I am far from any version of a super athlete, but my physical and mental strength is of the utmost importance to me, regardless of my body definition or athletic accolades. I do it for me and not for the trophy, medal or number on a list after a well-earned 26.2.
One thing has always been a constant in my life above all, and that is athletics. Since I can remember, I have always been involved in sports one way or another, and I didn’t just play, I strove for excellence. As a youngster, I found solace and passion in sports, more than video games, burgers, material items or any other youthful distractions, like cars, parties and chasing girls. Athletics was my grounding factor, the core of my soul and who I really was.
Discovering ancient nutrition
After graduating high school, I hit the proverbial road and began traveling the world. My wanderlust led me to some excellent discoveries. I found something interesting — people in other countries ate differently, lived differently, and cared about health more than in the place I called home. This was not because they checked trending websites about health and wellness, this was pre-social media and cellphones — it was a lifestyle.
Traveling through Latin America and the Caribbean, I found people passionate about food, eating right, and organic living — they were carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. I was young and my mentality began to change. Questions arose and I began making healthier choices when it came to my sustenance and daily routines. I began walking more, and spent less time in my car and more time on the train. I went biking and strolled through farmers’ markets for fresh, organic produce.
The constant push
Once I sewed my travel oats, I began thinking more about my life. “What on earth will I do with my life?” was always a pondered thought. My friends were attending university, but I really felt that the time wasn’t quite right for me yet. It was time for a change, and what better way to test my mental and physical abilities than to join the United States Army. I excelled from the get-go, and I thrived on the structure of the physical and mental aspects of the army. Needless to say, this is certainly not for everyone, but it worked for me.
The army was just another chapter in my life regarding fitness, and I found that I could do without many creature comforts. There are several aspects of my life now, which are distilled from, or some sort of byproduct of the army. I can’t seem to let my hair grow out, things need to be in a specific order, and my passion for fitness and healthy living has taken a new twist.
My dedication to stay in shape has led me down a path of graceful aging, and I truly believe that if I hadn’t gained this knowledge of nutrition and fitness, then I may not be as happy and healthy today. Maintaining a wholehearted passion and setting personal goals regarding my health are at the core of my life now.
I want to continue to age naturally and gracefully, and have more years of pushing my personal, physical and mental growth. I eat right and workout for me, and me alone. My body will never be a Michelangelo sculpture, but I do wake up every morning feeling excellent, both inside and out, which keeps me striving for more, for the next level of fitness.
My previous life as a gym rat
After my service in the army ended, I unknowingly fell down the rabbit hole that is the gym. Let me tell you, I never realized how easy it was to slide into a life of overeating and lifting heavy weights under a dimly lit ceiling. In many ways, I am ashamed of my gym rat lifestyle. One reason in particular is the years it took me to get my body and health back to an optimal and happy level.
After leaving the army, I felt an odd disconnect with a lifestyle so centered around fitness, and I sank into a sea of depression. Before I knew it, I was too big and couldn’t walk up four flights of stairs without gasping. Sure, I was strong, but I had no intention of bodybuilding or enrolling in any Strongest Man competition, so what was it all for? It was a stress reliever at first; however, my lack of overall fitness created more stress.
My gym rat lifestyle, waking up every morning at 5:30 am and spending countless hours among dirty weights and social butterflies wasn’t the only thing I began to neglect. I also began neglecting my diet, and my health and wellness took another turn. “Go hard” was my gym motto, but “easy” became the after-motto. Processed, fatty foods and takeout combined with supplements all added up to one thing: an unhappy, unbalanced me. Things had to change!
The non-gym enlightenment
There are multiple moments in life when your choices and decisions take priority. I remember this non-gym transition like it was yesterday, and it changed my life forever. I could have easily kept going to the gym, putting in long inefficient hours and paying exorbitant membership fees. One cold winter day, I was washing my face and found myself staring at a version of me that didn’t feel very good, with bags under my eyes and wrinkles beginning to show at the corner of my eyes.
That was my moment and I never looked back. I pondered the various cultures and eating traditions of the many people I had met and shared meals with during my travels and time in the Middle East as a soldier. I began walking outdoors and enjoying the nature so beautifully painted in our world. My retreats outside, though cold at that period, began to evolve into little hybrid workouts. My stress levels decreased with my bodyweight, and I began to notice little differences in my mood, skin and overall health. I began to feel proud of the fit and happy guy staring back at me in the mirror.
Soon, those little hybrid outdoor exercises became routine and I never looked back. Another funny thing happened, my bank account had more money in it. The money I saved by not going to the gym was one aspect; however, the food choices I was making also padded my checking account. I began sourcing my vegetables from my community, and the days of filling shopping carts with processed foods and easy meals turned to buying organic produce daily — knowing the nutrients in each bite, making smart, healthy choices.
Not going to the gym was proving to be beneficial in other ways as well. I no longer felt odd doing sets while listening to grunts and chatter from other gym rats. You may know what I am talking about — those social gym goers who spend more time making the rounds than actually doing any exercise. Going to the gym was also a bit of a confidence blower in many ways as well.
The reason we workout is to feel great, look good or even build confidence. It is almost impossible to build confidence when you have a handful of perfect bodied gym rats watching your every move, analyzing your form, or the weights you put up. I don’t miss those gazing eyeballs at all. Instead, birds chirp me on during my sets and I don’t mind their encouragement at all.
Benefits of skipping the gym
Now, after years of outdoor training, my health and fitness have reached new plateaus and I am healthier, happier, and feel great day in and day out. I feel more connected to the world I live in, and the motivation to get outside, no matter the forecast, is always at the top of my daily routine. I have also developed new training routines, which never make me bored and they consistently challenge me to strive in my health and fitness goals.
I always feel better after my outdoor workouts, and aside from the connection to nature that I get from being outdoors, my vitamin D levels have increased without even thinking about it. A 2007 study published in The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology discusses the benefits of outdoor exercise in regards to getting more Vitamin D. Lack of natural sunlight will make you feel down, and the fluorescent lamps above you in the gym offer nothing in the form of vitamins or minerals.
Another aspect of outdoor exercise is the lack of weights and machines — and yes, this is a good thing. I cannot describe the positive feeling that exercising outside unleashes on my senses. The smell of fresh grass, hearing nature’s exercise soundtrack, and the tactile power of wet dew between your fingertips.
There is also no need to take a break between sets to stand in front of a dusty industrial fan blowing at 12 knots. I love the feeling of a gentle breeze on my skin between sets of burpees or pull-ups, hanging from a strong tree branch that takes a bit of work to grab. Training using bodyweight is a practice I always found more fun than the traditional bench press or squat in a gym.
A 1994 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found body resistance training to be, “an effective way to increase energy requirements, decrease body-fat mass, and maintain metabolically active tissue mass in healthy older people and may be useful as an adjunct to weight-control programs for older adults.”
There is a reason the military uses a wide array of body resistance exercises to train soldiers: It’s a better, more efficient workout that builds overall power needed in any situation. I also feel my range of motion in my outdoor workouts helps me work muscles I would otherwise ignore in the gym.
Lastly, one aspect of the gym I find very unappealing is the so called “cleanliness” involved. Sure, there are plenty of bottles filled with chemicals to wipe down equipment, but what are the chemicals in that bottle, and how many people really wipe down their bench after a long set. Gyms are generally sweat factories filled with bacteria.
When I put in my daily routine at the park, the last thing I have to worry about is dirt, bacteria, dust and the types of skin conditions which make even the strongest stomach cringe. A 2008 study called Working Out at the Gym discusses the various infections which are cultured in most gyms. Staph infections, ring worms, nail infections and athlete’s foot are things of the past when it comes to my fitness.
Healthy, organic workouts influence healthy eating
One thing I have found in my years hitting the local park, and skipping the gym, is healthier eating habits. I currently live in Argentina, and my local park boasts a few orange trees and sometimes, if ripe, I get to enjoy one of nature’s most prolific fruits, which I find in the grass after a rewarding workout. My organic fitness plan has led me down a one-way street of nutrition, which keeps my mind, body and soul healthy.
Natural workouts parallel natural sustenance, and I enjoy putting together meals offering essential vitamins, minerals and powerful antioxidants. I encourage everyone to take a good look at their fitness routine and diet. Are you getting the most from the food you eat?
I enjoy doing a bit of research on the foods I consume, and taking the first step in nutrition comes from within. The next step is to know where your food is coming from. In my quiet Buenos Aires barrio I have a locally owned produce stand, fish shop and butcher. Sure, going from shop to shop to get what I need for dinner takes more time, but nothing good, or good for you, comes easy! I know my produce couple’s names, we talk, we share recipes. The same goes for my butcher and fish guy — they are part of my life, just as much as their food is.
I have an intimate relationship with the food I eat and the places where I push-up, pull-up, burpee and sprint my way to health and happiness — they are part of my community and part of me. Getting in touch with your ancestral side is a good place to start. I think about the workouts and food my ancestors ate and the nutrition they needed to not only live healthily, but to survive.
My energy needs are nowhere near those of my cave-dwelling relatives, but that is where I start, with one healthy choice after another. Put your health and happiness first, and you will be surprised by the great things that follow.
Stephen Seifert is a writer, professor, adventurer and a health & fitness guru. His flare for travel and outdoor adventure allows him to enjoy culture and traditions different than his own. A healthy diet, routine fitness and constant mental development is the cornerstone to Stephen’s life.