Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Secret is: There is no Secret

In a year loaded with milestones, here we are sharing yet another with you.  As we approach the end of 2013, this is our 50th published post this year since we began 40SomethingFitness.  I truly hope that we've been able to reach and help you in your journey to health, connecting in some way that made a difference.  At the very least, hopefully it's been entertaining along the way.

I recently spoke with a colleague I've known for several years.  He was there when my career turned to web design.  He's a fellow veteran, a former American Forces Network journalist, and an outstanding resource when it comes to media and copywriting.  He's been following the blog pretty much from the start.  Needless to say, I respect his opinion. 

I asked him for feedback about the blog.  His response: our writing is "a little complicated".  


I stewed on that for a while.  It took me a little by surprise.  Our whole mission has been to help people like us - people with no nutritional or medical background - to see that taking control of your health is really very simple.  That the pop fitness industry depends on the idea that it's too complicated for you to do on your own.  

But, ask a silly question....  I have seen more businesses go down simply because they didn't accept one fundamental truth:  "The customer is always right." So - I'm determined to roll up my sleeves and dig back in again, with the core message back to where we started.  The secret is: there is no secret.

Three things are all you need.
Our first trainer, Nick, gave us the best advice in our first week with him:  "Protein and vegetables, protein and vegetables, protein and vegetables."  Even after all we've learned about nutrition, metabolism, and training, this holds true.  Whether you follow Paleo, low carb, keto, gluten-free, or even low-cal, "protein and veg" fits your plan.  The fact is, most people would find it difficult to overeat on a menu that featured protein and vegetables as the "star" of the show.

Don't exercise; train.  When you hit the gym (or your basement, or wherever you get your sweat on), ditch the idea that putting in the time will get you the results you want.  Progress every day.  Whether that means faster, longer, or heavier, you need to push yourself to get better.  Having a goal helps, but progress is what really matters.  

Rest and recover.  We don't sleep enough.  Period.  This keeps your body playing "catch-up" day after day, week after week, year after year.  Sleeping and down time are every bit as important to your health as diet and exercise.

That's it:  Eat, Lift, Sleep, Repeat.  The last 49 posts and a host of resources out there will explain why and how it works.  But, at the end of the day, all that really matters is that it works. 

So, what's next?
As we wrap up our year together, it's normal to take a look at how far we've come and where we are going.  Fifty posts encompasses a lot of information.  Did we hit the mark?  Did you find what you need?  Or are there more questions - more specific individual needs - that we can shed light on to help you become the best you can be?

Only you can answer that.  After all, the customer is always right.  

Starting now and through 2014, 40SomethingFitness will become a "dia-blog", where you, our readers shape the conversation.  Whether you want individualized help or advice, or need a topic broken down into plain English, you set the tone.  Tell us what you need.  Start with the comments section on this post, or contact us directly on Google+, Facebook, or Fitocracy.  We'll do what we can to respond to every question.

We're also going to add more media this year.  Video blogs on YouTube will give us the chance to mix some "short and sweet" topics with the more technical stuff that might be better as a written article.  

So, as we sign off, please accept our thanks for your support this year; it has been humbling.  And also accept our very best wishes for your success in the coming year.  We look forward to an exciting 2014 right here with you. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Overweight: The Stress Connection Unraveled

In the course of the last year, we've learned and shared a lot with you.  We've uncovered the basics of less than meets the eye.
metabolism and energy consumption.  We've looked at scams and myths and into the tendency of people to overstate the virtue of a food, nutrient, or ingredient simply to sell their product.  We even looked into the relationship between genetics and obesity.  Often, once we peeled back the layers, we found there was a whole lot

But today's topic is not one of those.  Stress is a big deal and is a very real player in the health of an individual.  And that makes it worth talking about. 

It's become conventional wisdom that cortisol is "bad".  (Ugh - I really hate these kinds of binary labels).  But how does cortisol work on the body?  Understanding this mechanism is the first step in grasping the impact of stress.

Cortisol is produced in the adrenal gland in response to stimulation messages from the hypothalamus. The adrenal gland's better-known function is to produce the hormone adrenaline which kicks off that critical-to-survival "fight or flight" response.  This is the ultimate stress response.  Think of cortisol as adrenaline's annoying little brother.  Not quite as cool, not quite as strong, but always around.  In fact, cortisol follows a natural circadian rhythym - naturally highest in the morning and gradually decreasing throughout the day, hitting a low point at bedtime.  This has some interesting implications for night-shift workers, but that's probably another post.

Just like adrenaline creates an all-out response of the body's key survival functions, cortisol signals the body to go into a form of "preservation mode".  Essentially it's a metabolic depressant.  The release of cortisol reduces your body's conumption of blood glucose, desensitizing insulin receptors, and signals the release of enzymes to release potential energy from alternate sources, like muscle tissue.  It signals your body, saying "we don't know what's happening here, or how long it's going to go on, but we're ready for the long haul."  If you've read some of our other posts about metabolic syndrome, improving your metabolism, or even carbohydrates in general, you start to see where cortisol levels can wreak havoc on a person's weight loss goals.  

And, like adrenaline, cortisol levels are spiked in response to external stimulus.  But instead of a survival threat, cortisol release is triggered by a broad and murky mix of stimuli we lump together under the title "stress".  And, like just about everything else in the human body, stress can be a positive motivator or a chronic debilitator.  So, how do you tell the difference?

Unravelling Stress
Stress is one of those wonderful words that everyone understands, but just about everyone defines differently.  This points to the fact that people perceive specific stressors quite differently.  And, if stress is in the eye of the beholder, how can we possibly hope to classify "good" stress as opposed to "bad" stress?  Science, it turns out, has been working hard on this very question.

According to a meta-analysis of 208 different studies on cortisol responses in humans and animals, there are two key factors that determine whether a situation is stressful or not: uncontrollability and social/evaluative threat.  Let's look at each separately. 

Clearly  nobody is in control here.
Uncontrollability:  This aspect of stress describes whether or not a behavioral change will have any impact on the outcome of an event.  In animal trials, mice who had control over a negative sound response (the buzzer rings when I decide to take the food) had much lower stress responses than those who had no control (the buzzer rings whether I take the food or not).  These same results were reflected in numerous human trials; if the subject perceived they could do something to change the outcome, their stress responses were much lower than those who didn't.

Social/evaluative threat:  As we said before, adrenaline is a survival response.  But a person's social survival (i.e. preservation of one's perception/status in a group) is no less important.  In the studies, tasks that presented a significant "threat" of being regarded or evaluated negatively by others, particularly in an aspect where the person held particular importance or the stakes were personal well-being, the stress response spiked significantly.  Interestingly, in studies of social primates, the submissive members of the clan consistently showed higher levels of cortisol than the dominant leaders.

What's more, stressors that exhibited both uncontrollability and a social/evaluative threat compounded the stress response and the stress response lasted longer than either stressor alone.  Now, I don't know about you, but I can't imagine anything that fits the bill better than a person who has tried and struggled with their weight each and every time they walk out their front door.

Some things that turn out to not significantly predict stressfulness in terms of cortisol response:

  • Duration of stressor.  People were either "stressed" or "not stressed" and for how long didn't relate to the level of stress response.
  • Type of task.  This is a tricky one.  Some tasks are inherently uncontrollable or present a social/evaluative threat (public speaking, for instance), so it can appear that a task, in and of itself, might produce a more significant response.  But when the studies controlled for these elements, the type of task was not predictive.  I'm one of those weird people who actually enjoys public speaking.  But hook up a camera or have my boss unexpectedly show up, and it's a whole different ball game.

The Stress Response
So, given the idea that uncontrollability and social/evaluative threats are the key elements of  negative stressors that elicit the strongest stress response, how do you tell when you're experiencing (or likely to experience) a negative stressor?  This is where I depart from the science and travel out on the limb of my own experience.  Thinking back on these kinds of events in my own life, the signs were clear: worry, over-thinking, heightened response (loud, over-expressive, quick to conclusions), and then there's the physical part.  My hands sweat.  Another thing that I seem to do is anticipate conflict and then start planning to argue.  Basically I start having emotional reactions to logical problems.  

Physiologically, if cortisol spiking signals the body to slow the processing of nutrients and be ready to borrow essential energy from muscle tissue, then "stress eating" (guilty, by the way) is about the worst thing you could do for your body.  This is a prime condition for fat storage.  Studies show that the effects of cortisol last less than an hour, so if you can hold off your urges for that long, your metabolic balance will be back to normal.

The point is, learn to recognize your own stress responses and realize where they are coming from.  Do you feel out of control?  Is your social (including professional) status threatened?  What are the warning signs and are there ways you can re-position the situation to put yourself back in your "happy place"?

Tackling Stress in Your Life
So far, we've established that elevated cortisol levels will suppress your natural metabolism.  Chronically elevated stress is definitely not healthy for your body and will ultimately derail weight loss goals.  Uncontrolled situations and the threat to a person's social status are the kinds of stressors that produce a strong cortisol response.  

I have long been a proponent of a simple life and believe in the principle that "less is more".  But it was only in the last couple of years that I took a determined look at my own life and did a "cost/benefit analysis" of each and every one of my commitments and obligations.  For me, the simple act of actively deciding what to keep and what to let go in my daily life was a tremendous relief.  We wrap ourselves up in so many things that many of us lose all perspective on what it is we actually "have" to do. 

There's really no way around it: if it doesn't involve feeding, sheltering, or clothing yourself or your family, you don't necessarily have to do it.

Once you've gone through the exercise of deliberately evaluating all the stuff you have in your life, you're on your way to seriously reducing the impact of uncontrollability.  Even if there are things that you choose to keep doing which are unpleasant, it's your choice and you're reminded of the reasons for your choice.  That puts you back in the driver's seat.  

I can hear you now through the interwebz, "Michael, that's all fine and good, but it's just not realistic.  There's no way you can eliminate all stressors."  And, gentle reader, you'd be right.  Some things are just plain unavoidable.  But, when those stressors come, I do believe there are a couple of important things you can do to deal with them.

Redefine "control".  This is serenity prayer stuff, right?  What factors can you control in a stressful situation?  If you can't control it, will that factor cause you physical or material harm?  Can you decide that factor is irrelevant to you in the bigger picture?  And, of course, "the wisdom to know the difference."

Be mindful about who's opinion/evaluation you value.  Often, we give others a great deal of power over our self-esteem without even knowing it.  Take that power back.  The circle of people whose assessments of me affect my self-worth is alarmingly small.  And, even then, the context is pretty specific.

"Let the air out."  What are the real stakes in your stressful situation?  Are you going to lose your livelihood?  Will you be harmed?  Will you be impeded in goals that are truly important to you?  Or is it simply unpleasant?  

Finally, when it comes to weight loss in particular, get informed.  The more you know about nutrition, the science behind different kinds of training, the more tools you have at your disposal to achieve your goals.  You'll be in control of your body again - to make it whatever you want it to be.  And realize that things take time.  We didn't get in the shape we are in overnight and our bodies are going to take time to remake.  You are in control - but you have to obey the laws of physics and the basics of human biology.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Get Ready to Be Uncomfortable

Not this kind of uncomfortable...
Today, I'd like to share with you what I think is the real secret to the success Michelle and I have enjoyed in our fitness journey.  It's not about the perfect program or meal plan.  It's not some poster slogan.  It's certainly not a supplement or magic food.  It's about getting uncomfortable.  I'm not talking about pain or training to exhaustion.  It's something much simpler and more fundamental than that.

Let me see if I can explain.

Last week, I asked Michelle what she wanted for her birthday (she's turning schfurtny-trax, for those who are curious.  C'mon, you know the name of our blog...).  Almost without hesitation, she told me, "I want to learn the Olympic lifts."  First of all - I confess that I fell in love with her all over again at that moment.  Here is a woman I've known for 23 years and she still surprises me.  

We've been focusing on powerlifting for the last year and she's made tremendous progress.  She's flat impressive to watch at the gym.  She's really worked hard at focusing on the things she had the most room to improve on and drive through.  Who am I to deny her this one simple wish?  Besides - you try stopping her.  

So I made some calls and got a referral for a truly remarkable coach.  I'll leave out the name-dropping for the moment and save that for a later post.  We made contact with him and, as it turned out, he was lifting in a competitive meet at his home gym that weekend.  This was the best of all worlds.   We went to the meet and watched competitors of all sizes and skill levels yank bars from the floor to their chests or straight over their heads.  To call it impressive would be an understatement.  We had a little quality time with our new coach and, after about three hours, headed back to the homestead.

It was on the drive home that things began to sink in.  "I'm a little scared of all of this," Michelle confessed to me. "Am I totally crazy?  I'm in my forties for the love of God!"  As you can imagine, a fairly animated conversation ensued.  

"What's the worst thing that could happen?" I asked her.

"Well, I could hurt myself, but that's no different than any day at the gym, is it?"  I replied that it certainly wasn't.

Becoming "Settled"
Not what I meant either...
Michelle and I have been very fortunate to have taken career paths where we were basically (and sometimes literally) put in an empty room and told "I need you to make this happen."  A comfort zone isn't a luxury we were ever granted.  As it turns out, after two decades of this, it's become a compulsion.  Neither of us is satisfied with something after we've mastered the challenge.  It seems utterly natural to seek out the next opportunity to learn and grow.  

And that's the secret!

I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to go to extreme lengths and bungee jump out of a burning airplane with a frayed rubber band.  But I do know that, most often, we create our own limitations.  Have you ever watched a child work themselves up to taste something new?  It's an ordeal!  They're so sure that it's not for them that it would be easier to get them to put their hand on a hot stove rather than take that first bite.  And then what happens?  Chomp! Either they like it or they don't.  But we celebrate, right?  "At least you tried it, little Johnny!" 

When did we lose that?  When did we stop trying new things, for fear that it would be a disaster?  We chain ourselves up with thoughts like "I've never been a good 'X'er." or "I'm too old for something crazy like 'Y'." At some point, we yield to the expectations and assumptions associated with getting older.  Forgive me, but screw that!  I'm not letting any expectation or assumption define my vitality and love for life.  And, in my humblest of humble opinions, you shouldn't either.  Don't settle!

Get uncomfortable
If you ever want to feel true satisfaction, try something you didn't think you could do.  Or, better yet, work at something you know you can't do today until you can!  But doing that means leaving your comfort zone.  If you haven't felt that "what was I thinking? I'm going to make a total fool out of myself!" sensation in a while, it's time to dust it off.

Now, mind you, maturity has its own gifts.  Among them, a sense of consequence.  You don't need to do something dangerous to find something that scares you. 

Definitely not what I had in mind!  Awkward!
There are so many benefits to getting outside your comfort zone!  One - it makes you humble; you remember that you still have something to learn.  Two - it gives you something to learn!  I'm absolutely a firm believer that life-long learning is the key to an agile mind.  Three - it brings back your sense of awe.  Let's face it; we've seen a lot of things in our lives.  It's difficult to find something that truly knocks your socks off (until you seek it out).  Four - it gives you confidence that flows over into the rest of your life.  And five - you might find a new passion in life.

So what are you waiting for?  Try something new today.  Yes you might not be as good at it as you want to be (yet).  But you might be awesome!  Either way, we celebrate, right?  At least you tried it!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rolling With Rhabdo - My Story

There's a lot of buzz about a Crossfit article out there this week.  It exposes a risk that, frankly, is my number one reason for refusing to ever endorse or condone it as a method for people who are out of shape to get fit: Exertion Rhabdomyoliosis (rhabdo to his friends).  But, as revealing as the article is, it left out what I belive should be the most important part of the story:  how rhabdo occurs and how you can identify it.  I mean, without that, the whole thing is just rabble-rousing for people that already have strong opinions on one side or the other.

See, I've been there.  I was hospitalized, near death, with one arm marked in marker "no needles - may need dialysis", just in case.  Today, I'm back.  Fully recovered and training hard.  But the experience has changed the way I approach training for good.  Hopefully, after reading this, you'll avoid this kind of scare, no matter what training regime you choose.

Background: "The best day of my life"
In 2008, I was selected to join a very small club: the ranks of Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy.  The Navy is big on rituals, and this is one of the biggest.  Upon selection, I, along with the rest in my cycle, were put through two months of intense training, supposedly to ensure that we had the mental and physical toughness to fill the role of a leader in this unique fraternity.  There were late-late nights, early-early mornings (even by military standards), lots of memorization and mental challenges.  And then there was the PT, laced quite liberally through all of it.  During this period, every time one of the senior Chiefs conducting the "training" asked the question: What day is it?  We all responded in unison "the best day of my life!"


For me, I was in what you'd probably call "decent" shape.  I made my weigh-ins and passed my PT tests twice a year.  Never maxed out, but I was staunchly in the middle of the pack.  At 37 years old, I felt pretty good about that placement.  I was probably about 15-16% body fat.  This matters because most people that fall prey to rhabdo are not couch potatoes.  People who are completely unconditioned simply lack the physical capacity to push to the point of rhabdo.  

Setting the Stage for Disaster:  The Risk Factors
So I've already mentioned the first risk factor: "decent shape".  People that are prone to rhabdo are somewhat conditioned.  They also have relatively low body fat percentage (compared to the general population).  This sets your body up to hit a point where you can exert past your limits and your body lacks the stored metabolic fuel (i.e. fat) to compensate for the consumption level.

The next risk factor is environment.  Chief's training is conducted in August and September.  For me, it was in south Texas.  Heat and humidity both dramatically increase the risk for succumbing to rhabdo.  They add stress to your body during exertion and limit your ability to recover due to heat stress and dehydration.  San Antonio in August was a virtual incubator for rhabdo. 

The third block in the rhabdo virtual Jenga tower is stress, both in the active accumulation of it and the lack of ability to recover from it.  As if the training itself wasn't intense enough, I was going through a rather disasterous stage in my personal life.  Sleep just wasn't an option.  I was racking up tons of stress every day and doing nothing to recover from its effects.

And the final tipping point that brought it all down: ego. Both mine and on the part of my trainers.  I had a Navy dive master and a Fleet Marine Force Corpsman running the physical portion of the training.  These are two of the tougher professions in the Navy.  And they were merciless.  They set out to "break" each of us.  And I set out to match every challenge.  I can say I was hopelessly outmatched. 

The Tower Comes Down: The Symptoms I Missed
I've had the advantage of participating in some pretty cool training over my career.  One of the coolest things I would never ever want to repeat was the Air Force's combat survival school in Spokane, Washington (and undisclosed points well north of there).  I knew what dehydration looks like.  I knew what the symptoms of severe stress are.  But, in the moment, I glossed over a lot of things that should have set off alarm bells and sent me straight to the hospital.  

After one particuarly tough training session, I noticed that I was producing very little urine.  What I could produce was dark (we're talking almost Pepsi here) and cloudy.  I knew that was a bad sign, but I downed a gallon of water and hoped for the best.  Stupid?  Yes - but between the stress and ego components, I wasn't in a place to make a good decision about it. 

Then I started to notice the swelling.  Hands, feet, belly.  They all got progressively more puffy day by day.  Not normal?  Cause for concern?  Of course.  But I still figured it was just a temporary blip from a tough schedule.  

Finally, I noticed that I felt like I was in a mental fog.  I just could not form a straight thought in my head.  Since my whole adult life has been dedicated to problem solving as an analyst in various fields, strangely this alarmed me more than the physical symptoms.  It was now five days since the training session that had pushed me over the edge (with some additional sessions in between).  I drove myself to the hospital.  

The Diagnosis: Reality bites
Military emergency rooms are notoriously slow.  I checked in at the front desk and settled in for what I was sure would be a four-hour wait to speak to an actual doctor.  Fifteen minutes later, I was triaged by a corpsman.  I explained my symptoms, saying, "I'm not sure I should even be here, but I just don't feel right and I can't shake it."  After taking my vitals, the corpsman got very quiet.  My blood pressure was through the roof (symptom five).  I was admitted and hooked to an EKG in ten minutes.  

They started running diagnostics.  Thirty minutes later, the doctor came in.  "You're in some pretty bad renal failure.  We're going to admit you and see if we need to put you on dialysis."  For the first time in my life, I was truly afraid of dying.  

I spent the next week in the hospital.  I was put on heavy diuretics to flush my kidneys out.  My creatinine levels were checked constantly.  And my diet was regimented to put absolutely no strain on my kidneys through digestion.  No dairy, no sodium, and very little of anything else.  I was put on blood thinners and blood pressure meds to prevent any further cascade effects.  Thanks to showing up at the very end of my possible window and a very good nephrologist, I managed to avoid dialysis.  A week later, I was well enough to leave the hospital.  But I was in for a very long recovery.  Over the next six months, I very gradually returned to a normal diet, began light exercise, and finally weened myself off of the blood pressure meds as my kidney function returned.  I was lucky enough to get back to 100% function.  Not everyone is. 

What Happened to Me?
My nephrologist spent a good deal of time speaking with me.  In that critical training session, I hit the point where my exertion put such demands on my body that my muscle tissue started breaking down in heavy quantities (catabolism in the extreme).  The protein in my blood stream put such a strain on my kidneys that they simply stopped doing their job.  We're not talking nicely digested amino acids from eating meat.  We're talking about a direct injection of muscle protein straight into the blood stream.  I made it worse every day by continuing in the routine and conditions that got me where I was.

I hit that point because I pushed too hard in conditions that were too difficult for the body to overcome and I had no reserves to draw from.  Interestingly, of all the lifestyle conditions we discussed, the doctor was most alarmed by my long-term relationship with NSAIDS (Motrin, Tylenol, et al.) as a routine pain and swelling remedy (risk factor five).  These things are nasty.  I still only take them in times of serious need when I just can't tough it out.  

Crossfit and the Bottom Line
At the end of the day, I did this to myself.  I didn't exercise the maturity and judgement to stop before things got out of hand.  But... I put my trust in the hands of an authority figure who I expected to have my best interests at heart.  Having done that, I wholly gave myself over to the "mob mentality" of the ritual and the culture of the Chief's Mess.  That didn't work out so well.  Since that time, I can tell you that injury and relaps are always a factor that goes into my selection of training methods and intensities.  I don't leave that decision to anybody else. 

I'm not going to say that "all Crossfit is bad".  That is far too broad a brush.  But there is a real risk involved here, given the type and intensity of training involved.  If you have a personal trainer and you haven't discussed where you both stand, you should. 

Crossfit trainers (and any personal trainer, for that manner) take on a heavy degree of accountability when they take on clients.  But, without strong dialog between trainer and client, they can't be aware of the compounding set of risk factors that may be piling up on you.  That gets harder in a group "one size fits all" environment.  Add in a cultish culture of "push til you drop" and the chance that your trainer is keeping a watchful eye on you drops to an alarming low.  Since the vast majority of personal trainers are under-educated on the causes and symptoms of conditions like rhabdo, you simply can't expect them to have your back.  

Monday, September 23, 2013

What's the Big Deal About Antioxidants?

For our regular readers, you know that we take a skeptical approach toward the conventional wisdom around fitness and nutrition.  In fact, it seems like, the louder the media shouts about the "latest discovery" in weight loss, the more likely I am to just snort and change the channel.

Weep for our society...
Enter antioxidants.  These precious chemicals have bolstered blueberries to "super food" status.  Ask even the most casually health-conscious person on the street and they'll tell you, "antioxidants are really good for you; you should eat a bunch of them."  A few of the better informed might even mention those pesky free radicals, which "everyone" knows are the little Darth Vaders of human microbiology.  All of this consensus makes me a little itchy.  Perhaps that's because I've seen "Idiocracy" one too many times and the mantra is starting to sound like, "it's got 'lectrolytes! That's what plants crave!"  But I digress...

So we decided to do what we do: get smart on the subject.  This is not simple stuff.  Any of our readers who are medical professionals are welcome to pick apart the fine points, but this is our best effort at making the issue digestible to mere mortals like us.  

First, a few words about oxidation:
We're all familiar with the most common form of oxidation.  It's the process that causes iron to rust.  Oxygen is an interesting atom, and O2 an even more interesting molecule.  These guys have a free electron (or in the case of O2, two electrons) that make them very attractive to other atoms and molecules passing by.  The chemical bonding of intrinsic oxygen to these atoms turns them into other substances (like water, for instance), leaving the host compound behind.  

Put simply: oxidation is the loss of oxygen atoms or O2 molecules from a substance and the creation of new substances as a result.

The Oxygen Paradox: That which does not kill you...
Free radicals if I ever saw one...
Okay, so we know that all living organisms on Earth depend on oxygen to exist.  But, it turns out that oxygen is also chronically toxic to each and every one of those life forms as well.  Bummer, huh?  As a result, we puny Earthlings have generated all kinds of mechanisms to help deal with the harmful effects.  Plants have evolved to produce polyphenols and Vitamin C, for instance.  Humans, too, have developed complex systems to combat the negative effects of oxidation.  A combination of enzymes and chemicals, like uric acid, constantly work to render freed oxygen atoms and molecules into harmless substances, such as water.  

Okay, got it.  Oxidation = "bad," right?
Ahh, if only it were that simple.  Many oxidation processes are beneficial, even critical, to humans.  Oxidation can signal damaged cells to die off and be replaced by fresh, healthy ones.  And oxidation is a critical component to generating ATP, that all-important metabolic fuel that powers our cells and allows us to lift all the heavy things.  So, what's the difference between "good" oxidation and "bad" oxidation?

The bulk of it all seems to come down to two main components.  One is the amount of oxygen being released through oxidation (enter: oxidative stress), and the other is where the oxidation is taking place.  

In healthy cells, supported by the proper combination of enzymes and metabolic fuel, oxidation is just a fact of life.  And, with these components doing their jobs, it's no more dramatic than taking out the trash.  But, if the body undergoes an oxidative stressor, then the process is accelerated and the cell can lose its ability to keep up.  And, just like the trash, it starts to get ugly if things get backed up.  When there is too much oxygen for the cell mechanism to handle, it gets picked up by other substances and becomes things like hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) or Superoxide.  These guys are free radicals, who roam around and do damage to other cells.  What kind of damage are we talking about?  Inflammation, cancer, Alzheimer's disease, and many others.  Free radicals are also considered to be the primary operator in many symptoms of aging in general.

Some cells seem particularly prone to the type of oxidation which results in some of the nastier free radicals.  Low-density Lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol appears to be one of these.  We already know that LDL particles are the troublesome ones when it comes to factors promoting heart disease; now imagine them  also being cancer promoters as well.  I think we all agree: cancer sucks!

Okay, a quick recap of the facts thus far: 
- Oxygen is critical to life, but it's also chronically toxic
- The human body already knows this, and has several mechanisms to deal with it
- Oxidation isn't inherently bad, but can become a problem if accelerated or occurs in some types of cells, such as LDL cholesterol particles, among others
- When the oxidation management process is overwhelmed, free radicals are the result
- Cancer sucks

What promotes oxidative stress?
There wasn't as much information on this subject as I would have liked, but there are a number of common environmental stressors out there.  Not surprisingly: air pollution, hypoxia (as from high-altitude activity), smoking, and alcohol use all seem to increase cellular oxidation as well as inhibit the body's mechanisms to manage it.  But here's one you weren't ready for: exercise!  That's right, a natural and inevitable outcome of exercise is significant oxidative stress.  In fact, it's particularly dramatic if you're involved in the kind of training that produces adaptation, such as progressive weightlifting.  Now, before you freak out and throw away your running shoes, it also appears that exercise promotes the activity of our little oxidation-fighting buddies, balancing out the equation over time.  

Coming back to dietary antioxidants
Foods high in antioxidant properties (including Vitamins A, C, and E, as well as polyphenols)
touted for their ability to fight off these free radicals.  Remember how people once thought (and many still do) that eating fat translated directly into body fat?  Or how we once believed dietary cholesterol directly pours into your blood as serum cholesterol? We know better now.  It's not that simple.  The digestive system deconstructs, remakes, and employs these components as it sees fit.  This principle holds true with dietary antioxidants.  The dietary studies of the effect on the body of these supplements on free radicals are decidedly lukewarm.  In fact, there's some evidence that Vitamin E supplements have the effect of are inhibiting the kind of muscular recovery and adaptation that strength athletes are looking for. 

When you think about it, it makes sense.  The body works to bind those oxygen molecules in ways that makes them harmless.  The presence of free radicals occurs only after the oxygen has bonded in a harmful way.  The damage is done.  Antioxidant supplements don't run through the blood stream kicking free radical butt; they were proactive agents in the plant cells as part of their own defense mechanism. Besides, what if they did work?  Since oxidation is normal and often beneficial, how would we tell mister Vitamin C which processes to interfere with and which ones to allow?  

So, what am I going to do about it?
All of this, after a lot of reading and research, leads to a somewhat puzzling place.  Detection of the presence and amount of free radicals in the body seems impractical until some kind of negative condition develops.  The science doesn't seem to establish specific benefits of dietary antioxidants in preventing the little buggers.  My body seems to have the situation under control in ways I can only begin to understand.  I'm sure as heck not going to stop exercising, as those benefits still seem to greatly outweigh the risks.  So, I'm left to influence the few things I can.  It's somewhat frustrating that I can't offer a set of recommendations with the kind of confidence you might be hoping for; the best I can do is some variant of a nutritional "serenity prayer".

Here's what I know I can control:
   - Limit the influence of oxidative stress where I can through clean air and low-to-no alcohol use.
   - Stop smoking if you feel this is something you are ready to do.
   - Monitor and reduce my LDL cholesterol, particularly in relation to my HDL levels, through a continued diet that limits refined carbohydrates.
   - Support cellular health through the continued inclusion of healthy fats and proteins from whole sources
   - Support the production of growth hormones and protein turnover through a regular weight training regimen to stave off the metabolic slowdown associated with aging
   - Continue eating antioxidant rich foods, such as blueberries, because I enjoy them and they support the rest of my nutrition plan, whether or not they provide any particular antioxidant benefit
   - Continue to avoid excessive supplementation based on magical claims of health benefits
   - Continue to keep track of my overall health through regular doctor visits that include lifestyle and longevity blood panels
   - Given the above, trust my body to take care of the rest

Marketers, sales people, and those that just blithely regurgitate what they're told love to extoll the virtues of their pet products.  More often than not, these are overblown.  Be a skeptic.  Ask questions.  Make connections.  And look for evidence-based material before making drastic changes (or spending money) in things that will affect your health.

Do you have something that makes you "itchy"?  Don't know where to start?  Feel free to leave a comment with your question and we'll do our best to source the best information we can for you.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Five Secrets to Smashing a Plateau

Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain strength, or improve athletic performance, we all fear the dreaded plateau.  A plateau is that point when your conditioning, your training, and your nutrition reach equilibrium and you stop seeing progress.  In order to kick-start your performance, try applying some or all of these simple ideas.

1. Examine your program

Look at your nutrition and training plan.  Do you actually have a nutrition and training plan?  Or are you following a general mish-mash combination of "eat less; move more". Even if you have a "great" program, it's not so great if it's not designed for the specific results you are seeking.  Let me say that again: if it's not delivering the results you need, then it's not a good program (for you). If you've been on the same plan for a while (six months or more) and are no longer seeing progress, well - variety is the spice of life.  

2. Examine your dedication
Even the perfect program doesn't get you results if you aren't following it.  This is akin to sleeping on your history book to study for the test.  Haphazard adherence will deliver haphazard results.  If time is the issue, find a program that works better with your schedule.  There are lots of ways to make your meal planning and training time more efficient.  Just remember: if nothing changes, nothing changes. 

3. Re-think "progress"
Be better than yesterday.
Probably the most frustrating thing for people that have just graduated from the "newbie" stage of fitness is that progress slows down dramatically.  Or so it seems.  This is especially true if you're only looking at one measure for success, such as scale weight.  As your body composition changes, lots of things are happening.  You may be losing fat, you may be gaining muscle, your body may be making a lot of changes on the inside that don't translate into a pound a week just now.  

Now I'm not saying that you rationalize away a lack of progress by saying "maybe it's muscle".  If you don't know it's muscle, then you need to figure it out.  Find out how to calculate your body fat percentage.  Or - even better - find elements you can measure and improve on every day.  Olympic clocks measure time in hundredths of seconds.  The smallest advantage can be the difference between a gold medal and a "well you really tried".  Tiny factors and minuscule improvements add up.  Whatever measures you choose, find something that you can make better than yesterday.  

4. Re-boot
If your program is on track and if you are following the program religiously and if you are looking at all aspects of your progress and still not seeing results, consider backing off for a short period.  Get rest, get hydrated, relax, and let your body recover for a few days.  Your body needs down time to do the critical work of adaptation.  A deload or break should be programmed in every four to six months, depending on your routine. This applies equally well to caloric restriction (diet) programs as well.  "Refeeds" have worked for many people on their weight loss journey.  

5. Push yourself
The bottom line here is that, as you condition, the same activities may not deliver results anymore because they just aren't challenging enough.  Just because your program says "perform five sets of five reps" doesn't mean you're finished.  There are no rep police.  You won't get a ticket for exceeding your awesomeness limit.  How do you know how much you're capable of if you clock out just because the set is over.  If you have more left in you, grind out another one.  Sprint to the finish!  You get the idea.  

Regardless of whether your particular plateau is related to performance in your sport or a weight loss journey, the methods you use to break through are the same.  Be honest with yourself, be skeptical, and be purposeful.  These tips may seem simple, but, at the end of the day, it is simple.  It's not easy, but it's simple.  

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Why We Train: Moving Day

Those of you that follow Michelle and I in other social forums know already that we recently moved across the country.  Despite a couple of hiccups, I'm happy to report that we are happily settled in to our new digs and beginning to explore the possibilities that Arizona offers.  (Although, yes - it's REALLY hot here in August).

As the flurry of activity subsides, we've been talking about the experience.

The question: how do you stay motivated to keep training for the long run?
We hear this one a lot.  People get frustrated.  They don't see progress.  They don't have a concrete goal in their head about what their time at the gym should do for them in the long run.  We've often used the phrase that we're training for life.  And let me tell you, the past month has thrown an awful lot of life our way.  So I thought it would be interesting to share with you how we feel our training has come into play during that time. Do any of them surprise you?

Motivator 1: Keeping our Sanity
Studies show that moving is one of the most stressful life events a person can experience.  While I will immediately give credit to Michelle's supreme planning skills in making this the least painful move I have ever experienced (and that's a large sampling, folks), the ability to keep at least one point of consistency in our lives was a huge help.  We did some serious flexing in our schedule, but putting on the gym clothes and throwing around heavy things for an hour was a way of taking back control of our time and burning off some of that nervous energy.

Motivator 2: Lifting All the Things
Michelle and I lived in Minnesota together for two years.  And I can tell you, those flower pots in the garage were a lot heavier when we moved in than they were last month.  I'm not sure how that happens exactly.  Maybe our flower pots have been getting ripped on Hydroxycut.  (I'll leave it to you to decide.)  We were able to self-pack and unpack 90% of our household, which saved us a ton on moving expenses.

Motivator 3: On the Road
I don't know about you, but I've done a lot of long road trips of over 1,000 miles.  It beats you down.  Back pain, arms tingling, hands sore.  Not to mention the lovely elderly penguin walk you rock after getting out of the car.  This drive was over 1,800 miles and, I'm telling you, I didn't get any of the usual side-effects road trips usually throw at me.  Granted, I was ready to get the heck out of the car at the end, but we hit the ground running upon arrival.

Motivator 4: Adaptation and Execution
Okay - Phoenix is HOT.  I mean, it's called the Valley of the Sun for a reason.  And, in August, it's the hottest kind of hot you can imagine.  And Minnesota  - well - isn't.  It was no small change to acclimate to the desert environment.  And we had a week from the time we moved in to have everything up and running before I had to be back into the work groove.  Landscaping, painting, arranging furniture, you name it, we did it.  Heck, we even helped Michelle's niece move into her new house when we were done with ours.  Having a body that is strong with healthy energy levels was key to us pulling this off.

Motivator 5: Keeping our Figures
We see and hear from a lot of others on their weight loss journey who complain about weight gain after a vacation or a stressful life event.  It's such a common theme, in fact, that we basically assumed it was a given that we would put on a couple pounds.  I mean, we cut our training way back, were stuck in a car for three days, and were subject to whatever food was available at the exit where we needed gas.  It only made sense.

When we weighed in, however, we found that we both lost a couple pounds.  How?  Credit an optimized metabolism combined with a lifestyle that has made us completely re-think what "food" is.  We did lose some ground in the amount of weight we could push in the gym, but a couple of weeks of getting back into our program put us back on track.

I hope I'm getting the point across here.  Life Happens!  If you find yourself wondering why you keep getting out of bed early or stopping after work to hit the gym, then think about the events coming up (anticipated or not) you're going to weather.  Even if it's changing a flat on the side of the road, these kinds of things go so much better when you feel strong.  They don't knock you down so much and you get back up a lot faster.  What will it take for you to be better prepared for that next big change? 

So - why train?  Because... you never know. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

CSAs - Bringing the Farm to the 'Burbs

What do you get when you cross a retired child psychologist, a slightly chubby dog, and nine acres of land in the middle of the desert?  You get Tonopah Rob's Community Supported Agriculture farm of course!

Michelle and I have long been fans of farmers' markets and we've been reading up on CSAs for a while now.  With the move to Phoenix, we finally had our chance to check one out in person.  

"What is a CSA farm", you ask?  Of course, how silly of me.  A CSA farm is basically a co-op, but you don't have to get your fingernails dirty.  These small farms grow a variety of local crops in small quantities.  They are funded through the sale of "shares" into the farm.  As a shareholder, you provide the up-front cost for planting and growing and, come harvest, you get your return in the form of fabulous, fresh, local produce.  Each farm operates a little differently when you get into specifics, but that's the idea. 

If you're someone who is concerned about where your food comes from, or even if you're just a "support small business" kind of person, this is a fabulous opportunity.  

On with the story...

We headed out early, since it's August and the Sonoran Desert gets a little - well - sporty after about
10am.  A twenty mile drive out west to Tonopah later and we pulled up to a little house with a farm stand out front.  A sunburned face wearing a straw hat greeted us as we walked up, none other than Tonopah Rob himself.  His dog, Deenie, also formed part of the welcoming committee.  

We introduced ourselves and Rob shook our hand and took us on a tour.  Chickens and turkeys wandered about, altogether disinterested in our presence.  Rob warned us to watch for snakes.  Deenie didn't seem too concerned about them, though, so we walked bravely on. 

As he walked us around, he explained his methods and philosophy toward farming.  You could see the pride beaming in his face as he spoke.  Pairing plants in beds so that scents and oils from one naturally repelled pests from their neighbor.  Keeping bee hives all around the property to promote pollination.  Rotating crops from year to year to replenish nutrients in the soil.  And even innovative ways to conserve water in a challenging environment.  Oh - and his little John Deere tractor he lovingly refers to as "Booger".

Bucolic charm aside, this was one heck of an operation.  After the tour, we happily signed up for our share for the fall/winter growing season.   Many CSAs have a "basket program" where each period you have to come pick up your pre-packaged basket of goods.  Tonopah Rob has a more customer-friendly business model.  We spend our share credit at the stand just like a cash customer.  If you don't use it up, the credit is gone at the end of the season (but seriously, as many veggies as we eat, blowing through $250 in a season isn't going to be a problem).  

So, you get to directly support a local business, procure the freshest local produce, and really see where your food comes from.  Plus, the pre-paid investment is a great way to motivate you to buy and try more veggies if you're one of those who needs a little "encouragement".  Where's the down-side here?

Check out the Local Harvest website and quick search online to see if there is a CSA farm in your area and check it out.  Make it a field trip.  I don't think you'll regret it.  And if you ever find yourself westbound on Interstate 10 west of Phoenix, drop by and visit Rob.  Tell him we sent you.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Obesity's Perfect Storm

There's something going on in the Western World.  And, despite so much attention being focused on it, it's still getting worse.  The average westerner has lost touch with the innate ability to feed and, thereby, care for ourselves.  People are getting heavier and sicker by the day.  We're more educated, have a higher living standard, and medical science is more advanced than ever before.  How are we not getting the message?

It must be something bigger.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist.  But I do believe in complexity.  And the more I learn, the more I see a "perfect storm" of factors that have come together to, quite literally, shape our society.  To peel it all back, let's take each factor one at a time.

Storm front #1: Flawed Science
It really all starts here.  Whether you agree with his "carbs are the real problem" stance or not, in his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes paints a fairly dismal picture of the evolution of medical science with respect to weight and health management.  The foundational focuses are decades old and were based on the limitations of what was known and what could be measured at the time.  These foundations have endured over time and, like a crooked wall, veer ever farther from the original premise.

Scientific studies can do as much harm as good.  This is no critique (necessarily) of the researchers themselves, but more of the instant-gratification, dumb-it-down media to immediately take things out of context and beyond the scope of the study.

These days, the focus is on "curing" obesity.  It was even recently designated a disease.  Open the door for "there's a pill for everything" medicine.  Family practitioners are not up to speed on nutritional science breatkthroughs, and are also less likely to explore lifestyle treatment, like meaningful physical exercise.  The lifestyle mantras are quoted chapter and verse by doctors across the world: get 30 minutes of cardio, 2-3 times a week and eat less fat.  But there is little expectation that patients will follow this advice, so very little emphasis is put on the importance of lifestyle and health.

Specialization also takes a toll here.  Diabetologists and endocrinologists are on the front lines of the impacts of obesity.  But those specialists come into the picture after things are well out of control, and "downward" communication to your family doctor isn't happening the way it should.  Instead, the entire focus has been put on calories in vs calories out, rather than on how to nourish and power our bodies.

Storm front #2: "Big Fitness"
The fitness industry, from big box gyms to "as seen on TV" wonder DVDs and gadgets, to the purveyors of miracle supplements and shakes, is a mult-billion dollar industry.  And its customer base is growing.  There is no incentive for the fitness industry to actually get you into shape.  In fact, they'd rather make you dependent on their products and keep you coming back as a return customer.   If you buy a gym membership and never go, the gym still gets your money and the equipment you would be using remains vacant for yet another member.  It's a win/win for the fitness center.  And nothing you buy from TV is ever going to deliver the results promised.  They even tell you that, right on the screen: "results not typical".

Storm front #3: "Lifestyle Marketing"
Can I have a side of Diabetes with that?
I'm in the marketing industry myself.  Everybody is looking for that fundamental emotional connection to make with their customer.  Lifestyle marketing is when you tie your product to a way of life, a feeling of prosperity, happiness, and success.  The tactics are incredibly successful.  Now think about the last restaurant commercial you saw.  Was it really about the food?  Or were there images of attractive people having a great time while eating food?  If you want to have a good time with friends, what is the first thing that comes to mind?  A meal out somewhere?  Where did that come from?

Now think about the advertising for "convenience foods" that pepper the television.  What are the underlying messages there?  Cooking is hard and you don't have time.  Your family will love you for serving this dish.  Plus: hey! added fiber / reduced fat / naturally sweetened - you name it.  Bottom line: this is better than what you could possibly pull off on your own.  Nonsense, I know.  But we, as a society, are completely in the thrall of the convenience food message.  

Storm front #4: "Addictive Flavors"
On the first three points, we are talking about information that is widely available and completely up to the reader to make an informed decision.  Let the buyer beware, right?  But, when it comes to addictive flavors, this is the one topic where I will point a finger at a malignant source.  

Food companies consult with flavor labs to create the perfect balance between a distinctive flavor and a very limited finish.  When the food is in your mouth, the texture and flavor are extremely pleasing, but, in these engineered flavors, the moment you swallow, you need a "boost" to get the flavor back.  It literally keeps you coming back for more.  

We haven't been eating clean for that long: just over a year.  I still remember foods that I loved.  They were my go-tos week after week.  We recently drove across the country and hit some pretty austere territory in the process.  Our choices were limited.  I literally had McDonalds for the first time in 13 months.  It tasted like - nothing.  Nothing at all.  Place after place we stopped, it was the same story.  Safe to say, we were sort of stunned.  When you're used to real food.  The stuff you used to think of as craveable is just a pale shadow of flavor.  And that's the way they design it.  

Storm front #5: "Pop Media"
Have you noticed that when you flip through five different news broadcasts, they're all on the same stories?  That's because they all take their information off the same news wire.  We are obsessed with the sound bite and the news feeds us exactly what we want.  When a study that took five years to conduct and comes with four hundred pages of findings is reduced to a two-minute blurb read by a talking head from a teleprompter, it's fairly safe to say that you aren't getting the nuances.  

Take the recent story on Omega-3 fatty acids.  The study took participants who had prostate cancer and examined their blood chemistry to see if there were any trends.  They found that some of these participants had elevated levels of Omega-3 DHA.  There was a correlation between these participants, all of whom had cancer, and blood levels of this fatty acid.  Of course, people at risk for prostate cancer (men over 50) have been bombarded with messages about supplements that will reduce their risk or the severity of the cancer.  Did they have elevated levels because they were fighting cancer, or was the cancer a result of the Omega-3?  Or... was some other element of body chemistry out of whack that contributed to both the cancer and the blood lipid levels?  The study confessed not to know.  But the news story said "Taking fish oil is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer."  Period.  

Beyond the news, you run into an endless stream of "talk" shows that are, at best, the blind leading the blind, and at worst, a serious conflict of interest.  People who profit from the endorsement of a product on their forum should be regarded with skepticism, especially when it comes to your health.

Storm front #6: "Urban Myths"
The Internet is a fabulous thing, isn't it?  I mean, you're enjoying our fabulous content right now thanks to the "information superhighway".  But the Internet is a peculiar paradox.  On one hand, it has nutured our craving for instant gratification.  There is always something new to grab your attention.  On the other, it is a vast repository of things that just won't die.  In my military life, when you got a new regulation or new set of orders, they would always tell you that the previous version was obsolete and you should get rid of it.  That was nice.  It was clean and simple.  The new guidance is the only guidance.  

Not so in our modern world.  Everything gets mixed up.  This will save you, that will kill you.  Then tomorrow the whole thing is reversed.  The result is that people hold on to whatever piece of information struck them first or resonated the most, with a healthy dose of skepticism for anything that conflicts with what they perceive to be the truth.  And, with the Internet, they can perpetuate it through a host of different channels, continually re-muddying the waters.  

People mean well.  They believe that their information is the right information.  But there is very little to help you, the reader, from separating established fact from outdated convention from plain ol' poppycock.  

Superstorm: Obesity
By themselves, none of these "storm fronts" would do much damage.  But the way they've coalesced into a combined power, it has colored our perception in a profound way.  Look at how these look when they're strung together into one set of attitudes about food and fitness:

     "I'm overweight, and I know I need cardio exercise three times a week to burn fat, plus I have to watch my fats and cholesterol.  Fiber's great though, so I should eat more grain.  Plus, I drink green tea every day, since it's a fat-burner.  I have a membership at a great gym; they have all these cool classes and tons of treadmills and elliptical machines, plus I bought that "Turbo Jam" DVD, so I can tone and shape my muscles.  It really makes me sweat."  

     "I eat pretty healthy; I only buy low-fat and low-calorie foods. Except on weekends, because that's when I go out with my friends.  Dinner, drinks and dessert are such a great way to unwind and I deserve a little reward.  I'll just work out twice as long on Monday.  When I'm hungry, I usually have an extra bowl of Special K, because it's heart healthy and "they" say the studies show women who eat this weigh less.  Besides, it's delicious! I could eat a whole box of that stuff every day."  

     "I'm not sure why I'm not losing weight.  I don't eat eggs, cheese, or meat hardly ever; I only drink diet soda now, and I've been taking Hydroxycut for months.  I only eat 1200 calories a day (when I don't cheat).  I'm just so tired all the time.  I have no time or energy to go to the gym, let alone cook a lot of crazy food.  I feel bad, because I've paid for the membership, but I'll get back in there soon.  Guess I'll microwave dinner; it's Healthy Choice at least."

Do these sound like anybody you know?  Do you see the subtle influences of the six "storm fronts" across them all?  

How about this one?

     "I love food!  It seems like I'm eating all the time.  Steak, cheese, and full-fat Caesar dressing?  Bring It!  I can't remember the last time I had a bowl of cereal.  I have a vague idea of how many calories I'm eating, but I don't count and don't really care.  I  never jog or hit the elliptical.  The best thing is all the great flavors I get to eat: Mexican, Greek, Chinese, and Italian.  Besides, I save a ton of money by eating at home."

This person is obviously unconcerned about his or her health.  A walking time-bomb, right?  Well, the truth is, this is a declaration that Michelle and I have both made more than once.  In fact, though it is only part of the story, it is a big part of our attitude toward nutrition now.  It flies in the face of everything you know about eating healthy, right?  How could we possibly lose weight with such a bizarre approach to nutrition?  

I'll repeat what I said at the beginning: something is wrong - something bigger than "eat less, move more".  We believe that we have found a winning approach to nutrition and fitness.  I won't say "right" because your goals may be different.  But if you want to lose fat, be stronger, have more energy, and feel great about how you feel and look, then you've come to the right place.  You've got to shed the conventional wisdom, choose a nutrition plan (not a diet) and a training plan (not exercise) that will deliver the results you want.  

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Are Your Genes Making You Fat?

A friend and reader challenged us recently with an article from Science Daily.  This one's for you "TrapezeBear".

I say "challenged" because the subject of the article was on a field of science research known as "epigenetics".  Now Michelle is the brains of the outfit, but neither one of us are geneticists, and we sure as heck aren't "epi-geneticists".  I know enough to know this:  it's complicated.  

But I like a challenge and it's an area we really haven't put much emphasis on until now.  So what follows is more of an editorial breakdown with citations.  Here's hoping it sparks a very lively conversation.  

Let's start with the premise: Obesity and related conditions are genetic.  

He's just not that into outliers.
My first line of thinking here is statistical.  One of the most fundamental truths of any population is the
bell curve.  And Mr. Bell Curve tells us that 65% of a population falls around the middle of the curve.  About 4% (two on the high end and two at the low) fall into the extreme ends.  Are there people who are truly genetically predisposed to be overweight, no matter what?  Of course.  Just like there are some that will remain lean under almost any dietary / lifestyle conditions.  But these are the two-percenters.  Might you be one of them?  Maybe.  But very probably not.  

And that's the point of view we are writing from: "You are not the exception; you are the rule."

That said, genetics obviously play a central role in our body composition and function.  So, what do we know about the interplay of genetics and environment (or "nature vs nurture")?  Quite a bit, actually.    
And some of the most interesting data comes from a series of studies on identical twins.

We know that genetics play a significant role in where and how each of us fatten.  
Got a gut?  Hips?  Those under-arm things?  Yep, that's genetics.  Unfortunately there is nothing we can do to change the way fat accumulates in our bodies.

And here's where we take the first u-turn in our exploration of genetics:  Even though your DNA is identical in every cell in your body, how that genetic material functions does differ throughout the body.  Think about it:  Liver cells do - well - liver stuff.  Muscle cells - they have their thing.  Fat cells - you get the idea.  Even though the genetic material is the same, collections of cells in parts of the body have different attributes "switched on".  For example, in skin graft patients, if you take skin from an area of the body that is prone to fattening, that tissue will continue to fatten easily in its new location, even if that area is normally lean.  So, it's all the same stuff, but can behave quite differently.  

Exploring the Obesity Gene.

In recent years, scientists have isolated a gene that they believe is strongly associated with obesity.  It has a charming little name: FTO.  Actually, we all have the FTO gene, but a particular variant (or allelle) of the gene has been noted to be associated with increased weight.  Now, before you say "That's what I got!  That's why I can't lose weight!", let's break down the numbers.

About half of those of European or African descent are estimated to have the gene variant, while about 14% of those of Asian descent have it.  Among those that do, studies indicate an average of 2-7 pound difference (less if you have one instance of the variant, more if you have two instances).  So we're not talking about an insurmountable amount of weight difference here.  So, the average American has a 50-50 chance of having a gene combination that may cause them to weigh five-ish pounds more than a similar person who doesn't.  

It's sounding like a little less of a big deal isn't it?

Additionally, a series of the studies on the FTO gene indicated that it was associated with increased appetite / energy intake, but did not result in a reduced ability to expend energy.  In short, the gene doesn't make it physically more difficult for a person to lose weight, but seems to indicate a person more prone to gaining it.  

Genetics alone aren't a prescription for obesity, lifestyle is.

As I mentioned, some of the most revealing studies about obesity and genetics involve identical twins.  One study examined twin pairs where one was obese and the other wasn't.  The two were, of course, genetically identical, as well as having the same upbringing, access to activity, and, presumptively, attitudes about food.  Yet one was overweight and the other wasn't.  In itself, the existence of these pairs refutes the theory that genetics are the central cause of fattening.  

The study conducted detailed blood analyses of the pairs.  The results are very much worth noting.  
Each pair's blood work was in a somewhat different range.  But the difference between the obese twin and the leaner one was a pattern that repeated again and again.  The obese twin always had higher insulin resistance, higher fasting blood glucose, higher triglycerides, and lower HDL cholesterol. There were also increased levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in the lipid profiles of the obese twins.  

But my father was fat, and my grandfather too...

We derive our attitudes, behaviors, mannerisms, and habits through the imprint of those around us in our formative years.  Many of the conditions that have traditionally been considered to "run in families" turn out to be primarily lifestyle-related.  If you do the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, Einstein says that's insane.  Heredity may be a factor, but odds are, inhereted behaviors are the more likely culprit.

Genetic disorders that lead to obesity

Energy regulation comes down to hormones.  The two most common hormonal conditions that likely have a strong genetic component are hypothyroidism (Hashimoto's Disease) and Type I Diabetes.  Both are autoimmune disorders that prevent the body from producing sufficient hormones to properly regulate energy and frequently lead to obesity.  Both are noted to "run in families" but genetic association does not guarantee the condition (in twins where one of them is Type I, the other is only 30-50% likely to have it as well), nor does the lack of a family history guarantee immunity.  So it is likely a combination of factors.  A genetic susceptibility, triggered by environmental factors, possibly en utero, come together to trigger the full-blown condition.  

You can't change your genes anyway... or can you?

Which brings us back to the beginning and epigenetics.  Epigenetics is an evolving science - even the definition of the word itself is somewhat in dispute.  But, in general, it has to do with things that influence and impact our genetic functions.  Remember earlier that I mentioned how different cells have different attributes "switched" on or off, based on their function.  That switching is at the heart of epigenetics.  

A recent study discovered a form of micro-RNA that has the ability to switch off the FTO gene variant in our fat cells through exercise.  What exactly causes this switching activity is not clear, but unrelated studies do show that fit people show some "immunity" to the effects of overfeeding.  It opens up some interesting possibilities.  Maybe "nature" and "nurture" aren't mutually exclusive after all.  

IF you are one of those that has the FTO variant, and IF the micro-RNA switching is, as the study appears to indicate, directly influenced by exercise and weight loss, then, as those switched-off cells reproduce, you develop an ever increasing number of FTO-inactive cells throughout your body, which could, over time, result in a person becoming like those in the non-FTO population.  It seems like a lot of conditions just to capture a five-pound advantage, though, doesn't it?

Boiling it all down

For the vast majority of us, genetics play a role in where and how our bodies fatten, and, in the case of
carriers of the FTO "fat gene" variant, may predispose people to overeating to a degree - but not a huge degree.  Twins identical in all aspects but weight showed the key differences are in factors primarily affected by nutrition, not bodily function.  And those nutritional factors are reflective of people overwhelmed by high-glycemic index foods in their diet (insulin resistance, high fasting glucose, and high triglycerides/low HDL cholesterol).  

We're all born with the bodies we've got and will reside in the rest of our lives.  Each one is unique in its natural strengths and weaknesses.  But, for most of us, we can minimize or overcome weaknesses and maximize strengths through a planful application of nutrition and meaningful exercise. 

What is true is that, whatever path a person is on, fattening or getting leaner, there is a cascade effect of either negative or positive outcomes, which continue and multiply their impact to the body. That can make it feel like the kind of uphill battle that must mean your body is working against you.  To break the cycle, the best bet is to break it in multiple places at the same time.