Monday, January 30, 2006

DF Tip #5: A Fitness Myth

Myths pop up like Hydra’s heads in my profession, usually because a single athlete did something with diet or exercise and achieved some success; subsequently everyone decides that THAT THING is the Holy Grail of health and fitness. We’re all a bit like lemmings in this respect. Learn that Lank Hearthrob eats elderberry root to add definition to his gastrocnemei, and we start downing the stuff like chickens at the trough.

Here’s one of my favorites, Myth #5,236: “I need to lose fat. So I need to do aerobics, not weight training.”

As with most myths, there’s a grain of truth in there: aerobic exercise does burn fat, readily and directly, and that’s why for many years—up to and including today—researchers recommended steady-state, easy aerobic exercise for weight control. They would suggest you go out for a walk with a friend and if you can carry on a conversation, you’re happily in the ‘fat-burning zone.’

There’s nothing WRONG with that advice, exactly—it’s safe and it’s supported by research about health and exercise. But it’s not the whole picture. In fact, it may very well be that the most time-effective way to burn fat is not steady-state aerobic work but its meaner, tougher cousin, heart-pounding, muscle-building anaerobic exercise.

Now I don’t want to slag off your standard aerobic workout. Steady-state aerobic work is great for your cardiovascular system, and it certainly burns fat, but it does so almost exclusively DURING exercise, and even then not until after almost 20 minutes of work—about the time most of us are already in cool-down mode. Following exercise, the metabolism does not stay elevated for an appreciable period. In order to get that post-exercise fat burn, you’ve got to work anaerobically—and for fat-loss, post-exercise fat burn is where it’s at.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at some recent stars of track and field: you’ve got your long-distance runners, your middle-distancers, and your sprinters. It’s reasonable to assume that they’re all spending the bulk of their training hours abiding carefully by the SAID principle (Yes, my tips are cumulative!), and thus doing mostly long, middle, and short distances, respectively. Now, if today’s myth is true—that only aerobic work burns fat—the long distance guys should be lean, the middle-distancers mildly flabby, and the sprinters downright chubsters.

But it ain’t so.

GreeneJonesI mean, c’mon—you could lose a purse full of change in the cuts in 100-meter-dasher Maurice Green’s abs. And middle distance queen Marion Jones makes Angela Bassett look like a pre-surgery Al Roker. These folks are lean, mean, anaerobic machines. In fact, for my money, they look better than their long-distance cousins, whose names I don’t know because let’s face it, I’m less impressed by their emaciated physiques. Sprinters look great, and what they do seems exciting and sexy by comparison with the plodding, dogged long-distance guys (I’m a long-distance dabbler myself and thus allowed to say such things). Shallow? Yes! In agreement with most of the Olympic-watching population? Absolutely!! Off on an irrelevant tear about physical aesthetics in the early 21st century? YES!

Sprinters are lean because of a phenomenon called EPOC (exercise physiology is more loaded with acronyms than the military). EPOC stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, and describes a period during which the metabolism stays revved above your base level while recovering from intense (anaerobic) exercise. During this period, your body is metabolizing lactic acid, a by-product of this type of exercise that is responsible in part for the burning sensation in your muscles towards the end of a bout of anaerobic work. The elevated metabolism requires energy (calories), and these extra burned calories, combined with those burned during the anaerobic work itself, are generally speaking GREATER than the calories required during the average session of pure, easier aerobic work. PLUS anaerobic work builds muscle more readily than aerobic work does, and muscle, as we know, looks great and burns extra calories, even at rest.

So if you’re like me and more impressed with the performance and look of the short-distance folks, why are we all emulating the exercise patterns of marathoners? Why don’t we throw in some sprint work and watch our legs and midsections transmogrify into those of a poor man’s Marion Jones or Maurice Green?

So here’s how to do it, in a nutshell: you’ve got to add some intensity to your workout. You’ve got to nudge yourself out of your comfort zone and into a place where your heart rate is really up (over 80% of maximum); your muscles burn a little, and you’re really working to catch your breath. This may take the form of a tough leg workout (see my tip from a couple weeks ago) or a set of five or six 1-2 minute fast intervals during your cardio workout, a tennis or basketball game with an opponent who keeps you running up and down the court all day, even a push or two up a steep hill on your daily jog.

Now remember: you can’t sprint all the time, and you certainly can’t start sprinting tomorrow if the most exercise you’ve gotten this year has been thumb-presses on the remote. You’ve got to build up to it. And once you’re there, you’ve got to be more careful about getting adequate rest, stretching carefully after exercise, and spacing out your workouts so you’re not risking injury. Generally I’d suggest keeping your hard-core anaerobic work down to 2-3 times per week, interspersed with rest days or sessions of steady-state training. But once you get over the initial shock of how tough sprinting can be, it’s really fun. I mean, when was the last time you ran all-out for ANY period of time for ANY reason? And why do 8-year olds do it all the time and the rest of us NEVER do?

Shoot me an email and let me know how it goes for you.

Enjoy the week. 2006 appears to be here to stay--



honkeie2 said...

This is week two for me and the legs are much better and not as sore. But I plan on adding some printing to my workout in the nea future. There is a track less than a block away from me, so here i come!

Anonymous said...

This blog have been helped me a lot to realize more things regarding the tax related issues which is very much interesting.Personal Trainer Network