Fighting Flab

In my last post, I underwent a scientific ramble upon the subject of fat, going into a little of the basic chemistry and biology of the whole business. However, what I did not touch so much on is the giant elephant in the room that surrounds all talk of fat in our modern world, and looks poised to become one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century- that of obesity and overweightness.

I am not, however, about to analyse obesity as a whole in this post, but instead intend to consider why attempting to counteract this, and the slimming industry in general, have become such major bones of contention for so many people. There’s no denying that the slimming industry is worth a veritable fortune- one analyst I saw on TV the other day estimated that a simple cure-all for the world’s obesity problem could be worth up to four trillion dollars, particularly given the boom in public obesity in countries like Brazil and China. However, this doesn’t mean that slimming is popular or that everyone goes in for it- if slimming down weren’t such a problem for so many people, there wouldn’t be an obesity problem worth speaking of, and it’s an open secret that around 99.9% people attempting a new diet fail to keep any weight off in the long term.

To begin, let us consult the very basics. For practical purposes in terms of losing weight, fat is basically energy stored by your body in physical form; the formation of the triglyceride molecules that make up fat requires energy, ‘using up’ any excess energy your body may have, and breaking them apart (the leftover ‘bits’ of the broken-down triglyceride molecules are effectively waste products that are transported to the kidneys via the bloodstream, and are later eliminated from the body in urine) releases this stored energy for your body to use, in order to keep your various bodily functions going and allowing you to move around and do things. Thus, any difference between the amount of energy your body consumes (in food, mainly; a ‘calorie’ is nothing more than an old unit of energy, just like the ‘joule’ unit used in modern science) and uses is offset by your fat reserves- if you put in more than you get out, your fat stores increases, and vice-versa. Thus, the only real challenge facing a slimmer wanting to shed their excess fat is to expend more energy than they consume (leaving to one side for this post various claims that certain foods make you fatter than equivalents of a similar calorific value). Just so we’re all clear on this.

The first concern to raise its ugly head when considering this problem is the simple question of ‘how much energy do we actually expend per day?’. Many people will look to the little table of government-issued Guideline Daily Amounts of various nutrients that you find on the side of most food packaging, but it must be remembered that these are only ‘Guidelines’ after all and a more personal evaluation may be of use. The amount of energy your body uses per day is known as your Metabolic Rate, and a good starting point for an aspiring slimmer would be to calculate your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). One’s RMR is a measure of how much energy a person of your gender, age, height and weight would normally (some people may have unusually fast or slow metabolisms, but these people are rare and ‘I have a slow metabolism’ is more often an exuse than reality) expend per day were they utterly at rest; not moving, not doing anything, this is the minimum amount of energy your body needs in order to function. RMR calculators such as this one are freely available online, and that one also features a separate calculator (under ‘Calorie Calculator) that allows you to (very roughly) estimate your total calorie consumption per day. The final number you get out of this latter process is a very useful guideline to the aspiring slimmer.

However, simply aiming to eat less than that number is no guarantee of long-term weight loss. For one thing, many people give up on diets because they can see no immediate results, but this is because ‘burning’ fat is an inherently slow progress. Depending on your source, fat stores between 7500 and 9000 calories per kilogram, meaning that if you are on a diet in which you eat 500 calories less than you expend (and I’m being generous here; a 500 calorie shortfall will leave you feeling very hungry), you can only expect to lose a kilogram of fat every 2-3 weeks. Even this may be  masked if our hypothetical slimmer decides to exercise a bit more too; regular exercise will cause a person to put on muscle (which weighs more than fat) and thus make the loss of weight seem less impressive- but we’ll come onto exercise in a minute.

The other major issue facing those who try to lose weight by dieting is the fact that diets are really, really unpleasant. For one thing, the constant calorie-counting provides unwanted mental strain for many (hence the popularity of points-based diets and similar that do the calculations for you), and this mental fatigue can serve to only exacerbate the gnawing hunger in our empty bellies at the end of a day when we’ve eaten enough calories but not enough to satisfy our stomach. Not only do dieters frequently feel hungry, they also have to deal with a bland diet of lettuce and cottage cheese- and however much we can pretend that we find these delicate things delicious, they don’t quite compare to the stomach-filling satisfaction of a thick, fatty, meaty burger.

The problem is that our hunger is not dictated by how many calories we have consumed, but by how physically full our stomach is, and whilst there are a few tricks that can be used to try and counteract this (a personal favourite is to down a pint of water when feeling peckish, just to give my stomach a large physical amount of stuff to process) none of them really compare to everyone’s dream of being able to eat as much as they like and still not get thin. So, if attempting to limit our intake of energy alone isn’t enough (although diet is most certainly a vital part of keeping our weight down), our only remaining option is to increase the amount of energy we expend, and that means exercise.

The benefits of exercise in relation to weight loss are generally poorly understood by most people; whilst the very act of getting our bodies moving does expend energy, as the little calorie meter on an exercise regime may show, the actual amount of excess energy expended by this process is usually very little; a half-hour run may only expend a cupcake’s worth of energy. No, the real benefits to exercise concern the metabolism; exercise and leading a generally active lifestyle causes your overall metabolic rate to rise, which is why relatively short but regular bouts of exercise (which constantly ‘top up’ one’s metabolic rate) are generally more productive than a four hour long weekend blowout that only boosts the metabolic rate for a small portion of one’s week. This is why the oft-quoted adage instructing people to do 10,000 steps per day has hung around for so long; I honestly believe that were everyone to follow this advice, there would not be a serious obesity problem. Not only that, but as mentioned before exercise, particularly intense exercise such as sprinting or weight training, will build muscle- muscle whose cells will need to be constantly provided with energy in order to stay alive, thus increasing one’s metabolic rate in the long- as well as short-term.

One final pitfall to be noted with attempting to lose weight in this fashion involves attempting to keep it off. It must be borne in mind that people of a lower weight have a lower RMR and thus need less energy, meaning that if a successful dieter reverts to their pre-diet practices they will be eating too much and will just balloon back to the weight they were. Thus, when one makes a commitment to exercise or better eating it has got to be a genuine change in lifestyle (something very few people are willing to commit to) in order to work for the long-term.

That’s one of two reasons why an unpleasant diet of celery sticks probably isn’t a great weight loss solution; the other reason concerns the other benefit of exercise. Someone who regularly exercises isn’t just likely to be slimmer than a similar person who doesn’t, but to be healthier as well- their heart will be healthier, their muscles more able to perform practical real-world tasks, and their body is generally less likely to suffer from the ravages of time and disease. A lot of the stated health problems that come from being overweight or obese are merely symptomatic of people who eat bad food and don’t exercise sufficiently, rather than being directly caused by being overweight. That’s why very few people worry after the cardiovascular health of Jonny Wilkinson, World Cup-winning rugby star and shining light of Toulon RC: a man whose BMI classes him as morbidly obese.

So… why did I publish those posts?

So, here I (finally come)- the conclusion of my current theme of sport and fitness. Today I will, once again, return to the world of the gym, but the idea is actually almost as applicable to sport and fitness exercises generally.

Every year, towards the end of December, after the Christmas rush has subsided a little and the chocolates are running low, the western world embarks on the year’s final bizarre annual ritual- New Year’s Resolutions. These vary depending on geography (in Mexico, for example, they list not their new goals for the year ahead, but rather a list of things they hope will happen, generating a similar spirit of soon-to-be-crushed optimism), but there are a few cliched responses. Cut down on food x or y, get to know so and so better, finally sort out whatever you promise to deal with every year, perhaps even write a novel (for the more cocky and adventurous). However, perhaps the biggest cliched New Year’s Resolution is the vague “to exercise more”, or its (often accompanied) counterpart “to start going to the gym”.

Clearly, the world would be a very different place if we all stuck to our resolutions- there’d be a lot more mediocre books out there for starters. But perhaps the gym example is the most amusing, and obvious, example of our collective failure to stick to our own commitments. Every January, without fail, every gym in the land will be offering discounted taster sessions and membership deals, eager to entice their fresh crop of the budding gymgoer. All are quickly swamped with a fresh wave of enthusiasm and flab ready to burn, but by February many will lie practically empty, perhaps 90% of those new recruits having decided to bow out gracefully against the prospect of a lifetime’s slavery to the dumbbell.

So, back to my favourite question- why? What is it about the gym that can so quickly put people off- in essence, why don’t more people use the gym?

One important point to consider is practicality- to use the gym requires a quite significant commitment, and while 2-3 hours (ish) a week of actual exercise might not sound like much, given travelling time, getting changed, kit sorted and trying to fit it around a schedule such a commitment can quickly begin to take over one’s life. The gym atmosphere can also be very off-putting, as I know from personal experience. I am not a superlatively good rugby player, but I have my club membership and am entitled to use their gym for free. The reason I don’t is because trying to concentrate on my own (rather modest) personal aims and achievements can become both difficult and embarrassing when faced with first-teamers who use the gym religiously to bench press 150-odd kilos. All of them are resolutely nice guys, but it’s still an issue of personal embarrassment. It’s even worse if you have the dreaded ‘one-upmanship’ gym atmosphere, with everyone’s condescending smirks keeping the newbies firmly away. Then of course, there’s the long-term commitment to gym work. Some (admittedly naively) will first attend a gym expecting to see recognisable improvement immediately- but improvement takes a long time to notice, especially for the uninitiated and the young, who are likely to not have quite the same level of commitment and technique as the more experienced. The length of time it takes to see any improvement can be frustrating for many who feel like they’re wasting their time, and that can be as good an incentive as any to quit, disillusioned by the experienced.

However, by far the biggest (and ultimately overriding) cause is simply down to laziness- in fact most of the reasons or excuses given by someone dropping their gym routine (including perhaps that last one mentioned) can be traced back to a root cause of simply not wanting to put in the effort. It’s kinda easy to see why- gym work is (and should be) incredibly hard work, and busting a gut to lift a mediocre weight is perhaps not the most satisfying feeling for many, especially if they’re already feeling in a poor mood and/or they’re training alone (that’s a training tip- always train with a friend and encourage one another, but stick to rigid time constraints to ensure you don’t spend all the time nattering). But, this comes despite the fact that everyone (rationally) knows that going to the gym is good for you, and that if we weren’t lazy then we could probably achieve more and do more with ourselves. So, this in and of itself raises another question- why are humans lazy?

Actually, this question is a little bit of a misnomer, simply because of the ‘humans’ part- almost anyone who has a pet knows of their frequent struggles for the ‘most time spent lazing around in bed doing nothing all day’ award (to which I will nominate my own terrier). A similar competition is also often seen, to the disappointment of many a small child, in zoos across the land. It’s a trend seen throughout nature that, give an animal what he needs in a convenient space, he will quite happily enjoy such a bounty without any desire to get up & do more than necessary to get them- which is why zoo keepers often have problems with keeping their charges fit. This is, again, odd, since it seems like an evolutionary disadvantage to not want to do stuff.

However, despite being naturally lazy, this does not mean that people (and animals) don’t want to do stuff. In fact, laziness actually acts as a vital incentive in the progression of the human race. For an answer, ask yourself- why did we invent the wheel? Answer- because it was a lot easier than having to carry stuff around everywhere, and meant stuff took less work, allowing the inventor (and subsequently the human race) to become more and more lazy. The same pattern is replicated in just about every single thing the human race has ever invented (especially anything made by Apple)- laziness acts as a catalyst for innovation and discovery.

Basically, if more people went to the gym, then Thomas Edison wouldn’t have invented the lightbulb. Maybe.

Who needs a gym?

This is a post I’ve been trying not to resort to in a while- not because I think the content’s going to be bad or anything, just that it’s a bit of a leap from my usual stuff and because it’s actually going to be a bit too easy. However, given the fact that a) the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics are all on over the next month or so, b) my last few posts have been of a sporting persuasion, c) I vaguely know what I’m talking about here and d) I keep forgetting my other ideas, I thought I’d bite the bullet and go for it. So here it is, my first ever advice column for this blog: how to get fit and strong without the use of any gym equipment.

Fitness can be broadly (and fairly inadequately) split into three separate fields: aerobic & cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. I’ll deal with all three of these separately, and am almost certainly going to have to add another post to fit all of the ‘muscular’ area into, but I’ll start with flexibility.

Some would argue that flexibility is not really part of fitness, and it’s true that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to fit into our typical classification of the subject. However, it is just as much a matter of our physical ability to perform as any other, and thus probably has the right to be included as part of this list. The main reason I have misgivings about talking about it is simply personal knowledge- I don’t really know any exercises designed to improve flexibility.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer advice on the matter. The first, and simplest, way to improve general flexibility and range of motion is just to get active. Every movement of the joints, be they legs, arms, back or wherever, makes them that tiny bit freer to move over that range and thus a little bit more supple- running, cycling, whatever. It is partly for this reason too that it is important to warm up and stretch prior to exercise- by extending the muscles longer than they are naturally used to, then they are prepared for that greater range of movement and are thus capable of easily moving across the more limited range that general exercise demands. Perhaps the easiest ‘flexibility exercise’ one can do is tree climbing  (which also happens to be endlessly entertaining if you can find some good trees), but stuff like yoga can be learnt without too much difficulty from the internet if you’re serious about improving your flexibility. Otherwise, I would suggest joining an appropriate club. Doesn’t have to be yoga or gymnastics or anything quite so extensive- martial arts (my personal preference, and a superb full-body endurance exercise) and rock climbing (which will build forearms and biceps the size of Mercury) are great for teaching your body a whole new way of moving, and are also a lot more fun for the casual enthusiast.

OK, now onto something I can actually talk about with some authority: aerobic and cardiovascular fitness. The goal when training cardio is simply to get the heart pumping- cardiac muscle works like any other muscle in that it can be built by straining it, breaking muscle fibres and having the body re-knit them into a bigger, stronger structure capable of doing more. Cardiovascular training should ideally be done at a rate upwards of 160 bpm (heartbeats per minute), but if you’re struggling to get into exercising then it’s best to start off with a more casual workout. Regular walking can quickly burn off excess fat and build up at least preliminary fitness (although be warned- to be most effective one should aim for a rate of around 120 steps per minute, or less if you’re struggling to keep that pace up, for at least 20 minutes. Bring an iPod too stave off boredom). The average resting heart rate of a person is somewhere around 70bpm- if yours is anything below 80 or so (measure it at home by counting the number of thumps on the left of one’s chest over the space of a minute) and you’re relatively serious about getting fit, then it’s best to step up a gear.

Just about any activity that gets the heart racing (remember- 160bpm minimum, 180 as a target) is suitable for increasing cardio fitness, be it running, cycling, swimming, rowing, football, rugby or whatever else you can think of- the only important thing is to try and keep the motion fast. Running or cycling on a machine (if you have access to one) will make it easier to keep up a pace (since air resistance is decreased), but reduces your workload, meaning less muscle is built on the legs and the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced, meaning you have to work out for longer. Rowing is an especially good exercise for both you muscles and your cardio, but access to a machine can be problematic. Oh, and a word of warning about swimming- whilst it’s a great full-body workout and can really improve your speed, it’s only going to be as effective as a good run or cycle if done at a fast pace, for quite a long time; moderate speeds won’t cut it.

You don’t have to judge one’s activity by heartbeat, as this can be understandably tricky if you’re pounding along a road, but learn to get a feel for your intensity levels. A low intensity, when you’re still able to comfortably breathe and speak (so about up to a fast walk), is a little too slow for proper aerobic work- moderate, where you can feel the breath coming hard but can still speak about normally, is fine for aerobic work over sets of about 20 minutes or longer- but keep going for as long as you can/have the time for. High-intensity work is you going flat out, where speaking becomes next to impossible. It’s probably best left until you’ve achieved a good level of fitness, but if you can manage it then just short bursts of less than 8 minutes (which is about how long you should be able to keep it up) just a few times a week can reap rewards.

A final thing about cardio, before I devote Wednesday’s post to the nitty gritty of muscular workouts- it’s at its most enjoyable when done as part of a sport. Pounding round the roads on a daily jog is almost certainly going to be a more effective workout, and if you’re really looking to seriously improve your fitness then it’s probably more the way to go- but the attraction can quickly fall away in the face of a damp Wednesday when you’re nursing a calf strain. But sport is without a doubt the best way to build up a good level of fitness and strength, make a few mates and have some fun in the process. Some are better than others- boxing is the single best activity for anyone after a cardiovascular workout, whilst something like golf doesn’t really count as exercise- but there’s something for everyone out there, if you know where to look.

Now, to plan a muscular workout for next time…