Dan Harrison looks into my eyes. “Have you been cheating?” he asks. I hesitate. It’s a question I hear all through my time with him. I tell him I haven’t, but he picks up on the hesitation and insists I must have strayed off the straight and narrow.
“It was the sauce,” I blurt out. “The chilli sauce at the Chinese on Dhiyafah Road.” Only when I’d nearly emptied the bottle did I realise I was smacking my lips because of the hefty dose of sugar.
Barely cracking a smile, my trainer chastises me for not sticking to our agreement, cautioning me to watch everything I put into my mouth.
The agreement in question is an eating plan that is at the heart of Harrison’s fitness philosophy. “Ninety per cent of any fitness plan is diet,” he tells me repeatedly during the 30-day plan I sign up for in a desperate attempt to shed some bulk, sleep more calmly (and quietly) and breathe easily. I am to eat like a caveman — no, not just steak tartare (although a past life as food reviewer means I’ve cultivated a healthy appreciation for a garlicky, peppery mix), but fish first and foremost, then chicken, eggs and lean red meat. I must build meals around this central protein, sticking with vegetables, nuts and some fruit. The plan, devised in concert with American nutritionists Dallas and Melissa Hartwig of Whole9, promises to change my life in 30 days. Grains, legumes, sugars and dairy cause inflammation in the body without our realising it, the Hartwigs believe, and the plan is a sort of detox regimen aimed at promoting healing by cutting out all the inflammatory, insulin-spiking, calorie-dense but nutritionally sparse food groups that slot so well into our current lifestyles (see our caveman diet story on pages 8-9).
Unlike other modern diets, you’re not allowed even a single cheat for the 30-day programme. “Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard,” the Hartwigs say on their blog. “Unless you physically tripped and your face landed in a box of doughnuts, there is no slip.”
If that sounds militant, perhaps that’s what’s necessary. Harrison has a similar approach: tough and uncompromising, but not stupidly so. “Vegetables give you the carbs you need,” he says. “We don’t eat processed rubbish that has massive detriment to our health and performance.” He tells me he’s seen people lose up to ten kilograms of fat over the same period of time, but that isn’t why I’d agree to going so long without doughnuts — or biryani.
The catalyst was a boardroom meeting during which my publishing director paused mid-sentence, wanting to know who it was breathing so loudly. All together, the rest of the room turns to look at me. Me. With allergies, sinus and intermittent asthma trouble, I’ve always been a heavy breather —– but I was now so bad I could make a killing doing sound effects for horror films. I blame my new job and the canteen food — but that’s a whole other story.
And so I find myself getting a body composition analysis at Evolve, Harrison’s spanking new fitness facility in Jumeirah, where he trains some of the top athletes in the UAE, including the Fazza powerboating and jet ski teams.
It turns out I’m 17kg overweight and I carry most of that around my midsection. My body fat is a massive 32 per cent. Even as I’m reeling from those numbers, Harrison gets stuck into his favourite game: whipping people into shape.
He starts me off on easy-peasy exercises that soon have me sweating buckets and allow him to analyse my fitness levels. I do walking lunges, Russian step-ups and hit the treadmill. I can barely move by the time I’m finished, and the next day is complete agony.
He doesn’t have a single philosophy, because he says every client is different and requires different methods of training to become fit. “However, I do strongly feel that everyone has the potential to reach athletic performance. Why have a goal of just weight loss when you can achieve much greater fitness goals with the correct training? Everyone should have functional strength, mobility, flexibility, speed and power,” he says. “At Evolve, we want to open people’s minds to real training.”
Besides the emphasis on diet, the plan tailor-made for me means starting out with basic functional movement patterns and progressing to Olympic-style lifts, gymnastic movements and CrossFit-style training, before putting them together to set me on the road to fitness and health. He lays out a circuit for me, so I do one entire set of four or five different exercises and take a short break before starting again.
Day two: chest. I can press 30kg on my second set. The numbers mean nothing to me, but it seems to surprise my trainer. Today, I feel, he gets a sense that I’m not as bad as he might have thought. He also reacts with mild surprise that I can keep running at the end — perhaps this is because my sinuses mean I exhale like a truck’s engine being switched off.
Then it’s off to what seems like one of those trust exercises: I sit on the Glute Ham Developer (GHD) and am to extend backwards. Only, I can’t — until Harrison extends a hand in support. It takes two sets before I allow him to move away from a spot where he can catch me if I fall. The GHD works the core muscles and by the end of the evening, my abs are complaining vociferously.
“The body is designed to hyper extend and it is particularly important for raw core strength to perform this full range of movement,” he says. Apparently, there’s more benefit in hyper extending than in endless crunches.
The following day, I must constantly remind colleagues I’m on a diet. I’ve got to refuse birthday cake and I can’t eat canteen biryani. At dinner, I’m extra careful — except for that chilli sauce.
At the end of the week, I get to the gym for the first time on a weekend in years. After 40 minutes of weights and cardio, I’m energised and feeling amazing. I’m still feeling it the next day: my trousers aren’t as tight any more. And when it’s body composition analysis time again, I find I’ve lost an amazing 2.5kg of fat, or 2.9kg overall.
Dramatic starts are normal, Harrison says, and at this point it’s crucial to vary training methods and diet and add in supplements. He sets me to doing burpees right away.
Over the next couple of weeks, he has me doing compound lifts, CrossFit-style circuits, squats, dead lifts, bench presses, hammer curls, kettle bells, vipers, ab extensions and several other exercises. He varies the routine constantly, so I’m never really bored.
Contrary to popular belief, cardio isn’t the centrepiece of the plan. “I incorporate some cardio, but too much can be detrimental. There are so many more effective proven methods to achieving fitness goals other than pounding a treadmill for hours,” he says. I don’t get the point of a treadmill either, so I’m happy.
With a degree in sport and exercise science, Harrison takes an unconventional, new-age approach to fitness that can leave you scratching your head — but it does get results. By the end of the fourth week, I’ve pretty much plateaued out, having lost more than 5kg so far. That day, Harrison has me wear a 10kg vest to give me an idea of the sort of weight I was carrying around. It’s the toughest session yet.
He pushes me extra hard, partly because I’ve plateaued off from before. At one point I lie on the floor exhausted, unable to move. “What. Are. You. Doing?” he asks, chiding me to get up and get moving. I ignore him, trying to summon up the energy to walk out. But then suddenly I’m in the zone and am able to finish my entire routine.
I get home to a dinner of organic salmon with home-made kiwi-cucumber salsa. Odd as it sounds, it tasted good enough to go on MasterChef.
Two days later, I’m back to do my last circuit of seven exercises. I’m excited I can hold the plank for a minute — but more so when I see my weight: I’ve lost a whopping 6.1kg of fat and 6.8kg overall. My body fat is still high, at 27 per cent, but I breathe more lightly than before and sleep better at night.
I’ve dropped a trouser size and have better definition.
Six weeks later, despite cheating on Palaeo regularly, I’m hitting the apartment gym three times a week and have lost another kilo. And I’m still breathing easy.
-- Evolve Health and Fitness runs specialised personal training programmes and classes in Jumeirah. Call 04 325 4499 or visit www.evolveuae.com for details