-By Marc Scheff
|Photo © Allan Amato|
EDIT: Marc has started an open Facebook group for artists and freelancers where he and others share their latest ideas on food strategies, fitness, and health. Join the converation here:
Leading a healthy lifestyle is important for everyone, but it's particularly important for illustrators who spend most of their time sitting around indoors. Once you spend a decade or two in this industry, you'll inevitably begin to feel the ill effects that a sedentary and computer-centric lifestyle can lead to. Because our occupation doesn't demand any physical exertion, it's really important that we offset the damage we do to ourselves every day. Who better to explain how to do that, than Illustrator, and fitness afficiando, Marc Scheff. Marc has graciously taken the time to write for Muddy Colors a concise, yet comprehensive, guide to fitness. Marc practices these guidelines himself, and has reaped tremendous benefit from it. We hope you will too.
Exercise, and eating right, will boost your creativity
I firmly believe that a sound body begets a sound mind, so I have been a fitness hobbyist for most of my life. Now my beliefs are backed up by a lot of science showing that physical activity helps boost creativity, going for walks is better than “brainstorming”, and tweaking your lifestyle to be more healthy will improve focus and idea generation. A lot of my friends are tuned in to this idea, and some of the best artists out there are keeping healthy for the sake of improved focus on their work.
However, I see lots of “you should work out” and not as much on exactly how. My research takes me all over the internet and I’m excited to share a small portion of it here in a way that you can take home, and take action.
In this post, I address some general rules and for people who are like me and just want the details, I offer the specifics of my own program. Everyone’s goals are different, but I think there’s something here for everyone who shares the busybusybusy lifestyle.
Finally, please ask questions in the comments. There’s way too much out there to cover in just one post, and there are lots of people in the Muddy Colors community who have found great ways to stay fit and healthy.
Keeping fit should be easy, fun, and rewarding
This is the overarching principle I have when I approach fitness strategies. I get bored at the gym (so I quit), and I’m too busy to go to classes or spend hours on strict workout regimens. In my twenties, being a hobbyist was enough, my metabolism took care of the rest. But now that I’m in the back half of my thirties, I have been looking for sustainable food and exercise strategies that leave me feeling and looking good with as little work as possible. Most of my reference photos are of me anyway, so I need to keep trim
First, let me show you my own progress. The first pic is January 7, the second is about 5-6 weeks later. 6. Short. Weeks.
SPOILER: you have to move around a little and eat well.
If you want to feel better, exercise and a good diet are how you do it. Period. If you want a pill to burn your tummy fat, stop reading.
If you think exercise means hours of work every day or a gym membership, you’re wrong. Please keep reading.
If you only read one part of this article, read this.
Here’s the super duper cheat cheat for starting your day right.
- Move around for 20 minutes right when you wake up. Walk, run, pushups, sit ups, whatever, just move. If you have it in you to do something harder like intervals, all the better.
- When you do this you tell your body to expect that for the day and your metabolism starts moving faster in preparation.
- Eat a small meal about 20 minutes after that, such as two eggs and spinach, something with protein and greens. This sates your hunger, tamps down your appetite for your next meal, and help prevent overeating. Tim Ferriss discusses this in his cheat meal interview.
- Eat small meals throughout the day. The science is split on this, but if you’re like me and just looking to stay trim, not bulk up, eating small meals is the right way to keep your metabolism going and energy high.
Set a goal aligned with your constraints
The right routine is the one that you won’t flake out on. Depending on your age, fitness level, or schedule, when you decide to get back in shape I recommend starting small. That could look like a 20 minute walk when you wake up, or it could be joining a crossfit program. Whatever you decide to do, take a hard look at yourself and don’t take on too much. When you start small, that tends to lead to more, but starting too big usually leads to “screw it, forget it, it’s donut day every day!”
As for me, I don’t have a lot of spare time, and no room for a huge home gym setup. Combine that with an at-home work life, a child, two dogs, and 15,000 personal projects and counting, my go-to-the-gym routine just fell of the rails. I realized I needed a strategy and designed one to fit my time and space limitations.
NOTE: while I’m getting older, I believe that keeping fit in my twenties helped me achieve the goals I have made recently. So if you’re younger and saying “I don’t need that yet” I encourage you to set your good habits now, so you don’t have a tougher battle when you’re older.
My Constraints, or, Here’s how easy my workout has to be
- MOBILE: I have to be able to do this anywhere. I can do my program at home or a hotel room if I’m traveling, all with no equipment. I hate needing a gym, it became more of an excuse than a motivation. The commute there, or prep time was all I needed to not go.
- BRIEF: I have to be able to do this in a short amount of time, 20-30 minutes max. I take, and advocate, short breaks for most effective creative flow. I wanted something that I could do on these breaks, and not have to build in a 90+ minute window.
- OPTIMIZED: It has to maximize fat loss and toning. I generally bulk up easily so I wanted something that kept me most trim and generally healthy feeling.
- FLEXIBLE: Any fitness or food strategy I take on has to be something I can keep up when I travel or eat out. Anything else will be doomed to fail.
So let’s get to specifics. Keep in mind, these worked for me. There are many many options out there, and I’ll try to call out where you can mix and match.
Establish a daily routine for exercise
To get results whether fat loss or beach body, you have to make it a habit. If you just paint when you feel like it, how much painting do you get done? W. Somerset Maugham put it best, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
I decided to build in my exercise during times when I had natural breaks. I work from home, so I can literally get up from my desk and start my workout in seconds. You might have an office job and a gym, in which case you might see if you can fix your commute home to pass by the gym, or run there before work. Whatever works for you, make it something easy and sustainable. Don’t join a gym in midtown if you live and work in Brooklyn, you won’t go.
You don’t have to “work out”
Some people just hate exercise. But exercise doesn’t have to look like exercise. Lots of creatives advocate a “fake commute.” Get up, walk to a coffee shop a mile away, get your coffee, read your paper, walk back. Bam, you exercised, and if you’re work-at-home like me, you just mentally separated your home-life from your now-I’m-at-the-office life. So it’s wins all around.
But I actually do enjoy exercise.
Here’s my schedule:
- 20 minute interval workout first thing when I wake up, 5 days a week. Up and at em, in my bedroom on a carpet, yoga mat, or just the floor. No equipment needed. By keeping it to 20 minutes, I can’t make the don’t have time excuse. By activating my body and metabolism first thing, my body basically starts burning fuel and fat for energy because it gets super worried I might work out again.
- (optional) 20 minute workout in the afternoon. I’m going to take breaks anyway to clear my head. Now I use that 20 minutes to do a second short workout that is more focused on core strength. I shoot for 4-5 days a week, and I can do it in my not-giant home office. This also revs me up for the afternoon art push.
That’s it. As little as 20 minutes a day. The short workouts combined with a new eating strategy, it has given me the results I was looking for.
Change it up
Any trainer worth their salt will tell you to vary your routine, not your schedule, to keep from hitting a plateau with fitness or fat loss. In the most non-science way possible, if you do the same exercises every day then your body just gets used it it and stops working as hard. You risk hitting a wall with your goals, slowing down metabolic rate, or overbuilding muscles while neglecting others. Sure you could do more reps or more weight, and risk joint failure or injury.
By switching exercises, or even just how you do the same ones, you activate different muscles and keep your body on its metabolic toes.
For those who don’t “work out” work out, try varying your walk to the coffee shop with a speedwalk or jog, or try doing pushups every morning for a week instead to break things up.
(and thanks Ryan Lu for reminding me of this very key point!)
I keep calling it a food strategy and not a diet, and I do that intentionally. While diet is the correct term for describing “food that goes into your face-hole” it has the negative connotation of limits, restrictions, and sacrifice.
Food strategy, on the contrary, says what I mean: it’s about food, food you want to eat, and it’s about deciding when and how much to eat these foods to meet your goals. I freaking love food, and I knew there had to be a way to eat it and not keep putting on daddy-fat (daddy-fat: noun, the fat you put on when you eat with your three-year-old who loves him some pizza, bagels, ice creams, and fruit smoothies).
The Basic Rules
Michael Pollan, author and food expert, said “Eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables.”
My guideline is: Eat whole food, nothing processed, not too much, and fairly often.
From Michael Pollan again:
- Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. “When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can’t pronounce, ask yourself, “What are those things doing there?” Pollan says.
- Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can’t pronounce.
- Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
- Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot. “There are exceptions — honey — but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren’t food,” Pollan says.
- It is not just what you eat but how you eat. “Always leave the table a little hungry,” Pollan says. “Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, ‘Tie off the sack before it’s full.’”
- Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It’s a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. “Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?” Pollan asks.
- Don’t buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.
This is my diet:
- I eat about 5-7 times a day, and I enjoy small meals that leave me not hungry. “Not hungry” is my measuring stick, not fullnesss. I enjoy the heck out of food, and eat the best I can, I just don’t eat all of it just because it’s there. The first week of doing this, I felt a little hungry most of the time. Just days later I had adjusted, I found I couldn’t and didn’t need to finish the meal portions I was used to. I had more energy to boot.
- I eat lots of protein and veggies, very little carbs, dairy, and sugar, and nothing processed. Most meals looks like a protein (chicken, steak, fish, even tofu but NOT the overprocessed fake meats), and a dark leafy green, like spinach or kale cooked with garlic and salt. Yum. This is actually easy to do if you approach from the shoppers perspective. It is just easier to remember fewer things. Like chicken, garlic, spinach, salt. Done. Get bored? Read more and add more good things, soon you’ll have a virtual library in your head of delicious nutritious stuff you can eat.
This is way easier than you think. Even TGI Fridays has a chicken salad, dressing on the side, and you can’t go wrong. Follow the rules above and stick to basic whole foods. Done.
Booze has lots of sugar, calories, and carbs. Bummer. The more you can cut this out, or stick to lower cal/carb/sugar drinks like Vodka, the better chance you will have at keeping trim and healthy.
This was not my favorite news, I’m a whiskey/bourbon kind of guy. However, when I tried cutting it down to a few on the weekend I had a much much easier time not only with exercise but also focusing on work. I’ve made this moderation an ongoing habit.
I love good food and I love balance. So yes, I’ll have a burger or fish and chips, but I do keep that to once, maybe twice, a week. And I still don’t eat the whole thing if I hit the “not hungry” point.
Two reasons I think this is ok. One, once I had the exercise down as routine, my metabolism shifted up, and I was able to process these foods faster. Two, science backs me up again!
From The Science Behind Cheat Meals
“When dieting continues, the metabolism is still slightly elevated from the cheat meal, thus leading to an even greater energy expenditure and increased fat loss. Because metabolic rate is closely linked to thyroid output this is how the increased thyroid hormone is tied in to the cheat meal. Also, with an increased metabolic rate, thermogenesis increases as a result.”
Now that’s a mouthful, but it basically says by eating a cheat meal you trick your body into thinking you’re about to get a lot more calories and it starts to burn at a higher rate. So when you go back to normal foods, it gets to burning stored fat.
Tim Ferris wrote a whole book about this, and has a few things to say here on cheat meal/day strategies.
Specific Exercise Routines
If you just want to test the waters with exercise, and want to do it at home where nobody can see you, try checking out Mike Chang’s no-equipment exercise youtube channel. There are lots of options mostly in the 5-minute range. You have 5 minutes.
If you want to do what I do, here it is:
Interval training: I have been using Mike Chang’s Insane Home Fat Loss videos. I put them on my iPhone, and it’s ready as soon as I get out of bed. There are also the very popular Insanity Workouts, but at 45 minutes I knew I wouldn’t make it a habit. Even p90 has a 30 minute series called p90x3, but that failed my “no equipment” rule.
Core/Strength: I mix and match Mike Changs Six Pack Shortcuts, and the workouts that come with the Tower 200, a resistance band door-gym that I’ve loved for years. I haven’t tried p90x3, and at 30 minutes it’s a little long for my taste, but it gets great reviews.
Diet: Again, Mike Chang has a great in-depth post about this, and you can google thousands of other related articles, but here’s the cheat-sheet version:
- At home: Pre-prep foods or whole meals so you don’t have to think when you’re ready to eat. I keep tupperware with cooked chicken, steak, or fish, and veggies that are easy to cook in just a few minutes, like spinach or kale. Stock up on nuts and easy to eat fruit, so you’re not reaching for cookies and cakes when cruising for a snack.
- Eating out: Stick to delicious salads with lots of dark green veggies and protein, or simple meals with whole foods (meat and veggies, for the win). Avoid big pasta or creamy dishes.
- Keep dairy, carbs, and sugar to a minimum. I don’t cut them out, I generally think that’s too extreme. I do try to stick to things like rice and quinoa over pasta, just a little cheese, and sugar from whole foods like fruit.
- Don’t eat processed foods, especially meat alternatives as they are heavy with gluten/carbs and processed chemicals.
- Give yourself a break occasionally. I still eat pizza occasionally, maybe once every two weeks. And I don’t freak out because my new baseline is very very healthy.
- Drink in moderation, and stick to non-sweet vodka drinks to avoid the massive calorie/carb/sugar load of things like beer and whiskey.
I know I said no equipment, and for most of this you don’t need anything. But for my own constraint #4 (Flexibility) I wanted a few options that take up very little space.
A yoga mat:
Helps save your floor and feet if you’re doing the interval exercises. Lots of jumping around!
If you only get one piece of workout equipment, get the Tower 200 from Body by Jake:
This is a resistance-band gym that fits on your door. The only space you need is in front of the door to pull the bands. You can do some version of almost any resistance exercise on this machine, and it’s only $88 on Amazon.
If you want another thing, get the Bowflex adjustable weight dumb bells:
This is a whole rack of dumb-bells in just two dumb-bells. The dials on the sides lock in to the weights in the middle and only pull up the ones you selected. Great for things like drop-sets, or just switching between exercises quickly.
If you really feel like you need one more thing, get one of those ab roller core workout thingy’s. I have these, and they offer a lot of flexibility for core exercise options.
All of this equipement fits in a very very small space and gives me tons of options for workouts.
That’s a lot of info, but the basics are still the same: do some kind of exercise, and eat smart. Now all you have to do is start. So what are you waiting for?
Don’t believe me?
Then see what these other accomplished ADs and artists have to say about how they incorporate a healthy lifestyle into their process.
I asked each of them the following questions.
- Why is physical fitness important to you? What does it do for you to be fit?
- What do you do to stay fit? In as much or as little detail as you want!
- What obstacles do you face, and how do you get past them?
- [optional] Your favorite/funniest fitness “win” story”
1. When I quit smoking almost 6 years ago, and rolled into my 50′s (with having a decreased metabolism and all), I packed on 60 pounds in no time at all. I didn’t like the way I looked, or felt. So I moderated my diet and started exercising.
2. Pretty simple routine. Bike or run for 60 minutes 3x week. Just a nice moderate pace to work endurance and burn fat. Very minimal workout routine 2-3x week (4 full body exercises, very low reps @ 80% of single max)
3. Time, schedule and commitment level. It’s tough to be committed enough to make the time for daily exercise. I just have to keep reminding myself that I am staying “committed to myself”, not to exercising. It’s easier to blow of exercise…it’s tough to blow off myself.
4. Running in my first Jingle Bell 5k Run. I had no idea that most folks ran in “costume”. Nothing is funnier than running in a pack of huffing and puffing santas, a couple of elves, and even a tiny reindeer.
…diet is also a big part of my life. I minimize meat, amp up fruits and veggies, and drink tons of water every day.
I never work out to stay fit. Can’t stand running in an artificial environment. But that doesn’t mean I do not care about my health. I find exercise (bike riding, long walks/excursions in New York City, hiking, playing pick-up soccer games) very meditative.
I enjoy the focus upon the immediate surroundings and your body while thinking about not where I was or where I am going, but where I am now and who I am with in that moment. There is a wonderful children’s book illustrated by Jon J. Muth which retells a Leo Tolstoy short called ‘Three Questions’. This captures my feelings wonderfully about both my awareness of staying healthy, but also approach to my art. I love to be in the moment in the studio with no distraction, blissfully painting away. The meditative trace I can shift into when engaged in a relationship with a physical object cannot, for me, be duplicated with a computer, screen and wacom tablet. It just does not feel real/physical enough for me. My art is about being connect to my world not just image making.
Thus this relates to how I take care of my body, I cannot find enjoyment working out in a gym, for the sake of staying healthy. I prefer to keep fit by living a life; walking everywhere I can while in New York; living in a five story home with stairs to scamper up and down every time the front doorbell rings and hauling art up and down from the studio; coaching and refereeing my child’s soccer games; and walking my children to school, one mile away – up hill both ways :)
Lastly I stay fit by very carefully watching what I eat. Treats and the desire to seek pleasure through food is a very slippery slope which I do divulge in on a rare occasion, otherwise I am more Spartan in eating habits, seeking to consume just what I need to get by…I save most of the pleasures in my life for my art and family and friends.
All this may change of course, but for now, it has kept me happy and healthy for decades.
Well, now that I’ve been shown shirtless on Muddy Colors, I figured it was just a matter of time before people asked me about this.
1- I’ve been blessed with a handful hereditary heart conditions that, while not life-threatening, have the potential to really screw up my day to day. I figured if I stay on top of all the other variables of fitness and nutrition, the lifestyle of an illustrator can remain. Meaning, in my head, as long as I at least look healthy, I can continue consuming too much caffeine, drinking alcohol, and missing sleep
2- Varying schedules of distance running, sprints, weight training, calisthenics, etc. Everything tends to be dictated by weather, injury, and interest. I’ll go nonstop with a hardcore 5k training program, then hurt myself. Then I’ll stay in a weight room for 4 months until I can’t stand it. The p90x series is great for giving a good variety of exercise and scheduling. Living next to prospect park is pretty great for running. Between the two, I tend to fill up my days. My current apartment has a small gym in the basement, otherwise I’m limited to a pull-up bar and whatever I can do on the floor.
3- I think any runner eventually gets injured. Before I started weight training, I didn’t really know what to do when I couldn’t run. Otherwise, the biggest obstacle is fitting in the time to work out, and balancing how much it might kill my energy for late night work. I love hearing about people who just started exercising exclaiming how much energy they have. Whenever I’m in good shape, I’m toasted after I work out. I only have excess energy when I take a day off.
When I took over as Creative Director at Orbit, my desk time really skyrocketed. I really found myself stuck sitting at my desk answering emails for hours at a stretch, not getting up except for meetings, and even ordering in lunches. As anyone else who works a 9-to-5 (or, more accurately, a 10-till-as-late-as-it-needs-to-be) I hit the 3pm slump and could only fight thru with caffeine and sugar. Not only did my weight start creeping up, but I just felt dreary and exhausted all the time. I was trying to fit in the gym after work, but the priority of finishing work kept getting in the way. Finally I sat down with my publisher and said I needed to prioritize my health, and we worked out a plan where I was able to be gone for a 60-90min lunch so I could get to the gym, but I always scheduled it in my Outlook calendar so no one was trying to set meetings with me during that time. Of course, he was well aware that I was always staying late, so “making up time” was never an issue.
I started working with a trainer who specialized in weight training (and was a girl so she understood not every lady wants to be on a treadmill for 3hrs a day), because I really wanted to feel stronger. Holly Goodwin at www.bluejayfitness.com has been working with me twice a week for 2 years now, and I have a completely stronger and healthier body because of it. In between I try to do kickboxing, or boxing, or some kind of cardio 3-4 times a week. I am horrible at running, it is boring as $%#& to me and my body isn’t built for it. But I will swim, or box, or do something more fun for hours before I drop. Yoga is a little too tame – it feels great, but it’s not the same stress relief of hitting something (or being hit BY something). Fitness is not about being skinny for me, I wanted strength and energy, and stress relief, and now I feel 500% more productive and awake thru my day.