Body Fat

I’m taking a course called “Fitness and prescription” [Conditionnement physique], which is (naturally) all about prescribing fitness interventions. Fair enough. We’ve just finished a unit on body composition, in which a short section at the end delineated “guidelines” to follow on how to address weight gain:

– Eat often; eat larger portions; snack; drink milk and juice with meals (fair enough)
– Eat high-calorie foods, but stick to low-fat options (uhhh)
Above all, do not gain too much fat. Aim only to gain lean body mass (wait, what?)

The prof went on to explain that while weight gain is necessary, fat gain shouldn’t be the goal. At this, I raised my hand. “What about women with amenorrhea? They’d definitely benefit from gaining some body fat.” Cue blathering about “critical fat mass” and women below 13% body fat and yes, amenorrheic women might benefit from gaining some fat, because sometimes women who drop too low in body fat percentage skip their menstrual cycle for a few months.

Well. As someone who skipped 30 months of her menstrual cycle, fat gain was definitely in my interest. So I gained weight. On larger, more frequent meals, full-fat dairy products, additional carbohydrates. Lots of vegetables and fruit throughout. This was by no means unhealthy. I am now the proprietor of a body with more lean mass, and (yes) more body fat. I had to go above and beyond my previous “high” weight to restore my menstrual function, and I’m maintaining here without exactly trying. I exercise regularly. I eat when I’m hungry and as my schedule allows. I eat a lot of vegetables. I don’t usually get enough sunlight or enough sleep.

I’m not entirely comfortable at this weight, but this is where my body wants to be right now. This is where I can drop and do sprint workouts whenever, make the half hour trip to school in the morning and back again in the afternoon (weather permitting). This is where I can lift heavy (for me) weights, or skate or ski, or attend random classes, or train for a 10k race. I can spontaneously go to yoga (as is the plan tonight) with a friend and stretch beyond what I believe I can do.

I have health-related goals, like working out more regularly or attending yoga classes at least once a week because they relax me or going to bed earlier to ensure I sleep enough or walking in the sunlight to maximize my vitamin D even in these frigid winter months, but weight loss or anything related to food-restriction can’t be a part of those.

Just a friendly reminder that body fat is an endocrine organ. Hunger/satiety hormones such as leptin, grehlin, and neuropeptide y are directly related to body fat levels; these communicate with the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then uses this hormonal information to regulate a huge number of physiological processes, such as appetite and temperature and yes, fertility (generally via pro-hormones). This is a gross over-simplification, but all that to say that we actually do need body fat, and sometimes fat gain can be the primary goal. This culture of fat-fearing needs to stop.

Women need enough body fat to be fertile. End of story. While I have no intention of having children any time soon, I value the proper functioning of my body and see my menstrual cycle as a sign that I’m on the right track, health-wise. Enough body fat also regulates appetite, and I’m not chronically hungry any more (meaning I can think of things beyond my next meal). These are well worth the “extra” (required) weight.

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On Movement

“Do you like to move?”

I start, blinking at the girl next to me, the source of this question. I’m momentarily confused. “How do you mean?” I ask, thinking that I really don’t love moving homes, though there’s an undeniable sense of excitement the day of.

“Like, are you into sports or stuff?”

With a small mental Oh!, I shrug, self-consciousness winning out for now. “Well, yeah. I was a competitive sprint kayaker, and played competitive soccer before that. I haven’t done either in years though. Lately I’ve mostly just been lifting weights and doing sprints and walking and stuff. I’m currently in exercise ‘rehab’ after having taken about a year and a half off to.. work on some health issues.”

She nods, but doesn’t let go so easily. “I’m a distance myself, though I also took some time off to.. work on some health issues.” She smiles at me then, and I’m smiling back at the deliberate echo of what I’ve just said. Despite myself, I’m curious as to what she means. “My training is mostly focused on track practices right now.”

“Cool!” I reply, and mean it. I am genuinely interested in how other people move.

As my father is known to say, there are three things you shouldn’t talk about in polite company: Religion, politics, and food. I’m in full agreement. Diets tend to acquire a cult-like following, particularly if they “work”; and, seeing as we all have to feed ourselves, food us something that affects us all, however much we choose to implicate ourselves in the actual politics of eating. Because there are politics, believe me – and if you’ve managed to remain completely unscathed I both applaud you and must regard you with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s practically inescapable: tabloids, television commercial, internet banners, ads on the sides of city buses. Foods and diets abound. Unwittingly, we’re consuming and reworking almost every thing we’ve seen (Jean Kilbourne’s “Killing Us Softly 4” provides a thought-provoking apperçu into the ways media affects us).

Anyways, on the exercise matter: moving, as of yet, is not something that has become unduly political. Of course, everyone needs to move, and it’s well-known that movement is essential for good health. Exactly how much or what kind is highly up to debate. Various professionals and fitness experts have all sorts of opinions as to the types of exercise we need, which can be a bit confusing. At this point, I think that the most important thing is that people get up and move in the first place, and are conscious to keep moving in ways that help them to function best. Also vague, I know – I’m certainly not simplifying anything here. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Take a walk. Go to the gym, if that’s something you like. Swim across a lake. Hike. Swing from monkey bars at a playground. Go kayaking. Lift heavy stuff.

As a student in exercise science, I find the diversity in people’s physical activity levels fascinating. Some of my classmates are hardcore weight lifters and body competitors, training for maximum strength or “ideal” physique, respectively. Others are casual gym-goers, and still more do nothing in the way of “formal” exercise. All of these things are fine, by the way.

My philosophy on exercise has shifted around throughout the year. I spent a number of years training at a relatively elite level, in soccer but more so in sprint kayak. I fell into running roughly around the time my disordered eating started – by the end of my senior year in high school I was running for an hour (on a treadmill) every morning before school. As my mindset shifted towards total homeostatic health (gradually, over the course months), I stopped exercising almost completely.

In May, I began walking to and from work, for a total of an hour of easy movement a day. I began going to the gym intermittently, work and studying often getting in the way. Recently, I’ve begun to go to the gym more frequently, and I’ve set a few tentative workout goals. I actually enjoy the gym environment – when I can make it work for my schedule. I strive to stay active and want to me a more conscious exerciser. I want to move in ways that feel natural to me. I’ve been lifting and doing some sprints. Long-lasting cardio isn’t my focus, just now – running is hard on the knees, and I find myself too bored to commit beyond twenty minutes or so.

A yoga and climbing gym has just opened up here, which sounds absolutely perfect – I’d love to add climbing to my fitness regimen, and yoga is something I genuinely enjoy and would love to get back into (my chiropractor would love that for me also – I appear to have lost quite a bit of flexibility). Price is an issue (I definitely can’t afford a yearly membership, or even a monthly one, on my student budget), so I’m leaning towards class passes and using these types of work-outs as enjoyable accessory forms of movement, with sprinting and weightlifting as my base. Ideally I’ll also walk to and from school every day, though in the winter months that does become harder.

So, how do you move? Is it something you do consciously? Does it just build itself into your day, or maybe not at all?

Upcoming Next Month

Well, we’re down to the final push now. Exams are right around the corner, my last few labs are being handed in (done with long drawn out orgo labs!!! … Until January, that is 😉 ), and I’m trying hard to keep motivated. With the Christmas season coming up, that shouldn’t be too hard.

I’m working on configuring my schedule for next semester. As I was finalizing my program change from kinesiology to biochemistry, it was pointed out to me that I could probably do a double major, seeing as most of my kin degree is already done and I have the fortune of having accrued extra credits from high school and random courses like band and choir I took/am taking just for fun…

… That was a really good point. 

And so now it seems I have a double major. While it might sound overwhelming (and I have to admit, I’m a little bit worried 😉 ), I can recognize that having a degree in both biochemistry and kinesiology sets me up perfectly for what my current “dream job” would be, which entails applying to a concurrent PhD-MD program and completing the PhD portion in physiology and the MD internship in endocrinology, all do to clinical research.

I am fascinated by the biochemical and physiological processes that occur within the body, and the way our lifestyles and other extraneous factors affect hormonal action and the action of neurotransmitters. Clinical research is an area I’m passionate about and can relate to, and to work with people and hopefully develop proactive ways of treating/preventing many of the problems prevalent today would be a dream come true.

With this double major comes additional responsibility, and I’m the first to admit that I’m afraid of burning myself out. I tend to take on more than I can handle; it’s a matter of being more organized with my time, minimizing distractions and maximizing my productivity, while making time for myself and for the people who are important to me. I’m working on a “plan” of sorts that I’ll put into place next semester – hopefully it’ll keep me on track! 🙂

For now, I’m looking a little more short term – there’s still December to get through, after all! I’m so excited – the Christmas season is my favourite time of the year. Clichéd, for sure, but I can’t help it and won’t be apologizing. 🙂

On the 1st I’m accompanying a children’s choir on the piano for a concert celebrating the work of english musician Benjamin Britten. Also planned for that day is dinner and a movie (Catching Fire, because I absolutely loved the Hunger Games books in high school and so, for once, this is a movie I’m excited about seeing!) with the boy, to celebrate our “half-iversary”.

Classes finish that week, and you will then find me either at work, or at home or in the school library in HARDCORE STUDY MODE. I’m writing my first four exams from 7 to 10pm from the 11th to the 14th (ew), and immediately after the last exam I’m catching a midnight bus to Ottawa to spend time with my best friend and family.

The 19th sees me retuning home to write my organic chemistry exam on the 20th, also from 7 to 10pm (have I ever mentioned that my brain kind of shuts down in the afternoon? I’m a hardcore morning person, so this exam schedule is the epitome of lame), and then I will bask in my glorious two weeks of freedom from school. Time will be spent enjoying the company of my friends and family (and likely working quite a lot). I can’t wait!