Structure is the key to lifestyle change. You need to plan in advance so that you avoid having to make dozens of daily decisions about diet and physical activity. Over 2 out of 3 people in the US are overweight and over 1 in 3 is obese. More than 25 million have Type 2 diabetes. Even with help, most people don’t lose more than a few percent body weight after years of dieting and the majority of people gain back most of the weight they lost (yo-yo effect). As you know, I’m all about empowering and enlightening. Getting you involved in your health by education and breaking free of unconventional wisdom. This time, let’s talk about that dreaded topic – working out. First, let’s nail down the basics.
Why Diets Fail
Mother Nature gifted us with a supreme ruler that tells us when to eat and how much to eat: the sensation of hunger. Like other feelings, hunger gives us purpose and direction. Hunger motivates us to eat something like fear motivates us to avoid something. Research has found that not being hungry is the most important predictor of successful weight loss. Not monitoring your diet, not self-restraint, not seeking help. Hunger is the enemy. Hunger makes you eat more than intended. Without hunger, dieting would be as easy as just consciously deciding to eat less. Hunger is a formidable adversary, because evolution made our hunger regulation homeostatic in nature: the leaner you get, the hungrier you become. That’s great if you need to get off your butt to go forage or hunt so you don’t starve. Not so much when you’re having a stare-down with an extra large pizza in the supermarket.
There’s a second piece of the puzzle of why diets fail. Hunger is uncomfortable, but why do we give in to it against our better judgment? It’s the same reason we procrastinate on our studies, don’t go to bed on time, and make impulsive decisions. Some psychologists call it ego depletion. Somewhat like a muscle, the brain becomes fatigued after exertion. We have a limited capacity for higher-level decision-making, which includes decisions involving math, logical reasoning, and complex tasks requiring rational thought or planning. We suffer from decision fatigue. Self-control is one of these complex decisions. Self-control requires us to consciously decide to override our primitive urge to eat. This kind of self-control is a limited ability. Humans are relatively good at this compared to other animals, but we are not robots. When our cognitive ability has fatigued, our primitive instincts guide our actions, and we’ll basically eat whatever’s available until we’re satiated.
Hunger plus decision fatigue equals diet failure
This is why most diets fail in the evening. After a long, stressful day at work, you come home hungry and your brain is too foggy to think about what to cook. You open your cabinet and that box of Girl Scout cookies looks you right in the eye. Decision fatigue has set in and you don’t have the cognitive resources anymore to resist your hunger. Therefore, you opt for convenience foods instead of making something you know is better for you. How in the hell do we combat this?
Exercising shouldn’t be an optional component
“I don’t want to look like one of those East German gymnasts!”
“I’m losing just fine, I don’t need to exercise.”
“I hate working out.”
Why will you waste time separating eggs to make #$!@#$ cloud bread but won’t take the same time to improve your health, improvements that are greatly more beneficial than that stupid “eggs pretending to be dry, crappy, tasteless, lump of baked egg white bread-NOT-BREAD?”
Better structure, planning, and choices early in the day will set us up for better choices later in the day. It has been proven over and over again that even 10 minutes of exercise a day improves cognitive functions far-reaching into the day and night. Right, that “I’m losing weight so I don’t need to exercise” is working against you. Mental clarity isn’t the only reason this thinking isn’t the best planning. Nope, not by a long shot. Before I give you the hard science proof of just what the proper exercise can do for you, let’s look at a few scenarios that I’m sure many of you are familiar with:
“Both my husband\boyfriend\brother are doing the exact same diet and he’s lost 20lbs, I’ve only lost 6! NOT FAIR!” Nope, it isn’t fair. It’s genetics. The reason he is losing faster than you is because of… muscles. Men not only have more Type 2 (heavy work) muscle fibers, they carry them higher in the body than women. Why is this important? We know that muscles contain mass. Having more mass up high means more of the rest of the muscles in the body are doing more work just to carry that mass around. Having more muscles means men are burning more calories just existing than women.
“I’ve lost 80lbs but damn, this last 10 is not coming off.” Oh, we all know this as a situation. We hear it all the time. The last 10 always comes off slow. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. In my case, because I structured my lifestyle from the beginning, my last 15 dropped off as fast if not faster than my first 15. Why? Muscles. I’ve shared my pics, I’m not some massive body builder, I’m an average Hobbit. Each pound of fat in your body burns about 2 calories per hour to maintain it. Each pound of muscle burns 6 calories just to maintain it. For each pound of fat you lose, you burn about 50 less calories a day. Associated with it is your muscles, as each pound of fat removed from the body is one less pound of body the muscles need to support and carry around. The body adapts, if it doesn’t need those muscles, it’s going to get rid of them. Think about that for a minute. If all you are doing is focusing on losing fat, you are inadvertently also focusing on losing muscle. When you get to that last 10lbs of fat, your body has adapted so efficiently, you don’t have the muscle energy needs to help burn off that fat. You are not doing yourself any favors in the beginning, middle, or for the rest of your life by taking the “I don’t need to exercise” stance. Before you get all tweaked out, this doesn’t mean spending hours at the gym, running 10 miles a day, or sitting on the exercise bike for hours instead of sitting on Facebook. As a matter of fact, those are the things you should NOT be doing.
The Cost-Benefit of Moving More
Common advice is to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or park your car further away from work or your house so you have to walk a bit. The benefit is self-evident, right? Actually, it’s not, and neither is the cost. You burn 19.7 calories when climbing 11 floors of stairs. That means if you climb 29 floors of stairs every day, you burn off 1 small apple worth of energy. The energy expenditure of descending stairs is less than half of that. If you park your car a mile away from work, you burn 80 calories to walk to work. Less than in a banana. These small benefits do not weigh up against the hidden cost: decision fatigue from fatiguing your brain every time see a staircase or you have to park your car. Constantly thinking about ways to increase your activity level requires effort and self-control. Combine this with a stressful day at work and you’ve got the recipe for a cheat meal. A single cheat meal can undo weeks or even a month of ‘moving more’. As a long term strategy, ‘moving more’ is even worse. As you lose weight, your body becomes more conservative with energy and motivates you to lower your activity level by making you lazier.
Bodybuilders realize this. There’s a photo from the Arnold Classic, a major fitness conference with all the body builders taking the escalator while the stairs are completely empty. It went viral in fitness circles under headlines as ‘bodybuilders not fit enough to take the stairs’. No, bodybuilders just know that taking those stairs is a needless effort. Conserving mental energy is far more important than expending physical energy. Bodybuilders instead invest their energy in structured exercise.
High intensity exercise like weight training and High Intensity Interval Training (HITT) are best. They have the additional benefit of VERY LITTLE TIME OUT OF YOUR DAY IS NEEDED!!! High intensity exercise spares muscle mass on a diet. If you don’t engage in sufficiently heavy exercise when losing weight, you will likely lose muscle mass. You may think you don’t care about muscle mass, but the more muscle mass you lose, the more your metabolism slows down. You need to eat less, yet unless you realize this, you don’t eat less. Constant rate and low impact cardio doesn’t build muscles, it conserves them by making them more efficient. More efficient, as in more work able to be done per calorie, kinda not exactly what we are looking for. I did no cardio whatsoever – just weight training – when I dropped my 134lb total weight and 149lbs of fat. Yes, I added 15lbs of muscle and blood volume while losing fat. You can build muscles and burn fat at the same time. Another myth busted.
Think about this in the most basic way: in some ways the body is a like a car (and in many ways it’s not, I still don’t have bluetooth and navigation built in…that kinda pisses me off 😀 ). They tell us the best way to conserve fuel and get good gas mileage is… to drive steady. Set the cruise control. Don’t make the car work too hard. Same with your body, if you are doing steady-state “work,” you are being efficient. Great if you are crossing the desert with no food or water to be found, not so awesome hanging out in your house. You want to burn fat? Step on the gas. You have a Honda Fit and a Dodge Viper. The Honda has a small engine with a relatively small power “potential.” It’s not “muscular.” Right, you’re not going to race at Daytona or even stoplight-to-stoplight in the Fit. Idling in the driveway, since it has limited power potential, it pretty much sips gas. Now, the fire-breathing demon from hell, the Viper. Even if you don’t know what the hell a Dodge Viper is, just the name should clue you in that it isn’t a minivan. It makes as much power at idle that the Fit does at 60mph, with the power potential of six times the Fit flat-out. It doesn’t sip gas just idling, it drinks long and happily. That power potential uses more energy.
Not a car person? That’s ok, let’s apply this with an example that is a little more relevant to humans since we don’t have pistons and fuel injection.
This is Ladybug (affectionately also known as “Ladybugbugbugbug,” “Bug,” or not so affectionately “LEAVE THE SQUIRRELS ALONE AND GET YOUR DAMN ASS IN THE HOUSE NOW YOU PAIN IN THE ASS DOG!”). She’s a plott hound, genetically “designed” to track bear and boar over miles and miles for up to several days without rest. Yup, she is a cardio machine, 65lbs of endurance canine. She will eat about one pound of food a day without gaining fat, regardless of how much she plays during the day. She’s “energy efficient.”
This is Zeus (also known as “Zeusanutter,” “Zeusie,” and “no, you are not a lapdog and that isn’t your pillow”), an American Pit Bull Terrier. He’s also 65lb, exactly the same weight and age as Ladybug. He is genetically designed to subdue cattle. Right. Bulls. 2000lb hunks of beef. Not hunt them down over 200 miles and tree them, but to keep one ton of cow from going anywhere.
Zeus eats THREE AND A HALF POUNDS of the same food as Ladybug without adding fat. That’s 350% more energy burning at the exact same body mass. Why? Because Zeus is a bundle of muscles in a small package.
(Note: since this was originally written, both Zues and Lady have crossed the rainbow bridge 🙁 )
Building muscle mass increases metabolism. Researchers have compared natural bodybuilders to a control group with the same fat percentage and height. The bodybuilders had a 14% higher resting metabolic rate. When both groups were inactive all day, the bodybuilders burned 354 more calories because of their increased level of muscle mass. That means the bodybuilders burned more calories by sitting on their butts than the inactive subjects did when walking 4 miles a day. And by no means do you have to become hugely muscular to benefit from this. Elderly people can increase their resting energy expenditure by 8% in just 16 weeks of weight training, 20 minutes every other day. ONE HOUR total a week. Do you have an hour a week to spare? I bet you do. A recent 12-year study of 10,500 individuals found that in the long run, weight training was over twice as effective as vigorous aerobics at getting a slimmer waist and KEEPING IT OFF! Women, pay attention here. A study done with 100 pre-menopausal women showed that during weight lose nutrition, the women doing resistance training (strength and HITT) didn’t lose muscle mass where the women who did aerobics or not training did lose mass as well as lowered their resting energy expenditure – right, burning calories. Not only that, but the resistance training women KEPT the fat off. The others did not as soon as they increased their caloric intake. Something interesting to note in this study. They broke the women up between European and African descent. The African descent females lost more weight than the European descent women. I had to dig into this to confirm why. Genetically, women of African descent due to social and economic differences have more Type 2 muscle fibers from the waist down. Right, that wonderful “booty.” That butt is a supercharged fat burning machine. Because they have more “explosive” (powerful) muscles than Caucasians, they genetically burn more fat.
The short-term benefit of burning a few extra calories with cardio does not weigh up against the long-term benefits of increasing your metabolism with high-intensity exercise. Don’t like weight training? No problem. Explosive sports like rowing, tennis, martial arts, korfball and volleyball are also considered high-intensity. Long-term sustainability in your lifestyle is more important than what kind of exercise you choose. Even more importantly, starting NOW instead of when you’re trying to drop those last 10lbs will set you up for a quicker, easier, and more sustainable healthy lifestyle.
Oh. Wait. We are FAR from done. Recent research with 13,644 participating subjects (yeh, another big study) reveals that skeletal muscle mass directly relates to improved insulin sensitivity. With each 10% increase in skeletal muscle index saw a 11% reduction in insulin resistance. Read that again. 11% reduction in insulin resistance. That is above and beyond the healing from being ketogenic. Another study looked at the relationship between sarcopenia (destruction of muscle tissue due to inactivity) and insulin resistance. There was a distinct exacerbation in insulin resistance as muscle tissue was removed. So, based on epidemiology, a lack of muscle is linked to increased insulin resistance and poor glucose regulation. This should go without saying, but sarcopenia was also linked to obesity. A study placed older Hispanic adults with type 2 diabetes on a 16-week resistance training regimen and measured their baseline and post-treatment muscle mass and markers of insulin sensitivity. Folks in the strength training group got stronger, leaner, built more muscle mass, and developed more type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers. They also became more insulin sensitive. The increase in type 2 fibers, in fact, was strongly associated with the improvements in insulin sensitivity. The sedentary group didn’t do so hot in either department (increasing muscle mass or decreasing insulin resistance). That looks like a pretty strong link between increased muscle mass and insulin sensitivity to me. How does one get increased muscle mass? Why, by lifting heavy things or doing explosive (high intensity) activity. And what does lifting heavy things do to insulin sensitivity in addition to its effects on muscle mass? It improves it.
Having greater muscle mass also acts as metabolic reserve in times of trauma. I’m not talking about famine or starvation. I’m talking about car accidents, internal damage to organs, severe burns, cancer, sepsis, and catastrophic injury. A review article from five years ago summarizes the role skeletal muscle plays in recovery from and survival of trauma. In these unfortunate but very real instances, protein requirements shoot up to repair damage, and muscle protein breakdown increases. More muscle mass means you have more reserves to keep the amino acids flowing. When healing from burns, dietary protein needs increase to 3 grams per pound of body weight. If dietary protein isn’t available to you, it comes from existing muscle. If you don’t have much muscle to spare, you’re going to recover more slowly from severe trama. Same goes for cancer patients; those who have the greatest muscle mass tend to suffer fewer recurrences and live longer. Think of skeletal muscle mass as a buffer for hard times. Finally, muscle looks good when attached to a human skeleton by tendons and covered with skin. And don’t we all want to look good naked, ultimately? Heck, I’d say this last one is enough reason to lift heavy things by itself.