Contributor: Rich Butler, MS, USPTA
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What do you weigh? A small percentage of you know precisely. A larger percentage may have an educated guess but it will most likely be an underestimation. And then there are those of you who don’t want to know. Weight is taboo culturally; feelings of shame, regret, and disapproval are attached to it. Weight is kept private, hidden, and disguised. Weight is one of the first observations our primitive brain notes, yet it tells us little. Weight, like age, is a vague reference of someone’s health status. Think of all the reasons you chose the computer you did. I suspect weight was not one of them. One of the reasons might be because weight does not describe the qualities of something, just the quantity.
Most of the research regarding weight loss/control reads with doubtful and sometimes hopeless overtones. Weight loss appears to be easy in the short term but very challenging in the long term. The debate continues to rage as to whether it is because of too many calories (fat or carbs), too little movement (like there are not enough gyms), or our environment. Regardless, in the U.S. we appear to have excelled at the mammalian ability to store extra calories as fat. We are likely the only warm-blooded animals that can gain weight during a time of severe cold. All the other critters out there on the feeders or nested in the woods are just hoping they have enough fat reserves to make it to Spring. There are very few metabolic pressures on many of us anymore. Just search ‘glamping’ or ‘custom ice fishing cabins.’
As an exercise physiologist, where calories are a key metric that bridges nutrition and endocrinology, exercise has historically been thought to be a key component of weight loss. At the gym the treadmill counts the calories, food labels show calories, and diabetics are essentially checking their calories with the blood glucose test. Why? Well, partially because we associate this with weight control. And controlling weight has been a dominating mantra in the health discussion since at least the ‘80s. So, how is it working for you?
In the position statement by the American College of Sports Medicine a consistent theme is that a dose of ~4 hours per week of moderate to vigorous exercise is required weekly. That would translate into roughly 1600-2500 calories burned per week by an individual. Some researchers still believe exercise has minimal effects on weight loss, but many agree exercise is a critical part of weight maintenance.
But, let’s return to the premise that weight is a vague reference. Here is the reason. Lean mass (muscle, water, bone) is a very valuable component of overall weight. Our exercise habits, protein consumption, and activities of daily living promote lean mass. As we age, this is the tissue that is lost and leads to frailty. Some individuals have a higher amount of lean mass naturally - mesomorphs and endomorphs. You know, ‘big boned.’ That is weight worth keeping. That is weight that can accomplish work, whether raking in the spring or swinging a kettle bell. On the other hand, fat mass is a tissue that, when in excess, becomes problematic, as it is linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. And it is fat mass we want to control while holding on to lean mass. If all I use as a reference is my weight and height (BMI), then I am unable to track the ratio of lean mass to fat mass. That is why body fat testing like the DEXA scan or Bod Pod are so helpful.
Don’t get me wrong, weight control is not a lost cause; but too many folks out there put it at the top of the list for goal setting. In the end they finish discouraged and dismayed. Then to make matters worse, they give up on exercise, which is arguably the most valuable component of living well. So, let’s come up with a better goal. Good bye quantity, hello quality! More to come, good hustle!
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ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, by Deborah Riebe et al., Wolters Kluwer, 2018.
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Hall KD. “Did the Food Environment Cause the Obesity Epidemic?” Obesity, Vol. 26, no. 1, 20 Jan. 2018, pp. 11–13., doi:10.1002/oby.22073.
Kerns JC et. al. “Increased Physical Activity Associated with Less Weight Regain Six Years After ‘The Biggest Loser’ Competition.” Obesity, Vol. 25, no. 11, 2017, pp. 1838–1843., doi:10.1002/oby.21986.