Whether or not we are active, one day we decide to improve our physical form and increase our exercise. We do it in a controlled way - it is not convenient to injure yourself - but we also introduce a more intense activity and, above all, in a more systematic way. At the same time we try to eat better. As we are focused on this change in lifestyle, we take body measurements and weigh ourselves.
After two or three weeks we repeat the measurements. And lo and behold, the clothes are looser, the body measurements have been reduced, perhaps discreetly, and the weight has not moved or has even increased. How can this happen? What are we doing wrong?
muscle versus fat
"Reducing weight by doing physical activity or intense exercise is a good strategy to lose fat mass," Francisco Tinahones, president of the Spanish Society for the Study of Obesity (Seedo), explains to CuídatePlus. Do not forget that when it comes to losing weight, the most important thing is to preserve muscle and lose fat.
To establish the relationship between height and weight and determine whether a person is underweight, normal or overweight or obese, the Body Mass Index is usually used, which is obtained by dividing the weight in kilograms by the square of the height. “The higher the BMI, the higher the weight. That's generally associated with poorer cardiometabolic health. From a BMI score of 25 there is overweight and above 30, obesity”, says Alejandro Lucía, Professor of Exercise Physiology at the European University of Madrid.
However, this index, although indicative, is not equally applicable to all. It all depends on the amount of fat and muscle each person has. In the case of someone who is dedicated to bodybuilding, her BMI would probably be classified as obese, although it is most likely that she does not have excess fat and a very high percentage of muscle. “When you exercise, you increase muscle mass. The paradox can be that a person follows a weight loss strategy based on a reduction in caloric intake and a powerful increase in physical activity and when they weigh themselves they see that the weight remains the same even though they have dropped a pant size," he explains. Tinahones.
Less waist and more arm
In this way, if you do not lose weight -or BMI- but you do lose fat and gain muscle, a quite adequate situation would occur, although it may discourage us from continuing. If the waist is reduced and the pants are wider in that area, at the same time that it is tighter in the thigh and knees and the upper part of the clothing is tighter in the chest or arms, it would be the best sign of that we are gaining muscle mass.
One way to measure what we are achieving would be, according to Lucía, to use a tape measure to measure the relationship between the waist and the hips. However, Lucía remembers that the scale does not usually lie: “in most people, a weight loss will reflect a beneficial fat loss”.
Along these lines, Víctor Téllez, coach of CuídatePlus and director of TCenter, recalls that the physical complexion of the person must be taken into account: “In an athletic person who preserves their muscle tone because their genetics are like that, sometimes it is difficult to lose weight whole body”. It is about determining if he wants to lose weight, fat percentage or look better aesthetically or more toned.
To see the results of that fat loss, Téllez recommends using a Tanita scale that measures body composition - weight, fat, muscle and water - using bioimpedance. "We should be more objective in measuring all these variants." To do this, it is also necessary to measure the contour of the waist, abdomen, hip, thigh and arm. "If we see on the scale that the weight is the same as a month ago but I measure the waist and see that it has dropped three centimeters" we can understand what is happening: that there is a compensation of values. In any case, it must be taken into account that the improvement fluctuates depending on many parameters, so it is best to make a daily measurement that can give us an average of success.
In addition, if we put ourselves in the hands of a specialist who can measure fat folds -which establishes the amount of subcutaneous adipose tissue- we will have an overview of how the dietary and exercise effort we are making is affecting our body.
What weighs more fat or muscle?
Fat and muscle weigh exactly the same. A kilo of fat is equivalent to a kilo of muscle, just as a kilo of iron is to one of feathers. However, the difference lies in the volume. By strengthening the muscles, they bulge less than the area where there was previously fat. "If I strengthen my muscle mass, the same volume of muscle mass weighs more than that of fat mass," explains Tinahones.
The healthy objective lies in reducing fat, since when it is very abundant it is responsible for the appearance or development of many diseases. “What is really important, more than weight, is that you go down a pant size, because it means a reduction in the waist that reflects the fat we have in the abdomen”, a great indicator of the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Diet and exercise
It is clear that when we start a hypocaloric diet the objective is to lose weight. But you have to be careful not to lose muscle in the process and fat. “That is why it is very important to have a diet that is normal protein, that is, that the amount of protein that is ingested is necessary. Because this way the loss of fat and not muscle will be guaranteed”, says Tinahones. By reducing your caloric intake you will be able to restrict fat and carbohydrates to a greater or lesser extent.
The important thing is to have a balanced diet, even if it is hypocaloric, that guarantees the intake of proteins, micronutrients -vitamins and minerals-, and fiber. It should include fruits, vegetables, vegetables, with great satiating capacity and low caloric intake, but including fish, lean meat, nuts, olive oil and whole grain cereals.
One of the keys to maintaining -or increasing- muscle mass on a hypocaloric diet is to do physical exercise. Having adequate muscle mass allows insulin to work better, physical fitness to be better, the body to be more agile and mobile, all in the interest of maintaining a good quality of life. "We are designed to move and to save energy by storing fat in subcutaneous fat deposits," adds Lucía.
The other extreme is loss of muscle mass, called sarcopenia. That is why we must insist on preserving muscle, as a way to maintain mobility, reduce frailty and improve quality of life in the face of ageing. Not losing muscle mass is especially important after the age of 50. Something for which only “strength exercise works and not following very low-calorie or low-protein diets. Ketogenic diets or caloric restriction are incompatible with having a healthy and sufficient muscle mass”, points out Lucía.
In the case of people with obesity, Tinahones recalls that when it comes to morbid obesity, mobility is reduced. Thus, when starting the diet and prescribing physical activity “we insist that men focus more on reducing notches in the belt and women on reducing the size of the clothes than on weight. If we do physical activity we reduce the volume and not the weight, but this is not the important thing”. It is, therefore, about improving what we see in the mirror, even if it is not an aesthetic issue but rather a health issue.
Beware of losing weight quickly
Lucia warns of the danger of losing weight very quickly, which usually reflects the loss of water and glycogen. “As soon as we stop eating carbohydrates we lose those muscle glycogen stores and easily lose six pounds. Losing a lot of weight often involves the loss of water and muscle. In order to achieve these objectives, it is very important to have professionals in endocrinology and nutrition, as well as physical exercise.
To be healthier you do not have to seek to lose weight quickly or resort to miracle diets to avoid the yo-yo effect. Lucía explains that there are two key points:
Téllez reminds that to be healthy, gain muscle mass and lose fat and weight, strength training is essential. This disproves the idea that to lose weight and fat you just have to do aerobic exercise. “This way you lose a little of everything, but not fat. You lose a lot of fluid, you oxidize little fat, you generate little metabolic impact… Therefore, there is no change in the entire body composition, which is what we are looking for”, says Téllez.
In fact, strength training has already been shown to be the exercise that has the greatest impact on fat oxidation. However, if we do not take care of the diet we will not obtain results.
What is there to do? Téllez recommends the following: “Generate a caloric deficit with a super balanced nutritional intake, ensure adequate rest, and strength training. In addition, you have to intersperse strength-resistance training and take walks for an hour a day. All this generates changes in the body: fat loss, improvement of muscle mass, improvement of the hormonal system” and also of the cardiovascular system. And it is not just about doing an exercise or a change of habit but about a conglomeration of training, rest and food.
What if I go running?
Téllez considers that deciding to put on his shoes and go for a run without any previous preparation is a bad decision. “It is the most helpful but it is the worst solution. It is not easy or good for losing fat or toning up, nor is it healthy unless you have prior preparation”, and in order to do it well, it is advisable to go to a professional who guides the exercise and a nutritionist who tells us how we should eat.