James Fell

James Fell

James Fell is a certified strength and condition coach as well as an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and the lead fitness writer for AskMen.com. His work has also appeared in Chatelaine.com, Men’s Health, TIME Magazine, the Guardian and NPR. Jamie is also a published author having released Lose It Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind. He also works as a fitness consultant, and is one of the best fitness related Twitter follows in the world. His brutally honest style of writing makes it feel like you’re talking to a buddy and it’s that style that continues to make him one of the top health and fitness writers. You can find a ton of amazing articles and insight at his website bodyforwife.com.

What is body for wife?

The original idea started as a joke; a play on words. Back around the turn of the century when Body for Life was a big deal, (it still is one of the biggest selling weight loss books of all time) a bunch of friends were doing it and we would go to the gym together all the time. The funny thing is, I was in better shape than all of these guys. They were all doing the body for life things. They were all following the regiment very strictly; the 6 small meals a day, the supplements, and the weird workout programs. We were done working out one day, and all the pecks were puffed up and one of the guys said,

“Man I’m killing myself on this body for life program, what’s your secret?”

I just jokingly said, “I’m on the Body for Wife program.”

Everybody laughed and they said, you should write a book called that. It was a while ago, but I did buy the URL that day and just parked it. But, there was some truth to it. Many years earlier, in 1993, I had gained quite a lot of weight as I was going to university and it was like the freshman 15 factored by about 3 or so. We had gotten back from a vacation, and I was looking at the photos and I asked myself, “How did that happen? How did I get so fat?”

I decided that I was going to get in shape for the first time ever in my life. I had been lean while I was growing up, but by around the age of 19 it really started coming on over the period of the next 5 or 6 years. I had decided that I wanted to propose to my girlfriend and I decided, here is a good impetus to change. She wasn’t shallow, and I knew that she would say yes either way, but I figured this was a good time to change my way of living and get in shape before I proposed and that’s what I did.

What sort of fitness style would you say you subscribe to?

From an overarching perspective, I tell people to find something they don’t hate, from a physical activity standpoint, and endeavour to get good at it. It’s going to require quite a bit of experimentation, and you’re going to have to try new things over time, and if something isn’t working then you’re going to need to try something else. It’s rare for someone to fall in love with an activity right out of the gate, with me with running, I decided that I knew that running would be good, and there were so many positive things about the activity, that I knew that if I became a regular runner, this was going to be nothing but good for me. But I also knew that I hated it. So I pretty much forced myself to get good at it.

I went out for very short runs, and over time I built up my tolerance where I got to a point where I was really good at it, and I was getting to a point where I actually liked it, so perseverance is a key thing. But you always need to focus on minimising your suffering early on. It can be a social aspect, where it’s an activity that you are doing with a friend, or if you have a really good trainer, that you click with.

I really love cycling, and I love it more than I love running, but I live in Canada, so It’s something that I can only do 6-7 months out of the year, so that’s why I keep running. If I lived in California, it’s possible that I may never run again. There all sorts of activities,

I know a woman, who I wrote an article about. She had never been active her entire life, and then in  her 30’s she was an obese smoker,  a bottle of wine a day drinker, and one day she tried out fencing and 11 years later she is an international silver medallist. She’s much leaner, quit smoking, she quit drinking and she’s a completely different person, because she fell in love with sword play. So, It’s whatever it is that gets you moving and quite often, building confidence is key.

So It’s not just deciding that you fall in love with something, it’s a lot about self-efficacy, where you recognise that, “I used to suck, and now I suck less”, and then the next step is, “I’m somewhat okay” and then finally, “I’m actually good at this”.

How has working out changed your life?

Oh, in a lot of ways. I had a defining moment in my life in my twenties where things were going shit.  I was flunking out of school plus I was deeply in debt, and I was feeling really depressed about it. I read something, in my school newspaper, and it was a quote from Joan Baez and it said, “Action is the antidote to despair”, and that was a defining moment.

I had an epiphany where I realised that through my entire life I had been lazy. I had never really worked hard at anything and had just been on cruise control, just skating by. I realised that all of the problems that I had were far from insurmountable. It would just take me focusing on making an effort at something for the first time in my life. I felt as if I could fix everything, and I had a sudden rush of positive emotion. Sure I had all these problems, but it felt like these problems would go away because I felt like I now know what I have to do to deal with it.

That was something that I applied throughout the rest of my life and physical activity became a big part of it. Part of it is about energy and drive. Being 48 years old and having a fit and healthy body makes it a lot easier to accomplish things, whether it’s being a good spouse or parent, or being good in my career.

When you’re used to getting up and going for a 10k run in minus 30 degree weather, it makes other tasks seem pretty benign. There are a lot of proven psychological benefits to regular physical activity. Stress reduction, alleviate depression, positive mindset. Generally people who exercise a lot have a better mental well being and just feel better about themselves.

The fact that I like what I see when I look in the mirror is beneficial. So many people are filled with self-loathing thoughts about their body and it’s something that I try to combat in my writing. You got to get over that and stop comparing yourselves to other people. You need to make positive changes; I know I’m never going to look like Hugh Jackman in the latest Wolverine movie. The fact that people can make positive changes where they can be happy with what they have been able to do with their physique is just one more aspect of being able to improve their overall life.

I guess the last thing I would say about it is, getting in shape and losing weight, persevering to go from not running at all to (in my case) being able to qualify for the Boston Marathon; those are huge challenges and  things that take a lot of work. You can look at it as if it is a problem that requires solving.

So when you gain that experience of going from non runner to Boston Qualifier, for example, you have built an amazing life skill that you can apply to other facets of your life. You can look at a challenge and think, this is going to be hard, it’s going to take months, and it’s going to hurt, but once you’ve gotten in shape you already know that you are capable of doing very difficult things.

What adversity have you had to overcome?

There were two fairly major things. One was lower back pain. I’ve had issues with my low back ever since I was a teen and that was a huge struggle. Every once in a while it flares up. It blew up on Christmas day 2013 and it put me out for a while, but I’ve learned to deal with it. It seems that when I have a major back blow out, it requires a couple weeks of narcotics to deal with, and happens about every 10 years. Every time it happens I think,  here we go again, but I know that I will just get through it and be back to my old self.

The other big one revolves around diet. Early on in my program, after a couple of months, I didn’t know very much about dieting and I didn’t understand calories. I was changing my diet, but I don’t know if I was changing it well. I was working out, but I was new so my conditioning was not enough to cause a significant calorie burn yet. I had been working, what felt to me like very hard, for almost 3 months and I was seeing almost no results.

There was a weekend, of drunken gluttony, and it seemed like the little bit of results I had gained completely disappeared over that one weekend. I remember waking up that Monday morning and thinking this is not worth it, I’m never going to be able to do this. I was crestfallen and thinking it was utterly pointless and I would never persevere.

I was so close to quitting and I hate to think of what my life would be like if I had. Through some miracle, I decided to go to the gym that day and the next day and the next day and the next day. After 5 days of working out in a row, I was walking out and one of the persons that worked there asked how my work out had been. I remember saying it was really good and when I walked out of the gym I remember thinking that it really had been a good work out, and I was happy with it.

That was a tipping point for me, where I kind of decided that my body was going to do what it was going to do, and I would eventually lose weight. I needed to stop worrying about the scale and about what I looked like in the mirror. I’m just going to keep going and that amped up to another level of “I’m not just going to keep going, I’m going to work harder and harder until I fucking die”.

I made the decision right then that I will never quit, I will be a regular exerciser until the day I die, and that was 23 years ago. I made a promise to myself that day that I would never, ever quit.

What nutritional advice do you have for people?

I think that the first thing to do is be very weary of fad diets. If a book is a best seller, there’s a good chance it’s full of shit. So the most popular diet books are bad. It doesn’t mean that a fad diet won’t work; anything that creates a caloric deficit will cause weight loss, but the important thing is sustainability.

So it’s more important to look at creating proper eating habits rather than a cookie cutter program that says try this with this and cut this and all that bullshit. Low carb is really bad for this. Low carb diets have shown some efficacy, particularly for people dealing with extreme obesity who live a sedentary lifestyle and wish to remain mostly sedentary, because a low carb diet is generally a low physical activity and low energy diet. So I’m not saying it’s useless, I’m saying that they are specific to a population that is not looking to be very physically active.

The bigger issue I have with low carbohydrate diets is the absolute, epic bullshit that surrounds it. There is so much unscientific nonsense that gets perpetuated by the low carb community, that it’s the best diet for everybody, that it violates calories in/calories out and grains are toxic and they try to demonize sugar.

Realistically what people need to look at is an eating pattern and the behaviours that allow them to control their calories. You can suffer through for a short period of time, go on a highly restrictive diet for a few months and lose a whole bunch of weight, but you cannot sustain that suffering long term.  It’s important to find a lifestyle of eating that allows you to manage your calories and lose weight at a rational pace.

Discomfort is ok. Eating that leads to weight loss can be a bit uncomfortable, but there is a difference between discomfort and suffering. You need to get out of your comfort zone a bit but at a tolerable level. The good thing is that over time what was uncomfortable will eventually become normal and routine, but it is really important to focus on adherence to a style of eating that manages caloric intake.

The last thing I’ll say about that is that quality effects quantity. Calories are the be all and end all of weight loss. When it comes to managing calories, the high quality diet enhances satiety so you don’t need to eat that many calories, it enhances performance in physical activity and it will generally make you feel better and healthier. You will also have better mental awareness, fall ill less, and feel like a better functioning human being.

How often do you work out and how long are the work outs generally?

It has a tendency to fluctuate based on how many “owies” I have. At 48 years old after 23 years of working out and not always being smart about it, you are going to build up some damage here and there.

In a good week, where nothing really hurts and I’m going as much as I want, I can end up doing as much as 8 or 9 hours of aerobic work and another 3 hours of weight lifting. So I can typically exercise a lot. In a slow week it’s around 6 hours a week, but I’m a big advocate of both aerobic activity and weight lifting.

What is your #1 fitness tip?

Find something that you can learn to love and endeavour to get good at it. Focus on competence. Approach it from the FITT principle which is working on boosting your frequency; how often you do it, intensity; how hard you go, time; how much time you put into it and type; trying different kinds of activity.

Any final advice on living a healthy life?

Adopt it from the perspective that you will do it forever. Don’t’ engage in some silly 8 week program. If you are looking to run and go from couch to 5k, book your 10k right after. Look at it as becoming a different person who will be doing this forever.

Lorne’s Take: As someone who happily married for 20 years – my wife is reading 🙂 I can really relate to James’ story. I particularly like his mantra of finding something you love and get good at it and do it until the day you die or at least as close to the day as possible.


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