Metabolism & Being Overweight

I am going to be very simple here and state a few basic facts that have relevance to strength training and conscious breathing.

A narrow definition of metabolism is: the process by which our bodies convert the food we eat and drink into the energy we require to function. This is a complex biomechanical process that combines food, bodily hormones (messengers that regulate and control the behavior of specific organs) to break that food down and oxygen in a form of internal combustion (aerobic metabolism) that manifests in energy. We need energy to live, whether we are at rest or in motion: energy to breathe, to circulate blood and to maintain bones and muscles as cells are repaired and regenerated.

Basically, protein builds muscle while carbohydrates and fats provide energy.

It is the type and amount of food we eat and drink, and the total calories (energy) that they supply compared to the calories expended in physical activity that determines weight gain or loss. If we eat more than we need to, or the wrong kinds of foods - junk food loaded with sugar - the excess is broken down and stored as triglycerides, fat. There are no secrets here, and certainly no ‘diet pills’ or magic formulas that are a sustainable means to weight loss or the maintenance of a healthy bodyweight over time. It’s truly up to you: how and what you eat, the method and regularity of exercise, and how you breathe.

A broader definition of metabolism is: the sum total of all the chemical reactions in our body, this total includes the consumption of food and energy as influenced by our feelings and thoughts, mental highs and lows.

Breathing bears a direct influence on our thoughts and moods. For instance, a frightened state of mind creates an unhealthy energy drain upon the body – compromising the immune system - while a balanced state of mind fosters a stable and healthy flow of energy. All of this influences the longevity of the organism.

Complete training addresses both definitions of metabolism and should lead to a state of relaxation, both mental and physical.

On a purely physical level, muscle requires more calories to maintain than fat, not a lot, maybe five or six calories a day per pound when compared to a pound of fat. So, if we add 10 pounds of muscle, that’s fifty or sixty extra calories a day that will be required to maintain that muscle. In other words, building muscle will marginally increase the resting metabolic rate – the amount of calories consumed while at rest.

Muscle is also more compact in appearance than fat; it is denser, so muscle requires about twenty-percent less space than fat, causing the body to look leaner and tighter.

High intensity progressive resistance training – training with weights or bodyweight using short rest intervals between exercises - raises the metabolic rate, the rate at which you convert food to energy and burn calories, both during training and during the rest and recovery period afterwards. It also raises the levels of Human Growth Hormone, part of the protein making process by as much as 450 percent; these levels remain high for up to thirty-six hours following a workout, depending upon intensity, while the high levels of HGH also encourage the body to burn fat for energy.

Oxygen is required for aerobic metabolism. During exercise more oxygen is required than usual and, finally, when the body can no supply enough oxygen to metabolize aerobically (with oxygen) it switches to anaerobic metabolism where food is converted to energy without oxygen. This method of metabolism is quicker, but not sustainable and creates an oxygen debt.

Following exercise, the body works to repay this oxygen debt; pre-workout oxygen levels must be reinstated, which means the heart must work a little harder as the respiratory system pumps more oxygen to repay the oxygen deficit. This requires energy (calories). While this is taking place, the body must also repair the damage done from exercise (micro tears in the fabric of the muscles). This requires more energy (calories). Returning to a state of physical equilibrium may take hours, or even days, dependent upon the intensity of the training. In other words, proper exercise (adequate intensity) accelerates the metabolism during and after a training session.

Diaphragmatic breathing also influences the metabolic rate; deep breathing oxygenates the body and stimulates calorie burn as it converts food to energy and ultimately breaks up fat molecules during the recovery phase.

Diaphragmatic breathing should be combined with resistance training; it forms a complete method of exercise. This pattern of breath and movement will spill over into everyday life and become the way we breathe, both awake and asleep, both at rest and when moving, or exercising.

Breathing for weight loss: The lungs are the primary organs responsible for weight loss. Carbohydrate and protein that is not used as fuel or repair for the body is stored as fat; this fat is called a triglyceride. These are the fats that, if not regulated, go hand in hand with high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease.

Triglycerides are composed of three types of atoms: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The only way to get rid of a triglyceride is to break it down: this breakdown occurs when triglycerides are exposed to oxygen, in a process known as oxidation. Breath is taken into the body, and oxygen is transported by the red blood cells to the individual cells storing triglycerides. There, the triglycerides are exposed to the oxygen and broken down, or oxidized. Think of it as a bomb, exploding, as chemicals interact to create energy. Then the residue is flushed away through the elimination of waste: Carbon and water released through exhalation while the other chemical components are excreted through urine and feces.

Some claim that breathing alone, specifically diaphragmatic breathing is able to breakdown this type of body fat and cause a significant loss in body weight. I have never experimented with this and am skeptical that diaphragmatic breathing alone will result in a significant loss of bodyweight, but I am certain that diaphragmatic breathing massages the internal organs, including the intestinal track, and aids in elimination of waste and when combined with correct movement (for instance, high intensity training) and a healthy diet will rid the body of excess fat and create lean muscle.

Breath and movement is the key to fat loss and the maintenance of a healthy bodyweight.

The intention of REAL STRENGTH NOW training is to teach the student to understand the body from the inside, out and become his or her own teacher. Everything else, health of mind and body, will flow from this training. BREATH IS LIFE.

My own personal experience

I worked for several years as an assistant coach at The Fisher Boxing Club in Bermondsey, England. As assistant to Steve Hiser, one of England’s great amateur boxing coaches, I was privileged to work with many talented amateur fighters, some of whom went on to have successful professional careers. My job at The Fisher was, primarily, as strength coach. I had limited facilities; an old multi-gym and a few dumbbells, but the boys were dedicated and I was able to put programs together using the basic push-pulling movements. By that, I mean squats (a pushing movement), pull-ups on the horizontal bar (a pulling movement) bar dips (pushing) and push-ups on the floor, followed sometimes by boxing combinations – jab, cross, hook - while holding light dumbbells. I trained my group of boys twice a week, after they had finished their boxing workouts – sparring, bag work, and pad work.

‘Making weight’ is necessary in boxing. For instance, the limit for a middleweight is 75 kilograms or 165 pounds. If a middleweight boxer arrives at the boxing venue and weighs in at 166 pounds, he either loses the pound within a certain time period or he cannot box. I’ve seen lots of fighters skipping rope, clad in sauna suits (rubber lined sweat suits), in front of old steaming radiators in the back rooms of sports arenas, trying to sweat out the pound or two, or three, that would keep them from the ring. This resulted in dehydration and a loss in strength and endurance. I watched a lot of boys lose fights that they could have potentially won because they were weakened by the sudden and unnatural loss in weight. And, their weight losses that were ultimately unsustainable.

The group of boys that I regularly trained in the back room of The Fisher did not suffer to ‘make weight.’ Because muscle requires slightly more calories to maintain than fat, and the discipline of resistance training – combined with diaphragmatic breathing – promotes lean muscle, their bodyweights remained relatively constant throughout the boxing season. One discipline (strength training with diaphragmatic breathing) worked in conjunction with another (boxing).

Boxers are generally ‘nose breathers’ because of the requirements of the sport – holding a gumshield in place while keeping the jaw closed because of potential injury, or being broken from a punch – so they are, by nature, diaphragmatic breathers. This coupled with the aerobic discipline of boxing and fast paced progressive resistance training functioned to maintain a steady bodyweight.

I have applied the same discipline in my gym. Substituting work with the breathing stick or time on the stationary bike (to elevate the heart rate) for the practice of boxing in combination with high intensity resistance training with short rest intervals, my workouts are brief – less than 20 minutes – and intense. These workouts affect the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems while upping the metabolism (conversion of food to energy) during and after the workouts. This practice has enabled me, and the people I train to reach and maintain a healthy bodyweight without special diets or diet pills (basically amphetamines), as long as there is no junk food dependence.

Belly Fat

We are usually pretty good till about the age of forty, then with the decrease of testosterone production in men and estrogen in women – beginning at about the age of thirty – muscle declines, metabolism slows and fat starts to accumulate around the abdomen. This is belly fat.

I’ve got some. In fact, most everyone after the age of fifty has a little bit of belly fat.

I have written about triglycerides, that fat that circulates in the blood, and may be broken down by oxidation and exercise, or breath and movement. But there are two other types of fat; subcutaneous fat, which is the natural protective layer that lies beneath the surface of the skin, the type you can pinch, and then there’s the really bad stuff, visceral fat, located beneath the muscles of your stomach. This is the gel-like fat that pushes out on the subcutaneous fat and gives us a big belly. A basic test for visceral fat, or too much of it, is to take a tape measure to your waistline – above your belly button and below your ribcage. If you are a man and your waistline exceeds forty inches, you’ve got too much visceral fat. If you are a woman, thirty-five inches is the magic number. This is not as accurate as an MRI, but it’s a lot less expensive and a good indicator of where you are in the visceral fat department.

Visceral fat is stored close to the liver, pancreas and intestines, squeezing and actually wrapping round those organs; too much visceral fat, which releases its own hormones, can short circuit the vital communication between them, disrupting the flow of insulin – the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels - from the pancreas, causing the body to store sugar as fat. This fat ends up clogging the liver, resulting in the liver being unable to break down more fat to use as fuel, heightening triglyceride levels and generally causing problems with the digestive system. It’s a vicious circle and raises the risk of disease; particularly type 2 diabetes and heart disease, along with some forms of cancer.

Stress also plays a role in belly fat, causing the hormone cortisol to be released by the adrenal glands. Cortisol, a product of the ‘fight or flight’ response, raises blood pressure and tells the body to release more blood sugar as it suppresses the immune system in preparation for physical action – fight or flight. When there is no physical action, as in constant stress with no release, blood sugar accumulates and equates to, along with other adverse reactions, more belly fat.

The lungs are the primary organs responsible for weight loss, breaking down triglycerides (fats) in the process of oxidation then expelling toxic waste from the body; but they are also largely responsible for stress relief.

The fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system may be counterbalanced and regulated by conscious diaphragmatic breathing.

Conscious diaphragmatic breathing quiets our minds and takes us into the parasympathetic or rest and digest system. And -

Rest and digest is the place where we want to spend most of our time.

So, how do we get rid of belly fat?

Two studies focused on the effects of strength training in adults between 50 and 70 years of age. Over a six-month period both men and women showed a 10 to 15 percent decrease in belly fat despite no weight loss, which means a loss of visceral fat and a gain of lean muscle.

Good nutrition – no junk food – is the first assault on the accumulation of belly fat.

The second, in order to lose accumulated fat, is strength training, and by that I mean progressive resistance exercise.

But… Before anything else, learn how to breathe.

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