June 7, 2012
I used to be really out of shape. Throughout elementary school, I dreaded those Presidential Fitness tests. The most embarrassing part for me was the pull ups. All we boys in class would stand in line for the pull up bar. When my turn came, I would tell the teacher that I couldn’t do a pull up. The teacher always made me try. I would pitifully cling to the bar and will myself to pull up. When I didn’t budge, the teacher had me try a bent-arm hang. When that failed too, I would do a straight arm hang for ten-ish seconds before my arms gave out. The whole time I could feel the other boys’ judging me. Every year, I’d repeat this pathetic ritual.
In high school, I was a bit more healthy through no fault of my own. My school required sports. I ran cross country in the fall and did track in the spring. I would grouse about the mandatory sports requirement all the time though. When the chance came to manage cross country my junior year, I jumped on it. Now I didn’t have to do sports in the fall trimester. In the winter trimester, I ran lights for the school play. So for my junior and senior years, the only sport I did was track for one trimester. Even then, I did X Squad, where we just messed around. So for much of my life, I scoffed at exercise as a waste of time.
Then, I started to rock climb in college. I love climbing. My favorite aspect is figuring out the puzzle and using technique. How to position your feet, your hands, your body to go up just a few more feet. I very quickly realized that my technique was being held back by my body. I still could not do a pull up. I had no stamina. This really limited what I could do and frustrated me. I came to view every pound of fat as a pound more that I had to haul up the wall. So I decided to get rid of the fat.
Getting back in shape is a long, arduous process. Any book, program, or person who tells you otherwise is lying. Most diet books are like so: “I thought getting in shape was really hard. I tried all these other things, but none of them worked. Now I have discovered the secret that makes dieting easy and unlike those programs, this one works!” Yeah, I totally believe you and not all those other guys!
As a chemical engineer, I break everything into mass and energy balances. Losing fat to me is simply an energy balance of the form: energy accumulation = energy input − energy output. Energy accumulation is the stored fat in your body. Energy input is the caloric content of the food you eat. Energy output is all the energy you use, comprised of your resting (basal) metabolism and your active energy use. So, if I want to turn energy accumulation into energy depletion, I simply have to use more energy than I take in. However, I knew that your body would decrease its metabolism in response to decreased caloric intake, and I knew that both fat and muscle can be used for energy. I did not know enough details to lose fat and keep muscle. I knew I needed help.
So I read “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle”. It opened my eyes to how the body uses food. It told me that I shouldn’t be concerned with how much I weigh, but rather what my body fat percentage is. I adopted its up-down-down cycle of dieting. On down days I would fall 10% short of my daily caloric need, and on up days I would meet or slightly exceed that need. By following this cycle, I prevented my body from dropping my metabolism.
Either eating less or exercising more can create the caloric shortfall. I decided to do more, which again helps prevent the body from dropping its metabolism. By using strength training, I was telling my body, “I really need my muscles, so please use up those fat reserves instead thank you.” After awhile, my metabolism was super high. I started to think of food as junk (à la William S. Burroughs) and if I missed a meal, I would become ravenous. I had never experience hunger so acute before in my life.
I was your average American throughout life until my summer prior to senior year of college. I was overweight, did not get daily exercise, ate your usual Western diet of fried foods, and never thought about my weight or health beyond the occasional, “I should get back into shape” thoughts that never translated into action. It wasn’t until I realized the limitations of my body that I committed to a lifestyle change of regularly exercising, dieting, and eating more nutritious foods. This change successfully dropped my percentage of body fat and led to much more fun on the climbing wall.
This post is the first in a series on healthy living and culture. I figured I would tell my personal story before I start delving into the writings of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and David Zinczenko.