The Improbable Eating Habits Of Olympic Champions.

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By Raymond Onyango.

Fitness is a multi-billion-dollar business worldwide. According to the international current affairs magazine, TIME; Americans alone spend an estimated 19 billion dollars a year on gym memberships. In an article titled, ‘Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin’, author John Cloud, notes that in spite of this colossal amount of money being poured into health club memberships, obesity rates in the United States Of America have continued on a seemingly uncontrollable upward spiral, with an estimated one-third of the entire American population now considered obese under the definition offered by the federal government.

The author’s argument against exercise is based on an interesting piece of logic. He reckons that the problem with exercise, is that it makes you hungry, and the more you exercise, the more hungry you get and thus the more you want to eat. As he puts it, a hard workout will burn maybe 200 to 300 calories, which you could put back with a single muffin, and so when you exit the gym and settle down to a sugary snack right after that hard workout, you are probably working against your very own weight-loss efforts.

His solution – and he quotes several experts to back it up – is that you should watch what you eat as the central core of your weight loss efforts, and he proceeds to caution the reader that ‘fiery spurts of vigorous exercise can lead to weight gain.

Predictably, this article caused a huge controversy, when it was first published in August 2009, attracting widespread condemnation from Fitness professionals all around the world, and triggering a raging debate in the global wellness community, dwelling on what the New York Times described as one of the most intriguing and vexing issue in physiology – Can Exercise Make You Thin?

Above the blaring cacophony of competing ‘expert’ opinions, a plausible answer to this question is to be found in the most befitting arena of all – the London 2012 Olympics.  Thanks to the British love for tabloid news, the media has been a buzz with the most trivial details of the games as well as the athletes themselves.  For instance, we got to learn about the dietary habits of some of the world’s most illustrious athletes, and boy! They are not exactly what you would expect from athletes of this caliber!

Michael Phelps the American swimming sensation, who made history at the London Games, becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals, 18 of them gold, not surprisingly eats like a horse. What is surprising is the amount of junk food the guy packs away on a daily basis – 3 fried egg sandwiches, choc chip pancakes, a 5- egg omelet, French toast and grits – just for breakfast. Phelps also consumes a whole kilogram (yes, a whole Kg!) of pasta everyday, plus ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza all chased down by a couple of liters of soda…and the guy is still as lean as a cheetah!

At a whooping 8,000 calories a day, Michael Phelps is taking in almost 4 times the recommended average calories for a male adult and yet he is still as lean as they come. There couldn’t be a better answer than this to the question – Can Exercise Make You Thin? Michael Phelps is living proof that Exercise Can Make You Thin, even if you must, like he does, train for up to 5 hours a day. Now that he is retired, one thing that is certain from this point forward is that even the great Michael Phelps, can gain weight, if he continues to eat like this, without a maintaining a commensurate level of exercise.

The fact of the matter is that neither extreme is sustainable. When you lose weight exclusively though calorie restrictive diets, the weight loss is indiscriminate and your body readily cannibalizes it own muscle tissue to bridge the calorie deficit. The result therefore is that as you lose weight, you also muscle mass which as you well know is the metabolic engine of the body and you further weaken key bodily organs and structures including your heart as well as your bones. Constant dieting for her demanding movie roles is believed to be one of the reasons why actress Gwyneth Paltrow was diagnosed with the degenerative bone disease osteopenia, a precursor to osteoarthritis – at the age of just 37!  Not to mention that the very moment you begin to eat normally again, you will rapidly gain back all the weight you have lost.

On the flip side, even if you exercise plenty, but eat too much junk; you are still not immune to the effects of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, or the cumulative effects of over consumption of highly processed food, which while high in calorie value is utterly devoid of any real nutritional value. In the long run you will end up malnourished and probably obese, when work or family gets in the way of your exercise habit.

In my book, the most effective and sustainable approach to weight loss lies in finding balance between the two. You don’t have to subsist exclusively on vegetables and mineral water in order to lose weight and be healthy, but you mustn’t imagine that a single hours worth of gym 3 times a week gives you the carte blanche to eat anything you please – because it doesn’t! You have got to ‘eat better and move more’ if you hope to get thin and stay that way for a lifetime!

Have a balanced week will you!

Can Muscle Turn To Fat?

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A good look at this age-old question.

By Raymond Onyango.

In my line of work, I get to hear all kinds of myths, half-truths and old wives tales associated with fitness. By far the most common of these, is that muscle can somehow turn into fat. I have had clients who were literary petrified about resistance training in the erroneous belief that all their muscles would turn into fat if they ever paused long enough to take a trip out of town. I’ve met scores of rotund men who tell tall tales about how they used to be so muscular until they ‘stopped training’ and then they grew fat!

The question is; ‘Is this really scientifically possible, can muscle just suddenly turn into fat?’

As a fitness professional, I know from my training that muscle and fat are two totally different types of tissue, as different as apples are from oranges. It is highly unlikely that muscle could ever turn into fat, and here is why! Fat is also known as adipose tissue and basically serves a dual purpose in the human body.  First, it provides insulation immediately below the skin to help our bodies retain warmth and maintain a consistent body temperature of about 37 degrees Celsius; a fact, which is integral to our survival as mammals. Second, it acts as an excellent reservoir of energy, which the body can call upon in lean times as a lifeline. It is not by accident that your body stores its energy in the form of fat. It is an extremely efficient way to store energy, especially when you consider that a single pound of fat (0.43 kg) contains a whooping 3500 calories of energy in it.

To put this into perspective, you need to consider that fitness experts largely agree that a very active adult human being needs to consume an average of 2200 to 2500 calories every day, in order to maintain his or her body weight. This means that a single kilogram of excess body fat, could presumably keep you going for almost an entire week in the absence of food.  I googled this fact and from  the results i got, the longest hunger strike I could find on record was credited to one Barry Horne, a British animal rights activist who spent a remarkable 68 days on hunger strike, without a single meal. That is more than 2 months without a meal and it shows you just how efficient body fat was at keeping the human species alive in the unpredictable world of our ancestors, where success at the hunt was never a guarantee and long periods of famine were commonplace. In the highly predictable we live in today however, the closest most of us will ever get to the excitement of a hunt, is to drive down the highway to the supermarket, and so excess body fat can be a problem rather than an asset. As a human species we are running like computers fitted with outdated software; our bodies are configured for scarcity, whereas the world today is engineered for plenty and predictability. Unless there is a disaster on the scale of the Asian Tsunami or the earthquake in Haiti, the majority of individuals reading this article are unlikely to face imminent starvation anytime soon!

Muscle on the other hand is composed of fiber, and as opposed to Fat, (which is a store of energy) muscle consumes energy! Look at it this way; every single muscle in your body is there to facilitate one thing and one thing only. That thing is movement. All this movement requires energy, and your body responds to this demand by increasing the pace at which it breaks down fat tissue (also known as your metabolism). In fact it takes energy to sustain your muscles even when you are at rest, and this is why fitness experts advocate for strength training, and more specifically a higher muscle to body fat ratio, as one of the most effective means of weight control. The catch here is that muscle is something that you must use; otherwise you will surely loose it. Our muscles have the capacity to ‘hyper atrophy’ or grow in response to regular exercise or else ‘atrophy’ or shrink with disuse.

One thing that is clear at this point is that muscle can clearly never turn into fat; you can dismiss that as a myth! But the fact is that all of us have the tendency to gain weight whenever we stop exercising, especially as we get older. The question is why? The answer lies in two symbiotic areas of our lives i.e. lifestyle and physiology.
Remember what we said earlier on about a very active adult having a daily energy requirement of about 2200 to 2500 calories a day? Ask yourself, what happens when you reduce you level of physical activity (and therefore calorie expenditure), but maintain a high level of calorie consumption. You are not eating any more than usual, but you are now moving less, and as a result your body has the opportunity to store all these excess calories you’re consuming as adipose tissue (or body fat) – insurance for a rainy day.  In my own career as a fitness leader I have come to see that most of my clients experience the most profound changes in their bodies, around the decade of their thirties! This happens to be the time when most of us have new and heavy commitments in our lives, from young families to fledgling careers – and often finding the time to exercise is a challenge. The culprit is lifestyle change!

On a physiological level, our bodies are constantly changing, both in response to our environment and also in response to the inevitable process of age. When we have fewer opportunities for movement either due to career pressure or family demands, our muscles no longer get the stimulation they need to keep them strong and toned. Gradually they begin to atrophy or shrink with far reaching effects on our metabolism. As a direct result of this the rate at which our bodies burn calories (also called our basal metabolic rate) will begin to slow down and we will inevitably gain weight. It also helps to bear in mind that our bodies are more or less maintenance free in our teens and twenties. Into our thirties, lifestyle choices make the difference between good health and a middle age riddled with lifestyle related conditions.

We can get away with murder in our twenties, coasting along on nothing but good genes and glow of youth, but by our thirties our everyday habits begin to catch up with us. Unmitigated Stress and lack of activity have been identified by fitness experts as two of the leading causes of uncontrolled weight gain. Scientific studies have confirmed the connection between increased levels of the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ in test subjects and weight gain especially in the midsection. Which is the worst kind of weight gain not for aesthetic reasons but rather for its direct correlation to the prevalence several co morbid conditions including diabetes, cancer and hypertension. 3 major killer diseases, just to name a few.

It is not that muscle turns into fat! Its just that as we grow older, we tend to move less and eat more especially at a the time period where our bodies are far less forgiving of this sort of neglect and indulgence. It presses home the need to incorporate some form of physical movement into our everyday lives, especially, when urban symbols of affluence such as private cars help to promote a more sedentary existence among a global population that is rapidly getting urbanized, and even more rapidly overweight, with all of its attendant health implications.

Have an active week will you!