Midlife fitness tarpit.
April 15, 2012 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Current fitness and nutrition regime counterproductive - help. If you had this happen to you and have worked around it, I'd like to hear about it.

The Asks on this general subject are innumerable, so I'll try to make my question very specific. If anyone has gotten into the rut described below and gotten (and stayed) out of it successfully, I'd like to hear from you.

Female, mid-40's, no hot flashes or classic menopause symptoms yet. I have been working out with weights (some free, some machine) 1X a week for years. Sometimes I add a second session mid-week but getting to sleep and staying asleep can be a problem when I do that. (Sleep aids, muscle relaxants, etc. are not an option. Neither is morning or midday weight training during the work week.)

My weight (neighborhood of 150 lbs; I'm 5'7") has stayed the same but I am just about a size bigger than I was this time 2-3 years ago. The "creep" has been going on, slowly, for several years now. My leg muscles in particular have gotten weaker. Frankly, I'd rather gain weight on the scale than have this happen.

I go for a couple of 20-minute walks once or twice a week: walking would be the easiest thing for me to increase right now, but I've heard that steady-state aerobics can strip muscle.

My diet? I veer between overindulging on sweets and sugars, then cutting calories. I've done low-carb, high-protein before but I get tired and stay tired when I do that. Fatigue for days on end is also not an option. When I'm on "good behavior" I believe that I'm probably not getting more than 1500-1600 calories a day, sometimes probably less.

I have often wondered about the efficacy of my protein metabolism, especially now that I'm on a PPI.

I have gotten back into yoga recently but I have some of the stiffest hips this side of Victorian England. I have mid-back and knee issues as well. So unassisted programs like Starting Strength scare me - seems like everything is designed for the healthy 25-year-old. I have considered dropping the weight-training altogether and going for Vinyasa yoga or some such.

Finally, I don't have a big budget for a lot of sessions with a trainer. I see that Starting Strength has a couple of certified trainers in the Medford/Malden, MA area and I've considered a few sessions with them, although I'm not looking forward to the schlep down there.
posted by Currer Belfry to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What is your goal? You talk about sleep patterns, weight, muscle mass, energy, back and knee issues... What is your desired endstate in re your health/body?
posted by Etrigan at 7:01 AM on April 15, 2012

For your stiff hips, check out the book Healthy Hips Handbook. I have the kindle edition, it has been very helpful. It's a series of stretches and exercises that you do at home.

You say that morning is not an option for working out - is that because you're driving to a gym? Can you purchase some smaller weights and do a ~20 minute weight workout at your home when you first wake up? Try the one in The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess.
posted by lyra4 at 7:02 AM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm sure you've heard this before, but yoyo dieting is a great way to lose muscle and replace it with fat. So I'd say first priority is to find a healthy balance that you feel like you can maintain for the rest of your life. That means some sweets once in a while, but in enough moderation that you don't have to veer off course and starve yourself to make up for it afterward.

2nding New Rules of Lifting for Women -- it's a strength training book in the style of Starting Strength but less intimidating for someone working out on their own.
posted by telegraph at 7:07 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure I understand your objection about walking. Walking is great for weight loss, improving your fitness in general, and can also help with back pain. I got out of my rut by getting a Fitbit, entering everything I eat into the dashboard, and trying to meet the goals it sets for me, including walking at least 10,000 steps a day. I've been doing this for the past month, have lost 7 pounds, and feel absolutely great and full of energy.
posted by hazyjane at 7:32 AM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Low carb/high protein is a slow death.

When I'm on "good behavior" I believe that I'm probably not getting more than 1500-1600 calories a day, sometimes probably less.

Great. Calorie-restriction is a fantastic way to gain weight and be tired.

Your metabolism is like an intelligent campfire. Give it too little fuel and it slows down, burns a tiny flame, and is afraid it might go out entirely. Give it plenty of the right fuel and it burns bright and fierce.

I'd rather eat a little too much calories than too little, but make sure you eat whole foods. You can eat all the true whole grains, potatoes, fruits, and veggies you want, quite literally. If it's rice, make sure it has husks (like Lundberg Farms brand, which is delicious even just with soy sauce). I even know fruitarians who are only moderately active (for example working a job on their feet but not exercising at all), and they eat anywhere from 4,000 to 8,000 calories a day (!) and DO NOT GAIN WEIGHT. Cut out processed foods and all fast food, but treat yourself now and again with a little chocolate or a dessert. Stay away from dairy entirely and cut animal foods out entirely or as much as you can.

Do this and, if you don't lose weight naturally, I'll eat a hat (as long as it's hemp and I can stew it first).

IANAD, but I've read several thousand pages on the subject and sat through a couple hundred hours of lectures and presentations by doctors and athletes, I'm 46 and people think I'm mid-twenties, I'm in athletic shape, and I rehabbed myself from a state of constant fatigue 15 years ago.
posted by Shane at 7:50 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've heard that steady-state aerobics can strip muscle.

True, but not relevant. When training for muscle development, people are steered away from classic long, slow distance, and more into HIIT (if anything). But we're talking about 30-40 miles a week, at-pace, where this becomes a problem.

Not a problem when going for a walk.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:05 AM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Increase exercise - that is the only thing that is going to really make your body feel better. I find that getting in the habit of working out every day helps establish a routine that is easier to folloe than just doing 2-3/week.
posted by yarly at 8:19 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the mistake you may be making is thinking of low-carb as a low-carb, high-protein diet. It's not high-protein, it's high-fat. Which sounds scary I admit, until you realize that there is barely any evidence for the 40 years of low-fat dietary guidelines that the US government has foisted on us. Every trial ever done that has compared a low-carb, high-fat approach to any other diet -- Mediterranean, low-fat, you name it -- has found that subjects on the LCHF diet lost more weight and had better health indicators. Don't believe me? Please look at the studies.
posted by peacheater at 8:20 AM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you do want to try a low-carb approach again, please make sure you're getting plenty of sodium (lack of carbs makes your blood pressure go down, so you need to counterintuitively take more sodium to compensate) -- usually in the form of bone broth or bouillon. Eat lots of fat -- I aim for about 65 % of my daily calories from fat, 5 % from carbs and the rest from protein. You'll feel better after the first few days, at least in my experience.
posted by peacheater at 8:31 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you would do well to ignore Shane. His anti-Atkins link is a paper written by a vegetarian who of course will be opposed to low carb diets because they require eating animal protein. I guarantee that that paper is full of lies, myths and misconceptions. It's a fact that carbohydrates make us fat -- anyone who claims otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about.

Low carb is absolutely the way to go. If you're having energy problems on a low carb diet than you're probably doing it wrong. You ought to have more energy on a low carb diet than on a typical 'healthy' diet.

Anyhow, none of this advice will do any good if you don't reply with what you're trying to achieve. If it is to lose weight than the absolute #1 thing you should do is to completely cut out refined carbohydrates -- sugar (including very sugary fruits like apples, and fruit juices), honey, white bread and white rice. You would probably do even better to cut out carbohydrates entirely until you reach your 'goal weight,' if you have one, then slowly reintroduce *complex* carbs (i.e. NOT refined) -- but going extremely low carb is very hard and takes a lot of dedication and requires you to eat a lot of meals that you would otherwise not find very appealing.

Otherwise keep up walking a few times a week. Also try sprinting for ~30 seconds a couple times each walking session to get your heart rate going -- but ease into this so you don't hurt yourself.
posted by imagineerit at 8:46 AM on April 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

1X a week for years.
Are you lifting the same weight? Or have you increased the amount lifted over the years? When I plateau. I up the weights to failure. 1 set as much as I can possibly lift.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:15 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Comment removed. Answer helpfully or come back when you can.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:18 AM on April 15, 2012

Response by poster: In terms of goals, a realistic one would get me back to where I was 2-3 years ago in terms of muscle/fat ratio. I'm not terribly concerned with the number on the scale. The continued loss of muscle is not only unattractive, it's downright scary.

Lots to chew on in the answers, so to speak. I'm seeing some confirmation of suspicions I already have - the yo-yoing, for example. I think I have to make some kind of commitment to myself to stay away from the crap food as much as possible, since it sets me up for yo-yoing. (To clarify, I am definitely not a fat-phobe in terms of macronutrients; you might want to keep your EVOO and peanut butter out of sight if I were to visit your house!) Also glad to see that my concerns about 3-4 mile walks are probably unfounded. I can add a couple of those during the week until it gets too hot.

I need to peruse the answers more, but I think that what I'm going to try to do is: a) make sure I get enough good calories b) stay away from junk as much as possible c) keep hitting the gym and maybe add an extra session during the week, with more weight as I can lift it. I joined a new Y recently so they might be able to do a body comp analysis on me, although I know that can be fraught with peril in terms of accuracy. If I stick to plan, I'll report back to the thread with progress. Please keep responses coming especially if you've been through this.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:32 AM on April 15, 2012

Seconding the Fitbit. It will spur you to do some serious walking and hill-climbing. I also found that LoseIt can integrate with it, and has a better interface for recording foods than Fitbit's own app or site.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:44 AM on April 15, 2012

Eat more better food and exercise more. 20min is nothing, you want to sweat, so walk hard for at least an hour. Try not to be so data-driven, your protein metabowhatever is likely not as great a hindrance as actually taking the time to work your body. For what it's worth, and I'm not a practicioner, but to me yoga (retail yoga) is largely used by people to maintain good physical abilities without necessarily losing weight. This is to say I've known people who have gone to yoga for years while remaining as large as they ever were.
posted by rhizome at 9:51 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

jessamyn, I think it's not only helpful, it's life and death in the end, so I'll nicen up my comment and repost. I'm not posting this for my benefit. Delete if you want and please read all first, but I've benefited from people teaching me this. I'm duty-bound to post one more time, and after that I'm gone in general again.

>It's not high-protein, it's high-fat.

Years of the best research show that fat, especially saturated fat, especially LDL cholesterol (which is only found in animal foods), eats away at and weakens the endothelium of the arteries.

Ever blow up a long, thin balloon? Where does it first start to bulge and blow up? At the weakest point. That's what happens when part of an artery weakens. It's called an aneurism. The aneurism casues damage to the artery and the body sends blood to clot it, a thrombus. The clot becomes too extensive and parts of it break off and travel, becoming embolisms (okay, emboli, really). Sooner or later the embolisms become lodged in smaller blood vessels, causing lack of blood flow (ischemia) and tissue death (necrosis, ischemic tissue death). Happens in your brain? That's a CVA, a cerebrovascular accident: a stroke. Happens in your heart? That's an MI, a myocardial infarction: a heart attack.

The scary thing is not a major stroke or heart attack that might wake you up and instigate a life-change. It's lots of little heart attacks that you don't notice until they lead to arrhythmia, or worse, lots of little unnoticed strokes that lead to MID (multi-infarct dementia).

The China Study is twenty-eight years (so far) of every type of ongoing research done all over the world by the team of Cornell, Oxford, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, all of which reaches the same conclusions, and it does not lie. "Paleo" is a fad. Our "stone age" ancestors might have been able to chase down kangaroos and set long-jump records, but they're all extinct now and we're not. I bet most Paleo folks believe in natural selection.

Low-fat, high carb. Tons of energy. Plenty of seratonin, production of which which requires carbs to metabolize tryptophan into seratonin.

All of this helps you be more active and lose more weight. Digesting fat requires more energy than carbs or protein (since fat has 9 calories per gram and carbs/protein each only have 4), and if the fat does you no good (or the opposite), you're losing energy digesting it.

Also more carbs and less protein/fat = less acidosis, and acidosis leads to osteoporosis when the body steals phosphate from the calcium-phosphate of your bones to neutralize your pH and you end up urinating away the calcium of your bones and teeth (which is one reason why rural areas of China that eat no dairy and almost no meat have nearly ZERO osteoporosis while consuming HALF the amount of calcium we eat in the West... while in the West osteoporosis is considered a foregone conclusion in old-age... also because the high-protein and calcium in milk inhibit formation of 25 hydroxy ("supercharged") vitamin D which in turn causes SAD which also inhibits calcium absorption which -- BINGO! -- means more osteoporosis.

I could go on all day but this is my last comment, and I'm not posting it for MY benefit.

>I guarantee that that paper is full of lies, myths and misconceptions. It's a fact that carbohydrates make us fat -- anyone who claims otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about.

How "helpfully" is that worded?

Again, everything Dr Greger says is factual, footnoted out the wazoo, and backed up by the aforementioned 28 years of massive research. To say that "carbohydrates make us fat -- anyone who claims otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about" without differentiating between complex carbs and simple sugars (and yes, processed flour may as well be a simple sugar) indicates a sub-optimal understanding of the matter [was that worded okay?]. Simple carbs overload your blood sugar, provoke an insulin response that causes sugar to be stored as fat, and that makes you fat. Complex carbs digest slowly and you could eat them just about all day and not gain weight unless you're a 24/7 couch potato.
posted by Shane at 10:02 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok, leaving aside all the drama about diet ... I promise you that you will feel better and stronger and more flexible if you do lots of cardio. You don't need to follow any trendy workout plan or anything like that - just find something you like that makes you sweat, and do it as often as possible. If you can work in an active form of daily commuting as well (walk or bike) you'll see your fitness shoot up. This stuff is *really* not as complicated as the people trying to sell you diet books or gym memberships will have you believe: just quit eating junk; eat some more fruit and veggies; and go sweat.

Oh, and as a fellow lady, I find that buying an adorable new workout outfit assists with my motivation more than anything else!
posted by yarly at 10:13 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Essentially, lift heavier. Squatting and deadlifting especially are beneficial, because not only do they result in the most muscle growth (you're working a large percentage of your total muscles), you're also experiencing spinal loading which has been shown to markedly improve bone density.

Low-carb is fine, but remember that it's "low", not "no". 100g or so of healthy carbs (veggies, sweet potatoes, beets, etc) will go a long way to preserving your energy levels while keeping you from the crashes and potential health problems of a high-sugar/very-high-carb diet.

fat, especially saturated fat, especially LDL cholesterol (which is only found in animal foods), eats away at and weakens the endothelium of the arteries.

You may not know that LDL is a lipoprotein that carries cholesterol, like a wheelbarrow that carries cement - it's not cholesterol itself. The connection between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol is weak, and the type of lipoproteins in the blood matters more than total quantity. VLDL and oxLDL - the "bad" LDLs - is produced in greatest amounts when sugars, refined carbs, and elaidic acid (the trans fat from vegetable oil), not animal fats, are consumed.

In fact, while the China Study is an observational study and therefore cannot be used to draw any firm conclusions, a simple look at the actual data reveals that the supposed correlations between animal protein intake and cancer are stretches at best and dishonest at worst.

posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:35 AM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Very seriously stop arguing the points that are not the OPs question. Go to MeTa or take it to email.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:37 AM on April 15, 2012

I joined a new Y recently so they might be able to do a body comp analysis on me, although I know that can be fraught with peril in terms of accuracy.

Don't fall into the trap of trying too hard to quantify body composition. Virtually all body composition measurement techniques are both inaccurate and imprecise, so you wouldn't even be able to use a body comp measurement to track progress over time.

Building and maintaining muscle is hugely important. You're really at a crossroads now. It isn't too late to maintain the muscle you have and build new muscle, but you will continue to lose muscle mass over time if you don't do anything about it. Not only because of yoyo dieting, but because without strength training, healthy adults lose muscle mass over time (starting around age 30). Good on you for realizing this, many people don't.

I believe that you should be lifting heavy weights three times per week. I believe that if you make that adjustment, you will see noticeable, positive results within eight weeks. I also believe that this is important enough that it is worth suffering through a couple of weeks of difficulty falling asleep. I wouldn't be surprised if it only takes a few weeks for your body to adjust to the new workout schedule and for the sleep issue to go away. Please try it.
posted by telegraph at 11:42 AM on April 15, 2012

I have gotten back into yoga recently but I have some of the stiffest hips this side of Victorian England. I have mid-back and knee issues as well. So unassisted programs like Starting Strength scare me - seems like everything is designed for the healthy 25-year-old.

The thing about Starting Strength is that it's a progressive resistance program. For a healthy 25-year-old male with no previous training, that might mean putting 100 pounds on the squat in a year... and you're correct to say that's not realistic for you. That said, SS and similar programs will still work for you; progressive resistance works for just about anyone, as long as you make sure that the weight increments you're using "reflect a realistic assessment of the lifter’s ability to actually do them in a sustained progression." The key is adjusting the weight increments according to your own ability -- for most women, that means using "fractional plates" which are smaller than 2.5 pounds. My gym has some which attach to regular plates using magnets, but you can also make your own using inexpensive washers. You also may or may not need to start with dumbbell exercises, training barbells, and/or the leg press machine until you develop the strength and flexibility you need to start with the 45 lb. bar.

I would see a trainer or physical therapist to make sure your back and knee issues won't be harmed by exercise before you start... but if they're the usual tightness/muscle-imbalance/range-of-motion problems you get from sit-down jobs and the like, a compound lifting program will probably help rather than hinder. Even if you can only do one session once a week, heavy lifting (and especially heavy squatting) is going to be the best way for you to build muscle.
posted by vorfeed at 11:54 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreed with the poster above - it's not just high protein, it is also high fat in low carb diet.
Human liver can only handle 200-300g of protein a day. More than this, coupled with the lack of other calorie sources, will likely cause what is known as 'rabbit starvation.'

How long did you try out the low carb diet? It is normal to feel fatigue if it's less than a month.

As for high carb vs low carb debate? I'm leaning toward low carb myself but I find Michael Pollan's advice to be on the mark - "Eat food (which means whole food!!). Not too much. Mostly green." One diet that is consistently detrimental to human health is not low carb, high carb, etc (he had an example of the Inuits who eat nothing but meat and fat and had perfect health) but Western diet.

If working with weights scares you, what about body weight? It is wonderful for toning up muscles and requires almost no equipment. Check out books like Convict Conditioning or Pavel's The Naked Warrior.
posted by 7life at 2:23 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

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