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A short workout becomes the key to a food critic's ability to get in shape

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Over the last few months, I went from the worst shape of my life to the best while continuing to eat like a food critic. Don't punch me in the face; instead, read how I did it in part four of this new series:

It is impossible to overstate my hatred of exercise.

Put me on a cardiovascular machine, and I stare at the little electric clock -- muttering numbers to myself while my eyes bulge out of their sockets - for twelve minutes, which is about all I can stand before I want to punch myself to end the boredom. Yoga invokes a similar impatience; I start getting anxious heart palpitations about halfway through my second sun salutation. I tried Zumba once, and it was a demoralizing reminder that since my roots are Scandinavian and German, my coordination and rhythm are on par with a lumbering Neanderthal trekking through the forest, swinging a club on the hunt for food. As for running, I'm not sure which is worse: the fact that after the first ten minutes I feel an overwhelming urge to put my head between my knees and throw up, or the sad reality that if I don't throw up, I'm consigning myself to the monotonous misery of hamster-wheeling along a path for limitless miles.

Years ago, I would somehow manage to suck it up and drag my ass to the gym, or even jog for whatever number of minutes I had pre-negotiated with myself as the window of time that would deliver an optimal mix of benefits and masochism. But when I moved back to Colorado two and a half years ago, my annoyance with exercise turned into seething disdain. Suddenly I lived in a community where most people's lives revolved around getting their heart rate up. They'd casually meet each other in public places and drop nuggets of training knowledge by way of an icebreaker. They'd get up at the crack of dawn -- a time when I occasionally end a night but never start a day -- to make sure they had their chance to be one with the mountainside before getting to work. They'd fill yoga classes to sweaty capacity and then intensely debate the beauty of different cycling tracks with one another in a thinly veiled effort to show off their dedication and brawn. "What are you training for?" a new acquaintance would ask. "Have you heard about how awesome Acai is?" posed another. And then a potential suitor would query, "Do you want to ride our bikes up a really steep hill for fun?" by way of proposing a first date. Nothing, no, and abso-fucking-lutely not, were my answers.

By about month two of living in Boulder, I couldn't stand it anymore. So I packed away my gym gear and resolved to manage my gut by simply not stuffing it full of butter, bacon and beer.

It was a strategy that I managed poorly -- and two years later, it resulted in the breakdown that brought me, practically on my knees, to Jamie Atlas. Thank God he promised to not make me work any harder than absolutely necessary, which was something I could get behind. Especially when he laid out exactly what that meant. After another session in the Bonza Bodies studios, I learned that the goal of all my lunging, squatting, stepping up and twisting was to get my body to a point where it could handle a "refeed workout" (as he so aptly described it, since I'd be ready to replenish my dwindling energy stores after completing it). It only took about four one-on-ones with Atlas for him to declare me ready. And then he detailed what would become the foundation of my plan.

"This," began Atlas, speaking slowly and dramatically, both for comedic effect and so I didn't miss anything, "is your get-out-of-jail-free card."

The purpose of the refeed workout, he explained, is to allow you to have a refeed meal, a wonderful, magical gluttonous feeding frenzy that comes without restrictions. Better yet, there's a reason for it: The refeed meal is meant to boost leptin -- the hormone that controls hunger, so boosting it means you feel less hungry later on -- while also amping up the metabolism. The refeed workout would send signals to my body telling it to send the extra energy to the muscles (as opposed to the saddlebags that had become part of my figure). Storing energy in the muscles meant it could be more easily accessed and, therefore, more easily spent -- it was like money in my wallet instead of in my bank account. Ultimately, Atlas wanted to do three things: minimize changes in insulin, increase the speed and amount of food that passes through the body, and increase the body's ability to draw energy into the muscles and not be stored as fat.

How? By doing a short, high-intensity workout right before I stuffed my face. The activity blast would keep my insulin levels relatively stable, and the excess calories from the refeed meal would both pass through the body and be absorbed straight into my energy-craving muscle cells (ideally, after a few days of sticking to the high-protein meal plan), signaling leptin production while also kicking up the metabolism by tricking it into working overtime after having settled into a routine.

Science aside, his conclusive, glowing promise is what stuck with me: "Your weight will spike the next morning," he said. "But a day or two later, it should drive down."

Most of Atlas's clients get one refeed day per week, when they have a six-hour window to eat whatever foods they can wedge into their body, be it a Dairy Queen Blizzard or a vat of spaghetti and meatballs. For a person like me, the refeed workout would also be beneficial in minimizing the effect of the four (at least, and very often more) high-calorie meals per week I eat for my job. If I ate those meals right after ratcheting up my insulin with a high-intensity workout, the pork fat, pasta and pinot noir would pass through my body without storing as fat. As long as I got a refeed workout in right before, Atlas promised, I could still lose weight.

"This sounds lovely," I said. "But what, exactly, does the workout entail?" In my brain, I was thinking, "Don't say running. Don't say running."

"Running," said Atlas. Then he grinned goofily. "No, only kidding. Basically, I want you to do thirty seconds of an activity that engages as many major muscle groups as possible as hard and fast as you can. Then rest for ninety seconds. Repeat that ten times and you're done." Ideally, he added quickly, I'd toss in a five-minute warm-up -- like jogging in place -- and five minutes of stretching at the end, too. I asked for examples of acceptable activities. His suggestions:

1. Jumping lunges: Jump into a lunge with your right leg forward. Jump and land in a lunge with your left leg forward.

2. Jumping squats: With your hands on your head, squat, then jump and land back in a squat.

3. Skaters: Stand with your feet together. Leap to the right and sort of swing your left foot behind you. Then jump to the left and swing the right foot behind you (it helps if you imagine an inline or ice-skating movement). Add an uppercut across the body, if you're feeling saucy.

4. Mountain climbers: Start in push-up position. Without moving your arms, drive your right knee forward, then your left, almost as if you're running in place on the floor.

5. Prisoner squats: Use a chair or a low bench. With your hands on your head, squat, hit the surface twice with your butt, then stand all the way back up and repeat. I add a twist to this one when I stand, which gets the side abs, too.

"And yes, I know how much you hate running, but you could also sprint for thirty seconds and then walk slowly for ninety seconds," he said. It was a strategy I'd use when traveling -- finding, much to my surprise, that running isn't nearly so terrible when you're not going at a monotonous speed for minutes upon minutes.

Just as I can't overstate my hatred of exercise, I can't overstate the role of the refeed workout in my success. In all, the workout takes twenty minutes -- thirty if you include the warm-up and cool down. That's it. And because the movements vary, there's no chance of getting so bored that you can't finish. Have there been times when I wanted to skip it and flit off to happy hour? Of course. But because it's just easy enough and lacks a major time commitment, I always bang it out.

After all, the refeed is the get-out-of-jail-free card. And then I can eat whatever I want without an ounce of guilt.

Following the plan? The step-by-step:

- Step one: turning the corner with a high protein breakfast

- Step two: cutting the trash

- Step three: getting a handle on the booze

Watch for the next installment of Bar Belle next Monday.

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