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Weekly Wellness: Break free from dieting and hours of cardio

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Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses how an incorrect exercise plan can affect your metabolism and how to repair it if you’ve already damaged it.

This article is the second part of a series of three articles that deal with the metabolism of the human body. In the last article, “The Sad State of the American Metabolism,” I presented my thoughts on what is causing our obesity epidemic from a metabolic standpoint. In this article, I wish to continue this presentation about metabolisms that are damaged, and how your daily food and exercise choices either help build the metabolism or damage it further.

Being straightforward, I am writing this article to help those specific people that have weight issues and cannot break the dreaded weight loss/weight gain cycle that haunts them for years. This can be a draining experience that affects people’s mental and emotional health, and I feel for those people. The key to breaking this cycle, believe it or not, is not about hours in the gym burdening yourself seven days a week. It is not about avoiding all foods that are deemed “unhealthy,” and, yes, not even your favorite treats are completely off limits. What it is about is understanding what got you here in the first place and how to build your metabolism up to get out of this mess. Let us break away from yo-yo dieting once and for all, shall we?

Before continuing, I would like to elaborate on something I mentioned in last week’s article that really hit home for some people. My wife and I met three years ago while she was an au pair for a Naperville family. She was planning on staying for one year and then heading back to Brazil to live her life (I kind of messed that up I guess, sorry honey). Anyways, last week’s article, “The Sad State of the American Metabolism,” really created a ripple effect down in Brazil through social media. It seems that all of her au pair friends who came to America for one or two years to live and work experienced this metabolic phenomena. They all gained 10-30 pounds and could not lose the weight.  

I asked my wife about this, and she said: ”People in America are always rushing. Most do not take the time to cook healthy meals. People here seem to run to fast food places, and most just sit way too much.” 

Well that pretty much sums it up doesn’t it? 

Typically, Americans tend to battle these weight gains with crash dieting or yo-yo dieting, in an attempt to rapidly lose this fast weight gain. These types of diets lead to metabolic depression and possible eating disorders, which a couple Brazilian au pairs experienced.

The yo-yo dieting cycle is simple and deadly. Say someone has watched his or her weight creep up for a few years now and have decided to do something about it. This person decides to eat 1,200 calories a day, not knowing at all how many calories he or she should really be ingesting to maintain his or her current weight. The routine starts out with skipping breakfast, eating salads for lunch, and binging on a huge dinner since this person is starving by this point in the day. But that’s fine, he or she is staying at 1,200 calories per day, so one huge binge meal will not hurt, right? Eventually the weight comes off, mostly from water, glycogen, and muscle tissue, and since this person cannot sustain this type of restriction for more than a few weeks he or she decides to resume normal eating habits.

We all know what happens next: that lost body weight comes right back on and then some. This person ends up gaining more weight than what was lost, and has effectively slowed his or her metabolism in the process via muscle loss (more muscle = faster metabolism) and a huge energy gap (more calories coming in yet a slower metabolism than before the dieting). 

There have been many studies done on crash diets and yo-yo dieting. For example, athletes who consistently must diet to meet competition weight (wrestlers, boxers) end up gaining much greater amounts of fat later in life. Identical twins have been studied, and the identical twin who has dieted more in his or her life (yo-yo dieting) has gained significantly more body fat in his or her life. The amount of body fat a person gains in his or her life is typically proportional to the number of times they attempt to restrict their diets for extended periods of time to lose weight fast.  

All you end up with in yo-yo dieting is:

• Hyperphagia: abnormally increased appetite for food by damaging the hypothalamus
• Body fat over-shooting when calories go back to normal
• Decreased energy expenditure
• Decreased thyroid hormone
• You inadvertently activate your body’s self-defense system 

Your body literally thinks you are starving it, so it tries to hold onto body fat or store more later when calories are sufficient. In this yo-yo dieting situation, you have successfully given your body these unwanted symptoms above and walked away with a lowered metabolic rate. And thus, the “Sad State of the American Metabolism” has entered the scene.

I know all of this is a lot to take in. But if you have a weight problem, and have had one for years, the above situation is probably your situation. If you are overweight, you most likely have a slow metabolism. If you have some major thyroid issues, and have eaten extremely low calories for months or years, it is possible you have a damaged metabolism (beyond just being slow, indicated mostly by hormonal deficiencies or imbalances). In this situation, get in touch with a doctor to help restore hormonal balance, if need be, although the information in this article and next week’s, as well, can help you do just that. Your body is incredibly resilient, and your metabolism can be fixed with time, effort and dedication to a healthy lifestyle.

Along with yo-yo dieting comes long-distance cardio, also known as low-intensity, long-duration cardio. I have written much about HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) cardio in the past so I will not get into that now, but I will definitely say that if you find yourself doing 1-2 hours of low intensity cardio per day, you must drill this into your psyche: this form of cardio has been scientifically proven to decrease your metabolic rate over time. With 1-2 hours of cardio work per day for most days of the week, you may see an initial body weight drop the first week but your weight will quickly stagnate, your metabolism drops, and then you need that level of cardio just to maintain that slight weight loss (which was probably muscle or water weight to begin with). This form of cardio is one of the best ways to keep your metabolism suppressed. 

A perfect example of this is marathon runners. During these long runs (6-15 mile runs in training many days per week), there should be no chance that this trainee can keep his or her bodyweight up due to the sheer quantity of calories burned every day from running, yet they do. And, yes, some runners will increase the number of calories they consume in an effort to help account for calories used during the training, but there should literally be a 1,000-3,000 daily caloric increase on these long distance running days. That should equal a weekly total of about 12,000 extra calories consumed above a person’s normal number of calories consumed. None of my marathon running clients make up for this caloric deficit created by running. So how do they maintain their bodyweight if they have all of this burning of calories yet not much extra coming in? Very simple: metabolic rate drops from the long-duration, low-intensity, muscle-reducing cardio activity. This is why using marathon training to lose weight should never be considered. You will end up with a wrecked metabolism.

By this point, the main point may be clear: blindly lowering calories for extended periods of time is not the answer to long-term fat reduction and maintenance. This lowers your metabolism, and your metabolism most likely stays lowered even after the body weight has been re-gained. At the same time, long-duration, low-intensity cardiovascular work is muscle-wasting in nature and also slows the metabolic rate. 

The Takeaway:

If you want to break out of yo-yo dieting, never restrict your calories for long periods of time (or ever if you can help it) and do physical activity that is higher intensity, for shorter periods of time, and focus your mental efforts on building your metabolic capacity (fancy way to say metabolism) to levels as high as you can handle. The more calories it takes for you to maintain your current weight, the easier it is for fat to be lost when you decide to slightly, slowly and strategically reduce calories for a small amount of time (not long-term restriction).  
For women, if you are consuming daily calories in the 500-1,000 calorie range, and for men, if you are consuming daily calories in the 1,000-1,800 calorie range, please consider my thoughts on metabolic damage: develop a plan to break this cycle and know that there is a way out. I have met individuals who are very proud that they can sustain such low caloric intake for long periods of time, and this is the exact opposite of how this person should feel about this. Unknowingly, they are damaging their body’s metabolic processes. The human body is designed for high caloric intake and high caloric output. It will take effort, but your metabolism can be restored to a healthy, normal level and body fat will come off in the process. 

Look for next week’s article on tips to end yo-yo dieting for good.

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

This content was submitted by a member of the community. We’d like to hear from you, too! To share stories, photos, video or events for our calendar, please email Community News Manager Michael Cronin at michael@aggrego.com or use the online submission tool.
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