Let's face it, being a "geek" (as people understand the term today) often involves lots of sitting around staring at a computer or video game screen. Geeks have avatars who do incredibly active things in virtual worlds, while the person behind the avatar is basically just sitting on a chair moving one arm or a couple of thumbs. I am lousy at video games, so I don't even have an avatar running around blowing things to smithereens for me. I just sit here and type and move a stylus or a mouse. And my real-life shape sure shows it. This is why I really looked forward to reviewing Fitness for Geeks. Was my eager anticipation justified? Let's see.
So, just what is a geek anyway? And what's fitness?
The author, Bruce W. Perry, grabbed my attention right away with his definition of a geek. Here's what he had to say.
Just ask my family. That's me. (And my brother the lawyer would even know what "quotidian" means—everyday—without having to look it up.) I can explain computer stuff to my non technological brothers that they didn't know existed and tell them how to fix nearly everything they break. The sad reality is that most days I'm exercising my brain and not my body.
Clearly, I have long needed to get my fanny off the chair and my whole body moving. Does this book's approach provide the inspiration to do that? I was very encouraged when I read the definition of "fitness."
Independent of spirit and irrepressibly curious... check. Physically stronger... gotta have it. Aging as well as we can... yeah, let's go!
People and metrics
Geeks like to use units of measure, and quantify things, and think about things in terms of hardware and software. That's why this book starts with the idea that people are not "coded" to sit around all day. In fact, we were not designed to sit the way we (meaning people who have chairs) do. We aren't meant to eat the stuff we eat, and we're not meant to be under artificial light sources, and we're not supposed to do a lot of other things that our ancestors did not evolve to do—but we do them anyway. To the detriment of our well-being.
So how does a geek begin to abandon that kind of ultimately self-destructive behavior and start moving toward a healthier life? Better yet, how can this be done without radical behavior changes that would be totally alien to the geek way of life (and thus pretty much doomed to immediate failure)? The author takes a very clever approach, explaining how human "preinstalled software" works, and why a cubicle-living, chair-sitting existence makes us tired and sick, and then moving right into an explanation of a bunch of geeky web sites and gadgets that are not only cool to play with but excellent motivators for motion.
Loving the latest whizbang gadgets is pretty much a given with geeks, right? And if the gadgets help us get away from the sedentary life, so much the better. These days we have hundreds of apps and gizmos that let us track motion and food, keep us moving, and keep track of what he calls "personal metrics" such as blood pressure, weight, and heart rate.
Mr. Perry starts off with my own personal favorite, the FitBit Tracker, which is representative of a whole host of recent inventions that take full advantage of the best of modern technology. No need to try to figure out how to set an old-style pedometer to match the length of your stride—the FitBit Tracker and other similar devices use an accelerometer to tell you how far you've walked, and the associated web sites show you all kinds of useful charts, graphs, and statistics to keep you moving along.
Then there's an in-depth discussion of mobile and web-based apps that let you track your own activities, either manually or in conjunction with a device such as a Garmin GPS. There's no way any book can discuss all the options—that would take an encyclopedia. But the author hits the high points and explains where the person who's interested can find a lot more information.
A discussion of several apps and sites where nutrition data can be tracked leads logically into four chapters full of great nutritional advice.
What you eat, how you eat, when you eat
Fitness for Geeks goes into incredible detail about nutrients and the basics of nutrition. You may have read books before where this kind of information seems designed either to put you straight to sleep or else scare the bejeebers out of you because no matter what you're doing, you're doing it all wrong. Not this book. It's got in-depth technical details about all kinds of nutrients and why they're important and why we need to keep them in balance. It demystifies the concept of "carbs" and the ways in which both carbohydrates and simple sugars are metabolized (and why subsisting on a diet of candy bars and Cheetos is not just theoretically bad for you). It explains why the various kinds of nutrients need to be balanced against each other, and how to accomplish that without making yourself sick.
The book also discusses vitamins and minerals and explains why they are essential for good health, and the best ways to figure out how much of these things you need to take for your own body's well-being.
Wonderful stuff. I learned more about nutrition by reading these chapters than I did after plowing through a lot of other books that purported to explain these things but never really did. There's no way I could possibly summarize it all—seriously, get the book and you'll get an education.
Shop and don't drop
Then there's an in-depth explanation of how and where and when to shop for food. Fitness for Geeks exposes the typical supermarket's layout practices, and how to figuratively thumb your nose at them.
There's a great section on using apps to find the best places to buy food, and how to navigate the conventional supermarket intelligently (and geeks are by definition intelligent, so this is brilliant stuff).
And there's advice on how to find the best food when you're traveling and how to stay healthy when you're stuck eating at restaurants on the road.
I was skeptical about the chapters on fasting. While the author does carefully explain the health advantages, fasting is definitely not for everyone, geek or non-geek. Some people have health issues that make fasting a really bad idea, and as one of those people I don't think this issue was considered carefully enough.
Moving right along
The second half of the book is devoted to exercise, and it's definitely not as much for a general, newly-not-sedentary public as the first half was. It's clear from the beginning that the author is not some cubicle dweller emerging into the sunlight for the first time in years—he's a serious athlete. This makes his approach to exercise different enough from that of the beginner that it's a little off-putting at first.
He also assumes that a geek has a smartphone and can therefore use the Endomondo app to keep track of distance and other details. Um... no. I'm sure I'm in a very small minority, but I don't have a smartphone. The closest I can get is a 3rd generation iPod Touch, and that won't work with Endomondo. I would have liked to see suggestions for an equivalent app or gadget I could use to do the same thing.
The discussions of sprinting, running, and high speed cycling don't really acknowledge beginner level skills. There's a brief mention that some newcomers might not be able to keep up, but in general it seems that the author assumes the reader has a much higher level of fitness than is likely the case. Again, he makes it clear that he's an athlete and he thinks these things will not be difficult for his readers. I found this approach completely at odds with the first half of the book, where he's encouraging people who've been sedentary for a long time to get up and move. Getting up and moving should be a gradual process if you're not used to it. Sprinting comes a lot farther down the line.
The section on body-weight exercises (push-ups, pull-ups and the like) falls victim to the same assumptions. I honestly laughed right out loud when I saw this:
If you can't yet do 30-50 pushups? How many people just beginning to get fit are going to manage even as many as 10 pushups to begin with? Once again I think Mr. Perry has people of his own, or close to his own, fitness level in mind.
The same goes for the sections on hiking, cross-training, beach workouts, and skiing. They're aimed mostly at the serious athlete who can use a smartphone for tracking data. To be honest, as a fitness newbie without the requisite smartphone, I felt left out. I was hoping for more information on how to use the body and the technology I have on hand.
In and out of the gym
The section on workouts in a gym or fitness facility was a little better. I wish I'd read it when I had a gym membership, because I was pretty much on my own and had to do the best I could to design my own exercise routine. The chapter focuses on working with weights and on resistance training, with the idea that most people can do these things with the machines and weights available at the average gym. The one thing I'd disagree with is the idea of using a smartphone app. Many gyms specifically ban phones from the workout rooms.
There are a lot of illustrations in this section, that show proper use of common machines. It's definitely worth your time to study the pictures if you're a newbie at the gym. Knowing what you're doing goes a long way toward avoiding serious problems.
Warm up, cool down, Z out
The book concludes with sections that explain the importance of not sticking to the same routine every day, getting enough rest, sleeping well and meditation techniques. I thought of these sections as representing the "cooldown" period after the workout. There are a lot of good resources mentioned here and for once not all of them require a smartphone. I was especially interested in the meditation apps, which are very inexpensive and look like they would be well worth getting.
Afterwards, there are sections that go back over some of the things covered in the nutrition chapters, with an additional exploration of protein intake, metabolic rates, hydration, and the importance of replenishing nutrients and fluids along the way. I think these things should have been covered in the nutrition section and emphasized, because they are all vitally important.
So, what did I think?
Overall, this book is an outstanding resource. It's well written and clearly well researched, and the author knows what he's talking about. The information on nutrition and nutrients is especially good, and much easier to understand than many similar books. The web sites, apps, links and other resources are excellent for their purpose and there are plenty of opportunities to find other resources on your own.
The exercise sections fall short, in my opinion, in not offering nearly enough for the beginner. Serious exercise is not something that people can just jump into out of a sedentary lifestyle and find immediate success. There has to be a learning period and the book does not acknowledge this. I'm sure we'd all love to be outstanding athletes like Mr. Perry, but I bet even he wasn't running sprints the very first time he set foot on a track. I hope future editions of the book will be more all-inclusive.
The fact that some of the book isn't designed for beginners doesn't mean it can't be adapted to suit much lower levels of fitness, with some thought and creativity (even though the author should have done at least a little bit of that for us). Geeks are ingenious by definition. If we can't yet run for more than 15 seconds at a time, we'll figure out ways to improve. The web sites and apps that are listed have something for nearly everyone, and let's face it, all it takes is a little motivation, whatever works to get you off your fanny and getting fit.