The Size of the Fight in the Dog

A couple weeks ago, I had to wince when the chubby young anchor mispronounced Jack Lalanne's name while announcing his death at 96, although it was hard to blame her because by the time she was born, he was already a TOJ and could only be seen pitching his electric juicing machine on non-prime time informercials.

The anchor wouldn't have known that in his prime he accomplished some amazing feats of strength and endurance, like doing 1,000 push ups in 23 minutes and towing a half-ton boat behind him as he swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco. More, importantly, he single-handedly championed the benefits of exercise to the masses on his daily TV show. He was also one of the first to encourage women to lift weights. He was ridiculed by many "authorities" that if people exercised as hard as he recommended, all kinds of problems might befall them. Of course, all these fears were bogus - Jack LaLanne was a pioneer.

I rarely watched his show when I was a kid because I was outside playing sports. Besides, who needed to stand in front of a TV screen to be lead by an over-enthusiastic guy through a series of calisthenics and weight routines? And he looked sort of funny in his one piece jumpsuits with padding in the shoulders. He didn't need any padding because he had good muscle definition and was very strong.

It wasn't later that I realized his outfit was just part of his show. His appearance became his brand. From early in his career, he understood the importance of diet and exercise. The famous English physicist Sir Isaac Newton once credited his achievements to those scientists who came before him; in his words, he "stood on the shoulders of giants." Likewise, the legions of personal trainers and exercise celebrities from Richard Simmons to Tony Horton all stood on Jack Lalanne's shoulders, those of a man only 5"6" tall.

While reading some of the online tributes, I ran across an article that implied Jack LaLanne had failed because despite his life long crusade,  the percentage of obese people in the U.S.  rose from 13% to the present 34%. The author said, "But there are questions about how effective the exercises offered by LaLanne and his peers can ever be for people whose main goal is losing weight."

I don't remember LaLanne promising exercise was the primary means to lose weight. He wasn't selling a fast-acting, six weeks to a new you diet. He didn't have a reality show called The Biggest Loser. He admitted exercise is tough, but the results are worth it. He just made the case that it could help you stay healthy and feel good. He placed a heavy emphasis on good nutrition, i.e., nutrition and exercise control weight.

Exercise has many, many benefits (I rant about them all the time), but weight loss is not one of the main ones. What you eat has much more impact on your weight than exercise. Skinny marathoners are skinny not because they were once fat and now train 100 miles a week, but because they are predisposed to be skinny. In fact, if you exercise a lot, you will get hungrier and have to be vigilant to eat foods rich with the right vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Read the third chapter, "The Elusive Benefits of Exercise," in Gary Taubes' excellent book entitled Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It.

Jack LaLanne was true inspiration for TOJs everywhere, and a shining example of the truth of the old coach's adage: It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's  the size of the fight in the dog.

The Red Zone

To progress on the quest for fitness and health, you are going to spend some time in the Red Zone. It's at the fuzzy limit of your strength and endurance where, if you stay to long enough, you'll fail. You'll slow down, drop the weight, quit the reps, stop in your tracks.

The Red Zone is a high level of fatigue. You know you've made it to the Red Zone because you are very uncomfortable - gasping for breath, muscles burning, joints straining, heart beating fast. You might feel dizzy or nauseous. Your mind warns you to quit or you might hurt yourself or die.

However, if you are able stay there long enough (just short of failure), you will progress. What progress means for you depends on what you're working on. Maybe you want to add a mile to your normal workout run, or lift a heavier weight, or complete a set of sit ups faster. For a long time it has been well understood in training that you need to regularly push into the Red Zone to improve. It's the whole basis for what trainers call periodization (see Periodization Training for Sports by Tudor O. Bompa, PhD and Michael C. Carrera),internal training, and high intensity exercise.

Your body is built to adapt naturally to physical stress. It's the secret to fitness by which you gradually reach a performance goal by pushing hard for a period of time, resting for a period of time, then coming back and pushing even harder. The adaption process occurs over weeks and months. Elite athletes have schedules carefully designed by their coaches to methodically time this cycle to peak for key competitions.

TOJs can use a similar, toned-down version, alternating hard days and easy days. This TOJ spends some time in every workout (usually 6 days a week) in the Red Zone. There, you live in the now. When to leave the Red Zone, you feel a great sense of satisfaction, sometimes even joy. Sometimes you can use the same approach inside a workout. After a warm up, proceed to the hardest exercises for the first half of your session, then ease back for the second half.

When you're in the Red Zone, you are more prone to injury because you start to loose muscular control as you fatigue. The best protection against this is to be aware of your form. If you are nearing a point where you cannot perform the exercise correctly, stop. You've reached your limit for that day.

The best athletes, regardless of sport or age, are able to spend a long time in the Red Zone. If you want to see what the payoff is, watch this video, a display of the most incredible athleticism and strength this TOJ has ever seen. This is a clip of the Great Chinese Circus performing Swan Lake. You will not believe what two of these dancers (truly awesome athletes) are able to do.

Think of them the next time you get ready to enter the Red Zone.

Switching Food Gears

Making changes in your lifestyle can be difficult, even if they're good for you. The other day I was at a health conference where a doc explained how frustrating it is when she has a diabetic patient who fully comprehends that he or she needs to change eating habits and exercise, but won't. She observed that intellectually understanding something doesn't mean you will act on it.

Old habits die hard, including doing stuff that really isn't good for your health. In the last few years, I've made big changes in the types of food I eat. I followed the food evolution described in three blogs last year called "How to Become a Lean, Mean, Eating Machine," from the conventional American diet to more veggies, lean meats, and raw food.

The major reason I altered what I ate wasn't because of a pressing food-related health issue, but because my wife became a vegan. She became focused on how food affected her, while I was focused on exercise. As part of her food quest, she learned a great deal about nutrition, which periodically she would share with me.

At she started to make food changes in her diet, of course she would offer me some of it, and at first I would decline or make a snide remark like, "Are you eating tree bark or pine needles?" Her food changes at first caused some friction. When you have been sharing meals with someone for years, and their tastes change and yours haven't, a source of conflict arises. For instance, you sit down to a meal and winter squash with a little cinnamon has been substituted for a white potato with butter.

However, as she explained what made the food nutritious and even tasty, I started to sample it and found that I liked it and felt satisfied after eating it. Meantime, I was studying up on nutrition, and experts confirmed what she had been saying all along (she studied the same experts before I did). Now the only differences in our diets are that I do eat some meat and dairy a few times a week because I have muscle to feed.

There's been some interesting research on the negative role of social contagion in the spread of obesity. To cut to the quick, some studies show that people who are fat usually live and hang out with other fat people and share eating habits, especially married couples and close friends. When they get together, the cake and cookies are around, and the bag of fried potato chips and sour cream dip on the table in front of the TV.

Of course, this social contagion is reinforced by millions of dollars of advertising. Food choices are reinforced by social and cultural norms. When you watch the Super Bowl, the ads will show happy friends stuffing their faces with fried chips high in fat, salt, and carbs.

But social contagion can play a positive role as well. This TOJ is proof. Thanks to my wife, I eat and enjoy foods I never would have dreamt possible, like spinach and avocado smoothies, flax crackers, and "cheese" made of nuts. I'm leaner, stronger, and more energetic than I've been in a long time. It's probably not just the food because I've also changed my exercise pattern from mostly running combined with a little weight work to mostly high intensity resistance exercises and some running.

Right food and right exercises are good habits to catch.

Going, Going, Gone

With the start of the New Year, there's s surge in gym memberships and cable TV infomercials on how to lose weight. For many, getting in shape is synonymous with losing weight, though the two are not the same things.

You can lose weight by eating fewer calories and still be out of shape. Likewise, you can be in pretty good shape, i.e., normal blood pressure, OK lipids, and also overweight. Some 300 pound NFL lineman are in tremendous physical condition, while many skinny people are not.

However, most of us do equate fitness with leanness, which is usually measured in percentage of body fat. Exercise physiologist Covert Bailey was one of the first to get that concept in front of the general public in his Fit or Fat books over twenty years ago. Healthy range of body fat is different from males to females. In general, a healthy male may measure between 10-20% body fat, and women 15 to 25%. This number goes up slightly with age. The number also varies even in elite athletes, depending on their sport. Marathoners can be in the 5-7 range, while swimmers are twice that.

So what's the advantage of a low percentage and what does it have to do with fitness and health? Leanness means less wear and tear on your skeleton, especially your joints. Your heart does not have to work so hard for the same amount of physical work, thus improving your endurance. Most importantly, leanness, when combined with exercise, reduces the amount of body inflammation suspected to cause many chronic diseases.

I've recently been reading two excellent books on body fat and exercise: 1) Robb Wolf's The Paleo Diet, and 2) Tim Ferris' The 4-Hour Body. Both are based on a similar premise: you will lose weight if you restrict simple carbohydrates in your diet. Wolf says to eat mainly high quality protein, vegetables, and fruit, but no wheat or legumes. Ferris says okay to legumes (because if you don't eat them you won't feel full and be hungry all the time), but no to fruit (fructose is a sugar, the digested final product of all carbs). Both these books are based on good science; the references are there if you want to find out for yourself.

I think these authors are in their late 30's, about the time most humans have just passed their athletic prime and when percentage of body fat tends to start to drift up, especially around the gut. As a result, they are a little body image-obsessed. Ferris even goes so far as to have pictures of his shirtless torso as proof his diet works. (I'm much more impressed when he does 180+ kettlebell snatches on YouTube.) Ferris gets excited when his body fat percentage gets so low he can see the veins popping out underneath his skin. Pretty funny.

This TOJ thinks both of them offer sound advice on eating and exercise, and there's no doubt that for most people, lowering percentage of body fat by reducing simple carb intake (especially anything with white flour or sugar) is good for you. In the past few years, the evidence has mounted that consumption of simple carbs elevates insulin and causes insulin resistance, which is linked to Type-II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

Percentage of body fat is a much more reliable indicator of health than the popular Body Mass Index (BMI). Many very fit athletes have high BMI's because muscle is much heavier that fat. Muscle is preferable to body fat because muscle raises your metabolic rate and lowers insulin levels, especially when the muscles have been exercised. Fat can't do that, it's just along for the ride.

If you follow the diet and exercise advice of either Wolf or Ferris, expect to lose fat, not necessarily weight. A pound of fat takes up four times as much space as a pound of muscle. When you combine a high protein diet with exercise, especially with lots of resistance exercise, you will lose body fat and increase muscle. The surest sign you are will be in looser clothing, especially around your waist, thighs, and butt.

Who knows if you'll see changes in the mirror, but you'll feel them. That's what really counts.