I’ve wondered how to live “naturally” for a while. I probably got into it when I started learning about the paleolithic diet and how humans used to just roam around like gorillas and munch on leaves, dig up starchy tubers, devour wild berries, and hunt game.

It sounded like an awesome lifestyle to idiots like me who wanted to live “naturally.” I mean it’s actually a shitty lifestyle. Life today is way better, let’s just establish that as a fact. We don’t have to spend hours searching for food like animals do. We can do fun things with our time and just buy food to save time. Now buying food all the time will likely not lead to the best health, but I’m just saying; we have more time because we don’t have to spend all day hunting and being hungry.

But that life could be wicked fun too. What if you were part of a community that did everything together? The men went out and found food. Women made crafts and such. Kids played all day long and learned from the elders. It could be a very abundant lifestyle filled with more joy than people experience in today’s hyperstimulated environment. I don’t go out hunting with people I could call family and just chill all day. I have to work in order to buy food so I don’t die. I study because I have the choice to and it’s my passion; but it takes a lot of energy. I don’t have basic skills that I would have if I was a hunter-gatherer. I live in a city away from family, alone.

I eventually realized something. There is no one natural lifestyle. Culture also influences lifestyle, and it’s hard to call anything “natural.” Your best bet at figuring out what’s “natural” today is studying what extant hunter-gather tribes and other indigenous people do. But still, among those people are many permutations of what is natural. We have the ability to define natural, with our intellect. We can pave the way.

In contrast, you could easily study the natural lifestyles of various animals. Lifestyles would differ depending on the species, but there would be some predictable elements. With humans, the only predictable elements are that we shit, eat, sleep, and reproduce. But how we do those things can differ depending on culture. We defecate in toilets today, but “naturally” you could just use a hole in the ground and some buckets with water to clean yourself. We shower in the shower, whereas poor people in India bathe in the Ganges river.

There is no natural.

Nevertheless, it’s still inspiring to watch this documentary on gypsies in northern India. They are so happy, at least as portrayed in the film.

The men go out and look for cobras, honey, meat, and the women make crafts and do other things.

I think even though there is no real natural, there are shared elements among indigenous people’s lifestyles. One is that they walk a lot to find food or whatever. They do a lot of chores. They spend lots of time with their kids. They spend lots of time outdoors. They have a strong sense of community and family. They play. They certainly don’t eat processed junk food. They take things slowly and aren’t in a rush to accomplish things either per se. They have passion. In this case, the featured gypsies make all their own clothing and take pride in their dance. People travel from all over the world to learn dance from this beautiful people.

So let’s make a list of the elements that comprise a natural lifestyle:

  • Traditional diet with fresh foods
  • Time spent outdoors and in the sun
  • Community and family
  • Responsibility
  • Passion/crafts/arts
  • Play

And if the assumption we hold is that a natural lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle, then these elements comprise a healthy lifestyle as well. I see no reason to disagree that a natural lifestyle with those elements is a healthy one.

However, when we get into the semantics of diet, as some people do when discussing a natural lifestyle, we forget the more important parts. We can thrive on a variety of diets. But we need social circles and community, play, passion, and the other elements listed as well for a healthy existence. There’s no point getting caught up over what exact diet we should consume.

So in conclusion, the advocates of “primal” living definitely have some of these elements down. I understand and share their desire to live naturally. They just want to be healthy and want to get away from the mundane lifestyle they were living before. They may have rigid diet beliefs, but I have to agree that the thought of having all these elements in my lifestyle is a beautiful and inspirational one that puts a smile to my face. I think I have the passion element, but it’s accompanied by stress.

 

 

Sociologists posit that groups form around ideas in social movement theory. Actually this theory is way more complex but this simple definition makes sense.

Can you think of ideas that have caused groups to form in the world of nutrition, health, medicine, and science, and the fitness industry? Here are a few that come to my mind:

· Veganism
· Crossfit
· Paleo
· FOAMed (Free Open Access Medical Education)

Each one of those words I listed involve groups of people who are advocates for the lifestyle and philosophy. How do these ideas get spread? By whom?

Well, someone decides to create a business or be an activist. They have to market themselves for people buy their product or idea. They have to build an audience that trusts them. Once this occurs, their audience will even vouch for them.

Another great example of this is the biohacking movement.

Biohacking is a term that some guy came up with that involves “hacking” your own biology using science and nutritional supplements, diet, and lifestyle. Well, the real biohackers in my opinion are pharmaceutical companies. But I get the point. I’ve been all about biohacking for a long time, but once it became a term that someone marketed, it became a “thing.”

Once it is a “thing,” it may have certain beliefs associated with it. For example, much of the biohacking community believes in ketogenic diets and drinking coffee with butter. They back up their beliefs with some cherry-picked evidence, but at the end of the day, their beliefs are just that: paltry beliefs. Sure, it may work for them. Go by feel and listen to your body. Experiment.

But just remember this process, because if you aren’t aware of this, you will get your information and even knowledge from within a particular movement. This means that the ideas you bought into will be skewed to favor whatever group it’s coming from.

Say for example, you question if meat is healthy. You go on google and search “meat healthy?” You will come across both sides of the story. You click on an interesting looking article that tells you meat is healthy. It’s healthy because it’s what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate and they were healthy. It’s healthy when you go out and hunt your food and are active. But since we’re not hunters, what we’re going to do is some high intensity intermittent exercise to mimic the diet of our ancestors.

You find this interesting and start implementing some of the ideas. You see some results and feel better than you ever have in your life. You are now an advocate of this “primal” lifestyle.

Welcome, you have now joined and bought into the thought process of an entire community built around ideas that serve to sell a product and lifestyle.

But what if other diets could have produced similar results? What if you made slightly different tweaks to your diet and felt just as great? You’ll never know. Because now, you know this works, until one day, it doesn’t anymore.

I never thought that I would have anything in common with an anorexic girl until I read this from a girl named Lindsay:

“The first thing that crossed my mind when I fell off my bike was that I had only completed 5 miles of a 25 mile training ride. When would I fit in the extra 20 miles?” 

This quote is from this qualitative paper in Sociology of Sport Journal. The full-text isn’t available unfortunately unless you have access through your institution. In this paper, and collaborative ethnography as they called it, the authors shared a few diary entries of a girl named Lindsay interspersed with their analysis.

I came across this paper when searching for information on the sociology of eating disorders about 1.5 years ago. At the time, I had ended my orthorexic ways for the most part, but was still pretty much addicted to my weightlifting routine. Earlier that year in 2013, I started training back squats with a fiery passion. My friends noticed in class (it was a weightlifting class I took for my kinesiology major) that my eyes were very red after my sets of squats. They felt like they were burning a bit too. It was one of the weird symptoms I had developed from maxing out every single time I went to the gym.

The burning eyes feeling I experienced from squats lingered with me during the day sometimes, leaving me with this odd sense of fatigue in my classes and a desire to close my eyes or meditate. I remember I had days where I just woke up like that. The cause was certainly my unwavering desire to reach my fitness goals and years of trying to perfect my diet to stay at a low body fat. Chronic stress in other words.

I again noticed similarities in my personality and habits while reading Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too, by Jenni Schaefer. I read the book to see how she resolved her eating disorder. Although the voice inside her head that tells her she is fat is still there, she says she has learned to separate from the voice and not let it control her life. I will never understand what that exactly is like, but I do understand what it’s like to be too much of a perfectionist.

When I read the quote I shared from Lindsay, I took a step back and immediately realized that I wasn’t the only one with perfectionist tendencies. Then, I had a crazy thought…

Not only was I not the only one who thought about how much training they had left after an injury or something that interferes with their training, there are probably millions. How many people out there have the “eating disorder mindset,” or the preoccupation with food and body weight (and shape) as it is typically referred to in the literature?

The number doesn’t matter; it’s in the millions. What mattered to my core as a human being with an identity was that, like other people who obsess over their diet and training, we were infected by something and had lost control of ourselves. Even though we thought we were in control of our lives, we had been exposed to some virus that hijacked our lives. This virus made us think we enjoyed our wonderful health-conscious lives, but we thought about it way too much and it consumed us. It took time away from socializing and from exploring other things we found interesting.

I don’t have regrets. I did enjoy lifting weights and still do. I still like to cook my own food and feel better when I eat nutrient dense food along with enough calories. But, I have mostly killed that virus and thus, I’m not a robot anymore.

The way I was living felt like the way a robot lives in a way. It’s the analogy I came up with for myself. The media’s messages were implanted in my head, I had internalized those messages, and then acted in a predictable way (became a personal trainer and “knew” a lot about how to be healthy and lose weight).

There’s nothing unique about it. I see it everywhere on instagram, on social media, etc. People read a few things, get infected, act in a predictable manner (do more research, tell their friends, change their diet, preach pseudohealthism-new word I just made up). Some people go on to develop orthorexia, disordered eating pathology, or eating disorders. All because of a virus.

In conclusion, I learned that I had a virus. This helped me do something very positive for my health: start finding a balance. The exercise I was akin to me shooting up adrenaline. I had a feeling for a while that being so aggressive and so high on adrenaline in the gym every time I went to the gym was probably not healthy, but I didn’t fully accept it until my health started to deteriorate.

I’m still in the process of recovering from the chronic stress caused by maxing out and not eating enough calories for years. I exercise less frequently now and don’t push myself. I can’t anymore actually because I don’t have the energy. But on the positive side, I live with more purpose and I have more energy during the day to do things. I have a better mood because I didn’t max myself out the day before in the gym. At least, that’s the theory.

 

 

Like women, men suffer from body image issues as well; at least, Western men do. A book called “The Adonis Complex: How to Identify, Treat and Prevent Body Obsession in Men and Boys” delineates this idea, which, judging by the number of one star reviews written for it, is controversial to say the least. I googled “Adonis Complex” because the title of the paper I will discuss today is “Male body image in Taiwan versus the West: Yanggang Zhiqi meets the Adonis complex.”

More broadly than masculinity and muscles, physical fitness has been linked with work ethic as well. The origin of this idea is unclear, but in America, it may be traced back to President John F. Kennedy’s admonition to the nation on their poor physical fitness levels.

In an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1960 titled “The Soft American,” he said:

“For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity. The relationship between the soundness of the body and the activities of the mind is subtle and complex. Much is not yet understood. But we do know what the Greeks knew: that intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong; that hardy spirits and tough minds usually inhabit sound bodies.

In this sense, physical fitness is the basis of all the activities of our society. And if our bodies grow soft and inactive, if we fail to encourage physical development and prowess, we will undermine our capacity for thought, for work and for the use of those skills vital to an expanding and complex America.”

Today, many people use this idea to spread motivational images. They associate hard work with a fit-looking body. I’ve criticized this idea before on instagram. Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 12.12.26 PMI call it fit-looking because fitness to me is more about biological fitness, which doesn’t require lifting weights at the gym to optimize, but can.

To me, it’s quite obvious that lifting weights isn’t related to hard work or masculinity. Working hard in the gym is quite an easy thing to do in my opinion. Although it does take dedication, the goal is so desirable, and the steps required to achieve it are so mindless, it’s a very common pursuit.

But on a global level, not everyone is yet infected with this virus. In Taiwan for instance, men don’t care about having bigger muscles. They don’t see it as more masculine.

That’s the conclusion a group of researchers came to when they studied body image in Taiwanese men vs Western men in the US and Europe. They found that in Taiwan, pictures of men in their underwear are rarely seen in magazines. Men do nine times fewer chores than women do and are the heads of the household.

The authors hypothesized further that perhaps there are fewer roles in Western society for men to display masculinity, so they have turned to the body as a source of masculinity. In Taiwan, a male’s masculine nature is reinforced in society. I guess you could blame feminism for eroding it in the West? I don’t know.

Whatever the case is, masculinity is about a man’s behavior. Being big and strong is cool too, but if a big and strong body shrouds an insecure society-pleasing individual who works out not for himself but in order to feel more attractive, he isn’t very masculine. The problem with that statement is, everyone likes to say they do it for themselves, but the fact that they’re even doing it, hints that they are influenced by Western beliefs and culture.

I started working out to achieve an athletic goal. I was not interested in bodybuilding and did not perform any bicep curls and didn’t waste my time with bench pressing. Along the way however I also wanted to achieve a different looking body so I changed my workouts a little. I was insecure about my appearance, largely because of the culture I am living in. I have learned from this and now I am more of a man than ever because of the confidence I have developed from within. If my arms look fat compared to 2 years ago, that doesn’t stop me from wearing a tank top in the gym. The bodybuilder however would feel too insecure, because he has cultivated his masculinity not from within, but from the mores of the fitness culture.

I guess you could argue the way a man cultivates his masculinity is entirely based on the culture he lives in. Since there is no one culture in America, men may be lost on how to cultivate masculinity.

 

 

Social media gets blamed a lot as a cause of eating disorders and body image issues. A study published in March this year examined this in detail among adolescents in Israel. I will summarize the paper here.

We can’t just blame social media for body image issues without blaming ourselves I’d like to preface this with however. We are the ones internalizing the messages then acting on it. But when we are exposed to media, we may act out on it and let it influence our lives without thinking about it. It surely happened to me when I was a chubby (as I thought) teenager. What about people who instead of having a negative body image, develop a positive body image due to social media? I will talk about that in a bit.

So this study examined people with disordered eating and not eating disorders. Disordered eating is characterized by a preoccupation with weight and food and results in caloric restriction, heavy exercising, and the use of laxatives or diuretics to control weight. I remember for me green tea was my favorite back in the day and I got into that primarily to lose weight (even though I thought the health benefits were interesting as well–I wouldn’t have drank it if it didn’t also have weight loss potential).

The risk factors for disordered eating pathologies (DEPs) and eating disorders (EDs) include the following:

  • body dissatisfaction
  • disturbed body image
  • low self-esteem
  • low sense of empowerment

The researchers wanted to look at how being on Facebook and watching TV shows like Gossip Girl influenced these teenagers’ body image. The whole idea here is that comparing yourself to others is a huge factor in developing any one of the four risk factors I described above (social comparison theory). Again, as I mentioned already, I kept thinking about those “inspiration” photos on instagram and how there are also people who feel inspired and develop a positive body image.

I posted on my instagram two weeks ago about a study (full-text not available without subscription) from Poland that found that teens with better body images exercised more. That confused me a little bit because I thought having a negative body image made people want to work out. But along the way, perhaps the image changes and people feel better about themselves.

To me that’s pathetic but it’s the reality and it will not change. People exercise to change their bodies, not to become healthier (it’s accepted as a nice side effect but it’s not the primary reason!). That’s the generalization and it’s not true for everyone, but true for a lot of people. It’s merely a cosmetic tool in this unfortunate light.

And so those people who develop a positive body image perhaps reach their ideal body. But I think the ideals themselves aren’t that attractive. That’s another story but I have mentioned this on instagram how many “before” pictures of bikini competitors look a lot better than the “after” photos because extreme leanness in females is a turn-off for most men.

I bring that up just as a counterpoint, because I’ve found that this world of eating disorder research seems to be completely separate from discussions on fitness and exercise. They’ll say for example that the harmful media images present people with “unattainable” physiques. Well that’s not entirely true in my opinion; some of them are indeed attainable. My problem with them is that they’re not as attractive as people think and that people aiming to look like that may already have a healthy and very attractive body. They may be unattainable for some due to differences in bone structure however. These worlds are also at odds because body images issues to the ED world is bad but to the fitness world it might be the precursor to a positive transformation. Anyway.

Let’s move onto the findings of this study (fairly straightforward). They had five hypotheses, which I’ll sum up. They first predicted that people with worse empowerment, or ability to critically think about their media exposure and not be influenced by them basically, will have a poorer body image. Next, media exposure was predicted to correlate with more disordered eating and poor body image. They also predicted that chiller parents, basically parents who don’t try to control their kids’ media exposures but are open about discussing them with their kids, have kids with better empowerment. Then lastly, the combination of low empowerment, poor body image, and harmful media exposure predict disordered eating pathology.

Results

They found basically that all of that was true. Watching TV, reading magazines, and being on Facebook was associated with poor body image AND disordered eating. Looking for the presence of both of these things was a strength to this study, because it’s not enough to just say that consuming media results in poor body image. Seeing what people are doing with that information is the next step in showing some level of causality.

What are we to do with the results of this study?

The results aren’t mind-blowing, but it’s the first study to examine these three variables together. But is the solution to cut out Facebook and social media? As the authors pointed out, the comparison among immediate peers like friends results in feelings of poorer body image. A survey conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt found that 32% of respondents said they felt sad when comparing facebook images of themselves versus their friends.

The explanation for that could be that media images of thinness are often associated with happiness, success, and of course beauty.

If kids are obese and overweight and they want to change themselves that’s great. The problem is, and the reason why I choose to think about this topic, is that being thinner won’t enhance the appearance of most of the people wanting to be thinner. For males, becoming more muscular won’t always make them more attractive either. Will it sometimes? Yes of course; since we’ve fully internalized on a global scale now that muscles look good on men, having some extra muscles can make you look better and indirectly improve your confidence that way. But it’s certainly not necessary for you to be a more attractive or strong man.

For women, the skinny ideals might not even be attractive, but maybe less attractive. Thigh gaps aren’t attractive to all men, and if they are, it might be due to the media influencing them. There is a subjective and objective component in all this but certain traits like body fat indicate our reproductive potential. Having too little of it can indicate less reproductive potential. And that’s why this is important to me, because social media is ruining beautiful women by making them think they need to be skinnier.

Conclusion

Comparing oneself to others on social media can result in poorer body image and disordered eating pathology. One’s sense of empowerment, or ability to analyze peer pressures and influences of the media, is a critical way to prevent disordered eating behavior when exposed to media. This is why the body positive movement is good in my opinion; although there are people who are obese who support the movement as well (who may or may not be unhealthy), the idea of building confidence from within is HUGE for feeling good. I was insecure as a teenager because of my gynecomastia, but after spending years actively working on my confidence, I feel better in all situations.

Strive for a better body if you truly want to; but just think about your ideals and whether or not they’re extreme and influenced by the types of pictures you are exposed to!

 

 

I’ve been interested in how people respond differently to exercise because I want to prescribe exercise as medicine. I’m going to keep this post wicked short because I haven’t read this whole paper yet, or had time to digest it as it’s almost finals week for me and I don’t have time. But I have saved it to my folders because this is pretty novel stuff.

This paper found that 21 different genes explained half of the variations in the heterogeneous responses of V02 max in response to aerobic exercise training. Some of these genes help people use fatty acids as fuel more effectively, and some just make their mitochondria more active. I’ll have to talk about this paper in detail another time.

Next week I will start getting back to the topics of health myths and disordered eating. Stay tuned.

I’m very interested in personalized medicine; in order to personalize it however we need to know how people are different, to put it as simply as possible. When I worked as a personal trainer in Washington D.C. during my college years, I quickly realized that some people happened to like certain exercises more than others. This sounds obvious, but its implications to me are that perhaps their liking of certain exercises more than others indicates that it’s better for them. This applies to nutrition as well; we are well-adapted to recognize odors and tastes that could indicate something harmful. So for a while I’ve been thinking that some people do better with low intensity exercise (relaxed hikes, recreational sports for fun, playing outside, walking) and some prefer and respond better to higher intensity exercise (competitive sports, crossfit, rigorous weight-lifting, etc). Ayurvedic doctors suspected the same things, but they recommended that we do the opposite of what we prefer once in a while, to balance ourselves out.

So the study I want to talk about today was the first (generally when researchers submit their protocols they like to emphasize that what they are doing hasn’t been done before, so this study apparently wasn’t done before) to look at individual differences in the change in VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen one can use in a given period of time) after exercise training. The subjects (481 of them) trained on a cycle ergometer, or stationary bike, three times a week for 20 weeks.

The results were that some people improved their aerobic capacity a ton, and some almost not at all. And as the researchers knew before already, in twin studies, the variation in the change in VO2 max between groups of twins is much higher than the variation between twins, in response to aerobic exercise training. Here they found the same thing among families. This figure sums up their findings.

Here’s the main point:

THERE’S SOMETHING GENETIC THAT CAUSES SOME PEOPLE TO SEE A GREATER INCREASE IN VO2 MAX AFTER AEROBIC EXERCISE TRAINING THAN OTHERS!! In the near future I’ll mention that this heterogenous response also applies to things like LDL and HDL cholesterol, which gets us a little closer to theorizing how this all affects disease progression.

But what are the implications of this study then? Well I kinda hinted at that-ish last week when I discussed an amazing paper on rats that found that the low-responders saw a greater inflammatory response to exercise and the high responders showed a higher anti-inflammatory response. (It would make more sense to post this study first but this is kind of background for that, so if you didn’t catch last week’s post, go click on it in the hyperlink I provided). If that can be shown in humans, it would give me a mind-gasm. I’m sure there are some studies that provide clues to this but I don’t know of them at the moment.

Next week I plan to discuss some of the genes that have been identified after this study that explain the heritability and differences in response to aerobic exercise training. Some of you may be wondering: does this apply to resistance exercise? Considering that a lot of people are into things like crossfit and doing a mix of aerobic and resistance exercise, it’ll be important to come up with a design that can look at that. For now, I don’t know; but I sure think that there is a genetic component, as I kind of mentioned in my introductory paragraph, where I noticed that some people just liked certain exercises more than others and maybe that indicates they would flourish at them. I like sprinting and anaerobic activity so I’m going to do some sprints right now.

One of my qualms working as a personal trainer in my broke college days was fueled by my ignorance of my clients’ health. I trained a lot of overworked, stressed, and baggy-eyed clients in Washington D.C. back then (just a couple years ago), and I knew that some of these people needed to reduce their stress levels in order to lose weight and feel more energized, and intense exercise probably wasn’t the right prescription.

Yet I prescribed strength training mixed up in a circuit format, having my clients perform upper body and lower body compound-movement exercises in succession with little rest. They got sweaty, and fatigued, and some of them had bloodshot eyes after their workouts. I myself had them because I believed in doing really intense exercise all the time as many personal trainers do. As I’ve talked about previously, it led adrenal issues that I never got diagnosed correctly, so I can only guess when I say it was an adrenal issue.

What I really wanted to do as a personal trainer I couldn’t do until I became a doctor. I wanted to know my clients’ past medical history, be able to look at their blood work, and even look at their genome. I wanted this information in order to predict what will happen to them with exercise training. Simply observing physical changes isn’t enough. Even though in many cases people lose weight, keep it off, and seem to be a lot healthier and happier, many people lose weight and feel worse. How this works I am not entirely sure yet.

 

So that’s why I was very intrigued by the paper I want to discuss today. I had a feeling for a while that not everyone responded to exercise the same way. I learned in my exercise physiology classes early on that some people’s aerobic capacity didn’t change at all in response to endurance exercise training. And as data from the HERITAGE Family Study pointed out, a lot of this is heritable.

 

The paper I am discussing today, “Resistance to Aerobic Exercise Training Causes Metabolic Dysfunction and Reveals Novel Exercise-Regulated Signaling Networks,” delved deep into the mechanisms behind what separates low-responders to aerobic exercise from high responders. They made a bunch of rats (n = 152) complete eight weeks of treadmill running three times a week. Then they identified those who improved their fitness the most and the least using an incremental treadmill running test.

They bred the rats that had the highest response to training (HRT) and the lowest response to training (LRT) with each other for 15 generations to make really fit rats and really not fit rats that probably did not want to do what came next. Next, 10 rats from each group completed the three times a week for eight weeks exercise training session that their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents completed at the beginning of the study. Another ten from each group served as a control.

The researchers here wanted to know if the LRT rats had any differences in their metabolism even without exercising, AND how it changed with exercise. What they found was pretty shocking, to me at least. First of all, the LRT rats saw a decrease in how far they could run AFTER TRAINING. That should have you scratching your head. It’s as if these rats were so sick of running they just didn’t care anymore. That you can see in panel C. The LRT rats decreased how far they could run by 65 meters, which was about 10% of what they started with. Whereas HRT improved their exercise capacity by 54%.

Next, the LRT rats displayed “whole-body metabolic dysfunction” without even exercising, as displayed in the figure below. Let’s go through it a little bit.

In panel B, the rats’ glucose tolerance is displayed. This is assessed by feeding the rats glucose and monitoring how much glucose remains in their blood over a two hour period. Generally, if the area under the curve (AUC) in one group is lower, it means that the rats’ tissues are able to slurp up the unbeknownst to them injected glucose better than the other group. HRT here displayed a smaller AUC than LRT at all time points, showing that they were more insulin sensitive.

In panel C, the glucose levels after an injection of insulin, is displayed. Insulin is the hormone that unlocks the keys to the gates that allow your body’s tissues to use the glucose in your blood after an ingested meal usually. This causes a lowering of blood sugar. But if you’re insulin resistant, an injection of insulin won’t lower blood glucose much. That’s what was observed in panel C in the LRT rats, suggesting of course that there is something genetic about their fitness levels and ability to process glucose.

And most interestingly in this figure to me, is the data in panels G and H. After exercise training for eight weeks, the rats from the unfit, or as these authors termed it, “exercise-resistant” family, had higher levels of TNF-α, a pro-inflammatory cytokine and lower levels of TGF-β1, an anti-inflammatory cytokine. Their liver triglycerides also went up after exercise training, whereas the HRT’s triglycerides went down slightly.

If this can be shown in humans then I think it would be pretty huge.

The researchers wanted to know how this was happening, so measured a LOT of other stuff. They found several other things which I’ll just summarize:

  • LRT rats displayed 50% less capillary density in their muscles AFTER exercise training compared to HRT. Before training the capillary density was the same.
  • LRT rats had fewer type I muscle fibers than HRT fibers. These are the slow-oxidative muscle fibers that are important for endurance training. They had fewer fibers before exercising so the authors said this factor couldn’t explain the post-exercise differences.
  • Mitochondrial enzymes (citrate synthase) however were not markedly different between the two groups.
  • “Oxygen consumption, the respiratory exchange ratio, muscle glycogen concentrations, and serum free fatty acid concentrations were similarly altered by exercise in LRT and HRT.” What this means is that the LRT displayed a normal response to an ACUTE bout of exercise. Just a note here: the term exercise by itself refers to an acute bout of exercise whereas exercise training must be denoted to indicate a period of exercise training. Sounds obvious but it gets interchanged a lot and it’s not supposed to be according to exercise physiologists.
  • There’s this molecular signaling pathway called AMPK that mediates some of the benefits of exercise. There was no difference here among LRT or HRT.
  • GENES were differently regulated among the two groups was different after exercise. They get much more detailed about this in the paper and it’s beyond my current education at the moment but it looks like something fun to research and talk about at a future time. But basically the response to exercise in LRT was a lot different than in HRT and gave insight into some of the mechanisms.

 

I have a feeling that low-responding humans probably don’t force themselves to run three times a week so they get to avoid increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines that might accompany endurance training that they’re not meant for. This exact question, is exercise really beneficial to everyone, is something I want hashed out in more detail.

Next week, I’ll stick to this topic and look at another paper.

 

I’ve been trying to “follow my instincts” for a while now, because as a kid, I always laughed at how I would second guess my instincts and end up with the wrong answer or the like. With my 6.5 years of anaerobic training in the gym, I realized early on that if I trained with a set schedule, I would feel burnt out in about 8 weeks. The tried and not so true three times a week of intense MWF (monday, wednesday, and friday) strength training would lead to overtraining. Before I explain that more, let me explain what this post will be about: in this post I will share my own experiences with adrenal issues caused by inappropriate recovery from an unbalanced exercise regimen and most importantly, what you can take away from it.

Strength training

As I said, after about 8 weeks, I felt burnt out from a typical MWF set schedule. Three days a week doesn’t sound like a lot when you consider that some people run every day. But it’s a lot when you look at the overall amount of stress hormone the athlete churns out to cope with the training.

In strength training, the goal is to increase the amount of weight the athlete can lift. In powerlifting and olympic weightlifting, athletes must also maintain a certain weight. Usually this weight is achieved shortly prior to the competition, and the strength is obtained more steadily earlier in the season. There is often a bulking phase then a cutting phase when the athlete attempts to lose weight but maintain the strength he or she accrued from the bulking phase.

Regardless, the training sessions often involve near maximal activity that is a lot different in the nervous system than running or doing martial arts. The type of training would be more analogous to sprinting with weights, not jogging. My body often feels like sprinting, running, boxing, and doing body work activity, but lifting weights requires stronger activity (that’s the best way I can describe it as I haven’t found any exercise physiologists describe this anyway). After my adrenals started feeling burnt out, my tolerance for heavy weightlifting plummeted as I will shortly describe in a little more detail.

My experiences

My sport was neither olympic weightlifting nor powerlifting, or bodybuilding, sprinting, football or any other anaerobic sport. I had one single goal in mind, and that was to jump higher and dunk a basketball (got to 38” vertical and dunked a dodgeball but haven’t attempted basketball because I didn’t hit 40” yet). I was inspired by my performance in the long jump in high school one track meet and I became absolutely obsessed. The type of training I was supposed to do according to my research was a mix of plyometric work (how high jumpers train) and olympic weightlifting with powerlifting (squats and deadlifts). My goal was to maintain my 150lbs endomorph frame at <12% body fat and gradually increase my strength to body mass ratio.

I definitely increased my strength a lot, but retrospectively, I realized how rigid my beliefs and my training were. I frequently posted my workouts on an online forum with other very dedicated young men with the same exact goals. But unlike them, I never tended to follow a program. I hated following the instructions of personal trainers (but became one myself years ago), so I devised my own programs. It was called, lift as heavy as you can, as often as possible. Secondary to that, I was supposed to follow my instincts during the workout and stop once I was tired enough; this meant I only stopped once I felt like my muscles had had enough. If I chose a weight with which I could grind out three reps, like the 100lb dumbbell lunges in the picture, I would do sets of three until I felt like I couldn’t do another set of three (so I would end up doing between two to five sets of three usually).

Athletes who do this type of training are advised to take a deload week: during this week the athlete is supposed to avoid heavy lifting and partake in recreational activities. Any weightlifting must be performed with a lighter weight and with high reps. It feels so much easier than lifting heavy weights. The lighter weight just doesn’t seem like a threat to the nervous system, so fewer fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline are released.

I didn’t listen, and eventually I got used to the feeling of always lifting pretty heavy (I preferred to use upwards of 80% of my one repetition maximum, performing between 2-5 reps, but my favorite was lifting above 90% because I felt like I would become stronger faster). Overtime, the constant adrenaline-heavy fight-or-flight training in the gym left me feeling a caliber below my usual self, in all areas. I would fall asleep more easily in class, my feet were colder (and are cold), I wouldn’t sleep as deeply or wake up as refreshed, and I would feel less motivated. This took a few years to really accept.

There is no one term to describe these symptoms, but I guarantee you I’m not the only one who experiences this. Another common symptom that co-occurs with the aforementioned ones are a loss of affect, or emotion; fewer highs, fewer lows, and a blunted emotional response to things. Haven’t looked up any research articles on that, but if you know me then you may know that I highly value the anecdote and the qualitative aspects of peoples experiences. Collectively, they can be meaningful, as you may see in the book coming out.

So today, I wanted to share this experience of mine, to alert you to the fact that intense fight-or-flight training can eventually lead to a type of burnout. If you take adequate rest (which isn’t defined strictly and depends on you), properly manage other stresses in your life, sleep well, and add variety to your training, you may never experience this issue. I still have no idea as to what the statistics are in the CrossFit community, a very prone one to these issues, but if you have any clues let me know.

Today

This year, in 2014, I finally took a stab at letting go of my rigid exercise goals, and my incorrect training philosophy which involved lifting near maximal weights during every single workout, for weeks on end. In 2013 I finally started eating normally (instead of avoiding all “empty” calories, sugars, salt, and processed foods) which helped a little but not enough. As I mentioned in passing, I just felt like I would get stronger faster if I lifted in a lower rep range (I usually preferred 2-3). That’s totally wrong. The 5×5 approach seems to work best for people, and that involves a much lighter load than the ones I was lifting.

Initially, meaning 6.5 years ago, maxing out gave me this adrenaline rush. But today, I don’t get the same adrenaline rushes. The ability of my body to have those rushes has been impaired, and I finally realized that I needed to stop lifting heavy weights to get that back, and it did work. As soon as I took a few extra days off, I felt more of a rush during the day, and a greater ability to focus and have energy. But if I went to the gym and lifted heavy, instead of feeling a rush, I felt down, and my brain felt foggy.

So today I tried going and doing one lift for my legs, and I got the classical symptoms I’ve been getting for the past several months: a foggy brain feeling accompanied by very mild dizziness and fatigue with no desire to continue. I call it a depression, versus the stimulation I received before. I remember when I was 17 and I did my 3×3 (three repetitions for three sets with a very heavy weight with which I could only do three reps with) I would feel a surge of adrenaline and testosterone following the workout. Today I wouldn’t even be able to work like that because any heavy leg exercise gives me a subtle but noticeable depression of the nervous system that makes my brain feel constricted in an odd way.

During my senior year of college (2013) my friends noticed how red my eyes got following my maximal squat workouts. Here I also maxed out with multiple sets of two to three reps for several months until I reached my goal of 2xBW (squatting a mass greater than two times my body mass). I believe weightlifting increased the intraocular pressure due to the breathing pattern it causes (valsalva maneuver versus steady inhalation and exhalation) which reduces the supple of oxygen in my brain. That’s a total guess but it sounds like what I’m feeling today when I can’t be in the gym for very long until my brain just tells me to go home.

Conclusion

It’s pretty obvious for most people, but most people also sometimes look up to the people for whom it is not so obvious. In other words, most people think it’s crazy to be dedicated like the people they sometimes look up to in the fitness world, but those dedicated people are the ones who will develop the problems, and currently have them, due to their hardcore attitudes. My hardcore and rigid attitude made it extremely difficult to let go of my training goals, it was an identity crisis. During those years, I felt more passionately about my training than anything else. Now I have been able to let go successfully but I still go to the gym and have worthless exercise sessions and realize I need to recover still.

I don’t know what the correct medical term would be for the odd type of feeling I get these days when lifting, but I know it will go away with time. I have been addicted to the adrenaline rushes I would receive in the gym while listening to screamo and other intense music and now I am working on repairing that system and making keen qualitative observations about my wellbeing.

I think a lot of people in the fitness world aren’t ready to admit they have this problem, but I also think a lot of people will find this obvious. What isn’t so obvious to me, is how healthy weightlifting is. They said it’s healthy, but I wonder how the stress response differs among person to person, and how some people (angry men) experience stress rather than stress relief from activating their sympathetic nervous system so much in the gym. I’ve trained hundreds of people in gyms, and I eventually had to accept that maybe there was something noteworthy going on in people’s bodies when they intuitively didn’t want to lift heavy weights (especially women). It’s a research question that I’m not sure has been adequately studied.

The point of this post, and related ones, isn’t to discourage weight loss completely, but to raise awareness that there is much more to the human body than “calories in minus calories out,” and that things just aren’t so simple.

Weight loss usually doesn’t last for example. One of the reasons why may be the long term change in satiety hormones such as leptin, peptide YY, cholecystokinin, amylin, insulin, ghrelin, gastic inhibitory polypeptide, and pancreatic polypeptide. Ghrelin is the main “hunger hormone,” and in that NEJM study, it was found to be reduced long term after weight loss.

In that study, subjects went on a harsh 10 week diet, but levels of these hormones were measured at week 10 and at week 62. Subjects lost an average of 13.5 kg by week 10, and gained 5.5 kg back by week 62. What was interesting as you can see in these two figures is that ghrelin levels were higher a full year after this weight loss before, during, and after the meal. Amylin, a satiety promoting hormone, in contrast, was lower in response to meals at week 10 and week 62.

They also asked the participants their subjective hunger rating, and they found that their hunger was also elevated for longer even after eating. It’s not this simple though, and this post isn’t intended to be a lesson on these hormones, because we haven’t discussed sensitivity to these hormones yet. Anorexics may have higher ghrelin and administering ghrelin doesn’t make them eat more because they’re not as sensitive to it, while obese people may have lower ghrelin levels. In another study, lower, and not higher ghrelin levels predicted weight regain after an 8 week diet.

The implications of all this are profound. Lower leptin levels mean that the thyroid may be lower as well, since leptin signals the hypothalamus to secrete thyrotropin-releasing hormone (TRH). The entire organism may be in a fatigued state afterwards, which numerous anecdotes can buttress. This low-energy state can persist a year after the weight loss, longer expected. In rats, this restoration of energy expenditure lags behind weight regain.

I’m particularly interested in how all this affects the thyroid now since I have learned that dieting and overexercising can cause lower thyroid and adrenal function. I’m sure leptin has something to do with it, along with micronutrient deficiencies. Many people are struggling with restoring their thyroid back to normal after a period of dieting. The safest option for moderate weight loss seems to be not worrying about calories in minus calories out and doing some HIIT, because studies have found you don’t really need to change your eating habits and the weight is still lost. It may be the least stressful unless you end up doing crossfit in which case you can expect adrenal problems quickly.

There are a lot of other questions. Some people may be able to lose weight healthfully, and the exact mechanisms are unclear via standard internet research. Next time I’ll take a stab at discussing how weight loss and such affects the thyroid more directly. Till then, I hope you can find some energy.