Flight Plan for Fitness

Air Line Pilot, January 2003, p.21
By Capt. George E. Nolly (United)

Over the past year, I have helped hundreds of airline employees, mostly pilots, complete their own transformations.

Body-for-LIFE has become a best-selling book in the United States, and millions of Americans have regained control of their lives through this fitness/nutrition program.

In May 2000, as a fat 55-year-old with a 36-inch waist, I accepted the challenge. Eighty-four days later, I was fitter than at any time in my lifeóincluding my time as a college gymnastóand Iíd lost 25 pounds of fat and sported a 32-inch waist.

At the end of the year, I was honored by being selected first runner-up for the men-over-50 category, becoming one of the 37 champions selected from the 700,000 people who had entered the 2000 challenge.

Over the past 2 years, I have helped hundreds of airline employees, mostly pilots, complete their own transformations. Almost all of them initially felt that this program would be great for someone with regular, predictable hours but would just be incompatible with the airline lifestyle.

Following a simple plan that tells us when and what to eat, and when to exercise is really a walk in the park for pilots.

Iíd like to pass on some tips for success that worked for me and, subsequently, for them.

And Iíd like to share some thoughts on what to do when you find yourself on a layover in the Bates Motel, with Ďnary a workout facility within a country mile.

Actually, when you think about it, probably no group of people in the world should be more successful on a fitness/nutrition program than airline pilots. At the heart of the program is the concept of setting goals and then following a specific plan to reach those goals.

And that is something we airline pilots do for a living! On every flight we have a goal, such as safely and efficiently flying from Chicago to Denver. And we have a specific plan to do it, such as flying the OíHare departure, direct DBQ, then J84 to SNY, then picking up the LANDR arrival to DEN.

Fat is not very dense, so you need to lose a lot of fat before you notice it on the scale. But you will quickly notice it by the way your clothes fit. So I suggest you measure your bodyfat percentage, rather than your weight. 

On the way, we may have to take a reroute for weather, or deviate around buildups, but we still do what weíre told: we salute smartly and, overall, follow the magenta line.

So following a simple plan that tells us when and what to eat, and when to exercise is really a walk in the park for us. Itís in our genes!

The only hard part is deviating around the buildups (ground delays that cause our crew day to stretch out ad infinitum, missing crew meals, getting to the hotel after the exercise room has closed, etc.).

The first part of your mission, should you accept it, is deciding on realistic goals. This can be tricky. If you choose goals that are too easy to attain, when you finish the 12 weeks youíll feel little sense of accomplishment. And if you select goals that are unreachable, youíll feel like a failure.

Let me suggest that you choose goals that seem slightly out of reach, goals that, if you heard of someone else achieving them, would really impress you.

And remember, no hard-and-fast rule says you canít change your goals along the way. Just as you sometimes divert to an alternate rather than continue to the destination, you may amend your goals if they appear to be too easily achieved once youíre under way.

The more specific the goals are, the easier measuring your progress will be. For example, "I want to lose weight" is a goal that is easy to measure, but not specific enough to judge your success. If you lose one pound in 12 weeks, were you successful? How about 10 pounds?

A better goal would be "I want to lose 10 pounds of fat in the next 12 weeks." Thatís a measurable, achievable goal. Similarly, "I want to lose 2 inches off my waist" is measurable and achievable.

A lot of meal replacement bars are available and are excellent. Be sure to look at the nutritional information and make sure that the bar contains about equal portions of protein and carbohydrate. Most of the "weight loss" bars do not qualify, as they contain lots of carbs and very little protein.

Because 61 percent of the adult American population is overweight, I assume that at least one of your goals is to lose fat. We frequently fall into the trap of equating losing weight with losing fat, and Iíd like to discuss this for a moment.

Many of the yo-yo diets that have been popular in the past (and successful in the short term and very unsuccessful in the long term) emphasize losing weight, rather than losing fat. Much of their short-term success is based on losing water weight and muscle. Because muscle weighs more than fat, you can indeed lose a lot of weight by allowing your muscle mass to deteriorate. And since muscles hold water, you will also lose weight from water loss.

Losing fat is a different matter.

Fat is not very dense, so you need to lose a lot of fat before you notice it on the scale. But you will quickly notice it by the way your clothes fit. So I suggest you measure your bodyfat percentage, rather than your weight. You can do this rather easily with a set of plastic calipers, available for about $20 from most health food stores. In my opinion, the absolute best way to use a scale is to stand squarely on both feet in front of the scale. Carefully bend over and lift the scale with both hands. Now, carry it over to the garbage can and throw the damned thing out! Since you probably wonít do this, at least get into the habit of measuring your bodyfat at the same time you weigh yourself.

Eating six small, balanced meals each day can be problematic when youíre flying a trip. This works out, roughly, to a meal every 3 hours. Even on a short domestic flight, youíll probably be sitting in the cockpit for at least 3 hours counting preflight and ground taxi times. Unless you eat right before enplaning and are lucky enough to have minimal ground delays, you will probably need to eat some of your meals in the cockpit.

A little planning here goes a long way. If your airline boards customized crew meals, you might be able to eat a meal thatís right along the lines of the program, courtesy of your employer. For example, at United, I order the lighter-choice chicken crew meal. Itís a chicken breast about the size of my outstretched palm (one of the standard Body-for-LIFE measurements), a scoop of rice about the size of my clenched fist (the other standard measurement), and lots of vegetables. Now, thatís a perfect meal!

In this program, a meal ideally will consist of equal portions of protein and carbohydrates, plus lots of vegetables. A portion is an amount about the size of your outstretched palm or clenched fist.

Of course, you wonít always get a crew meal. Thatís where the planning comes in. A lot of meal replacement bars are available and are excellent. Be sure to look at the nutritional information and make sure that the bar contains about equal portions of protein and carbohydrate. Most of the "weight loss" bars do not qualify, as they contain lots of carbs and very little protein.

When it comes to alcohol on layovers, Iíve learned to "Just Say No." It doesnít take many beers to completely ruin your nutrition program.

Another option is ready-to-drink shakes made by EAS, the sponsor of the Body-for-LIFE Transformation Challenge. These are slightly smaller than a soft drink can, and I usually have a few stashed in my flight bag, along with a few bars. I also have at least three for each day of my trip packed in my suitcase. The residual advantage of this is that you get a great workout just lifting your bag at the beginning of the trip!

Healthy eating on your layover can also present a challenge. If you find yourself out in the boonies along a motel strip with only fast food available, you need to get creative. Eating a healthy meal at virtually every fast-food chain in America is possible, but you need to pay attention to whatís on the menu.

First, you need to forget about anything thatís friedóno french fries, no fried chicken patties, no onion rings.

Next, be sure to order your sandwich without mayonnaise. If you want to spice up the taste a bit, add catsup yourself. Get all the lettuce and tomatoes on your sandwich you can. It will give you a feeling of satiety, and make your meal healthier. I opt for the Chicken McGrill without mayo at McDonaldís when Iím forced to go the fast-food route.

Most of the yuppie restaurant chains have something relatively healthy on their menus. For example, at Outback Steakhouse, the salmon dinner is an excellent choice: a large salmon filet, a nice assortment of vegetables, and a rice pilaf.

The only problem is that itís about twice the size of an ideal meal. As soon as I get my entrťe, I cut it in half and put one part of it in a takeout box. If you have a refrigerator in your room, you can save it for later.

I suppose another choice is to split the meal with your flying partner, if he or she goes to dinner with you. Of course, if you pay for it, youíll probably find yourself expelled from the Captains Club!

I strongly suggest you include a stretch band and a jump rope in your suitcase. They take up very little space and can work wonders in a pinch. 

When it comes to alcohol on layovers, Iíve learned to "Just Say No." It doesnít take many beers to completely ruin your nutrition program. If you can nurse one drink for the entire evening, fine; otherwise, I suggest you go without.

Iíve found that the workout facilities at my layover hotels have ranged from fabulous to dismal. Because the basis of the exercise program is to preplan your workouts in advance, this can present a problem. If youíre set for a lower-body day, for example, and no weights of any kind are in the workout room, maybe you need to swap around your lower body and cardio days. Just like deviating around the buildup, we may need to deviate in our workout plan. Trust me, missing one workout in its proper order will not sidetrack your program.

What if you arrive in the evening at the hotel, the one with the fabulous workout room, only to find the room closed? Well, thatís when the in-room workout plan takes over. You can get a terrific workout right in your room with very little in the way of equipment. I strongly suggest you include a stretch band and a jump rope in your suitcase. They take up very little space and can work wonders in a pinch. Unless youíre on the ground floor, I donít recommend jumping rope in your room, but you can usually find someplace in the hotel where you wonít disturb anyone.

Jumping rope is a skill unto itself, so you may have some difficulty initially, but itís a great cardio workout. A typical 20-minute rope jumping session burns about 250 calories.

Stretch-band exercises are limited only by your imagination. You can usually improvise a stretch-band exercise thatís pretty close to the free-weight or machine exercise you were planning on doing.

Letís not forget the two pieces of weightlifting equipment you brought with you: your suitcase and your flight bag. Remove some manuals or add the hotel phone book, and you can customize your flight bag to just about any weight you want. This adjustable weight can be used for one-arm rows, curls, two-hand presses, and squats.

Donít forget dips between chairs, with your feet on the bed. And as long as you have a few feet of floor space, you can get a great ab workout by doing crunches with your feet up on the bed, and a great tricep/chest workout by doing pushups with your feet on the bed.

Frankly, although workout rooms are fun to go to just to stand around and flex and look in the mirrors that are everywhere, Iíd be lying if I said I needed them for a complete workout.

If youíre longing to regain that lost fitness of your youth, you could not start at a better time than now. And, in my opinion, you can get no better all-around program for doing it than Body-for-LIFE. You can find additional information on fitness for the airline pilot at www.airlinefitness.com. Start now, and in less than 3 months, you could be looking at a slimmer, fitter you staring back in the mirror.

Capt. George E. Nolly (United) is completing an e-book, The Fountain of Youth: Fit After Fifty, which will be available for download at his website at www.nolly.com.