It was one of those New Year’s eves when you decide you’ve had enough and need to take charge of your life. This particular one was memorable because I actually managed to stick to my health-related resolutions for over five months in the new year. I’d celebrated my first wedding anniversary and the ‘new bride’ glow had started to wane. The weighing scale seemed to have taken on a life of its own, adding numbers at will. Within just a year, I had gained almost 10 lb, firmly putting me in the ‘overweight’ category. I knew I had to do something. Leveraging my past experience, I turned to what I knew had worked in the past – exercise.
I had gained almost 10 lb, firmly putting me in the ‘overweight’ category. I knew I had to do something.
I had always been involved in sports while at school, thanks to a carefully crafted regimen at my quasi-military style alma mater (something I can’t be thankful for enough). While at college, I’d got introduced to Yoga and fallen in love with it. The one thing I wasn’t too proud of was my endurance level. I decided to kill two birds with one stone – improve my stamina, and lose the excess weight. The first hour of my day was, thus, reserved for jogging (as far as I could go without stopping) followed by a routine of intense Yogasanas.
The first moment of exhilaration came when I crossed the 5-km mark for the first time, about eight weeks into my schedule. I was ecstatic to find that I did have some endurance muscle fibres in me after all. The Yoga practice was supporting the cardio schedule admirably, with outstanding improvement in breathing capacity and flexibility. I did not own a scale then so was not distracted by minor fluctuations. The diet was unchanged but the eating was mindful. In about three months, I’d reversed all the damage of ‘newly-wed’ celebratory feasting and then some.
“Are you not keeping well?”
I was feeling highly accomplished. That’s when the reality check happened. One day, a colleague that I was collaborating with again after several months of being on separate projects, casually asked, “Are you not keeping well?” …er…what?
Have you ever had a friend or relative return from a health retreat, where they promise dramatic weight loss, put you on a detox diet of ‘healthy’ juices, boiled and tasteless vegetables, and lentils cooked the ‘zero-oil’ way? You wondered why he looked so feeble that he might fall if he stood in the way of a mildly strong draft of wind? Or a cousin or aunt who took up marathon training to ‘lose the flab’, but at the end of the annual marathon calendar ended up not only weighing several kilos less but also looking several years older, with sunken eyes, gaunt cheeks, and far more wrinkles than you remembered she possessed?
Without going into a lesson on physics, let us understand what ‘weight’ actually means in the context of health and fitness. Our bodyweight comprises two things: lean body mass and body fat. Lean body mass further comprises internal organs, bones, muscles, skin, and body water. Of these, muscle tissue is the most metabolically active tissue, requiring more energy than the other components for growth, repair and maintenance. In terms of changes in weight, it is the muscle mass that can gain or lose weight in the short term, a few weeks or months. The only other component that can change in weight quickly is the water in the body; just a few days are enough.
The prolonged cardio activity definitely burnt the fat, but only after it ate into precious muscle too, hence, the weathered look.
In the case of the friend who patronised the health resort, what he probably lost was water weight. In all probability, he promptly regained all the lost weight within a few weeks of his return as his body readjusted to the usual levels of water intake and retention. In the case of the marathoning cousin, she lost valuable muscle tissue along with the dispensable body fat. The prolonged cardio activity definitely burnt the fat, but only after it ate into precious muscle too, hence, the weathered look.
Appropriate levels of fat loss, while retaining existing skeletal muscle mass, will automatically give you the lean look.
The ideal body composition focuses on body fat as a percentage of your bodyweight. Hence, one should aim to lose fat rather than simply losing weight. Appropriate levels of fat loss, while retaining existing skeletal muscle mass, will automatically give you the lean look.
Now, here come the twin dilemmas:
- If a so-called ‘healthy’ diet only helps to lose water weight then what should I eat to lose fat?
- If a challenging physical activity like marathon training costs me precious skeletal muscle mass, then how do I protect it? (Everyone says walking is the best exercise. I thought I’d take it to the next level with running. Should I simply walk then?)
More on cracking the dilemmas soon.