Sunday, March 13, 2011

Loss: The Good Kind

Once upon a time, I could eat everything in sight, and not gain a pound. When I graduated from High School, and on up through my twenties, my weight was pretty consistently 150-155 lbs. I wore jeans with a 32" waist. But then I hit my thirties, and something happened. My metabolism slowed down. That, combined with a sedentary occupation that largely involves sitting at a computer keyboard, resulted in a gradual expansion of my waistline. I was losing the Battle of the Bulge.

In short, I got fat.

Not ponderously fat, but noticeably overweight. It was easy enough for me to laugh away the fact with wisecracks such as "Sure, I'm in shape. After all, pear is a shape." Hey, I had become an oblate spheroid, just like the earth.

But, the fact of the matter is that I had joined the throngs of Americans who have a weight problem. I didn't like it. No sir, not one bit. So I did something about it.

It all started last Fall when one of my co-workers convinced me to be his workout partner in GET FIT, a 12 week fitness program for faculty and staff operated by UT-Austin's Fitness Institute of Texas. The program consisted of 3 hourly workouts per week (one cardio workout, one circuit workout, and one weight-lifting working), combined with one lunchtime lecture per week, primarily focusing on nutrition. And it worked.

And here is how. Some of the information that follows was gleaned from the course, and some from my own research. (I'm not a doctor. I'm not a nutritionist. I'm not a trainer. Heck, I haven't taken a biology course since High School, and my PE credits came from Marching Band. I'm just an interested amateur who did his homework, so take any advice I give here for what it is worth. If you are serious about weight loss, it is always wise to consult a pro.)

Do The Math
Weight loss and weight gain come down to simple arithmetic. If you consume more calories than you burn, you gain weight. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, you loose weight. It really is that simple, although there are some subtleties involved in optimizing and maintaining weight loss in a healthy way, and I'll be hitting the high points of those. Forget about fad diets. They are unsustainable, and sometimes harmful to your overall health (*cough*Atkins*cough*ketoacidosis*cough*). Stick to the basics. Stick to the math.

Document, Document, Document
Record what you eat and win. Count up your calories. Be aware of what you are consuming. And also record your weight. It is annoying, it is time-consuming, but it is also a useful tool for helping you to track your progress, and gives you a way of knowing how and when to modify what you are doing if you are not getting the results you expect. You can write all of this up in a journal, or there are plenty of applications and web-based tools for helping out with this. I used's MyPlate, which includes an extensive database of the nutritional content many common foods, including menu items from major restaurant chains and brand names commonly available in grocery stores. That makes the calorie tracking much easier.

I used the weight tracking feature of MyPlate to generate the weight chart shown above. Note that weight can vary pretty wildly from day to day. This can be somewhat smoothed out by weighing yourself consistently at the same time of day. (I always weigh myself first thing in the morning right before jumping into the shower.) Even then, day-to-day changes can be quite erratic, due to things like how big your last meal was, progress of the food through your digestive tract, and salt and water intake effecting osmotic balance. Don't sweat day-to-day changes. Look for long-term trends. The Hacker's Diet website (an excellent resource created by the founder of AutoDesk as a result of his own weight loss experiences) even discusses the mathematics of performing such long-term trend analysis (hooray for weighted moving averages) and provides tools for assisting with such analysis.

I should point out that I used these tracking methods to tailor my caloric intake to a goal of losing between 1.5 and 2 lbs per week. (Realistically speaking, 2 lbs per week is the maximum that one can lose safely without running the risk of causing severe health problems. I was really pushing my luck.) I aimed for a daily caloric intake of 1200 calories, but ended up averaging about 1500 calories (with much spikiness in my caloric intake), and hit my weight loss targets. What your caloric target should be depends upon YOUR metabolism and activity level, hence the need for tracking.

Another thing I found helpful along these lines was a body-mass analysis provided as part of the GET FIT course. DEXA analysis was performed both before and after the course to provide hard data on the composition of my body in terms of fat mass, lean tissue mass, and bone mass. DEXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) works by performing full body digital x-ray scans at two wavelengths, one of which is absorbed only by bone, and another, at lower energy, which is partially absorbed by soft tissue. The results are compared on a pixel by pixel basis to calculate the density of the material at that point, which in turn is used to calculate overall body composition.

DEXA is primarily used to diagnose and assess conditions involving reduced bone density, such as osteoporosis, but it is also useful for calculating fat composition vs. lean body mass. That said, there are other techniques for measuring body fat which do not involve radiation (even though this involved quite mild levels). Why did the GET FIT program choose this one? I don't know, but I suspect that somebody is getting some research publications out of it. I should keep an eye on PubMed for the names of anyone involved in running the program.

I was a bit disappointed to learn from my follow-up DEXA assessment that my muscle mass had not measurably increased. But, on the bright, it had not decreased either, and my body fat percentage had gone down from 37.8%, which, clinically speaking, is obese, to 30.7%, which is still in the overweight range, but definitely an improvement. (I briefly flirted with the idea of posting images of my DEXA scan here, but the soft-tissue scan is a bit...revealing. I decided not to go "Full Monty.")

Portion Control
What seems to have made the biggest difference for me in achieving my weight loss goals, more than being careful of what kinds of foods I ate and how much I exercised, was how MUCH I ate. Let's face it, portion sizes have gone crazy in our culture. Go to a restaurant and order a salad, and you'll wind up with a bowl of salad made from entire head of lettuce (and drenched in a vat of fatty salad dressing). Order a small drink, and you'll end up with what would have been called a large when I was a child. Portion sizes have become inflated beyond reason. Is it any wonder that obesity is so rampant in this country?

The solution? Don't eat as much. Really. Having been raised by parents who grew up during the Depression, I always tended to feel a little guilty if I didn't clean my plate. No more! Get a huge meal at a restaurant? Eat half of it, and take the remainder home to make another meal. Two breakfast tacos? No thanks. One will suffice. Hungry Man frozen dinner? No thanks. This little Smart Ones entrée should do just fine.

The belly complains at first, but give the stomach a bit of time to shrink down a bit, and you'll grow accustomed to smaller portion sizes.

Garbage In, Garbage Out
That having been said, watching WHAT you eat is indeed important. Fast food, fried food, refined sugars and flours, high-fructose corn syrup (I'll work up a posting on the perils of THAT at a later date), hydrogenated fats: we are bombarded with foods that are bad for us. A major step towards good health is eating smarter. That means more fruits and veggies, more whole grains, more fiber, and choosing leaner cuts of meat. That also means fewer of the bad things listed at the beginning of this paragraph. Part of this involves simple common sense, but it also calls for a bit of learning. It is important to bone up on the differences between unsaturated fats (good) and saturated, hydrogenated or trans fats (bad). It is important to learn the difference between HDL cholesterol (good) and LDL cholesterol (bad) and how added dietary fiber helps reduce LDL. It means learning about the three categories of macro nutrients (lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates) which make up our diet and how the body uses them. It means doing some homework.

Notice that I "fewer of the bad things." Just because you are trying to lose weight, it doesn't mean that you have to deprive yourself entirely of the yummy (but unhealthy) foods you love. It is okay to indulge yourself from time to time. Just the other day, I enjoyed a fried seafood platter for lunch. Not exactly the healthiest of choices. The evening of the last day of GET FIT, I split an order of Bananas Foster with my workout partner. The key is moderation. Splurge from time to time, just enough to keep cravings at bay and to give yourself a treat. Just don't do it every day. Well, you can give yourself a treat every day. Just make it a healthy one. And TRACK THOSE CALORIES.

As for vitamins, if you are worried that you are not getting all of the micro-nutrients you need from your diet, then by all means take them. Just don't go overboard. Otherwise, all you are doing is turning yourself into a source of overly-expensive urine.

Speaking of which, drink plenty of water. Most of us don't get nearly enough, and it does help with weight loss.

Timing Is Everything
Have you ever noticed that nutritionists and weight loss experts tend to recommend a large number of small meals spread throughout the day, rather than a small number of larger meals? (It seems that the Hobbits had it right.) Have you ever wondered why?

Well, it turns out that the body processes calories on a just-in-time basis. It doesn't matter what you did hours before eating or what you will do hours after eating. If you don't burn your caloric intake within a few hours of consuming it, those calories WILL be converted to fat. Use it or gain it!

The upshot is, spread your caloric intake out over the course of the day. The only times your body really needs a higher dose of calories is for breakfast (when your body has gone for many hours running on reserves, hence the need to "break your fast") and right before and/or after a hard workout. When athletes "hit the wall", the glycogen reserves in their muscles have been depleted. Their muscles no longer have the energy needed to move. That is why carb-loading with a mixture of simple sugars (for short-term energy) and complex carbs (for long term energy) is used before strenuous exertion such as workouts or athletic competitions. Workouts should also be followed immediately (within half an hour) by a mix of complex carbs, sugars, and proteins. The complex carbs and sugars are for replenishing the muscles' glycogen reserves, and the proteins are to help feed those aching (and, hopefully, growing) muscles. (More on this in the next section.) Protein bars and shakes are a popular option for this.

No Pain, No Loss
You can lose weight without exercise, but it isn't a good idea. The simple fact of the matter is that when the body is short on calories (as it has to be in order for weight loss to occur), it will metabolize whatever is at hand, and it is easier for the body to metabolize the proteins in your muscles than the fat in your beer belly or love handles. Weight loss without exercise translates into not only fat loss, but also muscle loss. By exercising while dieting, that process is combated by putting your muscles into a state where they are constantly trying to rebuild, slurping up amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) from the bloodstream to pump up the muscle fibers, hopefully at a faster rate than your milkshake and burger-deprived metabolism is chowing down on them.

Another major benefit of exercise when trying to lose weight is this: higher muscle mass translates into a higher base metabolic rate. The more muscles you have, the more calories you burn even when you are doing nothing more than sitting on the sofa watching television. What's more, in addition to the increased caloric burn rate experienced directly while exercising, that elevated burn rate carries over for a few hours after working out as the elevated metabolic rate gradually cools down. (Calories burned WHILE exercising are only a small slice of all of this. My three hours of exercise per week during the GET FIT program probably translated, at most, into about 1000 calories burned per week. The main benefits really are the carryover burn and the increased base rate.)

There are two primary categories of exercise: aerobic and resistance (weight) training, and any workout program should contain elements of both. Aerobic workouts are geared towards increasing heartbeat and respiration, and include activities such as running (or even walking), dancing, biking, or using an elliptical machine. After about 20 minutes of performing such activities, the metabolism enters into a state in which calories are burned at an elevated rate, which makes aerobic exercises a perfect match for those seeking to lose weight. Aerobic activities also help improve stamina and general cardiovascular health. Ideally, one's pulse should be kept in a specific target range for the duration of the aerobic workout. If the pulse rate is to low, the full benefits of the workout are not being realized. If the pulse is too high, well, then one is running the risk of harm. The specific target range is primarily dependent upon one's age. A good rule of thumb is 220 minus age.

Resistance or strength training is specifically geared towards building strength, power (they really are two different things), and muscle mass. You may not be aiming for an Atlas body, but increasing muscle mass and tone even somewhat is still desirable for the reasons described earlier. Resistance training methods include weight-lifting (with either free weights or exercise machines) as well as exercises which use the body's own weight as the source of resistance, such as pull-ups and push-ups.

When doing resistance training, remember that the goal is to push the muscles right to the point of failure. You want to fail. That is the only way to push the muscles into strengthening themselves. How much resistance? How many repetitions? In general, find the absolute maximum you can lift just once (without hurting yourself), then subtract about 10 or 20% of the weight. Use that resistance and do as many repetitions (or "reps") as you can, pushing yourself to the point of failure. Just when you think you can't do any more, squeeze out one more rep. (Your goal should be to do somewhere between 6 and 15 reps. If you can do more, you aren't using enough resistance. If you can't do that many, you are using too much resistance.) Take a breather for a few minutes, then do another set. Rest again, then do another set. And again. Then move on to another exercise. It is hard. It is agonizing. But it is rewarding.

At some point, you probably had a Health teacher or P.E. coach tell you that sore muscles the day after a workout are caused by lactic acid. Don't believe it. Sure, lactic acid will cause some soreness immediately following a workout, but all the lactic acids are reprocessed well before the next day rolls around. What actually causes the soreness is that an intensive workout introduces a multitude of microscopic rips in the muscle tissue. This is good thing. That triggers biochemical signals which tell the metabolism "Hey, we need to build some more muscle over here. Haul in the amino acids." (Of course, I'm greatly oversimplifying the process here. Biochemical processes don't like to be anthropomorphized.) At any rate, revel in the pain. It is sign that the muscles are a construction zone. Whichever muscles you've worked to the point of soreness, don't work those the next day. Give them a day off to rebuild. Otherwise, you run the risk of overtraining, which is counterproductive.

Here, again, a little homework is in order. Learn the major muscle groups and which exercises target them. And, perhaps more importantly, learn to do the exercises properly and safely, with good form. Failure to do that will almost certainly result in injury.

Don't have access to a gym? Go for a jog for your aerobic workout. For your resistance training, use your own weight. Push-ups require no equipment other than a patch of floor, and pull-ups can be done with an inexpensive bar. Can't do a pull-up? No problem. Begin by doing assisted pull-ups. Stand on a chair next to the bar and lower yourself down (something which most people should be able to do at least once). Climb back on the chair and repeat. This is called "working the negatives," and the concept can be applied to a broad variety of exercises.

Moving Forward
When the GET FIT program concluded at the end of November, I signed up for a membership at the Cedar Park Recreation Center, which is on my way home from work and has a reasonably well-equipped gym. I must admit, though, that I let my membership lapse when New Years rolled around. Gyms do have a tendency to get packed around that time of year. I'm still careful about what I eat, and my weight has stayed fairly consistently around 178 (down from 211 when I started GET FIT). And I'm down to a 33" waistline. Ideally, I would like to lose a bit more weight, as well as increasing muscle mass a bit. In short, it is time to get back to the gym.


writingweb said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Glen--it helped make sure I went to the gym this morning. It's a great reminder, especially the part about not just dieting. It's hard to get everything together all at once. I've been focusing on eating better, and now I'm more inspired to reincorporate regular exercise.


Glen Mark Martin said...

Hey, if even one person got motivated by this, it is all good...