Although we live in our bodies, we sometimes seem surprised to discover that there are rules to keep a body operating properly, just like there are rules to keep any other machine operating properly. If you have a computer, you expect that the computer needs daily electricity to keep operating. If you have an oven, you know it needs gas or electricity to continue to work. We understand there are lots of unexpected glitches that will require a maintenance check by an expert. The more complicated the machine, the more expensive the expert. And your body is an awfully complicated machine.
The thing is, if you keep running your car on the cheapest gasoline and you never take it in for maintenance, what do you think will happen? It will have problems. The problems may be different for each car. One car may start stalling in the middle of traffic. Another car might make great plumes of smoke as it runs, or simply not start at all. I suppose you might even convince yourself that it’s OK, that you can learn to live with these “inconveniences” and you keep living your life the same way.
I see a lot of people give up on running because they get an injury of some kind. Certainly there are injuries after which a doctor will demand that you stop running. I wouldn’t tell you to ignore your doctor. But if you feel pain while running, you can most often figure out how to deal with it. You wouldn’t accept that a car could only drive you three miles without stopping, so why should you accept that from your body if you don’t have to? Your body needs you to pay attention to what it is telling you. A sore muscle is a message to you, and it isn’t usually a message to quit. It is a message to do something differently. If you feel winded while you run, that doesn’t mean your body can never run. It probably means that you have to build up to it. If you feel like you are drowning in the swimming pool, that doesn’t mean you can never be a swimmer. It only means that you need to get the right equipment and some lessons, just as you would make sure your car would have a different oil mix in the winter or in a different climate.
Think about other living creatures and how their bodies work. Their needs are not so different from us humans. Owners of animals as pets take their pets out for regular exercise. They make sure that their pets get healthy food. They try to keep them away from eating things that might be harmful for them, not because they want their pets to look “hot,” but because they want them to be happier. But the point is we need to exercise and to eat the right food to be happy just as any pet does. The better your machine runs, the better your mind will work too. You will find that you are happier, deal better with others, and are more efficient at your job. You will probably sleep better too.
This summer Sam started to enjoy slapping me on the thighs and saying, “You have huge thighs, Mom.” I could have been offended by this, but instead I decided that I really liked him to think of me, at 5’ 2” as big. What is really wrong with being big? Big can be strong for a man or a woman. So I told Sam I knew I had big thighs. One day we even got out a measuring tape and I discovered that my thighs are actually an inch wider around than his are. So that’s part of the reason that I do well on a bike. I’m not as good at running, I think because runners tend to have smaller frames and the weight of big thigh muscles slows them down since when you run you have to propel all of your weight. While on a bike, your weight is supported and having big muscles there (to a certain level) is an advantage.
I also have big shoulders and arms for a woman because of my swimming and weight training. When I go to the gym, I see men almost always trying to build their upper body and women almost always trying to build their lower body and abs. Trying to figure out how to make your body into some weird ideal that is both buxom and thin (for women) or sculpted (for guys) is making us all crazy. There is nothing wrong with a woman with a well-defined back and shoulder area. My kids have learned that when they want to make me happy, they should tell me that I’m strong or tough, not that I look pretty.
I have friends who are small and who wish they could gain weight. I have friends who wish they could lose weight. Most Americans do tend to be overweight, but our obsession with being thinner doesn’t seem to be helping us. I sometimes think that if we would stop trying to lose weight we would all be better off. If instead we spent our time thinking about what food really made us feel good and made us better able to function, our bodies would naturally be in better shape.
I have recently started going to Cross-Fit, a gym that focuses more on weight-lifting. If you went, you would be astonished to see the variety of shapes. Some of the women are thin, tall types who look like they might be models. Some are average height, but bulging with muscles and can do incredible things. Some look overweight, but are actually carrying enormous muscles under a thin layer of fat and can out bench press me easily.
All of these body types are doing what they are meant to do. They look great because they feel great, and because they are proud of their bodies. It isn’t about the number of inches around their waist or what size jeans they can fit into. At Cross-Fit, everyone writes on the white board what weight they lifted or how many repetitions of an exercise they could do. That’s the focus—the end result of having a body that is fit—and that is the way it should be. Ultimately, we want to be able to keep living as well as we can for as long as we can, hopefully into our eighties and nineties without assistance if we can manage it.
To understand our fitness, we need to do more than just look at numbers on a typical bathroom scale.
I had a neighborhood friend I was talking to about exercise one day. She told me she had tried jogging for some time. Over four months, she had worked up to jogging four miles a day, and then she gave it up. When I asked her why, she said it was because she had lost about three pounds the first month, and then she didn’t lose any more weight. I was aghast at this. She didn’t lose weight? That’s why she stopped exercising? If losing weight is the only reason you exercise, then it is true that you might not get what you want because you may in fact be adding muscle as you lose fat and a simple weight scale will not show that.
If you are someone who is frustrated because you have tried exercising and you haven’t seen any weight loss and you feel like it’s useless, let me suggest that you should measure your progress in a different way. First of all, you can get a scale that measures not only your weight, but your body fat. These scales are not one hundred percent accurate. They make assumptions about your distribution of fat especially in the upper body, but they will tell you about trends. If you are not losing weight but your body composition is improving, this kind of scale will reflect that.
A lot of people (and their doctors) focus on the government’s body mass index (BMI) charts or calculator. These are meant to be a general rule of thumb for describing the average ratio of height to weight and danger zones of being “overweight” or “underweight.”
If your doctor has already shown you this chart or calculator and told you that you are overweight or obese, but you didn’t understand what that meant, I hope I can help explain it here. BMI is simply a way of describing the ratio between your height and weight. Tall, thin people will have a very low BMI and shorter, heavier people will have a much higher BMI. In this case, a lower score is usually better (though being in the underweight category can have its own risks.)
According to the CDC, having a BMI over twenty-five is generally considered a sign of excess body fat. The CDC does admit that women will have a higher BMI than men at the same weight as well as a higher amount of body fat even at a healthy weight. Also, as people age, they often tend toward higher body fat. In fact, the chart itself has its limitations, including people like body builders who have a higher than average amount of muscle weight, and therefore will not have the dangerous levels of body fat which the BMI charts are meant to warn against.
The CDC says, “It is also important to remember that weight is only one factor related to risk for disease,” and that, “the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute guidelines recommend looking at other predictors,” which they list as waist circumference and other risk factors such as high blood pressure or physical inactivity.
If you can decrease your waist circumference and your blood pressure and increase your daily physical activity, this may actually matter more than your BMI (though for most people doing these three things will naturally make your BMI decrease). If you feel frustrated that you haven’t seen weight loss when you’ve tried to exercise before, reconsider what you are using to measure improvement. Weight may not be the best marker of your health. Try measuring blood pressure at a local pharmacy and measuring your waist.
Another friend of mine worked out with me for several months and was frustrated because she hadn’t seen weight loss. But when she went to her doctor and he told her that her cholesterol had dropped thirty points, she learned exercise is not just about losing weight. “Whatever you are doing,” he said, “keep doing it.”
Click to tweet:All body types are doing what they are meant to do. They look great because they feel great, and because they are proud of their bodies.
In accordance with my friend’s experience, doctors at the University of Texas Health Science Center studied the effects of exercise on cholesterol levels. Their test used three groups of women: long-distance runners, joggers, and inactive women. They discovered that the long-distance runners had a far lower LDL, what we know as bad cholesterol level, than could be explained by any difference in food intake, and that even accounting for differences in body fat, the most active women had far higher HDL, or good cholesterol levels.
You have to get a blood test at a doctor’s office or hospital to find out your cholesterol level, but if you are waiting for your next regular checkup for that, resting heart rate may also be an excellent way of measuring your risk of heart disease. A group of doctors reporting in The Canadian Journal of Cardiology in May 2008, looked at over thirty-eight studies using 180,000 people in many different countries. The studies showed that as you increase your exercise, your resting heart rate will go down. And resting heart rate is an excellent “predictor of clinical events,” meaning diseases ranging from cancer to hypertension (high blood pressure), to cardiac arrest, and heart disease. The article itself explains in some detail why a lower resting heart rate has benefits to your heart function including endothelium stress being lowered. But basically, it means that lowering your resting heart rate through exercise is of at least equal benefit to many of the drugs that are given to help patients deal with heart disease and high blood pressure.
You can measure your own resting heart rate easily right at home. The way to do this is to remain lying down for several minutes when you wake up in the morning. Then put a finger to your neck or your wrist and find your pulse (or use a heart rate monitor if you have one). I usually look at my watch for six seconds while counting beats and then multiply the number of heart beats in that time by ten. My resting heart rate is usually somewhere in the forties, which is good, but there are endurance athletes better trained than I am who have a resting heart rate in the thirties. Be aware that as soon as you even sit up and certainly when you stand, your heart rate will increase. And after you have been awake for several hours, the same is true, so don’t do this test in the afternoon or late at night and always lie as flat as you possibly can. Resting heart rate is a great, cheap way for you to measure your own fitness level.
If you think that you are getting older and that you just can no longer be fit, you are wrong. Deborah Kotz of the Boston Globe writes about a new ground breaking study performed at Tufts University that shows even elderly people can successfully fight what may seem like a normal loss of muscle mass and capacity simply by doing regular weight-lifting.4 And lifting weights twice a week is the government’s new recommendation for adults over age thirty-five, according to the CDC.5 If you want to continue to have greater mobility as you age, lifting weights is a great way to do this.
A 2011 study in The Physician and Sportsmedicine has shown that male and female triathletes (a particularly good data point because triathlon requires a wide range of muscles rather than a running-only strategy) who were forty and older were able to preserve muscle mass far beyond their counterparts who were less active.
The conclusion here is that many aging adults lose muscle mass because they aren’t using it, not because it has to be a natural part of aging.
If you are interested in more information about how to stave off the effects of aging, the book Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry Lodge is a great resource for nutrition and exercise and other lifestyle choices that will help you live longer and feel younger into your eighties. You can also visit their website: http://www.youngernextyear.com/.
Another idea to measure your increased fitness is to measure what you can do, not just what you weigh. If you are weight lifting, you can keep records of how much you can lift and how many reps you can do. If you can do one more repthis week than last week, you are improving. You are getting stronger and that means you are going to live longer and enjoy a better life. You can use a notebook to keep track of your improvement. Look back at your past workouts often, because sometimes early gains come quickly and then you may feel like you are plateauing for months at a time. You are still improving, but just more slowly.
If you are doing mostly cardio work at the gym, try looking at the calories you are burning using an exercise machine that counts them. If you don’t have one that measures calories or you exercise outside, you can get a heart rate monitor that will estimate calories burned. This will help you measure how much effort you are putting into a workout, then you can increase your effort day by day. The longer your heart can keep your body moving at an aerobic level, the better your overall health will be and the longer you will be able to continue to remain mobile in your older years.
With a committed exercise routine and healthy eating, you can stay healthy longer and stop many of the effects of aging. Some people tell me that I look young enough to pass for a teenager, especially when I’m with my own teens. I have no desire to go back to my teen years, but I think what they mean is that I still look fit. And I feel great. I am actually faster than I was as a teen, and I think I’m healthier. I can do things now that I could never do then, including pull-ups, handstands, and weight-lifting snatches with a bar. In fact, Sam, my fifteen-year-old sometimes says that he finds it embarrassing that his mom runs faster than he does. Well, I hope this gives him some motivation to work harder, and also a different idea of how aging has to work for him when he’s older.
For some reason these days, women and men are continually looking to cut calories out of their diet, particularly carbohydrates. But there is nothing wrong with carbs. Eating carbs is good for you. The Paleo Diet, the Zone, and even the Atkins Diets are still popular, and they all emphasize cutting carbs and eating more protein. But the best scientific studies I have seen link high protein consumption—common in a normal American diet—with many health concerns, including cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. About six years ago I read The China Study, a book by father and son team T. Colin Campbell, a Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University, and Thomas M. Campbell II, who is a physician. They looked at mortality rates and diet around the globe. The long list of diseases that are related to a higher animal based diet convinced me to go vegan immediately. I have since slid back a little and have re-introduced milk products and eggs into my diet occasionally. While focusing on getting more protein and less carbs may cause temporary weight loss, this type of diet is proven to increase your risk of cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and MS. On the other hand, a plant-based diet can lower your risk of all these diseases. I’ll stick with plants.
Carbohydrates are your main source of energy. As a human machine, you cannot do cardio workouts well without carbs. In Sport Nutrition, Second Edition, Asker Jeukendrup, PhD, and Michael Gleeson, PhD, synthesize various studies done in sports to prove that drinking sugar for workouts of longer than forty-five minutes maintains better blood glucose and carbohydrate oxidation. It may also spare glucose in the liver and the muscles. Tennis players who took in sugar while exercising also had improved stroke, so muscle coordination and brain processing may also be improved by sugar ingestion.
In addition, an article in the Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2009, summarizes a brain scan study performed in the Netherlands by Paul Smeets, a neuroscientist at University Medical Center Utrecht. Smeets used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure how the brain reacts to real sugar verses artificial sweeteners to show that the brain has little response to artificial sugars, even when the test subjects thought they were ingesting real sugar. When the brain sensed real sugar in a drink, even if it wasn’t swallowed, it stimulated increased physical activity.8 So, taking in some real sugar or carbs while exercising hard can actually improve your performance, and ultimately lead you to exercise harder, which will burn more calories.
Click to tweet:If you plan to exercise, you are going to need to fuel that exercise before, during, and after. The key is to fuel it the correct way.
Yes, processed carbs have been stripped of a lot of nutrients, and you can avoid those. But healthy whole wheat bread and some pasta is not going to hurt you if you eat them in moderate amounts. If you want to know what a moderate amount is, check calories and overall daily carbohydrate intake online at calorieking (http://www.calorieking.com/foods/) or myfitnesspals (http://www.myfitnesspal.com). If you plan to exercise, you are going to need to fuel that exercise before, during, and after. The key is to fuel it the correct way.
You need carbohydrates to restore lost energy supplies, and you need protein to rebuild. Nancy Clark of the American Dietetic Association and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends a post-workout recovery meal with a ratio of four grams carbohydrates to one gram protein (or possibly as much as two to one) to be consumed within thirty minutes of the workout for maximum efficiency.9 Chocolate milk happens to be a perfect ratio of four to one carbs to protein, but if you look at the nutrition details, you can manage the same ratio with yogurt and fruit or other snacks. Most people prefer to drink their recovery calories so they can get them down quickly and head for the showers, and this may be one of the few cases where I think consuming a quick recovery shake product may be wise. Remember, you should take in this four to one ratio carbs to protein within thirty minutes of finishing your exercise in order to optimize your body’s ability to bounce back afterward.
Please, don’t try to work out harder and cut calories at the same time. Your body will rebel against this and you will likely end up feeling more tired and hate working out. The goal here is to make your body feel great about exercising and be motivated to keep going. Eating some carbs while exercising can help with that. So can making sure that you are eating soon after exercising, so you don’t signal your body to go into starvation mode where it burns fewer calories and sabotages your attempts at weight loss. If you want to cut calories, do it in the evening, between dinner and bedtime when you would ordinarily snack. If you feed your body properly, you may well find that you don’t feel the munchies then at all.
Sometimes in our colloquial way of talking we say we feel “guilty” about indulging ourselves in a piece of chocolate cake or some other treat. I do this too, but a friend of mine made a comment to me that eating food is not a moral choice and I agree with her. (Ethical vegetarians and vegans may disagree on this.) Still, if you are eating chocolate, you are not a bad person. Eating chocolate or a piece of cheesecake or even a steak doesn’t make you evil. It doesn’t prove that you lack self-control, either. I think we, as a culture, put far too much emphasis on the link between character and body shape. You cannot judge a book by its cover, or a person by their body.
If you ate a piece of chocolate cake in celebration of a birthday or another occasion, good for you. People need to celebrate. If you need a pick me up, go for it. If you find yourself indulging too often for your own comfort, then maybe you are trying to give yourself something that food isn’t actually able to give you. Or maybe you are eating the wrong kind of food hoping it will help you feel full, and it doesn’t. Sometimes in America we are so obsessed with measuring calories and vitamins that we eat a processed sports bar when a handful of nuts and a piece of fresh fruit would help us feel better and give us a lot more nutrition.
Most importantly, give yourself a break. Don’t beat yourself up over what you eat. Focus on the important things in life. If you are unhappy, figure out what makes you happy. I suspect that most people enjoy the endorphins that are naturally released chemicals in your brain when you do even light exercise. Go outside, walk a little, see the sunset, visit friends. Have a good life, and make exercise and good food part of that good life.
This article is an excerpt from Mette Harrison's Ironmom.