Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mutare Tu Mente II: Units of Heat

Greetings! I hope everyone has been having a lovely start to the year.

In my previous blog, I talked a little bit about a little bit about those common New Year's resolutions to "lose weight" and "get in shape" - two rather vague terms that don't (in my mind) properly define the goals you may be trying to accomplish.
For instance, "losing" generally has a negative connotation. You lost the game. You lost your phone. Psychologically, people prefer the opposite of losing - either gaining or winning. But it seems like they try to create a psychologic disconnect with the term when they talk about how much they weigh. Maybe this is one of the reasons why "losing weight" can be so difficult. In most cases we associated losing with a failure of some kind, but in the case of our weight we want to succeed in losing.
So in my last blog I talked about the term "reconstitution". In a workout, generally you are doing a combination of burning fat and building muscle, and a proper combination of the two can result in positive changes on the scale and how you look.

Today I want to take a look at calories. Oh, the dreaded calorie! Calorie counting has become part of everyday life. Menus (at least in California) are required to list their calorie counts for every food item. People obsess over them.
The commonly held data is that one pound of fat holds about 3500 calories. OK, so you go to the gym and jump on the treadclimber and after a solid 30-minute workout the machine says you've burned around 600 calories. Cool, that means you only need to use the treadclimber for about 3 hours to burn one pound. Oh, but you also ate food that day (in order to survive) in excess of 1200 calories, so you better tack on another hour of stair-climbing to offset your meals.

Can you see how ridiculous (and dangerously unhealthy) this mindset is? Calories are just a basic unit of heat that comes from burning energy stores. You aren't burning calories, you are burning fats and sugars. If you think of it like a car, gasoline is the energy store and the exhaust coming out of your tailpipe are the calories (This is not scientifically accurate, I know. I'm speaking metaphorically here).
Knowing you are "burning" calories is useful only in that you know that you are also accessing the energy stored in your body's fats and sugars. It's data, and it's as useful  as the data you get when you step on a scale. It's a number you can use to track your progress.

But there is better data you can use.
The basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy your body uses when it is at rest. To pump the heart, inflate the lungs, operate the nervous system, and basically keep the body alive your body needs energy. Yep, you burn calories just by sleeping.
Without taking in more detailed data, like lean body mass and things like that, my BMR is around 2000 calories. What that means is that, without doing any activity at all, in order to keep my weight where it is right now, I would need to consume 2000 calories per day.

So without doing any activity at all, I could drop my weight by eating fewer than 2000 calories every day. At least until my BMR dropped to the caloric amount I was eating.

But let's be clear, when most people talk about dropping weight, they would like to be healthy once they reach their goal weight.
Let's go back to the treadclimber example. After a solid 30 minute workout, the machine says you burned around 600 calories. But your heart is also beating faster, your lungs are pumping more oxygen, your blood is moving quicker, and you are sweating, which is your body's way of trying to cool you down because you are running hotter than normal. A calorie is a unit of heat, right? Once you step of the treadclimber, you don't just go back to your regular everyday caloric burn, you're still giving off a lot more heat than normal. In a workout, it's not just about the calories you burn during the workout. What I think is more important are the calories you are burning when you are done.
You burned some calories in the workout, which is good. But you also put an energy spike into your BMR, which is way better. The body recognizes that you are in a heightened state of movement and starts burning energy stores to keep you going, but it doesn't stop burning energy stores just because you stopped working out. For a little while, it continues to burn energy in case you want to keep going.

There is a lot more scientific detail you can delve into if you want, and the main point I can't stress enough is to make healthy choices, but there are ways you can inject small energy spikes throughout your day to play tricks on your BMR.

Try this one every day for a week and see what happens:
Do everything exactly the same as you would normally. Eat the way you've been eating, work out the way you have (or haven't) been working out. But before eating lunch and/or dinner do twenty air squats and twenty wall presses. These are easy, low-impact moves designed to increase overall tone and balance. What's great is that by doing these, in less than five minutes you've tricked your body into thinking that you're going to need more energy than you actually do. You've placed an energy spike into your basic daily routine.
I promise that it will help.

For those that are interested in a quick BMR calculator, try this one.

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