Jill Duffy – Muscle Can Be Constantly Evolving’

“I think women avoid weight training because they don’t understand what it does to the body.”
Jill Duffy
Activities: Weight lifting, hiking, biking, marathon runner
Jill’s interview was finished weeks ago, but I couldn’t find a title to best suit it. I wanted something that fit perfectly, like many of the other titles given to interviews and articles that have been written. But with everything she has accomplished and is involved in, I was stumped. I finally decided on Muscle Can Be Constantly Evolving, because throughout her life, in many ways it has.
As you read her interview you will see how being active as a child, has evolved not only into a lifestyle but also a pretty cool career. So check out this great interview with a pretty bad-ass lady!
Q: You have been active for several years. How and when did you get started?
Most of my family are active people, and I credit being an active person more to my upbringing than anything. When I was a kid, my family would take long walks on holidays, like Thanksgiving, and every Sunday we’d either go hiking or to the beach (even in the winter). Getting up and off the couch was just part of the day. We weren’t a sports family by any means, but we moved. We walked. We swam. I played soccer and did some gymnastics, and I wasn’t a star in either of those sports, but I went. I showed up. I practiced.
As an adult, I became more seriously active in college, but the activities I do for exercise change all the time. I was a cardio-gym rat for a few years. There was a stretch of a year here and there when I swam. I commuted to work by bicycle 11-miles round trip nearly every day for about four years. Right now I’m working from home and training for my first half marathon, so I’ve been running more than anything else.
I work as a writer covering technology, and one of the areas where I specialize is fitness technology. So I’m always testing new gadgets and devices, everything from the latest Fitbit to the Skulpt Aim, a device that uses an electrical pulse (called electrical impedance myography) to measure the fat and muscle content and generate a “muscle quality” score. Sometimes my workouts change to accommodate whatever device I’m testing. It’s a lot of fun, and I get to borrow so many interesting gadgets, sports watches, and other gear.
Q: What do your workouts consist of?
Typically I workout five or six days a week, but I’m not at 100 percent all the time. My running schedule has four short or medium length runs during the week, and one long run on Saturdays.
Q: How much time do you commit to training each week?
Typically I work out an hour a day. I’d say at least twice a week, it’s more like 40 minutes, but I feel like showing up to the gym or the running path is half the battle. If I show up, then I will do something while I’m there, and something is better than nothing.
Q: I know you recently incorporated weight training into your regimen, why did you decide to do that?
I lived in New York until about a month ago, and this winter was so brutally cold and snowy that I started doing a lot of weight training at the gym because I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on a stationary bike or running in place on a treadmill. How boring! I tried lifting weights and really liked it.
Previously, I had been biking outdoors a lot, so my legs were in good shape. I decided to focus on arms and core since I had been neglecting them. I set a goal for myself to be able to do a pull-up within three months, and I hit my goal in something like three and half weeks! I was so proud that I even told my boss at work.
Part of wanting to train my upper body was purely driven by aesthetics, to be honest. I have a big tattoo on my right arm, and I thought it would look better if that arm had more muscle definition. But I also want to be strong and remain strong through a long, full, and healthy life.
Q: How did you know what to do? Did you hire a trainer or just figure things out on your own?
Maybe this sounds cheeky, but I joined a gym (New York Health and Racquet Club, which is a phenomenal club) and took advantage of that free one-hour personal training session that many health clubs offer. I have to admit, I did not look forward to doing it. I never worked with a trainer before then or since. But I wanted to learn some moves from a professional, and then take those moves and use them on my own afterward. And that’s what I did.
What I liked about working with the trainer is that he had some sense of how much weight I could lift. He knew the visual cues, like shaking arms, that indicated I was lifting a weight that was challenging enough for me. A few months ago, I tested some smart workout pants called Athos capris that do something similar: They look at how hard your muscles are firing and can essentially tell you whether you can safely handle more weight. Understanding how much weight was heavy enough was a huge eye-opener for me. I needed some objective measurement, whether from a device or another person, to tell me, “It’s safe for you to lift more weight without hurting yourself.”
I continue to do some of the moves that I learned, but I picked up a few new ones from a gadget I was testing called Push Band. It’s an armband that counts sets and reps. It has a companion mobile app that you use to select the exercise you’re about to do. Those exercises come with videos. I learned some different variations on squats and chest presses that I still incorporate into my routine.
Q: What, if anything has incorporating weights into your workout done for you, both mentally and physically?
I don’t think weight-lifting has done anything for me mentally, except for help me feel a little badass. Maybe that would change if I worked harder at it or had a social group attached to it, but I workout completely solo, and I always have. Physically, my arms have more definitions. I’m also hoping that I’m building muscle that will help my body burn more calories at rest. I’ll know for sure the next time I measure my basal metabolic rate (I have a device back in the New York office that is an at-home breathalyzer for BMR).
Q: Being new to weight training, why do you think many women avoid it, or are afraid to challenge themselves and lift heavy?
I think women avoid weight training because they don’t understand what it does to the body. Women who want to shed pounds believe that cardio is the way to achieve that goal. In some sense, they’re right, but incorporating weight training will probably get them there faster and give them other benefits that they probably want but might be afraid to admit they want, like bigger muscles.
I had a long discussion one day with an editor who knows a lot about lifting and health who took issue when I used the phrase “tone muscle” in an article. “There’s no such things as ‘toning’ muscle,” he said.
He’s right. People say “toning” when they mean “lose fat and gain muscle, but not too much muscle.” I think a lot of women who are inexperienced at lifting weights don’t realize just how hard it is to gain a lot of muscle.
The other problem is not feeling a sense of belonging in the weight room. Even my partner, who is male, faces this issue. He doesn’t like to go into the weight room at his gym when it’s full of big grunting guys who are slamming barbells. That outward machismo behavior comes of extremely aggressive, not just toward women, but to anyone who isn’t a part of their group. Who wants to hang around that?
When I was going to the gym in New York, I went at odd times of day, like on my lunch break, when the weight room wasn’t crowded. It helped me feel much more comfortable. I had space. I didn’t feel like I had to look around and check whether someone wanted the bench I was using or the dumbbells I had reserved by my feet. I wasn’t as self-conscious when I needed to rest a little longer between sets. For some people, having a lifting partner or a social group for working out, like a class, might help. You suddenly have your own sense of belonging and don’t have to feel intimidated by the grunters. For me working out alone, I only got comfortable after a few weeks of trying things out in what I would call a safe environment, where I didn’t have to worry about people watching me, or getting in someone’s way, or having the wrong etiquette.
Q: Do you follow a special dietary plan (veganism, vegetarian, paleo,etc.)? Why or why not?
My diet isn’t strict, but I do try to change it up from time to time. When I started with weights, I tried to shift to eating more calories from protein and fat earlier in the day. To make that change, I dramatically altered the kinds of foods I was eating for breakfast, which used to be small amounts (150-200 calories) of very mild foods, like oatmeal and yogurt. I started with fairly easy breakfast foods, like eggs with spinach and avocados, but pretty soon, things got whacky. Sardines, sausage, dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), and other salty, fatty, pungent foods would be sitting on my plate at 6:30 in the morning. I was aiming to hit around 450 calories, and it really did make a difference in how I felt later in the day. I’m off that bandwagon at the moment. In fact, this morning I looked at a can of sardines, thought about eating it, and decided I’d rather save it for lunch.
One reason I don’t have a strict diet is because I believe enjoying food is as important as eating healthfully. Along the same lines, I think feeling less stress and unwinding is as important as working out. If I have a really bad day, it might be more beneficial for me to sit in the hot tub for 10 minutes than it would be to grind through a workout. Nurturing the body and giving it pleasure is so important, but easy to forget in a busy lifestyle.
Q: Many people will claim they want to become more active, they just don’t have the time. How do you find the time?
We literally cannot make more time. There are only 24 hours in a day, and 168 hours in a week. I need activity to be part of my everyday life. I need my lunchtime walk to be a habit that I do everyday. I need a weekend hike to be my social outing, not something I do before or after being social.
Bicycling to and from work was one of my favorites ways to get exercise because it was so practical. I had to get from point A to point B anyway, so I essentially reclaimed whatever commute time I would have wasted on the subway (or for some people, in a car) as exercise time.
Some people run to work (it’s really popular in London). Some people bicycle on the weekends to get from here to there. I hear a lot of excuses about not having a place to change (what, your office doesn’t have a bathroom?) to being too sweaty (towel off; you’ll be fine). To those people I say, “Try it twice. Just twice. And see if you like it.” Plus, it’s enormously satisfying after a long, hard day to pedal hard and feel the wind on your face, rather than feel cramped on a bus, subway car, or driver’s seat.
Q: What was your biggest misconception about weight training, before you started?
Because I workout alone without a spotter, I didn’t want to try anything dangerous. I honestly thought that to be safe, I should not feel much strain when lifting a weight. I didn’t trust myself to know how heavy was too heavy.
The more I tried it, and the more I read about lifting weights, the more I realized it should be hard, but that you can stop if you can’t complete a set. Now, I’m much more satisfied if I get through six reps and feel like I need to stop than if I get through 12 reps and feel like I could keep going if I wanted.
Q: Crossfit, Soul Cycle, Swerve, The Fhitting Room… are all fitness companies that focus on specific forms of training. These spaces seem to be popping up all over and appear to be the new face of fitness. Do you believe these sport specific spaces will put large fitness centers and franchises out of business or is there room for both?
There is so much room for competition. The best health clubs in major cities wouldn’t be charging $120 per month if demand weren’t still high.
I love that people have so many options for ways to be fit. Do what you like! Do what makes you happy! My mom started kickboxing in her 50s, and now she’s 60 and doing Zumba and yoga. A colleague of mine adores SoulCycle because it has a competitive aspect. Another woman I know stays fit through circus acrobatics. Different strokes for different folks.
Q: Do you believe social media has contributed to the overall influx of interest and participation in fitness? If so in what ways and why?
Social media is just a tool of communication. Social engagement definitely helps people commit to their goals, and that’s true no matter whether it’s about being active, eating well, or saving money. The calorie- and fitness-logging service MyFitnessPal released some figures last year showing “users who share their food diary with friends lose twice as much weight as other users.” Connecting with others can give us support, make us feel accountable, and motivate us in other ways. Whenever I’m wearing a Fitbit device, I know there’s a guy I have befriended in my Fitbit network who watches my activity and cheers me on when I have a really active day. If I have a few bad days in a row, he usually asks if I’m sick or traveling. I love that he pays attention. And just the act of my writing back to him makes me more aware of my behavior and patterns.
Q: You blog about apps, and fitness devices among other things. What should someone new to working out look for when choosing a good heart rate monitor, and fitness app?
In testing different heart rate monitors, I love everything that Mio Global makes. What that company does different is put intelligent feedback onto the device itself. All the heart rate monitors are wristbands. Some are also runner’s/cyclist’s watches, and some are just standalone heart rate monitors, but most of them vibrate and use flashing colored lights to tell you your heart rate zone. With a traditional chest strap, you need to connect it via Bluetooth or ANT+ to another device, like a compatible watch or smart phone, to actually know what is your heart rate. With Mio products, you see it right on your wrist–and you can just glance at the colored light. For example, I ran this morning with the Mio Alpha 2, and I was trying to keep my heart rate in Zone 4, which is purple. When it flashed red, I slowed down. When it turned green, I sped up. Easy.
There are so many fitness apps that choosing one or two to use really depends on what you want to track. Some are for running, while other are for sets and rep counting. Some are for logging how often you go to the gym and how you feel afterward. Others coach you through routines. It’s all about what you need and want. One thing I would say is if you think an app is ugly, keep looking for something else. If you hate the way an app looks, part of you will always hate using it. A looked-at app is a used app.
(Skulpt Aim body fat and muscle content with muscle quality score reading)
Q: Everyone has something or someone that motivates them. Who or what motivates you in your career and in the gym?
My nicey-nice answer is that I believe that small bits of work can add up to much bigger payoffs.
My devious answer is I’m often motivated by the thought, “If she can do that, then, damn it, I can!” That’s what I thought when I learned to drive a manual transmission. I had a friend who was smart, but didn’t have nearly as much determination as I do. But she could drive stick and I couldn’t. One day I realized that if she could learn it, then damn it, so could I!
Q: What short and long term goals have you set for yourself with your training?
I mentioned already my goal to do a pull-up, which I achieved sooner than I thought I would. That made me feel great. Right now, I’m hoping to finish my first half marathon in May. I don’t care so much about my time or my pace. I just want to finish it running or even jogging, but not walking.
Q: What has your biggest accomplishment in life been thus far?
In 2013, I was invited to speak at TED. It wasn’t the big TED conference, but a series called TED@250 hosted at the company’s headquarters. The video of the talk never aired. It was both a huge accomplishment, and in some ways a failure.
Jill Duffy at TED@250. April 24, 2013, New York, NY. Photo: Ryan Lash
(Photo of Jill at TED@250 credited to Ryan Lash)
That same year, after my TED failure, I wrote and published a book called Get Organized: How to Clean Up Your Messy Digital Life. I’m proud of both of those things. I also learned a great deal about what I want to do differently going forward.
Last year, I wrote an article for Prevention Magazine about fitness trackers, and the editor asked me to do a photo shoot for it. At first, I said no. I explained that I was not a model, but the editor insisted, so I did it. That was pretty much an accomplishment: to be accepted and wanted in a magazine for who I am and how my body actually looks. The final image was not edited to make me look any more glamorous, and that was both scary and very satisfying.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up on Long Island in a town called Huntington. I hated it. Suburban, car-culture places aren’t for me. I much prefer big cities.
Q: What has the most difficult transition been in moving from NY to DC?
The transition hasn’t been so hard. It only takes about four hours by bus or car to get from Washington D.C. to New York, and I still feel connected to everyone there. I’ve been back once already and have another weekend trip planned in May.
One difficulty has been switching from a full-time office job, the one I used to commute to by bicycle, to working from home. I’ve worked from home in the past, but I know it takes a lot of self-discipline, determination, and positive habits to do it well. Some people with a home office roll out of bed and into their desk chair, sit for four hours, eat lunch, and then sit again for another four hours. I can’t live like that. I just wouldn’t be happy, and my work would suffer as a result, too.
My day starts at 6:00 a.m. with coffee and breakfast. I walk my dog at 7:00, and then I’m outside running by 7:30. Work doesn’t start until 8:30 at the earliest, but 9:00 is better. Between 9:00 and 11:00 I’m at my most productive, so I try to not take phone meetings then or get caught up in email. The whole day is regimented like that, with mandatory breaks for walking, eating at the table (not at the desk), and making sure I’m not stuck in the chair for too long a stretch at any given time. I even have days scheduled for going to a coffee shop to work somewhere else and give myself a change of scenery. I’m pretty strict, but I believe it’s so important to have rules or markers in the day that both force you to take a break and force you to focus.
Q: How do you spend your free time when you are not working out?
I write a lot, both for work and for myself, and I always have some kind of project in the works, whether it’s developing a podcast or writing a book. I also listen to more podcasts than I can count.
Q: Right now, what is the best thing about your life?
My life is so exciting right now. The reason I moved to Washington D.C. is because my partner got his dream job. It’s a position that will have us moving to a new country every two years. Right now, we’re waiting to find out where we’ll be going first and when.
Q: When you relocate, will you continue writing about fitness tech?
I really hope that I can continue to test and write about fitness technology after my partner and I are sent abroad. We’ll find out where we’re going any day now! But it will depend on the country. We might end up in a country where it takes three weeks for mail to get delivered
Q: Why did you agree to be a part of the MCBMI project?
Part of what I wanted to share about myself for the MCBMI project is that I’m not some huge bodybuilder. My biceps are far from bulging, my stomach has a nice little layer of fat on it, and my butt sags more than I would like. And yet, I’m reasonably fit and healthy because of the lifestyle I’ve created. And because it’s a lifestyle, I know that I will always be in relatively good shape.