A calorie is a measure in thermodynamics of the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water through 1 °C, equal to one thousand small calories (kilocalorie) and often used to measure the energy value of foods. We burn these units of energy in our body by breaking the chemical bonds between molecules and converting them into usable forms. The resulting energy expenditure often produces heat as a by-product.
I’ve been dieting for a little while to get my weight down. I’m not really out of shape, but I know that a lower weight will allow me to function better in yoga teaching and other endeavors. And, I also know I’ll be in a better place to stave off diabetes and heart disease if I am at a lower weight.
I was just thinking the other day as I was watching the show Naked and Afraid. The couple that was on the show was in very good shape. I would have to commend their preparation for the show. However, for a survival challenge, it doesn’t help one bit to be anywhere below 10-15% bodyfat for a man or 20-25% for a woman. The “reserve” energy that is in fat is useful when surviving on very little food, hot day-time temperatures, and cold (for naked) night-time temperatures. If anything, I’d be cramming down the calories in preparation to give myself some reserve energy.
In the reverse situation, if a person who is very fit and active happens to have an injury or long-term illness, the transition to a sedentary life could result in unwanted weight gain. So the better starting point for this situation would be to have a lot of muscle and very low bodyfat. Then they have the potential to recover more quickly and get back to their functional body composition.
The problem I see is when we age. What should our body composition be as we get into our later years? And it may not even be as old as you think. Many active men can eat what they want into their 20’s, but by their 30’s, their metabolism slows down and they tend to gain weight. Women follow the same pattern, but it is accelerated if they go through pregnancy. Regardless, you want to set yourself up for success as you go into the next age.
Where a car’s engine is what burns the fuel that we put into the gas tank, so are the muscles to the human body. The more muscles we have, the faster we burn. On average, men have more muscle mass than women and tend to lose weight faster. However, a man who is without much muscle mass will suffer the same inability to lose weight. So the first step is to build muscle. And I’m not only talking about skeletal muscle. Your heart is a muscle too and it needs to get stronger as well. A stronger pump and stronger engine leads to a better ability to burn fuel. And this is entirely true for women too. Muscle-to-weight ratio is a relative game.
The uphill climb is testosterone and other growth factors. Both men and women have them, and they decline in both as we age. So as we get older, weaker, and vigor declines, reacting to conditions becomes much more difficult. That’s why we have to set ourselves up for success earlier in life. The earlier the better. It is much easier to maintain a functional weight than to try to fix the problem at a later date.
Here are a few steps to success:
- Build muscle first. Eat to perform. You can’t work out and build muscle if you are restricting your diet. Work on getting stronger first. And work your heart as well. Make the strongest engine you can before proceeding. Make strength goals for yourself.
- Burn your engine. Once you reach your strength goals and heart stamina, then start to burn more fuel than you take in. When you are in calorie deficit, you’ll start to lose weight (if the goal is weight loss). But don’t go so much into deficit that you can’t perform.
- Maintain your ideal weight. At first, this may mean tracking calorie intake and expenditure (I use the Fat Secret app). If you learn to hold your weight, then you’ll be in a better position to react to changes. This is key to longevity. It gets more difficult every year of life. So get there now and stay there.
Note: I am very against BMI (body mass index). For sedentary people, the BMI may be useful. But for anybody who lives an active life, the BMI goes out the window. This is especially true if you carry any appreciable amount of muscle mass. Muscle is much more dense and heavy than fat. So for a given height, the weight classification is erroneous. Most bodybuilders and strength athletes are considered obese or morbidly obese by BMI standards. Likewise, endurance athletes would be considered underweight by BMI standards. Whereas both groups are very healthy. A better measure is bodyfat percentage. You can get tested hydrostatically (most accurate) or there are fancy bioimpedance weight scales that gives you a rough estimate. Generally, men are considered very athletic if they fall somewhere at or below 10% bodyfat and women about 18%. To survive in most scenarios, it is best to not go too far below these standards for best health.