Thursday, August 27, 2009

that was yesterday

you did it. you made the milestone. you accomplished the achievement that preoccupied your mind all this time. dreams, hopes, aspirations. they all came true. and it was all because of you. it was not easy, and it took a lot from you, and you made sacrifices, and you had to work harder than you'd ever thought possible. but you did it.

and the way it makes you feel is literally like you are on top of the world. in ways you've never felt before. it's the feeling of victory. of triumph. of being a champion. and you want to feel this way forever.

and you take the congratulations. and you allow the contentment. and you grant the conceit. and so go to bed believing that it will always be this way.

but then you wake up.

and it is early dawn, and the light has broken the darkness, and the sun is rising to speak its story, and you are alone in the solemnity of the silence. and as you lie there, the moment goes before you, and runs to the rest of the day, and then to the limits of your life and from there onwards to forever. forever beyond your grasp.

just like yesterday.

and you realize then that whatever you did is now just memory, whatever you accomplished is now just past, whatever you felt is now just gone.

because that was yesterday.

and you learn then that there can be no congratulation nor contentment nor conceit, and that you must rise from bed knowing that it must always be this way.

because that was yesterday.

and you understand that all there is now is now. this moment. this thought. this touch this sight this smell this sound this breath. in the warmth in the light in the fragrance in the whisper in the heart of this brand new day...which beckons you forth to begin once more your journey towards its milestones.


this day.

and every day that is to come after.

because now is the realm of the real and tomorrow is the realm of imagination and you are the path that leads from one to the other.


this day.

and every day that is to come after.

and so you start, and begin again, and do so the way you do when you begin a trail anew: with nothing, except for you and now and this day and every day that is to come after.

and everything else?

that was yesterday.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

luz long and jessie owens

this past week was the 2009 World Track & Field Championships in Berlin. apart from the sports, this year's competition was notable because it was hosted in the Olympiastadion, which was first made infamous as the site of the 1936 Berlin Olympics but ultimately became famous as the site of the transcendant performance of Jessie Owens in the face of Nazi Aryanism.

one of the lesser-known stories of Jessie Owens at the 1936 Olympics was his relationship with German competitor Luz Long. which is a shame, considering the significance of the message their relationship leaves for the rest of us. this post is my part in the efforts to keep that message alive.

in recognition of the event, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) made it a point to celebrate Luz Long and Jessie Owens this year in Berlin, placing them as a media centerpiece of the championship, asking athletes to carry a sticker with the initials "JO" (for Jessie Owens) on their uniforms, and hosting a press conference with the families of Luz Long and Jessie Owens. you can read about the commemoration at the following:
for those of you who don't know, the story that was told by Jessie Owens in later years essentially goes like this:

at the 1936 Olympics, Jessie Owens was struggling with the preliminaries in the long jump. he'd fouled on 2 jumps by stepping past the take-off plate, meaning that with a 3rd foul he would have been disqualified. German jumper Luz Long gave Owens advice and assistance, with the tip that he mark a spot well in advance of the take-off plate so that Owens would avoid fouling. Owens did so, and managed to land a clean jump and qualify for the finals.

reportedly, Hitler was furious, especially since Long's advice subsequently allowed Owens to then break the world record and go on to win the gold medal. it didn't help that--in full view and open defiance of the Nazi leadership--Long embraced Owens and helped lead the crowd in cheers for him. Long and Owens became friends thereafter.

unfortunately the story has a bittersweet ending. Long was drafted into the German army during World War II and was killed in Sicily. still, Owens regularly visited Long's family in the years following the war, and made it a point to tell Long's children the kind of man he was.

i should note here that in recent years this story has been assigned to apocrypha, with a number of sources questioning whether it ever really happened. observers claimed they never saw the alleged long jump exchange between Long and Owens, and Owens himself eventually admitted to some distortion of events because he said it made for a version the public preferred to hear.

you can read the account of the story, as well as the subsequent historical revisionism, at the following:
despite the discrediting of the legend, i still hold to some core set of facts about Luz Long and Jessie Owens that are not in dispute:
  • Luz Long and Jessie Owens were direct competitors in the long jump at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin in Olympicstadion
  • Luz Long embraced Jessie Owens in congratulations on his victory and world record in the long jump before the entire stadium
  • Luz Long and Jessie Owens maintained a correspondence with each other in the years after their competition
  • Owens communicated with Long's family in the years after Long's death
  • the picture at the beginning of this post of them together was one of a series taken at the 1936 Olympics, and the picture is not one of rivals, but of friends
i hold to these facts because they still preserve the core message of the story. and to me, the message is more important than any questions regarding events, because it forms the point of what Luz Long and Jessie Owens were about. and the point is best summarized by a sentence--and this too is undisputed fact--in the last letter Long wrote to Owens before Long was killed:

"someday find my son ... tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth"

you see, we tend to become cynical in life. we tend to give up on ideals and aspirations, turn away from what should or can or hope to be. we rationalize such surrender, tell ourselves that all of this is nothing but dreams, say to each other that the world is about reality and that reality is about what we need to be. we do this so often that we come to believe it to be the truth.

and because of this, we end up accepting the world the way as it is. that it won't change. that it can't be better. that it has set the conditions for our lives, and that there is nothing we can do to make it otherwise.

and it is because of this that human history is the tragedy that it is.


it doesn't have to be this way.

it. does. not. have. to. be. this. way.

we can do something to make it otherwise. we can set the conditions for our lives. it can be better. it will change. the world can be more than it is. the world can be more than reality and more than reality is what we need to be. we can be about dreams. about should and can and hope to be. about ideals and aspirations.

and it can be as simple, as elegant, as graceful, as eternal, as powerful, as supreme, as just reaching out across the gulf that lies between us and connecting one soul to another in an act as pure as the first communion.

and in that moment of unison we redeem ourselves and make human history the triumph it was meant to be.

i believe that Long's last letter to Owens speaks to this message. and i believe that his death was a sacrifice that should not be allowed to have been made in vain. Owens certainly deemed it important enough to follow through on his friend's request to speak to his children about the kind of man their father was.

and their father was the kind of man who was about more than the world around him...and who at a certain moment in history dared to make the world more than it was.

i can only hope that somebody can tell my kids the same thing about me.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

videos: strength training (part 2)

note:  this is the 2nd in an ongoing, non-regular, non-periodic series on strength training in terms of endurance sports.  you can get part 1 here:

it surprises a fair number of newbies that endurance athletes integrate an element of strength training (alternatively, weight training) into their overall training schedules; not just as minor components, but often crucial ones.

this is pretty understandable. looking at the physiques of the elites and the professionals in endurance sports (triathlon, running, cycling, or swimming), you don't see much that corresponds to the common images of hulking Arnold Schwarzeneggar-types often associated with weight training. if anything, you'd think with all the lean, wiry, downright skinny bodies that there's actually a dearth of any strength work being done.

but this belies the truth. the key is to note the concept of sport-specific strength training. athletes in different sports develop physiques tailored to the demands of those sports, and so follow strength training programs that are specific to maximizing performance in them. the Arnold Schwarzeneggar-type bodies are created for the criteria used in bodybuilding, which focus on size, vascularity, and definition of muscles. Olympic track and field 100m sprinters have bodies built for maximum power generation over short distance and time intervals. likewise, endurance athletes need bodies with higher efficiency capable of sustaining power output with limited resources over extended distances and extended times.

this raises the question as to what kind of strength training--i.e., what kinds of exercises are appropriate for a strength training workout regimen specifically tailored for endurance athletes?

i managed to find a pretty good source that i think does a pretty good job of answering this question. it's from Pacific Elite Fitness, which appears to be a company providing personalized endurance-related fitness coaching and resources (i'm not affiliated with them in any way, and don't know anybody who is, so i'm just going off the info on their website). they have a library of strength training exercises, demonstrated in videos (all MOV format) and pictures. you can check them out:
it's not comprehensive, in that i've seen many other kinds of strength training exercises used for endurance sports (and most, if not all, are on Youtube). but it is expansive in terms of offering a wide variety of exercises working all aspects of the body through all ranges of motion in ways relevant for the demands of long distance competition.

i've taken some time to go through the exercises they have. some are quite challenging. some i like more than others. some i'll forego in exchange for others that i've seen on Youtube. but i think they're all beneficial, and all worth keeping in your library of training resources. my recommendation is to give them a try and decide for yourself which ones you find most productive--but be sure to allow several workouts with each one, since it takes a few weeks to get meaningful results.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

nutrition: what i eat

i'm writing in response to some questions people have posted regarding what i eat. i'm guessing some of you are wondering what i'm doing to maintain my body mass and body fat (for the past year, around 68 kg, or a little over 150 lbs, and 5-6%, respectively), and want to compare notes on the diet and nutrition that's helping me to stay to these numbers. my apologies for taking so long to write things up--there was a lot to discuss, and i feel it's important to give this some attention.

keep in mind that anything i write here should not be taken in isolation, and that body mass and body fat scores are a function of not only what i'm eating, but also my exercise regimen, personal habits, and living patterns (i talked about this in the last post: exercise doesn't make you thin...uh, excuse me?). i should also note that these numbers are not always consistent, and that the average man of my size can gain or lose as much as 5 lbs. in a single day due to food and hydration (or loss thereof). consistent to this range, i've noticed that i tend to fluctuate in a range of about 150-155 lbs. and between 4-7% bodyfat during the course of a year. i attribute this to just natural biological processes, and am happy so long as i stay within a consistent range.

someone suggested in the last post that i give a write-up of the foods i'm eating. i thought about obliging, but then i changed my mind.

the problem for me is that i don't think about my diet and nutrition this way.

i used to for the better part of my life. but at some point in the past few years i switched away from this, partly because it was driving me nuts constraining myself to specific foods day after day after day after miserable day (because you see, i like food, i really like food, as in: i-watch-the-Food-Channel-every-day like food); partly because it was making me neurotic obsessing over the "right" food and identifying "good" food, in ways that made me think of specific foods as being the magic bullet that would address my weight issues (and yes, i did have weight issues); and partly because i just simply didn't have the time to go out and hunt down and locate specific "safe" foods (because they just aren't located everywhere, and invariably are somewhere just far enough away to make it inconvenient to shop while running from school to work to training to errands to family to home to sleep to rise to start the process all over again).

instead, i can tell you how i do think about diet and nutrition now, and how i approach what i eat.

basically, i start with some basic principles:
  • for endurance athletes, the recommended breakdown of daily carbohydrates/proteins/fats is roughly 70-80%/10-15%/10-15% (i've written about this before. reference: kenyan marathon runners (part 2: diet)). these ratio values are by calories. keep in mind that carbohydrates and proteins have roughly 5-6 calories per gram and fats have roughly 10-12 calories per gram.
  • for sedentary males of my size, the recommended daily caloric intake is around 2,300-2,500 calories. sedentary means no exercise. but i'm not sedentary, and even on recovery days my metabolic rate is dramatically higher than these recommended caloric intake numbers. however, they do provide useful minimums that i can keep in mind. having said that, i also have a notion of rough maximums; i know that when i'm in the Ironman training cycle my daily caloric intake can shoot as high as 5,000-6,000 calories (and i suspect there have been a few times i reached around 8,000-9,000 calories--those were the days when i just ate and ate and ate and ate and ate and ate...and still felt hungry).
  • despite the numerical guidelines here, you may want to try and develop a mind-body connection in regards to food. i know this sounds really touchy-feely, but it makes things much easier in terms of maintaining healthy eating habits, particularly in terms of not having to expend mental energy counting calories or measuring portions or choosing foods or timing meals. what i mean is that you want to develop a sensitivity to how you feel in relation to your activities and your eating, so you have an intuitive grasp of what, when, and how you should ingest food. friends have described this as a "zen" approach. i see it as just being more in tune with yourself.
  • little things add up. a muffin here, a slice of butter there, some extra salad dressing, a little cream, and next thing you know by the end of the day you've taken in enough extra calories to constitute an extra meal. you want to be conscious of just where you are in terms of a total daily caloric and nutrient allotment during the course of any given 24-hour period--this will help you monitor your own food choices.
  • fats are not all evil. there are good fats and bad fats. good fats are mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated fats. they are found in things like nuts, fruits, vegetables, and fish--especially if allowed to remain as natural, non-processed foods. bad fats are saturated fats and trans fats. they are found in things like meats and processed foods (if it's packaged or canned or pre-made, it's very likely processed).
  • carbohydrates are not at all evil. they are sometimes good and sometimes bad and sometimes both. complex carbohydrates have low glycemic indexes, meaning they digest slowly and so release energy gradually over the course of a day--which incidentally moderates your insulin, thereby helping to suppress your appetite and maintain your energy levels. simple carbohydrates have high glycemic indexes, meaning they digest quickly and release energy matching the accompanying insulin spike and resultant post-insulin crash, which generates an increase in appetite and a resulting lethargy and drowsiness. complex carbohydrates are found in brightly colored vegetables (such as chili peppers, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli, asparagus, etc.) and whole grains (non-processed, non-refined flours made from wheat, sorghum, bulgar, quinoa, barley, millet, etc.). simple carbohydrates are found in starchy vegetables (such as potatoes, rice, etc.). simple carbohydrates are good when ingested in the 45-60 minute window following a workout, when your body is in desperate need to activate the recovery process. complex carbohydrates are good when ingested outside the 45-60 minute window, when your body needs to restore its normal functions.
  • proteins are not all evil. in fact, protein itself is not evil. the sources, however, may require some discretion. red meat has more bad fats and bad cholesterol, and white meats have more good fats and good cholesterol. but red meats do hold some useful nutrients (especially some kinds of amino acids) that are difficult (although not impossible) to get from other sources, and so should not be discounted entirely as a food source. and while vegetarian/vegan diets certainly do have legitimacy, meat is a very convenient source of protein. it also seems to help most people feel full, thereby controlling appetite.
  • calories are not evil. calories are units of energy. if your body is expending a lot of energy, you're going to need to replenish your body with energy. the issue is what kind of calories (i.e., how those calories are distributed by carbohydrates/proteins/fats).
  • refined or processed foods are bad. very bad. they're short on nutrients. long on calories. meaning that your body can't use them in its recovery and will just store them in its fat reserves...leaving you hungry and still in need to eat more.
  • nutrients are good. very good. you want nutrient-rich food (i.e., lots of minerals, vitamins, amino acids, etc.) and unrefined or unprocessed foods are higher in nutrients.
  • eat gradually. it takes time for your body to signal your brain that you are full. if you eat too fast, you overshoot the signal and take in more food than you need. this applies over the course of the entire day. this means that i take in 4-5 smaller meals (as opposed to 3 big ones), each of which i allow 30-60 minutes to ingest.
i use these principles in light of these points:
  • the ratios of carbohydrates/proteins/fats is not fixed. it depends on what i'm doing that day. for days when i'm doing strength training (i.e., focusing on muscular development), i make a conscious decision to allow more protein into my diet, usually at the expense of fat. for days when i'm doing conditioning training (i.e., building aerobic base or increasing anaerobic capacity), i try to take in more carbohydrates, usually at the expense of both fat and protein. sometimes, especially after particularly long endurance workouts, i'll allow in a little more fat--with a little being around 1-3 percentage points more.
  • the quantity of calories is not fixed. it depends on what i'm doing that day. i try to keep an eye on the amount of exercise i'm getting, and adjust the caloric values accordingly.
  • i took the time to develop the intuitive "zen" approach to diet and nutrition, allowing the time (for me, several years) to generally get a feel of what, when, and how to eat to produce results in terms of physical or mental states (whether in training or in recovery).
  • i took time to develop good eating habits. considering how many years it takes to develop bad eating habits (for most people, their entire life to date), it should be no surprise that it takes some time to develop good eating habits. but over the course of several years, i found it became easier to maintain, since i noticed that my taste buds changed, and that my cravings changed, to the point that i now actually like "healthy" food--for example, i used to crave the taste of vinaigrette dressing on salads, but now i find that i prefer the taste of plain vegetables and fruits and dislike the taste of any kind of salad dressing.
  • developing an intuitive sense of diet and nutrition, in addition to healthy eating habits, required some work in terms of doing the due diligence to educate myself regarding food. and be warned: food information is not always reliable. in fact, it is rife with distortions, omissions, mislabels, half-truths, and outright lies. things advertised as organic are not. things advertised as whole grains are not. things advertised as nutrient-rich are not. you really sometimes have to do some work to find out the actual nature of the food you're eating--including in terms of things like glycemic index, complex v. simple carbohydrates, good v. bad fats, refined or processed ingredients, or even calories and nutrient breakdown. for example, at one time i got so frustrated with how difficult it was to find unrefined, unprocessed, whole grain carbohydrate sources that i took to just buying oatmeal, because it was the only food whose nutritional labeling i could trust.
  • i never lost food cravings. i still crave certain kinds of foods. but in the process of improving my diet and nutrition, i found that i retrained my cravings so that i thought about healthy foods as opposed to unhealthy ones. my belief is that your mind generates food cravings because it recognizes certain deficiencies in diet and nutrition, and associates those deficiencies with the foods that compensate for them. however, this association is dependent on the vocabulary of food options you stored in your memory over the course of your life. as a result, a youth of poor eating habits means your mind having to make associations from memories of unhealthy foods. here's a personal example: where before i used to get cravings for bacon (lots of bad fats), which was probably my brain interpreting my body's signals that it needed more fat, i now crave salmon skin (lots of good fats). for me, i believe that people need time to create a new store of healthy food memories, which supplies the brain with a new set of vocabulary from which to make associations regarding what foods can address detected diet and nutrition deficiencies. this takes time, and another reason why it takes some initial effort to develop good eating habits and food intuition.
  • the effort involved in improving diet and nutrition is like a rolling boulder: initially, it takes some level of effort to get the rock rolling, but once you've overcome the initial friction you'll find that things generate momentum, and that as the momentum builds it generates an energy of its own, to the point that it can sustain its own motion without your effort.
  • i don't constrain my food choices. at least not too much. the only foods that i really categorically avoid are simple sugars, since the body processes them in ways that seem to lead to fat storage. this means i've eliminated the major sources of simple sugars: no candy, no soft drinks, no fruit juices, etc. i also categorically avoid mayonnaise and sour cream, but mostly because i just don't like their taste. it's not a big deal--it turned out to be a minor sacrifice.
  • moderation is key. in quantity and quality and choice. even if you stray, it will be okay as long as you contain the damage. once you've built up momentum in good diet and nutrition, you'll find that your body has some resilience to bad food, and so you can take in some measure (but not total) accidental (or perhaps even intentional) ingestion of unhealthy foods.
this is all probably more than some of you were expecting, and more than you wanted. i hope that's not the case. this is about as good a summary of my eating as i can make. i don't think so much about the identity of the foods i'm eating (i.e., pot roast versus green bean casserole versus ham sandwich), but more about the value of the foods i'm selecting (i.e., caloric density, nutrient density).

i'll finish by nothing that once i managed to get healthy eating habits, i found that taste, satisfaction of hunger, and nourishment all took care of themselves. trust me, i've found that healthy food can be every bit as tasty and filling as unhealthy food (grilled bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions drizzled with olive oil and garlic? mmmmmmmmmm....), and i just don't have the desire for unhealthy eating anymore. i remember i used to love In-n-Out double-doubles with a large order of fries (In-n-Out is a California thing...if you don't know, suffice it to say it's one of the greatest fast-food burgers joints you'll ever find). i still think about it. but now, whenever i do indulge in them, i find myself completely grossed out and afflicted by several days of indigestion--all of which is enough to make me limit my consumption of In-n-Out to once (at most twice) a year...which is fine, because i think the alternative has turned out much better.

hope that helps. let me know if there's anything else you want to know.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

exercise doesn't make you thin...uh, excuse me?

oh boy. here we go again.

there's an article in Time magazine with the provocative title "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin." for the sake of reference and understanding what i'm about to say i'll provide the link (and in case the link doesn't work, i included the text of it at the end of this post--but be warned: it's loooooooong):
i can already hear the comments that people--mostly those new or unfamiliar with physical exercise--are going to say. i've heard them before. in fact, i've heard them before in association with prior articles just like this one. you can see examples from a couple of years ago:
people are going to read these kinds of articles and say--either in despair, or as an excuse--that all the work they put into exercise is really just a venture into complete futility, that any attempt at weight loss is thereby hopeless. they'll take the connection between exercise and weight loss as a fallacy, and take their personal body weight as a preset genetically-determined marker, and then proceed to just give up any aspirations of improving their physical proportions.

i know this, because i've heard and seen it all before.

and the sad thing is, it's not true.

at least, not in the important ways that really matter to our health.

you see, the article itself, if you read it, actually tells a different story than the title. the title, just like the titles of the previous ones from years past, are mislabeled (probably because the editor wanted something eye-catching, and resorted to a message very different from what the author intended).

the article points out--and in my opinion, correctly so--that exercise alone does not ensure weight loss. the key word is: alone. exercise is a component in a larger equation resulting in weight loss, with various other factors that must be accounted in any attempt to improve the body.

i'll put it this way: the fallacy is not that there is a connection between exercise and weight loss; the fallacy is that there is a direct, exclusive, sole connection between exercise and weight loss. if you read the article, they explain this, discussing in detail that weight loss is a function of a number of variables: 1) exercise, 2) quantity of calories ingested, 3) nature of nutrients in the calories, and 4) personal habits.

and it's in the addition of these variables that people fall short. invariably, people tend to look at it (and wrongly so) as a balancing act, with an improvement in one being used as a justification to let go in another. they'll do an extra-hard workout and think it allows them to compensate with an extra-large muffin. they'll follow an extra-strict vegetarian diet and think it allows them to forego a ride on the bike.

it doesn't work that way. it's not about balancing the variables. it's about adding them. if all you do is balance the variables with each other, all you get is a sum difference of zero--as in no change in weight or physique. you have to add the variables so that their effects are cumulative, resulting in a sum difference greater than zero--as in a change in weight and physique.

and exercise alone is not the magic bullet that's going to solve the poundage problem. it's just one component out of many in terms of how you live your life. all the variables, all the components of your life, have to combine together in order to generate the change you're seeking.

in other words, the article points out what i always tell people who want to improve their body weight and/or fitness: it's about a lifestyle change. it's about changing the way you live. how you eat, how you work, how you play, how you deal with yourself and others and the world around you, how you approach each day before you.

and it's only when you make the commitment to such changes--a commitment to everything about you--that you really start to see a difference.

because it's never just about the weight. it's never just about the poundage. it's about everything that caused it to appear and expand in the first place. and until you resolve those issues, you'll never eliminate the source of all the fat calcifying your attempt to live your life.

exercise can help to deal with some of these to some extent, and it can help to generate a routine to build up some momentum, but ultimately your outside is a reflection of your inside and you have to be willing to face whatever there is and was that led to the self-destructive behaviors that resulted in the body you have now. and only when you've released yourself from the burdens within you will be free to engage the self-constructive behaviors that will produce the body you want--and for your sake, need.

no, exercise doesn't make you thin.

you do.

Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin
By John Cloud
Time Magazine
Thursday, Aug. 06, 2009

As I write this, tomorrow is Tuesday, which is a cardio day. I'll spend five minutes warming up on the VersaClimber, a towering machine that requires you to move your arms and legs simultaneously. Then I'll do 30 minutes on a stair mill. On Wednesday a personal trainer will work me like a farm animal for an hour, sometimes to the point that I am dizzy — an abuse for which I pay as much as I spend on groceries in a week. Thursday is "body wedge" class, which involves another exercise contraption, this one a large foam wedge from which I will push myself up in various hateful ways for an hour. Friday will bring a 5.5-mile run, the extra half-mile my grueling expiation of any gastronomical indulgences during the week.

I have exercised like this — obsessively, a bit grimly — for years, but recently I began to wonder: Why am I doing this? Except for a two-year period at the end of an unhappy relationship — a period when I self-medicated with lots of Italian desserts — I have never been overweight. One of the most widely accepted, commonly repeated assumptions in our culture is that if you exercise, you will lose weight. But I exercise all the time, and since I ended that relationship and cut most of those desserts, my weight has returned to the same 163 lb. it has been most of my adult life. I still have gut fat that hangs over my belt when I sit. Why isn't all the exercise wiping it out?

It's a question many of us could ask. More than 45 million Americans now belong to a health club, up from 23 million in 1993. We spend some $19 billion a year on gym memberships. Of course, some people join and never go. Still, as one major study — the Minnesota Heart Survey — found, more of us at least say we exercise regularly. The survey ran from 1980, when only 47% of respondents said they engaged in regular exercise, to 2000, when the figure had grown to 57%.

And yet obesity figures have risen dramatically in the same period: a third of Americans are obese, and another third count as overweight by the Federal Government's definition. Yes, it's entirely possible that those of us who regularly go to the gym would weigh even more if we exercised less. But like many other people, I get hungry after I exercise, so I often eat more on the days I work out than on the days I don't. Could exercise actually be keeping me from losing weight?

The conventional wisdom that exercise is essential for shedding pounds is actually fairly new. As recently as the 1960s, doctors routinely advised against rigorous exercise, particularly for older adults who could injure themselves. Today doctors encourage even their oldest patients to exercise, which is sound advice for many reasons: People who regularly exercise are at significantly lower risk for all manner of diseases — those of the heart in particular. They less often develop cancer, diabetes and many other illnesses. But the past few years of obesity research show that the role of exercise in weight loss has been wildly overstated.

"In general, for weight loss, exercise is pretty useless," says Eric Ravussin, chair in diabetes and metabolism at Louisiana State University and a prominent exercise researcher. Many recent studies have found that exercise isn't as important in helping people lose weight as you hear so regularly in gym advertisements or on shows like The Biggest Loser — or, for that matter, from magazines like this one.

The basic problem is that while it's true that exercise burns calories and that you must burn calories to lose weight, exercise has another effect: it can stimulate hunger. That causes us to eat more, which in turn can negate the weight-loss benefits we just accrued. Exercise, in other words, isn't necessarily helping us lose weight. It may even be making it harder.

The Compensation Problem
Earlier this year, the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE — PLoS is the nonprofit Public Library of Science — published a remarkable study supervised by a colleague of Ravussin's, Dr. Timothy Church, who holds the rather grand title of chair in health wisdom at LSU. Church's team randomly assigned into four groups 464 overweight women who didn't regularly exercise. Women in three of the groups were asked to work out with a personal trainer for 72 min., 136 min., and 194 min. per week, respectively, for six months. Women in the fourth cluster, the control group, were told to maintain their usual physical-activity routines. All the women were asked not to change their dietary habits and to fill out monthly medical-symptom questionnaires.

The findings were surprising. On average, the women in all the groups, even the control group, lost weight, but the women who exercised — sweating it out with a trainer several days a week for six months — did not lose significantly more weight than the control subjects did. (The control-group women may have lost weight because they were filling out those regular health forms, which may have prompted them to consume fewer doughnuts.) Some of the women in each of the four groups actually gained weight, some more than 10 lb. each.

What's going on here? Church calls it compensation, but you and I might know it as the lip-licking anticipation of perfectly salted, golden-brown French fries after a hard trip to the gym. Whether because exercise made them hungry or because they wanted to reward themselves (or both), most of the women who exercised ate more than they did before they started the experiment. Or they compensated in another way, by moving around a lot less than usual after they got home.

The findings are important because the government and various medical organizations routinely prescribe more and more exercise for those who want to lose weight. In 2007 the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association issued new guidelines stating that "to lose weight ... 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity may be necessary." That's 60 to 90 minutes on most days of the week, a level that not only is unrealistic for those of us trying to keep or find a job but also could easily produce, on the basis of Church's data, ravenous compensatory eating.

It's true that after six months of working out, most of the exercisers in Church's study were able to trim their waistlines slightly — by about an inch. Even so, they lost no more overall body fat than the control group did. Why not?

Church, who is 41 and has lived in Baton Rouge for nearly three years, has a theory. "I see this anecdotally amongst, like, my wife's friends," he says. "They're like, 'Ah, I'm running an hour a day, and I'm not losing any weight.'" He asks them, "What are you doing after you run?" It turns out one group of friends was stopping at Starbucks for muffins afterward. Says Church: "I don't think most people would appreciate that, wow, you only burned 200 or 300 calories, which you're going to neutralize with just half that muffin."

You might think half a muffin over an entire day wouldn't matter much, particularly if you exercise regularly. After all, doesn't exercise turn fat to muscle, and doesn't muscle process excess calories more efficiently than fat does?

Yes, although the muscle-fat relationship is often misunderstood. According to calculations published in the journal Obesity Research by a Columbia University team in 2001, a pound of muscle burns approximately six calories a day in a resting body, compared with the two calories that a pound of fat burns. Which means that after you work out hard enough to convert, say, 10 lb. of fat to muscle — a major achievement — you would be able to eat only an extra 40 calories per day, about the amount in a teaspoon of butter, before beginning to gain weight. Good luck with that.

Fundamentally, humans are not a species that evolved to dispose of many extra calories beyond what we need to live. Rats, among other species, have a far greater capacity to cope with excess calories than we do because they have more of a dark-colored tissue called brown fat. Brown fat helps produce a protein that switches off little cellular units called mitochondria, which are the cells' power plants: they help turn nutrients into energy. When they're switched off, animals don't get an energy boost. Instead, the animals literally get warmer. And as their temperature rises, calories burn effortlessly.

Because rodents have a lot of brown fat, it's very difficult to make them obese, even when you force-feed them in labs. But humans — we're pathetic. We have so little brown fat that researchers didn't even report its existence in adults until earlier this year. That's one reason humans can gain weight with just an extra half-muffin a day: we almost instantly store most of the calories we don't need in our regular ("white") fat cells.

All this helps explain why our herculean exercise over the past 30 years — all the personal trainers, StairMasters and VersaClimbers; all the Pilates classes and yoga retreats and fat camps — hasn't made us thinner. After we exercise, we often crave sugary calories like those in muffins or in "sports" drinks like Gatorade. A standard 20-oz. bottle of Gatorade contains 130 calories. If you're hot and thirsty after a 20-minute run in summer heat, it's easy to guzzle that bottle in 20 seconds, in which case the caloric expenditure and the caloric intake are probably a wash. From a weight-loss perspective, you would have been better off sitting on the sofa knitting.

Self-Control Is like a Muscle
Many people assume that weight is mostly a matter of willpower — that we can learn both to exercise and to avoid muffins and Gatorade. A few of us can, but evolution did not build us to do this for very long. In 2000 the journal Psychological Bulletin published a paper by psychologists Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in which they observed that self-control is like a muscle: it weakens each day after you use it. If you force yourself to jog for an hour, your self-regulatory capacity is proportionately enfeebled. Rather than lunching on a salad, you'll be more likely to opt for pizza.

Some of us can will ourselves to overcome our basic psychology, but most of us won't be very successful. "The most powerful determinant of your dietary intake is your energy expenditure," says Steven Gortmaker, who heads Harvard's Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity. "If you're more physically active, you're going to get hungry and eat more." Gortmaker, who has studied childhood obesity, is even suspicious of the playgrounds at fast-food restaurants. "Why would they build those?" he asks. "I know it sounds kind of like conspiracy theory, but you have to think, if a kid plays five minutes and burns 50 calories, he might then go inside and consume 500 calories or even 1,000."

Last year the International Journal of Obesity published a paper by Gortmaker and Kendrin Sonneville of Children's Hospital Boston noting that "there is a widespread assumption that increasing activity will result in a net reduction in any energy gap" — energy gap being the term scientists use for the difference between the number of calories you use and the number you consume. But Gortmaker and Sonneville found in their 18-month study of 538 students that when kids start to exercise, they end up eating more — not just a little more, but an average of 100 calories more than they had just burned.

If evolution didn't program us to lose weight through exercise, what did it program us to do? Doesn't exercise do anything?

Sure. It does plenty. In addition to enhancing heart health and helping prevent disease, exercise improves your mental health and cognitive ability. A study published in June in the journal Neurology found that older people who exercise at least once a week are 30% more likely to maintain cognitive function than those who exercise less. Another study, released by the University of Alberta a few weeks ago, found that people with chronic back pain who exercise four days a week have 36% less disability than those who exercise only two or three days a week.

But there's some confusion about whether it is exercise — sweaty, exhausting, hunger-producing bursts of activity done exclusively to benefit our health — that leads to all these benefits or something far simpler: regularly moving during our waking hours. We all need to move more — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says our leisure-time physical activity (including things like golfing, gardening and walking) has decreased since the late 1980s, right around the time the gym boom really exploded. But do we need to stress our bodies at the gym?

Look at kids. In May a team of researchers at Peninsula Medical School in the U.K. traveled to Amsterdam to present some surprising findings to the European Congress on Obesity. The Peninsula scientists had studied 206 kids, ages 7 to 11, at three schools in and around Plymouth, a city of 250,000 on the southern coast of England. Kids at the first school, an expensive private academy, got an average of 9.2 hours per week of scheduled, usually rigorous physical education. Kids at the two other schools — one in a village near Plymouth and the other an urban school — got just 2.4 hours and 1.7 hours of PE per week, respectively.

To understand just how much physical activity the kids were getting, the Peninsula team had them wear ActiGraphs, light but sophisticated devices that measure not only the amount of physical movement the body engages in but also its intensity. During four one-week periods over consecutive school terms, the kids wore the ActiGraphs nearly every waking moment.

And no matter how much PE they got during school hours, when you look at the whole day, the kids from the three schools moved the same amount, at about the same intensity. The kids at the fancy private school underwent significantly more physical activity before 3 p.m., but overall they didn't move more. "Once they get home, if they are very active in school, they are probably staying still a bit more because they've already expended so much energy," says Alissa Frémeaux, a biostatistician who helped conduct the study. "The others are more likely to grab a bike and run around after school."

Another British study, this one from the University of Exeter, found that kids who regularly move in short bursts — running to catch a ball, racing up and down stairs to collect toys — are just as healthy as kids who participate in sports that require vigorous, sustained exercise.

Could pushing people to exercise more actually be contributing to our obesity problem? In some respects, yes. Because exercise depletes not just the body's muscles but the brain's self-control "muscle" as well, many of us will feel greater entitlement to eat a bag of chips during that lazy time after we get back from the gym. This explains why exercise could make you heavier — or at least why even my wretched four hours of exercise a week aren't eliminating all my fat. It's likely that I am more sedentary during my nonexercise hours than I would be if I didn't exercise with such Puritan fury. If I exercised less, I might feel like walking more instead of hopping into a cab; I might have enough energy to shop for food, cook and then clean instead of ordering a satisfyingly greasy burrito.

Closing the Energy Gap
The problem ultimately is about not exercise itself but the way we've come to define it. Many obesity researchers now believe that very frequent, low-level physical activity — the kind humans did for tens of thousands of years before the leaf blower was invented — may actually work better for us than the occasional bouts of exercise you get as a gym rat. "You cannot sit still all day long and then have 30 minutes of exercise without producing stress on the muscles," says Hans-Rudolf Berthoud, a neurobiologist at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center who has studied nutrition for 20 years. "The muscles will ache, and you may not want to move after. But to burn calories, the muscle movements don't have to be extreme. It would be better to distribute the movements throughout the day."

For his part, Berthoud rises at 5 a.m. to walk around his neighborhood several times. He also takes the stairs when possible. "Even if people can get out of their offices, out from in front of their computers, they go someplace like the mall and then take the elevator," he says. "This is the real problem, not that we don't go to the gym enough."

I was skeptical when Berthoud said this. Don't you need to raise your heart rate and sweat in order to strengthen your cardiovascular system? Don't you need to push your muscles to the max in order to build them?

Actually, it's not clear that vigorous exercise like running carries more benefits than a moderately strenuous activity like walking while carrying groceries. You regularly hear about the benefits of exercise in news stories, but if you read the academic papers on which these stories are based, you frequently see that the research subjects who were studied didn't clobber themselves on the elliptical machine. A routine example: in June the Association for Psychological Science issued a news release saying that "physical exercise ... may indeed preserve or enhance various aspects of cognitive functioning." But in fact, those who had better cognitive function merely walked more and climbed more stairs. They didn't even walk faster; walking speed wasn't correlated with cognitive ability.

There's also growing evidence that when it comes to preventing certain diseases, losing weight may be more important than improving cardiovascular health. In June, Northwestern University researchers released the results of the longest observational study ever to investigate the relationship between aerobic fitness and the development of diabetes. The results? Being aerobically fit was far less important than having a normal body mass index in preventing the disease. And as we have seen, exercise often does little to help heavy people reach a normal weight.

So why does the belief persist that exercise leads to weight loss, given all the scientific evidence to the contrary? Interestingly, until the 1970s, few obesity researchers promoted exercise as critical for weight reduction. As recently as 1992, when a stout Bill Clinton became famous for his jogging and McDonald's habits, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published an article that began, "Recently, the interest in the potential of adding exercise to the treatment of obesity has increased." The article went on to note that incorporating exercise training into obesity treatment had led to "inconsistent" results. "The increased energy expenditure obtained by training may be compensated by a decrease in non-training physical activities," the authors wrote.

Then how did the exercise-to-lose-weight mantra become so ingrained? Public-health officials have been reluctant to downplay exercise because those who are more physically active are, overall, healthier. Plus, it's hard even for experts to renounce the notion that exercise is essential for weight loss. For years, psychologist Kelly Brownell ran a lab at Yale that treated obese patients with the standard, drilled-into-your-head combination of more exercise and less food. "What we found was that the treatment of obesity was very frustrating," he says. Only about 5% of participants could keep the weight off, and although those 5% were more likely to exercise than those who got fat again, Brownell says if he were running the program today, "I would probably reorient toward food and away from exercise." In 2005, Brownell co-founded Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which focuses on food marketing and public policy — not on encouraging more exercise.

Some research has found that the obese already "exercise" more than most of the rest of us. In May, Dr. Arn Eliasson of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center reported the results of a small study that found that overweight people actually expend significantly more calories every day than people of normal weight — 3,064 vs. 2,080. He isn't the first researcher to reach this conclusion. As science writer Gary Taubes noted in his 2007 book Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, "The obese tend to expend more energy than lean people of comparable height, sex, and bone structure, which means their metabolism is typically burning off more calories rather than less."

In short, it's what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off, that matters more in losing weight. You should exercise to improve your health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain. I love how exercise makes me feel, but tomorrow I might skip the VersaClimber — and skip the blueberry bar that is my usual postexercise reward.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

videos: swimming technique (part 3...and lots of it!)

i've written several posts on swimming technique before (you can reference part 1 and part 2). well, for those of you wanted more, and i mean *more*, as in more than you could ever possibly want--like an all-you-can-eat-buffet that replenishes no matter how much you consume, i have come across something that's about as good a candidate as you'll ever find.

it's the Youtube channel "fit2race" (you can check it out: fit2race). it currently only has 12 videos, but they all deal with swimming, with 10 dealing with freestyle swimming. the videos seem to be geared towards triathletes, since freestyle is the dominant stroke used in triathlon. but the video narration also indicates a general aim at new or novice swimmers. having said that, i think the material is relevant for anyone trying to figure out the nuances of the freestyle stroke and looking to improve their swim times in the water.

from what i can tell, the order of the episodes on freestyle swimming seems to be the following (i'm not sure, since some of the videos seem to be mislabeled):
i should note that the commentary in these videos is dry. very dry. it's much less of an active or interactive coaching style and much more of a classroom lecture style. and it goes into great detail regarding finer points of freestyle swimming. as a result, it's the kind of thing that it's very easy to lose the forest for the trees, in the sense that the detail can drown out (i know, bad pun, sorry, couldn't resist, just too easy) people trying to get the more general aspects of swimming. i think it's more helpful for those who've gotten the general aspects of freestyle and who are now trying to refine their stroke.

i should also point out that the videos consist of slides with voice-over narration. as a result, there's not much visually to illustrate all the discussion topics being applied in unison in the full act of swimming. for that, you'll have to rely on the videos included in my previous posts of part 1 and part 2.

for all that, take from these videos what you will. i wouldn't rely on these videos exclusively to improve your freestyle stroke, but i think they make a useful addition to the Youtube library on swimming, and probably something worth adding to your list of bookmarks.