As surely as night follows day, January will see gyms everywhere packed with newbies as resolutions to fight the flab take hold. Treadmills, cross-trainers and rowing machines that lay idle in December will attract queues of new members impatient to shed the results of their festive over-indulgence.
If you're planning on being one of those newbies (or you've become one already), here is one big reason why you shouldn't join a gym and another big one why you should.
But before that, recognise that you did NOT become overweight between Christmas and New Year! It actually happened between January and December! Putting on fat is due to consistently being in an energy surplus (consuming more calories from food and drink than you expend in all your activity) over an extended period of time.
If you ate an excess of 500 calories a day for the two weeks of Christmas you'd gain just two pounds (less than a kilo) of body fat. But continue that habit until NEXT Christmas and you'd put on 23.5kg, almost four stone, in fat.
1. DON'T join a gym to lose fat
Regular exercise is great for us. It improves our mood, self-esteem, energy levels and sleep quality. It reduces stress and the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, dementia and depression.
Further, if we are inactive we burn barely more calories than our bodies use to just tick over and it's very easy therefore to be in an energy (calorie) surplus and start storing body fat.
HOWEVER, for a lot of people joining a gym to spend an hour on the treadmill or rower is NOT the best way to get rid of body fat. In fact, it can prove to be a very poor strategy for weight loss.
Why? Because it takes a HELL OF A LOT of exercise to burn a significant number of calories, which are wiped out the next time you put food in your mouth.
Almost regardless of the speed at which you run, an average person will burn about 100 calories per mile. An hour on the treadmill at 10 minutes per mile will therefore burn about 600 calories.
LUNCH AT PRET: 720 calories. AN HOUR ON THE TREADMILL: 600 calories.
If you then lunch on a Pret chicken and avocado sandwich (484 calories) your lunchtime calorie deficit is almost gone. Add a 'healthy' Berry Blast smoothie (240 calories) and you can see that your slog in the gym wasn't quite the fat-burner you'd hoped.
Of course, you shouldn't be thinking about a calorie surplus or deficit on a meal-by-meal basis (see point 3 below) but rather of your total energy balance on a daily or weekly basis.
Other reasons why exercise may not be a good fat-burning strategy for you:
1. If you don't actually like doing scheduled activities (like running, rowing or swimming) then the chances are you'll give them up.
2. If you have a busy job, putting aside 45-60minutes every day could be very hard to achieve.
3. If you're new to exercise and you're using it to reduce body fat, it can lead you into a mindset where you end up trying to offset or mitigate the effects of exercise with food, along the lines of: “I just burned 600 calories on the treadmill so I can eat more now.” That way of thinking is almost certain to put you back into a calorie surplus.
4. Exercising makes a lot people hungry, so you could end up eating more than you normally would and putting yourself into an even bigger overall calorie surplus than if you hadn't gone to the gym in the first place.
LESSON: Rather than try and 'burn' calories through formal, scheduled exercise, it is much more effective and infinitely quicker to simply not eat the calories in the first place. In other words, use nutrition as your prime weapon in the fight against fat.
That certainly doesn't mean we should aim to be sedentary (remember all those amazing benefits of exercise above plus the fact that going to the gym may make encourage you to make better food choices). But increasing our activity (especially our step count) throughout the day is a much easier way to build exercise more effortlessly into our lives. Walking to and from work (or from a more distant bus stop), taking the stairs and going for a walk at lunchtime are simple, realistic, sustainable ways to increase activity. Ten thousand steps a day is a great target.
REMEMBER: If you can put yourself into a consistent calorie deficit of 500 below 'maintenance' (what your body needs to maintain the same body weight) and you will lose 12 pounds (5.5kg) in three months.
To estimate your maintenance calories based on your activity level, use our Bodyscan calculator.
2. DO join a gym to improve the quality of your fat loss
So, if I want to lose weight, I should steer clear of the gym?
No! Because you don't want to lose weight. You want to lose fat!
If you're on a calorie-restricted diet (ie, eating fewer calories that you expend) you want to be sure that most, if not all, of your weight loss is actually fat and not muscle.
To preserve muscle when in a calorie deficit you need to do resistance training and ensure you have sufficient protein in your diet (a good rule of thumb is 2g per kilo of body weight).
That means bypassing the treadmills and using free weights (dumbbells and barbells) or weight-machines. The process of building muscle is more complex, variable and takes longer than losing fat, but suffice to say that the weights room is the main reason you should join a gym if fat loss is your goal.
LESSON: Resistance training and nutrition are the best tools for you to look better in the buff.
Happy New Year!
Sticking to your diet (dietary adherence) is the make or break of fat loss success and the biggest predictor for long-term weight maintenance.
A common theme among dieters who have been successful in losing body weight is the belief that their method is the only one that works and that success with any other method is inconceivable. They become evangelical about, and emotionally attached to, one particular, restrictive dieting protocol.
The truth is, different diets work differently for different people. Why? Because there are countless methods to lose body fat, but the best one for you is the one you can stick to.
Calorie counting is one such method, and I am very much a proponent of it as a tool in the fat loss arsenal. Tracking calories for a given period can be educational and eye-opening and, for most people, a method worth trialling at least once.
But is not the be-all-and-end-all for dieting success nor a prerequisite for losing body fat.
Calorie counting can certainly be tedious; so if you shudder at the thought of meticulously tracking and/or weighing out your food, or if the diet that worked so well for your friend didn’t work for you, why not try some, or all, of these simple-to-follow tips to help steer you towards achieving your fat loss goals.
THE PRINCIPLE OF FAT LOSS
Before we delve into some non-tracking methods, let me first outline the principle for body fat loss and gain. A change in body tissue mass is most closely related to energy balance over time – i.e. the total amount of fat gained, or lost, over a prolonged period depends on whether you are in a calorie surplus or calorie deficit.
Thus, the fundamental principle governing meaningful fat loss (beyond short-lived fluctuations) is adherence to an appropriate and sustained energy (calorie) deficit. This can be achieved via calorie restriction through the diet, an increase in energy expenditure, or a combination of both.
You do not have to count calories to lose body fat, but there’s no denying that calories count.
TIP 1: AMPLE PROTEIN
Protein is known to have the highest satiating effect (meaning it makes you feel full for longer), per unit calorie, compared to fat and carbohydrates. In free-living conditions, increasing protein intake from 15% to 30% of total energy has been shown to result in a spontaneous drop in energy/calorie intake by 440kcal/day – leading to a body weight decrease of 4.9kg in 12 weeks. Inclusion of a higher protein diet may help combat hunger between meals, thus making the dieting process slightly more pleasant.
Further, with better hunger control, one may reduce the temptations (often experienced when in an energy/calorie deficit) to make poorer food choices, leading to overconsumption of calories, which can ultimately undermine fat loss efforts.
It is worth bearing in mind that dietary protein intake does not need to be overdone. Ideally, ‘how much protein’ should be assessed on an individual level based on age, body composition, training requirements and goal(s), and not using a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
That being said, a pragmatic recommendation of about 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight works well for most, when looking to lose body fat. If you are overweight/obese, you may wish to aim slightly lower (if hunger is not an issue); if you are leaner, it may be prudent to go slightly higher.
TIP 2: ONE CARBOHYDRATE-FREE MEAL PER DAY
While carbohydrates don’t directly make us fat, per se, there is a tendency for sedentary individuals (e.g. office workers) to over-consume them and therefore ingest too many calories, with respect to their activity levels and lifestyle.
This is particularly true for carbohydrate sources that are nutrient-poor (low in fibre and micronutrients). Consuming one low-carbohydrate, or carbohydrate-free, meal per day can often increase the nutrient quality and protein content of that meal and potentially lead to a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake (because you feel full quicker), meaning greater fat loss!
Note - to maximise training quality, it may be prudent to have the higher carbs closer to your exercise session to aid performance. Trial and error works best here, to figure out what is most suitable for you, considering the nature of your session.
TIP 3: RESISTANCE TRAINING
The health benefits associated with regular exercise are multi-faceted, both with, or without, fat loss, e.g. reduction in visceral fat, decrease in insulin resistance, better mood and increased cardiorespiratory fitness. Regular participation in resistance training, in particular, during an energy deficit can help maintain or even build muscle and therefore improve the quality of the weight loss (ie, most or all of your weight lost is fat, not muscle) Do this in conjunction with ample protein and you’re golden.
Aside from the health and muscle retention benefits, building healthful training/exercise habits, and continuing them post-dieting period, can be fundamental to weight loss maintenance success.
TIP 4: INTERMITTENT FASTING
For many with busy lifestyles, families and work commitments, it is those who combine consistency with simplicity that often reap the best results. One such fat loss and/or weight management tool is intermittent fasting (IF), or time-restricted feeding. IF simply refers to periods of food consumption followed by extended periods of no-to-low food intake, e.g. an 8-hour period of normal-pattern eating, in combination with 16 hours fasting (aka 16:8), the 5:2 Diet; Eat-Stop-Eat (24-hour fasting); and alternate day fasting.
The beauty of this approach is the ability to alter feeding patterns to best suit you. For fat loss, there is no real right, or wrong, way to do it – remember consistency in conjunction with a structure that improves overall adherence and satisfaction is what a dieter should be striving to achieve.
IF as a fat loss tool can work wonders for some – the underlying principle being that it enables one to consume fewer calories than expended, over time. IF will not be suitable approach if it encourages you to (over-)compensate for the skipped meals, by eating more total calories later that day, or the next day, or later that week. Remember: net energy balance matters!
If you are someone who can last extended periods without food, or someone who has yet to try an IF protocol, it may be something worth considering. Experiment with different IF variants, to find out what works best for you. You may surprise yourself, and find it easier to adhere to an energy deficit compared to more traditional dieting approaches.
IF is not magical, but it may be a viable strategy for some to shed those extra pounds of excess body fat. Your best bet is to try it out for yourself.
TIP 5: KEEP YOUR STEPS UP
Finally, tracking the number of steps you take each day is a seamless way to increase energy expenditure, and thus can be a significant contributor towards creating an energy imbalance. Downloading a tracking app on your phone or investment in a tracking device can be hugely beneficial to ramp up activity levels outside of formal exercise and lead one to become more health conscious.
Similarly, activity trackers can also act as an invaluable awareness tool, provide accountability, and enable one to set realistic/achievable targets. Recent research has also shown greater fat loss for individuals who regularly walked throughout their diet period, compared to those that didn’t.
10,000 steps per day has been shown to help with body composition/weight management and other health-related goals. Shooting for 50,000+ steps over the course of a week is a great place to start!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Devices that track steps (like FitBit and Apple Watch) can be very good at tracking the number of steps you WALK but don’t rely on them to tell you how many calories you burn, particularly when you increase the pace to a a jog or run. They can become woefully inaccurate at higher intensities. Similarly, treadmills, bikes and cross-trainers in gyms will attempt to tell you how many calories you just burned but typically bear no resemblance to reality.
Devices that claim to count your calories can also lead you into a mindset where you end up trying to offset or mitigate the effects of exercise with food, along the lines of: “I just burned 600 calories on the treadmill so I can eat more now.” That mindset is almost certain to put you back into a calorie surplus.
To sum up, all of these suggestions ultimately work towards the fundamental principle for sustained fat loss – adherence towards a sustained negative energy balance.
Caveat – if you find you are unable to continue to progress towards your fat loss goals and/or you have experienced the dreaded weight/fat loss plateau, perhaps calorie-tracking for a given period is necessary for you to get you back on track.
Finally, food for thought (pun intended) – ‘Do you have to look at your car’s speedometer to stay under the speed limit? Not really… But if you keep finding yourself with speeding tickets, maybe it’s time to start looking at the dashboard more often.’ – Myolean Fitness
Bodyscan Consultant and Nutritionist
No adult would admit to being stumped by the prep-school joke, “Which weighs more, a kilo of feathers or a kilo of lead?”
But the mainstream medical fraternity applies the same absurd premise every day when it uses body mass index (BMI) to determine if someone is overweight.
Because just as a kilo of feathers weighs the same as a kilo of lead (you weren’t stumped, right?), a muscle-bound bodybuilder of 90kg will weigh the same as a 90kg burger-munching couch potato.
And because BMI is based on weight and height, if the couch potato and the athlete are the same height, then at, say, 5’10” (178cm), they will have exactly the same BMI of 28, forcing the family doctor to label them both as “overweight”, which of course is absurd.
Body mass index was derived in 1832 by a Belgian statistician, Adolphe Quetelet. He established that, aside from growth spurts after birth and during puberty, our weight increases in proportion to the square of our height. So, in the main, BMI should be a good guide to how much each of us should weigh. And for most of us, it probably is.
But BMI is outdated because weight itself is outdated. We talk about people being overweight when what we really mean is they are ‘over fat’. Just about everyone looking to lose weight is actually looking to lose fat. The only people who need to lose weight are athletes competing in a particular weight class for their sport, such as boxing.
The UK’s obesity crisis is not about people being too heavy, it’s about people being too fat. (And here’s a sobering thought – in 2015/16 more than half-a-million hospital admissions recorded obesity as a factor.)
Weight is nothing more than your relationship with gravity and you cannot change the force that keeps your feet on the ground. What you can change, however, is your body composition – how much of you is fat and how much is muscle.
What most of us seek is a body composition that is low in fat (for good health, aesthetics and low risk of obesity-related diseases) and an ‘optimum’ amount of muscle (for strength, performance or a favourite sport).
The problem with BMI is it blind to the individual elements of body composition and, like weight, wraps everything up into just a single number.
It’s also not very culturally sensitive. You can imagine that, in 1832, Monsieur Quetelet didn’t have the same ethnically diverse population around him to establish his hypothesis, so BMI thresholds have since been tweaked for different ethnicities. In 2014, a University of Glasgow study of half a million Britons found the incidence of diabetes among white people with a BMI of at least 30 (the threshold defined as ‘obese’) was the same for those of South Asian background with a BMI of as little as 22 and for Chinese with a BMI of as low as 24. Twenty-two and 24 are both well inside the “normal weight” zone on the Anglo-Saxon-derived BMI.
So if we are to replace weight and BMI, what with?
Perhaps the most obvious candidate is body fat percentage and with any body composition test, it’s the single number that just about everybody wants to know.
But that is exactly the problem – it’s a single number. One number trying to take account of two components – fat and muscle.
To see where it falls short, meet Bruno, who weighs 80kg with a body fat percentage of 20%. It’s easy to work out he carries 16kg of fat.
After six months in the gym Bruno has reduced his body fat percentage to 19%. Instantly we conclude that Bruno has made very slow progress, dropping body fat by less than a kilo in six months.
The truth is Bruno made awesome progress – he put on 4kg of pure muscle and not a gram of fat.
You see? Bruno reduced his body fat percentage without any reduction in fat. That is the problem with single numbers – they mask the detail.
A much better way of assessing body composition is to measure fat and lean mass separately with (Mr Quetelet would be pleased) a fat mass index (FMI) and lean mass index (LMI). Essentially these indices tell you how much fat and muscle you carry relative to your height.
The huge advantage of FMI and LMI are that each index is completely independent of the other; your fat mass index is unaffected by muscle, and your lean mass index is not influenced by fat. Accordingly a change in either index is a guarantee of a change in, respectively, fat or muscle. That is not the case with weight, BMI or body fat percentage.
To measure and track your FMI and LMI reliably, you will need an accurate assessment of your body composition. The most reliable and precise method is a DEXA body scan. And you’re in the right place for that!
If there’s one topic that many people get confused about, it’s nutrition. And it’s not surprising given the non-stop avalanche of diet books and the how the media scream about a new “superfood” one day, only to brand it a “killer” the next.
Having performed almost 3,000 body composition scans, I can vouch for good improvements from almost every type of popular diet. Whether low carb, carb cycling, intermittent fasting, ketogenic or the 5:2, I’ve seen excellent results from them all.
I’ve seen very bad results too.
Most people who are unsuccessful in their fat-loss efforts are relying on enduring misconceptions about food and nutrition. Here are some surrounding carbohydrates (carbs).
1. Many people follow a low carb diet because they believe “carbs make you fat”. In reality, no food or macronutrient makes you fat (or thin).
Body fat is simply stored energy. To gain body fat, you need to be putting in more energy (calories from food) than you expend throughout the day. A “calorie controlled” diet works by restricting calorie intake. The fasting protocols do so by limiting the time period in which you can eat which leads, ultimately, to less food (fewer calories) being consumed. Other diets that restrict food groups, eg, no sugar or low-carb, stop you from eating a number of foods, especially foods you might over-eat which, again, leads to a lower calorie intake.
2. Calories (energy) from food can come from three main types: Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats. There’s also alcohol but let’s just focus on food for now. Protein and carbohydrates contain four calories per gram and fats contain nine calories per gram. Unlike carbohydrates and fats, almost 30% of the calories from protein get burnt off during the digestion process, known as the thermic effect of food. Protein is also more likely to be used in the body for repairing cells and growth of muscle mass plus it’s highly satiating making it almost impossible to over eat protein to the point it prevents fat loss.
The problem with many people who follow low-carb diets is that the calories they don’t consume from carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice) they simply end up consuming from fats (nuts, oils, salad dressings). As a coach, I have seen hundreds of individual food logs and, of the three macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats), it is fats that make up the highest proportion of the diet’s calorie intake, on average.
In order for us to reduce body fat, we need to consume fewer calories than we expend each day (an energy imbalance). For example, if we burn 2000 calories per day but only consume 1500 calories, the body needs to find 500 calories internally to fuel the day’s activities. Although the body does have some fuel in the shape of muscle (protein and stored glycogen) this is a very small amount compared to that of body fat, so as long as you are doing some resistance training to stimulate your muscle mass, the body will be using mostly fat for the extra calories needed.
Here is a common example of how people go wrong when making food choices.
A chicken salad in Pret contains 636 calories compared to their chicken sandwich which only has 389 calories. Many people on a low-carb diet would opt for the salad in order to lose more body fat because the bread in the sandwich is a carb source. Everyone knows that a salad is healthier and will be better for fat loss, right?
As already stated, to lose body fat you simply need to be in a calorie deficit. Therefore, opting for the higher calorie salad means it’s going to be easier for you to over consume calories and end up not eating any less than you burned for the day. If you burn 2000 calories and consume 2000 calories, whether those calories are from salad or bread, your levels of stored energy in the body (fat levels) will not change. Science clearly states that energy can’t be created nor destroyed.
Most individuals are very sedentary which makes fat loss even harder as their calorie burn per day is going to be lower than an active individual. Many desk-bound Bodyscan clients say how they sit at their desk and snack on a small bag of “healthy” nuts.
That small (100gram) bag of nuts will contain about 600 calories!
An average sedentary woman will struggle to burn more than 1500 calories a day and would need to consume less than this (maybe 1200 calories) to see fat loss. So you can see immediately that the small bag of “healthy” nuts is HALF her daily calorie intake right there!
Asked to choose between the small bag of nuts and eight slices of bread, anyone on a low-carb diet would choose the nuts. But the calorie count in each is the same!
This post isn’t suggesting low carb diets are bad. In fact, people following low-carb diets have seen great results in the clinic when done correctly and followed consistently.
But reducing your carbohydrate intake and subsequently increasing your fat intake to the point where the calorie intake is exactly the same means you won’t lose any fat at all.
It doesn’t matter HOW you reduce calories (through reducing carbs, fats, other foods/food groups or the time window in which you eat) you still need to achieve an overall calorie deficit to see fat loss.
An important note: You should almost never cut calories by reducing protein intake, as protein is needed to prevent muscle loss and to aid muscle recovery.
Reduce protein and you will end up losing more muscle mass than you need to, which in turn leads to slower fat loss because your body will be using muscle instead of fat for fuel.
And with less muscle mass, your body is burning fewer calories throughout the day, which again makes it harder to lose body fat long term.
Body Composition - the 'F' word
In its recent Body Composition series, PerformancePro gave an overview of body composition and the ways of measuring the proportion of fat, muscle and bone. We confirmed the most accurate and consistent way to measure the visceral and subcutaneous fat in your body is with a DEXA scan.
As with most things in life, knowledge is power, so equipping ourselves with some essential fat facts helps us take control.
Knowing how much body fat and visceral fat you have and where levels may be abnormally high is important. Not for the sake of the number itself, but for what it implies about both your health and physical performance. There are guidelines on what is deemed healthy or excessive and this differs according to age and gender.
Also decisions as to what you do will depend upon your health and/or if your sporting or daily performance of tasks would be made easier by losing some fat mass. Or you may just want to be leaner for personal preference.
FAT FACTS – THE ESSENTIAL ROLE OF FAT
Fat isn’t bad, it’s essential. We need some fat to stay healthy and allow our bodies to function optimally. Fat has a vital role in energy storage, cell integrity, insulation and protecting us from impact injuries. It literally cushions the soft tissue around the major organs.
In the sporting arena, there are sports where extra fat levels do no harm to performance and can even play a key role in beating an opponent, such as strongman, highland games and sumo-wrestling. That is not to say, however, that increasing muscle isn’t desirable too.
For endurance sports, athletes benefit from some fat storage to maintain energy production on longer events. The only drawback to using stored body fat as fuel for exercise is that the process of getting energy from fat is slower than from a stored or consumed carbohydrate. As a result, force outputs (productivity) could be lower.
Before we look at whether or not it’s a good idea to lose any fat mass, let’s consider two types of fat we carry.
WHITE AND BROWN FAT
Fat cells (adipocytes) fall into two main types, white and brown. The existence of beige fat cells suggests a ‘browning’ effect (cells changing from white to brown) and therefore the possibility of change within the cell function.
White fat cells have lower metabolic properties, are harder to access as an energy source and are shown to be more harmful long term. Comparatively, brown fat cells are much more metabolically active, an easier to access energy source and can be protective against extreme cold.
Beige fat tends to show up after exercise. For some time, we have known that exercise increases metabolism and some types of exercise do this even beyond the calories used for the workout itself (eg, the “after burn” of HIIT and resistance training). Part of the mechanism behind this is thought to be the enhancement of brown (metabolically active) fat cells and ‘browning’ of the white cells. So this suggests that exercise, in turning white cells brown, makes them metabolically more active and they get drawn upon for energy (what most of us call “burning fat”.
Not surprisingly, research in this area is now starting to reveal potential obesity and diabetes treatments through the same mechanisms.
TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR OWN FAT LEVELS
Fat isn’t all bad. We need it in our bodies and in our diet. Too much body fat, however, can be dangerous so it’s a good idea to get a precise indication of exactly how much fat you’re carrying so you can set a target for how much you need to lose.
Whilst it doesn’t differentiate between white and brown fat cells, a DEXA scan is the most accurate and consistent way to measure your fat, how it’s distributed around your body and changes over time. You’ll also see how much visceral (internal) fat you have, how much muscle and how it's distributed.
If you’re looking for high-quality personal training to reduce body fat and/or improve health, fitness and performance, then consider Bodyscan partner PerformancePro. They are a small athlete-grade gym and training centre in the West End, just 15 minutes from both Bodyscan locations (walk from W1, tube from City). They don’t tie you in with memberships but instead offer pay-as you-go intelligent personal training for grown-ups in a beautifully designed, state of the art, calm environment. With no more than a handful of people training at any one time, it’s a space where our clients feel comfortable and motivated.
Special Offer for Bodyscan customers
Bodyscan clients can enjoy a complimentary training session when they book 5 sessions or more with PerformancePro. This is in addition to your free consultation. Take your first step and book your free (no strings) consultation with PerformancePro today.
If we believe everything we read in the mainstream media, one day something is bad for you, the next it's a life-saver. Here are four foodstuffs that often get a bad rap. But should you be avoiding them completely?
Commonly avoided due to its relatively high fat content compared to other meats (especially saturated fat), red meat is a food group that you don’t want to ignore. A small amount of saturated fat in the diet is necessary for regulating hormones such as testosterone, as fat acts as the building blocks for not only hormones, but all cell membranes too.
Red meats are also loaded with protein and contain vital micronutrients such as iron and zinc which are essential for oxygen transportation and immune system support respectively. If you want to keep an eye on saturated fat, aim for lean cuts of red meat such as fillet, sirloin, rump and 5%-fat ground beef.
Dairy products are absolutely loaded with essential nutrients for both health and exercise performance. However, like red meat, dairy products such as milk and cheese are commonly avoided due to the fear of saturated fat. But in reality they are so nutrient-dense that it makes sense to include them in your diet in moderation. Dairy products are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D, required for healthy bones, and support muscle function too. Potassium, magnesium, vitamin A and a host of B vitamins (crucial for energy metabolism) also come from dairy sources and they are a great source of protein.
Dairy foods such as yoghurt that contain bio-active live cultures provide probiotics that enhance the good bacteria in the gut, essential for digestive processes and nutrient absorption. As with red meat, if you’re concerned about saturated fat, there are lower fat options such as semi-skimmed milk or reduced-fat cheese that still have all the nutritional benefits.
Ingestion of processed meat on a regular basis for long periods has been associated with an increased risk of chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Excess sugar, salt and fat such as artificial trans-fat (the worst type of fat) are often added to processed meat in order to improve to the taste or texture and increase shelf life.
Carcinogenic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) can form during meat processing due to the high cooking temperatures and smoking of certain meats. Because of these potential harmful compounds and all the additives (making them very calorie dense), it’s recommended by most health organisations that intake of processed meats such as bacon, sausages, smoked meat, etc. should be limited. Eating them occasionally (everything in moderation) will provide no real health risk but a consistently high intake certainly could. The majority of your nutritional intake should be from fresh whole foods, with processed foods making up a small portion.
Sucrose is the most common form of refined sugar and known by most people as table sugar. Sucrose is a ‘disaccharide’ carbohydrate (two sugar molecules combined) made up of glucose and fructose, and rapidly increases blood glucose concentration when digested and causes large releases of insulin from within the pancreas.
Because insulin inhibits the breakdown of fat (lipolysis) and its conversion into a usable source of energy (oxidation) and actually encourages fat storage (lipogenesis), many people follow low-carb/low-sugar diets.
However, consuming sugar/carbs at the right time can be very beneficial for exercise performance. Carbs/sugar are best consumed before and after exercise, when demand for energy is at its highest. The increased glucose in the blood from consuming sugar before exercise will be used to generate energy to fuel the training session, especially if the session is of an intense nature.
After exercise, consuming carbs/sugar will result in blood glucose being shuttled to muscle cells to replenish muscle glycogen and aid with the recovery process. After exertion, muscle cells are highly receptive to glucose and other nutrients in the blood and will increase their uptake to restore depleted stocks.
However, when energy demand is low (eg, sitting at your desk), muscle cells are not so receptive, so the burst of insulin from your pancreas is more likely to move blood glucose to fat cells instead. Refined sugar (and carbs in general) doesn’t have to be completely avoided, but the timing can be optimised for it to be useful and not detrimental to health, body composition and performance.
If there is one thing the Bodyscan team has learned from scanning more than 4000 people, it’s that perception does not often match reality. As an example, most men who come to us think they are taller than they really are!
We are all guilty of some embellished perception, whether it’s how well we drive, how much alcohol we drink or how much TV we watch.
This recent report from the Office of National Statistics confirms another split between perception and reality that we see at Bodyscan every day: many of us eat many more calories than we think we do and way more than we need. And that’s why we put on body fat.
At the same time, most people wildly overestimate the amount of activity they do and the number of calories they burn. Walking the dog and playing golf do not make you ‘very active’. Also, ‘rewarding’ yourself with a food ‘treat’ after exercise can create a mindset that positions overeating as something that can be mitigated by physical activity. To lose body fat, you need to be in a calorie deficit, so you cannot offset one against the other.
There are many writers, bloggers, influencers and Bodyscan customers who will say that losing weight is not about calories – that it’s about quality not quantity, or about timing. But whatever your diet – low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar, 5/2, 16/8, gluten-free, low-dairy, juice, Mediterranean – while you may not primarily set out to count or restrict energy intake, you will inevtiably consume fewer calories because they are being restricted by the now-absent foodstuffs or eating times in your diet.
Let’s be clear here: counting calories is not easy and, at its very worst, can contribute to an unhealthy psychological relationship between you and your food. So this post is definitely NOT a recommendation for everyone to measure what they eat.
But if you are overweight or gaining weight and want to reduce body fat, you certainly need to get a very good handle on (A) how many calories you eat now, (B) what your ‘maintenance’ level is (the amount of calories you need to maintain your current weight based on your energy expenditure) and (C) how many calories you need to eat to lose body fat.
NOTE: The number for (C) will typically be between 10% and 30% less than your maintenance level. So depending on how much you are overeating now (ie, how much above maintenance) you may have to reduce your calorie intake by anything up to 50% or even more. A DEXA body scan will help you calculate those numbers by accurately measuring your fat and fat-free mass.
With those numbers you can estimate your maintenance calories with our body composition calculator and measure them with popular fitness apps like MyFitnessPal. If that’s not your thing then serving your food on smaller plates can be one way of cutting back.
Even then it’s easy to get it wrong and underestimate or ignore drinks, protein supplements, snacks and alcohol.
The Bodyscan DEXA report excerpt below shows the variable progress of a heavily overweight (150kg) male who carefully counted calories during two phases of his diet-and-exercise programme, and just estimated them in another.
The results are striking:
When counting calories, and in only five months, he lost more than 17kg of body fat (and just 1.8kg of muscle), shown by the orange arrows. But in the period that he stopped counting and just estimated calories he GAINED 3.2kg of fat and lost over a kilo of muscle.
The client was shocked by the fat gain because his exercise regimen had remained consistent and he believed his calorie estimations were too. In fact, the fat gain suggests he was in a calorie surplus of as much as 1300 calories a day! So much for portion control.
In the same vein a female client with very high muscle mass (from years of weight-lifting) but also increasing levels of fat was adamant that she was eating well below the estimated number of calories. But the maths simply doesn’t stack up - to be putting on muscle AND fat, short of a medical condition, she must be in a calorie surplus and therefore be underestimating her intake (and/or overestimating her activity level).
Many Bodyscan DEXA customers find it hard to believe how much fat they carry because they “eat healthily and cook everything from fresh” and “don’t eat processed foods.” Your food can be as fresh, organic and nutritious as you like, but if you eat too much of it, it will make you fat!
The latest analysis of Bodyscan data is now matched for three age categories (18-29, 30-49 and 50-plus) as well as All Ages (the entire data set). (Note: The median age of all Bodyscan clients, male and female, is 38, and the majority of clients fall into the 30-49 age range.)
From experience, we have always known that the full data set held pretty well for clients up to age 50. It was only beyond 50 or even 55 that the percentile-matching seemed to diverge with any significance, and then chiefly in relation to fat and visceral fat. Today we tend to use the All Ages data for all clients under 50.
But crunching the numbers revealed a truly shocking increase in visceral fat for clients over 50, particularly for women. You can view the full tables of Variation of Key Indicators between Age Ranges in men and women, from which the images below are excerpts, on the Bodyscan Data page.
From the Bodyscan data:
With visceral fat linked to type-2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other serious diseases, this data is a very loud wake-up call for all of us (especially over-50s, like me) and it is in line with formal studies (like this one by Hunter, Gower and Kane) that found even higher increases (up to 400%) in female visceral fat.
Of course, the Bodyscan data also shows that it doesn’t have to be this way. The best results in older clients show healthily low levels of all fat, including visceral, often better than for clients many years their junior.
The new year is an obvious time for alarm bells to register and resolutions to be made, but a healthier lifestyle is just that - a sustainable, long-term habit of more exercise and sensible eating. Not a flash-in-the-pan effort you keep up for a week or two.
Rather than plagiarise or paraphrase, here are three points verbatim from the 2010 Hunter, Gower and Kane study that would be worth us all (especially us maturer folk) taking on board. At Bodyscan we know from experience they are all true.
Whenever you commit to your healthier lifestyle (today would be good), the improvement in your DEXA results is a great motivational tool to keep it going. Remember that visceral fat responds very quickly to diet and exercise, so even small changes can help us live more comfortably as we age.
1. Sufficient caloric intake
Muscle mass – and fat mass – doesn’t come out of thin air. You need energy (food) to create it. So by being in a continuous energy deficit for such a long period of time, Chris was never going to have a fair crack at putting on muscle.
A calorie deficit (where you consume less energy than you expend) will return a reduction in weight but the size of the deficit and the activity you perform will determine the composition change of fat and muscle.
Also, calorie-controlled diets (or “not eating enough”) should eventually come to an end and be followed by a period of maintenance calories (to maintain your weight and body composition) or perhaps a surplus to assist in building more muscle.
Building muscle only needs “sufficient” or “adequate” energy. You don’t need to eat thousands of calories above maintenance. As a weights workout typically burns about 300 calories, eating thousands more will only get stored as fat. Generally speaking, an excess of 300-500 is plenty to build muscle without gaining much (or any) fat.
Many Bodyscan clients who achieve body re-composition (losing fat and gaining muscle) do it at close to or even slightly below maintenance.
2. Progressive overload
For two years Chris was stuck in a comfort zone, doing the same exercises for the same duration with the same kettlebell every day. In fact, as he lost weight over time this meant his pull-ups and push-ups were being performed against less resistance not more. His bodyweight exercises were getting easier, not harder, which is why he was able to do more of them (leading him to think he was building muscle).
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of stress placed on the muscles over time. Forcing your body to consistently adapt to a new and enhanced stimulus is what results in an increase in strength and size of skeletal muscles. Progressive overload can be achieved by increasing the weight lifted, the number of reps, the time under tension (how slowly you perform the reps) and the frequency with which you train a particular muscle.
The most common reason people find themselves at a muscle plateau is the absence of progressive overload – performing the same exercises with the same weights.
Another reason clients make no progress is their bad form, as observed in this article, Are you wasting your time with weights?
Truth be told, even on the fat-burning front, what Chris described as HIIT was not optimised as he did not rest at any time during the 12-minute workout (ie, no ‘intervals’) and didn’t work as hard as he could have (at up to 90% of maximum effort) as detailed in this popular blog post: If HIIT isn’t working for you, try VHIIT instead.
We advised Chris to adopt progressive overload by taking his training into the gym and moving from bodyweight exercises to lifting actual weights, as home weights and home gyms will only take you so far.
We also recommended he increase his caloric intake to a more sensible level to enable him to achieve fat loss but also provide the energy requirements to protect or even increase his lean mass.
We also emphasised the importance of protein (as he didn’t eat much of the macronutrient) and carbs around his workouts for energy. As a general guide you’ll also find this blog post about nutrition needs for different body types helpful. It’s received more positive comments than any blog we’ve ever posted! And if you're over 50, this post about building and preserving muscle as we age will be inspiring too.
One particularly interesting point to Chris's story is that all his friends and colleagues rated his muscles at about 5 or 6 on a 1 (weedy) to 10 (bodybuilder) scale. So, if you think you've got the arms of Popeye, have a DEXA scan to be sure!
Anyone even half-serious about improving their physical performance and physique knows this comes down to changing the two basic elements of body composition – fat and muscle.
The perfect ratio of fat-to-lean will depend on your favoured sport (which is why long-distance runner Mo Farah doesn’t look like England Rugby captain Chris Robshaw) or a simple desire to look better in the buff!
If we put some specialised activities to one side (sorry all you desert-runners and Sumo wrestlers out there), most people want to reduce fat and increase muscle. And the route to your low-fat-high-lean destination depends very much on where you’re starting from.
Fortunately, high-tech methods to measure body composition, such as DEXA, measure fat and lean mass separately and therefore accurately establish your starting point and the optimum route in terms of exercise, nutrition and supplementation to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’.
Let’s look at your possible starting points:
1. Low Fat, Low Muscle
Commonly referred to as an ectomorph or a hard-gainer, you have the advantage of low fat but may struggle with building muscle mass. Or maybe you’ve simply never tried to build any muscle and you could find you actually make lean mass gains very quickly.
Your goal is to build muscle with little or no increase in fat. So you’ll need a small calorie surplus of roughly 10% above maintenance with a fairly high proportion of carbohydrates to provide the energy around your fairly frequent (4-5 times a week) weight training. Make sure you up the weights when you can (progressive overload), while keeping a close eye on correct form.
As you’re low in fat to start with, adding cardio to your routine is going to be of little benefit.
A macro-split of 35P/45C/20F might be a good starting point. Opt for complex carbohydrates such as oats and consume close to your weights sessions to provide energy and build muscle.
At least a gram of protein per pound (450g) of body weight is a good rule of thumb and, in addition to high-protein foods like chicken and fish, Whey Protein is a great supplement thanks to its ultra pure form that’s high in protein and low in fat and sugar.
2. High Fat, Low Muscle
There’s no easy way to say it but if you’re in this quadrant on the fat-muscle axis you have the hardest task – reduce fat AND gain muscle. It’s quite rare, actually, to be at this starting point because as we gain weight with increased fat our bodies adapt to carry it around. Most people with a lot of fat (commonly known as endomorphs) actually carry vast amounts of muscle because they’re doing a high-weight full-body workout with every step they take.
If you’re high-fat-low-muscle your diet and exercise priorities are as follows.
To lose fat you need to be in a calorie deficit, typically between 500-1000 calories. The more fat you have, the higher the deficit can be. We’re all aware of the yo-yo weight problems of ultra-low calorie crash-diets caused by the loss of large amounts of muscle but if you don’t reduce calories enough you’ll take forever to shift the fat and just get demoralised.
To prevent muscle loss (and even increase muscle) you must do bodybuilding-style resistance training with progressive overload. A calorie deficit without weight training is a surefire way to lose muscle (and quite a lot of it if the deficit is big).
Adding some HIIT (high-intensity interval training) to the weight-training will help accelerate the fat loss.
For nutrition, you’ll need to keep protein pretty high to maintain and build muscle but reduce carbohydrates to assist fat loss. Diet Whey Protein is one of the best ways to hit this particular higher protein need thanks to its low carbohydrate and sugar content in one supplement. You might also want to get the most out of your workout and burn more calories with the helping hand of a caffeine booster or thermogenic to really get you working up a sweat.
A potential macro split for you is 50P/25C/25F.
3. High Fat, High Muscle
As with (2), your goal here is to burn fat but with the added pressure of not losing any lean muscle, so weight-training three times a week with some steady-state cardio to round off your sessions would be a good strategy.
Protein intake needs to be high, around 1g-1.2g per pound of body weight to keep muscle loss to a minimum but carbohydrates should be kept low to very low. Diet Whey Protein is a good source of supplementary protein without the carbs, and a pre-workout will help to keep you focused for your entire session.
A good macro split might be 50P/20C/30F.
4. Low Fat, High Muscle
Lucky you, you’ve arrived! This is many people's dream composition, but how do you mesomorphs stay there? Your calories are obviously on point so keep them where they are. As for the macro split, moderation in everything is the order of the day, so 35P/40C/25F would be a good strategy.
Around 1g of protein per pound (450g) of body weight together with a balanced amount of carbohydrates and weight training three times a week will ensure you maintain your lean muscle mass and keep your fat enviably low. Make sure you eat enough essential fats, such as those found in peanut butter, which is nutrient-dense to help curb cravings and keep you fuller longer – but remember to keep an eye on overall calories.
This is a Guest Blog by our friends at The Protein Works. You can win a share of 100,000 TPW Loyalty Points in our competition (and a package of DEXA scans) before October 30th.
Remember, for a customised, calorie- and macro-specific food plan and training programme, consider Bodyscan Personal Coaching.
Below is the progress report (and above are the DEXA images) from a Bodyscan customer, Enzo, who came for his sixth scan in September.
Reading up from the bottom of each yellow table you can see that he has made almost no progress since he first came to Bodyscan on 13th October 2015.
If you look at the ‘Change vs Baseline’ column, Enzo has gained no muscle mass at all (down 30g, which is less than the margin of error) and his fat is down less than 2kg (1835g) after two years).
And the ‘Change per month vs Baseline’ column shows he has lost an average of just 78 grams of fat and 1 gram of lean per month over the two year period.
These results are at once woeful and scandalous!
Woeful because nothing has changed after two years. Scandalous because Enzo has been paying a personal trainer three times a week to go absolutely nowhere.
Compare those results over two years to the following, which show excellent progress in just three to four months. The first (below) shows a simultaneous fat loss of 3.7kg and lean mass gain of 3kg in 18 weeks.
The second (below) shows a simultaneous 3.3kg drop in fat and 2.5kg lean gain in 14 weeks.
And the third shows a lean mass gain of 3kg with no corresponding gain in fat (53 grams) in exactly three months.
All these individuals (two of whom are of a similar age and slightly older then Enzo, in their forties) are clients of Bodyscan Personal Coaching, at the heart of which is a calorie- and macro-specific food plan based on your unique DEXA data and a weights-based resistance training programme.
In just a few weeks these individuals have achieved what Enzo and his trainer have failed to do in two years. So if your body recomposition plans are going nowhere, change your regime, dump your PT or consider Bodyscan Personal Coaching (BPC).
BPC is not for everyone. It requires you to be disciplined, to go to the gym three times a week under your own steam, be familiar and comfortable with weights and understand the importance of good form. If you need a real live personal trainer standing over you to keep you honest then BPC is not for you.
Also, because it is uniquely customised for you and your lifestyle, we can take on only a small number of clients at any one time. But if your last few results are more like Enzo's than our three clients' above, give it some thought.
And of course, if your personal trainer is any good and helping you achieve great results, then stick with them! They are worth the money!
Just how futile are our attempts to keep trim, taut and terrific as we get older? After all, our muscles just waste away and we get inexorably fatter, don’t we?
Certainly, on average, and without intervention, muscle declines as we age. But by how much? And can we prevent or slow muscle loss or even turn it around?
While Bodyscan clients do not represent a random sample of the UK population, our dataset is big and varied enough to suggest that muscle mass does not begin to diminish as early as many say. It also contradicts the popular view that the rate of decline is very steep.
Bodyscan’s previous data, for 1400 men and 850 women, showed average lean mass index (lean mass divided by height-squared) to be almost unchanged up until age 50, and data points as likely to be above the median line as below it up until age 55.
It’s only when data beyond age 55 is included that there is a noticeable decreasing trend. (Please note the red line on each graph is the median value, not the line of best fit or a trend line.)
Bodyscan has recently segmented its latest dataset of 2700 men and 1300 women into four age categories and the results point to the same conclusion. Below are the average (50th percentile) and top quartile (75th percentile) lean mass indices for both sexes.
For a man 1.78m (5’10”) tall, the difference in lean mass between an LMI of 19.2 and 18.9 is exactly one kilogram. The women show no difference in LMI between the youngest and oldest age groups. Not what you’d call a cliff edge.
If you think Bodyscan’s client base is super-fit (it’s not), then for a random population sample, take a quick look at the US NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) data below. Its charts show that average LMI (the middle line on both charts) peaks for white men and women as late as 50, and points to about the same LMI at age 70 as at age 20.
As for actively building muscle and defying increasing age and falling testosterone, Bodyscan client Mitchell, aged 62, is proof enough that it is perfectly achievable. Mitchell’s LMI is 21.9, which is above the 80th percentile (what we at Bodyscan call “amateur bodybuilder muscle”) for men less than half his age. His fat mass index is very good too, at just 4.37.
Mitchell trains under James Blanchard, who applies the same training rules to older clients as younger ones, though with more alertness to pain, injury and recovery time. “Age is just one factor, together with overall health, fitness and experience,” he says. “Young and old alike need to listen to their bodies. Mitchell doesn’t train through pain or do anything stupid, that is key in allowing him to train and perform exactly like a younger guy would.”
Muscle mass and strength come through four sessions a week of the big, powerlifting moves, such as bench press, squat and deadlift. The only diet parameters were 2g protein per kilo of body weight and overall calories, which were set at James’s own formula of 12 x bodyweight in pounds, varied by how active the client is.
“This amount of protein was more than sufficient enough to maintain muscle mass and helped to keep Mitchell satiated. Carbohydrate and fat were set however he liked according to his preference.” James believes that the quantity or ratio of carbs and fat “makes no difference over the long term as long as the total calorie intake is respected.”
While it is easy to think that 62-year-old Mitchell’s achievement of high muscle mass is an exception to the rule, another look at Bodyscan’s data shows that it’s not. Take a look at the charts plotting FMI vs LMI for Bodyscan's entire dataset.
Across both sexes and all ages, as people get fatter and heavier, they always develop more muscle mass to be able to carry the extra weight. They are effectively doing a high-weight workout with every step they take. Everyone with a high fat mass index has a high lean mass index. We’re not suggesting that you get fat to build muscle but it’s proof enough that weights-based resistance training – at any age and for both sexes – will maintain and build muscle mass.
Finally, it should also be stressed that resistance training is perhaps the best strategy for increasing bone density, something that naturally declines in later years. The decline is particularly steep (and therefore the benefit of weights greater) for women after menopause.
Mitchell’s bone density (in the light blue area) is 112% of average for his age and well above the average (the line that separates the two blue areas) for a man at peak bone density (about age 35).
For the majority of strength athletes, gym goers and exercise enthusiasts, protein will always be the number one macronutrient due to its enhancing effects on muscle protein synthesis (that’s gainz to you, bro!)
There have been a number of recent news stories warning of the dangers of eating too much protein and suggesting that we have become obsessed with this particular macronutrient. (Remember when fat was the dietary whipping boy?)
These stories have linked excess protein with nausea, kidney stones, osteoporosis, diabetes and cancer, but it’s not entirely clear if they are the result of the protein itself or, for example, the saturated fat or salt in the foods that contain the protein, such as cooked or processed meats.
While the list of dangers are sobering, the problem with so much food research is that it is usually done on sedentary populations who, let’s face it, suffer the gamut of health problems from doing too little and eating too much of just about everything.
So what exactly is ‘high protein’ and for whom might there be benefits?
The UK recommendation for protein is 0.75 grams per kilograms of body mass per day (g/kg/d), which equates, on average, to around 55g for men and 45g for women.
However, it’s universally agreed that regular exercisers, particularly those involved in strength sports and resistance training require a much higher protein intake than the baseline in order to effectively support their activity demands and fuel increases in muscle mass.
This is especially true when people are following a calorie-restricted diet in an attempt to reduce body fat because a calorie deficit increases the likelihood of losses in lean tissue, something we see at Bodyscan every day.
It has previously been thought that individuals pursuing strength activities, such as lifting weights, should be consuming between 1.5-2g/kg/d of protein in order to meet the protein requirements of the exercise activity and promote optimal muscle protein synthesis. Other research claims that 2g/kg/d is the ‘maximally beneficial’ limit of protein intake and any more provides no extra benefit in terms of body composition and strength. Indeed, the extra calories provided by the excess protein have been assumed to have a negative effect on body composition (ie, an increase in body fat).
However, recent research looking into daily protein requirements for resistance-trained individuals suggest that 2g/kg/d is not the upper limit. Far from it.
American studies led by Dr Jose Antonio suggest that protein intakes of above 3g/kg/d appear to increase fat-free mass and strength, with a simultaneous decrease in fat mass when compared to lower intakes (between 1.8-2.6g/kg/d).
Chronic high protein ingestion of 3.3g/kg/d for six months has been shown to have no negative effects in terms of fat gain or kidney function when compared to a lower intake of 2.5g/kg/d. Even a hyper-energetic diet consisting of more than 4g/kg/d (5.5x greater than the recommended daily amount) had no negative effects and did not result in significant negative changes over time or between groups for total body mass, fat mass, fat-free mass, or percentage body fat, when compared to a lower protein control group (consuming 1.8g/kg/d). This was despite the high protein group consuming significantly more protein and calories than the control group for a period of eight weeks.
Consequently, these recent findings seem to suggest that it is beneficial to consume protein amounts higher than 2g/kg/d, especially when calories are restricted, as the research shows improved preservation of muscle tissue combined with greater reduction or minimal gains in fat from intakes of more than 2g/kg/d.
These emerging findings suggest that for non-sedentary populations, and in particular strength-trained athletes, 2g/kg/g could actually be the floor, rather than the cap, for protein intake, especially when gains in lean mass are the primary focus.
You may like to check out a further discussion of protein requirements and a protein calculator at Fitness Savvy.
High intensity interval training (HIIT) is becoming increasingly popular as it has been shown to improve both aerobic and anaerobic fitness as well as significantly enhancing insulin sensitivity, blood glucose regulation and the body’s ability to burn fat, compared to much longer periods of steady state cardiovascular activity.
The benefits of HIIT are the result of a greatly amplified ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’ (EPOC), which gets the body back to its natural state and includes elevated fuel consumption (including fat metabolism) in an attempt to restore depleted nutrient stores within the body. In other words, while you might feel like death during your HIIT routine, the benefits don’t actually come until you’ve stopped and your body works hard to get things back to normal – the after burn effect.
Many Bodyscan clients wanting to lose fat say they include HIIT in their routine but only a minority get the great results that can be achieved. The main reason for poor results is that most people simply aren’t working hard enough.
Perhaps HIIT should be renamed VHIIT, because the sweaty bits of a HIIT workout should achieve a VERY high heart rate - about 90% of your maximum (HRmax).
That’s why the work periods of a proper HIIT session should not be more than a minute and the entire session should not last more than 20 minutes because it would be impossible to maintain such a high exercise intensity beyond those limits. If you're exceeding those limits then you're not going to get the benefits.
Whatever your fitness level you need to work with MAXIMUM effort to get the required physiological response. If you’re unfit you’ll reach your 90% HRmax quickly (say, after 30 seconds of work) and need a longer rest period (maybe two minutes) to be able to repeat the process at high output again. As your fitness increases you’ll need shorter rest periods and be able to repeat more cycles but the 60-second and 20-minute limits will apply even for an athlete.
Indeed, research has shown that just ten minutes of work in a 20-minute HIIT session (60-second sprints at 90% HRmax followed by 60-second rests, repeated ten times) has the same effect on 24-hour energy expenditure as performing 50 minutes of steady-state endurance cardio at 70% HRmax.
You can do any type of activity for the working periods, it doesn’t have to be the traditional sprinting or rowing. Pull-ups, push-ups, squats, burpees or anything that gets the heart rate elevated high enough will do.
So if HIIT isn’t working for you, try VHIIT instead. Work shorter but harder.
Written by James Rutherford, Consultant, Bodyscan City. James has a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science and is completing his MSc in Sport and Exercise Nutrition.
If you're a PT, how do you prove (for certain) that you’re making a difference?
If you’re a personal trainer, S&C coach or nutritionist your success rests squarely on your clients’ tangible results. And if you’re any good at what you do that should primarily mean reducing their body fat and/or increasing their lean muscle mass – both in absolute terms and as percentages of total body mass.
The accuracy with which you measure those changes therefore reflects how truly successful you really are. If your clients don’t have faith in the way you measure their body composition that will reflect badly on you. If they don’t believe the results, they won’t believe in you.
Unfortunately, the most accessible, lowest cost and therefore popular methods of measuring body composition are also the most unreliable and imprecise.
At the very back of the pack are plain old bathroom weighing scales (and their fraudulent offshoot, body mass index). Scales tell you nothing more than your relationship with gravity, so unless your client is a jockey or a boxer who needs to compete in a weight class, scales should play no part in your armory.
Skinfold calipers are cheap, prevalent and have their place in measuring body changes but, like a gun, in untrained hands they can be dangerous. In Sports Nutrition for Paralympic Athletes (2014), editor Elizabeth Broad quotes studies that state, “…highly skilled technicians are required if reliable data are to be collected. Technicians need to be meticulous in terms of both accurate site location and measurement technique. Measurements just 1-2cm away from a defined site can produce significant differences in results…”
In an article in Cyclist magazine (2015), British Cycling coach Andy Kirkland more bluntly reinforces the need for caliper practitioners to be highly qualified: “Unless you’re a skilled practitioner, for example ISAK certified [International Society for the Advancement of Kinanthropometry], skinfold analysis – using calipers to measure the thickness of fat at certain sites around the body – can be next to useless.”
Another technique for measuring body fat is bio-electrical impedance analysis (BIA), whose form factors range from £50 scales you can buy in a department store to £13,000 devices that resemble airline self-check-in kiosks.
Whatever the cost, the technology (which actually measures electrical resistance to make a guess about body water to, in turn, make a guess about fat) is the same. The variation in price range is only matched by the variability of the results – drink a litre of water and the device will record lower body fat. Or if you’re not thirsty, simply flick the switch on many BIA devices to the ‘athlete’ setting and your fat reading will miraculously drop. Lean at the flick of a switch! Tempting but hardly scientific.
The most accurate way of measuring body composition and now universally regarded as the gold standard is dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DEXA.
As the name suggests, DEXA produces X-ray photons of two different energy levels. Bone and soft tissue slow down the X-rays at different rates, so the composition of bone, fat and lean mass can be separately and precisely analysed.
That’s why DEXA is favoured by the country’s leading sports science universities, such as Bath and Exeter, and professional teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham football clubs, and England Rugby.
As well as accuracy, DEXA automatically provides regional data and imagery for arms, legs and trunk in order to get an accurate picture of fat and muscle distribution (been skipping leg day, bro?) It also gives a very good estimate of visceral fat, which is the ‘bad’ fat that surrounds the internal organs and is linked to heart disease, diabetes, stroke and even cancer.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, you can’t buy a DEXA scanner in John Lewis. DEXA is an expensive piece of medical-grade equipment that your clients have to travel to and that will cost them £100 or more.
But the accuracy, precision, depth and breadth of body composition data makes it essential for baseline and quarter-to-half-yearly measurement. In Australia, Canada and the US, where DEXA is well established, it’s common practice for PTs to insist on a DEXA scan before signing up a new client.
If you’re a personal trainer DEXA gives you research-quality, high-calibre information that adds to your credibility, motivates your clients and differentiates you in what is undeniably an overcrowded industry.
A mediocre PT will fear DEXA because it doesn’t discriminate. Unlike calipers and BIA, you can’t squeeze harder or flick the ‘athlete’ switch to fudge the result.
On the other hand, if you’re a PT who values accuracy, veracity and professionalism you will embrace DEXA because it will prove beyond doubt that you’re making a difference. Your clients will stay motivated and keep coming back for more.
Bodyscan (bodyscanuk.com) is the UK’s only company dedicated to DEXA body composition measurement and has two sites in central London. Clients book online, receive an immediate printed report and can opt for an in-depth consultation that brings the report alive with a highly personalised analysis.
Bodyscan’s customer reviews are 95% five-star, so your clients are in very safe hands and will thank you for the introduction.
We recently had a TV crew in to film some people who were committing to lose a lot of weight (ie, fat).
One of them, Julie, has a huge task ahead of her because she is carrying as much fat as my total weight (68.9kg). See part of her report below.
At Bodyscan, while we don’t focus too much on body fat percentage (preferring fat mass index), Julie would be in a far better place at around 26.5% body fat, which means she should lose about 35kg of fat from her total weight of 127kg.
Just a few minutes struggling with the barbells in my local gym yesterday (above) made it easy to know what it would feel like to be 35kg heavier (and then 35kg lighter once I’d managed to put the barbell back in the rack). It was hard work. It also made it obvious why very overweight people have super-high muscle mass – they’re doing a very strenuous workout with every step they take.
If you're overweight, work out how much fat would be good for you to lose: women take 26.5% of your weight, men 18% of your weight, in order to arrive at a better fat mass. Then see how much higher than your current total fat mass it is. That difference is how much fat you could aim to lose. Now go and pick up that weight in the gym to get a sense of how much better you’d feel without that ballast.
If you're below those body fat percentages you're doing well.
A quick web search will find plenty of research and opinion (eg: 1, 2, 3, 4) that weights-based resistance training is a more effective method than cardio-based workouts for burning fat, even before the advantages of increased muscle mass and improved bone density are taken into account.
But a quick look round many gyms suggests that a lot of people are squandering the advantage and simply wasting their time.
No ‘bro’ or alpha male (from whom so much weight-training advice originates) ever likes to admit that he’s doing something wrong (or be told to put his weights back in the rack) so bad form gets handed down and propagated like fake news.
Trying to show off with the heaviest weight known to man (and woman) is probably at the root of most bad technique and a quick physics refresh explains why: The greater the mass of an object, the greater its inertia and momentum. In other words the heavier the weight, the harder it is to move and, once moving, the harder it is to stop.
The easiest way to overcome inertia is to swing the weight back and forth rather than lift it from a still, standing start in order to give it momentum, so often seen with exercises like bicep curl, lateral raise and leg raise (below).
(Click the 'Read more' link below to read the rest of the article.)
Almost everyone who comes to Bodyscan wants to know their body fat percentage (BF%) and it's the number so many people obsess about.
But whilst BF% is a better measure of body composition than weight or BMI, it’s still not the best measure because, like weight and BMI, it wraps everything up into one, single number.
Body fat percentage is actually just the ratio of your fat to your weight, which means it's affected by your non-fat mass (mainly muscle) as well as your fat. One number trying to take account of two things - not good!
The DEXA scans of the two men below show they have exactly the same body fat percentage - 21.6% - but very different body compositions. One has low fat and low muscle, the other has high fat and high muscle.
Can you see now why body fat percentage is not the best metric?
A DEXA scan measures your fat and lean mass separately and gives you a meaningful index for each - your fat mass index (FMI) and your lean mass index (LMI). These two numbers tell you how much fat and muscle you carry in relation to your height.
Crucially, your FMI is unaffected by muscle and your LMI is unaffected by fat. Unlike your body fat percentage, which is affected by both.
If we look at the FMI and LMI for the two men, we see what polar opposites they are. For fat, one man is in the lowest 30%, the other is in the highest 35%. For lean mass and muscle the situation is reversed. In relation to his height, one man has more muscle than 90% of men, the other has less muscle than 90%.
Until you know your FMI and LMI and get the best picture of your body composition you can't be really sure what your training and nutrition priorities should be.
Just before Christmas 2016 a Bodyscan client presented with the most dramatic change in body re-composition we have ever seen.
In just four months (from August to December), the client lost 11.5kg of fat and gained 6.4kg of muscle.
The numbers are impressive enough on their own, but are even more remarkable when you learn the client:
1. used no drugs, stimulants, supplements or shakes
2. was in a calorie deficit of about 500 calories a day
3. did zero cardio
4. is female
Prepare to forget everything you thought you knew about fat loss, muscle gain and bodybuilding when you read Joanna’s story. It starts with a Bodyscan DEXA scan that was “so mortifying, so shocking that it messed with my head and took me six months to recover from”.
Then in August last year, Joanna began a programme of Bayesian Bodybuilding. Click 'Read more' to continue.
We recommend most clients return for a follow-up scan three months (12-14 weeks) after their first to track their changing body composition.
It is quicker to lose fat than build muscle, so if fat-loss is your priority you should certainly look to return after 12 weeks and check you’re making sufficient progress.
If your re-scan results are good, it will give you reassurance that your training and nutrition programme is right for you and you can continue with more of the same.
Unfortunately for many, re-scan results are a disappointment. But knowledge is power, and you’ll now be able to make adjustments or stop and change course completely. Imagine waiting nine months or a year before you discovered you’ve been wasting all that time.
Typically, disappointment is due to high levels of muscle loss during a fat-loss phase (we regularly see people losing more muscle than fat) and, conversely, big increases in fat with little to show in terms of lean gains.
Uneven muscle gain where certain areas of the body progress faster than others is also common, as is not gaining any muscle at all. This can be due to a number of factors such as a too-low calorie intake (no muscle gain) or the incorrect training programme, intensity or rep range.
It is better to find out now that the desired changes in body composition are not occurring and do something about it.
Another reason for checking-in sooner is to be sure that the direction of travel has been consistent over the entire period. If you have more body fat in January than in the previous June, we’ll never know if it was just Christmas to blame or you wasted seven months doing the wrong thing. A re-scan in September would have provided some insight.
Finally, the constant refrain we hear from new clients is, “I wish I’d done this three months ago so I could see how things have changed.”
Only a DEXA body scan will give you the accurate, consistent, reproducible results that will enable you to optimise your progress.
If you’ve lost some momentum or are just not sure if you’re on the right track, booking a re-scan to see your results will be the motivation you need to kick start your body composition transformation.
We see many clients at Bodyscan who lose a lot of fat but who also lose a great deal of muscle too.
Sometimes so much that their body fat percentage actually goes up.
Look at the Bodyscan reports of these two clients who both did ‘biggest loser’-style diets with severely restricted calories: Nikhil, whose results are above, lost 4.7kg of muscle to his 4.9kg of fat, while Robert lost a whopping 10.8kg of muscle for 25.2kg of fat. Those big muscle losses do not bode well for keeping the fat off.
Indeed, loss of muscle is the reason why so many people who shed a lot of weight (see this article about DEXA and Oprah Winfrey) yo-yo back up again, and it highlights the importance of retaining your muscle mass when you embark on a fat loss regime.
Many people assume that when in a calorie deficit your body will turn first to its fat stores to make up the gap. But your body’s survival instinct takes an opposite view. Carrying muscle mass is calorie inefficient; big muscles burn a lot of calories even at rest. That’s why gaining muscle mass takes a lot of time, effort, heavy weights and loads of food.
Fat, on the other hand, is a great store of energy and helped ensure our ancestors’ survival when food was sparse and before there was convenience food within arm’s reach.
The need to survive and the expensive energy requirement of lean body mass is why your body quickly depletes your muscles - rather than your fat - when you reduce your calorie intake. The double whammy is that with lower muscle mass your body then burns fewer calories when at rest, so if you break your diet and simply go back to what you were eating before there’s now a bigger gap than there used to be between the calories you’re taking in and the calories you’re burning. Result - ballooning fat.
The statistics vary but a quick flick through a number of articles puts the number of people returning to their starting weight or above after a diet anywhere between two-thirds and 97%.
To retain your calorie-burning muscle, therefore, it’s a very good idea to add weight training to your programme. Unlike our big muscle-losers above, these two Bodyscan clients made resistance work a core part of their programmes: You can see from their Bodyscan reports that Katy reversed a fat gain/muscle loss to put on 3.2kg of muscle while losing 2.7kg of fat, and Rupert lost an incredible 14.3kg of fat while still building 2.2kg of muscle. The results speak for themselves.
In my experience as a personal trainer, success is wholly dependent on consistency. There is no point in any diet or exercise programme if you’re not going to stick to it, which is another reason why slashing calories and manic fitness schedules don’t work. In a couple of weeks you’ll be fed up and succumb to temptation. It's better to plan for slower, more gradual fat loss by restricting calories just 10% or 20% below maintenance levels and an achievable exercise and gym schedule. (Note: if you're gaining fat, you're already eating above your maintenance calories. Check out our body composition calculator for an idea of your calorie requirement.)
If your programme has derailed, it’s probably time to get a new Bodyscan baseline. We’ll give you achievable targets and then measure your progress in 3-4 months’ time.
Author - Archie Williams
This month (September 2016) we released the latest updated Bodyscan percentile tables, with data from over 2000 client scans - 1400 men and 650 women.
The new tables now includes regional fat mass, so you can see how typical your fat distribution is. You’ve been able to assess your muscle distribution with the previous tables, as described in this blog post about skipping leg day.
A ’typical’ fat distribution would expect to see fat mass for arms, legs and trunk in a straight horizontal line across the last three columns of the Regional Fat Percentiles table. The table is shown below.
The woman whose scan image appears at the top of this post might look to be carrying all the fat in her legs and trunk but when we plot her fat mass in the tables (shown in the report excerpt next to the image to be about 1.8kg in the arms, 10kg in the trunk and 5.9kg in the legs), we see that she actually carries proportionately most in the arms and least in the trunk.
Of course, you can’t spot-lose fat, but a change in the shape or angle of your plotted line through arms, trunk and leg fat mass will clearly show you how and where fat is shifting.
The data has changed little since March but the big sample size now gives us a very solid, reliable base against which to compare your individual results.
As well as showing fat and lean mass variations between the left and right sides of your body, Bodyscan can show you top-to-bottom variations too.
Using Bodyscan’s percentile tables, you can plot the lean mass in your arms, legs and trunk to spot discrepancies or weaknesses in your muscle distribution.
The most common variation we see is among gym-going men who commit that most heinous of crimes - skipping leg day. Take a look at this guy’s regional results and how they reveal workouts focused on arms and upper body.
The lean mass in his arms (the first two numbers) averages at around 5kg, in his trunk (the third number) at about 33kg, and about 10.8kg in each leg (the fourth and fifth numbers).
When we plot those quantities on our percentile tables (above), we see they equate to approximately these percentiles:
Arms (5kg) 95th percentile; Trunk (33kg) 77th percentile; Legs (10.8kg) 55th percentile.
That is, the lean mass and muscle in his legs is way behind that of his arms and trunk and, in absolute terms, just above average (the 55th percentile).
With a more even distribution we would expect similar percentiles across all regions of the body. To bring his legs into line with his arms, therefore, he needs to increase muscle mass in each leg from 10.8kg to about 13kg - a shortfall of more than 2kg in each leg.
So don't skip leg day!
On Tuesday 12th April, my first client of the day produced an incredible result.
In just four months Martin has lost 13.6kg (that’s over 2 stone) of pure fat. And he did it on a ketogenic diet, in which 70% of his calories come from fat, 25% from protein and almost none from carbs.
The fat loss would probably have been greater a month ago as recent family events forced Martin to diverge from the high-fat, ultra-low-carb regimen.
The highlights of his report are:
Martin’s results endorse the groundswell of opinion and evidence that it’s OK – in fact, highly beneficial – to eat plenty of naturally occurring fat and that carbohydrates are the underlying cause of obesity.
If you’re interested in Martin's information sources, he kindly points to:
We also found this very interesting 30-minute ‘Catalyst’ programme from ABC Australia, made in 2014.
Since November, Martin has consumed his high-fat diet in a time-restricted window (a version of intermittent fasting) between noon and 8pm, and also aimed to be in a calorie deficit of 30-50%. Some keto advice is that you don’t have to count calories because your hunger levels are very well regulated without carb-induced insulin spikes, but Martin says keeping a sharp eye on calories was crucial because of the high-energy value of high-fat foods – a few macadamia nuts can cause a calorie blowout.
In February, after five months of strict ‘keto’ (he began the keto journey last September), Martin moved to having a carb re-feed once or twice a week, usually the night before bodyweight circuit training (TRX, press-ups, squats and lunges). This ‘cyclical keto’ with heavy-duty carb-ups of between a few hours and two days is outlined in ‘The Best Ever Bodybuilding Diet?’. Martin’s carb content would rise to 50% in these periods.
His more than 5:1 ratio of fat-to-lean loss is excellent by any standard (especially considering the sheer amount of fat he shed) and one wonders if he would have maintained more or even all his lean mass with a lower calorie restriction and by increasing weights beyond body weight.
Martin’s lifestyle changes started last August, when he was 131.5kg (21 stone) and wore XXL shirts and 44-inch trousers. He quit smoking and sugar and began restricting carbs and calories. In September he followed the keto rules more closely and saw improved results. He then replaced breakfast with a ‘bulletproof’ coffee (coffee and coconut oil) before removing the calorie-rich oil to start the 16:8 intermittent fasting.
He’s now a medium, 32-inch waist and below 90kg for the first time since he was 12 years old. Inspiring stuff.
Martin’s says: “It's hard to start, like any diet, but the difficulty is in establishing new habits. The biggest one is losing the starch component of most of your meals – it's culturally ingrained.
“Once you're used to it, it's quite easy. Keto is challenging in that it's a binary proposition – like being pregnant, you're in a ketogenic state or you're not. So you can't cheat (except in very controlled circumstances with strategic carb re-feeds).
“Get enough salts when you start, watch your fibre intake and expect to take a few weeks for your body to adapt. Once it does there are many benefits. For me, fat loss obviously, but also the steady blood sugar, reduced hunger and mental clarity are great side benefits.”
We hope you find Martin's story interesting.
MAN v FAT published one of the very first reviews of Bodyscan when we opened in London in January 2015. Today, the 35,000+ member men's forum is the biggest online referrer of hits to the Bodyscan site after Google Search.
It makes perfect sense, then, for us to team up with MAN v FAT and offer a free DEXA body scan plus face-to-face consultation in our latest competition. We're kicking ourselves we didn't think of it earlier!
You don't have to be a bloke to win, so click this link to go to the MAN v FAT website and enter now. You can ratchet up your entries by getting your friends to enter too.
You'll get the most accurate and precise measurement of your body fat and lean mass, plus data about your visceral fat and bone density too. Plus we'll take you through your report in detail and help you set targets (in kilograms) for fat loss and muscle gain.