(migrated from an old blog)
It may not be apparent at first, but anyone who wishes to go on a fitness regimen must be ready to do a lot of research on various topics. While not as important as determining your reason for dieting and exercising, having the necessary knowledge will help you avoid the disappointments caused by the lack of results from your efforts.
I’ll try to be as direct as possible in my posts to the point that some concepts will have to be dumbed down. I’ll leave it to you guys to do the extra research on the topics if you have the time.
This post will cover some of the basic concepts that people have to know when going on a fitness regimen. For your convenience, I’ve summarized them to short rules of thumb.
You want to lose fat, not weight.
Let’s put it this way: you could chop off your arm to lose weight quickly, but you probably wouldn’t do that, right?
This is probably the most important concept that everyone taking a weight loss regimen must know. This concept alone throws away a good number of misconceptions about dieting and exercise. Most of those so-called “advice” do not take into account that you don’t want to lose muscle along with fat.
Related to this concept is the concept of Body Fat Percentage which specifies how much of your body is made of fat. You might have heard about Body Mass Index which compares your weight with your height that’s not really an accurate measurement of fitness. Here’s a page showing just how BMI compares to BF% (here’s a similar page for the ladies). The only reason BMI is getting more attention than BF% is because it’s a much easier to measure the former than the latter, all you need is a weighing scale and something to measure the person’s height. For BF%, you’ll be needing specialized tools that are either expensive or hard to find, and neither can guarantee accurate results.
At this point it should be clear to you that managing your fat level is much more important than losing weight.
Dieting makes you lose both fat and muscle.
Aerobic exercise makes you lose fat and a bit of muscle.
Anaerobic exercise makes you lose a bit of fat. At the same time, it makes you gain muscle.
I had to oversimplify things, but this oversimplification should be enough for people new to the fitness scene.
Dieting makes you lose both fat and muscle. – Your body uses up energy to maintain bodily functions and perform tasks (no shit, Sherlock). Normally, that energy comes from food. Eat more food than what your body uses and your body stores the excess as fat. Eat less food than what your body uses and your body looks for other sources of energy, namely, your muscles and fat cells.
What many people fail to understand is that you cannot ask your body to just burn fat for energy. Under normal circumstances, your body will burn both muscle and fat for energy. Because of this, dieting alone will not lower your BF%. Even if you do follow a dieting regimen religiously, the most you can get from dieting is to turn into a skinny person like Nicole Richie in the link above.
Aerobic exercise makes you lose fat and a bit of muscle. – For those of you who recall their high school biology, aerobic respiration is the conversion of sugars to energy with oxygen in the equation. This produces more energy than anaerobic respiration (the one without oxygen), and as such, aerobic exercises are characterized as exercises that can be performed continuously for relatively long periods. Jogging and cycling are examples of aerobic exercises.
Aerobic exercise can be thought of as similar to dieting. It burns through your energy stores then when it’s depleted (especially after “hitting the wall”, roughly around the 30km mark of jogging), it focuses more on to your muscle and fat. The main reason why aerobic exercise appears to burn fat is that it helps deplete your excess energy (which could have been stored as fat). The muscle loss is also not drastic because most people don’t hit the wall when they perform exercises, and the body also repairs some of the muscles damaged due to the exercise (ala anaerobic).
Anaerobic exercise makes you lose a bit of fat. At the same time, it makes you gain muscle. – Now we move on the anaerobic exercises. Unless you’ve been reading articles related to fitness in the recent years, you might have the impression that anaerobic exercises (esp. weight training) should only be done by athletes and body builders. I can’t blame you: it’s hard, it’s painful, and to top it off, most people do it wrong.
Same as aerobic exercises, anaerobic exercises also help deplete your excess energy stores. Unfortunately, it takes a lot more effort to burn the same amount of energy with anaerobic exercises than with aerobic exercises. Anaerobic exercises, however, put more strain on the muscles, forcing the body to repair and reinforce the muscles. This would lead to increased muscle mass.
In case you haven’t noticed yet from the two articles on BF% above, having muscle in place of fat is a lot better than having none at all. Muscle is denser than fat, and so having more muscle actually makes you look thinner than someone with the same weight and height. Having more muscle allows you to burn more energy every day, making controlling your calories easier.
By now you might have noticed that I am a bit biased against aerobic exercise. Well, that’s true:
Aerobic exercise is out, Anaerobic exercise is in.
Don’t believe me? This picture from the intarwebs might convince you:
On the left is an Olympic marathon runner, while on the right is an Olympic sprinter. Yes, the pics are deceiving, but the trend is there – marathon runners are lean, but not muscular. After hundreds or thousands of hours of running, their bodies are trained to be efficient when it comes to energy because they need their energy stores to last 42 km.
On the other hand, sprinters are more muscular. They’re trained to be energy inefficient, burning through their energy stores in 400m or less.
By the time people noticed that energy inefficiency was better than energy efficiency when it comes to losing weight, it was already too late — people are already conditioned to think that aerobic exercise burns fat better than anaerobic exercise (in the short term, yes; in the long run, no). Still, there are a growing number of fitness experts that favor anaerobic exercises for weight loss and this has resulted in more recent anaerobic exercise focused techniques like HIIT.
Given the difficulty of anaerobic exercises compared to aerobic exercises, I wouldn’t suggest a sedentary individual do some sprints or start doing >25 push-ups in a row, so aerobic exercises are still ok for them. At the very least, aerobic exercises would ready their bodies for more difficult forms of exercise.
There is no “one size fits all” approach to fitness regimens.
You must determine the amount of dieting, aerobic exercise, and anaerobic exercise that you will perform in your regimen depending on your targets and your physical condition.
If someone living a sedentary lifestyle would ask me what he/she should do to lose weight, I would probably suggest that they first cut their calorie intake to be around their minimum daily calorie requirement, do some light aerobic exercises (30 mins brisk walking, 5 min jumping jacks, etc) 3 times a week, and some light anaerobic exercises (knee push-ups, crunches, 10 meter sprints, etc) 2 times a week . But then again, I’m not a fitness expert so why should they follow me. :P
Seriously, though, fitness regimens should be tailored to the individual. Ideally, weight loss would require a lot of focus on the diet, full body anaerobic exercise, and a bit of aerobic exercise. But there is no guarantee that that will work with everybody. Some people’s bodies might react to aerobic exercise better, others might get away with just cutting back on some food, and so on.
This “trial and error” approach is inevitable. Anyone who says otherwise is misguided.