Tag Archives: Body composition

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 number 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

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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.

 

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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.