Fitness extremes… are they healthy?
I have always admired the commitment and determination of the Ironman athlete and fitness competitor. Both sports, although very different, take an extreme amount of dedication, hard work, and MASSIVE commitment. Both sports challenge the human spirit to push past its limits — physically and emotionally. Both sports can absolutely consume your life with training schedules of 15 to 20 or more hours a week. Both sports, although praised for their high level of fitness they require, can be considered one of the unhealthiest things you can do to your body — physically and mentally. What?
Extreme fitness does NOT equal health! Yes, I said it.
Just because you can obtain low levels of body fat, or you may be able to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and then run a 26.2 mile marathon (all part of an Ironman triathlon event) does NOT mean you are healthy. It just means you are trained and fit. By definition health is a state of complete mental, physical, and social wellbeing — whereas fitness is the ability to meet the demands of a physical task. Now, don’t get me wrong. Competing in these sports is a major accomplishment. Like I said, I truly respect these athletes. However, for the everyday Joe or Jane who is looking to achieve optimal health, I believe neither of these is the way to go.
With the help of two of my fellow fitness professionals, we will discuss the ups and downs of extreme fitness and why it may NOT be the best way to achieve optimal health. Meet Ashley Mahaffey (a seasoned triathlete) and Monica Vargas (an NPC figure and fitness competitor).
Kate: “How do you get ready for a competition — what does your training schedule look like?”
Ashley: “As a triathlete, my focused training starts 24 to 26 weeks prior to my ‘A’ race for the season. I train generally 7 days/week, which is about 12 to 18 hours weekly.”
Monica: “As a fitness competitor, my training is year-round. But when I do a show, training to get on stage takes 14 to 16 weeks — depending on my current condition. The closer I get to a show, the more grueling training becomes. I will start to perform 45 to 90 minutes of cardio, 7 days a week — in addition to the 5 days of week of weight or metabolic training”.
Kate: “What about diet? Is there any special diet you consume while training?”
Ashley: “Personally, my diet stays pretty much the same — I just eat more. I would guess I eat upwards of 2200 to 2400 calories a day while training. I would say I consume more sugars, gels, and Gatorade than normal. Oh, yes — I also will consume Cokes and Fritos on training days for a sugar, caffeine, and salt jolt.”
Monica: “Although I maintain a fairly clean [strict] diet year-round, once I start training for a competition, my calories drop to 1300 to 1500 a day — all while working out harder and longer. I eat 6 to 7 meals a day, based on protein, low fat, and carb cycling — and depending on my activity.”
Okay — so far, none of this seems too bad. Right? We would all expect there to be a lot of working out and eating “clean” to be an extreme athlete. Yet, there is one big problem…
The damage it is doing…
Kate: “Have you ever experienced any negative side effects from all the training and dieting?”
Ashley: “Well, I am definitely more irritable, and I am far more tired. I go through stages sometimes when I don’t have my period for 2 months — and then it comes every 2 weeks for a 6 week stretch. I have increased digestive issues. Last Ironman, it was so bad it caused me to get hypothermia and I had to pull out of the race.”
Monica: “Yes, I have experienced negative side effects. I have a low thyroid to begin with — so all the increased exercise and extreme dieting makes me feel more sluggish and tired. I also suffer from joint pain as my body fat starts to reach very low levels. With the increased workout load and not enough recover time, my adrenals and thyroid gets stressed from the high levels of cortisol running through my body. In addition, I feel my work and social life is affected dramatically. The training and prepping take so much time and effort that everything else has to take a backseat.”
As you can see, extreme fitness has its drawbacks. These athletes may experience it in irritability, fatigue, joint pain, hormonal, and digestive irregularities. Others may see it in loss of muscle, fat gain, and increased susceptibility to illness and disease. All of these are signs of metabolic damage. We must understand that extreme fitness does not increase your metabolism. In fact, it actually damages it. As I have stressed before in my past blog, Is your workout making you fat?, too much of anything (even exercise) will start having negative effects.
Here are just a few negative effects of over-exercising:
Decreased production of the thyroid hormones T3 and T4 (these are your hormones that control your metabolism)
Decreased conversion of T4 to T3 in the gut and liver
Increased inflammation in the joints, muscles, and gut
Chronically high levels cortisol and adrenaline. Short-term both of these can help with lowering body fat and increased performance. Long-term they will both cause metabolic disturbance, sleep issues, fat gain, and muscle loss
Calcium deficiency, which leads to osteoporosis and bone damage
Hormonal imbalances of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, which lead to irritability, menstrual issues, weight gain, water retention, low sex drive, and sleep issues
Increased oxidative stress, causing free radical damage, aging, and increased chance of illness
Yes, you may look leaner. Yes, you may be able to work out for 15 hours straight — BUT the real question is, “are you healthy?” I don’t think so, and neither do either of these two athletes.
Kate: “Would you recommend your sport to anyone who is trying to get healthy?”
Ashley: “NO — no way. Not at all! I compete because I like to push through my own perceived limits. I like to keep moving that marker of possibility further ahead. I do it more to build on my mindset of a champion more than anything. I don’t do it to get healthy. I just do my best to stay healthy so I can push through the pain when things get really tough.”
Monica: “No, extreme sports need to be taken as just that — extreme! The training and dieting performed is too strict and rigorous to achieve real health. Once you start getting negative effects, it is no longer healthy. In fact, if you are not careful, these sports can be somewhat addictive and create a poor body image. I am an athlete at heart and I love the competition. I like the idea of a challenge with a specific goal in mind, yet I know the sport of fitness and figure competing can be somewhat extreme — surpassing the boundaries of actual health.”
At the end of the day, anyone who is thinking about doing a major endurance event like an Ironman or getting involved in a fitness and figure competition needs to understand what they are getting themselves into. These sports should not be taken lightly. They take a huge amount of commitment and dedication, and they place an unnecessary amount of stress and strain on the human body. Personally, I am not against performing in any kind of extreme sport or activity. I have definitely participated in my share: running a marathon, hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim, hiking Mount Whitney, and mountain biking over 100K. These were all huge accomplishments, all took a massive toll on my body, and all required weeks/months to fully recover — NONE did I do with intentions of improving my health.
When it comes to my health, I will admit, I am little bit of a nut. However, I am a big believer that you must live your life to the fullest, and sometimes that may come at the expense of your health. You don’t want to live your entire life on the sidelines, right?
You have to live life, and if doing an Ironman or a fitness competition makes your heart sing and you love it — then do it! All I would have to say is, be smart about it!
Make sure you are healthy before you start
Train with a professional or have a strategic training plan
Rest, recover, and rejuvenate after the event
Do not do an extreme sport for the purpose of becoming healthy
Proper nutrition is essential
Have fun. If it’s not fun, why are you doing it?
To truly live your life, you have to learn the skill of balance. If you want to push your limits physically, mentally, or emotionally, you must give yourself time to rest and recover — always. This will ensure your mind and body can heal and prepare you for your next adventure in life. Personally, I want to live a very long life. Yet, I want to live it and not just be a bystander. Therefore, if I shave a few years off my life for doing a few extreme things, I am totally ok with it. So I’ll only live to be 102 and not 110. I can deal with that.
Your Optimal Health Coach,
Thanks so much to:
Ashley Mahaffey of www.ashleymahaffey.com, fitness strategy expert and mentor
Monica Vargas of www.mbr-fitness.com, NPC fitness and figure competitor
Dear Biggest Loser show….
Lately, as many of you know, I have been questioning EVERYTHING. What is truth? What is complete BS? And what is sitting somewhere in the grey area — which seems is pretty much everything.
Funny enough, this has made me want to write about the TV show, Biggest Loser. I see it as a show of little “real life” truth, a good dose of BS, and even more grey area. When I ask people about the show, I find that most people love this show (so I understand I may offend a few with this blog). It is very apparent that people love seeing severely obese individuals conquer their fears and lose hundreds of pounds in a matter of 3 months. We see them cry, huff-n- puff, and push through pain and fear. And then at the end, we see one lucky winner win $250,000 dollars. How inspiring. How amazing. How motivating. How VERY unhealthy. I’m sorry — I had to say it.
I don’t believe the show Biggest Loser is “healthy” at all. Yes, it may be good entertainment, it may offer some inspiration, and tug at your heart strings — but healthy it is not. Not by a long shot.
Oh, I can already hear Bob and Jillian or Anna (the new trainer) yelling at me… “But we are saving lives!” Really? Are you really saving lives — or are you allowing America to believe that health is achieved with 8-hour long workouts, extreme calorie restriction, and an unbalanced/unrealistic life (by removing each of these people from the real world)? These 3 things, if continued long term, will eventually do more harm than good.
Still a doubter? Let me explain why I believe the Biggest Loser is creating more harm than good in a society that is focused on quick and immediate results.
1. Unhealthy weight loss. It is not uncommon for a contestant on the Biggest Loser to drop 10, 20, or even 30 pounds in one week. Wow — how amazing! First, most of us know that the majority of that weight loss is simply water weight, right? What you may not know is losing more than 1 to 2 pounds of fat per week can overburden your liver, kidney, immune system, thyroid, digestive system, and skin. Your fat tissue holds toxins, and when your body starts releasing fat from storage, these toxins are released into your system. The toxins have to go through a detoxification process before your body finally expels them via your sweat, urine, or feces. The human body is not designed to handle this kind of heavy detoxifying process in a short period of time, which is what happens during super-rapid fat loss, like on the Biggest Loser show. Weight loss is healthiest when it is slow, and the body is allowed to adjust and detoxify at a normal level. Optimally, this is about 1 to 2 pounds a week — not 30. But 30 makes good TV.
2. Exercising. Working out anywhere from 4 to 8 hours a day is not only unhealthy, but is completely unrealistic. Any workout lasting over 45 to 60 minutes makes your body start releasing excess levels of stress hormones — cortisol and adrenaline. Although, both of these hormones may encourage weight loss, they put a huge burden on your system — not only breaking down fat, but muscle, organ, and bone tissue. Long-term, chronic elevated stress hormones will lower your metabolic rate, causing stress to the thyroid, adrenal glands, liver, heart, and every muscle in your body.
3. Nutrition. The constant food advertising on the Biggest Loser irritates the crap out of me. We must remember, it is a reality TV show built around making money. The show pushes a low fat, low calorie lifestyle. So it pushes certain foods and diet plans that correlate with this — and they make even more money doing so. The Biggest Loser not only gets advertising money from certain brands with low calorie processed foods (like 100 calorie snack packs, spray butter, Extra gum, egg substitutes, and protein bars), but it now markets and sells its own Biggest Loser food plan. There is nothing like a highly processed 300-calorie meal to get you going. We must remember that real, unprocessed, whole food is always best. Processed foods are dead foods. True health will never be achieved eating dead foods.
4. Diet. Most of the contestants are eating anywhere from 800 to 1800 calorie diets and working out 4 to 8 hours a day. Of course, they are going to lose weight. They are starving their bodies. Anyone who goes from 5000 calories down to 1000 a day is going to lose weight at a rapid pace. To be fair, the show needs to be honest and tell viewers, the Biggest Loser is a place where we put 15 contestants under constant food deprivation and exercise stress for 3 months — and whoever survives wins!
5. The Prize. I just finished reading the book Drive by Daniel Pink. Drive is a book about what motivates us and how we can teach others to become and stay motivated. Pink clearly advocates NOT using prizes or money to get people to do something, like lose weight. To lose weight and keep it off, motivation needs to be intrinsic instead of extrinsic — in other words, it should come from within. Weight loss should not be reward-driven, like the carrot-on-a-stick approach. Why? For several reasons:
1. Rewards can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviors (see examples below).
2. Rewards can foster short-term thinking. After the season is over, most contestants put all the weight back on, and then some.
3. Rewards can extinguish intrinsic behaviors. The contestants start to lose focus of real health and will do just about anything to stay on the show and try to win the prize.
Two great examples of Pink’s theories are Ryan Benson and Kai Hibbard.
Check out what season one winner Ryan Benson had to say about his experience:
“I wanted to win so bad that the last 10 days before the final weigh-in, I didn’t eat one piece of solid food! If you’ve heard of “The Master Cleanse”, that’s what I did. It’s basically drinking lemonade made with water, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. The rules of the show said we couldn’t use any weight-loss drugs. Well, I didn’t take any drugs. I just starved myself! Twenty-four hours before the final weigh-in, I stopped putting ANYTHING in my body, liquid or solid. Then I started using some old high school wrestling tricks. I wore a rubber suit while jogging on the treadmill, and then spent a lot of time in the steam room. In the final 24 hours, I probably dropped 10 to 13 pounds in just pure water weight. By the time of the final weigh-in, I was peeing blood.
Was this healthy? Heck no! My wife wanted to kill me, if I didn’t do it to myself first. But I was in a different place, I knew winning the show could put us in a better place financially, and I was willing to do some crazy stuff. All this torture I put myself through has had no lasting effects on me (that I know of) and at the time, it was sort of a fun adventure for me. But I am sure it wreaked havoc on my system.
In the 5 days after the show was over, I gained about 32 pounds. Not from eating, just from getting my system back to normal (mostly re-hydrating myself). So in 5 days, I was back up to 240. Crazy!”
Ryan Benson gained roughly 90 pounds back after the season was over.
Another example is Kai Hibbard (season 3 finalist) who reports in an interview with ABC:
“Before the last episode of the Biggest Loser, I dehydrated myself so I could take off 19 pounds in the last 2 weeks before weigh-in. I stopped eating solid foods, had 2 colonics, and sat in a sauna for hours before the weigh-in. Two weeks after the show was over, I put on 31 pounds. My hair started to fall out in clumps, I hadn’t had my period in 3 months, and I could only sleep 3 hours each night.”
Kai Hibbard says she fights everyday to find some stability with her weight.
6. The trainers. Nothing says tough-love more than watching Jillian Michaels or Anna Kornakova make a 300-pound, 50-year old women run on a treadmill at 8mph for 30 seconds (after working out for hours and hours). I have seriously watched every trainer on this show scream and yell at contestants while putting them at high risk for injury or even death. Are you kidding me? There is so much wrong with this scenario. Hey Jillian, why don’t you try running on a treadmill with a 180-pound pack on your back, at 8mph, for 30 seconds. You might find it to be a little damaging to the joints of your knees, ankles, and hips. You may also find your hormonal system may start to go haywire with the huge amounts of cortisol and adrenaline you are causing to be released due to overstressing your adrenals, thyroid, and heart.
As a health professional with over 17 years of experience, I speak to people daily about weight issues, hormonal issues, and health issues. I let them know that good health is a journey. It may take months or even years for the body to heal and truly get healthy. People are so conditioned to getting things immediately — I find they get frustrated VERY quickly when the weight just doesn’t fall off, or when they don’t feel better in a week. Sorry — you can’t treat your body like crap for 10, 20, or 40 years and expect that a month or two of healthy eating and exercise will fix everything. It takes time to repair the damage and see results.
I feel it is more apparent than ever that the American way is built on short term, quick fixes and instant gratification. Quick weight loss, quick financial returns, fast food, etc. We want it fast — and anything less than instant is unacceptable, too slow, or doesn’t work. If things do not happen immediately, most people want to throw in the towel and give up. Well, we are now seeing the results of quick weight loss and quick financial returns. The American people are fatter and unhealthier than ever. And our economy is… well, about the same. So the question is this: “Is what we are doing really working long-term? I think it is clear that the answer is NO.
The biggest problem with shows like the Biggest Loser is the ongoing message they relay to viewers — workout more and eat less = weight loss (true) and health (not true).
When we focus on trying to accomplish a weight loss goal the quickest way possible, we lose focus of “real health” and find that in the long run, we end up hurting ourselves — not only physically, but mentally as well. It is time to look at “getting healthy” differently. It’s time to commit to doing things the “right way” instead of making short cuts. Then, and only then, can we create a belief system that will support a truly healthy lifestyle. Sorry, Biggest Loser — you are not a winner with me.
Your Optimal Health Coach,