Thursday, September 19, 2013

Who do you think looks better naked?

MYTH # 2: Do cardio to burn fat

This myth ties in with the calories in, calories out myth. Conventional wisdom will tell you that you should do volumes of steady-state cardio or "chronic cardio" (to steal a term from Mark Sisson), in order to get in that "fat-burning zone". 

Jump on the treadmill, stationary bike, elliptical or stair-master for 30-40 minutes three or four times a week and the fat will just drop off you, right? Wrong. 

As controversial as this might sound I honestly believe that you are wasting your time if this is your exercise routine. 

The benefits of doing chronic cardio such as this are minimal - yes you will improve your cardiovascular fitness up to a point, and you will get very efficient at jogging/cycling/climbing for 30-40 minutes on a stationary machine but after the initial gains you will plateau and the only way to improve is to increase the volume over time. 

Before you know it you are running for an hour, five times a week and you don't look, feel or perform any better - aside from being very good at running for an hour on a treadmill. 

Chronic cardio is unsustainable and can become detrimental to your health. Why? Once again it comes down to your hormones. Jogging for 40 minutes is a stress to your body. Being overweight or having poor running form - as most people do due to our penchant for big, cushy running shoes - will only increase the stress to your body.

Punctuated, acute, small amounts of stress to the body can be a good thing. The process is called 'hormesis'. The body adapts to the stressor and becomes stronger for it... Up to a point. 

Chronic stress in high volume - such as running marathons - has the opposite effect. The stress overwhelms the body. Cortisol and adrenalin (the fight or flight hormones) flood the system and the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) dominates the parasympathetic (relax and recover) nervous system too much of the time. 

If this hormonal and nervous-system imbalance persists then the wheels will start to fall off your wagon of health. 

Adrenal fatigue will likely ensue. Your sleep suffers, you feel agitated, anxious, lethargic and hungry. Ironically the only time you feel good is during and after training when serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are elevated. This only perpetuates the downward spiral as you train harder and more in order to feel better, periodically.

In the stressed state your body retains fat, especially the (bad) visceral fat around the midsection and organs. You crave insulin-spiking carbohydrates to pep up energy levels and suffer energy slumps throughout the day. At night you have the 'tired and wired' feeling of physical exhaustion coupled with mental alertness making getting to sleep difficult. Sound familiar? 

Anyone who has overtrained in the past will be familiar with the above symptoms. Adrenal fatigue is particularly common among type-A personalities who crave stress, adrenalin, excitement and don't know when to back off the training. I have definitely suffered in the past due to my obsession with the gym. 

Bradley Wiggins - Winner of the 2012 Tour de France... looking jacked!

Our Warped Perception of Fitness

Unfortunately our modern definition of fitness is greatly at odds with the natural state of health that is our God-given right.

In the last couple of decades we have come to herald the endurance sports. Marathons, ultra-marathons, Iron Man, triathlons and distance road cycling are no longer the realm of professional athletes. Every day, busy people are pursuing these activities as a hobby. 

While I am in awe of such feats of endurance, dedication and mental toughness, I discourage people from jumping into marathons or triathlons as a means to improve health, longevity or body composition. 

If your goal is to run a marathon or complete an Iron Man then I respect that and wish you every success. But if your goal is to look, perform and feel great then I would suggest you stay the hell away from the inevitable overtraining, pain and suffering associated with such endurance sports. 

Running marathons is not healthy. There are studies that show that long term distance running can negatively impact life expectancy. One particular 30 year study that followed 52,600 people found that those who run more than 20 or 25 miles per week had the same mortality risk as the sedentary people in the study (Hauser, 2012). Other studies show the potential for acute and long-term damage to the heart of running marathons (Schmermund, 2008). 

Let's not forget that legend states that the first dude to run a marathon dropped dead from a heart attack after he finished. True story! 

At the risk of touting unscientific, observational generalisations, it just seems to me that endurance athletes on the whole don't appear to represent the pinnicle of human health, IN MY OPINION. How many marathon runners look emaciated, feeble and old well beyond their years? 

I've seen plenty of cyclists, iron men and triathletes that look ten years older than their age, and I don't think it's merely the sun damage. Punishing your body to the extremes of aerobic capacity is an incredibly pro-inflammatory pursuit, causing oxidative stress and potentially speeding up the aging process. 

Of course some of this will be offset by the benefits of maintaining a good lean muscle mass, insulin sensitivity and adequate vitamin D levels and many other confounding factors associated with extreme fitness pursuits.

But for the lay person who just wants to look good naked, are marathons or 200km bike races a good route to healht? Not in my opinion. 

Excessive cardio training and the lifestyle and diet that goes along with it (having to fuel the body with high glycemic and nutrient-poor carbohydrates such as sports drinks, energy gels, grain-based carbohydrates and processed foods) is a sure recipe for poor long-term health. 

From personal experience, when I went through my obsession with road cycling a few years ago I was routinely cycling 60-100km a day, several days a week. I felt great on the bike but my overall health and wellbeing suffered. 

I was relying on crappy carbohydrates to get by - smashing sports drinks on the bike and then munching down museli and yoghurt, muffins and other snacks throughout the day. I was permanently hungry and over-tired. 

I was utterly spent and useless for a day or two after a big ride. I got sick frequently with minor colds and sore throats. My mood was all over the place and cycling became more of an obsession/addiction than a healthy outlet and mode of transport - as it should be.

I still absolutely love cycling and going on long rides once in a while but now it's purely for fun, not as a competitive or fitness pursuit.

Halfway through a 170km ride during 'Around the Bay' fundraiser in Melbourne. Fun!
Of course the drawbacks of pushing myself too hard on the bike only became clear in hindsight. After adopting a Paleo diet and smarter fitness regime I now understand that you don't need to train like mad to be fit and healthy. 

Now I understand that eating clean, resting and training less but smarter is the best way to live well, feel good and increase your overall productivity in life. With the exception of a nasty bacterial chest infection in July I haven't been sick in two years. It's actually not 'normal' to get colds every winter. 

I feel lucky to have worked this out relatively quickly and at a young age. Most people, however - mainly due to a poor diet - never discover what it is like to actually feel good most of the time. 

I think this is why it becomes easy to fall into the 'fitness' trap. 

Training hard feels good. At first you get great results. Even when overtraining you still always feel good after a long, hard session. It is easy to become addicted. And doing some training - even too much of the wrong kind - can be better than doing nothing. 

But I'm here to give you a short cut and to save yourself years of pain, plateaus and unhappiness that can come about from chronic cardio and overtraining. 

Clearly not everyone is at risk of overtraining. Most people can get away with doing chronic cardio a few times a week and may even benefit from it. My avid cycling friends are super fit, happy and healhty and will likely balk at this post. However, cycling is their obsession and not just a means of looking good naked. 


I congratulate my friends who have completely marathons. I am even considering doing some sprint triathlons myself one day for fun. Endurance feats have their place, but they are not the best path to achieving your health and body composition goals. 

If looking good naked is your goal, there are far better, easier, healthier and more enjoyable ways to achieve good body composition that don't involve mindlessly jogging on a treadmill for hours each week.

I know I'm gonna get some outraged runners and pissy cyclists here that will chose to ignore my advice (which is fine) but please listen to what I'm saying: If your goal is to get lean (which I define as improving body composition by lowering your body fat percentage and increasing your lean muscle mass percentage - i.e. absolute weight does not matter!) then I am recommending that you don't focus on cardio training as your main route to weight loss. 

If your goal is to get good at running 10km then by all means run your little legs off. I even encourage people to do some higher volume cardio once in a while to mix it up and to maintain a baseline for aerobic endurance. 

You never know when you may need to run 42.195km to deliver a message that the Persians have been defeated...

ANTI-RULE #2: Train less but smarter and avoid chronic cardio

You'll have to trawl through my other articles on fitness to get more insight into how to train smart to get lean. But in a nutshell: 

  • Lift heavy weights at least once a week, preferably twice - This must be a real challenge. Strength gains are important and building lean muscle mass is key. Don't worry girls, you won't get bulky! 
  • Do all-out sprints at least once a week - This can be on a track, a hill, on sand, a treadmill, a bike, a rower, swimming, anything as long as it is an all out (balls to the wall) effort (scaled to your fitness level, of course, Grandma). 
  • Do lots of low-level activity such as walking - a few hours a week, ideally.
  • Do other activities that you enjoy, as much as possible - whether it be yoga, pilates, hiking, frisbee, surfing, climbing etc. Preferably outdoors and with friends.

And of chief importance - exercise is only a small piece of the puzzle... maybe 20 percent. This is a contentious issue in itself. Any personal trainer or exercise physiologist will tell you that exercise is paramount because you need to build lean muscle and improve insulin sensitivity in order to lose weight. 

And I agree… up to a point. Exercise is important, but diet is crucial. You can spend time and money tweaking an engine to get a few more horsepower out of it, but if you're still putting rubbish fuel in the car won't run any better. 

This is why I still maintain that nutrition is the real key. Exercise all you want but if you eat crap not even Zeus can help you look good naked.

Click here for the final installment, PART III, on Weight-loss Myth # 3: 'Eat low fat to lose weight'

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