I walk 30 minutes each day. Why do I need to train with weights?

I was 11 when I learnt for the first time that ‘walking’ was a cure for all obesity-related maladies. A neighbour, the mother of a friend of mine, had, I’d heard, been denied a reservation on a US-bound flight by an airline because she was overweight. Now I don’t know about airline norms existing at the time, but I do recall that that lady walked about ten kilometres everyday for the next three months to whittle down her 96-kilo frame to a 78-kilo one. When she tried to book her ticket again, the airline had no cause for complaint. On my following term break, I heard that the lady had had to extend her sojourn in the US due to a knee fracture she suffered from a fall on the pavement.

I’ve seen this story repeat itself several times since then (newly minted middle-aged marathoners who literally break a leg, come to mind). ‘Walking is the best exercise.’ This apocryphal piece of advice is dished out to so many so often without the slightest thought for long-term health.

Well-meaning relatives and friends, who oftentimes are the biggest defaulters where exercise is concerned, seem to proffer this advice left, right and centre. Mothers-in-law of expectant brides encourage their daughters-in-law to ‘simply walk’, all as part of the ante-natal care-giving for the mothers-to-be. Doctors of obese diabetic patients prescribe ‘walking for 20-30 minutes a day’ as part of the treatment. Parents of obese teenagers tag the children along with them on their own morning walk ritual.

Walking is the best exercise.’ This apocryphal piece of advice is dished out to so many so often without the slightest thought for long-term health.

Now, I have nothing against walking as a form of exercise. In fact, it is an inseparable part of my own regimen. It is convenient, cheap, does not need to be learnt, and does not require any special gear or equipment except a good pair of shoes. But to say that it is the ‘best form of exercise’ only explains the ignorance of the person saying it.

A person may be motivated to take up exercise for a variety of reasons, mostly reactively, unfortunately, rather than proactively. But if the goal is to seek long-term sustainable health and fitness, then depending on walking alone is investing your time in a severely lop-sided exercise programme.

If you break down the physiology of walking, you’ll realise that it is primarily a lower body workout, which engages your core. It is a high-impact activity that causes a great amount of stress on your weight-bearing joints, the hips, knees and ankles. Since it is a low intensity steady state activity (walking fast would still qualify as low intensity if you are able to do it for tens of minutes), walking engages your aerobic energy system (more on this later), necessarily involving your cardio-respiratory apparatus to provide a constant supply of energy.

The reason that long-time joggers look very lean – they lose the defining muscle along with the body fat.

As a cardio activity, then, walking depends on the carbs immediately available in your system in the form of glycogen stored in muscles, the fat stored in your body as adipose tissue, and the protein from muscles, which can break down to create glucose for energy, in that order. This implies that a cardio activity will eat through your muscle (presumably precious) if it is not able to generate enough energy quickly from the body fat (presumably dispensable). That’s also the reason that long-time joggers look very lean – they lose the defining muscle along with the body fat, unless their nutrition super-compensates for it.

When you let go of muscle, you allow for the weakening of your joints and, hence, bones. So, while your cardio-respiratory endurance improves, resulting in greater lung capacity and a lower resting heart rate, your muscles atrophy and your joints become feebler. How do you then spare the muscle and avoid risking a joint/ bone injury? By doing two things – ensuring appropriate nutrition (a protein-rich diet to repair the muscle tissue) and training with weights.

If fat loss is your goal, then you absolutely must make weight training a part of your fitness regimen.

Weight training provides your body with the training stimulus to first break down muscle tissue and then build it up to be stronger than before. It also prepares your joints and bones for dealing with high-impact activities such as walking or jogging.

If fat loss is your goal, then you absolutely must make weight training a part of your fitness regimen. A larger muscle mass means that you carry more metabolically active tissue, i.e. lean body mass, 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, as is the case with a cardio activity.

Here’s a bonus: weight training helps muscles to hypertrophy, i.e. grow larger, giving your body a complementary anti-aging lucky charm. It tones the body because muscles add definition to the limbs. You’ll love the compliments that come your way. (See what I did there?!)

Despite all these benefits to resistance training, there is a lot of resistance to training this way. (Okay, now I’m overdoing it…backing off!) I’ll explore other myths on this soon.

 

PC: shutterstock

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Will exercising more help me lose weight?

It was a memorable summer. For all the wrong reasons. While I had just returned from a great vacation and was mentally recharged, physically I was in the doldrums, inside and outside. In the three months prior, I had had a super hectic work schedule (which made the vacation that much more gratifying), as a result of which, my lifestyle had suffered in every way possible – food-wise, exercise-wise, rest-wise, family-time-wise, and personal-time-wise.

I felt drained, sluggish and apathetic most of the time. 

I’d developed a chronic lumbar pain, which made sitting for any period longer than 10 minutes painful. My immunity system had taken a hit, and I was struck by long bouts of cold and cough that lasted several weeks. An old shoulder injury had made itself apparent again. Horror of horrors – I’d gained over 3 kilos within a short period of four weeks! And they refused to budge. I wasn’t sleeping well (the cough and the bad back contributed to that equally). I felt drained, sluggish and apathetic most of the time.

But I’m a fighter. I fought back with all I had. I had to get fit. Three days after I returned from vacation, I hit the gym with a vengeance. I briefed my personal trainer about the new health goals I’d set for myself – get my back functioning normally again, drop all the excess weight and then some, and gain meaningful muscle, over the next three months. The almost threatening tone in my voice told him I meant business.

I thought I was killing it. But, alas! 

And business it was – functional training three mornings a week, strength training three evenings a week, yoga twice a week, and a walking routine every weekday. I also downloaded a calorie-tracking app and tracked everything I ate for two months straight. I thought I was killing it. But, alas!

In truth, I was killing myself. I had become a victim of overtraining. I felt worn out and tired all the time. The thought of another early morning HIIT session, another turn at the power cage in the gym, or another walk, put me in a lethargic state of mind immediately. I strengthened my back and lost the extra weight all right, but overall I was drained of energy.

Have you ever gone or seen a friend go through a similar experience? Did the extra exercise ‘work out’ in the end?

Too much of a good thing can also be bad for health.

Exercise has several benefits for the body and should be a regular ritual for everybody, regardless of age or gender. At an overall level, it improves heart health, energy levels, immunity & mood, strengthens bones & muscles (depending on the type of exercise), and helps to manage weight and stress.

However, too much of a good thing can also be bad for health. Your body needs a certain amount of stimulus to allow for removal of waste tissue and generation of new tissue. Exercise provides that stimulus. A well-rounded exercise programme will lead to improvement on all five components of fitness, including an ideal body composition, which addresses fat loss.

But, one must bear in mind that exercise is only one leg of the health tripod, the other two being nutrition and rest. Give yourself less energy than it needs, through a calorie-restricted diet (as I did), and your body will not have enough resources to regenerate its tissues, which break down or get depleted during exercise. Give yourself minimal time for rest and recovery (as I did too) and your body will not have the time to use those resources even if you eat well. The result will be a body worse for the wear.

Exercise is only one leg of the health tripod.

So, to answer the original question, exercise, at the right intensity, does help to streamline your metabolism by providing a stimulus for growth and repair, thus, assisting in weight loss or fat loss. However, simply adding more exercise time to your schedule without appropriate nutrition and rest is only a recipe for disaster.

What other myths/ dilemmas do you face when it comes to exercise?

I’m not overweight. Why do I need to exercise?

A very close relative, a contemporary of mine, let’s call her P, was a skinny child and a slender teenager. I envied how she never had to care whether any of those cute prom outfits would look nice on her or not. She was decidedly a mesomorph. Her lifestyle allowed enough room for culinary indulgences without causing a large change (pun intended) in how she looked. While I was always goaded by my parents to exercise, she was hardly ever at the receiving end of such parental concern. Luck favoured her well into her twenties. Then, it ran out.

She was decidedly a mesomorph.

A dramatic change in her lifestyle and diet, when she relocated to another city, first started to show up on the scale – she gained over 10 kilos in a single year. A demanding and erratic work schedule aggravated the issue, bestowing digestion problems in parallel. The stress soon began showing on her face in the form of unsightly eruptions. When she got married a few years later, it was as if P had left all cares for her health behind. Five years and a child later, P weighed a full 30 kilos more than she did when she was 22, with her body fat percentage having doubled from 20% to over 40%. She also had severely weakened knees and the beginnings of hypertension.

Luck favoured her well into her twenties. Then, it ran out.

P’s story is not out of the ordinary – this is an eventuality that most women, especially in India, take for granted. Childbirth and raising children are, in fact, considered a licence for letting oneself go and not have to answer for one’s health. The same goes for many men who seem to expand at alarming rates after marriage, all their indulgence justified in the name of love and appreciation for their wives’ cooking. Really? Whom do they think they are kidding? What about the accompanying diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, you-name-it-lifestyle-disease?

I believe this complacency begins early in life, when age, hormones, and the relative lack of responsibilities are all on our side. As children or teenagers, nobody holds it against us if we look a little heavier than average. At that age, the body is so forgiving and supportive that even the most half-hearted exercise regimen can right a lot of dietary wrongs, thanks to a relatively faster metabolism. That’s also when one starts to believe that exercise is not required if one is not fat.

Childbirth and raising children are, in fact, considered a licence by women for letting themselves go and not have to answer for their health.

However, fitness is much more than just about carrying excess body fat. It involves four other critical components too:

  1. Cardio-respiratory endurance – the ability of your heart, blood vessels and lungs to function adequately for a prolonged period of time while carrying out any aerobic activity (recall how some friends of yours quickly get out of breath with the slightest cardio activity?)
  2. Muscular endurance – the ability of your muscles to adequately support your cardio-respiratory system for a prolonged period of time while carrying out any aerobic activity (remember the time you had to cut short your dance class because of the catch in your thighs and shins?)
  3. Musculo-skeletal strength – the ability of your bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles to exert maximum force against any form of resistance (the time when you had to move a heavy log of wood out of the driveway comes to mind?)
  4. Flexibility – the ability of the body to achieve maximum range of motion around joints (recall the moment when you not only managed to touch your toes but also wrap your fingers around the soles of your feet when your Yoga teacher led you through the Pashchimottanasana, the seated forward bend?)

Fitness is much more than just about carrying excess body fat.

Now, two important things to remember where exercise is concerned:

  • No single type of exercise can lead to improvements in all four components of fitness. Hence, depending solely on the ‘30-minute walk everyday’ or ‘Yoga three times a week’ or even ‘Crossfit five times a week’ cannot help you improve on all four counts simultaneously.
  • Having said that, however, any form of exercise is better than no exercise at all, since it will positively affect at least one component of your fitness.

So, which exercise should you do and why? I’ll get to that in a bit.

PC: Height And Weight Tips 

Will eating less help me lose weight?

I caught on to the calorie counting game long before the advent and proliferation of fancy calorie tracking apps. As far back as 2008, I figured I could use my skills at Microsoft Excel to do more than creating financial models and business plans. I created my own calorie counter, following up with several updated versions (I think I even passed it on to some keen friends and relatives). The idea was to have a neat food log to track the calorie intake on a daily basis and ensure it remained at or near my Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). I arrived at my ideal calorie requirement based on conventional wisdom of the time, and the vision I had of myself six months down the line.

That’s it, I thought. Calorie counting and control is all I need to do to crack the weight loss game.

As my food log got populated, I could see patterns emerging. I utilised the knowledge to tweak my dietary habits. Barring a few social incidents, I managed to remain fairly consistent in sticking to my ever more aggressive calorie goals. Needless to say, at the end of three months, the number on the scale had moved south significantly, despite little support in the form of exercise. I was feeling rather proud of the achievement not only because of the weight loss but also because of this fantastic tool I’d developed. That’s it, I thought. Calorie counting and control is all I need to do to crack the weight loss game.

 

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 12.54.56 pm

Not so fast! Despite the shouts of success from the weighing scale, I wasn’t receiving the expected looks, compliments or appreciation from people around me. Why couldn’t they see what I could?

Have you ever had this experience? Or know someone who did? Why was your/ their ‘loss’ not apparent or as significant as what the scale suggested?

The answer, as I discussed in my last post, lies in the type of weight that was lost – water, muscle or fat. Weight loss is easily apparent to the eye of a beholder when there is fat loss. Hence, what an overweight person with a disproportionate body composition must seek is fat loss, not simply weight loss.

Coming back to the original question, eating less does indeed help you lose weight. But, and this is a BIG ‘but’, it will not necessarily help you lose fat if you are eating the wrong type of calories since all calories are not equal.

Weight loss is easily apparent to the eye of a beholder when there is fat loss.

Another phenomenon that you might notice is that the rate of weight loss tends to slow down despite maintaining a calorie deficit, i.e. eating fewer calories than one spends in a day. This is because the BMR of a lighter person is lower, in absolute terms, than that of a heavier person (not to be confused with slow or fast metabolism).

Also, remaining on a calorie-lowering spree could prove dangerous if you reach calorie intake levels so low that they threaten the normal functioning of the body, usually around 1,000 calories, for the average adult.

A collateral fallout of such low calorie intake levels is that the body senses that it is in a semi-starvation mode and holds on to its stores of energy even more closely, potentially stagnating or even reversing weight loss.

So, take the ‘eat less’ formula of weight loss, or rather, fat loss, with a pinch of salt. There are other ways to create a calorie deficit than simply through eating less.

More myths to be flushed out. Soon.

 

PC: https://getrawenergy.co

Weight loss or fat loss – which is better?

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:

  1. If a so-called ‘healthy’ diet only helps to lose water weight then what should I eat to lose fat?
  2. 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.

 

PC: http://bodycarehealthclub.com.au/

‘Fat people are lazy’, ‘Fat people eat too much’, and other such falsehoods

As a kid, I was always in awe of those thin, lanky girls in my class who never got fat. I was even more surprised that they managed to tuck in way more than I did on most occasions. Yet, I was the one who remained ‘plump’ and ‘healthy’ (the latter is a special euphemism used by Indian parents for overweight kids of all ages). By teenage, I realised that I only had to breathe to put on the pounds while the skinny friends of mine could gorge on all manner of goodies without a gram showing up on the scale.

It was also the teen years that I realised I could turn to sports to help redeem my future of being a ‘fatso’. There were entire school terms I did so with a vengeance. And it did work… until I stopped. Every vacation, a period of seven weeks, I successfully managed to turn back time and undo the hard work of an entire 4-month term. Well-meaning aunts and uncles visiting during those holidays would affectionately remind me that I should be ‘more active’ and laze around less.

Every vacation, a period of seven weeks, I successfully managed to turn back time and undo the hard work of an entire 4-month term. 

As an adult, I continued to keep up an exercise regimen, even if it was patchy, so that laziness would not become a reason for being overweight. I had some good months and some not-so-good months. But I realised over time that, in my case, exercise was not a guarantee against weight gain, that simply eating less or moving more than my slim friends would not make me slimmer.

Do you have friends who seem the same size, even at 35, as they did when they were 22, while you sport sufficient curves and bulges to make you ‘look your age’? Or do you look at some of your schoolmates and marvel at how they filled out as adults while you could still turn out in a school uniform and look the part?

I realised over time that simply eating less or moving more than my slim friends would not make me slimmer. 

What causes some people to gain weight, and, indeed, fat, easily while some others seem to have natural insurance against such bodily changes without any apparent effort? In one word, the answer is ‘metabolism’. Metabolism is the sum of chemical processes involved in the breakdown and build-up of cells in our body. Put simply, it is the process by which energy is utilised and created in the body. Each person has a specific rate of metabolism for carrying out day-to-day activities, called the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which determines how fast or slow one’s body handles the energy it receives, i.e. the food they eat.

Now, some people have a fast metabolism, which means their body burns energy from food at a faster rate than the average population (the thin girls from my childhood come to mind). They are the ectomorphs, usually skinny, with a small frame, thin and long limbs, and lean muscle. Their bodies are resistant to weight gain and, in fact, could lose weight quickly if they do not eat enough. This means they have a hard time putting on fat or muscle.

Some have a slow metabolism, as their body burns food energy at a slower rate than the average population (that’s me…sigh). They are the endomorphs, naturally plump, with a wide frame, round and tapered limbs, and a high fat-muscle ratio. Their bodies attract the pounds easily but lose them very slowly. They do, however, gain muscle quickly too.

Then there are the naturally lucky ones – the mesomorphs – the statistically average body type that people usually strive for. They have an athletic, medium build, and gain muscle easily as well as lose fat easily with moderation in exercise and nutrition. Their metabolism is neither too fast nor too slow for maintaining weight and body fat levels provided they follow a moderate diet.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to change one’s basic somatotype.

Three friends – an ecto, an endo and a meso – may each eat exactly the same food in the same quantity for several days and yet show completely different results on the weighing scale even if they started at the same weight. The reason is the rate of their metabolism. Unfortunately, it is not possible to change one’s basic somatotype.

Does that mean that you are stuck with whatever hand fate dealt you? To remain round and chubby if you are an endomorph, or skinny and fragile if you are an ectomorph (curse those mesomorphs!)?? Fortunately, no. Two factors, among others, play a major role in determining the BMR – age and exercise.

Younger people tend to have a relatively higher BMR than older people. That’s the reason daily servings of breads and pasta, typically high on calories, over an entire summer vacation, do little damage to pre-teens as far as weight gain is concerned. The same diet would start to reveal itself within a couple of weeks, if not days, for a middle-aged adult. BMR tends to drop as you grow older. So a 20-something endomorph could achieve the ‘fit’ look far quicker than a 40-year old mesomorph.

Exercise is the big game changer when it comes to increasing the BMR regardless of somatotype or age. Any form of exercise burns calories and adds to the rate of metabolism. (Of course, there are certain forms of exercise that help achieve a BMR higher than others.) Hence, a 35-year old endomorph who does weight-training regularly could look fitter and leaner than a 25-year old mesomorph who does not.

Does this mean that ectomorphs are doomed since they already have a high BMR and would only get thinner if it increased further? What an ectomorph needs is to add body mass, ideally muscle, to maintain a BMR that contributes to fitness. Thankfully, muscle-building is accessible to people of all ages, since it depends on exercise.

Exercise is the big game changer when it comes to increasing the BMR regardless of somatotype or age.

How do you determine what exercise is best for you? Several myths, misconceptions and even prejudices surround this question. I will discuss the most popular ones soon.

PC: https://www.tigerfitness.com

The ‘fat-free’ revolution that made us fat – the biggest con in the food industry

In my last post, I recounted my initiation into calorie research. Like many rational and reasonably intelligent people, I arrived at the same conclusions that others do: fat eats into the calorie quota quickly, and it takes up too much space in the body, and, thus, would make me gain body fat. So, I should eat as little fat as possible, which will result in two benefits – I get to eat more, and I don’t get fat!

I soon became a pro at figuring out which foods contained fat and which didn’t, reading food labels for their fat content, looking for skimmed and low-fat options on supermarket shelves, and even cooking fat-free meals. Despite all this diligence, I could avoid neither the hunger pangs nor the weight gain. The way my requirement for larger clothes was going, I knew the weight gain was from fat, not muscle. It was definitely not dietary fat that was making me gain fat thanks to my thoughtfully crafted low-fat diet. Then what was making me fat?

Ever been through this before or know someone who has?

The answer lies in the inequality of calories. A calorie from fat will always remain a calorie from fat, and be stored as triglycerides, until it is required for providing energy. Calories from carbs and protein, however, are talented – they can change form. Carbs that are unutilised by the body are converted to fat and stored for later use. Any protein that is excess, after completing the job of growth, repair and maintenance, also converts to fat.

OK. That explained the metabolism issue, or the lack thereof. But surely the body should have been able to tolerate some amount of fat, especially if it was not getting any from my diet! ‘Some’, yes, but what about the body fat that was already sitting there and not getting used?

The human body has evolved over a couple of thousand millennia to use its resources in the most efficient way possible. For our ancestors of the Stone Age, starvation was a real situation that presented itself every so often. The store of fat in the body was what kept them going during those periods, which could very well last a couple of days or a few weeks. The reason being that the body has unlimited potential to store fat. Our ancestors, however, were different from us in that their bodies knew how to metabolise fat since they needed to do it frequently. On days that they got enough to eat, their bodies used the quick-energy providing foods, i.e. carbs, for immediate uses, and stored dietary fat as, well, fat. Obesity, hence, was a rare occurrence, if at all, since the body was adapted to burning fat.

With the advent of agriculture, about ten millennia ago, a dramatic shift occurred in the eating habits of human beings, since vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, largely carbohydrates, became far more easily accessible to wide proportions of the population. With a rise in their consumption, the body started adapting to a sugar-burning mechanism (all carbs essentially being a form of sugar, once the fibre is removed). Now, the human body can store only about 2,000 calories worth of carbs at any given time, basically enough to last a day or at most two, versus an average of 30,000 calories from fat.

The food processing industry amplified this change by an order of magnitude. And guess what types of food were processed the most? Carbs! From raw vegetables and fruits to fibre-less juices and sugar-laden smoothies, from dehusked grains to polished ones, flours and breads, from steamed, whole tubers to dried and fried snacks.

With human bodies having essentially switched over to becoming sugar-burning factories from the highly optimised fat-burning, muscle-sparing ones, requiring feeding at small intervals (mostly carbs again) is it any wonder that rates for obesity, not to mention diabetes, have broken all records in the past hundred years?

What we actually needed to do was not cut out the fat from our food but to reduce the proportion of carbs, especially the processed ones.

So, how does one switch back to the fat-burning metabolism without subjecting oneself to starvation? That story begins with understanding ‘metabolism’. And I’ll get to it soon.

For those who like to do their own research, look up The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living by Jeff S Volek and Stephen D Phinney.

A calorie is NOT just a calorie! The first diet-related myth

I still recall the first time I became cognisant of food calories. I had just polished off several courses of a lavish breakfast spread at the five star hotel where my consulting team was put up during an international project. My colleague, a fitness junkie, then in the pursuit of the elusive six-pack abs, had been observing the careful consideration I had put into picking up an eclectic mix of breakfast items. He waited patiently for me to wipe off the foam from the coffee, which served as the finale of my meal, before remarking casually, “You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?”

“You know you’ve exhausted more than 60% of your calorie quota for the day already, right?” 

“What!” That couldn’t be right. I had understandably eaten a big meal, but surely those dainty Danish pastries, choco-chip muffins, baked beans, cold cuts, and the egg-white omelette could not add up to that many calories! I consoled myself that since I was going to have ‘just a salad’ for lunch anyway, perhaps the big splurge was justified. I vaguely recall that the lunch did not end up being ‘just a salad’.

But I clearly recall that I spent a good part of my morning looking up the calories in various foods. That was over twelve years ago. And that’s how the initiation into my self-guided study of nutrition happened. The fascination has not stopped but now I’m well guided in this matter.

I’ve heard the refrain ‘A calorie is a calorie…is a calorie’ several times. The import of that statement is that what is important in a diet, regardless of the health goal, is the number of calories. At the most basic level (we’re talking survival here), this is correct. But if one has certain goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from, i.e. the three energy-providing macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat. Water, termed the fourth macronutrient at times and an essential nutrient at others, does not contribute any calories.

If one has certain health goals in mind, then it is critical to understand WHERE the calories come from. 

While each gram of carbs and protein provides 4 calories, a gram of fat provides 9 calories, more than double the energy of carbs or protein. So we would need fewer grams of fat than carbs or protein to provide the same number of calories. As a corollary, one should be able to eat more grams of carbs and/ or proteins vs fat to fulfil their calorie requirements, isn’t it?

Now, consider this. Fat takes up more than three times the space of the same quantity of protein in weight. Hence, 1 kg of fat will occupy at least three times the space of 1 kg of protein. This is the reason why two people with the same height and weight can look slim or obese depending on the proportion of body fat. More reason to consume fewer grams of fat, because who in their right mind wants to be fat, right?

Wrong!

The reason that we have had this upside down for so long is because of the understanding that all calories are equal. In reality, one must ask what type of calories we are talking about. This is because each macronutrient has a different role to play in our body. Carbs provide quick energy – their calories can potentially be burned almost as soon as they are ingested. Protein grows, repairs and maintains the body – muscles, organ tissue, blood vessels, hormones, enzymes, antibodies, hair, skin, nails, etc. Fat provides a long-term store of energy, regulates body temperature, enables brain functioning, and allows vitamin absorption.

Just as the role of each macronutrient in our body is different, so is the manner in which each is used by the body. Carbs are used for providing energy instantly and for aiding digestion if they are fibre-rich. Protein, although used primarily for growth and repair, can be used for providing energy in times of distress, when adequate energy from other sources is not available, but at the cost of muscle tissue. Body fat, stored as adipose tissue in the body, is used for providing energy only when other sources of energy are not available or when the body is in starvation mode.

Here’s the kicker – any calories from carbs and protein that are not used by the body are converted to fat in the form of adipose tissue! So much for avoiding dietary fat, huh!

So, which calories should one consume? I’ll talk about this in the following posts.

P. S. The self-guided ones might like to pick up Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which puts to bed several arguments on calories. Will provide my own review of the tome soon.

What I gained by switching from #Uber/ #Ola to the #MumbaiLocal

 

One of the small joys of living in a metro is the ability to hail a taxi easily and go about one’s business without requiring too much logistical planning. The advent of #Uber and #OlaCabs on the Mumbai public transport landscape made this even more convenient. For somebody (like me) who commutes upwards of 50 kilometres daily, this availability is a blessing. What, then, made me give up this uber convenience (pun fully intended) and regress, in many ways, to the popular yet infamous #MumbaiLocal train?

The answer lies in yet another characteristic of modern urban living – a sedentary lifestyle and…sigh… the resulting lower back pain. I realised I needed to change something drastically in my daily routine to overcome this situation. The solution came to me easily but I still took over six months to implement it.

I’ve come to the wonderful realization that those 30 extra minutes each day have been well worth the time.

Now, the commute to and from my place of work is not a tough one, by Mumbai standards, but the workplace being located at one end of the linear public transport route map of the city means that the nearest suburban railway station is about a kilometre and a half away, a 17-minute walk (as per Google Maps). This number is not frightening for the average Mumbaikar, I know, but to somebody who had happily adjusted to the ‘no-local-train-travel-in-the-past-10-years’ status, it did seem a tad challenging, not to mention the ‘adventurous spirit’ that one has to cobble up for the local train journey itself. Add to that number, the 10-minute kilometre-long walk from the train station at the other end to my residence, and I was looking at an increase of about 60% to my total one-way commute time, an additional 30 minutes. The math should not have made sense. Yet I lumbered ahead, all in the hope that my lumbar, at least, would applaud the decision. I decided to undertake at least the return leg of my commute by local train each workday.

I’ve kept up the practice for over a month and a half, and I’ve come to the wonderful realization that those 30 extra minutes each day have been well worth the time. I’ve gained in mind, body and spirit.

Mind

I am able to use the time on the train to (finally) catch up on my reading. Books were always a close companion on the train. These days the Kindle does just as well.

I also use the time, when I don’t find space convenient enough to read, to mentally organise my to-do list and prioritise my activities for the next day.

I’ve discovered parts of the city that I never knew before in my search for the shortest/ fastest/ cleanest route to and from the train station.

Body

This was, of course, the primary reason for making the switch – to get some exercise for the limbs. The lower back pain is history. The heart and lungs seem to have become stronger. A flight of stairs doesn’t seem daunting in the least anymore. And did I mention the mildly pleasant 3-lb weight loss?…

I also get some weight training in because of the 10-lb backpack I carry since it can weather the jostles and shoves of fellow train riders better than an elaborate office bag.

I feel more agile and alert since being on any Mumbai road requires you to be mindful of the next passer-by rushing past you, the large automobile merrily threatening you even at pedestrian crossings, the stray dog that decides to leap across exactly the same puddle at exactly the same time that you are about to hop over it, or the water tanker backing into a no-vehicle one-way street.

Spirit

I am able to use the time on the road to talk to myself and go over the events of the day/ week, introspect on what went well and what needs to get better.

I get to experience and enjoy the elements, whether it is the marvellous sunshine or the refreshing monsoon shower. It reminds me of how much natural wealth we have as residents of a tropical coastal city and how much of it we miss being ensconced in our air-conditioned cars and taxis.

I also get to mingle with the ‘average consumer’ of this large economy, who often becomes the subject of my work-related study and writing. I not only get to observe their interactions but also partake in the commercial activity in daily essentials that occurs on this critical lifeline of Mumbai, away from malls, e-commerce portals, and, I daresay, GST worries…

While these are the most critical takeaways for me, there has also been a side benefit – the substantial savings in travel costs. For the cost of a single Uber ride, I get a two-way unlimited use season pass for a whole month!

What’s not to love about the #MumbaiLocal?!

The Two Sides of a Random LinkedIn Connection Request

I am certain that I am not the only person on LinkedIn who has received a random connection request from a complete stranger. Over the past few years, I have received several hundreds of such requests and, yet, at each request, I can’t help but wonder why anybody should send me a blank connection request.

In the initial days that I noticed a sizeable number of random requests in my mailbox, I would ignore them. If I came across a profile that resonated with my own interests, then I would write them a note not unlike the one here. Most times, I would never hear back from the sender of the request. But every once in a while I would receive an answer.

The senders could be classified in three major categories:

  1. People who ran networks of experts on specific business areas and wanted to expand them
  2. People who wanted some help, usually some consulting advice, career advice, connection with somebody I knew, a new job in an industry that I was familiar with and such
  3. People who were ‘impressed’ by my profile OR thought this was an alternative to Facebook and Twitter where random people called each other ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ OR ‘just wanted to add connections to their network’ OR believed that LinkedIn is meant for ‘getting to know people’

 

Let me first talk about ‘MY side’ of this story – how it began and how it evolved.

As one can imagine, the last category was reminiscent of the times in lower secondary school when schoolmates would run up to one and say, “I want to make friendship with you!” I usually politely diverted requests from this category or simply ignored them.

With the first two categories, however, there seemed to be merit is considering the requests with more than nonchalance. The first one was easy to deal with – I’d check out the authenticity of the sender with a visit to their website, understand more from them about their model, and, after a couple of exchanges, ‘Add’ the connection…or not.

With the second, however, I often had a mixed bag to handle. The requests seemed carefully thought out at best (“I run a VC fund and often require the help of consultants with the companies in my portfolio.”) And immature and naïve at worst (“I am a graduate of instrumentation engineering – could you help me find a suitable job?”) Err…What?!

The interesting statistic here is the split of requests across the three categories: 15% | 60% | 25%. While my eventual interactions with these ‘random connections’ drove to their respective logical conclusions, I learnt something very important from the analysis – There are a LOT of genuine people out there that I CAN help.

From then on, I made a simple but significant tweak in my first-response strategy. Instead of asking these random connectors, “How do I/you know you/me?” I began to ask, “How can I help you?” And that tiny change in perspective and tone has made a HUGE difference to the quality of my network.

At the most trivial of times, it has led me to a lost connection from my past life or exposed me to a whole new cohort of potential clients. At the most significant of times, it has set off a series of conversations that converted into a business relationship or helped me hone my skills in an area from the level of a practitioner to an expert. Talk about seeing the world differently…

Despite the richness in the quality of network that I’ve been able to derive from random connections, I do have a tip or two that I think the other side – ‘THEIR side’ – should use. When you do feel the need to connect with a complete stranger via LinkedIn, PLEASE follow these steps, and follow ALL of them:

  1. Add a brief note to your request (yes, LinkedIn does allow you to do that even in its Basic version)
  2. Say something meaningful in that note (‘hi, can we connect on LinkedIn?’ does not cut it!). Explain who you are and what (help) you are looking for. Even if you went to the same University as that person, don’t assume that (s)he would want to add you to their network for that reason alone.
  3. Mention briefly why you would like to connect with this person in particular.

 

If your need is genuine and the person you write to is even remotely concerned with the area in which you need help, you are far more likely to get a cogent response to such a request than to a blank one.

 

Uncovering the secret to long term health and fitness, one tip at a time

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