No gym? No problem! Pt 2: How fear of the unknown in fitness and nutrition can make you a slave to your training regime.

Sequel to the blog post published on Dec, 13.

Over the last two months, I’ve barely trained because science is on my side. I know I can go through periods of decreased activity without losing muscle or gaining weight. I still make sure I move myself often and despite not having done any calisthenics or weight lifting workouts in the last few weeks, I’ve been walking to and from my clients who live and in the neighbourhood and running as many errands on foot as possible.

For someone who has consistently trained for years, any break from the gym is now deliberate and serves me well in the long term. I feel good, confident and relaxed. But it wasn’t always this way and I know this is an issue a few of my friends and colleagues have also battled with. Believe it or not, but in the past I have cried due to missed workouts and restricted my caloric intake for fear of gaining weight. For someone so blasé about training now, it almost sounds unfathomable?

Let me tell you a story.

Back when I used to teach Les Mills full time (2010-2014), I would do an average of 16 classes a week, consisting of 11 BodyCombat classes, 4 BodyPump and 1 Body Conditioning that was my own freestyle class. I was stick thin with a visible sixpack and my bodyfat was so low that I basically had no bum or boobs. It didn’t bother me at the time because I felt great. I could eat anything I wanted and it wouldn’t “stick”. Sometimes I would eat 100g of cashews without blinking, I consumed a lot of salmon and pasta, lots of high calorie foods just to keep my energy levels up. The truth is that I still wasn’t eating enough calories to keep my energy levels up and ended up very tired a lot of the time and my joints were hurting. I had no idea how much energy I was burning daily, but it was probably between 3000-4000kcal. I remember a test was done on the health of my skin when I was 26 and it came back as 36+. My collagen levels were very low, my face looked gaunt and my skin almost drained of colour. Although I am rushing ahead of my story, I would like to add I am 33 now and my skin is so much healthier than it was then.

Now, when one constantly does this much exercise and suddenly finds themselves in a different environment (ie going on holiday), it can cause a lot of concern and even panic. I call it lack-of-exercise induced anxiety. Because you are used to a certain amount of exercise and a certain diet, the balance is thrown when suddenly your expenditure drops. You don’t know how to adjust because you’ve never kept track of how many calories you burned or consumed. This can create two problems:

  1. Whatever amount of energy you’re used to consuming on a daily basis becomes the “norm” for you and in the absence of energy expenditure, the only reasonable step to take seems to be to eat less, even if you weren’t eating enough in the first place. This is why tracking one’s calories every now and again can be hugely useful as it will give you a better idea of the energy consumption on your more and less active days. This issue is very common in “cardio bunnies” as I remember they used to be jokingly called, but unfortunately comes with a fair amount of anxiety that can only be subdued with daily exercise sessions. These individuals mainly focus on areas that they think could use a drop in bodyfat. Food intake is often restricted to less than should actually be consumed;
  2. Now, the opposite: perhaps you were consuming sufficient calories for the amount of energy burned through exercise. However, upon reducing or stopping physical activity, your appetite didn’t automatically adjust. This happens when food intake hasn’t been intuitive but ‘forced’ or almost gluttonous. Depending on how long one’s eating habits have been in place, it will take at least a few weeks of gradual small changes to even begin to change the amount of food one is used to eating. *This issue haunts athletes who have been in sports that are highly taxing on one’s body: rugby, powerlifting, footballers, Olympic athletes, endurance athletes, pro bodybuilding, etc. These individuals focus on looking bigger and being stronger. Food intake has usually been on the excessive side and any energy left over would normally have been worked off in the gym. In the absence of exercise, this can lead to weight gain and depression.

Now, while I was still a group exercise instructor, I was very much the cardio bunny I described earlier. Going on holidays, I would eat a very healthy diet but looking back, it was far too restrictive, especially for someone who is on holiday and would perhaps like to enjoy local cuisine more. During half terms, I would take Silver to kids’ clubs daily so I could have a quick 1 hour workout in the gym. It didn’t even occur to me to take a break for a week or two and I wouldn’t have lasted more than 2 days without exercise.

From 2014 when I injured my knee, I had to give up most classes. It was tough because I had been blessed with classes in some very prestigious places (one of my absolute favourites was the gym in the Vault of the Bank of England). I guess my ego didn’t want to let go of the status this gave me. Also, my heart health and cardiovascular fitness were at their best but my body was broken so I had no choice. Coincidentally, this was my second year in PT (I’ve been a PT for 6 years at this stage) and I was putting a lot more focus on my gym weights sessions. So far, my gym workouts had been sabotaged by the classes I taught and vice versa. If I taught a class in the morning, my body would be achy for my own gym session later. When I trained before, I would struggle in class. So, losing my classes had a huge silver lining: by dropping excessive CV and reducing my general energy expenditure, I was finally able to start performing better in the gym. I was lifting heavier and getting stronger almost weekly and, much to my surprise, I didn’t gain weight or bodyfat. I was gaining lean muscle and getting more defined by the day. My skin was improving, my posterior started to take shape and you can say I got my curves back. So, how did that happen?

Fact: when you have been in a highly restrictive state for so long, you will go into anabolic state when you start training less and eating more (of the healthy stuff, of course – don’t abuse your body’s suddenly increased metabolism by feeding it fast food). With progressive overload and nutritious food, our body can transform in a matter of months, boosting your confidence and the way you see yourself in the mirror.

But, that’s not all. After I had stopped the unnecessary cardio and got into bodybuilding, I was still training every day, sometimes twice a day just for the fun of it. And when you have found your passion in something, why would you take a break from it, correct? I was still taking Silver to kids clubs during half terms just so I wouldn’t have to miss a gym session. Since Silver enjoyed the clubs, I didn’t see anything wrong with it because we both enjoyed getting out of the house. However, in the last two years I have “calmed down” a lot. In June 2017 something suddenly ‘clicked’ when I was on holiday in the Maldives. It was my second or third day there and I had gone to the gym (which wasn’t very big, I feel I should add), I completely lost interest about 10 minutes into my session. Outside the gym was utter paradise that is thousands of miles from home, so rare and beautiful, a place where I likely wouldn’t be able to return in a hurry and I was in the gym? What was I thinking? Just because I didn’t want to miss a day of training and was scared to lose muscle, I was willing to give up precious hours on this gorgeous island? No, thank you. I grabbed my towel and water bottle and left the gym, changed into my bikinis and headed to my lounger to soak up the sun and relax to the max. I had finally come to my senses and realised that being away in a remote location with so many exotic experiences and foods must be enjoyed with no regrets and that “normal service” can resume when I’m back. And, guess what? Miraculously, I didn’t gain tons of weight nor did I lose muscle.

Now, let’s be realistic. Noone is going to reduce their energy expenditure to a minimum overnight, especially even if the thought of it gives you shivers down your spine. It has to be done gradually, paying attention to every change in your body and mindset (or lack of) that happens on the way. I have often discussed this with friends and clients and the best approach is “one at a time”. If you’re used to training daily then start by reducing the amount of exercise you do by leaving out one session for rest. Then, adjust your food intake for that day. You can omit energy dense foods for something as equally satiating but perhaps lower in calories or higher in protein. Don’t forget to include green vegetables. The overall goal here is to feel virtuous rather than anxious about your choices. You control your food intake, your food doesn’t control you.

Carry on adjusting the frequency of your training or the intensity of your sessions until you reach a ‘sweet spot’ that allows you to maintain an optimal body composition with reasonable food intake. Allow yourself to become hungry before you eat and remember to savour the food. Drink water when needed, especially when training as it will boost your performance. Most importantly, take it one day at a time and celebrate every small victory on the way.

Have a great weekend!

 

Rahel x

 

 

No gym? No problem! Pt. 1: How taking a break from training affects your muscle mass, weight and eating habits.

Coinciding with my break from social media, I also decided to rest from training. In the last 6 weeks I have trained 6 times: 3 dance classes, 2 short gym sessions and 1 session in Primrose Hill, which was 2 weeks ago. I have been asked several times: “How do you feel?” I feel great! (More on my own personal experience in the second part of this post.)

I wasn’t always as calm and confident when away from the gym or classes (as an LM instructor you must participate in all classes, therefore back in 2012-2014 I would exercise up to 4 times a day). Well before I became a PT and Nutritionist, my understanding of what happens to our bodies when we train and eat (or don’t) was close to non-existent. Since I knew very little myself, I read magazines and was misinformed about what actually allows a person to get and stay fit and what diet should one eat for the best body composition. I’m sure we can all relate? When we lack the understanding of how something works, we’re likely to opt for extreme approaches as the results are guaranteed, correct? We all know at least one person who has done a “juice detox” or a “soup diet” or gone to the gym for 3 hours every day, lost a lot of weight then stopped and put it back on again. These are desperate measures that don’t actually teach us anything and the extreme approaches in this industry (exercising all the time and eating very little) can be detrimental not only to our physical but also mental health. So I want to help bust some myths!

What are the most feared consequences of taking a break from training?

  • gaining weight;
  • losing muscle;
  • extreme changes in body composition.

Other things we worry about:

  • becoming weaker;
  • being less fit.

What really happens? While keeping science and research in mind, I will try to explain it all as simply as I can in this blog post.

Starting with: We cannot lose muscle in as little as one-two weeks unless we are bedbound or hospitalised and completely unable to move parts or the whole body.

“Then how come my muscles look smaller after a couple of weeks of not training?”

When we train (especially with resistance training), our muscle glycogen stores become depleted and with the consumption of carbs, these levels can be restored. Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is something that happens in your muscles after training when your body starts to repair and rebuild. MPS is highest up to 2-6 hours post training, during which your body requires fast acting protein and carbs for optimal muscle growth. Let’s clarify one thing: to build lean muscle, we simply need protein; to add size and boost performance (become stronger), we add carbs to the equation. With every gram of carbs (glycogen) our bodies store 3g of water, so a trained muscle will absorb plenty of water from your skin and body to look more pronounced and defined. This is why a high carbohydrate intake is encouraged after big training sessions to optimise muscle growth and minimise bodyfat gain and water retention.

When we do not train, muscle “bellies” remain full and glycogen stores won’t require replenishing as often. When muscles don’t take in glycogen, they also won’t take in as much water. The result is a smaller or “deflated” looking muscle, which leaves us to believe that we have lost muscle whereas it’s only water weight we have dropped. Meanwhile, if your carbohydrate intake is higher than required by your body, first you will experience more bloating than normal and will likely feel the water weight around your midsection (re 3g water per 1g of carbs). This in turn can lead to us believing we have gained weight. If your bloating always comes with abdominal discomfort, gas or cramping, I encourage you to reduce your carbohydrate intake. If this is something that occurs often regardless of the amount of carbs consumed, perhaps tests would be a good idea to ensure you are not sensitive or intolerant to gluten.

 

Now, here are some facts about fitness. Cardiovascular endurance can drop in as little as 1-2 weeks and I’m sure we have all felt that fresh out of breath feeling upon returning to our favourite cardio class after a little break. The good news is that CV endurance can be restored just as fast as it was lost. It’s all to do with the decrease and increase in lung capacity and VO2Max, so don’t be scared and head back to training. Yes, the first session might feel like a bit of a struggle, just remember to take deep breaths, drink plenty of water and take breaks when you need to.

Although you can’t lose muscle mass overnight, muscular strength and size can reduce significantly over time, on average in 3-4 months of no training you can lose about 33% of “gains”. As mentioned before, exceptions to the rule are hospitalised/immobile people who have lost function of their limbs. Even having one leg or arm in a cast can quickly result in muscle catabolism. Athletes are encouraged to reintroduce varied training as soon as possible after injury/surgery. They never really stop and neither should we. This is why rehab/corrective exercise is so popular – even when a certain muscle has been pulled or a joint injured, there is always another area to be trained or an alternative exercise to be performed. Jorn Trommelen proved that with as little as 1 training session per week, one can maintain their muscle mass acquired at least over a 16 week period. (If you would like to read his work, please leave a comment or send me a message on here or Instagram as at the time of writing this post I was unable to find the URL for this study.)

 

What else happens in our bodies? When we’re not training, our carbohydrate requirements won’t be as high but it doesn’t mean we cannot or shouldn’t eat carbs at all. Carbohydrates are still required by your brain so at least keeping your liver glycogen levels up is a smart idea. Failure to do so may result in brain fog, feeling lethargic and demotivated.

It is important to know that your body utilises carbs in 3 ways: 1) stored in muscles (helps shape muscle and provides energy when training to feel stronger); 2) released into the blood stream to be used as immediately available energy; 3) stored as bodyfat for later use. As long as you remember to reduce your carbohydrate intake accordingly and replace it with healthy fats and protein (and don’t forget the veg!), your body will have a healthy ratio of macronutrients that help you maintain optimal body composition even in the absence of exercise.

Last but not least, let’s talk about the general fear of gaining weight. First of all, we don’t just get fat when we don’t train. But, indeed, weight can be gained slowly over time if the energy balance is off. This is why establishing a healthy relationship with eating is so important. If you train solely to justify a high food intake then the absence of exercise is going to make you feel anxious. However, if your food intake is optimised to boost performance and varies depending on the intensity of your training (or whether you’re training or not), you won’t be caught off guard even if you have to skip a session due to sudden change of plans in your day.

Athletes whose eating habits are ingrained after years of training can struggle with this. A rugby player who may have consumed around 6000 calories daily, could find himself in a pickle once he quits the sport or retires. If his eating has been more mindless than intuitive, he might struggle matching his food intake to the new, lower, energy requirements. I have heard stories of retired sportsmen who have gained weight rapidly after stopping their training. This can affect the person’s mental health and lead to anxiety and depression plus further issues with eating since a healthy routine hasn’t been established. So what can be done? Dropping to 2300kcal overnight from 6000kcal is going to feel highly restrictive like a dreadful diet. The change has to be gradual, allowing for small adjustments to be made weekly to encourage new eating habits to match their new lifestyle. It’s not impossible but can be challenging and the person in question has to want to make these changes.

This is why I always discuss intuitive eating with my clients. To regain control over your eating habits, it is important to establish some sort of order as soon as possible to start to guide your body in the direction you need it to go. First, replace the high calories by consuming high amounts of healthy, highly nutritious food, which will fill you up quicker than highly palatable foods. Then, your body will start to adapt to the lower caloric intake (they say it takes 3 weeks to break a habit), your appetite starts to change, you’ll eat less and your stomach lining starts to shrink – all this makes for a lovely virtuous cycle. You will fill up on less food with no unhealthy restrictions. The more you restrict the more you crave; the less you restrict the less you crave. Remember: everything in moderation!

 

I’ll leave you with this cornucopia of information for the weekend and will share Pt. 2 with you in the new week.

 

Rahel x