In Praise of Exercised Muscles

There's more to exercised muscle than meets the eye. What I mean by that is in our body-image obsessed culture, some tend to focus on the superficial aspects of it, like looking  buff and strong. But there are many more compelling health reasons to build muscle with strength training than how it looks under our skin.

Consider the obvious, and not so obvious, benefits:

Mobility - No muscle, no movement. That we can walk, dance, run, lift, pump, jump, kick is a miracle. The most advanced robot can only crudely mimic the incredible array of movements made possible by the interplay of our muscles and bones.

Protection - Muscles are our shock abosorber system. Whether your're an NFL football player or snow boarder or an old TOJ, the muscles buffer your bones and internal organs by dissipating the shock of a fall or blow. Muscles keep you from falling. The stronger and more resilient your muscles, the more protection you have.

Stability and Balance - We know where we are, and whether we're right side up, by a combination of the brain, nerves and muscles called proprioception. The muscles do the heavy lifting to keep us erect and in line with the forces of gravity, as well as the subtle adjustments to enable us to navigate uneven terrain, like rocky trails.

Bone and joint health - Muscle contractions move, and place force on the bones, which in turn strengthens them as they respond to the stress. The movement of the muscle also spreads the synovial fluid, a lubricant between bones in a joint, to help the bone surfaces work smoothly and painlessly.

Metabolism - The most over-looked function of muscle is its role in reducing inflammation, which has been associated with the killers like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. A major cause of inflammation is insulin resistance, a condition in which the glucose in our blood (there from eating or drinking carbohydrates) has no place to go. Excess glucose causes the liver to convert it to fatty acids, which in turn increase artery-clogging LDL cholesterol.

However, here muscle comes to the rescue. Through a process called glycogenolysis, an exercised muscle will move the glycogen out of your blood and store it as a useful source of energy in the muscle itself.  And depending on how intensely the muscle was exercised, this continues for hours, and even days, after exercising. Pretty cool.

We have over 600 of them, and they are mostly made of water. Tend them like a garden. Exercise them at least three times a week. Hydrate well and feed them with good food (mainly protein with some carbs). In exchange, they will take care of you, in more ways than you know.

To Grain or Not to Grain

With all the advanced science available to us you wouldn't think that what we should eat to stay healthy should come down to an act of faith, like believing in angels. Yet it does because there is so much conflicting evidence and studies about what is good or bad for us.

Take the humble food class called whole grains. In January the USDA released the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010, and a new food pyramid, which looks much like the old one, which calls for eating lots of whole grains, in addition to more fruits and vegetables, and lean meats. To the USDA's credit, the food pyramid no longer takes a one size fits all approach to what we should eat. They have tools to personalize what might work best for you.

A CNN article reported that a new Harvard study shows significant benefits from eating whole grains:

( -- Eating a diet rich in fiber - especially the kind of fiber found in whole grains - reduces the risk of dying at an early age from a range of causes, a new government study suggests.

Fiber's beneficial effects on heart health have been known for decades, so it wasn't surprising that eating a lot of fiber was associated with a lower risk of death due to heart attack and heart disease. But fiber intake also appears to lower the risk of dying from respiratory diseases (such as pneumonia and chronic bronchitis) and infectious diseases, the study found.

Yet, there are others who are also well armed with studies that completely disagree with this take on grains. In fact, they claim  grains can be harmful, in ways beyond the well-established connection between gluten and celiac disease.

Robb Wolf, who's become popular advocating the Paleo diet from which grains are excluded, in fact, considers them poisonous because they can cause serious problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome. His views are nicely summed up here by one of his Paleo practitioners.

Gary Taubes, author of the bestsellers Good Calories, Bad Calories and  Why We're Fat and What to Do About It, also bans grains from healthy diets because when fully digested they turn into glucose (sugar) and spike your insulin, which leads to inflammation, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

So what's a TOJ to do? I think there's plenty of evidence that American eat way too many carbs, and grains are very potent carbs. I found what both Wolf and Taubes have to say about grains worth studying. When it comes to controlling weight, which is associated both with health and the ability to be physically active, an excess of grains can definitely work against us. However, I still eat some whole grain foods because they do contain vital nutrients, as listed on the USDA website:

•Grains are important sources of many nutrients, including dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium).

•B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate) play a key role in metabolism – they help the body release energy from protein, fat, and carbohydrates. B vitamins are also essential for a healthy nervous system. 

•Whole grains are sources of magnesium and selenium. Magnesium is a mineral used in building bones and releasing energy from muscles. Selenium protects cells from oxidation. It is also important for a healthy immune system.

And whole grains taste good, like all carbs. But I only eat a food with whole grains at most once a day, maybe a piece of whole wheat flatbtread. Mostly it's veggies, some fruit, and lots of protein.
When it comes to diet and exercise, be open minded, and do what works for you.

Good Stuff

Here are three articles worth checking out.

The first is a NY Times article with some very interesting findings about how long you can stop working out and still maintain your fitness. One study followed older elite athletes. Those who continued to workout maintained the metabolic benefits of exercise. Those who stopped and became couch potatoes developed insulin resistance and all the other problems of a sedentary life. Athletes of all ages who were fit could work out just once a week and maintain their strength; younger people could even add some muscle mass. One study of kayakers found taking five weeks off from working out cost 9% of their strength and 11% of aerobic capacity, both a significant decline.

The second one from Scientific American is about the powerful advantages of eating real veggies, instead of downing vitamins and supplements that mimic them. Note the scientists are a little confounded that they think they have identified two compounds that cause healthy results in the human body, but it's clear that nature is more complex science can grasp.

And, finally, check out this article about why coffee is good for you. Many would say this is heresy, but not true. Coffee is rich in antioxidants that are good for you.