Tag Archives: Fitness

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

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?

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

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.