There’s an air quality red alert, in Knoxville, this morning. And that means I’m not leaving to house to go to the gym. Thankfully my current program allows me to use today as a recovery day. But still, it’s been my habit to go to the gym in the mornings, and to focus on fitness. Since I can’t really go this morning, might as well muse about it here for a bit.
It turns out that “Fitness” is a fairly broad category. If you tune out the maniacs who talk about “general preparedness”, like they’ve taken time out from their desk jobs to train for Special Ops, fitness breaks down into about three categories: Strength, Flexibility, and Endurance.
(Taken as some gestalt whole, we can come to the idea of ‘all around athleticism’, but that’s a subject for another time).
So, that’s it, just the three. And it turns out that doing any significant training in one interferes with training in any of the others.
*Note: I’m speaking of training – which is the act of working towards an adaptation goal over time – not exercise, which is basically just getting sweaty and burning calories in the moment.
That the three facets of fitness interfere doesn’t mean that one can not train them together. It does mean that one can not expect anything like optimal results if one does. You might still get there, but it’ll take quite a bit longer and you’ll have to be more careful in your nutrition and recovery.
What most people – those of us who are non-athletes – think of, when we think of fitness, is how we look.
(As I have pointed out before, most of us don’t want to compete, we just want to look good naked – or in your favorite outfit, if you’re feeling prudish).
The fancy fitness term for this is: Body Composition.
Body Composition is just how fat or how muscular one looks. This usually boils down to body fat percentage and muscle tone. For, I think, the majority of Americans, how we look – and thereby how we feel about ourselves, to some extent, – is more important than how fast we can run a mile or how much weight is on the bar.
(Those are worthy things, in and of themselves. Personally, I’m working towards a couple of strength goals right now, but that’s not the point of this section).
So, speaking to body composition, only one thing really matters: body fat percentage.
(Muscularity matters, but less so when it’s covered up by too much fat. Caveat: if one builds muscle and loses body fat, one has to do significantly less of both to achieve a desirable look. They are synergistic in that way).
Face it, when we think of “getting in shape” what we often mean is “getting leaner”. Not thinner, per se, but leaner. Everyone knows what “skinny-fat” is, and no one wants to look that way, if they can help it. Shit no. In our wildest dreams we want to look like those damn models in underwear ads. Unfortunately, for us, those ads are terribly unrealistic.
For one, if you research the fitness industry at all, you’ll begin to see that models diet down for those ads – to uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous degrees. YouTube is full of fitness people talking about dieting, especially about dieting down for photo shoots or contests. Go listen to some of their stories and you’ll begin to see just how unnatural and peak-experience that type of conditioning is. Really, I’m not casually suggesting this. Go do it. If you’re at all serious about getting in shape and being healthy, get away from ads and magazines and celebrities and go find out what realistic goals are, and what might be realistic for you. This is important – maybe more important than just about anything else you do.
Setting realistic goals is the best way to maintain motivation over time. And the only way to set realistic fitness goals, at least in our culture at this time, is to do the research to find out what they are. The media wants to sell you something, always. Unfortunately for us, what it also sells us is the idea of what ideal, and thereby normal, should be. And that ideal, currently, is not healthy or reasonably achievable by the general populace.
If there is one thing that will help you on your journey towards health and happiness, it is learning that the images pushed on us by the media are unrealistic to the extreme. Letting them go will do you, and everyone, a world of good; especially where our body image is concerned.
I might write another post on that in the future, but that will probably be more ranty than I want this post to be.
Before I move on, and to emphasize setting realistic goals for body composition, let me give you a few sets of numbers. The first is the range of healthy body fat percentages for men and women. (there are more detailed versions of this with greater numbers of variables available, but this should work as an introduction):
Men: anywhere between about 15% and 19% body fat is healthy and reasonably lean.
Women: anywhere between about 18% to 24% body fat is healthy and reasonably lean.
For comparison, most of the fitness models you’ll see in advertisements diet down to around 3%-5% for men and 9%-13% for women. This is dangerously low and causes hormonal dis-regulation in both sexes. These models do not maintain this degree of lean-ness for more than a couple of days at a time. Also, it makes people miserable. Go listen to the stories, really.
So, what does one do if one is unhappy with one’s current weight? Well, if you’re skinny and want to gain weight, just eat more. If you’re overweight and want to lose weight, just eat less.
It sounds simple, and it is. When it comes to weight loss or weight gain the most important variable – the one that has the most effect – is energy balance. That’s calories in versus calories out. To gain weight, take in more than you use. To lose weight, take in less than you use.
(There are many ways to get into the weeds about this topic. Feel free to go exploring, the information is out there. But for this introduction, this simple formula is really all you need, with one caveat: Do not increase or decrease your caloric intake by more than about 300 calories a day, at one time. The human body adapts better to gradual changes. Find out what your current caloric intake is – keep a food journal for a week – then adjust it up or down by 250-300 calories a day, depending on your goals. Do this for 1-2 weeks at a time, before adding or removing any more calories. For example, if you currently eat 2,500 calories per day – and want to lose weight – lower your intake to 2,250-2,200 calories per day for between 1-3 weeks. Track your progress and make adjustments as necessary. Slow and steady wins this race).
So, adjust your calories up or down and you will gain or lose weight, as you choose.
This is where energy balance meets body composition.
If you want to look toned and athletic, you’ll need to gain muscle – if you’re underweight – or preserve muscle mass – if you’re overweight.
The only way to do this is by resistance training; lifting weights.
(There are plenty of thoughts on how to do this effectively, and to what end – muscle mass [hypertrophy] or strength. Take some time to look into those as well. You might find a training method you like. But I’m not going to get into the varied methods here).
Cardio training has been in vogue since the 80s. I have many a friend that doesn’t feel human without their daily run. Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to have mood stabilizing and mood elevating effects. If you want to spend your time on the treadmill, or elliptical, or whatever because it makes you feel better, then definitely do that. But when it comes to body composition changes, cardio is only good for helping to create a calorie deficit. It will not grow, nor maintain muscle.
I prefer to create my calorie deficit through diet. At my weight I can do 20 minutes walking on a treadmill and burn around 120 calories, or I can just not consume those 120 calories. (For reference, one 20oz bottle of regular Mountain Dew contains 290 calories. That would be an hour of walking for me). Easier to just not eat it than it is to burn it off.
Muscle tissue is metabolically expensive. It costs the body a lot to keep it. If you only reduce your caloric intake, your body will reduce its size the easiest way it can. You’ll lose some fat, but you’ll lose more muscle. In the end you’ll be smaller, but just as flabby.
In order to stop the body from losing muscle, or at least greatly reduce the amount that gets burned off, one must stimulate the body to retain the muscle. Stimulating the muscle happens when you overload it. You overload it when you work out with weights.
Resistance training, while in a caloric deficit, will not only increase muscle tone, (especially if you’re untrained), but will guarantee that more of the weight you lose will be fat, instead of muscle. This will both help you to get slimmer and to get/ keep that muscle tone that we currently find so appealing.
A note about diet: While food restriction diets do work (atkins, paleo, primal, south beach, etc…), they work by the same mechanism: calorie restriction. Usually when you cut one thing or one group out of your diet it automatically reduces your calorie intake. The problem with these types of diet is two-fold: they can create a deficit of important and vital micro-nutrients, and they are difficult to sustain for any length of time. Any diet you can’t see yourself sticking to – and strictly – for 3 months or more is probably not a diet for you.
So, my college essay conditioning tells me I should sum up before signing off. Here’s that:
* Fitness has three main facets. If you’re training, pick one and stick to it.
* Get away from the media representations and find more realistic, sustainable goals.
* If you want to change your body composition control your calories and lift weights.
Thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings. If you’re interested in this type of thing, let me know. The odds are good I’ll have more to say on the subject of body composition and fitness at a later date. If you have questions or are looking for resources, just ask. I usually answer. If enough people ask the same questions, I’ll make a post just to answer those.
Until next time…