Friday, January 25, 2013

Our Healthy Transformation (Part 3 of a series) - Lord, give me strength!

Welcome back to the third installment of how my fiancee, Michelle, and I have completely transformed our thinking, our bodies, and our lives over the last six months. In my previous post, "Learning How to Eat" I shared how we learned to appreciate the benefits of clean eating and eating with purpose by focusing on macro nutrients. I mentioned, too, that these discoveries coincided with the beginning of our exploration of strength training.

One thing I have learned thus far in my explorations of nutrition and fitness: almost every piece of it is contested knowledge. And people are passionate advocates for their version. It can be very frustrating when you are looking for simple answers. But there are a couple incontrovertible truths, and these form the foundation of our attitudes on strength.

Truth 1: You are either gaining fat or you are losing it.

People that want to lose weight (primarily) want to lose fat. That's key here and central to pretty much every assertion I'll make from here on out. Your body will burn fat when it doesn't have sufficient glucose available to provide energy to your muscles, brain, and other organs. This means, you need to do two things:

  1. Drive down the available levels of glucose in your system through your nutrition plan

  2. Create a need for increased conversion and consumption of fat to glucose through your exercise plan

If you have plenty of free-flowing glucose in your system (hello refined carbohydrates!), you are not going to burn fat, no matter what the treadmill meter says. I'll talk more about it in a future post, but this is the first preview of why "calories in/calories out" is problematic for weight (fat) loss.

I feel that I must state something here: there is NO SUCH THING as "spot reducing" fat from any targeted area of your body. You cannot tell your liver where to claim adipose tissue. Sadly - the areas we hate the most are likely to be the last ones to go.

Truth 2: You are either gaining muscle or are losing it.

"Toning" is a unicorn. It doesn't exist. Euphemisms employed by the commercial fitness industry, like "functional fitness" and "long, lean muscles" are little better. They are all empty promises. We realized that wanting to look better, feel better, and be able to function better really meant getting stronger. And, sadly, the female-oriented fitness machine is the worst offender of these urban myths. If I were President for just one day, I would abolish Zumba.

Truth 3: "Losing weight" really means reducing fat while improving (or at least not losing) your lean muscle mass

We realized that our weight and health were not new conditions. Our bodies had reached a level of homeostasis based on our lifestyle. Losing weight (fat) requires forcing your body to adapt to a new set of circumstances. Strength training creates adaptation in the body. And adaptation is critical to the entire premise of our journey. When you look at the effects of long-duration steady-state cardio, it just doesn't deliver the kind of adaptation you need.

Once we approached weight loss from this new perspective, it became clear that our goal was to actively work to get stronger.

Here is why it works:

  1. Muscle tissue burns glucose in order to perform work

  2. Muscles that are worked hard grow to be better able to perform that work

  3. Your body needs to do even more work to rebuild and grow more muscle (supercompensation)

  4. Your base metabolic rate is increased as a result of having the increased lean muscle

Okay - there are plenty of studies out there you can find that assert cardio is more effective for weight loss than strength training. But, when you look into the details of their findings, the participants are losing both fat and lean body mass. They are - in the very literal sense of the word - wasting away. And, with it, they are losing their ability to burn energy with those muscles. Also, most of these studies are, simply due to complexity and expense, limited in their duration and scope. And that really starts to cloud the support for the long-term benefits of steady-state as your primary tool for weight loss.

In addition to turning your body into a calorie-torching machine, strength training offered us a couple other very tantalizing benefits:

  • Positively impacts bone density

  • Increases hormone production

  • Increases insulin sensitivity

Honestly, I wish little fireworks would go off at the moment anyone reads that last bullet. It was a pivotal moment for us when we put together the carbohydrate-insulin-muscles-diabetes chain. With all of our new knowledge about nutrition, this aspect of strength training fit like the perfect puzzle piece into our evolving mindset.

We actually stared at each other over the course of a couple of days and asked each other rhetorically, "So by reducing refined carbs and regularly lifting weights, people could not only lose so much fat but actually prevent and maybe even reverse Type 2 Diabetes? Really? Can it really be that simple?"

Pretty much.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our Healthy Transformation (Part 2 of a series) - Learning how to eat

In the first post in this series, I introduced our starting point and decision to move to a healthier, stronger life. We discovered High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and, with it, opened a world of athletic science as a fresh alternative to the "diet and exercise" industry. But, nutritionally speaking, we were still in the old camp: moderation in all things, plenty of fiber, lean meats, watch your fats, and, the ever-popular hit "calories in < calories out = weight loss".

I have to take a moment and give my fiancee, Michelle, full props for most of the knowledge we have gained. She is a voracious reader, gifted researcher, critical thinker, and above all else, has an unparalleled ability to separate the useful information from the ubiquitous crap.

About the same time we discovered HIIT, Michelle was also being introduced to strength training through our trainer at Lifetime Fitness, Nick. He showed her a series of routines to rotate through daily to begin some well-rounded strength training. Then, he gave us the advice that launched the second stage of our transformation.

"Make sure you get plenty of protein, at least 100 grams a day. Get lots of vegetables, and then some fruits too." That was it! No calorie counting? No 'get plenty of fiber'? And -something that only became clear later - no "don'ts". It was all focused on what we should eat to feed our bodies to enable the work we were doing. Hmm.

Back to the internet. We started reading forums on T-Nation,, and Anabolic Minds, where we met giants like Tony Gentilcore, Mark Rippetoe, and many more. Again, being results-oriented, we looked to those that built the kinds of physiques that seem to occur only on television. We learned terms like "macro-nutrients" and "clean eating" and learned that processed foods substituted all sorts of interesting things so they could call their product "low fat" or "lite".

It was a little stunning. We were still absorbing the idea that jogging 20-30 minutes 3 times a week, a mantra that had been beaten in over two decades of military service, was not the most effective form of training. Now we were seeing added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and ingredients we couldn't pronounce lurking like villains in a cheap horror movie. And these are supposed to be the "healthy" foods. Honestly, the more we learned, we got a little angry at our ignorance. After all, we are educated, intelligent, relatively well-informed people. Its just that we were getting our information from the wrong place.

We actually made the adjustments to our diet (meaning lifelong nutrition plan, not temporary weight loss schtick) without much fuss. We ditched the pre-packaged foods and focused on meeting the nutrition goals Nick set out for us. Our shopping habits switched to shopping almost exclusively in the "perimeter" of the grocery store - fresh produce, meats, dairy, eggs - the good stuff.

People, I can't say this emphatically enough: learn to cook, really cook.

A funny thing happens when you start eating with purpose. You lose track of all the crap you used to eat. We didn't really have to try to cut (refined) carbs or sugars. There wasn't much room left for them. And, since we knew exactly what was going into the food we cooked fresh at home, we got rid of practically all of the sneaky things, like high fructose corn syrup and glutens, without having to buy specialty products.

The conventional wisdom of the exercise and fitness machine was falling apart like a house of cards. In a matter of weeks, we were applying tried-and-true standard practices from real experts in building strength and training athletes. The pounds came off, the body fat practically melted away, and the lean muscle mass took its place.

And this was just the beginning. In the upcoming posts, I'll cover the importance of strength training, insulin and metabolic syndrome, and how they have led us even further along our healthy transformation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Why I abandoned jogging for HIIT

I received questions after my last post about HIIT and its advantages over steady-state cardio.  So, before moving on to the second installment in my "Our Healthy Transformation" series, I thought I'd take the time to go into a little more detail about why High Intensity Interval Training is right for me (and may well be for you too).

I am not generating any new knowledge on the subject.  I recommend anyone interested (or skeptical) do their own reading.  The paper that changed my thinking on the subject, Sprint Interval Training - it's a HIIT!, written by Dr. Mark J. Smith, and posted on is a great place to start.  But find your own sources you trust.

As I have learned already in my journey for "definitive" answers to the questions of health, fitness, and nutrition - there are strong advocates in all sorts of camps, citing all sorts of studies.  As soon as you Google HIIT for yourself, you'll find just as many articles condemning it as promoting it.  I have chosen to respect the findings of those who have demonstrated the best results, backed by the best scientific foundation.

I'm in training for life.

Let's take some basic definitions:
"CARDIO" - having to do with the heart and circulatory system.
AEROBIC - consuming oxygen
ANAEROBIC - not consuming oxygen, relying on stored glycogen in the muscle
TRAINING - preparation to improve performance toward a specific objective

I want to get strong, lean, and be better able to tackle the challenges that life throws at me.  My heart is fine.  I'm not training it to work better.  I'm also not practicing to get better at efficient oxygen consumption.  In my 41 years, I have yet to be put in a life situation that required me to move away from or toward anything far away at a steady, moderate pace for 20-30 minutes.  Nor, have I been forced to do 57 crunches in under 2 minutes to save my life (thanks military PT test for THAT survival skill). I'm training for life.

Aerobic cardio, by definition, does not involve producing significant power from your muscles.  Sprinting all-out for up to a minute forces your muscles to produce explosive force anaerobically.  This produces muscle adaptation that makes you stronger and faster.  It also induces the recovery mechanisms that are such a strong factor in your overall metabolism.

You can't phone it in.

When you are doing interval sprints, you have to be there.  You have to watch your timing, plan your next set - be engaged with your workout.  I've done a lot of steady-state jogging.  It's daydream central. If you're looking for zen and jogging is how you get it - by all means, carry on.  But when you kick the treadmill up to 12.5mph, your entire body and mind are completely engaged in a single purpose - hauling butt and not falling off that bad boy.  

I'm on the clock.

Like many of us, I have to integrate my workout time into a fairly busy day.  As you improve in steady-state, you have to go longer and longer to get the same effects of a less efficient runner.  With HIIT, I spend 20 minutes on the treadmill, 2 days a week, and I am DONE!  I mean "take the elevator" done.  In that time, I currently cover just over 2.5 miles total distance and, according to the (woefully inaccurate) built-in calorie counter, burn around 250 calories.  That's just plain efficient.

I'm keeping score.

One of the great joys of HIIT for me is crossing a new threshold.  The first time I hit 11.0mph for a sprint I thought, "Oh, Lord, what did I just do?".  Now that's my cool-down run.  Steady state running, by definition, involves conserving energy to make it through.  It is immensely satisfying to be able to put it all on the table - 100% of what you can give - and see yourself hit a new personal best.  It's no different than lifting weights in that way.  You have a performance goal that is so much more powerful than "getting in my 20-30 minutes of cardio."

So there's my case. If this, combined with the white paper above, doesn't get you thinking, then HIIT just isn't for you. But I think everyone should at least give it a try and work it in to their cardio occasionally.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Our Healthy Transformation (Part 1 of a series) - She blinded me with(junk) science...

My fiancee and I have been on a truly remarkable journey these past six months. The results are - frankly - so astounding to me that I want to stop strangers on the street and share the revelation. Somehow, I think that sort of 'evangelical' approach might backfire. But our health is so vital that I just can't in good conscience keep it inside. I will post this series in my social forums. I hope you find it interesting and - most of all - helpful in your own goals.

To say that I was following the conventional wisdom would be an understatement. After 20 years in the military, filled with annual PT tests, weigh-ins, and all the plain vanilla guidance you could imagine, I was AWASH with it. Watch your calories, watch your fats, perform at least 20 minutes of cardio at least three times a week, and eat lots of grains. Oh - and the big one - lower your standards as you age. I was never overweight - the military saw to that - but I never had the healthy body that might be associated with a career military guy. More importantly, as a supervisor, I had a duty to keep my supervisees within standards as well. I dutifully recited the same guidance I had been given. And I lost good troops to the scale.

My fiancee and I left service about the same time. Like many veterans, we enjoyed the freedom from weigh-ins and PT tests and we languished happily for about a year. She was the first one to kick us off the couch and back into the gym.

We started off applying the same formulae that we had been initiated with for two decades. A nice, moderate, well-rounded set of exercises that, of course, included the obligatory 20-30 minutes on the treadmill. We settled in for the long haul of gradual and marginal weight loss.

Then came the first in a string of transformative moments. You see, my fiancee HATES running. With a burning passion. Nothing could be more boring or pointless to her. So, she hit the internet to see what else might be out there. She came across a white paper that she shared with me about High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). The article showed two pictures side by side: a long distance runner and a sprinter. The author asked the obvious question: which would YOU rather look like? The emaciated marathoner or the buff, powerful sprinter? Umm - duh!

The article also revealed a very powerful point about the different mindset between the ubiquitous steady-state cardio world and the sprinting world. "It's not okay to SUCK at sprinting!" Fun-runners, and the avid cardio crowd tend to promulgate a "you're okay, I'm okay" mentality, both in terms of social culture and in individual effort. Just look around you at your fellow treadmillers - how many of them look measurably better than they did six months ago? How many of them would you hold up as your personal standard of peak fitness? Isn't that we really all want?

Think about this: how many people do you actually know that have had a total body transformation following Weight Watchers or similar? Calorie counting? A particular workout routine you've seen pitched as the "next great thing"? The diet/fitness industry is replete with self-sustaining, profit-continuing failure. Yet we are surrounded by examples of athletes who constantly work to improve their bodies, following workout and nutritional plans. If you're looking for the best, why not start with those who have demonstrated world-class success?

Well, we are both hopelessly results-oriented. We couldn't help but be compelled to change our thinking and behavior. We started doing HIIT workouts on cardio days and LOVED it. But, more importantly, we started looking more at athletic science (coaches and trainers of world-class athletes) rather than the conventional diet/exercise/fitness scene. After all, if you want results, shouldn't you pattern yourself after the very best example of your personal goal?

From that moment, it was like waking up from a bad dream. It led us to start thinking critically and finding our own answers to our questions about fitness, nutrition, and health. In the last six months, we have gotten smart read voraciously, made a lot of incremental changes, and now are in the best shape of our lives. To be specific, we've both cut our body fat percentage in half, gained lean muscle, look better, sleep better, and LOVE eating.

In the next installment, I'll talk about the next step in the thread: approaching our nutrition.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

You are pre-diabetic! - Yes you!

The headline may sound a little dire, but if you bear with me for just a moment, I'm hoping this will inspire someone to action. Now is probably a good time to insert a "I'm not a doctor and you should probably talk to yours about this" disclaimer. Good? Read on.

My parents are obese. My father is type II. My mother has Alzheimer's (early onset). My father-in-law also has type II diabetes. I'm not getting any younger and my family history isn't all that rosy. So we decided to get smart about nutrition, health, and wellness.

If you accept the premise that a "pre-" condition is one where one or more factors exist that are reasonably likely to result, over time, in a full-blown clinical diagnosis, then, in this instance, "pre-diabetic" means that you are running with a dietary crowd of hooligans that - sooner or later - will land you in trouble.

So - what are these conditions?

1. Do you eat the "Standard American Diet"? - Cereal or toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch (with white bread or buns), pastas, soda, enough sweet stuff to constitute a renewable energy source.

2. Are your pantry and fridge loaded with boxes and packages with labels, rather than whole, raw foods? - Processed foods (ESPECIALLY those with labels like "low fat") are designed to last a long time on your shelf, distribute cheaply, and make you want (read: purchase) more again soon. As a result, these foods are composed of the cheapest ingredients possible, nearly devoid of any real nutritional value, substituted highly with additives that improve texture and longevity, and flavored with chemicals that are literally designed to be addictive to the eater.

3. Are you getting enough sleep? - Your body needs sleep to repair itself.  Sleep deprivation is chronic in America and we have lost track of how important it is.  The body undergoes metabolic recovery during sleep that it can't accomplish any other time.  Short on sleep and your body is stressed.  A stressed body is preparing itself for hard times.  In evolutionary terms, that means storing fat.

4. Are you happy with your body? - I realize this is touchy, but are YOU, in yourself, not because of Cosmo or Men's Fitness cover shots, truly happy and comfortable with how you look with your clothes off? Most of us shoot right to the imperfections in our appearance, and if your issue is with the extra 5, 10, or insert-number-here pounds that seem to accumulate in unwanted places, then you, like most of us, are storing extra fat that is the result of your body having more carbohydrate intake than it can put to use.

There you have it. Did you see yourself in two or more of these questions? If so, you're on your way. You are engaged in behaviors that nutritional science KNOWS will ultimately lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and ultimately type II diabetes. Even more disconcerting, many researchers are now considering Alzheimer's Disease to be type III diabetes! These facts are easily verifiable on just about any reputable site about health, fitness, and nutrition. By all means, be skeptical and see for yourself.

I hope, by now, I have your attention.

What can you do to change the course?

Understanding that human health is enormously complex and that everyone is different and responds differently, these suggestions are the most broadly applicable to the majority of otherwise healthy adults. Again - talk with your doctor, nutritionist, or personal trainer about what's best for you.

Action 1 - Lose the processed packaged foods.
We have become completely inundated with nationally branded convenience food products, up and down every aisle of every grocery store. Even worse, we've had two generations of marketers telling us that we "don't have time" to cook fresh and that it's "too hard". The problem is, YOU HAVE NO IDEA, speaking nutritionally or even chemically, what you're putting in your body. Nutrition labels are really no help for most of us.
Try this experiment: Go into your pantry and pick out any five "healthy" items. Read the ingredients. How many of them have corn syrup (i.e. sugar), gluten (a common substitute for natural fats in "healthy" alternatives that acts as a binder), or chemicals you can't pronounce, much less identify as food? How can anyone possibly control or even evaluate their nutrition plan with so many hidden traps?

Professional athletes and body builders have been "eating clean" for years. While the exact definition remains elusive, the more readily you can identify the things you eat as something that once walked the earth, swam the ocean, or grew in the ground, the better off you are. Have you ever heard of a diabetic olympian?

Shop the "outer" regions of your store. Fresh produce, meats, and dairy. There are thousands of recipe sites online. Cooking fresh isn't any more difficult or time-consuming than from a box. Its more rewarding to serve your family and it tastes better too.

Action 2 - Ditch the simple refined carbohydrates (yes, sugar, I mean you)
The good news is, if you have taken action 1, you're already halfway (or more) there. Once you can see the precise ingredients that go into what you eat, it's pretty hard to miss which components might be leading you astray.

Your body naturally makes sugar out of nearly every food you eat. There is no nutritional need to consume it. Your muscles burn sugar in order to contract and produce force. Your body produces insulin to transport the sugar through the bloodstream to the muscles that need it. So, in that sense, sugar in the blood is essential for you to function. BUT: not all sugar is the same.

WARNING: Food science for dummies.

Sugar belongs to the macronutrient group: carbohydrates. Most foods have some carbohydrate content naturally. The kind of sugar your body uses to produce fuel for the muscles is glucose. Refined sugar is half glucose and half fructose. High fructose corn syrup has twice the amount of fructose as table sugar. Fructose IS NOT used by muscle tissue to produce energy. It is metabolized by the liver into - you guessed it - fat. Complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and simple carbohydrates like fruit primarily offer glucose.

So, the more sugars you consume, the more your body has to produce insulin to try and deal with it. If your muscles aren't depleted or, worse, have become resistant to insulin due to the constant barrage of sugars in your diet, the body doesn't know what to do with the sugar. It causes a chain reaction of additional insulin production as the body has to work harder and harder to find a way to process it. In short - that cola is a time bomb!

The strategy that worked for us was putting protein "forward" in our nutrition plan. We made meats, eggs, and cheeses the primary and central ingredient in most of our meals. It is hearty and satisfying and it becomes a major player in Action 3. Second on the plate are vegetables - any kind and as many as you want. Carbs (bread, pasta, potatoes, etc) become the supporting actor to a meal, rather than the prominent filler.

Action 3 - Ramp up your metabolism with strength training.
Your resting metabolic rate depends largely on your body composition. Muscle tissue burns 75 calories an hour compared to fat which burns only 5. This is what you call a win-win! Since your muscles need to work in order to burn accumulated sugar, and the more lean muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate, incorporating a regular regime of strength training as a priority in your fitness plan will not only help burn existing sugar supplies (including stored fat) but reduce insulin resistance and turn your body into a better calorie-burning machine going forward.

One of the great side benefits of strength training is that your body will be tired.  Not in the drained, emotionally exhausted way, but in the "I've got some repair work to do" way.  I bet you dollars to donuts that if you start a weightlifting routine you will find yourself sleeping faster, better, and longer.

If you're hard-core cardio, consider swapping a couple of your workouts for strength training. I'll bet you see gains in both.

If you're hard-core couch, getting started is easier than you think. And what could be more important than your long-term health?

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Instead of Resolutions, Examine your Priorities

Happy New Year everyone! I, for one, am looking forward to what 2013 brings, and I hope the same is true for you.

Let's talk about resolutions for a moment. Its a fine tradition. But, on the very day everyone is making them, I see stories all over the news telling you that you're just going to break them anyway. While, statistically, that's probably true, it seems like an awfully defeatist attitude. Or - are we just enabling each other? Letting each other off our prospective hooks? If the purpose of a resolution is to improve some aspect of our lives that is important to us, then why are they so easily broken?

THE PREMISE: Our priorities are where we devote our time and our energy. Where we devote our time and energy, quality follows.

Years ago, a wise mentor told me, "you can do a few things well or a lot of things badly." I have passed that on a hundred times, but never really followed his advice myself. I've recently had the opportunity to take a fresh look at how my life was playing out. I realized that I was spread so thin I could barely breathe. I was constantly giving my last ounce of energy to people and causes. And I THOUGHT I was actually pulling it all off. I was SUCH a good person! Does that sound familiar to anyone? I bet it does.

I finally took steps. I actually made a list of the principles that were most important to how I live my daily life. I called it my household creed. I used it to examine the relationships in my life, my commitments, and my direction. It was a revelation! The truth was, I was constantly falling short in just about every area of my life, because I was only giving each about 10% of my energy and attention. And personal well-being? Forget it! There was no "me" in there. And, if by some chance there was, I felt guilty - selfish - for taking the time for myself.

I started making changes immediately. I had some tough conversations with people. I turned off a number of commitments. But, surprisingly, it wasn't that hard. I knew that I wasn't really giving those people my best in the first place. I also knew that those commitments were out of some sense of social obligation, rather than because they were highly important to me personally.

Now - reality has to set in here. Most of us have to work to feed, clothe, and house ourselves and our families. THOSE are always priorities. But, if the energy you're devoting to playing workplace politics isn't in line with what really matters to you, then have you considered entering a "maintenance mode" with your career? Where can that time, energy, and devotion be better spent? Are there other activities, expenses, or commitments you could trim to give you more latitude to focus on what's truly important?

This year, before you make a list of resolutions of additional things you "should" be doing (or doing better), take a few minutes (or days - this is your life we're talking about) to examine your priorities. Write them down. Then, look at what your time and energy over the past year say about whether you're being true to them. If they're out of whack - make a course correction. THAT's a resolution everyone should be able to keep.