body image

Still Struggling with Body Image? Try a Nude Vacation

Sam and I often get a kick out of the site stats that tell us what search engine terms get people to the blog. People have landed here by searching “soccer and beer,” “If a guy says you are not fat but fluffy,” “aikido makes me nervous,” “hard fast no cuddling after tshirt,” and “no other regret compares to the childhood email address made.”

But yesterday, my heart really went out to the person who searched “I want to be nude at home but I’m too modest.”  Many of us struggle with body image. I’m not sure if this searcher is too modest because she (or he) is self-conscious about her (or his) body not being “good enough,” but if she is, I can recommend a solution that worked for me:  a nude vacation.

A few years ago my husband finally convinced me to try a nude resort for our winter vacation to the south.  I hesitated for many years but that time decided, “why not?”  Panic and fear gripped me in the days leading up, mostly because I didn’t feel comfortable in my body.

What I could not have anticipated was how freeing it felt to shed clothing for a week.  You get the full range of shapes and sizes, all comfortable in their skins.  The experience was a real turning point for me. I learned that I could be relaxed about my body instead of self-conscious.  I’ve never experienced the same level of body comfort as I do when I am on a nude vacation surrounded by others who are also free of clothing. And it doesn’t matter whether my weight is up or down, whether I’ve been keeping fit or not. I always feel better about my body when I get to the beach and take off my clothes for a few days.

I documented the experience in a short radio documentary that you can listen to here. [thanks go to Stephane Descharmes for making it accessible on the Bare Oaks website].

Just a quick word if you decide, on the basis of this post, to look into this kind of getaway. There are all sorts of different places to go all over the world. Some are more family-oriented and cater strictly to the “naturist” crowd. Others are adults-only and might attract or even in some cases cater to people in “the lifestyle” (i.e. swingers). And still others might be somewhere in between. So do your research. There is definitely something for everyone.

So to the person who is too modest to be nude at home I say: try getting naked for a week with others and see where that takes you!

fitness · weight loss

TV shows, fitness, and weight loss: Love and hate

Television hasn’t been part of my life for many years, not since I gave it up as a pre-tenure faculty member with small children. Indeed, I blogged about the decision to abstain from TV here.

We do watch television shows on DVD and Netflix again so it’s no longer a complete ban. But what is missing is regularly scheduled programming and ads.

This past year though I was on sabbatical in Australia and New Zealand in rented houses that came with televisions. For the first time, I got to experience reality TV.

Given my interests it’s not a surprise that I watched shows about weight loss and exercise.  Here’s my take on the best and the worst.

It’s no shock that I hated The Biggest Loser.

I worry about very fast, competitive weight loss and the circus freak mentality around fat bodies. That said, it was refreshing to see big people exercising.

The show I liked though was Are You Fitter than A Pensioner?

Here’s a description of one episode:

America has given birth to a new breed of super-fit pensioner. In Oakmont Village, California, the senior residents are doing everything they can to live long and healthy lives. What happens when four young, unfit and unhealthy Brits are sent to live with some of the fittest pensioners in the world?

25-year-old lazy Welsh socialite Ashlei Swain, 20-year-old bone-idle punk student Jennifer Lovell, 22-year-old fried food lover Nicole Pereira and 18-year-old chain smoker Ben Katchi are about to meet their fate. For a week they must stay with 68-year-old Bev Levy and her 71-year-old husband Ron, and 77-year-olds Carol and Jim Cotton.

The hosts might be in their retirement years but all four are fitness fanatics. From competitive swimming to yoga and daily gym workouts, they look forward to whipping the young Brits into shape.

In a life-changing week, the Brits are forced to quit their usual lazy lifestyles and exercise to the max. They swap burgers and sweeties for a healthy diet and are pushed to their physical and emotional limits. At the end of the week they face the ultimate battle of the ages when they take on four golden oldies in a cycling relay race, to find out if they really are fitter than a pensioner.

Can stroppy rebel Ashlei conform to the strict regime? Is punk rocker Jen able to conquer her fear of exercise? And how do the Brits fare in the big race – are they victorious or do they suffer defeat at the hands of super-fit pensioners?

I loved the super fit pensioners, a stark contrast to what we’ve traditionally thought of as old age. No rockers here! They really did look to be having a great time, enjoying yoga, cycling, swimming, dancing, whatever. They also looked to be thriving in communities of like minded people. Good to have happy role models paving the way ahead.

Nice too to see seniors as the font of wisdom, as having something to offer the youth.

There’s of course the angle of national stereotypes– unhealthy Brits versus fitness obsessed Americans–but it’s made okay, I think, by the cross generational interaction.

I’m no fan of TV but I did watch and enjoy a few episodes of Are You Fitter than a Pensioner? Do you have any fitness/weight loss reality TV shows you love or love to hate?


Aikido · Crossfit · Rowing · running · training · weight loss

Is it time to ditch exercise?

Exercising, working out, or training? I almost never use the first of these terms and I have a strong preference for the 3rd. Here’s some thoughts about why.

Recently the media reported on a study from the University of Alberta that showed shows like The  Biggest Loser put people off exercise with its extreme depiction of what exercise involves.

From the U of A website: Researchers in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation found that watching a short video clip of The Biggest Loser fueled negative attitudes toward exercise, raising further questions about how physical activity is shown in the popular media.

“The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative,” said lead author Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. “People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is—that it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”

Read more about this here.

For me, the word ‘exercise’ has negative connotations, even without The Biggest Loser. At best it sounds dull and joyless. I use the word to describe physio rehab that I do. Those are exercises but that’s about it.

I’ve been active a lot this weekend but, physio aside, none of it has been something I’d call exercise. Saturday mornings I go to Aikido where I practice and I train. The emphasis is on skill development and training seems to me to be the right word. True, I got really hot and sweaty during hajime training but getting hot and sweaty wasn’t the point. Moving fast, without thinking, putting the techniques in ‘body memory’ was.

Saturday afternoon I had a soccer game. We lost against the Chocolate Martinis. (An aside: I think nothing screams ‘middle aged women playing soccer’ quite like the team names. Last week we won against Cougartown.) Was that exercise? I ran fast and played hard but I wouldn’t describe what I was doing as exercise. I was playing. We were competing. Yes, it’s a recreational league but we do play to win. In the end we lost but we had a lot of fun.

And Sunday morning I’ll be at the rowing club for an early morning erg session. Again, there’s a lot of technique involved and I think of it as training, not exercise per se. For example, we did a really challenging drill Thursday night trying to match a pace slightly above our 2 km test pace but with a much slower stroke rate. Tough work and really hard to concentrate on technique. Usually my bike ride home from rowing is much slower than my pace on the way there.

Most weekends I also take my dog out for a 5 km + hike in the woods. Usually we run together. I love being outside and I like the feeling of running on trails in the woods.

So Aikido, soccer, rowing, bike riding, and dog-jogging. But no exercise?

I’d say in one sense that’s right. I do these things because they’re fun, a big part of what I think of as the good life. I spend a lot of time as an academic in my head, with words, books, and ideas but being physical really matters. It’s a key part of who I am.

No wonder inactive people are put off by The Biggest Loser’s participants. Those people are not having any fun. It’s joyless. They are exercising for one reason and one reason only, to lose weight. If that were my reason, I’d have quit a long time ago.

My advice to people who want to be more active is to find something you love, something you enjoy, something you’d do anyway even if you didn’t lose weight. We need to experience more joy in our lives, joy in moving our bodies in ways that feel good.

For you, that might be dance, yoga, walking, or gardening.

For me, I’m a competitive person and I like races and games with winners and losers. I also like skill development and getting better at something, like testing for new belts in Aikido, crit interval drills on the bike, or learning the technique involved in rowing.

It’s clear with cycling, the sport I love best, that it’s not medicinal exercise, taken in daily doses for health related reasons. Instead, at various times I’ve trained and raced. These days more often I ride for fun with friends. I also often commute on my bike and use it for practical transportation.

Even Crossfit–the one thing I do to which the term ‘workout’ really applies–has both a skill building (weight training, Olympic lifting) and a competitive element. It’s ‘as many reps as possible’ or ‘so many reps for time.’ I usually focus on competing with myself but other people there seriously train for the Crossfit games.

If exercise, as a term, works for you, great. But for many of us it misses the mark.  For us, let’s ditch talk of exercise and talk instead about all the fun physical activities that are part of the good life. I think sharing the joy in physical activity is a better route to getting more people moving than in prescribing exercise in medicinal doses.


More Thoughts on Goals

I just got back from a writing residency at the Banff Centre. I had a number of projects on the go. The biggest was my participation in NaNoWriMo (aka National Novel Writing Month). That’s an initiative whereby tens (or hundreds) of thousands of people commit to trying to crank out a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. I wanted to get a good start on the 50,000 words needed to “win.”

Having just two weeks in Banff gave me a deadline that I used to propel me on to maximum productivity. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but a few days into NaNoWriMo I realized I could, realistically (while in Banff, not in my regular life), write about 5,000 words a day.

This experience gave me a new respect for and understanding of the power of goals. Not only did I meet the goal almost every day (but for one), I managed to complete my 50,000 words in just ten days. I would not have accomplished this without the goal.

How does this apply to fitness?  When I first started blogging back in September, I claimed to be anti-goals.  At the time, I had what I called “goal-resistance.”  But this experience with NaNoWriMo over the past couple of weeks showed me how powerful a motivator a goal can be.

When I got home, I made some definite commitments in my training. First, on my trainer’s advice I am going to introduce intervals into my running. Second, I have now officially begun the “ease into 10K” program in the hopes of being able to run a 10K relatively comfortably by mid to late January.  If these goals operate anything like the 50,000 words / 5,000 a day goal did, then simply having the goal will get me out the door on days when I otherwise would not go.

I am also re-committed to my goal of altering my body composition (reducing the percentage of fat and increasing the percentage of lean mass).  I hope that having a specific goal in mind for this (25%), with a timeline (by February 1, 2013), will keep me making good choices at all the holiday parties ahead.

I’m sure this is basic commonsense to many people. But to me, I feel like I’ve re-discovered the positive side of goals. Rather than feeling like traps, they now feel once again like positive ends that will keep me focused.

body image · fitness · weight loss

Why I left Goodlife Fitness some years ago

The recent post on Five Things Every Gym Should be Doing reminded of me of why I abandoned the last traditional fitness centre of which I was a member. I blogged about it then, in 2006. I decided to re-post it here, since the reasons still largely apply:

Goodbye Goodlife

This week I said goodbye to my health club membership. In part, it’s for the usual reason. I am not there enough to justify the cost. I have a Y membership and like lifting weights at the Y better–more free weights and less attitude.  I also prefer my cardio outdoors–biking, cross country skiing, running along the river. And I’ve fallen in love with the Velodrome and track biking. Pure speed and pleasure. Yum.

But I did love the Bodyflow classes at Goodlife–nice mix of tai chai, yoga, and pilates. Fast paced for attention deficit disorder exercisers  like me. If I could have tele-transported into the classes, avoiding the ads and the locker room, I’d have done it. But I really couldn’t take  the emphasis on weight loss and physical beauty, where that means skinny and 20. It wasn’t even presented as one of the many goals one might have.

I’m okay with some people wanting to lose weight and that being their reason for going to the gym. It’s one goal among many: get faster, lift your kids without pain, staying flexible and keeping your balance in your 80s…. But the quest for the perfect body and weight loss was the only thing promoted in the women’s change room.

I love the Y locker room for its range of body shapes and sizes, tattoos and wrinkles, all ages, physical and mental abilities. In Goodlife the mostly pretty, mostly 20-35 year old, women hid behind towels. Too modest for me. I made a point of stripping naked there, walking across the room, and talking to friends naked, any excuse to change the norm.

Anyway, I complained about the weight loss posters. Emailed head office. No reply. Talked lots to my friends and to the instructors and got sympathy but no progress.

A staff member at work tried their weight loss program which consisted of a 1400 calorie a day starvation diet. She was told she’d be too weak some days to do much exercise.

Final straw? A spin class instructor-skinny minnie–talking to a class about how fat she was and how many calories we’d burn in an hour. Did I care? No. I was there as a cyclist to maintain speed, fitness over the winter. She was the thinnest person there! Did she think the women in that class would find that motivational?

ARGH. I quit. Having discovered what I love about being fit and about exercise–speed,the outdoors, being strong, going fast and hard for as long as I can–I thought I could reenter a traditional gym and keep my healthy body image intact. I was wrong.

Bye bye Goodlife.

body image · health · weight loss

Five Things Every Gym Should Already Be Doing

Five Things Every Gym Should Already Be Doing.

Great post from the terrific blog, Dances With Fat: Health Comes in All Shapes and Sizes.

Here’s my favorite bit:

Put the Focus on Health: Research shows us that while movement is really bad at creating weight loss, it is really good at supporting health. Instead of selling people a cardio room and a bag of magic weight loss beans, your gym should be educating people about the actual possible benefits of exercise.  I would suggest starting by offering to measure things other than weight.  Offering tests like VO2 Max scores, blood panel, strength, stamina, flexibility etc.  People could choose the baseline tests they want at the beginning and then take them again three. six months in etc. to see if there are any changes.  That way people wouldn’t think that exercise is “failing” just because they aren’t losing weight.

I had V02 max testing done a few years ago. Maybe it’s time to get it redone?
You can watch it here, V02 max, the movie!
body image · Crossfit · weight lifting · weight loss

Six Things I Love about CrossFit and Six Things I’m Not So Sure About

I started CrossFit in Dunedin, New Zealand at the end of the cycling season in March 2012. It was NZ autumn and days were starting to get cold-ish and wet. I didn’t want to join a traditional gym, running in Dunedin didn’t much appeal (hills, hills and more hills) and I’d been hearing the buzz about CrossFit for awhile.

Being the academic, geeky sort I did a lot of reading in advance and so psychologically at least I was ready for what they offered. I had fun moving from CrossFit women (my gateway program of choice) to regular CrossFit classes and then started at CrossFit London just a few days after my long flight across the ocean and a dateline. I thought I’d share here what I like most about this style of training and what I’m still unsure about.

Six Things I Love

1. Wow, Women, and Weights: I’ve been lifting weights–free weights, as some people say–since I took Fundamentals of Weight Training for academic credit at the University of Illinois in the 1st year of my PhD in 1988. I had a tuition waiver, so why not? I also took Intro to Sailing the next semester. The only small hitch was that I  got a B (my only grad school B) and it’s listed on my transcript as just “Fundamentals” so when I was on the academic job market I ended explaining to places that requested my transcript that it wasn’t logic or metaphysics.

I love lifting weights. I decided back then, in my mid twenties, that if I was going to be big I was also going to be strong. But I’ve never had much female company in the weight room. Don’t get me wrong. Those really muscly, very inked men in the weight room at the Y have been incredibly warm and welcoming and helpful through the years–they are some of the nicest and most gentle people at the gym– but I’ve always felt a bit of an oddball.

CrossFit is different. The gender ratio is about 50-50 most days and the women are strong and powerful. It’s so refreshing to see so many women lifting weights. Lots of them are lots stronger than me and that just makes me smile. I feel like I’ve found my people!

2. The Workouts: Intensity, Variety, Scalability

CrossFit workouts are intense. There’s nothing else like them. Burpees, box jumps, medicine ball throws, pull ups, sprinting, rowing, with some Olympic weight lifting thrown in for good measure. There’s also never a dull day. The workouts change every day and you just don’t know what to expect. Also, all of the efforts can be scaled to your ability. You might not be able to do pull ups (lots of people can’t) but you can do jumping pull ups or banded pull ups (with a big elastic band for assistance). So there is always a place to start and a place to move up to. That ability to measure, set targets, achieve goals really appeals to me.

They combine two things I’ve written about before as essential elements of good training programs, high intensity and heavy weights.

As Speedy joked at CrossFit Dunedin, “If you want to walk on a treadmill for hours and watch television there’s a Les Mills gym across the street with lots of that going on.”

3. The Teachers: Excellent careful instruction, nice ratio of instructors to students, and people who are really committed. Thanks Rachel, Grant and Speedy and Dave!

4. The Community: Yes, I own my own kettlebell and I could jump up on to my deck instead of doing  box jumps and I could do burpees and sprint out in front of my house. Would I? No. Certainly I’d never do them as fast. I love that the CrossFit participants cheer one another on. It’s an incredibly supportive and motivating workout environment.

5. It Works: My body has changed a lot since starting CrossFit. What most people want to know is whether I’ve lost weight and the answer is not very much. More than 5 lbs, fewer than 10. But I’m down a clothes size and I have all these brand new muscles in my core. I’ve had muscular arms and shoulders and legs for years but these muscles are new. I move more easily. I notice that it’s a lot easier to fall and get back up at Aikido. In fact, everything is easier, from running to picking up heavy things around the house.

6. I love kettlebells!

Six Things I’m Not So Sure About

1. The jargon: Again, I did my research so WOD didn’t throw me. It’s Workout of the Day. Rx is the recommended weight. AMRAP is as many reps as possible. And so on… It’s useful shorthand but the jargon can feel like it’s meant to exclude beginners from those in the know. There are lots of guides to CrossFit lingo out there but really, it shouldn’t be necessary.

2. Fitting it all in: I do CrossFit in the morning, three times a week in theory, and then lots of other stuff too (Aikido, rowing, bike riding, running, soccer) and sometimes the CrossFit weight workouts leave me too sore to do the other things I love to do. It’s a challenge for those of us who do CrossFit and something else to fit everything in. But that’s true I think for weight training in general.

3. Where are the older women? There are lots of women but not very many older women. Often I’m the only women not in her 20s! Most days there are women in the 30s as well but I’ve only met a few women in their 40s and 50s, both here and in NZ. No wonder the other women run faster than me. I read inspirational stories about CrossFitting grandmas but I haven’t met one yet. This is my favourite. I like her functional fitness goals.

Three years ago, Jean Stewart began to feel old. A proud woman, she realized she needed to make a change in her life to improve her long-term health.

“I see people who are stooped over and old, in their 60s and 70s,” Stewart says. “I don’t want to be that way. I was losing function for everyday living, stooped over and lifting things improperly. I just wanted to live my life (and be) healthy.”

As a retired physical education teacher, she’s always had a passion for fitness, but became bored in physical therapy-type exercise classes. Worst of all, she was tired of being treated like an old person who was incapable of physical activity. So, at the age of 83, Stewart decided to reinvent herself.

“She came walking into the gym with our newspaper ad folded under her arm and handed it to us,” remembers Cheryl Cohen, founder, owner and head trainer of Desert CrossFit in Palm Desert, Calif. “I asked her what she wanted from CrossFit and she said, ‘Well, I would like an easier time in the garden, getting down and getting back up again. I’d like to be able to move the 20-lb. bag of potting soil.’”

4. Paleo diets: I am a vegetarian, aspiring vegan, so not an ideal candidate for the caveman diet. I’m also not big fan of dietary dogma. I like the slogan over at Go Kaleo: “Eat real food. Move around a lot. Lift heavy things. And skip the kool-aid.” And besides there’s a fair bit of evidence our human ancestors were nearly all vegetarians.

5. I like to train hard while smiling and laughing as much as the next person but sometimes there’s a bit too much gallows humour around the CrossFit workouts that I worry puts off new people. At least, would put off new people who aren’t into pain and suffering. CrossFit tshirts exemplify this with slogans like the following: Embrace the Pain; Become the Machine; Your workout is my warmup; CrossFit on front, on back: “Hard. Fast. No Cuddling After”; Yes, you will pass out before you die.

This is my favourite though: On women’s shirts with image of weights–“I don’t cook, I clean.”

6. Why do the workouts get women’s names? Chelsea is 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, 15 squats, On The Minute Every Minute For 30 Minutes. There’s also Fran, Angie, Barbara etc.

If you’re in London and want to give CrossFit a try, there is a free ‘give it a try’ class every week. You can register here.

ergonomics · fitness

Ergonomics and Fitness

Three years ago I had a winter driving accident that left me with lasting neck, shoulder and upper back issues on one side of my body. The treatment plan at the time included one of the best things I’ve ever done: an ergonomic assessment of my desk set-up (at home and at the office). What a gift!

The occupational therapist came to my office and then my home. In both places, I couldn’t have had it more wrong. And not just for managing the injury, but in general. My keyboard was way too low.  My monitor placement put undue strain on my neck. My chair height wasn’t high enough and the back of my chair wasn’t low enough to give me lumbar support. I needed a footrest and a document stand for reading. The OT warned against using a lap top as my regular computer — a lesson I had learned some years before when my home desktop choked.

For the past ten days I’ve been away from home on a writing retreat. I’m writing a LOT (averaging just over 5000 words a day). But my desk set-up is not ergonomically sound. I’m using a laptop. If I set it on the desk or table, the keyboard is too high and my monitor too low.  If I set it on my lap, the keyboard is too low and the monitor is WAY too low.  I’m doing battle with my chair. The back of it is seized into place, so I can’t adjust it properly for lumbar support. I can adjust the seat, but not quite to the right height. When I get as close as I can to optimal seat height, my feet don’t touch the ground.

The set-up is taking its toll even on my reasonably fit body.

Today I woke up with my upper back and neck all seized up in a knot, as unyielding as that chair back. I am fortunate that the facility I’m at has a team of Registered Massage Therapists.  This morning I went for a deep tissue massage. The sweet (oh so wonderful!) relief it delivered lasted as long as I was there.

But my muscles still feel strained. The three-year old injury has flared up the past few days like never before. The RMT, noticing my distress and feeling the knots in my upper back as she worked on me this morning, showed me some neck stretching exercises to do.

Throughout my stay, I have gotten up from my desk regularly. Every day I do something — go to the gym for weight training or do some form of activity every day (yoga or swimming or weight training or running or the elliptical trainer) or both. Samantha is a big proponent of the standing desk. But right now that’s just not available to me.

I miss the sound ergonomics of my familiar set-up.  Sitting is just the half of it. No amount of fitness can make up for hours a day at a computer work station that forces your body into a difficult posture.

[image is from Guide to Setting Up and Ergonomic Computer Station, by Chris Adams]


Row, row, row your boat! (Trying something new)

One of my goals in the “fittest at fifty” campaign is to try a brand new sport or physical activity. I’ve often admired rowers–it looks so beautiful and like cyclists, they get to play outside in the sunrise. I love watching people at rowing practice as I ride along river and lakeside bike paths. But it’s nothing I’ve ever done before.

An aside: I’ve been tempted in the past to try rowing but been put off by weight categories. Light weight rowers are tiny. I think the cut off might be 130 lbs for women. But the heavyweights tend to Amazon proportions. Often they’re 6 ft tall or more. When I was younger I would’ve been strongly encouraged to “make weight” to row as a light weight, I think. I’m only 5’7 and in theory that’s doable. Not without ditching some muscle these days. As I mentioned in an earlier post I’m currently 122 lbs of lean muscle and bone.

But I think that matters less as a Masters level rower and competing for fun. At the encouragement of a friend, I attended two sessions this week at the London Rowing Club and I’ve joined their Off-Water Masters Program as a beginner. Our first coached day covered basic erg technique (like this, 7 Steps To Seriously Effective Erg Technique). Since it’s Canada in the autumn/winter we’re inside for quite a few months though they also have a tank to practice in-water technique. Rowing turns out to be very technical. (You experienced rowers can insert knowing chuckle here.) Lots and lots to learn (I like that) and I think I’ll never be able to look at people using the rowing machines at the gym the same way again.

The second day was our first 2 km erg test. Here I discovered that rowers and cyclists have something in common, a love of suffering! So that’s one transferable skill from cycling.

Since I have no shame and part of the joy of a new sport is I have no idea how bad this is, I’m happy to share my results here. I’m a beginner again, I love that. In fact, I think it’s one of the best things about being in reasonably good shape is that you can try new sports and activities and focus on technique rather than the fitness barrier. We’re going to repeat these monthly and results are posted on the bulletin board at the club so we can track progress. I’m just a little bit competitive (even if just with myself) so I like that. 🙂

Here’s my November 2 km erg time and splits

110 drag factor
2 km time 8:45.4
avg split 2:11.4

400 m 2:00

800 m 212.6
1200 m 217.2
1600 213.8
2000 212.8

What I really like: There’s a keen coach. I need that. Like cyclists, rowers like to suffer and that matches my sports profile. A time trial is a time trial.  There’s also lots of women my age.

What I’m not so sure about: It’s more indoor exercising which isn’t really my thing. I worry the technique might be too tricky to acquire at my age. I’ll report back.

In the meantime, I’m watching videos like the one below on proper erg technique.


fat · fitness · weight lifting · weight loss

Science, exercise, and weight loss: when our bodies scheme against us

I love it (okay, not really, need sarcasm font) when people suggest to me that to lose weight, I should get a bit of exercise, you know, walk more, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. When I tried Weight Watchers for the very last time they gave handy hints like getting off the bus one stop early and walking to your destination. (Um, I ride my bike to work most days. I ride hundreds of kilometers a week, in addition, for fun when the weather is good. How does that fit in?)

Of course, this advice is always from well-meaning people who don’t know me. Those who know me, know that I work out at a variety of sports and physical activities most days of the week, often twice a day. I run, ride my bike, play soccer, lift weights, practice Aikido, and most recently have taken up Crossfit. And yet, I’m very overweight. Fat, big, call it what you will.

How on earth can this be? Newcomers to cycling sometimes say “Oh keep riding the bike and you’ll lose weight,” thinking I’m new too. (I like passing those people, zoom!) Sometimes I’m aware I actually put other fat women off exercise because they are starting to exercise in order to lose weight and then they see me, and think it’s all pointless. But I don’t exercise to lose weight. My experience tells me that, on its own, it doesn’t do very much.

So why doesn’t exercise help with weight loss? (Or to put the question precisely, why doesn’t it help as much as it seems it ought to, when you consider the calories burned in our efforts at fitness?) Given my interests and personality type–geek, academic, fitness buff–I’ve read rather a  lot about this question.

There are a number of different answers.

The first answer is simple and it’s probably that first thing that came to your mind: when we exercise, we eat more. Indeed, if you care about performance and recovery, you need and ought to eat more. I was once told by a cycling coach that it’s foolish to try to lose weight during the racing season. Not eating enough–which is what you need to do to lose weight–cuts your speed and your recovery. Diet in the off season when you’re just riding for fun, he said. Don’t hurt your performance by dieting.

But there’s another answer that I find intriguing. Our bodies’ efforts at maintaining weight are ingenious. It turns out that when we exercise more, we also move less the rest of the day. This isn’t intentional. It isn’t anything we decide to do. The idea is that our bodies decide for us.

I’m interested, and fascinated by, the way our bodies undercut our best efforts. Heavy exercisers, it turns out, often move less the rest of the day and so burn not that many more calories than if they hadn’t exercised at all. When not exercising, they’re chronic sitters!

The study which sets out to prove this is cited in the Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First 20 Minutes  and she writes about it in her New York Times Phys Ed blog too. Following a group of young men assigned to a heavy exercise program, researchers were surprised at how little weight they lost. Yes, they ate more but more surprisingly, “They also were resolutely inactive in the hours outside of exercise, the motion sensors show. When they weren’t working out, they were, for the most part, sitting. “I think they were fatigued,” Mr. Rosenkilde says.”

Some people say we ought to “listen to our bodies.” But in my experience our bodies are sneaky experts at staying the same size. They need to be ready for feasts and famines and those women with extra body fat are more reproductively successful.

It’s another argument in favour of short, sharp, intense Crossfit style workouts since they don’t seem to have this effect. Once again, it’s High Intensity Interval Training (HIT) for the win. Thirty minutes, says Reynolds, is the sweet spot for exercise.

And it’s yet one more argument against sitting.

Some personal observations:

  • In the past I’ve been a big fan of the hard exercise followed by flopping! It’s when I write best, physically exhausted and mentally alert. Without exercise, I’m a big fidgeter and pacer in a career that rewards focus, concentration, and long bouts of sitting. Now I’m working at a standing desk (at home anyway) and I’m liking the change. I’m also trying to incorporate more movement throughout my day. 
  • This puts me in a mind of a discussion members of my bike club used to have about our long Saturday morning rides. Some of us thought we ought to have shorter routes, say 100 km rather than 150 km, not because we couldn’t ride 150 km but rather because we wanted to do things with our families afterwards. The extra kilometers tipped us past the point where much was possible after other than a nap, a bath, and lounging about the house. It seemed all wrong to come home and then tell the kids that I couldn’t go to the park, go for a bike ride (yikes!), or walk the dog because I was too tired from all the bike riding!
  • While exercising itself doesn’t make much difference, changing your body composition does. A body with more muscle burns more calories throughout the day and so there’s good reasons to lift heavy weights. I know lots of women do long, slow cardio to lose weight (you know, the “fat loss” button on the exercise machine at the gym) but science says they ought to be lifting weights instead to get lean.
  • In terms of appetite, I think HIT is right on. Long, slow runs and bike rides make me famished. I can control what I eat after but it takes tremendous effort. Endurance exercise makes me hungry, whereas intense efforts have just the opposite effect.
  • Of course, why listen to a big person talk about exercise and weight loss? The truth is I’m terrific at weight loss. I’ve lost 50-70 lbs quite a few times. I’m a failure at maintaining the new lower weight, but that’s a puzzle for another time.