Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Turning back time...

Just over a week ago my weight dropped to below 90kg for the first time since I got married - Nov 2001 (24th - yes Joey I would never forget!). My fat percentage also dropped below 20% for the first time since god knows when.
Generally I like to look at both figures together, since it's possible to weigh a few kilos less by being dehydrated and similarly the fat percentage is also lower when I am well hydrated. So isolated sub 90kg and sub 20%, although are great to see, can be a bit misleading.

The week, however, I weighed in at 88.8kg and, at the same time, my fat percentage was 19.5% - YIPPEE!! Basically I have lost 10% of my body weight in fat and lost 14kg in weight since the start of the year. I know you Americans like stones and pounds, so for you that translates to 2 stones and 3 pounds. The fat percentage figure is only a guide really as I doubt my weighing scales produce an accurate figure, similarly I weigh less on the scales at the gym (85kg) than my home scales but I'll carry on going off my home scales. It's the trend line that's important - the figures are just a guideline.

I am now the lightest I have been since my wedding day - and even then I only just managed to be sub-200 pounds in time for my wedding, and then pretty much started to put the pounds back on after the wedding :(
So looking at the longer, more constant, picture I am the lightest I have been for about 10 years.

Lighter doesn't necessarily mean fitter but in this case it definitely does. I have been stronger in the past and I suspect I've had a higher VO2Max in the past too (to make up for the extra weight my cardio system had to support) but in terms of general fitness (especially weight to strength ratio) I am definitely the fittest I have been for a long while. I think I'm looking younger too :)

How exactly did I get overweight? I've always been active but over the years I've had breaks from the routine which have coincided with increases in weight. Each break taking me to the next tier of being overweight. Since about the age of 25 (when I was only just under 80kg) a series of injuries and tight work deadlines have led me to break my routine and gain weight. The last ten years have consisted of me losing weight in summer and gaining in winter - that's I think quite normal for a lot of people. In my case, however, the weight losses could never balance out the weight gains - all it takes is a bad summer, or an injury or work deadline in summer to reduce your ability to lose the winter/xmas flab. Either way, the net result has been that I have steadily gained weight every year for the past 15 years. I wish I could say that running is the answer - but we entered the world of running back in 2005 and since then my weight has still yo-yoed. Maybe I have to succumb to the fact that I will always need a goal to ensure my training stays on track, consistent and all year round. (I'm already considering what to do after the TransRockies Run - I have my heart set on The Marathon Des Sables or one of the Four Deserts - ideally for next year but the Marathon Des Sables is full until 2011...there is a waiting list...that's right, people are actually clambering over each other to run 250km in the Sahara desert...and pay for it).

Becoming overweight is not something that happens overnight. It creeps up on you, you don't notice your weight gain from day to day (just like you don't notice yourself getting older until you compare photos of yourself from years gone by). Usually something happens which makes you take a closer (and more honest) look at yourself and then you realise you're overweight. I've had several such incidents over the years which have slowly led me to re-adjust my lifestyle in stages. Sometimes it's subtle reminders, such as having to get a bigger waist when buying trousers or finding that you're out of breath when you go up stairs, but other times it's more of loud bang, such as old so called friends laughing at your increased bulk or getting a cholesterol result from the doctor or simply weighing yourself on the scales after a long break to find that your weight have just hit a new PB (like it did at the start of this year).

Recently we saw a program on TV called "Half Tonne Dad". It was about a man, I think in Texas, who weighed 1032 pounds. How does a person get to that size? I think it's just an extension of being overweight like me, but without the reminders or cues that most people have that encourage them to do something about it. In conjunction with the lack of will or self esteem to do something about the weight, and then to make matters worse, followed by a lack of strength from family members who continue to feed him (35,000 calories a day!) once he'd become bed-bound. I have always been confident and generally the will (and the encouragement from my family) has always been there but I have just lacked the application, discipline or consistency. Luckily if I have a lapse and gain weight there's a limit to what I'm likely to consume, but increasingly in the West, especially the USA, it's too easy to consume vast amount of calories quickly and cheaply; king-size? super-king-size? double-meat? triple-meat? Personally I think governments need to add a calorie tax to take-out food; if a single meal exceeds, say, 700 calories then hit the meal with a massive tax so that junk food companies cannot promote cheap massive portions. I think food outlets are too clever by half, they prey on the weak and the poor, selling them far more that they need. Hooking them into their food, an addiction fuelled by cheap prices, tasty food and clever marketing. Yes people have to take responsibility for their own actions/health but we must acknowledge that some people are easy prey for these junk food dealers. One of the guys at work thinks the idea of a food portion tax stinks of a "nanny state"...he thinks if you want to get obese then it's up to you!!

That thinking is fine if it wasn't for the fact that the clinically obese are a burden on health care and, more importantly, that there are food shortages in other parts of the world whereas we few in the West are consuming more than our lion share of food. How is it right that we are struggling with obesity when there are people around the world starving to death? We've had wars over fuel, how long before there is a war over food? If China (or India) had a massive famine and it couldn't get food supplies on the open market (because the West is willing to pay more for them) then what would China (or India) do - sit back and starve to death or use force to acquire some food?

So how have I reversed the process? How have I lost over 2 stones in five months? Is it just about the exercise? I don't think so - I think there are several factors to consistent and quality weight loss. Exercise obviously helps - not just in terms of burning calories but I always find that my cravings are reduced drastically while I'm in a fitness regime.

First the science; one gram of fat is only 9 calories, so to lose just 1kg (2.2 pounds) of fat you need to burn off 9000 calories, yikes! One gram of carbohydrates on the other hand is only 4.1 calories. Why, then, does the body burn carbs when it needs a lot of fuel, when you're working at a high intensity, surely it would be better off burning one gram of fat for 9 calories of energy rather than one gram of carbs? Unfortunately fat is harder to metabolise than carbs, and requires more oxygen to metabolise, hence when the energy needs hit a point where the lungs and the blood are unable to supply the necessary oxygen to metabolise the fat then the body switches tack - it decides to get it's energy from carbs instead. If there are no more supplies of carbs to metabolise then the body forces you to slow down, i.e. you hit the "wall". For the record protein is also only 4.1 calories per gram, it needs less oxygen than carbs to metabolise but the pathways are more complex hence thankfully the body leaves your muscles alone!

Irrespective of the type and intensity of your exercises, you have to pay attention to your calorie consumption. The most important advice I could impart is that you should eat for the weight you want to be - not eat for the weight loss you want. In general, ignoring all the noise around different types of diets (such as The Atkins Diet), there are three ways to lose weight.

1. You could go on a reduced calorie diet. Let's say you decided you wanted to lose 5kg of weight in 5 weeks. You would need to reduce your calories by 9000 a week hence you'd have to remove about 1286 calories off your daily diet. That is quite a substantial portion of your typical daily intake (usually 2500-3000 per day). The problem with this approach is that, assuming you make no other lifestyle adjustments, once you stop the diet (because it is impossible to sustain over a long period) even if you do not over indulge to make up for what you missed (which is very difficult to avoid), you will put the weight back on - guaranteed.

2. You could work it off using exercise. A typical one hour run only burns about 600 calories (it varies on your size and speed). So 15 hours of running (or similar exercise) a week will lose you 1kg of fat. Wow, that's hard. Of course it's possible to burn more than 600 calories an hour but in order to do that you have to up your intensity. Some people think that to burn fat it doesn't matter if you burn fat or carbs during your exercise. The thinking being that if you burn carbs then the body will just burn fats to refill it's carbs store. Unfortunately it rarely works like that. The human body is too clever to fall for that; If you increase the intensity then you will burn carbs instead of fat. If you burn carbs you get hunger pangs...that's your body telling you to fill up the carb store. The body could get the carbs from burning the fat, but this takes too long, it's much easier to ask you to stuff your face (ideally with high carb foods). The human body wants it's carbs store refilled as fast as possible - it's inbuilt into us from thousands of years of evolution...I guess the human body still thinks you have to be ready to run away from a sabre-tooth tiger at a moments notice!! Sure, if you resist the hunger pangs, then those calories will translate to fat loss, but most people don't resist those hunger pangs. So generally if you work at a very high intensity then your calories consumption also happens to go up unless you are very strong willed. That's why, in my opinion, if you want to burn fat then keep the intensity low (below 140 heart beats per minute for most people).

3. The third approach, the approach that I think works, is to decide what weight you want to be. Calculate your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) for the weight you want to be (not the weight you are). Then apply an appropriate activity factor for the job that you do - I do not take my training into account. So, for me, since I do an office job I need to consume 2496 calories a day in order to weigh 80kg (my target weight). My typical weight was around 97kg (barring the seasonal high of 103kg it got to after xmas), hence working backwards that would imply I was consuming about 2815 calories a day. So in order for me to reduce my weight, in the long term, to 80kg from 97kg I've only got to reduce my calorie consumption by 319 calories a day. Wow - that's easy, surely? Obviously it would take a long time - at this rate I'd only lose about 35 grams of fat a day (just over one ounce) - so it's likely to take about a year and a half to get to my target weight. That's a long time - but this slow sustainable approach works - you have a very long time to get accustomed to eating for your desired weight. It becomes habit.

Why don't I take training into account? Because you cannot guarantee that you will always train, due to work commitments, injuries or holidays. Also this is about training your body to eat what it needs - if you are training too then your body will ask for more food (assuming you haven't got any fat stores to call upon), so in my opinion you do not need to worry about supplying the fuel for your training. Eventually you will become your target weight, if you train then you'll just get there faster, as has been my case (so far). Maybe when I reach my target goal I will have to pay more attention to increasing my calorie intake - assuming I decide I do not want to get any lighter.

This third approach initially involves you watching your calories carefully so a food diary is key - you'll be amazed how many calories creep into your daily intake. Over time you get more familiar with what you're eating such that keeping a strict food diary will no longer be necessary - although I recommend a diary for a few weeks a year just to check for calorie creep. This approach doesn't mean eating like a monk - it just makes you see things a bit more clearly so you can choose which calories are really important to you. We still go out for meals, we still drink alcohol and we still treat ourselves to the odd bar of chocolate but my average daily calorie intake is now around the 2500 calorie target. The first two approaches are fine as a kick-start but at the end of the day, if you want to manage your weight in the long term, you have to use the 3rd approach.

I've generally improved my diet as well as cutting it down by 300 calories a day. I have removed "white" carbs (potatoes, white flour, white rice, white pasta and obviously sugar) from my diet . This isn't about cutting the calories in the carbs, it's about managing your insulin levels, which white carbs encourage to drop rapidly (hence making you tired and giving you cravings). Cut out the white carbs and you'll find you have much less cravings. Some people advocate no carbs after a set time in the evening but I think as long as it high-fibre carbs then this step isn't necessary; even though we don't have carbs with our evening meal (we bulk up on vegetables instead) we do eat a lot of fruit (especially melon) after our evening meal.

I've known many people over the years that say "they train so they can eat what they want" - even I have had this ethos in the past. It doesn't work. People do not realise how few calories they have worked off during training and underestimate the calories they consume. Even the BBC on their website had an article that suggested that a five hour mountain bike ride is 6000 calories and that it's equivalent to 14 portions of fish and chips. Ignoring for the moment the suggestion that you can burn 6000 calories in 5 hours the idea that a normal portion of fish and chips is only 428 calories (the same as a Pret Egg and Salad sandwich) is totally and absolutely ridiculous. If a fish and chip shop sold a portion that was only 428 calories then you can expect massive riots across the UK; a standard portion from Jack In The Box or Harry Ramsden is about 650-700 calories. If the BBC can get it so wrong what hope is there for the general misinformed public?

Giving in fully to the post exercise hunger pangs usually means you end up consuming much more than you expended. Also you end up getting into the habit of consuming these increased calories so that even when you do not train you still end up on a vastly increased calorie diet :(

Every time I have ever joined a new gym, they ask me what is my goal. Whenever I say fat loss they always, always, tell me the key is to gain muscle. This approach sucks - (in my opinion) gaining muscle to lose fat is a myth. Maybe gyms encourage this approach because they know you're then reliant upon them - as not many people have weight machines at home, whereas anyone can find an alternative to the treadmill...just get out and run!

The theory is that muscle needs calories to sustain it. So if you increase your muscle mass then effectively you increase your BMR. Makes sense. So if that's the case how come most of those guys you see on "World's Strongest Man" carry a spare tyre or two? The human body is too clever to con using such a simple approach. If you increase your muscle mass then all that happens is you end up increasing your calorie consumption to fuel the extra muscle. If you refuse to increase your calories to meet the new requirement then effectively you're on a calorie reduced diet - and all the pitfalls it entails.

I told a guy at work that I want to lose muscle. He didn't understand the concept. He couldn't understand why someone would not want extra muscle. Whereas I think why would you want that extra/excessive muscle? What good is it being able to leg press over 300kgs (like I could do)? Unless you're a construction worker or someone who needs strength for their day job, why do you need extra muscle? It seems we're programmed to like and want large muscles - maybe that's hereditary, but last time I checked I didn't need to wrestle any bears for my dinner. Furthermore, muscle weighs more, because it carries more fluid, hence water. So by increasing your muscle mass you are also increasing your dependency on fluid - surely this makes you more susceptible to dehydration? A few years ago I fell for the gym ethos (muscle is best) and although some of my strength gain is definitely good (such as my core muscles) most of it is excessive - it doesn't help in any of the sports that I like to do, soccer, mountain biking and running. Did you know that Wayne Rooney, the archetypical Neanderthal man (also happens to be a very strong professional footballer) only weighs 12 stones 5 pounds. And Steven Gerrard at 2 inches taller (6 foot) also only weighs 12 stone 6 pounds. These guys are both very physical football (soccer) players and yet their muscle mass is much lower than you atypical muscle junkie at your local gym. Lance Armstrong couldn't do press-ups when he was racing because it would mean putting muscle on his upper body which wasn't needed - obviously I'm not advocating going to such extremes but you do need to determine what exactly you want the muscle for before you build it.

I believe in having muscle for all round fitness, leg and arm strength so that you can support your weight comfortably and strong core (abs and back) so as to keep you stable even when pushed to the limit. Therefore I agree with exercises that use body weight as their resistance, such as press-up, squats, sit-ups and general core work, with maybe a little added weight (say 10-20% of your own body weight). Anything beyond that is building excessive muscle, hence, I think, is just a waste of food.

If I get down to less than 10% fat and I still cannot beat my brothers on the mountain bike then I might consider doing some weights - or more likely I'll just find some hills to cycle up instead!

This is by no means the end of the journey. My BMI is still above 25 - and if you agree with my "no excessive" muscle ethos then looking at the BMI measurement does make sense. There should be very few valid reasons to be outside the 20-25 BMI range. My target is sub 80kg. I will reach it, around about the end of July (which was the target date I had set myself back in Feb) and hopefully my fat percentage will also happen to drop below 10%. From experience I know that I have to work hard at keeping myself at my target once I get there.

Now that (after years of doing the wrong thing) I have found the key to success I believe I will succeed where in previous attempts I have failed. The key being to eat for your target weight - so that when I do get to my target weight it will be habit for me to consume the calories I need to stay at that weight. For every kilo I lose, mentally, I lose a year off my age. I'm look forward to reacquainting myself to the younger me :)

I know I've gone on and on with yet another mammoth blog posting but I hope there's someone out there that can benefit from some of this. Let me know what you think and what works for you - as we're all different, my approach and ethos may not be right for others.

Happy eating,


Blogger Freddi14 said...

My heart rate on long runs is averaging 132 roughly 80% of Max of 167. That what the garmin calculates as Max. I have no idea whether that is too high or not. It has come down from 142. I sometimes max at 173 but just for short periods.

I have been losing weight faster then I would like. I have dropped 10+ lbs and have not hit peak training yet. I am afraid I'll be down to my college weight 130!!! My backpack will weigh more.

George and I have booked our flights. We are getting in Aug 22 in the morning. We are planning to take the shuttle.

Keep us posted on your travel plans.

7 June 2008 at 02:45  

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