So you want to lose weight. Why? (Part 2)

Health, Fitness, Exercise, Diet, Movement, Weight Loss

Are you losing (weight)? Are your reasons Good, Bad, or Ugly?

Last time I covered what can be considered the “good” reasons for wanting to lose weight.

That part is not controversial at all, and based on pretty solid scientific evidence.

This post, on the other hand, will cover the “bad” and the “ugly” reasons for wanting to lose weight.

As such, you have to understand that these are my opinions, and that they may not be pleasant to read for everyone. Yet it might be a good idea to read on, and comment on the post. A healthy dialogue might ensue. (Stranger things have happened.)

The Bad

The single bad reason I can think of for wanting to lose weight is also the most common one: To look a certain way.

We are bombarded by images of men and women that look very slim, or very buff, or very both. Never mind that they are largely doctored images, fabricated by an untrustworthy industry; we’ve come to associate such looks with fitness, and desire.

And, sadly, as others have pointed out, even looking strong is actually looking very slim. There is no room in those images for being strong and fit but not looking like a model. And that’s really bad.

You cannot stand for fitness and health and insist on looking like a model. While it is natural for a very small portion of humanity to look that way, for the vast majority it is simply not healthy.

Even fitness models, perhaps one of the weirdest inventions of our modern age, are not to be trusted. They are a contradiction in terms, with their fake nails, fake tans, fake… you name it.

Fitness is a naturally occurring state of being when one is very active and eats well (see my post on the definition of fitness if you need a refresher). And, in a slight leap of meaning, we could think of what is natural for a body, in terms of shape and looks, as being fitness. Allowing your body to be shaped the way its own genetic code programs it for is more akin to fitness than forcing it into a specific shape through dieting or excessive exercise. And silicone implants.

“But wait,” you want to tell me, “what if looking a certain way (i.e. like a model, or a fitness model) is going to make me feel good? Isn’t feeling good something you filed under ‘The Good’ in your previous post?”

Health, Fitness, Weight Loss, Exercise

Looks can be deceiving. Do you really see what you think you see?

Feeling good based on how we look exclusively, instead of how our bodies actually feel (and what they are capable of) is exactly the same as thinking we are going to be happy once we get rich. For those who go down that road, the destination is never reached: the richer they get, the more they compare themselves to yet richer folks, and the less satisfied they are with the wealth they have.

Basing your self-esteem, your “feeling good,” on looks alone is one sure way to never have much self-esteem, or feeling good for more than a fleeting moment, because you’ll always find yourself wanting in some way. And that’s definitely bad.

The Ugly

What could be worse than wanting to look a certain way when it comes to reasons for wanting to lose weight?

Well, perhaps not “worse,” but definitely an ugly trend, and a pet peeve of mine: Losing weight in order to better perform during races.

Some otherwise fairly fit folks get convinced by coaches, or perhaps by reading too much so-called training advice out of context, to lose weight in order to reach an “ideal” racing weight. To “make their numbers,” like power-to-weight ratio, better.

Yes, if you were not familiar with this, it is true. And very sad.

Granted, when you watch the pros racing in Kona, or running the Boston marathon, they sure don’t seem to carry any extra weight. And their numbers look great on paper.

But they did not get that way because they followed a regimen destined to make them lose weight at the last minute so that their numbers would look great. They got there through years of intense training, and gradual adaptation.

While it is true that shedding a bit of weight will make VO2max (the weight-normalized version, not the absolute number) and power metrics look a little better, which on paper would appear to indicate a better potential racing performance, that is a very, very ugly reason for losing weight. And it is no guarantee that the performance will ensue (except perhaps through a bit of placebo-like effect).

Because the new, lower weight, is not natural for your body, even if you are fit. Going on a crash weight loss regimen in the last few days, or even a few weeks, before a race is a bad idea. Your body might very well interpret it as a famin situation, and curb your performance in order to make energy reserves last longer.

Instead, we are all much better off improving the fundamentals of our bodies; work on the “top line” part of the performance equation (power, speed, economy) and let your body find a natural fitness equilibrium over time. At a weight it is comfortable with.

Health, Fitness, Power, Weight, Exercise, Training

It is not just running and triathlon where this applies. Any sport where the body has to be moved is subject to abuse of power metrics.

The bottom line

You still with me? Nice. There’s hope.

Talking of hope, I hope you understand this pair of posts is only partially based on science; namely, Part 1, about why too much fat in the wrong place is dangerous for your long-term health. That’s well established.

The rest is in part psychology, part training advice of dubious quality, and some of it is still the subject of much conjecture.

The bottom line is that you should trust how your body feels as you use it. Move, move some more, and appreciate what your body can do. You should start with that, not just with an aim to lose a certain amount of weight.

Don’t pay attention to how people look; looks can be very deceiving. And unhealthy.

And by all means, steer clear of any coach who starts by saying you should lose weight. Or uses that reasoning to suggest better performance can be attained…

Pictures from Pixabay

So you want to lose weight. Why? (Part 1)

Health, Fitness, Diet, Weight Loss, Exercise

What’s your reason? Careful: Even this picture might be misleading.

I don’t mean to be nasty with this short series of posts, but let’s face it: Most people will probably not like it.

In fact, most people who think they need to lose weight will just stop reading pretty soon. After this post, to be precise.


Because of that very question. Asking “why?” hints at a re-assessment of one’s actions or motivation. In this day and age, questioning actions, and the thoughts behind those actions, is often seen as a critique of the person behind the thoughts and the actions. Even though they are not the same at all.

Something as important as weight, and actions taken for losing some or maintaining a “healthy weight,” must be considered carefully.

You see, weight is an extremely important predictor of long-term health.

Well, actually, some indicators related to weight are important predictors of long-term health. All too often, we take the short-cut of using weight alone, but in fact those indicators are far more important.

Take BMI, for instance. Nope, bad example; BMI has been widely discredited as the indicator to use. Which is actually a good example of why it is important to question what we are being taught, and what we think, about weight.

The current thinking is that abdominal fat (mid-section circumference measurement) and body composition (percentage of fat) are more accurate indicators. So we should all keep an eye on those.

But chances are pretty good that, if you are reading this and are trying to lose weight, those are not the indicators you are trying to change. And long-term health, deep down, is not what you are after. It should be your Purpose, but you probably have different answers to the question “why?”.

Don’t get me wrong: There are many good reasons for wanting to lose weight. And then there are some bad ones. And there are even some ugly ones.

Let’s have a look, shall we? Starting, for now, with the “good” reasons… (You still there?)

The Good

As already stated, without a doubt, maintaining a healthy weight that keeps our waists and fat percentages in the “correct” range is the best possible reason for losing weight. If you are not currently in that range.

It has been shown repeatedly that many chronic illnesses, diseases of affluence as they are sometimes called, can be avoided or their odds greatly reduced by keeping our weight in check: type 2 diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, and even cancer are less prevalent, to name just the most impressive ones.

But there is a second reason, not studied the same way, that also should matter: Feeling good about your body and its ability to “do stuff.”

By maintaining a healthy weight, everyday actions are just routine, not a major chore, to accomplish. I’m not just talking about fitting in the confines of a car’s driver’s seat or airplane passenger’s seat, but the general, normal feeling, of being able to move about unimpeded. Of not having to worry about whether you can go up a flight of stairs. Of not feeling like you have to take your car to go to the corner store.

There is a lot to be said about just feeling good about your body and its ability to move.

In today’s world of energy saving, and of considering physical exertion something to be avoided, we have lost track of how good it feels to move. That is something that slowly goes away when we become sedentary and gain too much circumference and fat.

It’s as if we’ve reset the discomfort threshold over time, so that now even the slightest effort becomes difficult, and we feel terrible as soon as we try to do something that was once routine.

Resetting that discomfort threshold, recalibrating our bodies, and re-gaining that good feeling that comes from movement is an essential part of why it may be a good idea to lose weight.

My next post will explore what I call the Bad, and the Ugly, reasons for wanting to lose weight. Stay tuned.

And keep on moving, no matter what your current weight might be.

Fitness, Exercise, Health, Movement

Move. And focus on how good your body feels when you do.

Pictures from Pixabay

Same old, same old… if you want to get old in good shape

Exercise, Everyday, Health, Fitness, Training

Go ahead, make a move! Make it over and over again…

I know, I said I would write about physiology next. But that will have to wait just a little longer.

Today’s post will sound like I’m repeating myself, and of course it is a little the case.

In my defense, it is a well-known fact of communication that in order for your message to get through, and for it to be believed, it must be repeated many times. (Preferably by more than one independent “sources,” though that never stopped anyone. Just think of the persuasion success the American leadership had a few years ago about weapons of mass destruction…)

So while I continue learning about physiology (I’m taking an online course, among other things) and clarifying my thinking about how to get that message across effectively, today I’m inviting you to review some recent news items about the importance of fitness for long-term health.

(Added note: I know most bloggers would have split this up in 2 or 3 topics. I’m not most bloggers because I prefer to see things as they fit together, not apart. And I think most people are capable of taking a bit of extra time to read a slightly longer post, instead of three short ones. Like my coaching, my blogging is about quality, not quantity…)

In the News

There has not been anything ground-breaking in the news lately; the artificial conflict between maintaining (or returning to) a healthy weight through diet alone versus exercising more (while being careful what we eat) has been raging. Because most folks on the “food only” side are clearly peddling books and special diets, I’m not even going to talk about what ridiculous stuff has been said on that side of the “debate.”

Instead, you should keep in mind that the best way to increase the odds of being healthy for a long time is through exercising a lot, and being careful about the food (not too much, mostly from plants) we ingest. That’s the “same old, same old” part of my message.

In support of that, you should read an interesting article about how many of the health problems of aging are due to inactivity, not “just” getting old. This is exactly what I mean when writing about muscles being extremely important, not just for metabolic reasons, but to keep bones and brains healthy.

Basically, to be healthy and active well into old age, you need to use your muscles more. The thing is, as one of my favorite authors on the subject has recently added, you don’t even need to do a whole lot in order to reap the benefits. That’s a key point about the approach I embrace and promote: balance is more healthy than excess.

Exercise, Health, Fitness, Training, Marathon

Running the New York Marathon in 2013.

For instance, while I say that we should all move a lot more than we currently do, there are some who say that we should all be training like professional triathletes, 25 or more hours per week. And others say we should not move at all, and instead restrict what we eat in a radical way.

I’m clearly not on the side of diet restrictions without any exercise, and I’ve run ultra-marathons and I do an ironman distance triathlon each year “just to stay in shape,” but even I would not pretend that such a level of training is sustainable for everyone. Although not sustainable, it may be something to shoot for, or, at least, going well beyond the “standard” recommendations of some 150 minutes per week of exercise, remains a very good idea.

Which brings me (finally) to a third tidbit of news about those who have been clamoring that doing marathons and intense training for more than 150 minutes per week were actually causing damage instead of doing good for their health. In light of new research, it seems they are admitting that our bodies can really benefit from a lot more exercise than they previously allowed for.

Moving More, Up to A Point

But keep in mind that, based on the research, there is a diminishing return to be had from increasing the activity level. And at some point, while it may not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer (which is what the study was concerned with), you up the risk of injury, which is not really taken into consideration from what I’ve read so far.

As reported in Runner’s World:

When mortality rates were adjusted for exercise levels, the researchers found the lowest rate among those who exercised about three to five times the amount recommended by federal guidelines (i.e., 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise like running). However, the increased benefit of working out three to five times more than the guidelines was modest, the researchers wrote.

More importantly to serious runners, there was no evidence of harm at ten or more times the recommended minimum.

At three to five times the federal guidelines, you are in marathon and short-distance triathlon training territory. Maybe up to a decent half-ironman. Nothing crazy. And sustainable, if part of a lifestyle choice that features living a long and healthy life as its Purpose.

And you can go well beyond that, if you are careful.

Same Old Advice (Summary)

In summary, allow me to repeat what little wisdom I can impart, based on what I’ve learned and what more knowledgeable people have said before me:

  1. Move, a lot, because our bodies are at their best when they do.
  2. Eat food, not too much, mostly from plants.
  3. Obtain, and follow, the advice of a coach (especially if you are going to train seriously for something like a marathon or triathlon (or any endurance- or speed- or strength-focused sport).
  4. Steer clear of excess and obsession; strive for balance in all things.

Oh, and I should probably have added “stay tuned.”

Because I’m bound to come back to this subject, and provide more specific advice over time.

After all, much like with training, repetition is what eventually gets the message through… and turns it into a no-brainer.

Running, Marathon, Fitness, Health, Training, Exercise

A bunch of superheroes with their capes, or tired marathon runners done running?

Photos by the author at various events.

Of mice and men (and petri dishes)

Science, Exercise, Physiology, Research

It takes eggs to make an omelet; it often takes lots of mice to do science. (And like the eggs, they don’t survive the process.)

How much do you understand about science?

In particular, when it comes to science in the news, how much of it do you really understand?

And when it comes to research about the effect of nutrition and exercise on health, can you really tell what is good science and what is not?

A recent piece of news about fake research, which you might have read about, should cause you to consider carefully your answer. (You can read a shorter perspective here.) Anti-science folks will take heart, no doubt, to once again see that it appears possible to make science say whatever we want it to. But that is not the point. (And it is not actually true, at least not of well-done science.)

Let’s face it, we can’t all be research scientists, or experts at evaluating which study is well designed and performed, and which is flawed. That’s why we rely on experts.

To be clear: I love science. Science is a wonderful thing. It is our best bet for making sense of the universe. It has been wildly successful at bringing about our technological world. Which is precisely why anyone who is trying to sell you something uses what appears to be science, but often is shaky, or not at all, in order to convince you to buy.

Therefore, there are peculiarities of scientific research about physiology, health, and biology in general, that we should all keep in mind when reading or hearing about new results. And that’s what I’d like to offer in this post.

Who am I to say those things?

For full disclosure, you need to know that I am “only” a physicist.

So, while I know a lot about particles and galaxies, I’m more fuzzy about things of sizes in between (like the human body). However, because I have training in science, I understand the general process of research, and the inherent limitations of the methodologies employed. And I tend to be very critical of what I read.

My purpose is therefore not to impart absolute truths (we don’t have such things in science, by the way, only very reliable understandings about how things work).

If the only thing you remember from this post is that you should be very doubtful of what journalists write, I’ll claim a big victory. So let’s get going.

Petri dishes

The most basic way of doing research in biology is to study cells and tiny living organisms in a special environment in which they normally should thrive. That’s what petri dishes are.

It used to be, and in many cases it still is the case, that in order to identify what ails someone, you would take a swab, and smear it onto various petri dishes. Depending on the characteristics of the medium in each dish, and where the bacteria would actually thrive, you could tell what bacteria were actually causing the infection. (That explains in part why it took so long to get the results.)

We’ve gone a little away from that nowadays, but what is still often being done is still using petri dishes.

For instance: Take cells of a certain type, like cancer cells, and cultivate them in a medium that is nourishing to them (i.e. a petri dish with the right medium for cancer cells to grow). Then you add some substance and see if the cells still thrive, or stagnate, or even die.

Research, Science, Physiology

A scientist “doing” the (petri) dishes…

If you find something that can kill cancer cells (or bacteria, or some fungus), you may have a candidate for a drug or medication.

That is how a lot of research on anti-oxidants is being done, for instance. Anti-oxidants of all sorts are found to be bad for cancer because in petri dishes they clearly impede the growth of the cells.

But there is a big, really big, problem with that approach. In fact, there are two huge problems:

  1. Petri dishes are not like a living organism. So what takes place there might not be the same as what will take place in the body, especially for cancer cells, because they interact with the entire organism.
  2. It is easy to deliver a specific molecule or drug to a cell (or bacteria or fungus) in a petri dish, but delivering it in a living organism is not the same. Our bodies have natural mechanisms for treating what comes into them; through eating, there’s digestion, through the blood, there is filtering by the liver and kidneys, our natural detoxifiers. So just because in works in a petri dish, it does not mean it will get to the right target in the right kind of shape in a real body.

This explains in large part why you should probably not give too much credence to anything about anti-oxidants and food supplements in general. They have been shown to not have much of an effect, if any, in humans in part because our bodies handle them in such a way that they are not the same once they reach cells. Moreover, once they reach cells living in real, complex organisms, often the interactions are not the same as those taking place in petri dishes.

Mouse model

A lot of research on the effect of drugs and nutrition regimen is done on what is called the “mouse model”. Basically, mice are being used, and researchers perform studies while maintaining a keen awareness that mice are an approximation, a stand-in, thus a “model,” for the human body.

That keen awareness is not always communicated by reporters of the results.

The good side to doing this is that mice are short-lived, compared to a human being, and scientists have developed breeds of mice that have very well known characteristics over the years. We even have mice that are bred to have cancer with a very high probability. Furthermore, we can manipulate mice genomes to the point of being able to induce certain conditions that can then be “cured” by drugs or specific food or exercise patterns.

Hence it is possible to do a lot of research in a fairly short amount of time. Generations of mice stand in for generations of human beings, but the research takes months instead of decades.

The downside, and you must keep this in mind, is that mice are not men. Especially mice that are bred for some very specific traits or diseases. Therefore, what takes place in mice is only a hint of what might be taking place in the human body.

I recently heard a top cancer scientist talking about how, according to her, we need to move away from the mouse model in medication research. Her argument was that many drugs that were found promising in specially bred mice were later on found to be totally ineffectual in humans. That’s a big downside, and a lot of research money wasted.

Despite opinions to the contrary by conspiracy theorists, scientists don’t like to waste money, and time, on fruitless research. Especially cancer researchers, who are human as well, and have loved ones who are affected by those diseases.

The bottom line is that just because some research says an effect was found in mice, it does not hold that the same is true for humans.

Science, Research, Physiology, Biology

From petri dish to humans, there is a really big step.

Cohort (and longitudinal) studies

Perhaps the least understood of the research methodologies is that of the cohort study. Sure, you probably think, one should be careful of petri dish and mouse model research, but when it comes to health and fitness being studied in real human beings, that’s another matter entirely.

Is it?

The advantages of petri dish and mouse model research come from the ability to observe in details what is taking place. The mechanisms might be observable through microscopes, and mice can be (and often are) dissected to verify what is going on.

Humans are not, as a general rule, dissected, as part of physiology research. At best, some biopsies are taken, but even that is limited. (This is a bit of humour. The part about dissection. Not the part about biopsies. That hurts for real.)

What researchers rely on instead is recruiting willing subjects (i.e. a cohort), asking them to follow a specific regimen (which could consist of a special diet, or exercise, or both), and then following-up on their progress through surveys over a period of time (long ones are called “longitudinal” for that reason).

Yup, basically, they are asking participants to fill a questionnaire about what they did, what they ate, how much of it, etc.

In the best designed research, there is close follow-through of the program by researchers. They might even sequester the subjects for the duration of the study, but that is very, very rare. In many cases, the questionnaires are asking about stuff that happened days, and even weeks, earlier, and there is no direct verification.

How well do you remember what you did, and how much you ate, on Wednesday of last week?

Therefore, often the researchers only ask about general habits and levels of activity, or take a sampling that they hope is representative by asking about the most recent day.

I think you understand where that is going: What you do on any given day may, or may not, be representative of your general diet and exercise habits…

Where does that leave us?

Again, I’m all for science. The more, the better. As a scientist, I am keenly aware that, at the very least, science is self-correcting; by which I mean that if somebody gets the answer wrong, for whatever reason, someone else will eventually point it out, and overall we’ll get it right.

But it might take a while. Because it is difficult to do science well when the subject is the human body and its complex, diverse, interactions with the environment.

There are things about physiology that we understand very well by now; I’ll get back to that topic next time. But keep in mind that biology, in comparison to physical sciences, is bloody complicated. Climate science, in comparison, as complex as it gets, is a breeze.

There is a lot of research that is well designed that can help us make sense of how our bodies work. The accumulation of individual pieces of evidence eventually lead to a more accurate bigger picture. That’s the process, and it works.

Just be careful of individual pieces of research being reported as having widespread, and very radical, implications for your health. The more fantastic the implications, the more cautious you should be.

Especially if somebody is using the findings to sell you something.

Images from Pixabay