Debunking Exercise Myths: A pound of fat is NOT a pound of muscle

By: Catherine Munaco, Owner, CoachMeFit West Bloomfield (wb@coachmefit.com)

As a personal trainer and exercise coach, I find myself frequently having to “debunk” the most recent trend in exercise information. I’ve seen a lot of fads in dieting and exercise come and go (remember Atkins and Cinefit?) and the reason they fade out is because they all lack the one basic element in lifelong health and fitness: sustainability. Most fads aren’t well researched. At the end of the day, the programs that stick around are the ones that work for the long haul and include a mixture of basic cardio, resistance (strength) training, stretching, and, sigh, a bit of hard work. We have to think of weight loss and fitness as a permanent lifestyle change instead of a temporary fix. A consistent fitness regime will take WORK, but it can also be fun and rewarding. A good training program will improve muscular endurance, muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility, and will be sustainable for the long haul.

It is a common thought that the key to losing weight is packing in as much cardio (running, biking, elliptical, etc) as possible. Some of my clients come to me thinking that strength training isn’t an efficient way to lose weight. They have read that cardio workouts are all you need for weight loss. I would argue the opposite: it is nearly impossible to sustain any weight loss without resistance training. There are many reasons for this. In the simplest of weight loss equations, calories (energy) intake needs to be less than caloric output. Meaning, you need to burn more calories than you eat. Cardio workouts definitely burn calories, but they do little to build muscle, so once the workout is done and your body returns to its resting levels, the cardio workout is no longer “with you”. Here’s what I mean by this: if you build muscle via resistance training, your muscle works for you all day (and night) long. Muscle is a very active tissue; it’s designed to burn energy and can do so even when we are sleeping. Fat, on the other hand, is not active. Its main job is literally to take energy from your system and store it. With resistance training, you can increase your muscle mass. Even minimal increases in muscle can lead to increases in metabolic rate, or the amount of calories expended a minute, during rest. Therefore, your new arm muscle works for YOU. It’s a mutual benefit. (But don’t take my word alone for it:  http://preventdisease.com/news/articles/muscle_vs_fat_measure_what_matters.shtml )

So why do fitness magazines and websites say that you don’t need resistance training to lose weight? Because in the initial stages of resistance training, you may not always see weight loss. Sometimes, people actually gain a small amount of weight before it starts to drop off. The reason comes from the physical properties of muscle and fat. Muscle is denser than fat, and density is a measure of mass per unit volume. In simpler terms, one pound of fat takes up more volume than one pound of muscle. Our volume is our size. It is possible to lose fat, gain muscle, stay the same weight and still be and look smaller. But how much smaller? Muscle has an approximate density of 1.06 g/ml, and fat has a density of approximately .9 g/ml. Pull out your conversion charts and do some math, and you can figure the volume of pound of muscle to be about 26.74 in3 and the volume of the same weight of fat to be about 31.50 in3 – a difference of 4.759 in3. This becomes a significant difference. In fact, many people who enter into a resistance training program often notice their clothes are fitting considerably looser and they are looking smaller well before they see any weight loss. This is why I always tell clients not to be a slave to the scale. It’s important to keep track of your weight for motivation and to stay focused, but weight is only one part of many important health facets. I have one client who lost four pant sizes and only three pounds, but she is sustaining her new body. Her muscles are working to keep her healthy. Not to mention increases in strength make daily living easier and keep us moving.

The bottom line is that to stay healthy and mobile as we age (and by the way, 60 isn’t old anymore) we have to stay strong. Resistance training helps to increase strength and maintain weight loss. This is why people who drop weight quick and don’t work out at all can’t keep the weight off: they have no method of sustaining their new body. At the end of the day, weighing less is nice, but so is being smaller, more energetic, and freely mobile. So don’t use weight loss alone as a benchmark of your fitness progress. Think about the bottom line and most important part of health and fitness: how do you feel today?

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