All posts by Maithilee Shirgaonkar Jamsandekar

Maithilee Shirgaonkar-Jamsandekar is a management consultant with over eighteen years of experience working with the C-suite of companies, from start-ups to US$ 10 Bn corporations, both global and Indian. She currently advises educational institutions and CXOs of growth-stage start-ups, SMEs and large corporations on strategic visioning, strategy development, corporate innovation, business excellence, and business process restructuring. She is also a Fitness Coach, who seeks joy in helping others become the best version of themselves.

I’m over 50 years old. Isn’t it too late for me to start weight training? The ‘Can I…?’ series

I have several well-meaning relatives, especially female, who, whenever they meet me after a long interval, never miss a chance to comment on whether I’ve gained or lost ‘weight’. After having used the ‘lost’ version too many times consecutively, they finally decided to ask me what they should do to get slimmer.

Many of these relatives are middle-aged, between 40 and 60 years old (DISCLAIMER – I don’t subscribe to this dictionary-definition of middle age, which suggests that one becomes ‘old’ at age 60.) The moment I mention to them that apart from adopting an appropriate diet protocol, they should incorporate resistance training into their exercise regimen, they are visibly flummoxed. Isn’t weight training for young persons and bodybuilders, that too, males? Why don’t you tell us how many kilometres to walk or how often to do Yoga?

It is a far too common misconception that resistance training, particularly the kind done in a gym, is not meant for people above a certain age. I would argue, in fact, that it is the one form of exercise that older persons MUST incorporate into their exercise programme. 

One of the surest signs of body aging is the loss of muscle mass. Due to changes in the nature of physical activity, diet, metabolism and hormonal profile (especially for women), one starts to lose muscularity in the absence of a concerted effort to maintain lean mass.

Engaging in regular strength training can help avoid muscular atrophy, or loss of muscle. This, in turn, helps to:

  • avoid loss of strength, which allows one to do simple day-to-day functions, as well as the difficult or occasional ones, easily and effortlessly
  • protect the joints from injury, especially weight-bearing ones, which are essential for independent hassle-free locomotion
  • enable quick recovery in the case of any injury
  • retain good posture, which is especially useful for keeping the spine healthy
  • maintain a strong core, which helps keep up stamina
  • maintain a toned look, which keeps one looking younger than one’s chronological age

Additionally, strength training encourages and sustains fat loss, which is usually considered impossible in the middle age. Music for your ears?

The only caveat would be to test for any chronic medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, post-surgery issues, or orthopaedic issues and get a professional practitioner’s clearance before embarking on a resistance-training programme. Also, as for any other age group, one should begin a strength-training programme under the supervision of a qualified instructor.

Here’s some more motivation to try out a gym for the first time – At your next birthday party, expect people to tell you that you look younger this year than at your previous birthday!

PC: Next Avenue

#84DaystoDiwali Challenge: Interview with the Winner

In June 2017, after having suffered one of the worst phases, health-wise, in my life, I started the #21Weeks21Habits #HealthyLiving journey on Facebook as a way to get a semblance of health back into my lifestyle. They say that announcing to the world that you are taking up a challenge improves adherence – I thought Facebook would be the best medium to make such an announcement.

Those 21 weeks changed several things for me for the better and reignited my passion for health and fitness in a way I had not imagined. Egged on by a dear friend, I launched another challenge on Facebook in August 2018, with the small difference that I opened it up to my friends and their friends.

I called it the #84DaysToDiwaliChallenge #HealthierVersionOfMe. Why 84 days? Because it is 12 weeks, just enough time to feel, see and show significant improvement in lifestyle and health. Also, it is the reverse of ’21’, but easier to stick with. Why Diwali 2018? Because it provided a neat marker that led us to the holiday season that one would, hopefully, be well prepared to handle and enjoy. The Challenge ran on a weekly basis – I posted a challenge each week, adding a new challenge each week. All participants tracked their own adherence and progress on each challenge cumulatively, twelve challenges in all. I announced the movements on the leader board each week.

This post is about the journey of the Winner of the Challenge, Shraddha Sinkar, through the 84 days, (almost) in her own words. But before I get to that, some quick statistics:

  • Number of people who signed up to the Challenge: 21
  • Number of people who did not begin the Challenge: 6
  • Number of people who dropped out by Week 6: 5
  • Number of people who completed the 12-week Challenge: 7
  • The toughest Challenges for the group: ‘Drinking enough water’ and ‘getting out in the sun’
  • The easiest Challenges for the group: ‘Rewarding themselves’ and ‘taking their vitamins’

For many of those who completed the Challenge, it was a reminder of how easily one can adopt a healthy lifestyle. For others, it was a turnaround of sorts to discover what they were capable of accomplishing. For everybody, though, it was exciting to be doing this together with a bunch of strangers and feeding off their enthusiasm and successes.

Now for the interview (from mid-November 2018)…

Maithilee (MSJ): Could you please introduce yourself to my readers?

Shraddha (SS): I am a software engineer, ex-Deloitte, now running my own agency. Being self-employed gives me a lot more flexibility in my day-to-day schedule, which works well for our family of three, including my 9-year old son.

MSJ: What made you sign up to the #84DaysToDiwaliChallenge?

SS: I had already been thinking about doing something specific and effective for my health for some time. I felt that there was a lack of schedule in my lifestyle and I needed some reinforcement to bring it back to order. The Challenge was the perfect opportunity to do that.

MSJ: Which weekly challenge(s) was/ were new or unexpected for you?

SS: The ‘getting out in the sun’ challenge was the most curious for me. But a few others, such as ‘sleeping 6-8 hours a night’, ‘rewarding yourself’, and ‘catching up with friends/ family’ were also intriguing – things that I had not given enough thought to.

MSJ: Which weekly challenge was the hardest for you to keep up?

SS: The ‘sun’ challenge! (Laughs)

MSJ: Which one was the easiest to follow?

SS: ‘Avoiding data on all devices an hour before bedtime’. I had often thought of implementing a rule like this. Participating in this Challenge made it happen. Now, even my husband tries to keep up with it. (Smiles)

MSJ: Talking of your husband supporting and accompanying you on this, how has your family been involved in this Challenge?

SS: Apart from the ‘no data’ challenge, they are automatically involved in the ‘planned meals’ programme since I prepare the meal plan for the entire family, so that they get all their macronutrients, especially protein. In addition, ‘drinking enough water’ is something they have also taken to heart, especially my son!

MSJ: You were on the leader board consistently through these twelve weeks and finally won this Challenge. Are there any aspects that you believe you still need to do better on?

SS: Yes, on ‘getting enough sun exposure’,  ‘exercise’ and ‘drinking enough water’. There is room for improvement…

MSJ: Have you felt any palpable changes in yourself since beginning this Challenge 12 weeks ago?

SS: Yes, absolutely. Firstly, there was that ‘feel-good’ sense of doing something good for my health. Secondly, I needed lifestyle changes to help support the thyroid problem that I have had – I believe I have those things in place now. Finally, I lost about 9 inches overall in these 12 weeks!

Thank you, Shraddha, for taking the time to share your story with my readers and me. Wish you greater success on your health journey!

 

P.S. The interview above is an abridged version of the conversation with Shraddha, since we spoke in both, English and our vernacular language.

I have never been to the gym before. How do I start a weight training programme?

The first time I stepped inside a gym was when I was 14. I recall examining each piece of equipment like it was a curious artefact. The equipment at that school gym was new, shiny and inviting. The only problem was that I had no idea how each was supposed to be used, leave alone what it was meant for. However, my youthful ignorance lifted any barriers to experimentation and I went ahead and tried my hand (and legs) at the various machines anyway.

For slightly older newbies at a gym, though, I understand that the sense of awe and hesitation could be more pronounced. Hence, most people who join a gym for the first time make straight for the treadmill – no one has to be taught how to walk or run, after all. And, yet, including weight training in your exercise regimen is the best insurance you can get for maintaining and improving your fitness.

As a novice at the gym, there are three goals you should be striving towards.

Those with more gumption typically either look at other gym members around them, decide that they like one of the many actions that are being performed, and proceed to go ahead similarly, or head towards the dumbbell stand and pick up a couple to crank out repetitions (reps) of that all-too-familiar and over-endorsed gym exercise – the bicep curl – with poor form.

Even if you do not always remember the three goals, you MUST remember the three rules!

Getting started on a weight-training programme, however, is a decision that requires a little more planning. As a novice at the gym, there are three goals you should be striving towards and, as a corollary, three rules that you must bear in mind.

The three goals for a newbie are:

  1. To learn how your exercise card is programmed (an exercise card is a quick reference schedule that the Training Programmer at a good commercial gym will prepare for you when you join the gym) – it tells you which body parts are to be trained on which day of the week
  2. To learn which exercise is targeted at which group of muscles
  3. To learn the correct form and technique of each exercise in your schedule

 

Even if you do not always remember the three goals, you MUST remember the three rules!

The first rule is not to do it without appropriate supervision, i.e. a qualified trainer. Manufacturers of gym equipment use concepts from anatomical, physiological and kinesiological science to design machines and even free-weights. The purpose of this thoughtfully driven process is that there is maximum benefit with minimum risk to any person working with these machines. However, to make exercise effective, one must know the correct form and technique for using them. Without the right knowledge on form and technique, one is setting oneself up for failure on two counts – not being efficient in terms of time and effort, and, far more critically, risking injury due to poor form.

[Secret tip: A good trainer will insist on a warm-up before and a cool-down after your workout. Stay away from anyone who ditches the warm up and directly puts you under a barbell.]

The second rule is not to try everything at once. Gym equipment manufacturers have outdone themselves in designing multiple machines for training each body part. A good trainer will tell you which ones are critical and which are only good-to-use or even non-essential. However, as a beginner, you need more practice to learn the correct form and technique of each exercise. Hence, your exercise card should cater for targeting all the main muscle groups at least twice each week.

[Secret tip: Beware of trainers who put you through a circuit that includes every machine installed at the gym on your first day.]

The third, and most important rule, is to listen to your body. For anyone trying weight training for the first time, soreness, technically known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or simply DOMS, is a given. This is because untrained muscles could suffer inflammation quickly when exercise-driven micro-trauma (micro tearing of muscle fibres that eventually helps build stronger muscles) occurs. The tricky part about beginner soreness is that you feel it only about 24 hours after exercise, typically after you’ve had a full night’s rest. Hence, it is a good idea to take it slow.

Again, beware of trainers who make you do more than 20-25 reps of any exercise in their enthusiasm to get you to perfect your form at your very first session. A good rule of thumb is to do no more than twelve to fifteen sets of all exercises put together, with 15-20 reps each. You will still not be able to avoid soreness but hopefully you will still be functioning well enough not to swear off weight training forever.

[A not-so-secret tip: The best way to deal with DOMS is to continue with your exercise programme despite the dull pain. You will find at each successive session that the soreness decreases as your muscles become familiar with the exercises.]

Feel better about signing up at a gym?

 

 

PC: mensxp.com

I can’t avoid late dinners. Will eating after 7 pm make me gain weight?

It was one of those days early in my self-guided study of what makes us fat that I ran into a senior colleague after several weeks of being at different offices. I couldn’t help but notice that the large-built middle-aged lady had trimmed some inches off her generous posterior. Knowing she would be pleased with an acknowledging compliment, I proceeded to congratulate her on the loss. Preening, she let me in on the secret. “I’ve stopped eating anything after 5 pm,” she said.

Wait, you mean to say that eating an early dinner (5 pm was like mid-day for my 18-hour consulting work schedules those days) can put away so much fat? And I, on the other hand, had been snacking and even binging late into the evening in the name of much-required sustenance on intense projects! It was a Eureka moment for me.

“I’ve stopped eating anything after 5 pm.”

Have you ever fallen into the temptation of resolving to have an early dinner all in the name of weight loss/ fat loss? Or rued the fact that a late night supper might have ruined your entire day’s hard work in following healthy practices?

I’d like to address this concern, a rather thoughtful one I daresay, in three parts.

First, what leads to weight gain, or more technically, fat storage, is a calorie surplus that is not being set off by additional physical activity or a special condition (for example, pregnancy, lactation, recovery from a surgery, etc.). As long as you stay within your calorie requirement based on your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), there should be no cause for fat storage no matter what time you have your dinner. Again, it is important, that the quality of calories is controlled. More specifically, that the macros are honoured. Mindless stuffing of junk food just because it is within your calories quota will lead to other health issues if not weight gain.

What leads to fat storage is a calorie surplus.

Second, although is no specific curfew time for dinner that applies equally to everybody, it is advisable to finish dinner at least an hour, ideally two, before bedtime. The reason is that the digestive process could get adversely affected with meals timed too close to bedtime. At the same time, sleep can be disrupted due to heartburn, bloating and indigestion, leaving you under-rested the next day.

Finally, there is in fact a scientifically proven method to trigger fat loss that involves eating only within a certain time period. It is popularly known as intermittent fasting (IF) but also goes by the name of alternative day eating/ fasting (ADE or ADF), one-meal-a-day (OMAD) and time restricted feeding (TRF) depending on the format of fasting one follows.

Intermittent fasting is a great tool for fat loss.

The basic idea behind IF is that you time your meals/ feeds such that there is a large enough gap before the next meal to allow your body to tap into its fat stores. The technique is actually a clever trick relying on millions of years of evolutionary processes that allow humans to store fat for lean times and use it when food is scarce. When the body is in a fasting state for at least 14-16 hours, the metabolic pathways shift from burning glucose for energy, the most commonly used mechanism on a standard/ high-carbohydrate diet, to burning fat for energy. This is, perhaps, what caused the inch-loss in my colleague.

Done carefully and systematically, IF is a great tool for fat loss. A big advantage is also that during the feeding intervals, one can eat almost anything – no licence for junk, still. Of course, it has several other advantages too in terms of convenience and saving of time (less planning, less cooking, less packing, less, cleaning up…). Do bear in mind, that this kind of fasting bears no resemblance to the kind of religious fasts that most people in India undertake, what with an elaborate menu of ‘fasting foods’ at the ready.

So, what time will you have dinner?

 

 

PC: lifealth.com

Counting calories vs counting macros – which is better for fat loss?

I recently came across an infographic in this blogpost, which outlines the principles behind weight loss, in a bid to oversimplify the process. Basically, it conveys that for weight loss to happen, you basically need to be in a calorie deficit. I agree completely. Cutting calories will lead you to that result – weight loss. But is that the correct goal?

I can think of weightlifters, powerlifters, bodybuilders and participants in physique competitions aiming for weight loss to make the appropriate weight class that they want to compete in. But for the majority of the population, the ultimate goal is to achieve an ideal body composition, which means, the optimal body fat levels and, perhaps, a reasonable amount of muscle. That, in turn, means fat loss, not simply weight loss.

Cutting calories will lead you to that result – weight loss. But is that the correct goal?

Eating less may help you lose weight, but it cannot guarantee fat loss. In fact, eating too few calories could have several adverse results:

  • With a consistent calorie deficit, the rate of weight loss tends to slow down, as the body adjusts to a new normal, thus, lowering BMR, which slows fat loss.
  • Cutting calories too low, below the minimum required for sustenance, can threaten the normal functioning of the body.
  • Severe calorie restriction signals the body that it is in semi-starvation mode, causing it to conserve energy, making any weight loss even more difficult.

 

Does that mean that one must not be counting calories for fat loss? Yes and no.

Yes, because your calorie needs depend on your BMR, total daily calorie/ energy expenditure (aka TDEE or TEE) depending on activity levels, and any special conditions such as competition prep (I’m not including ‘pregnancy’ and ‘lactation’ because that is not the right time to aim for fat loss anyway), etc. For a gain in weight, your calorie consumption has to be above the TDEE level. For a loss, it must be below the TDEE level. For maintenance, it should be at the TDEE level. But all this is only related to the number on the scale, your bodyweight.

Does that mean that one must not be counting calories for fat loss? Yes and no.

No, because the quality of the calorie intake is more important for fat loss to occur. The ratio of protein and fat to carbohydrates is what will determine the rate of fat loss.

For several decades, we have deluded ourselves that a diet high in carbs and low in fats is the best for avoiding obesity, thanks to the extremely biased propaganda that Western medical journalism and food processing industry, especially the American variety, dished out in the 1970s. We have now been forced to embrace what our forefathers knew centuries ago – that saturated foods are some of the best sources of energy (think ghee) and whole foods are far more nourishing than any processed or refined ones (for example, whole vegetables vs juices, meat cooked in its own fat vs lean meat, etc.).

A diet rich in good fats – saturated, mono-unsaturated, poly-unsaturated, in that order, moderate in proteins, and low in carbs, tends to serve best when seeking fat loss. Hence, it is critical to track the ratio of these macronutrients, or macros, rather than simply counting calories, when the goal is to lose fat.

Our ancestors knew that fasting was meant to be just that – fasting.

A common proxy that advocates of a carb-rich diet proffer is the Glycemic Index (GI) of foods when comparing which carbs should be allowed on a diet for fat-loss. The lower the GI of a food, they claim, the more suitable it is for weight-loss or fat loss. They also put forward the Glycemic Load (GL) concept as a basis for choosing the ‘right type of carbs’. However, if you take the example of ice cream as a food, which has a GI of 39, middle of the Low range, and a GL of 3, low of the Low range, these numbers would suggest a green light for ice cream on a weight-loss/ fat-loss diet.

The problem is that the only reason ice cream has a low GI and GL is because of the high fat content, which contributes zero GI and GL. Almost all ‘fasting’ foods in India fall in the category of low GI – low GL foods because of the fat-carbs combination. Yet, they are probably the worst category of foods for fat loss since the carbs trigger an insulin response, which, in turn, triggers storage of any carbs that are unutilized for energy in our fat cells as adipose tissue. The result – more body fat! Our ancestors knew that fasting was meant to be just that – fasting – and not a licence for ingesting foods with a poor macro balance.

When seeking fat loss, what will you choose? Low-calorie foods? Low GI/ GL foods? Low-carb foods? Fasts?!

 

PC: medium.com

Which is the best cardio exercise? The one that gets you closer to your goal!

I am a big believer in productivity. In my own (elusive) vision of the ‘perfect’ me, I am this highly efficient, multi-tasking, fast-moving, super-worker who gets things done on time, every time, all the time. During one of those eureka moments, when you suddenly hit upon the most elegant solution to not one or two, but half a dozen problems, I realised that I must run a marathon.

The main challenges to which it was an elegant answer were:

  1. Getting enough exercise on a regular basis
  2. Improving my stamina
  3. Gaining a sense of accomplishment
  4. Doing something to show off about to friends and family
  5. Losing weight (I was not aware of the concept of ‘fat loss’ as distinct from ‘weight loss’ then) – secretly the most important reason for signing up!

During one of those eureka moments, I realised that I must run a marathon.

And, thus, I signed up for one of the earliest Goa River Marathons. The name was somewhat misleading because it was actually a Half Marathon then, but daunting, nevertheless, to the cardio-challenged me. I did my research on viable training programmes, and, as always, trusted my own instincts on creating one to work on. I embarked, in earnest, on the three-month run-up to the marathon, crossing one milestone after another. From being able to trot barely 3K at the start of the programme, I was running over 10K nonstop a couple of months in, that too within a respectable number of minutes.

I ran 17K of the 21K on the final day and walked the rest. Not bad, I thought. When the soreness had worn off after a couple of days, I stepped on the scale. I had lost a grand total of 1100 grams, at the end of three months. Umm… something wrong with the scale?!

LISS can lead to some weight loss and fat loss but not if you’ve overcompensated for the calories you burned running by eating them back.

If that’s ever happened to you, you’d know the disappointment it brings. But if you knew the science behind this inadequate result, you’d realise that you could not have expected anything different.

Long distance running is, in essence, low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio work, where your heart rate remains within the range of 40% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. What it prepares you for is exactly that, long distance running, which builds your stamina or endurance. It CAN lead to some weight loss and fat loss depending on how your diet has changed, but not if you’ve overcompensated for the calories you burned running by eating them back. Walking is the most common example of LISS cardio.

If, however, your goal is to lose fat, then you would be better served by indulging in HIIT.

If your goal is to be a long distance runner, with endless stamina, or if you simply enjoy running, go for it. You will be training completely in the aerobic zone, building your cardio-respiratory endurance as well as muscular endurance in the lower body (the weight-bearing joints and muscles in the hips and legs).

If, however, your goal is to lose fat, then you would be better served by indulging in High Intensity Interval Training, popularly known as HIIT. As the name suggests HIIT workouts have periods of highly intense cardio exercises interspersed by intervals of low intensity exercises or full recovery. This mechanism raises your heart rate, within the range of 75% to 90% of your maximum heart rate, for short bursts of time. It targets body fat stores long after the workout since it has a great after-burn effect. The higher the intensity and shorter the interval, the shorter the workout. There are as many adaptations of HIIT programmes available as there are sports – running, spinning, functional training, circuit training, Crossfit, even swimming. Those with cardiac problems should, perhaps, refrain from HIIT.

Other than intensity, an important principle to bear in mind is whether the chosen cardio activity is high-impact or low-impact.

If your goal is general cardio-respiratory endurance to maintain your level of fitness, then moderate intensity training should be your choice. You would be training at an intensity where your heart rate remains within the range of 60% to 75% of your maximum heart rate. Examples include step-aerobics, Zumba, Power Yoga, dancing, swimming, trekking, etc. Those with cardiac problems should get clearance from their healthcare provider before starting such a programme.

Other than intensity, an important principle to bear in mind is whether the chosen cardio activity is high-impact or low-impact. The ‘impact’ here refers to the stress put on weight-bearing joints, your hips, knees and ankles. Those who have never or rarely been on an exercise programme, those with high levels of obesity, those with orthopaedic problems, and those with back/ spinal injuries should ideally begin with no/ low impact cardio exercises such as swimming, training on an elliptical machine, cycling, rowing, light to moderate Yoga, Pilates, or functional training not involving plyometrics. Most other cardio exercises are high-impact, including walking, all types of jogging or running, climbing stairs, skipping, aerobics, Zumba, dancing, plyometrics, etc.

With so much choice out there, it would be hard not to find a cardio workout that works for you. Go for it!

 

PC: http://www.health.harvard.edu

Bodyweight or BMI – which is the best metric for fitness? Neither!

I recounted in an earlier post my experience of weight loss that was hardly apparent to people around me. Many years before that attempt at weight loss, however, I was, in fact, squarely in the middle of the range for ‘ideal bodyweight’. Or so said the Body Mass Index (BMI) chart that adorned the dull walls of my GP’s clinic. As a young girl just barely out of her teenage, however, I was still disappointed by the number on the scale – I had enough ‘issues’, one might say, regarding my body image. If I had known then that, in relation to my height, my weight was very reasonable, as per BMI norms, I might have had more body confidence. But then, again, I would have been chasing the wrong ideal.

Is BMI a better indicator of health and fitness?

We now know that the absolute number on a weighing scale does not mean much by itself. Is BMI a better indicator of health and fitness? It is more complex than the bodyweight metric, but it is definitely inadequate on many counts, and possibly no better. Bodyweight is a critical factor in BMI calculation. As we know, bodyweight is comprised of lean body mass and body fat. However, BMI calculation does not discern between these components. And that is how the cookie crumbles.

Two men with the same age, height and weight, and resultantly the same BMI, should, in theory, have the same level of fitness and/ or degree of risk of lifestyle disease. But what if one of them has a body fat percentage of 10% while the other has 30%? The former has far greater lean mass, and likely more muscle, than the latter, meaning greater strength and no/ low obesity, indicating a lower risk of lifestyle disease. One look at the BMI numbers for some celebrities is enough to realise how meaningless the index really is when comparing one individual with another.

If one has to throw out bodyweight as well as BMI, then what is one left with to gauge health and fitness levels? The singular metric that indicates if you are in a healthy range or not, is your body fat percentage. The proportion of fat in the body indicates how close you are to the ideal body composition for fitness. Among men, the ideal range for body fat percentage is 4% (elite athletes) to 15%, and among women, 8% (elite athletes) to 20%.

Admittedly, it is a little more complex to gauge body fat percentage than getting on a weighing scale or plugging in height and weight measurements into a formula. Skin fold measurements using calipers, bioelectric impedance analysis (BIA), dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA scanning), air displacement plethysmography, and hydrostatic weighing are the most well known methods, in increasing order of accuracy, complexity, accessibility and cost.

The singular metric that indicates if you are in a healthy range or not, is your body fat percentage.

Along with cardio-respiratory endurance, muscular endurance, musculoskeletal strength and flexibility, ideal body composition rounds out the five components of fitness.

There, you now know what you have to shoot for! If there are lingering doubts, feel free to ping me in the Comments section.