Monday, May 12, 2008

The Cardio-Free Diet

Cardio's Reign of Terror

In 1977 Jim Fixx published his first book, The Complete Book of Running. It sold more than a million copies, and at the time it was the bestselling nonfiction book ever published. With that one book, the whole cardio craze was unleashed. Since then, we have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of doctors, exercise physiologists, and fitness experts go on and on about all the benefits of cardiovascular exercise.

In 1981 I was living in London and was about to turn twenty-one. Determined to drop some weight (I just couldn't face that milestone birthday feeling so out of shape), I took up running. I was twenty pounds overweight and trying to quit smoking for the fifty-third time, so I used the running to offset the extra calories I feared I would be consuming when a cigarette wasn't in my mouth. I didn't gain any more weight, but I didn't lose any either. For months I was running every day for an hour to an hour and a half, for a total of about ten hours per week, and didn't lose an ounce. If you eat, eat, eat and run, run, run (or perform any form of cardio) as I did, at the end of the day, you won't lose any weight. Learn from my mistake, and don't blow ten hours a week exercising for nothing.

As running became more popular, high-impact aerobics was also hitting the scene. To relieve some stress and try to get rid of the extra pounds (since the running didn't work), I took up high-impact aerobics, still convinced that cardio was the key to weight loss. One Saturday the teacher did not show up for the eight a.m. high-impact aerobics class. About a hundred of us, mostly overweight regulars, stood around forfifteen minutes until I said, "If someone can find a tape, I'll teach." I had the routine memorized, which is never a good thing (as you will soon learn), so up I went to teach the class. Since the teacher didn't show up for the nine o'clock class either, I taught that one as well.

After that class, the manager of the club approached me and asked if I wanted a job as an instructor. I asked what the offer was and he said, "You get four dollars an hour plus a free membership." So began my career as an aerobics instructor.

From that day on, my doomed relationship with cardio was official. Okay, I want to be honest. I am a recovering cardioholic. I have been "clean" for many, many years, and continue to stay as far away from straight cardio as possible, and I'm in the best shape of my life! But for quite a long period of time, I, too, was adamant that cardio was the key to weight loss. Boy, was I ever wrong.

Here is the rest of my history with cardio, which I refer to as the Karas Cardio Rap Sheet:

  • Low-impact aerobics: Same concept as high-impact, but less jumping, so it wasn't quite as painful on my body, but I still didn't lose any weight.
  • The Step: Similar to low-impact, but there was a lot of flailing around like a crazy person and almost tripping and falling as I went up and down, up and down a step.
  • The Slide: It was sort of fun to slide back and forth on a slick surface. I didn't lose any weight, but I did relive childhood memories of sliding on the ice.
  • Spinning: Spinning really took the cardio world by storm. To this day, spin class is popular among those who still haven't figured out that all that cardio won't get them the results they are looking for. And for the record, spinning is brutal on your body (more on that in Chapter 3).
  • Tae Bo: I jumped around and repeatedly popped, or hyperextended, my joints, which can lead to major pain and injury. When you box, you are supposed to hit something, not air.
  • Boot Camp: Since I wasn't in my early twenties and my daily life didn't resemble a war zone, this wasn't a good fit either, nor should it be for any of you.

I believed, like so many people, that working up a "good sweat" equates to a good, effective workout. Basically: More Sweat = Better Workout. This is a common misconception. As with everything else in life, we have to learn to work smarter, not harder, to get ahead.

In the past thirty years since the cardio craze has taken off, do you think Americans, on the whole, have lost weight? In 1987 there were 4.4 million treadmill users. By 2000 that number had exploded to forty million users -- more than a 900 percent increase. Consumers spend more on treadmills than any other home exercise equipment. Since 1980, the number of overweight Americans has doubled. According to Duke University, "Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults were overweight or obese in 2005, compared to 58 percent in 2001." Given that there are three hundred million Americans, that's an additional fifteen million Americans who became overweight or obese in just four years.

How can this keep happening?

It keeps happening because Americans continue to listen to the wrong advice. They want to believe that the answer to their problems is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other, but nothing worth accomplishing is that easy.

Copyright © 2007 by Jim Karas

Chapter Two

The Body Weight Equation

Some people are shocked to learn that their present body weight is the function of every single calorie they have ever consumed minus every single calorie they have ever expended through metabolism and activity. Your body weight is simply the result of the following equation:

Calories In -- Calories Out = Body Weight

To be more specific:

Calories In (Food) -- Calories Out (Your Resting Metabolism and Activity) = Your Present Body Weight

We all know what food and activity are, but what is resting metabolism? Your resting metabolic rate is the number of calories that your body requires on a daily basis if you stay in bed all day, doing nothing. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of your daily caloric expenditure goes toward your resting metabolic rate. It includes the functioning of vital organs in your body (such as the heart, lungs, brain, liver, kidneys, and skin), temperature regulation, and -- most important to our discussion -- your muscles.

For years I have heard people say, "I can't lose weight because I have a bad metabolism." But according to Steve Smith, MD, an associate professor of endocrinology at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center of Louisiana State University, "The variation in resting metabolism is likely to be less than 3 percent. If two equally active thirty-eight-year-old women are both five foot five and weigh 130 pounds, one might have a resting metabolic rate of 1,800 calories and the other 1,854 calories." That's a difference of only 54 calories per day, about half of a medium-size apple. Guess what else? The more you weigh, the higher your basal metabolism. The heavier you are, the more your heart, lungs, liver, and so on have to work because of the additional size. So if you are overweight, realize you have a higher metabolism than you would have if you were lighter.

Gary R. Hunter, PhD, director of the exercise physiology lab and professor at the School of Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says, "Research shows that building and maintaining muscle can speed up metabolism." This research goes on to say that "muscle burns ten to twelve times the calories per pound each day that fat does -- you're boosting your metabolism not just during exercise but all day." If muscle burns ten to twelve times the calories per pound that fat does, and most research shows that fat burns 2 to 3 calories per pound per day, then muscle must burn between 20 and 36 calories per pound per day. Tufts University states that strength training has the potential to increase your metabolism by as much as 15 percent. If you go back to our example of a thirty-eight-year-old woman who is five foot five and 130 pounds and burns 1,800 calories a day resting, that 15 percent increase in her metabolism would translate to 270 extra calories burned (that's ten calories fewer than a full-size Snickers bar) each and every day.

Strength training is the key to weight loss because it is the only way to maintain and build lean muscle, which boosts your metabolism. Most women fear it because of the belief that it will make them big and bulky, but quite the contrary: Strength training will actually make you lean and incredibly sexy. Muscle is natural and aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and it is the key to weight loss. If you have this preconceived notion, then please flip to page 36, where I explain why "getting big" is simply not possible for women and should not be a concern.

In order to lose weight, you need to create a caloric deficit, which means you have to take in fewer calories than your body requires for metabolism and daily activity. Here is an example:

1,200 calories (food) -- 1,700 calories expended(metabolism and activity) = -500

That five-hundred-calorie deficit will force your body to use some of its own stored energy. Another word for stored energy is fat, of which 3,500 calories equals one pound. If you eat 3,500 more calories than your body requires, your body will store those calories as one pound of fat. If you create the caloric deficit of 3,500 calories, you will lose a pound. That's how you lose weight. A lot of other experts would lead you to believe it's more complicated than that, but it's just that simple.

There are four ways to achieve a caloric deficit:

1. Eat less.

2. Increase your activity.

3. Elevate your basal metabolic rate.

4. All of the above -- also known as The Cardio-Free Diet.

Looks pretty simple, doesn't it? But there is a long-term problem with how we have traditionally addressed the first two ways, and it is the reason Americans haven't been able to keep off the weight -- until now. The only effective solution is number four, The Cardio-Free Diet, because it incorporates all three ways to lose weight. Here is why any other approach, bar none, will fail:

1. Eat less. The first problem is that we keep buying books and listening to diet doctors (who are often overweight themselves) and experts tell us to count carbs, fat, protein, fiber, or whatever else is being hawked that day, and that you don't have to count calories to lose weight. Guess what? They are all dead wrong. You must count calories to succeed at weight loss. Most people don't want to hear this, but it's the simple truth. If you don't count calories, you have no idea what you are consuming on a daily basis. You are shooting in the dark when something so simple as reviewing and understanding the numbers could get you the results you have always been looking for.

The Journal of the American Dietetic Association published a report that showed that "85 percent of women who were asked to estimate the number of calories they ate in a day underreported their intake by an average of 600 calories." Do that just half the time and you've just underreported your way to more than thirty additional pounds a year! Startling research by Judith Putnam, a USDA economist, showed that "80 percent of women underestimated their daily food intake by 700 calories." Another study showed that the more overweight we are, the more we underestimate our total calories consumed each day. The Journal of the American Medical Association says, "When you see a book cover that touts 'never count calories again,' RUN."

Even if you successfully reduce your calories, you then come to the big problem. Your brain is very smart and adaptive. When you go on a restricted-calorie diet, it says to you, "There must not be a readily available source of food. I must be stuck on a deserted island, so I need to slow down your metabolism so that you can live longer on this limited amount of food. To slow it down, I need to get rid of the most metabolically active tissue on your body. Since muscle burns the most calories, we have to cannibalize some muscle so you can exist on fewer calories." By dieting without strength training, you may end up losing some fat, but you will definitely lose muscle as well. Research indicates that it can be anywhere from 40 percent muscle loss and 60 percent fat loss to as high as 50 percent muscle, 50 percent fat. That's a big problem for two reasons.

First, as you diet and lose weight, your body will require fewer calories on a daily basis. If you go from 180 pounds to 150, your body will not require the same number of calories to function at 150 as it did at 180. Your heart, lungs, kidneys, and so on don't have to work as hard, because there is less of you to service. Plus, every daily activity, from getting out of bed to rushing to catch a bus or train to clearing the table, requires fewer calories simply because you are moving around less body weight and you possess less lean muscle tissue.

Second, if you then resume your pre-diet eating pattern, as most people do once they have lost some weight, you will immediately start to gain the weight back. Your "calories in" part of the equation is going up, because you are eating more, and your calories out is going down due to less muscle, which according to the equation causes your body weight to go up. Only now, you are gaining just fat and not muscle -- you are in worse shape than when you started! It is this very phenomenon that I believe is the main culprit behind our obesity epidemic. This is the reason yo-yo dieting is well known to wreak havoc on one's metabolism and why so many Americans continually struggle to lose weight and then keep it off.

2. Increase your activity. Everyone thinks activity means cardio. It does burn a few calories, but the operative word is few. Here's how cardiovascular exercise works: When you take a step, either on the ground or on any piece of cardio equipment, your large muscles ask for oxygen, which is transported by your blood and pumped by your heart -- it is this process that expends calories. When you raise your heart rate, you burn calories at an accelerated rate. The only way to accurately determine the number of calories you have burned during any activity is by your actual heart rate. People are constantly asking me, "What cardio machine or activity burns the most calories?" A machine does not determine how many calories you are burning while performing cardio. Your heart rate determines that number. It doesn't matter whether you are on a treadmill, bike, stair stepper, elliptical trainer, or rowing machine. If your heart rate is 120 beats per minute, you are burning the same number of calories during any activity. Period.

I am always shocked to hear people say, "Oh, I burned eight hundred calories in the past hour" when referring to their cardio workout. Maybe, just maybe, you burned half that, but you had to work really hard for that hour to burn even that many -- and that is for a whole hour! Plus, the majority of cardio machines inflate the true number of calories burned, with the elliptical trainer holding the title of cardio's ultimate "Weapon of Mass Distraction." Everyone loves that machine, because when they enter their height, weight, and age, the readout -- which is based on a flawed and generic equation -- tells them that they have burned hundreds of calories in just minutes. Whoever came up with that idea was brilliant, as elliptical sales have soared in recent years. Great for the elliptical manufacturers, bad for weight loss, because the calories represented on the machine are just not true.

A Wall Street Journal article entitled "The Diet That Works" says, "It takes an enormous amount of exercise to burn a meaningful number of calories. A woman who walks thirty minutes a day, six days a week, will burn a paltry 830 calories a week. Theoretically, it would take her more than four weeks to expend the 3,500 calories needed to lose one pound."

A University of Kansas study conducted in 2002 showed that after eighteen months, women who walked thirty minutes a day, three times a week, only lost 2.1 percent of their original weight. For a 160-pound woman, that would mean exercising for eighteen months would produce a weight loss of a little more than three pounds. That same study took another group of women and had them walk for fifteen minutes, twice a day, for the same eighteen-month period. Do you know what they lost? Any guesses? Nothing. Not a single pound.

The American College of Sports Medicine did a sixteen-month study and put overweight college students on treadmills for forty-five minutes a day, five days a week. At the end of the study, the women had gained one pound. You exercise for forty-five minutes a day, five days a week (that's almost four hours a week) for sixteen months, and you gain a pound? And these were college-age women. Just think of what those numbers would be for a middle-aged, stressed-out mom of two!

The second bit of bad news about cardio is that as you become more "fit," you burn fewer calories performing the same activity. That occurs because your entire cardiovascular system improves, which is really the point of doing cardio in the first place, and your heart doesn't have to work as hard to transport oxygen during exercise. The improvement is an increase in the heart's stroke volume. Basically, each time the heart beats, it's able to transport more oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles. As a result, your heart becomes more efficient, and fewer heartbeats equals fewer calories burned. Good for your heart, bad for your weight loss goals. The only way to continue to burn the same number of calories once your heart becomes more efficient is to progress the activity. Progressing a cardiovascular program is accomplished through increasing one or more of the following:

  • Frequency: exercising more often to burn more calories. Downside: loss of time each week.
  • Intensity: working harder to burn off more calories. Downside: increased risk of injury.
  • Duration: exercising for a longer period of time to burn off more calories. Downside: loss of time each day.

Do you want to exercise more often, with more intensity, for a longer period of time -- just to keep burning the same number of calories? Possessing more lean muscle tissue is the way to burn more calories when performing any activity. Let's go back to our thirty-eight-year-old, five-foot-five, 130-pound woman and assume that she is 25 percent body fat. If, through strength training, she changes her body's composition to 20 percent body fat but stays the same weight, then she has successfully lost six and a half pounds of fat and gained the same amount of muscle. In her "new and improved" state, everything she does in terms of activity, from going to the grocery store to taking the stairs to even getting dressed in the morning, will burn more calories. More muscle on the body equals more calories burned when in resting state and when performing any activity -- as more muscle fibers are recruited and required during each and every activity.

Finally, here is the biggest reason not to rely on cardio to count as an increase in activity for losing weight. According to an article in Men's Fitness, "many studies show that aerobic exercise interferes with your body's ability to build muscle. Canadian researchers found that guys who trained six days a week, alternating between strength and endurance workouts (cardio), had impaired strength gains compared with guys who only lifted weights. This, and subsequent studies, showed that although endurance performance improved (when performing cardio and strength-training), gains in muscle strength, power and size actually suffer."

By performing both cardiovascular exercise and strength training concurrently, you are asking your body to adapt both aerobically (cardio) and anaerobically (strength training), which results in different hormonal triggers. When performing high-intensity, steady-state cardiovascular exercise, the body's chemical response is to release cortisol, a catabolic (or muscle-depleting) stress hormone. As your muscle glycogen stores become low, the cortisol starts to mobilize amino acids in the muscle, and fatty acids in body fat, to use for fuel. Increased levels of cortisol break down amino acids in the muscle tissue for energy -- chewing up muscle for fuel and inhibiting protein synthesis (muscle building), which contradicts the very purpose of exercise in the first place. The word "exercise" should only apply to strength training.

Regular cardiovascular exercise also predominantly recruits slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are more efficient in utilizing oxygen than fast-twitch muscle fibers. By continuing to perform high-intensity cardio, your body will adapt by atrophying (shrinking) the fast-twitch muscle fibers in favor of the development of slow-twitch fibers, so your body can become even more efficient at utilizing oxygen. Sure, you are becoming more aerobically fit, but at the same time, you're actually diminishing your chances of building the long, lean muscles that will boost your metabolism and help you lose weight.

The introduction of any cardiovascular activity promotes the use of slow-twitch muscles over fast-twitch muscles -- and subsequently causes those fast-twitch muscles to atrophy or diminish. This will occur even if you are regularly performing strength training as well. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are essential for developing your body's most aesthetically pleasing composition (shape) in addition to achieving the overall strength that comes with more lean muscle tissue.

The article also says that the worst thing you could ever do for your muscles is to perform a cardiovascular activity for more than thirty minutes. After thirty minutes, you increase the chances that your body will break down your hard-earned muscle for fuel.

How many times have Americans been told to exercise for sixty minutes a day? For what? To burn a few measly calories and your most precious bodily tissue, muscle? Do you see how disastrous that advice is and why it is leading us to continue, each and every year, to gain more and more weight?

Increasing activity with strength training instead of cardio, on the other hand, burns calories both during and after the exercise, builds muscle instead of destroying it, and, if done properly, offers heart health as well. Most research indicates that strength training burns between 5 and 10 calories a minute, depending on the size of the muscle group that you are working. That means that you are burning between 150 and 300 calories in a thirty-minute exercise session, which is more than most people burn doing pure cardio for the same amount of time. Not bad, considering that you then get a huge postmetabolic calorie burn as your muscles repair and, most important, you are left with more lean muscle tissue than when you started.

Many people assume strength training is static and cardio is active. My formula for strength training is very active, and the term "interval training" is far more applicable than "pumping iron." You are not sitting and looking around in between each set or exercise like you've seen many "bench heads" in the gym doing. In my program, you finish one set of an exercise, document, drink water, and prepare for the next movement. You keep moving, and that increase in intensity will translate into more calories burned and improved overall cardiovascular performance -- about 85 percent of the benefits of cardio alone. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association followed 452 men for twelve years and showed that the reduction in heart disease from weight training was the same as that of walking, running, and rowing. Strength training does not neglect heart health. It can give you heart health and increased metabolism at the same time. In this time-crunched world, who can afford to ignore a "two birds with one stone" solution?

3. Elevate your basal metabolic rate. In order to succeed at weight loss, your metabolism must go up, or at the very least stay the same, but never, ever decrease. If you diet without strength training, you will lose fat and muscle. As a result of the muscle loss, your metabolism will go down. If you diet and perform cardiovascular exercise, you will lose fat and possibly even more muscle. As a result, your metabolism will go down even farther. If you diet and perform strength training, you will lose only fat, increase your muscle, and make your metabolism go up. Sounds to me like the only winning combination. Muscle is preserved and increased only through strength training, and the single most important goal of any exercise must be to preserve and increase your body's lean muscle tissue at all costs. If you are not prepared to combine strength training with dieting, don't do anything -- dieting alone or dieting with cardio will leave you in worse shape than you started.

If you want to see the results of a muscle-enhanced metabolism, take the "Jim Karas Challenge." Go to your favorite health club or gym and peek into the very large cardio room. What do you see? Dozens, possibly hundreds, of overweight individuals toiling away on the treadmills, bikes, elliptical trainers, and stair steppers. They don't look happy, they're not losing weight, and most of them are just using the cardio as an excuse to watch television. I was recently at Club Industry, which is the yearly convention to introduce the latest and greatest new exercise equipment, and virtually every new piece of cardio equipment comes with a built-in TV. Some even have Internet access. Why is our exercise experience resembling more and more our time on the couch? How many of you are only in need of a remote?

Now go to the much smaller strength-training room. It's one-fifth the size of the huge cardio room. What do you see? Maybe a couple of dozen lean, toned, sexy individuals with great posture and a confident aura. It doesn't matter what gym you walk into -- I guarantee this is what you will see anywhere in the world. Which room would you rather be in?

Copyright © 2007 by Jim Karas

Excerpted from

The Cardio-Free Diet

by Jim Karas
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