The modern obsession with obesity is doing us a disservice in ways we may not even realise. It puts the focus on how much we weigh, our fat levels or our paunch. We focus on what we don’t want. It’s a classic mistake that any successful entrepreneur, chief executive or self-help guru will warn against.
So turn the tables and focus on what you do want. You don’t have to ramp it up and set a goal to run a marathon or even a 5km.
It a nicer way for people to work – towards increasing something, rather than reducing something
The opposite of fat isn’t thin: it’s toned, healthy and strong. That’s something worth aiming for, no matter what size you are or want to be.
"It is generally a nicer way for people to work – towards increasing something, such as muscle strength or endurance, rather than reducing something such as obesity level," says Dr Sarahjane Belton, a lecturer in physical education at Dublin City University and former Ireland rugby international player.
“Muscle-fat interaction is a complicated process acting at multiple levels, but research is starting to show that targeting improved muscle function – strength and endurance – can be a realistic and beneficial strategy for targeting obesity.”
Resistance training can help to strengthen your bones as well as your muscles
When fitness instructors meet new clients they assess what they call the five health-related components of fitness: body composition (your body fat percentage), cardio-respiratory endurance, flexibility, muscular strength and muscular endurance.
Yet most of us tend to work on just one of these, by perhaps going for a run every so often, but neglect the others. It’s easy to forget about the muscles that keep us moving every day, but it is unwise. Resistance training can help to strengthen your bones as well as your muscles, improving bone density and reducing the chances of developing osteoporosis.
If your weight has you worried, there is good news there too. For starters, those with more muscle can comfortably eat more every day without gaining weight.
"Your body has to burn more calories to maintain a kilo of muscle than it does a kilo of fat," personal trainer Zanna Van Dijk writes in her book Strong. "Say hello to a faster metabolism and improved energy levels."
Those with more muscle burn more calories even when they are sitting on the couch watching television
You’ve heard that dieting can make you fat? Well, one reason is that crash dieting can reduce the amount of muscle you have, thereby helping to lower your metabolism. With a slower metabolism you burn fewer calories per day, thus making it easier to regain weight, unless you do some form of strength work. Those with more muscle burn more calories even when they are sitting on the couch watching television.
The better your muscle tone, the better shape you will have too. “I recommend that every person does some form of resistance training to not only feel like a badass but to sculpt a good ass,” Van Dijk writes.
This doesn't have to mean lifting weights or throwing kettlebells around. Anybody can boost their muscle power with resistance work, says Carl Cautley, a personal trainer and owner of Health and Fitness Together in Ranelagh, Dublin.
Key body-weight exercises worth learning to do properly include squats, lunges and press-ups
“Using your own body weight can be as effective as using weights in a gym,” he says. “It is the type of exercises and routine that matter most. Weights are very useful for progressing performance but they are not critical for the general population.”
Key body-weight exercises worth learning to do properly include squats, lunges and press-ups, he says. If you are in a gym, try bench-pressing, pull-ups or deadlifts, but only with the guidance of a professional instructor.
“Once you grasp these, all sorts of adaptations and progressions can be performed,” says Cautley. “If you go out for a run or a walk, either at the end or half way through, stop and do 15-20 minutes of resistance exercises. Squats, push-ups or crunches are all good.”
Use it or lose it is the principle that applies, says Belton. "To maintain muscle mass we need to use it regularly," she says. "To increase muscle strength or endurance, you need to push your body slightly beyond the strength and capability it currently has." After the age of 50, muscle mass decreases by 1-2 per cent a year, according to a report published in the Journal of Nature and Science earlier this year.
Strength training can be an effective means of reducing the risk of injury
Strength training is also used in rehabilitation, says Shane Gore, a biomechanist and PhD student at Dublin City University. For example, a recent study carried out by the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin found that a 16-week, free-weight resistance programme was successful in improving pain, disability and quality of life in those with lower back pain, he says. "The addition of strength training can be an effective means of reducing the risk of injury too."
Twice a week
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults do some resistance training at least two days a week, but not on consecutive days as much of the gains are made when the muscle is repairing itself on rest days.
There are more than 600 muscles in the body so there are plenty that are just waiting to be called into service. Whether you decide to lift weights, use Therabands or free weights, check with a health professional first.
Remember, it’s getting exercise that’s important, not doing “exercises”. So the National Guidelines for Physical Activity in Ireland suggest things you can do at home such as digging in the garden, lifting and carrying items while gardening.
“What’s important is that people find something they can enjoy, and that they can stick to,” says Belton. “‘Stop worrying about fat’ can be a good message. “We have to understand it’s actually so much bigger than this – it’s about health for life.”
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: This programme is an eight-week course that will take you from inactivity to being able to run 30 minutes non-stop.
- Stay On Track: The second programme is an eight-week course for those of you who can squeeze in a 30- to 40-minute run three times a week.
- 10km Course: This is an eight-week course designed for those who can comfortably run for 30 minutes and want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!