Ask Anything: 10 questions with health & fitness instructor Cameron Martz
Posted September 9, 2008 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 2:03 p.m. EDT
Which has the most impact on weight loss – a healthy diet or exercise? I know it is optimum to eat healthy and exercise, but I find that I cannot concentrate on both at one time. – Renee Evans, Cary
Renee, let’s start by making a distinction between “weight loss” and “fat loss.”
“Weight loss” is obviously how many pounds of body weight we lose, and it is the only thing a scale can tell is. It includes weight lost from fat reduction, muscle atrophy, decreased water and nutrient retention, and decreased contents of the digestive tract. This is not really what most of us want to focus on. Instead, we want to focus on “fat loss,” which improves our health, and in the minds of some, changes our aesthetic appeal.
A significant change in diet definitely results in both faster fat loss and weight loss, as it is easier for most of us to cut a few hundred calories from our daily intake than to run a few extra miles. However, some of what we see on the scale comes from a reduction in muscle mass and water weight- two things that make the numbers look better but make us feel worse. Thus, the weight loss from diet alone can be very deceiving.
When we add exercise to a healthy diet, we get to keep our muscle mass and even increase it over time. We delay the reduction in metabolism that comes as we lose weight (carrying extra weight around all day burns calories, after all). We increase our energy instead of lose it as our bodies struggle to preserve our stores of fat. Plus, we get bodies that are more capable, making daily tasks easier to accomplish and opening up recreational opportunities we might not have had before.
In many ways, diet and exercise are like our left and right feet. We all had to learn how to walk, but once we got used to it, it sure made getting to where we wanted to go a whole lot easier.
It’s OK to start with either changes to your diet or your activity level, but you have to add the other component before long. Otherwise, you might just find yourself circling back to where you started.
What are some really effective exercises for the midsection for that stubborn tummy fat? – Geneva Duncan, Henderson
Geneva, your question raises the specter of the greatest myth in fitness, and that is the myth of spot reduction of fat.
Body fat is like a gas tank in a car, except we wear ours on the outside of our middles. Your engine doesn’t care where the tank is located, and that’s the same with our bodies. Keep in mind that fat fuels everything, not just our skeletal muscles. We couldn’t possibly store fat next to every cell or bunch of tissue in our bodies.
Instead, body fat is stored where it is to make it easier to carry around, generally at the stomach, hips/buttocks, and upper legs. Think about carrying a 10 pound weight in a fanny pack strapped to your waist. You probably wouldn’t really notice it most of the day. Now think about strapping that fanny pack around one of your ankles. You’d quickly tire of walking, even though your total weight hasn’t changed at all. So, the location of our extra fat is a product of physics, not of muscular demand.
Ultimately, abdominal exercises are great for developing abdominal strength, but most do not burn enough calories to perform merely to burn fat. If you want to get rid of stubborn tummy fat, you need to increase the difference between how much you eat and how much you burn. Most of us can benefit from working on both sides of this equation.
How many times a day should you be eating? – Paula, Durham
Paula, there is no one answer for all of us. Some people do better with many small meals, yet others are better off eating fewer larger meals. However, the most common downfall to the frequent meal plan is that it can be difficult to keep your calorie intake down. People end up increasing their caloric intake rather than just spreading it out over more of the day.
If you find that you are experiencing frequent crashes in energy throughout your day, you might be getting too many refined carbohydrates in your diet to begin with. Your body rapidly metabolizes these sources of energy, and going through a sugar cycle five times per day isn’t necessarily better than going through it three times per day.
Regardless of how many times you eat per day, make sure to evenly space your calorie intake as best as you can (i.e., eat similar sized meals), avoid refined carbohydrates, and don’t be afraid to try different eating plans to find what works best for you.
I work 40-60 hours per week, am active in church, and in the community. I don’t have a lot of time for exercise and don’t want to spend money on a gym membership because I probably won’t use it. What type of exercise program could you recommend for me? – Pam Evans, Wilson
Pam, if it’s any consolation, you sound like the vast majority of working people. It can be challenging to carve time out of a schedule like this to exercise, but we all have to make our health a priority in our lives.
When we’re healthy, we are more productive, have better energy to get through the day, and are better able to cope with stress. Very quickly, the time we “lose” to a program of daily exercise is returned because we get more done, more effectively, in other areas of the day as our fitness improves.
You don’t need a gym membership or even any equipment at all to give your body the daily exercise it needs. There are many online sources of no-equipment exercises and routines- do your research and just pick one that works for you.
The biggest piece of advice I can give a busy person, though, is to get your exercise done first thing in the morning, before your day has gotten its hooks in you. This way, you can’t rationalize away your training time because you think you’ve gotten too busy.
I’m trying to get definition and know that diet is very important – probably key. Currently, I’m drinking one meal replacement per day and eat good meals. My problem is the snacks. What are some good in-between snacks. I’m bored with yogurt and nuts. – Mark, Elm City
Somehow, snacks have lost their meaning in a good diet. We have come to think of a snack as a time to treat ourselves to a goodie, no matter how small, in between meals.
I think it is better to approach a snack as a mini-meal. You don’t have to eat from multiple food groups, but eat real food with an eye towards nutrition, not emotional comfort. You don’t have to limit yourself to nuts and yogurt (most of which has too much added sugar to be good for us, anyway), but don’t be fooled into thinking that science can pack more nutrition into a bar or a powder than you can get from a simple piece of fruit or a small portion of leftovers from a healthy meal.
Hello. I have been watching what I eat and walking for about four months now about four days a week on an incline for 30 minutes at a time. I have only lost about 36 lbs. but I have lost two sizes in clothes. My question is can you lose inches without the scale moving? – Cheryl Taylor, Goldsboro
Cheryl, congratulations on your success so far! 36 pounds over 16 weeks is an average of over two pounds of weight loss per week. The word “only” should not be used to describe this fantastic rate. In fact, losing weight much faster than this might seem like a good idea at first, but the faster we lose it, the more likely our bodies will be put into survival mode. Remember, fat loss only happens because we make the body consume itself for energy.
To answer your question in general, yes, you can lose inches, or pounds of fat, without seeing large changes in scale weight. Exercise improves our health in a number of ways that can increase our body weight, making the scale a poor indicator of progress for many of us. I touch on this above in my answer to the first question.
Most people think of increases in muscle mass and bone density as adding the pounds, but we also increase our blood volume and the amount of nutrients and water stored within the muscles themselves in response to a new program of exercise. These gains general do not detract from the aesthetic gains we might be seeking, but instead, enable us to accomplish even more during the time we spend training.
Using the way your clothes fit is a much better indicator of fat loss than the scale. You will know when you are getting fit whenever you get dressed in the morning. Check with the scale every now and then, but there is no need to be obsessed with it.
I am starting a new exercise program, and I always get confused on what is best as far as eating breakfast before/after exercises. What do you suggest? – MN, Durham
This question raises yet another fitness myth, that you should not eat before working out so you burn more fat instead of burning what you just ate. Fat loss is about calories in versus calories out over the course of days, weeks, months ... It doesn’t matter when you get the calories in that regard.
However, when we eat can certainly impact the intensity of our workouts. Think about how drained of energy most of us are upon waking up. “Breakfast” means we are breaking the fast of the night. Eating a small meal before working out will usually fuel you to a better workout, resulting in more calorie burning and thus, more fat loss.
That said, some people just can’t seem to manage anything in their stomachs when exercising. So, at that level it becomes a matter of personal choice, not one of hypothetical efficiencies.
I was wondering how I can keep my upper thighs from getting too muscular. I have noticed my upper legs getting bigger/muscular. I mean, yes, I want a lean body, but not huge thighs. What kind of workout should I be doing? I don’t want wimpy legs either, but I went from a weakling to pretty strong in my legs and was mainly worried about my upper torso area. – Kay Collier, Greensboro
How our muscles respond to exercise is largely determined by our genetics. Some of us see rapid changes in size, while others do not. That’s not to say that all leg exercise will make your thighs bigger, but based upon your experience to this point, it’s likely that anything you do to increase the power of your legs will result in muscles that look larger.
It’s easy for me to say, “so what. You are fitter and more capable, and most people probably don’t see what you see.” But it is only natural to have an eye towards our own personal definition of aesthetics when exercising. Just make sure that your body image comes from you, not from the opinions of others.
If you are happy with the strength in your legs and are still concerned about muscle size, then spend more time targeting the areas you want to work on and less doing additional leg exercises. You will naturally lose some strength as the muscles in your thighs atrophy, but you can be the judge of where to draw the line.
When jogging, I frequently get shin splints. What can I do to prevent them? Thank you. – Deb Barnett, Chapel Hill
Deb, shin splints are certainly painful, performance limiting, and difficult to get rid of. They are usually caused by the slapping of the front of the foot during our running stride. This can be fixed by making sure that both our shoes and our feet are doing the right thing during impact.
First of all, go to a technical running store (a store specifically for runners, not fashion sneaker shoppers), and ask them to fit you with a shoe based upon your biomechanics. Chapel Hill and Carrboro have excellent resources for this. Every brand of running shoe has designs geared towards different running biomechanics (e.g., heel strikers, pronators, bounders, plodders), and wearing the wrong type of shoe is one common cause of shin splints.
The second common cause is wearing shoes that are too old. Running shoes should only be worn for running. Walking around in them all day prematurely crushes the part of the shoe that does the cushioning, and this can happen long before the “tread” shows signs of significant wear. Keep track of the mileage of your shoes, and be sure to replace them every 300-500 miles, or whenever they seem like they’re not as springy as they should be.
The third common cause is bad running form, in particular, something called “overstriding.” Some people try too hard to increase their stride length by reaching their feet way out in front of their bodies to meet the ground and pull it underneath. This can only result in a hard heel strike, followed by a lot of impact on the front of the foot. I can write pages on good running form, but anyone at a good running store should be able to watch you and make suggestions if they see you are doing this.
Give yourself some rest to get over any shin splints you might currently have, fix the three things above, and most likely, you will not have to deal with this problem again.
I am 60 years old, couch potato, had bypass surgery six years ago and regained what little weight I had lost. Just recently, I have really begun to feel really bad. Is it too late for someone of my age who has no resources to help her look and feel better? Thank you so much for your time. – Bonnie, Zebulon
Bonnie, the best person to answer this question is your cardiologist. S/he needs to know about the changes you’ve experienced in how you feel as it could be a sign of further coronary artery disease.
Additionally, your cardiologist might be able to enroll you in a “back to exercise” program at a nearby wellness center at low or no cost to you. These programs provide the guidance and supervision you need to get off the couch and start feeling better.
In general, though, there is no age beyond which exercise does not help. Research has been done on people in their seventies and eighties who began exercising for the first time, showing that exercise can increase strength and endurance at any age. The important thing is to make sure that the program is right for you based upon your specific health needs and challenges.