This writer believed, rather arrogantly it may be added, that he was relatively impervious to the effects of our omnipresent mass media. In the past year or so I’ve awakened to the realization my perceived immunity isn’t altogether true. Take for instance how easily I believed physical perfection was only an arm’s reach away – a natural product of work ethic, genes, and a good understanding of physical training. I’m blaming those ads which promise athletic, well muscled bodies in less time that it takes most people to eat lunch. It didn’t help hearing about those actors who spent a few weeks with a personal trainer to get into fantastic shape for a role either. Some pitches go as far as claiming their miracle exercise system can provide the lean, well defined muscular/toned bodies displayed on the screen for a daily cost of only ten short minutes. And while most viewers will discount these ads the idea at least some observable improvement can be expected is implanted into the subconscious. Like mine.
Recently an advertising blitz for an exercise program promising spectacular results in just ninety days has been on TV. I’ve looked it over closely and while I believe it is built upon solid principles and is well designed it presents nothing new or cutting edge in our understanding of physiology. Gratifyingly the program requires a full hour of vigorous training every day – a major commitment for anyone. In addition to the exercise the system also requires the buyer to participate in a highly regimented low carbohydrate diet. To give you an idea of what sort of results they claim I’ll provide the before and after pictures of one of their customers who bought the program.
This individual goes by the name of JoeB and he’s fairly representative of the examples provided on the program’s website. I admit his improvement over ninety days is not as spectacular as the two or three men late night television programming showcases, but I discount those results as virtually impossible without some sort of deception being played upon us. Even so, while JoeB is a more conservative example, I don't have to work very hard to detect a couple ways they manipulated his before and after images either.
First I’m going to point out weight loss makes by far the largest contribution in any of the before and after pictures justifying this or any other advertised bodybuilding system. It isn’t coincidental the most dramatic losses from diets are realized in the first three months – when the body has the most excess fat and before the body’s metabolism can adjust to the new diet. In low carbohydrate diets this is referred to as the Induction Phase, and when combined with exercise reports of weekly weight losses of 2-4 kgs (5-10 lbs.) are not uncommon. In JoeB’s case his before picture shows a body with a reported 14% body fat, a level indicating good physical conditioning with little, if any, excess weight¹. In the after picture JoeB’s body fat percentage has dropped to an amazing 8%. This is a tremendous accomplishment. Reducing fat after reaching our predetermined ideal body fat percentage becomes increasingly more difficult – a fact well known to every dieter trying to just get close to normal weight much less well below it. The body shuts down metabolism in an effort to keep some reserves. This is where exercise is crucial for maintaining the metabolism necessary to continue burning fat. Certainly exercise is involved in JoeB’s case, but he's transitioned from a fit body's fat level to a professional athlete’s equivalent in a mere three months. I find this difficult to believe without some sort of catalyst. Starvation would have cannibalized muscle tissue as well as fat.
On the other hand I’m considerably more accepting in regards to his increased musculature. A good hour with weights just prior to the picture being taken would suffice to highlight the now revealed, bulkier muscles of shoulders, arms, and torso. Muscle gain is something a man of his age can reasonably expect to see after ninety days of intensive effort. Having conceded this, however, the unflattering direct lighting used in his before picture has been changed to more intense side lighting for better definition in the after picture. At least he's not changed his posture and switched to the partial abdominal twist bodybuilders use to minimize their waist.
Now let’s look at my own efforts at physical rehabilitation. When this blog started I began taking pictures of myself every month expecting slight but observable changes to show up each time. After six months of humiliation and no discernible progress I cut them back to every three months and then, still seeing no progress, all the way to just once a year. The gullible fool I was I had truly expected to see marked progress in my physical form in a matter of weeks.
So here are pictures showing my progress after an entire year of exercise; a sustained effort which saw my weekly workouts increase from five hours of swimming to close to nine. On top of which I participated in a couple of hour and a half yoga sessions a week for my flexibility.
After so many times I shouldn’t be surprised when I view these pictures but damn it – I see a different body in the mirror. Part of it is the foreshortening which comes from viewing myself in the mirror; partly the loss of depth perception in a two dimensional picture which adds the proverbial “ten pounds”; and yes, the lighting in the picture is atrocious. But I cringe every time I put up these things. I’m now down to 80 kilos (176 lbs) and I have put on muscle in spite of what my after picture may suggest. Yet my measurements suggest my body fat percentage hasn’t budged over the year. That’s difficult to believe. More likely is when I measured myself last year I was rather generous and when measuring for this post perhaps a tad harsh. The other significant improvement I hope you can see is how much straighter I’m standing now. That’s because of my lessons in Alexander Technique and will be covered in another post. Overall, however, my improvements aren’t anywhere close to those exhibited by JoeB and his ilk on TV. Ah well, what counts is not where I am now but where I’m going.
This year my goal is to build up my core and work off that ever so persistent bulge around my middle. But beyond doing about twenty minutes of core work a day I’m going to rely once again on swimming alone to do the job. No weights for me. I figure the extra meters and stroke work my program calls for over the coming year should more than suffice. I’ll start back with weights next year. My target for fat loss the coming year is 3-4 kilos and a similar amount of muscle gain. I'm hoping the two combined will make a significant difference in next year’s picture. The long term goal is to lose 6-8 kilos of fat to bring me down close to a 10% fat content while increasing my muscle mass by 10-12 kilos to finish at around 85 kilos or better (close to 190 lbs). I figure it will take me three more years of work to realize my goal. Unfortunately no quick fix for me, but that's what happens when you start getting old.
¹ For most men the first sign of carrying excess fat comes from the appearance of rolls of flesh at their waist, something showing up in males with around 15% body fat. The American Council for Fitness calculates a fit man should have a body fat percentage between 14-17% and an athlete between 6-13%. A woman should look for 21-24% and 16-20% respectively². You can calculate your own body fat percentage quickly and reasonably accurately with a tape measure using the military method by going here and downloading the U.S. Naval Health Research Center’s Technical Document No. 99-2B in .pdf format.
² Just so you don’t get too depressed about your own fat percentage the acceptable level of body fat changes when we reach middle age. You can check the adjusted ranges here.