live it active

The Biggest Loser ≠ The Biggest Benefit

I love the television program the Biggest Loser. It is my guilty pleasure. What grabs me every episode is the sheer determination and dedication in most participants to firstly, succumb to sheer torture each and every day and secondly, their obvious desire to be the biggest winner.

Yet regardless of my fascination with the program, I always knew it couldn’t be very good for contestants. I however, never wanted to dig too deep into the reasons why. My reasoning – when you know how bad something is it becomes hard to watch (or eat in the case of learning the calories in a McDonald’s McChicken). Unfortunately or fortunately (depending on how you look at it), I came across a number of blog posts written by Dr. Yoni Freedhoff (a physician in Ottawa) that touched upon the deleterious effects the show has on contestants. And not just during the show, but long after the days of 6 hour work outs.

Freedhoff discusses how rapid weight loss affects the metabolism. Losing so much weight, so quickly  slows the metabolism to almost a crawl. Thus, the individuals that lose weight the fastest suffer the most in the long-run. They have to battle a slowing metabolism in addition to living and exercising in the real world – not in a secluded private ranch with personal trainers to abuse them.

Freedhoff references an abstract published at the most recent Obesity Society Annual Scientific Assembly by Darcy Johannsen. Johannsen went to the ranch during season 8 and measured a number of variables including changes in body mass, metabolism and percentage of fat at baseline, week 8 and week 30. What Johannsen found isn’t surprising. There was a rapid reduction in weight (approximately 128 pounds which was composed of 81% fat and 19% free fat mass) with drastic reductions in metabolism. At week 6 the metabolism had slowed by 244 calories per day. At week 30 this number was 504 calories per day. As Freedhoff states, this is equivalent to eating an extra meal per day.

While I was digging for more information I came across an article published in USA Today which also discusses the findings of Johannsen. Yet, the article didn’t touch upon the slowing metabolism and the long-term issues of being a contestant. It only talked about the fat loss and the excess skin associated with drastic weight loss. While weight loss is beneficial, the manner in which you lose it is extremely important for long-term weight management success.  

The biggest issue with the Biggest Loser (in my opinion) is that the weight loss strategy employed (to keep viewers hooked) is just not maintainable. Exercising for 4-6 hours per day on a severely calorie restricted diet is akin to torture. Participants are away from families, away from work, away from the worries of bills, grocery shopping and general life worries. They have been plunked down in an idyllic setting surrounded by exercise equipment and only healthy food options (which viewers are keenly aware of due to shameless product placement). And to my horror, in the newly formatted show contestants under the supervision of the new trainers not located at the ranch had all their meals prepared for them. Thus, they learned absolutely nothing about the calorie composition of certain foods and how to prepare their meals. This is extremely unfortunate as caloric intake accounts for the majority of the battle with weight.

So will I continue to watch the show? Probably. I’ve always known that rapid weight loss is bad and not a long-term strategy for health. However, it is important to remember that this show indirectly influences health behaviour change. Viewers and dedicated fans across the country have been inspired by contestants to lose weight on their own. The Biggest Loser is also a part of the Pound for Pound Challenge which has individuals pledge to lose weight. In return the organization donates their pledge weight in food to needy families. This is inspiring. This demonstrates the national and perhaps international (may be stretching it a little here) influence this program has.

All in all, rapid weight loss is not a long-term solution to keeping the weight off. Lose it slow. Lose it doing an activity or a change in diet that you can sustain. And most importantly, make it fun.



Alcohol – good for your heart, bad for your brain?

Recent reports from CNN suggest that alcohol is good for your heart when consumed in moderation. Moderation by their definition is 1 drink per day for women and 1-2 drinks per day for men. While this message has been touted for years and widely accepted in both the research world and general public there are some important questions that need to be asked.

How does alcohol intake influence the brain? Dr. Amen suggests that any alcohol intake leads to reduced brain volume. On one of his blog posts Dr. Amen refers to other literature that back up his findings regarding brain volume. Dr. Amen is a well-known neuroscientist and psychiatrist who teaches at the University of California. The major downfall of Dr. Amen is that he has very few peer-reviewed publications. In the science world, this is a major red flag. The number of publications a scientist has is typically viewed (by other scientists) as an indication of their credibility and ability. However, the number of journals that make it through peer-review that are absolute garbage in terms of study design is staggering. Thus, just because Dr. Amen doesn’t have a large number of publications does not necessarily mean his research is not credible, it just means that the reader or listener should be a little more wary.

Dr. Amen has demonstrated the relationship between brain volume and alcohol intake using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). This tool allows him to get an idea of how the brain is functioning. If a patient comes in complaining of exhaustion, instead of prescribing medication to treat the exhaustion (which is commonly associated with depression) he looks at the brain to see the root cause. It may in fact be due to mental health issues or perhaps the chronic use of various substances (nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, cannabis). Check this link out to see the actual SPECT brain images (I highly recommend viewing these images).

The images are fairly scary. Yet these images represent brains that have suffered chronic abuse typically from individuals that over-indulge (I am currently searching for SPECT images of moderate users). What about moderate users? In my search for articles, I found a bundle of peer-reviewed articles looking at the effects of chronic alcohol use on brain volume and very few on moderate use. Of the limited few, there is evidence to suggest (albeit not statistically significant) that moderate alcohol users (30 – 80 grams of alcohol per day i.e. 3-6 drinks per day) have increased ventricle size and space between the brain and the cranium. What does that mean? That their brains are smaller.

One study looked at the afects of alcohol during neuronal development in rats. Rats were given either 6.6 g/kg or 3.3. g/kg of alcohol on postnatal day 4. On postnatal day 10 their brain volume was assessed. The higher dose of alcohol significantly restricted wholebrain, forebrain, cerebellum, and brain stem weights. This isn’t anything new in the world of science, fetal alcohol syndrome has been known about for years. However, this reiterates the negative consequence of alcohol consumption on the brain.  

So it would seem that moderate alcohol consumption affects the brain. Yet, the definition of moderate differs by study. In the study I mention moderate is defined as 3-6 drinks per day. The article that discusses heart health and alcohol consumption defines moderate as 1-2 drinks per day. There is an obvious difference making a comparison difficult. 

The heart and brain are not the only organs affected by alcohol. You have to consider the liver, your kidneys, your intestines. You also have to consider how alcohol will affect blood volume and thus, blood pressure. And what about mood? Alcohol has a large influence over one’s mood which will in turn, lead to changes in behaviour.

So while the CNN article suggest that alcohol is good for the heart (in moderation) you always need to consider the other side of the coin. My recommendation – don’t accept everything at face value. While a media story may be appealing, it is always important to do your research and come up with your own opinion.



Eckardt M, et al. 1998. Effects of moderate alcohol consumption on the central nervous system. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 22(5):998-1040

Goodlett C, et al. 1990. A single day of alcohol exposure during brain growth spurt induces brain weight restriction and cerebellar Purkinje cell loss. Alcohol 7(2):107-114.

Carbs – the root of all evil?

Recently my friend sent me a link to an article written by a local Guelph physician (click here for article) about her new outlook on carbohydrates (carbs for the purposes of this blog post). After reading Gary Taubes book – Good Calories, Bad Calories – she (the physician) dramatically shifted her position on diet and carbohydrates.

Firstly, what are carbs? Quite simply, they’re sugar (some short or long chains composed of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen). While sugar is the root of many evils, it is a necessary and unavoidable component to our daily diet.  

Oddly enough, last January my diet underwent a dramatic shift to one of few carbs – one with limited intake of bread, pasta, grains, and cereals. Of course, I still indulge and enjoy every so often (more regularly than I would like at the moment) but I eat a lot more protein and veggies than ever. And boy, do I feel better.

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression about carbs. You need them. The type of carb – simple or complex – is an important aspect to understand. Simple carbs have a high glycemic index (GI). What does that mean? They release sugars quickly causing a glucose and subsequent insulin spike. This leaves you feeling groggy and exhausted as your body is working overtime to get all the glucose out of the blood and into your cells. In addition, you get hungry faster. Ever eaten a McDonalds and felt as if you couldn’t possibly consume another fry, but an hour later feel as if you could eat another meal? That’s because of the glucose spike (I realize that there are bad fats in these meals which contribute to this spike). Complex carbs have a low GI and thus, they release sugar slowly. With low GI foods the feeling of fullness lasts and you don’t have that feeling of exhaustion.

I think the important message to take away from this article, and Taube’s book is that we need to become more carb savvy. While they do encourage you to reduce your consumption of carbs (and I do too), they never once state stop eating them altogether (which would mean to stop eating veggies and fruit). I agree with Needham, the nutritionist interviewed, that carbs tend to get a bad rap because people love them and thus, eat a lot of them. Yet we definitely do not need the amount that we consume.

Pay attention to how different carbs (simple vs. complex) make you feel. If you feel like garbage after eating a certain carb or variety of carbs, they probably are garbage. So don’t eat it or try to reduce your intake (like me and McDonald’s).

I encourage you to become more carb savvy. If you don’t want to cut them out, don’t. If you do, do. But be smart about your diet choices. Ensure that they are balanced. And most importantly, make them sustainable for the long-run.  


Check out Dr. Arya Sharma

I strongly recommend checking out Dr. Arya Sharma’s blog. Today he talks about how exercise isn’t necessarily about calories out, but how it influences calories in. Exercise will alter stress levels, mood, sleeping patterns and eating habits. Influencing all these factors will inevitably lead to a change in caloric intake and in turn, weight loss.

Seriously, check it out!


I can’t and won’t get down that hill

Recently I was at Mt. Tremblant with my family. My mother is fairly novice skier however, our morning skiing adventures had gone very well (we were all smiley and happy at lunch). The afternoon was a different story. My boyfriend decided to take us down a slightly more challenging hill. Minutes into the run, my mom fell. She was right in the middle of the run and below a lip, making her difficult to see. Not a safe spot to be. In my attempt to help she only become more entangled and upset. Fortunately a patrol came by and helped her up. All was good…or so I thought.We continued to move forward (some more quickly than others). I stopped halfway down the hill to look back and saw my mom yet again, in the middle of the run (see above picture). This time Evan (boyfriend) was there with her. He began to walk/run/waddle (in skis) up the hill to help her. After about 10-15 minutes we were moving. Yet again, I turned back to check on her progression. And yet again, she was getting comfortable with the snowy ground. Evan climbed back up the hill and helped her up. I could see her take off her skis and begin to walk down. I thought to myself, we may not get out of here until nightfall.

Evan patiently waited. I waited. She put the skis back on. We got down the hill. A hill that usually took us 5 minutes non-stop, took us one hour to get down.

After that first fall, my mom mentally fell apart. She forgot everything she knew about skiing – her form, her control, but most of all her confidence.

Mental strength and confidence in your ability are (I believe) integral to being and remaining physically active. What is the tune of your internal soundtrack? Are you constantly telling yourself that you can or can’t? Are you complimentary and congratulatory to yourself? You should be. You need to believe in your own ability before it can become and stay a reality.

My mom did get down the hill that day and two days following she got back on the metaphorical horse. She took a lesson and got her confidence back up. I am proud of her. She decided to take control of her fear and lack of confidence.

You need to firmly and sincerely believe that you can be active. You will be amazed at what your body is capable of once you put your mind to it.


Too cold to go outside? Work out at home.

Too cold to go outside? Feel like having a lazy day inside? Sounds like a perfect day to me. However, I encourage you to break up your day of rest and relaxation with some brief bouts of activity.

1. Take the stairs from the basement to the top floor – 3 times. This should get your heart pumping and your breathing rate up.  

2. Do wall push-ups. Every couple of hours do 3 sets of 10-12 wall push-ups. What are wall push-ups? Stand an arms length away from the wall. Put your arms out in front of you and touch the wall. Then do what you would normally do for a push-up (just against the wall). This is slightly lower impact but still gets the arms and chest working.

3. Do squats. Watching commercials? Stand up, place your feet shoulder width apart, bend at the knees and squat down. It is important to note your position. You should always be able to see your toes (thus, never squat with your knees over your toes). Also, remember to stick your butt out. I recommend doing the first couple squats in the mirror to get the look and feel. Aim for 2-3 sets in the day of 10 repetitions.  

4. Do high knee lifts. You need to get your heart pumping again after all those muscle exercises. Stand up and raise one bent knee up towards your chest. Alternate knees. Go faster (but, be safe). Try to go for 1-2 minutes at fairly high intensity, 3-4 times in the day.

5. Work your biceps. Even if you don’t have weights, this can easily be accomplished. Grab a couple of soup cans. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and knees soft (i.e. not locked). Hold the cans with your arms starting down by your sides. Bending at the elbow, raise your arms (i.e. forearms) to 90 degrees. Go slowly and make sure you feel some resistance. If you don’t feel any resistance you’re not working hard enough. Slowly bring your arms back down to beside your body. Repeat 2-3 sets throughout the day of 10-12 repetitions.  

The thing is, you don’t have to do this all at the same time. While it is recommended to get exercise in at least 10 minute bouts, you can still gain a lot of benefit from doing short bursts of activity. It is a good idea to break up your sitting time.

Even on your lazy day (which are very important to have) you can still fit some physical activity in.


Why are Canadians becoming bigger?

I recently finished marking 140 editorials for one of the classes I TA for and the topic of choice was obesity. The opinions varied considerably as to who was at fault for the current weight status of our country. Some students believed it to be the fault of the employer forcing employees to work long hours, with few breaks whilst being surrounded by unhealthy food options. Others stated that the government is to blame for not better regulating our salt intake. A few students stated that it was the fault of the individual and that only we have the power to change our health fate.

So what is the answer? Why are more Canadians overweight or obese compared to 30 years ago? Why are many Canadians not meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines?

I (like many others) believe the increasing prevalence of obesity to be multi-faceted. 

Many would tout that it is the lack of physical activity leading to obesity. Recent findings from Statistics Canada indicate that 15% of Canadians meet the physical activity guidelines. Do you know what the daily recommendation is? If you do, I am very impressed. It wasn’t until I started my schooling in exercise physiology (2 years ago) that I became aware of such guidelines (150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity). In the past the government was responsible for advertising the guidelines to Canadians. With the recent guidelines both ParticipACTION and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) are responsible for getting the word out. I think this transition in marketing responsibility is a good one as I wonder how many Canadians were merely unaware that guidelines even existed? How can you meet the guidelines if you don’t even know they exist? Getting the word out is of primary importance if we want to see change.

Others would argue that the availability of high fat, high sugar foods are responsible for this burgeoning problem. Our taste buds are biologically attuned to fat, salt and sugar and thus we cannot help ourselves. Really? Please don’t get me wrong, I love McDonalds. However, I know it is bad for me. So, I can in fact stop myself from eating it. Yet I have had some basic nutritional counselling and understand the effects of ingesting too much fat, salt, and sugar. Many Canadians have not had the opportunity to engage in basic nutrition counselling and are thus unaware of how bad fast food or pre-packaged food is for them. Furthermore, such food is cheap, easily available and packed with energy (not necessarily good energy). For Canadians in lower socioeconomic brackets eating such food is a way to feed their family. Thus, can we really frown upon this behaviour? 

The fast pace of our lifestyle is another posited contributor to obesity. Without time we cannot exercise and thus, cannot meet the guidelines. Without time we cannot prepare hearty and nutritious meals for ourselves and our family. Without time, we cannot see past the immediate and look into our health future. The lack of time is a problem, but if we were given more time would we actually devout it to becoming healthier? Perhaps those that are already on the active train would make use of extra time if employers or the government made time regulations, but I bet most wouldn’t.  

So what is the main problem? Is it the lack of marketing about the physical activity guidelines and what it means to be active? Is it in the availability of high fat, high sugar foods or the lack of nutritional education? Is it due to the lack of time? Simply, it’s everything. There is no one answer.

Yet, I have to agree with the students who stated that only we have the power to change our health fate. We are responsible for our future. We have the power to adjust and change our health behaviour. Too simplistic? Perhaps. All I know is that until we want to change, we won’t.

What do you think? What are your thoughts on the current obesity rates in Canada? I want to know.


On barefoot running

Barefoot running is a fairly new and growing movement in the world of running. Today, I entered this world, but not necessarily out of choice. Well, no one forced me to run barefoot on the hotel treadmill but I wanted to have a quick workout and didn’t pack my running shoes. So barefoot I went.

Despite the look I received from the only other exerciser, my workout was pain-free (despite a new blister or two). It was actually quite liberating. I have strayed from running over the last two years due to a knee injury I acquired from over-training for a half marathon. I also experience lower back pain (who doesn’t really) which is exacerbated by running, especially on incline.  Yet, I ran for 2o minutes with only a mild sensation of pain in the knee and not a tingle in the back. During the run, I felt that I was running more upright, taking smaller strides and more aware of how my feet were hitting the ground. I felt more in control of my stride and my body position.

So what is barefoot running? It is exactly as it sounds. Running in bare feet. Some adopters choose to run in a thin-soled running shoe or these weird rubber things with individual spots for each toe (click here to see I think they look creepy, but if they protect your feet from pebbles, small shards of glass or any other icky substance on the ground then that is a definite positive.

Why all the hype? Well firstly, it challenges everything we have come to accept about running and athletics over the past 30 years. People love being unique and this is definitely a unique movement. Secondly, researchers are beginning to objectively show the differences in gait when people are shod or unshod. Not surprisingly, when you are not wearing running shoes you run differently.

If you take a quick look at the above picture (I know, it’s small) you will see the difference in the position of the foot between the unshod and shod foot. When we run in shoes we tend to do something called heel striking. When we run without shoes we tend to land more on the ball or middle of our foot. This position lightens the force that our feet and joints experience upon impact with the ground. With all the fancy dancy gels and padding in our running shoes we are unable to feel this force, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Heel striking increases the impact that our feet and joints experience and is therefore more deleterious in the long-run. 

Where am I getting this information from? Researchers at Harvard University recently published an article outlining these differences in movement and stress experienced on the joints. It is definitely worth taking a look at if you can ( – this is the link the article which references the authors).

Lieberman, the Harvard researcher, states that running on the ball of the foot makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. In the journal article, he briefly discusses the development of the human foot. He states that the strong longitudinal arch that developed in the genus Homo improves the mass-spring mechanics of running by storing and releasing elastic energy. This arch is not strongly utilized when running in supportive, gel-padded running shoes. Yet, in barefoot running the arch is better utilized thus improving elastic energy storage and release. With improved energy efficiency, the longer one can run without fatigue (thus demonstrating why this evolutionary adaptation was selected for).  

So, am I 100% sold on barefoot running? No. Why? Firstly, I have only tried it once. It would be wrong of me to jump on the bandwagon after only one shot at it. Secondly, it’s a recent movement in the running world and the long-term health consequences (if any) remain unclear. However, it is a unique experience and one that I think all should try.

My only recommendation (OK two recommendations) is to a) avoid alley ways and b) start in short bursts. You need to build up some callouses and also the muscles in your arch and foot before engaging in long bouts of barefoot running. My big toe is not currently my friend, but will be soon with more exposure to both the treadmill and earths glorious surface.


All about belly fat

Abdominal adipose tissue better known as belly fat, is a serious problem. While being overweight is not good, the location of where your fat is deposited is a bigger issue. This notion is only starting to work its way into popular media however, the message is just not moving fast enough.

It is important to understand that not all fat is the same. The location of fat deposition is important as different risks are associated with different areas. Women have more of the stuff clinicians and researchers call subcutaneous fat. It is right below the skin and typically feels more soft and squishy. This depot while not good, is not as strongly associated with health risk as the stuff we call visceral fat.

Men on the other hand, tend to have less subcutaneous fat (especially around the belly) and more visceral fat. Visceral fat is the stuff that resides deep within your abdomen and surrounds and sometimes invades your internal organs. It is the fat depot associated with the greatest health risk for developing chronic diseases such as Type II Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Not everyone who has a belly however, has a high volume of visceral fat. This fat depot increases with age and while more predominant in men, still afflicts and resides within the abdomens of women. 

How can you tell if you have it without access to an MRI? Feel your belly. If you have a larger belly (>102 cm in men, >88 cm in women) and it feels pretty hard to touch this does NOT mean you have sweet abs. This is indicative of visceral fat pushing your abdominal wall out, making it feel rigid and hard.

OK so this fat is bad, scary, absolutely no good. But, I do have some good news. If you have it, you can most definitely get rid of it. Fortunately, this fat depot is very sensitive to exercise and changes in diet. In fact, it is more sensitive to exercise and reduced caloric intake than subcutaneous fat depots. Thus, you will likely lose fat from this area before anywhere else and in turn, help to improve your short- and long-term health.

So feel your belly. If you have a belly and it feels rock hard, definitely set up an appointment with your doctor to make that everything is working just right. Once that’s over and done with, work to find a physical activity that interests and excites you. The more active you can be, the better for both your belly and your body.


The fat burning zone – real or fake?

You’ve all heard it from one friend or another, “if you want to lose weight, you’ve got to get into the fat burning zone”. When I first heard this expression I thought “yes, I do need to get into this magical zone. I do have some fat that needs to be burned”. At the time however, I didn’t question what it meant at a physiological level I just wanted to know how to get in the zone.

The fat burning zone isn’t necessarily phoney baloney, but I just want to clarify a few things. 

When you are working out at a moderate intensity your primary fuel source is fat as opposed to carbohydrate. So in a sense, you are in a fat burning zone. However, when you start putting the pedal to the metal and begin to work at a vigorous intensity, your energy is now coming predominantly from carbohydrate stores instead of fat. Simply, carbs are now your primary source of energy. Thus, you are no longer in the fat burning zone…but aren’t you? Well, I still think you are.

Even though carbs are in the lead at this point, you are still burning more fat than you were at a moderate intensity. For example, at a moderate intensity say you burned 100 kcals from fat and 30 kcals from carb. At the high intensity you are now burning 150 kcals from fat and 200 kcals from carb.   

This is a tricky concept to a) understand but b) write about in a concise way so that you can understand. It did take me some time to get my head around this, but since doing so my workouts have completely changed. I no longer sit reading on the recumbent bike for an hour (*cough, cough, never really lasted that long to begin with) but instead pedal my heart out for 10-15 minutes on the manual “race” bikes in the gym. In that 15 minute span I manage to get my ticker pumping, my breathing rate up, and a very good sweat going on.

Now high intensity exercise is not for everyone. And if sitting at the bike reading is the only way you’ll go to the gym than do NOT let this post deter you in any way. I just wanted to touch on how misleading this zone can be and explain that working at a higher intensity does not mean that you aren’t burning fat. You’re most definitely burning fat, and a lot of it.

This is a common misconception. This can be attributed to the stickers (not sure if they are really stickers but more permanent etchings) on most treadmills in the gym. They provide a recommended heart rate based on your age and the goal of your work out (i.e. to burn fat or engage in high intensity training). I think most of you know of the stickers I speak of.

My advice (and  mine alone) is to ask questions and do some research. I realize that most of us do not have the time to read up on journal articles and be at the forefront of health research – that’s my job as a blogger. But, I do want you to start critically thinking about the copious amount of health information that is basically forced upon you everyday. Not all of it is bad, but a large proportion of it is actual phoney baloney.

Be a smart exerciser. Don’t trust everything you see, read, or hear through the exercise grapevine.


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