What perfect timing! Just as Americans are heading to the beaches and mountains for some added exercise and recreation, the press headlines let us know: we are indeed exercising more, as we've been told to do, but unfortunately, we are no thinner for it. Our poundage is expanding despite the increased exercise!
If you consider yourself basically healthy, without abnormal lab tests or worrisome excess abdominal fat, you exercise and want to be even more fit - but, you'd like to lose that last 5, 10, or 20 pounds. How does someone who is fairly healthy, active, but overweight lose that weight sensibly and improve their fitness at the same time?
I call this group the “Weight Challenged” and in my office these folks report a familiar story. When I meet with you, you report that
- You weight more than you'd like to.
- You carry your extra weight well distributed on your body.
- Your lab tests are normal, congratulations!
- Your goals are to normalize your weight and optimize your fitness!
Your task won't be that difficult, as you have already done a lot to maintain good health for yourself.
The first item to discuss is a simple one: I'd like you to tweak one of your goals. I want to make it clear that my focus for you is on fat loss rather than weight loss. I want you to lose inches noted on a tape measurer, or body fat percentages measured on a DEXA scan, or sizes in the dressing room. Throw out all those clothes in the larger sizes, for good! I don't care what the scale beneath your feet says to us! I have not yet met a patient who can't easily get on board with this slight tweak.
Attention to your exercise: Mark Sisson, from Mark's Daily Apple suggests we model our activities on what a “primal” or pre-agricultural lifestyle would include.
- On a daily basis, move around a lot. Go for walks, get up from your desk, do a little yoga, dance!
- Twice a week, do something really intense! Pre-agricultural folks were either running from a wild animal or towards some wild game. Personally, I like a good workout rowing my single shell around the lake, with some bursts of high-speed work. Wild animals spotted, though none seem dangerous, so I muster my own motivation to move quickly. High intensity intervals might be just right for you, and require no special equipment. (Interval exercise is described in several places on this website, such as in the Lifestyle section of Type 2 Diabetes.)
- Include some heavy lifting in your life, either around the house or garden or on your workout days. If you're going to start a weight-lifting program, work with a trainer. You will gain not only access to a wide variety of weights, but more importantly, you will learn how to lift weights safely and avoid injury!
The intense intervals are important for several reasons. Intense exercise promotes fat-burning as shown in more than one study.
The greater intensity is also more useful for growth hormone production (considered by some to be an anti-aging hormone), restful sleep, and maintaining muscle mass that naturally declines with age.
Many people opt for jogging as a weight loss exercise, as it's “aerobic” and described as “fat-burning”. The only problem with it - well, there are many. When you burn fat, your body resets homeostasis by restoring the lost fat. Most folks also jog or run too frequently. Exercise is a stress that requires recovery or the repeated stress message stimulates cortisol production which makes you gain weight. The problems with long-term steady state exercise (think jogging) are detailed in a recent column on Mark's Daily Apple.
The big question you might have about exercise is: can I exercise more to advance my goals faster? And the answer is a resounding - not if your health is your first concern. It's really important to allow your body sufficient recovery time after a challenging workout so that you don't elicit a chronic stress response. Instead, use cross training, intervals, and well-deserved rest to advance your fitness goals.
Taking adequate rest insures that you well achieve your goals in both performance and health as fast as your physiological body can get there.
Attention to what you eat and when you eat it: Losing body fat is about reducing the sweet and starchy carbohydrates that you eat, but wisely allowing them at certain times! The Weight Loss Eating Plan (link) is a good outline of low-carb eating, but could be too low-carb depending on how much you exercise. If you are not much of an exerciser, perhaps just stay active with gentle yoga or long walks, the plan is one you can follow fairly closely and achieve good results.
How closely you follow it will determine how quickly you get results. The ways in which you eat outside the plan are important to think about: if you are tempted with a really great looking dessert, have it with a meal and not instead of the meal. Eat a small portion of the dessert, and know that it will take a few days for your body to settle down after all that excitement! If you want to include alcohol, let that be 3 ounces of red wine with dinner. What other ways might that plan be hard for you?
As a modification of following that plan, you can make some special allowances around the days that you exercise vigorously. In the meal before you exercise, you can include some carbohydrates in addition to what is included in the Weight Loss Plan, such as a small potato, sweet potato (with butter), or some white rice. Include the food in dinner if you exercise first thing in the morning. Right before you exercise, many people find some benefit from taking a supplement with extra amino acids.
Regarding protein and its constituent amino acids, your body maintains a steady pool of amino acids in your bloodstream. If extra amino acids are needed for muscle repair after vigorous exercise, you want an abundant pool available to tap from. And right after you exercise is one of the few times I recommend people include a liquid meal, in this case a very specific one. For about an hour after you exercise, you have a sort of “free pass” on carbohydrates, as your fuel-hungry muscles don't require insulin which keeps you out of the weight-gain zone with the carbs. So combine about 20 grams of protein from whey protein powder like Designs for Health Whey Cool with a source of fat (coconut milk is my choice, or heavy cream is an option), a flavor you love (blueberries? raspberries? cocoa? banana?) and ONE Tbsp. of MCT Oil, which you can slowly increase to 2-3 Tbsp.
MCT Oil is a medium chain length fat that is easily absorbed, without requiring pancreas or gall bladder assistance. Made largely from coconut oil, it offers several potential health benefits, to different degrees in different individuals. Such benefits include: increased fat burning, improved energy, improved cognition, and, ironically, weight gain for people with inadequate digestion and weight loss! For anyone with medical challenges (diabetes, high cholesterol, or digestive problems), MCT oil should be taken with medical supervision.
Whey protein powder is an excellent source of protein for muscle repair after exercise, and particularly helps the body recover from “oxidative stress” of exercise - the stress of burning fuel rapidly - by replenishing the body's stores of glutathione, a key anti-oxidant.
So summer is a great time to indulge in a variety of healthful activities, variety for spice and for health. If it's too hot where you live to exercise outside mid-day, you will miss the vitamin D benefit, but it's a season where you can explore swimming, hiking, walking, and a variety of other sports. Even fly fishing and croquet can offer benefits that make us grateful for summer: sunshine, pleasure, some time with friends or in the wilderness, and the opportunity to move, stretch, and use some muscles that we don't use the rest of the year when inclement weather drives us inside!