The Improbable Eating Habits Of Olympic Champions.


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!


Machines Or Free Weights?


By Raymond Onyango.

My own strength-training program consists of just 6 main exercises, Squats, Pull-ups, Dead lifts, Dips, Lunges and Push-ups.  I have stuck with these exercises for years because they share certain common characteristics  which make them time efficient and devastatingly effective all at once.

The 3 common denominators that underlie each one of these exercises start with the fact that, they fall into a category of exercises known as Functional movements. Functional movements are so-called because they are designed to mimic natural real life activities, which make use of our bodies in patterns that are consistent with our natural design and evolution. By their very nature functional movements are multi dimensional, demanding the cooperation of several muscle groups across our bodies, which in turn burns lots of calories and gets us lean quick. Besides helping us to get lean and stay lean, functional movements help us to maintain our quality of life, by preserving strength and range of motion around our joints. These are the two things we lose steadily and progressively with age, beginning in our thirties and beyond.  Lastly functional movements train several aspects of our physical and metal fitness beyond sheer muscle tone; balance, agility, flexibility, coordination, proprioception, muscular endurance and even cardiovascular endurance are all challenges that must be overcome in order to gain mastery of functional training.

This is important because the human body is an architectural masterpiece of astounding complexity. You hardly ever give it a thought, but you will be amazed to learn that it takes the coordinated action of over 200 muscles just to take a single step forward. Against this backdrop it is rather obvious that isolation type training, of the kind that is offered by gym machines has no place in the evolutionary narrative of the human body. According to a registered trademark of the Lance Armstrong foundation, and I quote, “ sometime in the 1950’s body builder Harold Zinkin created the multi station, cable based Universal gym. Within that same time frame, Jack La Lanne invented the Smith Machine, the Lat pull down machine and the Leg extension machine. Fitness equipment gained sophistication in the 1970’s when Arthur Jones created his Nautilus line of equipment. His machine featured a cam, which adjusted the resistance of the machine according to the natural curve within an exercise”.

It is notable that all of the men who inspired modern-day gym machines were body builders themselves. According to the Wikipedia, “Body building is a form of body modification involving intensive muscle hypertrophy. In competitive and professional bodybuilding, body builders display their physiques to a panel of judges who assign points based on their appearance. Body builders prepare for competition through a combination of fat loss, and the application of oils, which combined with lighting make the definition of a muscle group more distinct.” Bodybuilding is actually a sport, which has no direct bearing on health and fitness. In fact one can argue that in the professional ranks body builders do not aspire to be healthy individuals. Extreme dieting, unhealthy weight loss methods and widespread anabolic steroid use are an all to common part of the sport.

On a purely functional level most of our modern-day gym machines were designed for body builders, and because of this they have several inherent and potentially dangerous weaknesses.  For starters, they tend to isolate single muscle groups, which in turn can create serious muscle imbalances that lead to long-term injury. A functional exercise such as the Walking lunge will tone virtually every muscle in your lower body, but your core will also be recruited to maintain your balance, not to mention the coordination it takes to move seamlessly into the next lunge. These are the exact same movement patterns you engage when running, walking, climbing up a flight of stairs and all other such like activities of daily living. The Leg extension, which is the machine equivalent of lunges, has you sitting in a chair (after sitting all day in the office, no less!) lifting a load with your feet. Your hips and the rest of your body are completely divorced from the movement and stand aside as passive observers while the quadriceps alone bear the burden. I cannot think of a single situation in my life where I have had to do this kind of movement except within the gym and so for the majority of us (unless we are in rehab or are engaged in body building) really have absolutely no need for this kind of exercise. It is also instructive to note that gym related injuries have escalated in recent years as many of us pursue well-intentioned but ill-advised fitness regimens.

A further incentive to opt for functional free weight exercises over and above their machine counterparts has much to do with weight loss. Weight loss is the single most frequently stated objective among gym users anywhere in the world.  Indeed many of us only show up at the gym, when we start to have real trouble fitting into our clothes. Free weight functional exercises help you burn fat by encouraging three key things – they elevate your heart rate, increase your rate of breathing and work up a sweat. Your heart rate is a direct indicator of your body’s energy demands, that is why your heart rate soars when you have to run after the bus. Your rate of breathing also increases in order to meet oxygen demand and is a direct indicator of the speed of your body’s metabolic processes. Heat is the by-product of all these metabolic processes and the body gets rid of the excess by inducing sweat from the sweat glands which cools down the body. If you build your self a circuit of functional exercises such as I have done for myself, you will be so out of breath and sweating buckets by the end of just a single circuit, it is no wonder these exercises zap the fat from your waistline faster than you can spell G.O.N.E.  The secret lies in the level of muscular integration; these exercises challenge a wide cross-section of muscles and so demand a lot of energy to execute. The more energy you expend, the more weight you lose, so in just a single workout session you can lose weight, tone up and get a kick-ass cardiovascular workout all at the same time – and that is all you really need!

Have a functional week will you!

Ps. Next week we will examine the mechanics of each of these exercises individually starting with the Squat – stay tuned!

The Science Of Weightloss – Part 2

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Putting theory into practice

By Raymond Onyango

Last week we established some facts about weight loss; one untruth that we laid to rest, is the myth that you can somehow melt away fat from your body by using pills, diets or even exercise. We went back to our high school physics and the laws of energy which state that energy cannot be destroyed only converted, and we looked briefly into the processes that help you use up fat energy including workload, rate of breathing and body temperature.

Today we will take all of these complex sounding theories and break them down into a simple exercise format that any one of you readers out there can perform even in the comfort of their own home – a format known as circuit training. Circuit training is a form of body conditioning exercise that combines strength training and high intensity aerobics in a fast flowing format that allows for very little rest if any, between exercise stations.

As far as exercise goes, nothing will get you to loose more weight in a shorter time than circuit training and here is why. Remember our holy trinity of weight loss – workload, rate of breathing and body temperature? Well, circuit training is one of the only forms of exercise that maximizes all of these three factors in a sustainable way. Lets look at this a little more closely;


Circuit training is hard – not because you are lifting much weight, but because you are making use of a loophole in the design of the human body to make your heart beat much quicker. Have you ever wondered why you tend to feel sleepy after a heavy meal? Well this is because, your body has only a limited amount of blood (about 5 liters in an adult) but this is often not enough to power all of the body’s activities all of the time. So the body runs a blood-rationing program, where after a heavy meal, blood is shunted from the brain and the rest of the body to the digestive system, causing you to feel sleepy and tired at the same time.

This same process is at work during Circuit training, when you do a set of squats, your body shunts enormous amounts of blood into the leg muscles to sustain the increased workload and then when you turn around and do a set of push ups, you body has to send blood back to the upper body again. This alternation between upper, lower and core body exercises is what gives your cardiovascular system such a kick in the butt and makes circuit training one of the most effective all round forms of exercise and weight loss.

Rate of breathing

The rate of breathing naturally increases with an increase in your workload, but unlike jogging or weight training alone, circuit training packs a particularly spirited punch in the weight loss department and for good reason. In a traditional workout, you would warm up in the cardio room, do your sets on the strength machines leisurely and then maybe cool down later on a cardio machine. Often this will take you an eternity and get you little success.

Circuit training is the exercise equivalent of multi tasking, in the sense that it is actually a cardiovascular, strength, core and flexibility workout all wrapped into one.  This is where that fat goes – it goes into powering your legs when you do that set of squats.  Into powering your cardiovascular system in order to get the huge amounts of blood, oxygen, carbon dioxide in and our of working muscles often at different extremities of the body and plenty of it is also lost in the heat generated and lost by your body though sweating  – which is something people tend to do a lot of during circuit training.

Body temperature

Talking of sweating  – the idea behind a circuit training workout is to keep the sweat taps turned on permanently for the entire duration of the workout.  To do this successfully you have to be smart about your approach to pacing yourself. One tool you could work with is the talk test. If you are really working at the right intensity you would not be able to hold a conversation with the fellow next to you, but you should still be able to answer to your name when called. Somewhere between those two extremes is the body’s most efficient fat burning zone and that is the place where a well designed circuit will keep you for longest time possible.

As we learned last week, the human body operates at just about 20% thermal efficiency, meaning that for every 100 calories you burn only about 20 of them go into performing the actual exercise, as many as 30 of them may be lost in heat and the remaining 50 in metabolic processes including increased rate of respiration.

Working up a sweat and building muscle tone are the two things that will get you to loose weight the quickest, and circuit training is the one form of exercise that delivers both of these in bucket loads. Get on the Internet and learn about circuit training or otherwise talk to your fitness instructor about designing a circuit type program for you, you body will never be the same again!

Have a fat burning week will you!