Wednesday, June 18, 2008

This Post Is Pretty Boring. No, Really.

I’ve been following the Food Guide Pyramid, exercising differently, reading about the wickedly hard workout known as “interval training”, and learning surprising new things in the process.

I decided to follow Uncle Sam’s nutrition advice to the T, committing to really Do This Thing if I’m going to bother. Surprise number one was that I wasn’t eating enough food. That’s right. I was eating small volumes of supremely healthy food, and then, at the late-afternoon energy crash and grumbling tummy time, filling up on Famous Amos cookies, cheese, peanut butter. Now I’m eating a helluva lot more food, but it’s not as calorie-dense, so I’m eating fewer calories total. Who would’ve guessed?

Pyramid lesson number two was that, although I ate animal protein but twice a week, I was still eating way more protein than I require. I’m practically a vegetarian compared to most people I know, and yet, I was consuming too much, between tofu, tempeh, lentils, one weekly portion of fish, and one weekly portion of chicken. I’ve cut way back on the “Meat and Beans” and increased my intake of whole grains, and I have more zip. As G. cleverly observed last night, protein builds muscle. Unless you’re a teenager or a professional body builder, you probably don’t need all that much protein.

Onto exercise. Interval training is hard. Deadly difficult. I consider myself in decent cardio shape, what with the hour-long, nonstop-movement Nia (dance) classes, the walking, and the volleyball, but a mere 26 minutes of interval training kicked my ass. I wondered why. I looked it up online. I didn’t understand all the jargon (VO2 max? huh?), but I came to understand that intense, short-duration cardio (such as interval training) burns more calories and trains the muscles and cardiovascular system in a totally different way than longer-duration, lower-intensity cardio. (It also has the nice benefit of being a shorter workout.)

This investigation lead me to the concept of specificity. Basically, when you train your muscles to use oxygen for one activity, it does not train them at all for using oxygen in another activity. For example, a fit swimmer has great cardiovascular endurance for swimming, but take her out of the pool and that trained, fit body does not know how to run. She will huff and puff. In other words, my volleyball, walking, and dance did not train my body for intense intervals (or for any intense, short-duration cardio exercise). It trained my body for volleyball, walking, and dance.

Turns out that short-duration, intense cardio is much better for weight loss. It burns more calories than low-intensity cardio and causes the body to continue to burn more calories after the workout than does low-intensity cardio. Plus there was some benefit I didn’t understand about how it makes the body use specifically fat stores more quickly than does low-intensity cardio, something about VO2 max and anaerobic thresholds. Low-intensity, longer-duration cardio (like Nia class, or marathon running, or distance swimming) teaches the body to use up fat stores in a different way. A slower burn or something. I didn’t really get it. Don’t ask me to explain. Don’t quote me.

Next: weight lifting v cardio. Weight lifting is important, but it turns out that no matter how much one defines his muscles, that won’t be apparent if they are covered with a layer of subcutaneous fat. For those who need to lose fat, such as yours truly, the method seems to be more cardio than weights, with cardio 4x/week and weight training only 2-3x/week. However, for a thin rail of a person, more weights and less cardio is recommended.

I never intended to have a weight loss blog; I just find this new info fascinating. Thank you for your patience. For the next post, I will write about music. Who wants to read this much about exercise physiology? Come back soon.


Ann said...

Hey, I'm not bored at all! Maybe it's because I'm sorta kinda trying to go through the same process...

One thing I learned is that there's a point at which your body stops burning fat and begins burning sugar/muscle, and that that point is different for everyone. So if you work too hard, you might not lose weight, because you aren't burning the right sort of calories.

Or something. The entire subject seems like it takes years and years to fully understand. I'm quickly coming to the opinion, however, that it is not just a matter of expending more calories than you take in (or rather that the way such calories are absorbed and used varies from person to person). There's a lot more context and nuance to it than simply eating less, exercising more.

Larry Jones said...

Not the least bit boring! Now I know what my track coach was talking about when he told us distance runners to "stay out of the pool." I really didn't think he was that knowledgeable, but I guess you never know...

kStyle said...

Ann: Interesting! Do you know the name of the point at which the body switches from burning fat to burning muscle? I'd like to read up on it.

I agree, more movement/less food is a simplistic formula. It probably basically works, but there's more to efficient getting-in-shape.

Larry: Thanks for the affirmation! That's interesting, I didn't think that cross-training was a bad thing, but I guess he wanted lean, mean runnin' machines.

Narya said...

I find it interesting, too, and not just because I've done a wide variety of stuff--and have been REALLY REALLY MISSING the intensity of handball. Any exercise is better than no exercise, but I miss the intensity, both physically and mentally.

I think the "eat less; exercise more" thing is more for people who (a) sit on their butts and/or (b) eat nothing but crap and/or (c) keep trying wacky fad diets. On that level, the simplicity of ELEM helps get people started--but you're past that level.

kStyle said...

Narya: What you say makes sense.

I think it's time for you to find a handball game, no excuses. ;)

Ann said...

The EMR is the exercise metabolic rate. You can read a bit more about it here. You can also Google "emr heart metabolic."