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Dr Michael Gonevski

Dr Oliver Firth

Kristen Fassolas


Dr Michael Gonevski and Dr Oliver Firth

Dr Oli and Dr Mike are put through their paces by Master Scuba Diver and Personal Trainer Kristen Fassolas.

Dr Michael Gonevski

"If you don't know where you are going, any road can take you there" - Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

You walk into the gym and you see a line of cardio machines people "exercising" while talking on cell phones, watching television or even having conversation with their neighbours, all the while making sure to stay in their "fat-burning zones". Then you notice a guy in the corner of the gym, violently lifting these kettlebell "things".

He is doing burpees, then squats and presses kettlebells above his head, then swings them with no remorse. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this maniac's exercise routine. All you can think of is that it looks odd, intense and certainly not traditional.

In case you had any doubts and were wondering, that guy in the corner of the gym is me. To those in the know it certainly comes as no surprise that I know my way around a kettlebell or two. In fact, I have been doing this game longer than I care to remember. Out of necessity and equal parts frustration I have started giving friendly advice to diver candidates who struggle with their physical fitness test.

They show up a year later and their physical performance has improved so much that I have to double check first it is still the same person. To my question what they have been doing to get there most of them respond with "what you told me to". Talk about moral reward.

You can imagine my scepticism and slight amusement then when I got contacted by scuba diving enthusiast and personal trainer Kristen Fassolas about referring to her scuba divers who need to improve their physical fitness. I am of the firm belief that I know how to train myself. However, I'm also aware of the joke that any attorney who represents themselves has an idiot for a client. Doctors who treat themselves at best are frowned upon, at worst lose their licence. Having this in mind, I agreed to a three month test trial. What better way to convince me that what she preaches works than making me see the results for myself, right?

Let me tell you from the start, I have a thing about personal trainers. You just need to see them teach a newbie their first kettlebell swing which ends up having more to do with a squat to know what I'm talking about. I also do remember the time when I was growing up and we used to call the area between the ribs and the hips the "waist". Now we call it the "core" and personal trainers charge you a lot of money to help you train it. I suspect the normal professional pathway for most trainers is to start out as dangerous human beings with little practical knowledge but an enormous amount of theory and ideas of what a person should do. It does not stop there, their enthusiasm takes them through endless agony over the perfect workout and they end up over-training everyone in the process. And how about trying to impress everyone with how clean they eat. Don't eat the rabbit, eat its food. I get that; now how about ordering a big chunk of animal carcass and a few good beers. And just work out harder the next day.

But I digress. You cannot progress forward if you keep your cup full all the time. You need to admit that you have gaps and weaknesses and a fresh pair of eyes is extremely helpful in order to look at them from a different angle and correct them up to some standard. Obviously, the first step in the whole process was to sign a waiver of responsibility. You know which kind, "No responsibility is assumed for any injuries or harm that may result". I'm used to taking punches as well as delivering them myself. So far, so good. No surprises here then and no questions of the What-am-I-getting-myself into kind.

The whole process is supposed to take three months and is conducted entirely online. Kristen becomes my virtual coach. I have to submit photographs and measurements at regular intervals. All the feedback, advice and training programs are delivered online as well. Before everything begins however I have to answer a variety of questions and submit videos of me performing simple fundamental human movements. I have to place an emphasis on fundamental: The push, The squat and The lunge. All greatness is achieved when you have the courage to go back to the beginning and master the fundamentals. There was one question that I found quite interesting, is there an exercise that I don't like. The bench press has become widely (and unjustly) accepted as the benchmark for strength. For some reason I have come to detest the bench press. Mainly because you have to perform while lying on your back. And any sport that you end up lying on your back, you are probably not very good at.

I also need to submit front, back and side photographs of myself as well. And this is when reality hits me hard. I'm actually older than I realize! (Surprise, surprise!) My brain thinks I'm a teenager but my body has a different idea.

Fitness and well-being are supposed to be lifelong pursuits. Before you embark on this journey you have to ask yourself and honestly answer the right questions.

Asking the right questions is one of the great lessons in life. I'll give you an example. When you are in university and you meet a lovely young lady at a party, you may ask something like this: "So, do you have a boyfriend?" Of course, she'll answer "Yes". What, you thought you are the first guy to notice that she is good looking?

She said she has a boyfriend, now what do you do? Most men will use this to make a dignified retreat "Gotta get another beer" and leave. Bad move. What you should be asking instead: Is your boyfriend here? Smooth! If she answers: "He is at home studying for exams" you have established a key baseline fact on which to establish further communication. There may or may not be a boyfriend but the small victory is that you are allowed to remain close to her, purchase her drinks and make an attempt to get even closer. If, on the other hand she responds with: "Yes, he is standing right behind you crushing stones with his hands" my best advice is to say, "What a coincidence! My boyfriend is here too, and there he is!" as you rush away. Asking the right questions is one of those little things that bring clarity not only to parties but also to the world of fitness.

The shortest distance between two points A and B is a straight line. Assuming you know where you are at present (point A) and where you want to go (Point B), the whole process should be straightforward. Most people have a pretty good idea of where they want to be. This is your Point B. Lose some weight, look good and feel good. These are all admirable choices. When they say lose weight, I assume that most people mean "body fat", as chopping your arm off will get your bodyweight down, but that is not exactly what you had in mind, right? Perhaps you want to be "ready for anything"? Zombie apocalypse or fending off sharks with a frying pan certainly should qualify as "anything". The "A" in Point A is probably best described as "Assessment". This is your starting point.

When you start from scratch you always make progress. Magically, everything works. Only for about six weeks.

It is quite a different story when you have been going at it for some time. Along the way you pick up a few strengths and weaknesses, aches and pains. So is it safe to say that lose some weight, look good and feel good are still worthy goals? Probably, but I want to challenge myself a little more. And more importantly I'm curious to what piece of advice I'll get that will set me on the way to reclaim greatness. I've zeroed it down to losing 5 kg of body weight (and most certainly not by chopping off a limb...) and in the process becoming ripped like Bruce Lee circa "Enter the Dragon". Well, just kidding. My second goal is to get back to double digit pull ups. Well, not kidding this time. Difficult but not impossible, considering that I have been there before my personal best was lifting myself 23 times above the bar. This was also sadly that many years ago...

Perhaps here is the place where I need to make a clarification. Knowing the difference between health and fitness goals may seem trivial but the two should not be confused. For some strange reason people believe that putting yourself next to death's door is worth it for a short term fix. You have seen the t-shirts "Pain is weakness leaving the body", "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger". In fact, I might even be guilty of wearing them myself. I have never seen a T-shirt that says "I want to be able to go the mailbox on the day I die" but I'm pretty sure that this is what most people actually want to identify with.

One way to describe health is the absence of disease. Health is not illness. High blood pressure and fainting are not signs of health. Health is mostly what we take for granted until we don't have it. So smile, take a deep breath and enjoy every moment as the gift that it is. Fitness on the other hand comes with the question, "Fit for what?" It is simply the ability to do a task. You may be fit for the task of running a marathon; swimmers are fit for the task of swimming. Using the same logic, divers should be fit for the task of diving. Fitness and health are not the same. You may be fit to run and unhealthy at the same time if you have cancer inside you.

With clearly set goals and only a few tweaks of my training sessions, which Kristen kept mostly intact, I set myself on the path of reclaiming my former glory.

Here is the place to mention that the diet has to be linked tightly to the exercise program. A good personal trainer like Kristen spends as much time reviewing the food journal as the training log, as it is an essential key to success. The food impacts the training, the training impacts the food journal and the master of the two leads to a lifetime of easy weight management. What diet works? They all work. For about six weeks. The real trick is sticking to one. When choosing the vegetables pick up fresh ones and remember, if it goes bad, it is probably good for you. A serving of vegetables at each meal will help you to stay lean. I learned that portion control is key to weight loss. Proteins should be the size of your palm. For vegetables, put two fists together and aim for that amount. Carbohydrates should be no bigger than the size of one fist.

Healthy eating does not have to be complicated. You know it, I know it. So why, then, don't we follow the rule??

The three months passed almost unnoticeably. The quality of effort is far more important than the quantity. But you already know that. How far did I get with my goals? I'm pleased to report that I managed to lose those five kgs of bodyweight without having to chop off part of a limb. The ripped look of Bruce Lee is still work in progress. Considering that the number "10" is in the double digits, I can consider the second goal sort of accomplished too.

I still have yet to find that unlucky person who will kick my backside harder than me. But for that extra bit of encouragement and enthusiasm when you need to get in shape, I recommend you to visit Kristen's website.

That rust on my kettlebells is not from being left unattended outside in the daily drizzle. It is mostly from my sweat, occasional blood and tears.

Dr Oliver Firth

I love spring cleaning the garage. Much like one's mind, a good probe into the darkest and dampest recesses can lead to surprising discoveries.

'Twas during last spring's annual nerve-racking mission that I emerged Indiana Jones-style from a particularly spider-infested cranny, swathed in cobwebs and triumphantly clutching a mysterious metal bar bedecked with spongey protruberances. Not some long-lost staff of huge religious import, destined to make my schoolboy dreams of archaeological renown a reality; no, merely my Iron Gym pull up bar, the latest in a long and tragic line of criminally underused fitness devices whose sole purpose it is to provide a suitable home for arachnids in which to flourish.

"This year will be different", I heard myself think, as I spotted the rusting kettlebell (sorry Mike) and the rowing machine that had turned into a remarkably expensive and ineffective clothes hanger. I managed the sum total of 4 wholly ineffectual pull ups before abandoning the bar in the doorway. Beaten, I skulked away, trying to avoid the pitying gaze of Mrs O. I could see her regretting that decision not to say yes to Hugh Jackman instead. But this year was to be different...

Fate moves in mysterious ways, and had obviously had enough of my failed attempts at building a modicum of upper body strength. For soon afterwards I was emailed out of the blue with a request to discuss an online scuba fitness coaching program. Master Scuba Diver and personal trainer Kristen Fassolas had spotted the need for a holistic approach to fitness, tailored to the needs of the diver, and she offered to put me through my paces as the best way of testing out her coaching strategies. Move over Schwarzenegger, Dr O was on his way.

After the usual registration process I was sent a variety of documents to fill in, designed to tease out my day to day routine and habits. The importance of honest responses was emphasised, in a refreshing way; there was no place to hide. Particularly when I had to upload front, back and side shot photos of my ungainly 40-something year old frame. The calorie intake diary revealed numerous chinks in my nutritional armour (missed breakfasts and those late night whole tub ice cream binges would clearly have to stop). Kristen assimilated all this information, listened carefully to my goals, and helped me to define and refine them. And then the 3 month trial began.

All I really wanted was to keep my middle age belly spread in check, and develop some more upper body strength. To be honest I was expecting to be assaulted by a brutal flurry of intense reps and stamina- crushing high-intensity workouts; but we started deceptively gently, and for good reason. There were numerous aspects of changing health behaviour that I'd not really paid much attention to in the past stretches, warm ups/cool downs, sleep patterns, hydration, portion control, food composition, to name a few which Kristen highlighted as crucial steps on the journey that needed to be mastered before getting down to the nitty gritty of lifting weights. That's not to say I was being treated with kid gloves; all her suggestions were well founded and designed to tackle all aspects of health, not just building muscle. Equally as importantly, Kristen managed to design a program that fitted in with the scant and unpredictable free time I had available, and this has been key to keeping it going the easier it is to do, the fewer the legitimate excuses there are to miss that session. Flexibility helped too: 10-15 minutes here and there, slotting short routines around the everyday chores, turning the mundane into an exercise opportunity all makes it less of a mission.

So how does it work in practice? Essentially Kristen becomes your virtual personal trainer. There's a well designed web-based portal, to which you have login details. Within, there is a dashboard where you can see your weekly diary, current plans (both exercise and nutritional), messaging centre (where you apologise for being lazy and Kristen replies back with generous lashings of positivity, humour and encouragement), and gallery (for those embarrassing photos of you in your swimming trunks trying to hold it all in). Each week you "check in", updating your vitals (weight, waist circumference and so on), adding photos, and telling her how you've done over the last 7 days; and the plans are then modified to keep you on track, depending on how you've progressed. These check-ins induced more than enough guilt to motivate me to keep up the daily workouts Kristen makes no bones about the commitment required, from both parties, to make the system work at its best. There are specific programs and exercises targeted towards the diver, with goals such as improving gas consumption, passing dive medicals, and generally being a fitter, safer diver.

And lo and behold, the changes came, and sooner than anticipated I lost 5kg over the 3 months (from the right places too), and noticed a broadening of the shoulders and increased definition in the abdomen (an area which hitherto had been rather, let's say "freeform" in its boundaries). This was result enough in itself, but what surprised me (and my wife) most was the improvement in temperament, mood and energy levels I seem to have bags more vim, vigour, verve and other 'v' words than ever, and the pint glasses (of isotonic rehydration solution, of course) definitely seem half full rather than half empty. Even though my three months is up, the routines Kristen showed me have become so embedded in my day that I feel quite bereft if I am forced to miss one now. Okay, Arnie can rest easy, his position is not exactly under threat; but I'd urge anyone who feels in need of a little encouragement to keep them in shape to visit Kristen's site.

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