Wayne L. Westcott: Lose fat, gain lean muscle
Bodyweight is composed of two distinct components, fat weight and lean weight, which make up our body composition.
Fat weight represents the pounds of fat within your body. Lean weight refers to all non-fat body tissue including muscle, bone, tendons, ligaments, skin, organs, blood, etc. Interestingly, fat weight contains very little water, as fat is only about 7 percent water. On the other hand, lean tissue contains large amounts of water. For example, muscle is about 75 percent water.
People who lose lots of weight in relatively short periods of time are actually sacrificing water and lean tissue to do so. Typically, an individual who weighs 30 pounds less in 60 days has reduced his/her fat weight by about 20 pounds, but has reduced his/her lean weight by about 10 pounds. This is because our bodies can convert only about 2 1/2 pounds of stored fat into energy during the course of a week, resulting in roughly a 20-pound fat loss over eight weeks. Consequently, any additional weight loss is unhealthy and unattractive because it comes from muscle and other vital body tissues.
Consider some examples from one of our physical makeover research projects, in which we encouraged the 115 participants to pay less attention to weight loss and more attention to body composition improvement. That is, we wanted them to concurrently lose fat (which most adults add at the rate of 16 pounds per decade) and add muscle (which most adults lose at the rate of 6 pounds per decade).
Our 10-week makeover program emphasized a sensible nutrition plan, moderate amounts of endurance exercise (25 minute sessions, 3 days/week) and moderate amounts of strength training (25 minute sessions, 3 days/week). As you examine the results of these four selected participants (two men and two women) you should see the importance of a balanced and comprehensive approach to body composition improvement.
Subject A: This male participant lost 22 pounds of fat and gained 1 pound of muscle, resulting in a 21-pound weight loss and a 23-pound improvement in his body composition. He maintained a balanced approach to diet and both types of exercise (endurance and strength) throughout the program.
Subject B: This female participant lost 17 pounds of fat and gained 2 pounds of muscle, resulting in a 15-pound loss and a 19-pound improvement in her body composition. She likewise maintained a balanced approach to diet and both types of exercise (endurance and strength) throughout the program.
Subject C: This male participant lost 9 pounds of fat and lost 6 pounds of lean weight. Although this resulted in a 15-pound weight loss, it represented only a 3-pound improvement in his body composition. While he worked very hard, he placed too little emphasis on exercise (especially strength training) and too much emphasis on diet, which led to the undesirable muscle loss.
Subject D: This female participant lost 14 pounds of fat and lost 14 pounds of lean weight. Although this resulted in a 28-pound weight loss, it represented no real improvement in her body composition. While she demonstrated amazing dietary willpower, her low caloric intake led to as much muscle and lean weight loss as fat loss. This result makes it extremely difficult to maintain the new bodyweight.
Most people who lose weight go by the bathroom scale, which records their weight reduction but doesn’t indicate how much of the loss was lean tissue and how much was fat. It is important to know this information because you definitely don’t want to lose muscle and other vital body tissues.
First, less muscle adversely affects both your physical function and your personal appearance. Second, less muscle leads to a lower resting metabolism that makes it almost impossible to avoid regaining the weight you lost. Keep in mind that 95 percent of stringent dieters regain all of the weight they lost within one year.
Here are my research-based recommendations for a safe, successful and satisfying physical makeover that improves your health and fitness as well as your appearance:
- Make your main makeover objective a better body composition rather than an arbitrary reduction in body weight. Ideally, men should be less than 15 percent fat and women should be less than 25 percent fat.
- Follow a sensible nutrition plan that requires a moderate and manageable reduction in caloric intake, while ensuring sufficient proteins, good carbohydrates, good fats, vitamins, minerals and water for robust health and tissue maintenance.
- Perform 20- to 30-minute sessions of endurance exercise (jogging, cycling, etc.) three days per week to burn extra calories and improve your cardiovascular fitness.
- Perform 20- to 30-minute sessions of strength training three days per week to burn extra calories, increase your resting metabolic rate, and enhance your muscular fitness.
Be consistent and be patient, as this 3-point program will definitely improve your body composition, health and fitness.
Patriot Ledger contributor Wayne L. Westcott, PhD., teaches exercise science at Massachusetts' Quincy College and consults for the South Shore YMCA. He has authored 24 books on physical fitness.