Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Walking the Talk

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.


Isis said...

Another great post. I have long admired your willingness both to document and publish your progress/changes/whatever with your body. I could never do that. Part of it might be differences in gender and body-image. Part of it might be that I am a big chicken.

I do think that there is a place for non-visual assessment. Part of what you seem to be saying here is that there are changes in your body that you can feel but that do not show up in the pictures. Don't deny them just because you cannot see them.

Scott said...

Oh Isis I am so with you on what you just wrote. It just so happens I have a few advantages most others lack. The first and most important is I’m nearly fifty and now truly do understand and believe what is really important about a person is what you find under the skin. Besides which my feelings of self worth have always come from my intellect rather than my not inconsiderable physical prowess as a youth (my sisters sometimes caution me to watch my arrogance when I start debating fine points with them). As you see self-confidence has never been my problem.

The other advantages? Well while my physical peak is well behind me at fifty I can still easily rationalize my present level of fitness as better than half the twenty something males I see on the street (this is more a cutting comment on our society than me patting myself on the back). My comments of disappointment in the post result more from intellectual curiosity about my failure to change my body's performance levels as much as I thought I would after two years of intense effort. On the other hand I understand this is the first time I’ve approached bulking up from the over weight and unfit side. Until my late thirties I never stopped being an athlete so putting on a couple of kilos of muscle on top of a runner’s frame showed up immediately, whereas not only do I now have to struggle to put on the same muscle but I also have to lose several kilos of fat to see it. My embarrassment really stems from my intellectual laxness in allowing myself to deteriorate to my present state.


But my biggest advantage is I don’t really care about my body image. I discovered the reason for this quirk in my early thirties. All educated people understand both our species and society revolves around the female. It’s the reason why male and female alike find the female form beautiful; and why society measures a woman’s standing therein in large part on personal beauty. Unfortunately as one of those females you always find yourself standing in front of a mirror having to compare yourself to the Heidi Klums of the world. Ouch! My personal belief is nature naturally compensates for this bias by some how creating sexual attraction for males in females. It’s the wildly varying differences in this level where all the fun begins because, I’m sure you know, all human embryos start out female. If too much of this attraction towards males remains after the transition then the male continues being attracted to his own sex. Of course some ‘self love’ by men is necessary to understand female desire and so better attract mates. The man who can look at his image and think that he’s “God’s gift to women” has a pretty healthy dose of this ‘understanding’ and its effects on the feminine mind! I, on the other hand, have zilch. In Dr. Kinsey’s famous 1947 paper he discovered about 40% of males have no sexual feeling for other males (versus around 10% being the opposite). A male athlete's finely crafted body evokes in me the same emotions a beautiful car or horse does – just admiration for their form and abilities. Nothing else. So when I look at a picture of my body it’s as if I’m looking at a hammer out of my tool box. It’s the fact I’ve allowed it to become so banged up it isn’t really suitable for the job any longer that I find embarrassing. It’s also the reason why so many men become slobs once they pass through their testosterone peak. They simply don’t care anymore. And also why so many men are so grateful for sex – because we really don’t understand why a woman would want it from us (I’ve never shared the widespread taste for lesbian pornography by males but I can understand why. It’s a sexual relationship they can really relate to).

So in short – I have the same emotional investment in my body than I do in JoeB’s – which is none at all.