Category Archives: Body composition

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

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

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.

I train with weights regularly. Why do I need to do cardio? 6 Key Benefits of Cardio Exercise

My eyes light up each time I visit a gym the same way a child’s do when she sees a toyshop. I love to check out the equipment, the freeweights, the pull-up bars, the benches, the power cages, and cables & pulleys, etc. It is almost therapeutic for me to see how different gyms are laid out and the type of exercises they cater for.

Because I know how addictive ‘gymming’ can be, I understand when I see some people training religiously in the weight room, to the exclusion of all other forms of exercise. The category of young men especially falls within this group (their favourite body parts being the arms and chest – to be trained everyday!) Yet, there is so much variety in terms of exercises that even watching a weight training session in progress can be entertaining.

In contrast, the cardio sections of gyms could seem monotonous and boring. The so-called ‘serious’ fitness freaks, especially among men, stay away from cardio exercises because they seem too ‘feminine’. It is no wonder that all classes for aerobics, Zumba, Bollybics, and other variations of the same thing, have an overwhelming proportion of females in attendance as compared to males. Just as women don’t want to ‘bulk up’ by training with weights, men do not want to appear feminine by doing cardio work.

I see some people training religiously in the weight room, to the exclusion of all other forms of exercise.

But ignoring cardio exercises simply means that you are overlooking a crucial component of fitness – your cardiorespiratory health – the health of your heart, which you will literally need for a lifetime to pump blood through your body; your blood vessels, which carry the nutrients your organs need for various functions; and your lungs, which oxygenate the blood from the air you breathe.

Let us understand why cardiorespiratory endurance matters. Put simply, it is the ability of your heart, blood vessels and lungs to function adequately for a prolonged period of time while carrying out any aerobic activity, i.e. when your body can use oxygen in the air to generate energy. You are in this aerobic zone over 99% of the time – while carrying out all day-to-day activities. The aerobic zone is heightened when doing cardio activities such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, swimming, rowing, stair-climbing, dancing, step aerobics, etc., which is why it counts as exercise, popularly known as ‘cardio’.

Cardio offers six key benefits for health and fitness:

  1. Improved heart health – The word ‘cardio’ literally means ‘heart’. Cardio helps to regulate and enhance the capacity of the heart to pump blood through the body, thus, reducing your Resting Heart Rate (RHR), which is a measure of the fitness of a person’s heart. In practical terms, it means that the lower your RHR, the greater your stamina when it comes to cardio/ aerobic activities that last for a long duration, ranging from a few minutes to even a few hours. A healthy person’s RHR is typically between 60-80 beats per minute. A healthy person with a lower RHR than 60 bpm shows positive adaptation to cardio exercise and will likely have greater endurance or stamina than a person with a higher RHR.

Do you know people who get out of breath after walking just a few tens of metres or climbing a short flight of stairs? They likely have a high RHR, i.e. over 80 beats per minute

  1. Lowered recovery time – A lowered RHR means that you can recover quickly from any strenuous activity and, thus, you would feel less tired than before. Also, the cardio training stimulus leads to a process called ‘neocapillarisation’, i.e. formation of new capillaries, through which nutrients are transported to different organs in the body via the blood. With a greater number of capillaries available for this job, recovery time is further reduced.
  1. Reduced risk of heart disease – With an improvement in heart health, the risk of disease automatically goes down, as it normalises blood pressure, helps to manage insulin response to glucose (the key marker for ‘diabetes mellitus’), and, hence, reduces risk of atherosclerosis.
  1. Improved skin health – Cardio increases the circulation of blood through the body. The nutrients in the blood reach skin cells too and drive toxins & dirt out of the body through sweat. This helps to keep your skin healthy.
  1. Accelerated fat loss – Aerobic exercise of any kind draws upon your body’s fat reserves for providing energy for long periods. Hence, cardio can help accelerate fat loss and improve body composition.
  1. Reduced stress – While exercise of any kind helps alleviate stress, cardio work especially releases endorphins into your blood that activate your mood sensors and reduce stress by increasing the blood circulation to your brain.

With a wide-ranging menu of cardio activities on offer, one may wonder which one to invest time and effort in. More on that soon.

PC: Essentrics with Betty

I am a woman and don’t want to bulk up like a man. Why do I need to train with weights?

I saw the inside of a gymnasium for the first time when I was 14. My school was rather avant garde when it came to sporting facilities and the brand new gym was the latest addition to its repertoire for physical training. A friend and I were so enthused by the various types of equipment, that we would sneak into the gym after the Games session every evening to crank out some reps on the leg press machine or pec dec station (I didn’t know what the equipment were called until many years later).

One day the Sports Teacher saw us doing some lifting and hastened to warn us. I believe he said something to this effect, “That machine is not meant for you. Girls should not use it or they’ll grow disproportionately.” Alas, the teacher was not avant garde enough. So that was the end of my gym exploration. And it remained that way until a scientifically better informed trainer cleared the cobwebs in my head about why ‘girls’ should, in fact, train with weights.

“That machine is not meant for you.”

Today, despite the updated awareness among the trainer community about the benefits of resistance training for women, the lack of awareness among women themselves remains high. Have you seen how the cardio sections of most gyms are packed with women sweating it out on the treadmills or elliptical trainers while the weight rooms are almost devoid of women?

My own perception of weight training changed only when, about a decade ago, an enthusiastic trainer encouraged me to complement my marathon training with some strength training. I did not fully comprehend why he thought it was important for improving my running but I agreed to give it a shot anyway. And that became the turning point in my fitness journey.

 

It is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones.

Let’s first look at why women are resistant to resistance training (oops, I did it again!) Most women who shy away from weight training think they’ll end up looking grossly muscular, too manly for comfort. In truth, it is close to impossible for women to look like men because they are governed by different hormones. The predominant male hormone, testosterone, which makes men looks like men, is what promotes muscle build-up. Women have very low levels of testosterone and could only look like men if they underwent hormonal intervention (read steroids). The female hormone, estrogen, on the other hand, helps fat build-up, among other things. That is also the reason that women have a relatively higher percentage of body fat than men. So that should put to rest any doubts a woman has about looking manly or unfeminine.

But are there any special benefits for women to engage in resistance training apart from those available to men such as fat loss, muscle definition, and increased strength and functionality? Several!

Because weight training enables hypertrophy, i.e. growth, of muscles, it accentuates the natural human form. In the case of women, the improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves. Training the muscles of the back and core helps to taper the waist, giving the illusion of the hourglass to the entire female form. As a woman, wouldn’t that be something to strive for?

Women tend to be more prone to bone-related troubles than men due to the effects of childbirth and age-related degeneration following menopause. Osteoporosis and osteopenia, thus, affect women a lot more frequently than men. Resistance training, supported by adequate nutrition, is the only form of exercise that can help to strengthen the joints and bones, thus, reducing the risk of these maladies. For the cardio-lovers, weight training complements high-impact cardio activities by improving bone density and preparing the joints for sustaining high-impact work.

The improved muscle tone helps to show curves where they matter – shoulders, arms, buttocks, thighs, and calves. 

For women of childbearing age, weight training can prove to be highly beneficial in all phases of making a baby – during pregnancy, delivery and post-natal recovery (this has been my own experience too). Women who lift weights on a regular basis have fewer pregnancy symptoms and are able to deal with them better than those who don’t – little or no water retention, swollen ankles, backache, nausea. They have a higher chance of delivering a baby naturally, i.e. through a normal vaginal delivery, versus women do not train with weights. They are also much better placed when it comes to post natal recovery, easily regaining their pre-pregnancy weight, and resuming their exercise form. The training also naturally helps with all the lifting that a new mum has to do – a baby, nappies, wipes, bottles, bags, mats, toys and what have you!

So, woman, the next time somebody tries to tell you that you shouldn’t train with weights, do yourself a favour and find a different fitness advisor!

I do Yoga each day. Why do I need to train with weights?

I became a yogini over two decades ago, quite by accident. A college-mate of mine had enrolled for a class on her parents’ recommendation. She suggested I check it out. It was the first time I had tried any activity like it. I discovered not only that I enjoyed the experience but also that I was rather good at it.

Once a month, the 60-something Yoga teacher would invite other Yoga teachers from his matth, which practised the Iyengar style, to break up the monotony. On one such occasion, the invitee teacher led us through a particularly complex routine of yogasanas. As the complexity grew with each pose, more and more participants started to stall. To my surprise, I was among a handful that could complete all the poses as directed. The teacher beamed at me as I arched my back in a perfect Kapotasana, the pigeon pose, and said encouragingly, “Now, strive to maintain this flexibility throughout your life.” So that is what I did.

I am grateful for the day that my friend convinced me to go to that class with her. Yoga has been a constant companion in my life ever since. (My love for it eventually translated into a certification as a Yoga teacher following the Ashtanga philosophy a few years ago.) My belief in Yoga as a way of life has only solidified further.

Around me, I’ve noticed that the attendees in Yoga classes typically span a gradient from middle-aged women (especially homemakers), senior citizens (primarily interested in Pranayama), or exercise-starved corporate employees in a corporate-sponsored class, on one end of the spectrum, to young adrenaline-seeking enthusiasts of Power Yoga and passionate believers of the Yogic philosophy on the other. However, I see people attending Yoga classes to the exclusion of any other form of exercise. And that’s where the disconnect occurs.

Yoga, undoubtedly, has holistic benefits for not just health but also life in general. I would be amongst the first persons to attest to its importance in health and fitness. Among the benefits from Yoga are improved flexibility, which reduces risk of injury; improved breathing, which enhances cardiovascular health and stamina; improved posture and balance, which improve spine and bone health; and relaxation and stress-relief. A highly advanced practice can even improve muscle tone and strength.

I would venture as far as to say that among all types of exercise, the practice of Yogasanas is perhaps the only form to enable improvement on all five components of fitness. And, yet, it has limitations when it comes to progressive overload, a key requirement for developing musculoskeletal strength, the main antidote to aging, which I discussed in detail in my last post.

Progressive overload’ simply means giving your body a greater training stimulus once it gets accustomed to a particular level of training. For example, the veteran jogger who runs the same 5 kilometres every day is not progressing in his cardio training while the newbie who adds five more minutes to his ten-minute jog, or adds half a kilometre to his 2-kilometre run, or takes two minutes less to run the same 2 kilometres, is increasing the load and intensity.

Similarly, while training with weights, one might add a few repetitions to a set, or a whole set to an exercise, or increase the weight for a set, or do the same number of sets in less time than before, as a way to increase the load. The idea is to go beyond your comfort zone and push your body to do a little more once a particular training level is reached. For example, a novice to weight training might be able to do 15 reps of an exercise in her first week before experiencing fatigue. Once she finds that she can go up to 20 reps without fatigue, she could increase the weight or resistance to deliver 12 reps. As her muscles gain strength to perform 15-18 reps of the same exercise at the new weight, she can move to a higher weight again.

While doing yogasanas, there is sufficient progression until you learn the correct posture, balance, form, technique, and how to handle your own bodyweight. You might even gain some load by increasing the duration of your practice or adding variations of an exercise to target the same muscle group multiple times. However, it is impossible to add further resistance to such practice once bodyweight training comes within your comfort zone. For example, a person who can perform an Adhomukh Vrikshasana, a handstand, even when adding pushups to the handstand, will need to resort to external weights eventually to seek hypertrophy and further strengthen her shoulders, arms and forearms.

Weight training provides your body with the training stimulus to first break down muscle tissue and then build it up larger to be stronger than before. If fat loss is your goal, then the greater muscle mass means that you carry more metabolically active tissue, which revs your metabolism and increases your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Also, resistance training has the greatest after-burn effect among all types of exercise.  Hence, you burn more calories even when you are at rest and not only during exercise.

So the next time you face a dilemma as to whether to sign up for resistance training despite the daily Yoga class or not, don’t choose. Go for it!

 

PC: The Big Yogi