Thursday, 22 July 2010

Diet and Exercise Not the Most Important Weight Loss Factors

For a while they told us losing weight was all about exercise. Then we learned through the Paleo/Primal and low-carb communities that in fact it is all about diet, but exercise can help - perhaps 80% diet, 20% exercise.

Over the years I have, in a modest way, spent a lot of time gaining and losing weight (you can see this by scrolling my body composition graph to the left.) And finally I have realised what might have been obvious to others. In fact it's 10% diet, 5% exercise and 85% desire.

You could lose weight on a diet of Skittles and a pogo-stick exercise regime. You would almost certainly need more desire for the Skittles and Pogo plan than for a Paleo/Primal and Interval plan... but for anyone with plenty of desire, that doesn't matter.

I touched on the idea that really wanting it is the important thing in a post last year about exercise and weight loss.

Paleo and Interval Training Failure

What triggered my epiphany was coming home a stone heavier from an epic two weeks of bad living on a business trip, whereupon I decided it was time to lose weight. So I ate Paleo/Primal and did regular interval training.

And nothing happened.

Sometimes I would do well during the week, then overeat at restaurants when out with friends. At other times, I would gorge on Paleo/Primal treats after meals. Then there were full-blown lapses, usually alcohol triggered, in which I would blow a week of effort in one night.

Too many internal conversations resulted in victory for the little red guy with horns. In short, I didn't care enough about losing to make the sacrifices. I lacked the desire.

How Terrible Wisdom...

Alas, Johnny...
After a time, this became frustrating. I knew exactly what to do but apparently lacked the ability to do it. I was reminded of De Niro's line in Angel Heart, paraphrasing Sophocles - " terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise..."

Then something changed about 7 weeks ago. A clear and compelling set of reasons for getting my act together emerged.

Until then, my reasons had been 1) health and 2) weight. Apparently not enough.

Then, two new reasons emerged, and everything changed.

Mountain Running

First, mountain running. This has been a hobby for a number of years and I have always been able to run up mountains easily enough to make it fun. This year I have entered some challenging races. One of them is 17 miles and involves going up and down several of England's highest peaks.

My new layer of fat and reduced fitness were becoming a problem. It was no longer easy.

Proving the Doctors Wrong

The second reason came after a visit to the hospital.

I have been seeing a haematologist since 2005. It's a long story you can pick up here if you are interested. To summarise, my blood readings are low. They think I have a condition called aplastic anemia, which implies immune problems. I think their normal ranges are wrong because they are based on a population who've overstimulated their own immune systems with the wrong food. They keep asking me whether I've had any infections recently and I keep telling them I've had one, three-day cold since 1996.

At the end of May, my blood readings were 'better' than they have been in years; but the smile of approval on the specialist's face did not fill me with hope. The previous few months had been the most unhealthy of my life since going Paleo/Primal in 2007.

I realised this was my opportunity to prove (to myself, at least) that my hypothesis holds water. If I could go perfectly Paleo/Primal for the 4 months until my next tests, and my bloods went back to their usual 'worrying' levels, it would be compelling.

Losing a Stone in 6 Weeks

Armed with these new motivations, I suddenly made rapid progess. The change was profound. Here is an exerpt from my body composition graph to illustrate.

From May to July

In about 8 weeks I appear to have dropped 17 lbs and 5% body fat; but in reality that initial steep dive included flushing out the post-binge inflammation and water retention.

The real progress was between "blowing it for the last time" (mid June) and today. That's still 14 lbs and 3% fat in about 6 weeks.

Finding More

Clearly for me the health and weight motivations were not enough. As I noted in my post about the business trip, I was just not getting ill. It's hard to be motivated by health if you are having fun and not suffering the consequences. Okay, I didn't feel great, but I was functioning comfortably. And as you've probably noted, my weight and fat percentage, even after the business trip, would be the envy of some - so the vanity angle was not powerful enough either.

I needed more, and when I found more, things changed.


Everyone is different. What motivates me might not motivate you; but if you want to lose weight, I think the most important thing to do is consciously identify the reasons it's important to you, and make them the centrepiece of your efforts.

Yes, eating Paleo/Primal and doing interval-based intense exercise appears (from my experience and the research) to be the best way to achieve that, but if you don't have the desire, it might not work as well as you expect.

In 4 months I will report back on the blood test question - will my hypothesis be supported? Will I bother trying to explain it to my haematologist?

I sometimes consider my fluctuations in Paleo/Primal adherence in the context of Mark Sisson's 80:20 principle. I think that by the end of this 4 months I will have clawed back my percentage.


praguestepchild said...

When the hematologist smiles that's the time to get nervous. Sad but true.

I think you are bang on target A big problem for me is substituting exercise for stritcness, I do tabatas and high intensity strength training - that's released tons of HGH, etc, so I can have another glass of wine and a big handful of almonds, and perhaps put some ketchup on this. But it is the lack of motivation that let's me make this lazy substitution. Still, half ass paleo and sprints is better than my old diet and chronic cardio.

Methuselah said...

praguestepchild - agreed, half ass is definately better than the old stuff! Even on half ass I feel better than I used to...

Aaron Curl said...

For the last month I have fallen content and lost the desire to stay strict in my eating habbits. The result is about 3 pounds which doesn't sound like a lot but I was trying to get to 6-7% body fat. My progress stalled due to my super beer drinking over the last month. In my mind I figured...."what the hell...its it up". Well, I'm refocused now..just takes a plan....a reason and discipline.

Methuselah said...

Ah, contentment, the enemy of the diet disciplinarian! I think contentment is a good word for what happens when you make a lot of progress, then start thinking about having fun. The trick, I reckon, is to make those periods of fun self-contained, rather than protracted. The mistake I made earlier in the year was going past the point of no return, where it was going to take more than a few weeks of discipline to regain lst ground.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

I'm sure you're right about the role of attitude and desire in weight loss. I think the reason this is generally ignored may be partly because they are seen as unsustainable. As you say, you can lose weight on a Skittles diet, or fasting for that matter, but you just won't keep up either indefinitely, and then it's back to the same old routine. Of course, the short term motivation is hugely important for making the initial improvement.

I like to keep track of HR data too. Not sure what it really means though. My experience is that race day HR is not representative (extra adrenaline raises it) of your actual effort.

Very interested in hearing more about your fell running adventures and hematology saga. That Snowden race seems pretty challenging, especially in vibrams.

Have fun out there!


Methuselah said...

Thanks Cynthia. Next weekend will be fun. 17 miles, 6700'. It's the leptin angle that creates the problem with desire, I think, something I didn't go into in the post. I have been playing around with refeeding though, so perhaps one to cover in a later post.

Ed Terry said...

For me, I would add a short phrase to your equation: 10% diet, 5% exercise and 85% desire not to feel like crap.

Today, the thought of "slipping off the wagon" no longer worries me because of the adverse effects of not eating to plan.

After giving up all sweeteners, natural and artificial six months ago, I lost my taste for sweets. Anything sweeter than a berry is now "too sweet" and not at all pleasant. If I eat a greater volume of food than I normally do, my stomach feels too full and that sensation is also unpleasant. The latter is a bigger problem because my brain is convinced I need larger portions of food like I used to eat.

I'm still coming to term with my new tongue and stomach. When my wife and I go out to dinner and she orders dessert, I'm completely satisfied with one or two very small bites as long as the dessert is not too sweet. I've also grown accustomed to feeling good most of the time and am shocked when I don't.

Methuselah said...

Ed - that's a very familiar story for me. I 'lose' my desire for sweetness too after about 4 weeks of Paleo, and then it feels like the most natural thing in the world not to have anything except a little fruit now and again. Not feeling like crap is a strong motivator. The danger for me comes when I eat crap for long enough that I get used to it. Then the motivator loses some of it's power and I get stuck in a spiral.

Mountain KillerAbs Evan said...

A buddy just sent me this article and it made me think of your "skittles and pogo stick":

Methuselah said...

Thanks Evan - yeah, I read this. Good story!

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