“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought, with some reason, that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
— ALBERT CAMUS, THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS
When I see an overweight person slogging away on the treadmill, I think to myself: that person is a goddamn hero.
Here’s the dirty little secret that fit and muscular people don’t mention in their Instagram #fitspo posts: if you’re already in decent shape, you can get away with all kinds of shenanigans.
It’s been years since I last counted calories. Hardly a day goes by without committing some minor sin; an ice cream here, a fizzy drink there. I’m quite partial to pizza. I rarely do more than three hours of exercise a week.
In spite of all this, I’ve probably never been fitter. Blood pressure, lipids, resting heart rate; all fine and dandy. And it’s easy.
This is not meant to be an elaborate humblebrag. It’s infuriating when people do something hard, then act like it was effortless. I promise I’m not trying to be cute. The point of this post is that momentum is a force of nature.
Everyone is at least vaguely aware of how interest and debt work: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But money is not the only thing that compounds. Momentum seems to be an underlying feature of the universe; an entropy pump responsible for everything from the coalescence of galaxies, to towering sequoias, to income inequality. Recently, I realized that it also extends to waistlines:
The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer
The fit get fitter, and the fat get fatter
It takes a special kind of nastiness to blame the poor for their own misfortune. The naive view is that they should just try harder, work their way up, and generally stop being losers. There’s a tiny grain of truth there, if you squint, but it’s blind to the systemic forces at work.
Fat-shaming is equally myopic. Even if we accept that we are wholly responsible for our decisions—which may go back as far as childhood, were probably influenced by genetics, and certainly by our environment—those initial steps set us on a path which becomes increasingly difficult to deviate from.
To understand how this works, it might help to look at it from the opposite direction. What’s life like for a moderately fit and muscular person? Well, everything works in your favor. The wind is at your back. You’ve got momentum. Let us count the ways:
1. High testosterone
Testosterone levels in men are closely linked with body fat.1 Belly fat in particular harbors aromatase, an enzyme which converts the male sex hormone into estrogen. The leaner you are, the easier it is to build muscle and burn fat, the better your hormonal balance, and so on.2
2. Faster metabolism
The more lean mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate. Muscles are expensive to maintain, and they’re burning calories all the time. Even when you’re sitting on your ass!3 For example, my basal metabolic rate has changed by as much as 400 calories a day, depending on how much lean weight I’m carrying. After factoring in activity levels, it’s more like ~1000 calories.
3. Flexible eating
Having a few hundred extra calories to play with every day gives you a whole lot of leeway. There’s certainly no need for super restrictive diets. Martin Berkhan, who looks like he’s carved out of marble, likes to devour entire cheesecakes at a sitting. As far as I can tell, there is literally no downside to occasionally performing these kinds of feats (apart from having your Thanksgiving invite rescinded). There is a superpower which allows people to eat an entire cheesecake in a sitting, and suffer zero negative consequences. I can’t believe we’re not talking about this all the time.
4. Insulin sensitivity
Muscles are big old glucose sinks. After you eat a meal, your liver only has so much room for short-term storage of sugars. Fortunately, the spillover can be stashed in your muscles4 The bigger your sinks, the better your insulin sensitivity, and the lower your risk of becoming pre-diabetic.
This is one of the reasons why an athletic person can get away with eating the dreaded high-fructose corn syrup, or pop tarts, or cheesecake, or whatever. Sometimes, simple sugars are beneficial. Floyd Mayweather chugs Coke during his training sessions. You can argue about whether it’s ‘optimal’ (probably not to his face) but it sure isn’t going to hurt him.
5. Vitamins and minerals
Simply eating more food is an underappreciated way of getting enough micronutrients. If you’re taking in 3500 calories and aren’t a total slob, you’ll be over the RDI for most-everything without even trying. By contrast, someone on a measly 1300 calories has to be extra careful to cover all the bases, which makes their diet even more restrictive.
6. Muscle memory
If you take a few weeks or months off, it’s not the end of the world. It takes much less time to regain muscle than to build it in the first place. The body remembers, and it wants to go back there.5
7. Enjoyment and motivation
The fitter and stronger you are, the more enjoyable exercise tends to be. Partly because you can pull off more impressive feats; mostly because it sucks less. I hated running until I built up some basic cardio fitness. Now I merely strongly dislike it.
And so, I can’t honestly claim the few hours I spend exercising are a ‘sacrifice’, or proof of my ability to defer gratification. They’re occasionally joyous, usually fun, and at the very least, satisfying.6
8. Cruise control
I can’t pretend exercise requires any heroic effort, either. It’s so thoroughly ingrained as a habit that it no longer takes much in the way of willpower. Sure, I’ll blow off a session now and again. But in the last 10 years, I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than a month without consistently doing some kind of resistance training.7 This might be the one area of my life where I have no trouble with self-discipline.
The Virtuous Cycle
Notice how none of these effects operate in isolation. The fitter you are, the better your hormonal and metabolic health, the lower your bodyfat, the more relaxed you can be with your diet, the more fun life is, the more motivation you have to train, the cooler feats you can perform, the deeper the habit is ingrained, and so on, in an endless positive feedback loop.
In fact, it’s even better than that. Almost all these factors are mutually reinforcing. If you do screw up, and drunkenly devour an entire box of cereal, or take a week off from the gym to clock a new video game, it’s no biggie. Any one link in the chain can seize up for a while, and the cycle will keep on turning without it.
It’s not a loop, so much as it is a spiral:
A Brief Aside…
To head off the horde of buff people furiously power walking to my house right now: this is not meant to imply that athletes have it easy, or to diminish their achievements, sacrifice, and general impressiveness. Please don’t roundhouse kick me in the face!
Momentum has diminishing returns. Pro athletes are the equivalent of the rocket scientists at NASA, trying to push the boundaries of the possible. They’re running up against hard physical limits; putting in more and more effort for smaller and smaller gains.
That’s a completely different scenario to what we’re talking about here. I am a rank amateur, with no competitive ambitions. To extend the rocket analogy, I think the average person would be quite happy to get into space in the first place, where they can cruise along with zero resistance at 32,000kph.
The Vicious Cycle
Way back down on Earth, the big guy on the treadmill is still pounding away. Gravity is working against him; literally and metaphorically.
Think of how much thrust a rocket has to produce to leave the launchpad. It only starts to pick up speed as it burns off fuel, and eventually escapes the Earth’s gravitational pull. Even if it voyaged all the way to the surface of Mars, half the energy would have been consumed in that first gruelling 400km ascent.
Treadmill-guy has a body fat level of 35 per cent, which means his testosterone is much lower than it otherwise would be. He’s in a strict calorie deficit, so his metabolism has slowed down, in an endlessly frustrating game of cat-and-mouse. He can’t eat many of the foods he loves. Exercise physically hurts his joints.
Maybe he feels self-conscious about going to the gym at all. Maybe he feels like the guys lifting big weights are judging him. Quite possibly, they are judging him. Exercise is not an ingrained habit, so he has to force himself to do it with sheer bloody-mindedness, every single time.
And, of course, he’s hungry. Something like 95 per cent of people who lose weight put it all back on. Almost every attempt is doomed to fail. This is the worst part of all, which makes everything else pale in comparison.
Fit people have muscle memory; overweight people have ‘fat memory’. Even after slimming right down, their hormones and metabolism remain out of whack. It can take six years to re-calibrate a new setpoint. Imagine six years of always being hungry, of steely discipline, of having to fight against your own body, which is trying to drag you down at every turn.
Notice how none of these effects operate in isolation. They’re all mutually reinforcing. The guy on the treadmill has to push the boulder up the mountain, every day. And if he stumbles, he slips backwards faster and faster, until he’s right back at the bottom again.
Fat people who are trying to lose weight are heroes, engaged in a struggle worthy of Sisyphus. Every conceivable force is leveled against them. Let’s not make it any harder than it already is.
It looks like I’ve accidentally ended up writing a mini-series on momentum, in the domains of wealth, popularity, and now, health. In real life, obviously there’s no clean delineation between these fields. For the final post, I want to look at some of the higher-level interactions, and try to tie it all together. UPDATE: Here it is.
- The relationship is not as straightforward for women, but being overweight can cause abnormalities in sex hormones, and vice versa. Apologies if this article is a bit male-centric; I’m more comfortable talking about my personal experience, and some of the specifics are more complicated in women, but the general principles are the same for everyone.
- Up to a point – if you’re a bodybuilder about to step on stage at 4 per cent body fat, your endocrine system is all kinds of messed up. The sweet spot for men seems to be around 10-15 per cent.
- At rest, muscles don’t actually use up much energy. But they still burn three to five times more calories than fat, and if you’re regularly strength training, they’re almost always in a state of repair, not rest. Your metabolism remains elevated for up to 24 hours, on top of the calories burned during the exercise itself.
- The liver can store ~100g of glycogen; your muscles can store ~400g. All together, that’s about 2000 calories’ worth of fuel.
- Muscle cells are so big that they need more than one nucleus. As they grow, the surrounding cells heroically sacrifice their own nuclei to the noble cause of getting you jacked. These ‘myonuclei’ each control a certain area of the muscle fibre, and stick around for years after the contractile proteins have atrophied. When you start training again, they ramp up protein synthesis, and expand their deflated domain to its former glory. You also benefit from the colloquial ‘muscle memory’ (motor learning) which takes place in the brain: once you’ve drilled a skill long enough, it becomes automatic.
- See the wireheading post for the distinction between hedonic happiness and meaning/satisfaction.
- I’m deliberately steering clear of ‘advice’ in this post, but it would be remiss not to at least mention that strength training has a much higher ROI than cardio. Of the eight effects listed, only the two psychological factors (willpower and enjoyment) could reasonably be said to apply to cardio: it doesn’t burn many calories, doesn’t build lean mass, and is gained and lost quickly (there is no ‘cardio memory’).
I really enjoyed this post! Kind of related to the momentum thing – I often find myself thinking “It’s hard work being lazy”. In that if you do things properly (e.g. exercise and diet) life is much easier and more fun. If you are lazy, then it’s hard to climb stairs, you have health problems etc etc. This also applies to taking shortcuts at work, which would often causes more effort to fix things that go wrong rather than doing in properly in the first place. Similar to cleaning the house – it’s not that hard and it means you live in a nice place which improves your mood, as opposed to being a depressed slob, which makes everything harder.
Hey Hayden, “it’s hard work being lazy” is a great way of putting it, gonna have to steal that one. I think there are some weird edge cases where cutting corners/putting in the least possible effort is the best strategy, but as a general rule you’re much better off doing it properly the first time.
Awesome gif! I’d noticed that feedback loops aren’t actually loops, but hadn’t put it together like that before. Thanks for making it.
Wow, Rich, you’re tackling a big one here. Good on ya, for getting a good start on the conversation. This does help by showing the scale of the mountain faced by so many. It’s like there are two mountains actually, the food one and the fitness one. We need to push the rock up the food mountain a bit, pin it with a stone and head over to the Fitness mountain and push that rock up some more, then back to the food one, and on and on. And the stones are slowly slipping back down hill. There are also two other factors should be considered as well – negative social influences (also difficult but surmountable), and genetically predisposed conditions affecting obesity – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5359373/ (not so surmountable). For those lower on the mountain, the road to transforming from an “unhealthy/unfit” person to a “healthy/fit” person isn’t possible without an absolute faith/belief/religion (whatever you want to call it) to change your life on to a different path. The social obstacle may be the toughest to overcome for some people. I have come to realize in my fifties and after overcoming some health issues that pulled me back down the mountain that now being in the higher percentile of fitness level is an absolute privilege – fostered along by my economic status, genetics, sex, race, nationality, gender, and positive social influences. Yes, the fat people are heroes, as well as those beating back social pressures in the circles of lives.
Hey George, thanks for the comment. All good points – especially the social influence. I remember reading that people with overweight friends are more likely to be overweight, which seems plausible. Also, I was actually tempted to use a phrase like ‘thin privilege’ in this post, but I decided it was probably too inflammatory – that kind of us-and-them language is not a very good tool for persuading people.
Are there any readings to go with this post Rich?
There’s a book called The Compound Effect which is very self-helpy, but gives a simple overview of the importance of momentum.
On the nutrition/health side of things, Peter Attia, Rhonda Patrick, and Stephen Guyenet stand out to me as unusually trustworthy and interesting. This Invest Like the Best episode with Peter Attia is one of my all-time favourites. Rhonda Patrick has been on Joe Rogan several times, and has her own show. Stephen Guyenet has been on Rationally Speaking, and wrote a book called The Hungry Brain which sounds very promising, and which is reviewed nicely here. For evidence-based fitness writing, I’d nominate Greg Nuckols. Let me know if there’s anything in particular you’re interested in, and I can send you my sources/research!
Thanks – I just placed a massive order for some of this material from the library
Thanks for standing up for the overweight. I used to be thin before Uni and never had to worry about food or find it difficult to exercise. All changed since than and now I am seriously overweight by 45kg. Coincidently just started on another exercise/diet regime but may change a few things after reading this article now
Hey Sharil – all the best with the new regime.
Yeah, but then you have to consider how they got to be so fucking fat in the first place. I once hit 25%-ish bodyfat and I literally could not stop thinking about the fatness and flabbiness of my various body parts, to the point that it was pretty much fatally distracting to whatever deep work I was trying to do at the moment. It was perpetually discomforting; it felt like how I imagine being covered in slime would feel like. Ick.
Now, that is quite unfair. Many are fat from childhood, and it is hard when you have always been fat and have no idea what it is like to be thin. I am somewhat lucky in that despite being overweight, I have always been an active person and have managed to lose weight, but it is very, very easy to gain it back. One bad week can spiral quickly. The percentages for people who are obese slimming to normal and staying there are pretty much non-existent. And 25%-ish body fat is not even obese, now is it? Maybe they tried and failed so often that they gave up. Shit happens.
Now, the super morbidly obese people are another thing, but it is quite easy to perpetually be overweight with no real way of slimming down to normal without superhuman dedication and will every day for the next decade.
Valid point. If you were fat from childhood, some leeway is deserved. Also, you have my condolences.
But, still, there’s a limit. Past the age of majority, we hold people fully responsible for crimes they commit against others; I see no reason to not hold someone fully responsible for the crimes he commits against himself.
I would encourage every fatty to get fit, and I’ll be the first to congratulate every erstwhile fatty on bucking their biological destiny. In addition, I’ll give the fatty armada a bit of very helpful advice: cut out the carbs. That’s as close as it gets to a “magic solution”. Just stop eating everything with wheat, corn syrup, sugar, and flour. All calories should come from meat, milk, cheese, the odd fruit (I like dates, the little sugar bombs), and vegetables. (Make sure, also, to get the occasional organ meat, mostly liver, mostly Braunschweiger.) I assure you, it is quite impossible to sustain obesity on such a diet. The hunger will vanish and the fat will melt away never to return. And once you can see abs, you can eat the occasional potato, bowl of rice, or entire cheesecake without fuss.
Eh, most people are nowhere near that strong willed. Even most slim people eat like crap and end up getting fat as they get older and metabolism slows down, etc.
Mind you, I am not disagreeing with what you wrote, but that most people are not strong enough to do that. To many, obesity is normal. The whole 70% of the US is overweight, and at least 30% is obese statistic. Life. Many other countries are only a decade behind the US in obesity statistics.
I mean, I am losing weight, but it involves being hungry every day for now. I can rationalize and cut out unhealthy (delicious) food, but there are many who have no or negative support in friends who always encourage them to eat shittily. Not disagreeing with your comment, but still. This is, unfortunately, the new normal. I’m lucky in that I’m not from the US and never really ate like them growing up.
For the diet you suggested, be careful of the milk and cheese as many people, including me, are somewhat lactose intolerant; less whites, more blacks. Ah, genetics. My favourite fruit is banana, because even you Americans have not managed to get that one too sweet. Seriously, the fruit in the US is unnaturally sweet.
Liver is delicious if cooked right. And someone would manage to be obese by overeating something, probably the cheese or fruit. Fruits might be healthy, but there is a lot of sugar in them.