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!