shouldn’t count because he promptly threw the hamburger up.) “All we want is for other people to try going vegetarian. It’s okay to cheat a little at first.” But I didn’t cheat. I had the urges, don’t get me wrong, but aside from one shrimp I snuck onto my plate at a Chinese buffet, I stayed completely vegetarian. After the first week or so, it was actually easy, even liberating. Going vegetarian completely eliminates any decision making process. Forget trying to decide between the pork chops or ribeye at a restaurant. There’s usually only one item on the menu that a veggie can eat, so there’s no heart wrenching deliberation whatsoever. And what about the health benefits? Did I make a dent in my alarmingly high cholesterol and blood pressure? You bet. My cholesterol dropped 30 points, my blood pressure lowered, and I lost 2 percent of body fat and six pounds—and that’s without increasing my exercise. I’m even thinking about adopting the vegetarian’s air of superiority just for the heck of it.
Let’s Get Physical
Martha Evans had no idea what she was getting into when she decided to work out like a sorority girl with low self-confidence. She had never even been to a gym before. Never set foot on a treadmill. Never lifted a dumbbell. “That place is bizarre,” she said after her first week of exercise. “Did you know that people go there just to hang out?” Culture shock is an understatement, but Evans didn’t let the bizarre behavior dissuade her. She was looking for dramatic results as quickly as possible. “There will be a physical difference,” said Tricia Thompson, Evans’ personal trainer at Cheshire Fitness, at the beginning of the experiment. “But you can’t expect to drop 50 pounds in one month. It’s just not healthy.” Thompson put Evans on a workout that rotated weight training and cardio training and did her best to introduce Evans to new machines and new exercises every day. “That’s the true benefit of having a personal trainer,” Thompson says. “We give our clients variety so they don’t get caught in a stale routine, get bored, and stop working out.” And the expertise paid off. After one month of consistent exercise, Evans dropped her total cholesterol by 20 points, taking her out of the high risk range. Her blood pressure plummeted from “At Risk” to “Normal” levels and she lowered her body fat percentage by 3%, losing seven pounds of fat in the process. “I’ll see people whose brother just had a heart attack. They’ll get serious about getting healthy and get dramatic results like this,” says Dr. Sease, the sports physician monitoring our progress. “It just shows how large a component exercise is in your overall health.”
Like a Dog
According to Will Harlan, our editor and a competitive distance runner, who gave up his passion for one month, lack of exercise can severely affect one’s mental state too. “I actually got depressed after a week or so,” Harlan says. “It sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t know how to cope with not running. It was my release for stress, and not having that release was tough to handle for a while.” Before the experiment, Harlan was running a couple of hours a day—time that was suddenly freed by the constraints of his makeover. The time to step back enabled Harlan to see other aspects of his life that he had neglected. “I started doing other things with my extra time, like hiking with my wife and dog, reading, stretching, stargazing at night. It enabled me to move at a slower pace and see the bigger picture.” Of course, there were some physical side effects of Harlan’s sudden immobility. In one month, he put on a few pounds, and his body fat shot up a couple of percentage points. “I kept eating like I was running two hours a day, and it definitely took a toll on my body,” says the pudgier Editor in Chief. But by far, the most drastic change to come from Harlan’s experiment was his shift in perspective. Harlan admits he often allowed competition to obscure the true joy of running. “It’s amazing to watch my dog run. He doesn’t care how fast he can run a mile or how many other dogs are faster than him,” Harlan says. “His runs are all about playfulness and joy. My month off of running has reminded me of why I love the sport.”
There’s a scene in Raging Bull where Robert Deniro is standing in front of a TV, his beer gut hanging out of his “wife-beater” t-shirt. His character was between fights and had let himself go. Beers and pasta and lots of sitting on the couch. We all half-expected Chuck Lee to experience a similar physical response to his all-Southern food diet. Barbecue, French fries, ice cream, fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, fried chicken. Day after day after day. That was Lee’s life for the past month. “I spent a lot of time at Little Pigs,” Lee says. “But now, Jackson, my 16-month-old baby is hooked on BBQ and French fries. I may have done some permanent damage to my bloodline.” Lee’s cholesterol didn’t change too much after the experiment, and his blood pressure actually went down somehow. (There’s a rumor going around the office that he had the test results altered.) But he gained three percent body fat in just over one month, exchanging 12 pounds of muscle for 12 pounds of fat. “His arteries may be clear,” says Matt McLean, a Southeastern Sports Fitness trainers, “but if he keeps it up, he’ll hit the ‘Fat Elvis’ stage soon.”While our one-month crash makeovers have delivered almost immediate results, McLean warns that shocking our system with binge diets and exercise plans isn’t productive in the long run. “People who do crash diets almost always gain the weight back or lose the muscle they’ve earned. Finding a plan that gets slow and steady results is the most effective way to make serious health changes.” Lee would love to quit his crash diet, but he’s having a little trouble. “I think I’m actually a little addicted to the grease and fat now. I’m having a hard time getting off the fast food train. Someone has to stop me.” Harlan started running the minute the month long experiment was over, but he is scaling back the number of competitive races he enters, choosing to focus on running just for the sake of running. Evans says she’s committed to staying the course. “I used to head straight to the Mexican restaurant after work. Now I head straight to the gym. And I feel so much better because of it.” She’s even signed up for her very first 5K.I’m a little less committed. I’m willing to ride the vegetarian wave for a while longer—the health benefits can’t be denied—but I refuse to say I won’t eat pulled pork ever again. Or chicken fried steak. Or bratwurst at a ball game. I just won’t make that commitment. Sure, my life expectancy might go up with every soy burger I eat, but what’s the point of living forever if you can’t eat a double quarter pounder every once in a while? •