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February 2003 Issue
Stoke your internal furnace to burn off excess weight.
by Michael Fick
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The arithmetic of weight loss is truly simple: Cout > Cin. In English, Calories out (Cout) must be greater than Calories in (Cin). In practical terms, that means we must burn more calories (Cout) than we consume (Cin). We’ve hammered most factors in that equation mercilessly in this column in the past, especially the Cin part – our diet. Cin depends on the quantity of food we eat and its average caloric density. If we eat mostly foods with low calorie density, such as fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and add some meat and low-fat dairy and some healthy fats for balanced nutrition and extra flavor, Cin stays sufficiently moderate that most people can eat all they want and still manage their weight. But you knew that, so this article presumes you eat exactly right.

You also know to keep up a healthy amount of Cout, so this article presumes you get a lot of exercise from work and/or play. Yet if you’re still reading this, you’re probably still not losing weight and want to find additional ways to do so. Your solution may surface when we break Cout into its three primary additive components:

  1. The baseline calories our furnace burns to keep us alive 24/7 (i.e., our basic metabolism), plus
  2. The extra calories we burn while exercising, from combing our hair to running marathons, plus
  3. The extra calories we burn while winding down from all that exercise (this may take up to 15 hours if the exercise is sufficiently intense and prolonged).
But if you’re already eating right and getting all the exercise you’re willing to get, and are still not satisfied with the results, you need to change something. Darn … what now?

Look again at that around-the-clock basic metabolism … the energy our body burns at idle, AKA our basal metabolic rate (BMR). It burns energy – calories – 24/7, accounting for about half of our total daily calorie expenditure. Our brain consumes 20 times as much energy per pound as the rest of our body, and the remainder – about half -- of our BMR energy consumption is due essentially to running our muscles on “idle”. They consume energy at idle in proportion to their total weight, or mass, so adding muscle mass raises our BMR. A modest increase in muscle mass/BMR would reap significant rewards in our fat burning around the clock. Hmmm … you’re burning more calories right now, just by wondering …

Can we increase our BMR? Could that burn calories off even while we sleep? How could we do that? Is there a shortcut? The answers are, “Yes”, “Yes”, “The hard way”, and “No”.

The only safe and permanent way we can raise our BMR is to increase our muscle mass and keep it up. All those bouncy, trendy exercise routines, from jogging to Jiggling to the Oldies -- mostly just another form of “flail-aerobics” under a new name with each new guru -- don’t add muscle. They fall into the exercise and cool-down energy-burning categories (2 and 3 above), but not (1). They can be great cardiovascular exercise, which is critical to our health, and they can be fun, which is vital to motivation, so stay with them. But the only way to increase our muscle mass and thus our BMR is to work our muscles hard and properly against increasing resistance. Whether that means bigger weights in the gym or bigger hay bales at work, we must keep adding more weight to our strength-building routine to keep adding muscle to keep increasing our BMR to keep burning more calories 24/7 to burn off more total fat.

Does this mean a never-ending cycle of ever-increasing weights leading to big hulking muscles? No, because long before we bulk up appreciably, we will add sufficient muscle to raise our BMR sufficiently to burn off sufficient calories 24/7 to stop our weight gain, then start losing if we wish. That’s why lifting weights or doing really hard physical work is a more effective way than flail-aerobics alone to manage a challenging weight problem. Those big hulks, male or female, want to look that way; they put in a tremendous amount of gym work and often steroids into looking that way, then starve themselves for a while to get “cut” for competition. The rest of us can usually maintain a healthy weight while eating plenty if we just develop enough muscle to do everyday things, including our exercise, with grace and ease.

Adding enough muscle to raise our metabolism enough to bring our weight back under control is a win/win/win/win/win/win situation. We feel better, like our looks better, never have to go hungry, sleep better, can do everything more easily, and live longer. And it works whether we’re 10 or 95 when we start. Don’t forget that the proper weight criteria are body fat and strength, not scale readings or clothes size. Weight-bearing exercise will burn off fat, making us healthier and slimmer even if we don’t lose scale weight. Losing weight and buying smaller clothes are icing on the cake.

Sorry; there is no shortcut. No foods, supplements, voodoo, pills, elixirs, shots, video tapes, or electronic gadgets will increase your muscle mass. Steroids may boost the bulking effect of weight lifting, but at a huge health cost, and the bulking is probably due to extra water in the muscle cells, which does not add to our metabolism.

Can’t we use supplements (i.e., chemicals) to at least increase our BMR even though they don’t increase our muscle mass? Sure. Ephedra (aka amphetamines or ma huang) will speed up our BMR; that’s why it’s called “speed” in the drug world. It’s the “magic ingredient” in the vast majority of the countless fat-burning, heart-fluttering, BMR-boosting -- and life-threatening -- weight-loss supplements. Creatine and human growth hormone may affect metabolism, but not safely. The other hundreds of supplements are primarily scams, some dangerous to our health, some dangerous only to our pocketbooks.

On the other side of the coin, four things lower our BMR: age, inactivity, menopause, and very low-calorie diets. Age drops it by 2% per decade if we don’t do strength-building exercise to counter its effects. A sedentary lifestyle lets muscles atrophy, and menopause lowers BMR through chemistry. Quick weight loss (more than a pound or two per week) due to very low-calorie diets (which are especially dangerous and ineffective) decrease your muscle mass and BMR and lead to quick weight regain. Won’t decreasing Cin – our calorie intake – instead of increasing Cout help us lose weight? Sure, until we decide starvation sucks rocks big time and start pigging out on sausage pizza sundaes. In the meantime the body consumes itself to fuel our Cout (energy expended has to come from some fuel). Without load-bearing exercise, muscle is consumed right along with the fat, making strict dieters – and many obsessive runners – waste away. Losing weight solely by dropping Cin lowers muscle mass and thus BMR, so when we start eating again, we fatten up very quickly on even less food than we got fat on in the first place. The way to lose weight without losing muscle and BMR is through a combination of exercise and moderate calorie restriction to achieve slow, controlled weight loss.

One last, uncommon possibility is hypothryroidism. Weak thyroid function can slow the BMR and lead to weight gain. A simple blood test easily identifies it and prescription medication usually fixes it. But don’t hold your breath; your beer belly is most likely due to beer.

Whatever you do, don’t search the Internet with “metabolism” as your key word. You will get thousands of bogus “health” websites designed to lighten one thing: your wallet. Some can even kill you. Go instead to the university and hospital websites, then search within them. And if you’re tempted by one of the countless supplements, go to http://www.quackwatch.org/index.html and search on the word “metabolism”. You’ll find an authoritative discussion of many metabolic weight loss fads and scams.

There are no “what ifs”. To lose weight we must make sure that Cintype of exercise to weight-lifting may be the key. For some motivation, check out the November ’99 column.



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