More Than Just Weight Loss

This article was first published in The Hindu on 15th June 2013.

Instead of starving yourself to lose weight, nourish your body and mind with an understanding of nutritious food and exercise.

Most people want the easy way out when it comes to losing weight; perhaps with a couple of sessions in an expensive spa that promises miraculous results. If it were that easy, we would not be at the edge of an obesity epidemic. There would be innumerable slim bodies walking around.

It is this ability to convince ourselves when we desperately want something to be true that drives people to believe empty promises. We tell ourselves that skipping carbs for a month is the solution to our widening waistline; that we can manage to survive without regular exercise; that we can somehow escape the repercussions of an unhealthy lifestyle. We suffer from what is called the ‘confirmation bias’. We will find every single piece of information possible to confirm what we believe (and want) to be true. So going for a walk for 45 minutes a day is not as appealing as say drinking apple cider vinegar, having a body wrap, wallowing in a mud bath or following the latest diet.

We are thrilled to read research that finds exercise does not really help with weight loss. What we forget to do is to read between the lines. It is true that exercise alone is not sufficient for weight loss because the number of calories burnt during one session is minimal compared to what is required to lose weight on a scale. It is also true that cutting down on calories creates a faster calorie deficit leading to quicker weight loss.

Nutritious foodHowever, in the long-term, it is the combination of regular exercise and a well-balanced diet which will help you continue to lose weight, however slowly. One cannot go too low on calorie intake. This defeats the whole purpose of trying to get fit. With an abnormally low-calorie intake, one cannot function normally or be productive. It also sets the stage for muscle loss as the body tries to cope. It makes you ill-tempered, hungry, depressed and just plain unhealthy.

Ask yourself how long you can persist with such a diet. When you do go back to eating normally, you will find that the weight comes right back (with interest) and all those agonizing days of dieting are futile. Your body has acclimatised to a lower calorie intake by lowering its Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This highly resilient machine can alter its inner functioning to accommodate your behavior (however bizarre), to a large extent.

Serial dieters, who swear that they lose weight with one diet after another, fail to realize that they put back all the weight after every cycle. Their energy could have been effectively redirected instead to understanding food and learning to eat healthy, along with including exercise into their routine. This would have produced longer-lasting results If persisted with and, yes, it can be persisted with provided the intake of food and nourishment is adequate.

Including regular exercise into your day has several benefits besides burning calories. First, it improves your mood. Increased levels of endorphins in the brain create a sense of well-being. This is in direct contrast to how one feels when one is on a starvation diet; frustrated, anxious, irritable and low on energy.

WeightsSecond, besides burning calories, regular exercise — especially weight training — helps manage blood sugar, bone density, muscle mass and improves muscle structure and strength. It elevates the BMR and helps burn more calories even while at rest. Regular cardiovascular exercises have been proven to have other benefits like lowering cholesterol, managing high blood pressure, preventing and treating depression, menopausal symptoms and premenstrual syndrome, even managing migraine and anxiety.

Third, and most important, exercising regularly brings about body intelligence and awareness, which helps you eat better. You become more conscious about how you nourish your body. You are more discerning with your food choices. You develop a greater respect for your body.

All the above spin-offs become apparent when one persists with an exercise routine. A couple of random sessions are not enough to give you a realistic idea of the benefits of exercise. I know people who work out for a week or a month and then decide it’s not worth it because they don’t see “results.” The results they seek — drastic weight loss, for instance — may not be realistic to begin with. They veer off course to more intriguing options like ‘weight loss parlours’ and ‘health farms’ in the hope of achieving their goals more quickly. This endless loop — trying to lose weight, losing some and putting it back again — goes on, exhausting the body, not to mention the spirit.

Weighing ScaleSet several goals other that ‘weigh on the scale’. Weight on the scale is not necessarily an indicator of health. Stamina, strength, flexibility, endurance, balance, coordination, reflexes are all integral parts of fitness and can only be improved if worked on using a well-designed fitness routine.

My advice is to stop focusing on weight loss alone and focus instead on improving overall fitness. Over a period of time, the weight will come off. You will get fitter, stronger and tangibly healthier. Your body will function better and you will enjoy a better quality of life.

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How Old Are You Really?

This article was first published in Rotary News in April 2018.

There are two aspects to ageing. Your chronological age is the calculated number of years you have lived. Your biological or “real” age  refers to the current condition of your physiological body at its very basic cellular level. These two are not necessarily one and the same. An individual may be chronologically 30,  but might have the body and mind of a 55-year-old. He could be overweight, lethargic, with poorly conditioned muscles, poor memory, productivity and low stamina. He may be stressed, depressed, with a laundry list of medical conditions and pills to manage them.

On the contrary, someone could be 50 years old chronologically but have an actual age of a 35-year-old in terms of energy, stamina, strength, and pure joi de vivre. 

Factors that ascertain your Real or Biological age

These are blood pressure, heart rate and other metabolic parameters such as  blood sugar and cholesterol, eyesight, lungs, heart, vocal cords, skin turgor, energy levels, physical appearance, condition and tone of your muscles, mental acuity, memory, level of independence, fat percentage, lean body mass and fitness levels (cardio vascular endurance, flexibility, strength, agility, reflexes, balance, coordination and so on).

Your ‘real’ or biological age

Of course genes set the stage for a good or poor quality body. But lifestyle choices are the ultimate predictors of the ageing process. However good your genes, if you subject your body to stressors such as tobacco, alcohol, drugs, poor lifestyle choices on a daily basis like unhealthy food and lack of proper exercise, rapid ageing is imperative. It is said that your genes load the gun but your lifestyle pulls the trigger.

Here are some lifestyle measures that can arrest and even reverse the ageing process:

  • Eat right – Eat food rich in anti-oxidants, minerals, vitamins and fibre. Fruits, vegetables, berries, nuts, seeds and pulses provide protein and good quality fats. Avoid processed and refined food, tobacco and excessive alcohol.
  • Exercise the right way – A well designed fitness routine should include cardio vascular activity such as running, speed walking, cycling or aerobic sessions. It should be balanced with a strength training routine to build muscle and a stretch routine to maintain flexibility of the muscles. Muscles being critical for movement need to be worked against resistance (either an external weight or one’s own body weight) to be maintained at an optimum or improved. They also need to be stretched to maintain elasticity.

Muscle atrophy (decrease) and frailty with age and disuse is the primary cause for lack of mobility. It affects performing even the most rudimentary tasks. Modalities like yoga and total body stretches keep the body limber, prevent pain and addresses poor posture due to muscle imbalance.

Exercise is most definitely the closest we have ever come to an anti-ageing pill. Expensive skin creams that promise wrinkle-free skin, cosmetic surgery, laser ablation, Botox etc. are only solutions to the superficial signs of ageing. They cannot come close to the benefits obtained from a regular heart pumping, well-planned exercise routine.

  • Maintain your body weight – Weight gain with age is not inevitable. With the right nutrition and exercise, it is possible to maintain your body weight and in fact even improve the quality of your body.
  • Manage stress – Stress is very much a part our everyday lives. Eliminating it altogether is of course too much to expect. Managing stress effectively however is possible with meditation, relaxing techniques, time management and training the mind to handle situations and stress differently.
  • Nurture a hobby/passion – Simple things like developing a hobby or even working on something you love and are passionate about can change one’s perspective to ageing.
  • Maintain strong relationships – Strong ties with family or close friends can be enormously rewarding experiences that add meaning to life.
  • Sleep well – Sleep is not only restive but also restorative. Long-term sleep deprivation has been known to be associated with an increase in Type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, depression and even memory and attention problems. Work related sleep dysfunction (such as in shift workers, doctors and nurses), poor sleep hygiene, stress, obesity, overeating near bedtime, can all lead to poor sleep. Good quality sleep is closely related to a good quality, productive life.

To evaluate your Real age, ask the following questions 

  • Do you enjoy life? Do you look forward to the new day?
  • Do you have strong, nurturing relationships?
  • Do you enjoy the work you do?
  • Do you exercise regularly, sleep well and eat healthy?
  • Are you excited to get out of bed in the morning? (Granted that sometimes some of us are too fatigued to register excitement and just wish for a few more moments of blissful sleep, but that is a different discussion altogether!)
  • Do you feel you have purpose and meaning in life or are you drifting along wondering what to do?
  • Are you passionate about some cause or hobby?

Evaluate your fitness 

  • Can you run or even walk up a flight of stairs and not feel like you are dying at the end (or middle) of it?
  • Can you touch the floor standing up without bending your knees?
  • How fast can you walk a mile and how quickly do you recover from the exertion? (Called the One Mile Walk test, this can be evaluated in a gym setting).
  • What is your weight, fat percentage and your waist circumference?
  • How many proper pushups and squats can you do?
  • How much medication, besides basic supplements, sit on your table waiting to be consumed every day?

Ageing is the most natural process of the human body and certainly cannot be arrested altogether. It can however be done gracefully with every attempt made to remain independent and productive, even if only to oneself.  

Connecting the Dots……

This is why I teach Fitness & Wellness

This is why I teach fitness and wellnessOn returning from my post-graduation to work at my family-run hospital in Ooty, in
1994, I believed, if there was a condition where one may slowly and silently perish from isolation and a suppression of creative energy… this was it! I lived within the four walls of my home and hospital, working endlessly. That was all I did.

Of course, I felt plenty of self-pity for my ‘hard-working’ self. Felt very self-righteous actually! I thought, ‘Life is unfair. I am meant do bigger things!’.

From this came an opportunity to create something powerful and rewarding in ‘small town Ooty’ over and beyond my Obstetric practice. I nurtured my passion for fitness and
certified as a Fitness & Lifestyle Consultant to support my medical career, propagating fitness to women as a form of ‘Preventive Medicine’. I started ‘TFL’ (Training for Life’) in
Ooty in 2000 and in Chennai in 2007. It became an extension of my medical practice. One that I believe to be very relevant to women’s health and wellness and also enriched patients, clients and women across the board, from all walks of life.

Today, I am appreciative that I am able to translate my passion for fitness to touch and change women’s lives. Am ecstatic to see my alternate career lead to a metamorphosis in
several women who have benefitted from TFL, leading to an incredible improvement in their ‘Quality Of Life’. 

‘Connecting the dots’, I believe this is what I was meant to do……….change lives.

How to Begin Strength Training

This article was first published in The Hindu on March 12, 2018.

12mpsheelaARTGAQ3IFB1H3jpgjpgMyths debunked, questions answered and doubts cleared, here

Strength, like stamina and flexibility, is one of the primary pillars of fitness. It helps retain and build muscle mass, increase strength and even aid fat loss.

Know the means

There are two ways of increasing strength and muscle mass. You could perform exercises using your own body weight (pushups, squats, lunges), or you could use external weights like dumbbells, barbells or machines. I recommend that a beginner start with using lightweights with dumbbells or machines, and gradually build strength in order to be able to handle their own body weight. Once you build enough strength by using external weights, you could move on to using your own body weight to challenge your muscles further, and proceed to do a combination of own-body-weight exercises and those with external weights. All the exercises need to be learnt from a professional so that risk of injury is minimised. Before starting a strength-training programme, do get a clearance from your physician.

Begin right

A couple of pairs of dumbbells (about 2-4 kg each), a mat, weight training gloves, water and proper (fitted) attire is all that is required. How much weight you lift for each exercise will vary. Typically, the larger muscles of the body like the chest, back, shoulders and glutes will be able to lift a heavier weight than the smaller peripheral muscles like the arms and calves.

Know the terminology

A routine typically consists of a series of exercises addressing different muscles or groups of muscles.

Each exercise is repeated several times (repetitions or reps) until the muscle tires. After a short period of rest, the next set is attempted and the exercise is repeated again until the muscle tires once more. Ideally, for muscle growth, you should not be able to perform more than 6-10 repetitions of the given exercise in one set. This means that after about eight reps, your muscle begins to protest, and by rep 10, it is so fatigued that you cannot push for more reps. Only you can decide what weight to use for each exercise. The weight you use will also differ from exercise to exercise. In time, you need to be able to push yourself gradually to increase the weight you use for each.

Performing each exercise with perfect ‘form’ is important if you want to prevent injury. Each exercise has dos and don’ts. These need to be adhered to meticulously. Understanding and remembering all the instructions for each and every exercise, (such as breathe in as you lower, breathe out as you lift, keep the back flat, keep the core engaged, keep the head lifted, spine aligned and so on), takes time and effort. While the exercise may appear simple, many get injured, especially as weight increases. This is one of the reasons why it is always preferable to have a trainer guide you to correct mistakes during the first few months of your initiation into weight training. Make sure the same muscle is not worked within 48 hours. So for instance, if you perform all the upper body exercises on a Monday, you should rest those body parts and aim to work them again only on a Thursday. You could then perform all the lower body exercises on a Tuesday and a Friday.

Wabi Sabi & Dichotomy of Control

Wabi Sabi is a fascinating Japanese ideology. It implies a very simple philosophy:

Nothing is perfect, Nothing is permanent and, Nothing is finished (But….. you make your peace with it.)

I think this is quite relevant to health, weight, fitness and wellness. One could of course interpret those words to imply that you simply accept the inevitable deterioration of your body or consider obesity, ill health and lifestyle disease a natural part of ageing and make peace with it. Since nothing is perfect, why bother trying to make it so? Since nothing is finished, why bother starting? And since nothing is permanent what is the point of attempting to stay fit or improve health?

I think however, it embodies something slightly different. It signifies the very essence of taking care of oneself for the right reasons and by using the right methods.

Nothing is perfect

Life situations are never perfect. You make the best of them. You may believe you don’t have the time to exercise, you may have a hectic travel schedule or sick kids to contend with. You may work long hours, be highly stressed and living under the duress of deadlines.

You don’t always have the time. You make the time. That’s just what you do when something is an important priority in your life. Even a twenty-minute workout at home (like a HIIT routine), is better than nothing at all if you can’t get to the gym. A quick run on the treadmill or a swim in the hotel pool is better than sulking in your room about your endless travel and how it impedes your fitness.

You may be obliged to (or want to) attend social lunches and dinners. This certainly influences your diet resolutions, but instead of sampling everything on the menu and living with the guilt, strategize how to eat out sensibly. Weigh your food options and make reasonable choices at every meal. Compensate for an indulgence by having a few light meals and making sure you workout. These are coping strategies that the clever people use to stay on track.

The myth of perfection – We are also confronted with another kind of perfection that often gets in the way of regular humans exercising for themselves and to improve their own health, mood and quality of life. We have been programmed into believing in perfection. More importantly, the kind of physical perfection portrayed by the media. Not everyone can look like the model on the cover of a magazine, not even the model on the cover of the magazine!! And neither should we try. Trying to look like somebody else is simply a wasteful exercise. Trying to adhere to the dictates of society to be certain size or appear a certain way will not necessarily get you a healthier body. Likely it will get you on the roller coaster ride of binge eating, starving, yo-yo-dieting, over exercising coupled with a lot of angst and frustration. Instead of watching your weight, counting calories, exercising maniacally, talking endlessly about it and worrying about not losing weight…..spend that time establishing healthy, sustainable LIFE HABITS.

Nothing is finished

The human body is a work in progress. We usually start exercising with simple goals like

  •  Lose ten kilos
  •  Get into that dress/those jeans
  • Run a marathon
  • Trek to the Himalayas
  • Control my diabetes

Once we achieve those goals, then what? Ideally,  we need to continue to include fitness into our day. Change our routine to make us better. Try new forms of exercise. Mostly, we are in a hurry to perfect and finish a process. We forget that the process itself is part of the journey and is more relevant than the end-point. The journey is the ‘now’ the destination is the ‘future’. We are in a hurry to lose weight, to reach the destination faster. We find ways to do it quickly, shabbily and with no regard for the true physiology or functioning of the human body or how to truly support its wellbeing. We fail to understand that we as humans can never be a finished product, perfect or permanent.

Fitness is a journey, not a destination – In our quest for weight loss or a better physique we tend to lose perspective. Understanding the larger picture, that losing weight is not the one and only objective of fitness, is what keeps us from falling off the wagon. If we spent half as much time focusing on our overall health, emotional wellbeing and level of fitness as much as on our physique, we would be much better off and more successful at it. Feeling defeated by a few setbacks and giving up at the first signs of difficulty is a sure way to take two steps forward and three steps back. Pick yourself up and move on!

Nothing is permanent.

Life changes. We change. Nothing is permanent.

We age. This is the normal physiological process. Yet, youth is revered. Even when we know it is never permanent, we strive to hang on to it with our teeth and the tips of our fingernails. The tremendous surge in clientele for botox, laser, face lifts, tummy tucks and so on are testimony to our infinite yearning to stay young and beautiful. This is a personal choice of course. There is no moral judgement against it. Ageing gracefully however is a science and an art. Keeping your body strong all the while growing intellectually, emotionally and spiritually is not the same as trying to hold on desperately to ones youth. Work with the flow, rather than against it. Build strength, maintain stamina improve flexibility. Understanding that nothing is permanent is what should keep us moving forward. Even good health, a great body, astounding intellect or a superior athletic capability is not permanent.  Elite athletes understand that their athletic prowess declines with age. Our bodies change in a myriad ways and we need to design new and more effective strategies of working towards bettering ourselves. We may not be able to run a marathon in our latter years (although I know many who do), but we will be able to continue to exercise, strengthen our bodies and keep ourselves free from disease (or at least manage disease better). We don’t have to succumb to obesity or ill-health resulting form poor lifestyle habits.

~ When you come to value our body for its uniqueness and for what it can do rather than simply what it looks like.

~ When we start to actually listen to it, give it what it needs not just what we thank we want.

~ When we stop punishing it for not looking the way we think it should.

~ When we use exercise as a way to celebrate and enjoy our body’s capabilities.

~ When we thrill in the aftermath of a long strenuous weight training session or a feel the joy of quivering legs after a run……….

Then Fitness has become a ‘way of life’ and not just a means to an end……… and this in itself is a gift.

On another note, Stoicism, (from ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy) talks about the ‘Dichotomy of Control’ and how one cannot completely control ones body or its deterioration as that is outside of our control. One should therefore be cognisant of this fact. This is certainly true and we’ve all heard of this ‘health freak” who dropped dead (and am sure, told ourselves ‘so what was the point?!). But we do have much under our control. How we lead our existing lives is certainly under our control and will determine the quality of life of day-to-day living  (and not just our demise). The attitude that allows a semblance of peace within us is, I think, one of coming-to-terms with a given situation. Accepting the true nature of everything and all the while staying motivated to continue to improve ones body, ones mind and ones life and the discipline and mindfulness despite this reality is one way we can make our way through this imperfect, impermanent and unfinished business of life.