Cross-posted and lightly edited from The Deep Dish.
Epistemic status: Trying to outline a general phenomenon; may not be correct on every specific point. I am not a doctor; this post is not advice.
“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought, with some reason, that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.”
—ALBERT CAMUS, THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS
When I see an overweight person slogging away on the treadmill, I think to myself: that person is a goddamn hero.
Here’s the dirty little secret that fit and muscular people don’t mention in their Instagram #fitspo posts: if you’re already in decent shape, you can get away with all kinds of shenanigans.
It’s been years since I last counted calories. Hardly a day goes by without committing some minor sin; an ice cream here, a fizzy drink there. I’m quite partial to pizza. I rarely do more than three hours of exercise a week.
In spite of all this, I’ve probably never been fitter. Blood pressure, lipids, resting heart rate; all fine and dandy. And it’s easy.
This is not meant to be an elaborate humblebrag. It’s infuriating when people do something hard, then act like it was effortless. I promise I’m not trying to be cute. The point of this post is that momentum is a force of nature.
Everyone is at least vaguely aware of how interest and debt work: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But money is not the only thing that compounds. Momentum seems to be an underlying feature of the universe; an entropy pump responsible for everything from the coalescence of galaxies, to towering sequoia trunks, to income inequality. Recently, I realised that it also extends to waistlines:
The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer
The fit get fitter, and the fat get fatter
It takes a special kind of nastiness to blame the poor for their own misfortune. The naive view is that they should just try harder, work their way up, and generally stop being losers. There’s a tiny grain of truth there, if you squint, but it’s blind to the systemic forces at work.
Fat-shaming is equally myopic. Even if we accept that we are wholly responsible for our decisions—which may go back as far as childhood, were probably influenced by genetics, and certainly by our environment—those initial steps set us on a path which becomes increasingly difficult to deviate from.
Path dependence: as feedback loops tighten, so do the options available. (Sydow, Schreyögg & Koch)
To understand how this works, it might help to look at it from the opposite direction. What’s life like for a moderately fit and muscular person? Well, everything works in your favour. The wind is at your back. You’ve got momentum. Let us count the ways:
1. High testosterone
Testosterone levels in men are closely linked with body fat. Belly fat in particular harbours aromatase, an enzyme which converts the male sex hormone into estrogen. The leaner you are, the easier it is to build muscle and burn fat, the better your hormonal balance, and so on.
2. Faster metabolism
The more lean mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate. Muscles are expensive to maintain, and they’re burning calories all the time. Even when you’re sitting on your ass! For example, my basal metabolic rate increases by as much as 400 calories a day, depending on how much lean weight I’m carrying. After factoring in activity levels, it’s more like ~1000 calories.
3. Flexible eating
Having a few hundred extra calories to play with every day gives you a whole lot of leeway. There’s certainly no need for super restrictive diets. Martin Berkhan, who looks like he’s carved out of marble, likes to devour entire cheesecakes at a sitting. As far as I can tell, there is literally no downside to occasionally performing these kinds of feats (apart from having your Thanksgiving invite rescinded). There is a superpower which allows people to eat an entire cheesecake in a sitting, and suffer zero negative consequences. I can’t believe we’re not talking about this all the time.
4. Insulin sensitivity
Muscles are big old glucose sinks. After you eat a meal, your liver only has so much room for short-term storage of sugars. Fortunately, the spillover can be stashed in your muscles. The bigger your sinks, the better your insulin sensitivity, and the lower your risk of becoming pre-diabetic.
This is one of the reasons why an athletic person can get away with eating the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup, or cheesecake, or whatever. Sometimes, simple sugars are actually beneficial. Floyd Mayweather chugs Coke during his training sessions. You can argue about whether it’s ‘optimal’ (probably not to his face) but it sure isn’t going to hurt him.
5. Vitamins and minerals
Simply eating more food is an underappreciated way of getting more micronutrients. If you’re taking in 3500 calories and aren’t a total slob, you’ll be over the RDI for most-everything without even trying. By contrast, someone on a measly 1300 calories has to be extra careful to cover all the bases, which makes their diet even more restrictive.
6. Muscle memory
If you take a few weeks or months off, it’s not the end of the world. It takes much less time to regain muscle than to build it in the first place. The body remembers, and it wants to go back there.
7. Enjoyment and motivation
The fitter and stronger you are, the more enjoyable exercise tends to be. Partly because you can pull off more impressive feats; mostly because it sucks less. I hated running until I built up some basic cardio fitness. Now I merely strongly dislike it.
And so, I can’t honestly claim the few hours I spend exercising are a ‘sacrifice’, or proof of my ability to defer gratification. They’re occasionally joyous, usually fun, and at the very least, satisfying.
8. Cruise control
I can’t pretend exercise requires any heroic effort, either. It’s so thoroughly ingrained as a habit that it no longer takes much in the way of willpower. Sure, I’ll blow off a session now and again. But in the last 10 years, I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than a month without consistently doing some kind of resistance training. This might be the one area of my life where I have no trouble with self-discipline.
The Virtuous Cycle
Notice how none of these effects operate in isolation. The fitter you are, the better your hormonal and metabolic health, the lower your bodyfat, the more relaxed you can be with your diet, the more fun life is, the more motivation you have to train, the cooler feats you can perform, the deeper the habit is ingrained, and so on, in an endless positive feedback loop.
In fact, it’s even better than that. Almost all these factors are mutually reinforcing. If you do screw up, and drunkenly devour an entire box of cereal, or take a week off from the gym to clock a new video game, it’s no biggie. Any one link in the chain can seize up for a while, and the cycle will keep on turning without it.
It’s not a loop, so much as it is a spiral:
A Brief Aside…
To head off the horde of buff people furiously powerwalking to my house right now: this is not meant to imply that athletes have it easy, or to diminish their achievements, sacrifice, and general impressiveness. Please don’t roundhouse kick me in the face!
Momentum has diminishing returns. Pro athletes are the equivalent of the rocket scientists at NASA, trying to push the boundaries of the possible. They’re running up against hard physical limits; putting in more and more effort for smaller and smaller gains.
That’s a completely different scenario to what we’re talking about here. I am a rank amateur, with no competitive ambitions. To extend the rocket analogy; the average person would be quite happy to get into space in the first place, where they can cruise along with zero resistance at 32,000kph.
The Vicious Cycle
Way back down on Earth, the big guy on the treadmill is still pounding away. Gravity is working against him; literally and metaphorically.
Consider how much thrust a rocket has to produce to leave the launchpad. It only starts to pick up speed as it burns off fuel, and escapes the Earth’s gravitational pull. Even if it voyaged all the way to the surface of Mars, half the energy would have been consumed in that first gruelling 400km ascent.
Treadmill-guy has a body fat level of 35 per cent, which means his testosterone is much lower than it otherwise would be. He’s in a strict calorie deficit, so his metabolism has slowed down, in an endlessly frustrating game of cat-and-mouse. He can’t eat many of the foods he loves. Exercise physically hurts his joints.
Maybe he feels self-conscious about going to the gym at all. Maybe he feels like the guys lifting big weights are judging him. Quite possibly, they are judging him. Exercise is not an ingrained habit, so he has to force himself to do it with sheer bloody-mindedness, every single time.
And, of course, he’s hungry. This is the worst part of all, which makes everything else pale in comparison. Something like 95 per cent of people who lose weight put it all back on. Almost every attempt is doomed to fail.
Fit people have muscle memory; overweight people have ‘fat memory’. Even after slimming right down, their hormones and metabolism remain out of whack. It can take six years to re-calibrate a new setpoint. Imagine six years of always being hungry, of steely discipline, of having to fight against your own body, which is trying to drag you down at every turn.(it took me forever to make that last gif, so just pretend that these factors are interconnected too)
Notice how none of these effects operate in isolation. They’re all mutually reinforcing. The guy on the treadmill has to push the boulder up the mountain, every day. And if he stumbles, he slips backwards faster and faster, until he’s right back at the bottom again.
Fat people who are trying to lose weight are heroes, engaged in a struggle worthy of Sisyphus. Every conceivable force is levelled against them. Let’s not make it any harder than it already is.
I’ve accidentally ended up writing a mini-series on momentum, in the domains of wealth, popularity, art/entrepreneurship, and now, health. In real life, obviously there’s no clean delineation between these fields. For the final post, I want to look at some of the higher-level interactions, and try to tie it all together.
- The relationship is not as straightforward for women, but being overweight can cause abnormalities in sex hormones, and vice versa (apologies if this article is a bit male-centric; I’m more comfortable talking about my personal experience, but the general principles are the same for everyone.)
- Up to a point – if you’re a bodybuilder about to step on stage at 4 per cent body fat, your endocrine system is all kinds of messed up. The sweet spot for men seems to be around 10-15 per cent.
- At rest, muscles don’t actually use up much energy. But they still burn three to five times more calories than fat, and if you’re regularly strength training, they’re almost always in a state of repair, not rest. Your metabolism remains elevated for up to 24 hours after training, on top of the calories burned during the exercise itself.
- The liver can store ~100g of glycogen; your muscles can store ~400g. All up, that’s about 2000 calories’ worth of fuel.
- Muscle cells are so big that they need more than one nucleus. As they grow, the surrounding cells heroically sacrifice their own nuclei to the noble cause of getting you jacked. These ‘myonuclei’ each control a certain area of the muscle fibre, and stick around for years after the contractile proteins have atrophied. When you start training again, they ramp up protein synthesis, and expand their deflated domain to its former glory. You also benefit from the colloquial ‘muscle memory’ (motor learning) which takes place in the brain: once you’ve drilled a skill long enough, it becomes automatic.
- I’ve tried to deliberately steer clear of ‘advice’, but it would be remiss not to at least mention that strength training has a much higher ROI than cardio. Of the eight effects listed, only the two psychological factors (willpower and enjoyment) could reasonably be said to apply to cardio: it doesn’t burn many calories, doesn’t build lean mass, and is gained and lost quickly (there is no ‘cardio memory’).