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Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

This was a phrase that came up in a conversation with my 16-year-old son the other weekend while we were on one of our longer, slower, Sunday morning runs.

The context wasn’t around actual chickens and eggs, but rather in relation to which came first with regard to societal health: a highly processed sugar and carb diet, driven by food and drink manufacturers motivated to keep us on the couch eating more and more of their products, or a less active population that is becoming to seeking energy from the burning of sugar, not fat.

It’s an interesting question and one that stimulated a really great conversation for most of our run.

Now please forgive me in advance, because I know the words I’ll use to describe my thoughts may not be very scientific, but I figured that sharing what I helped me as I began to refocus on pursuing a healthy mind and body again, may be of interest and value to others too.

To give you a bit of context, as a boxer, pro runner, and triathlete in my younger days, nutrition, exercise, and general health have always been a top priority to me. I even studied herbal medicine at one stage to expand my understanding of the body and how it responds to nutrition!

I’ve learned a lot in my 50+ years, and probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that processed carbs and sugars have been at the heart of every injury or crash I’ve experienced – both physically and mentally!

I’m motivated to share this basic information because I’m passionate about helping people live their best lives and avoiding unnecessary pain. It’s the same reason I set up CodeSafe Solutions to support workers by giving them a tool that allows them to access visual learning where and when they need it most, on the job. And it’s also why I set up the Braveheart Freedom Fighters charity to tackle the mental health epidemic in our society.

The exercise and heart rate connection

Today, I’m going to try and explain what I’ve learned about staying well physically and exercising sensibly by way of a 4 x 4 analogy.

I’m using this analogy because it really helped my son understand how training to a lower heart rate until an aerobic fitness base is achieved is connected to what foods we end up craving and how both these things impact our overall health.

Very simply put, we have two systems within our bodies that work to create energy, the aerobic system, and anaerobic system: one converts fats and proteins for energy, and one converts sugars.

When you’re active and exercise, your increased heart rate determines which of these is being burnt to create the energy and in what ratio.

If you exercise and your heart rate exceeds a certain rate, your body looks for quick energy sources, and so it turns to sugars because they’re quick and easy to covert. This energy metabolism pathway uses your anaerobic system and is good for short bursts, but not for an extended effort because sugars are used up quickly and also create a lot of acid waste products that we need to get rid of.

Anaerobic exercise for extended periods of time can also create a heap of challenges within your body, including joint and muscle pain, hormonal imbalances, and even cancer.

Whereas, if you learn and have the patience to train at a lower heart rate for a period of six to twelve months and condition your body to activate your aerobic system, which looks for fat as its main fuel source, your body stays more alkaline and can keep going for longer with fewer injuries and long term side effects.

Think of your body as a 4 x 4

Now, here comes the 4 x 4 analogy, which really helped my son, David, understand the importance of spending time developing his aerobic system for his long-term health, not just for fitness.

Let’s say you have a 4 x 4 vehicle, and, like many 4 x 4’s, it has two fuel tanks. One tank carries 100litres, and the other carries 10litres and, depending on how hard you rev the engine, fuel will be drawn from one tank or the other.

The 100litre tank represents our aerobic system, primarily drawing on fat and protein resources, and the 10litre tank represents our anaerobic system, primarily drawing on sugar resources.

As you drive along, changing up through the gears gradually and gathering speed, while maintaining lower rev’s, the fuel needed to move is being drawn from the larger fuel tank (our body’s fat resources) with only a little being drawn from the smaller fuel tank (our sugar resources), meaning we can go much further and longer, without much wear and tear on the engine and vehicle.

As soon as the revs of the engine increase too much, even if you’re driving more slowly but in the wrong gear, the fuel source will be forced to flick across to the sugar tank and draw less from the fat tank. This means you can’t go as far or as long without running out of fuel, and the higher revs will cause increased wear and tear on the engine and more waste to be produced.

Sadly, the longer the 4 x 4 is driven at high revs, and you don’t learn how to drive just as fast, but at lower revs, the mechanism gets more and more stuck in a position where the only tank the fuel is being drawn from is the small (sugar) one.

How this affects your body

When you train your body like this until the only place it knows where to look for energy from is sugar, you will always end up craving the stuff, because obviously, you need to keep filling that small tank again and again.

Because fuel stations aren’t available every few kilometers, this becomes relatively impossible to do consistently, so when you run out of sugar, but still keep revving on high, your body eventually switches to survival or ‘limp’ mode to slow down the rate of calories being burnt. Your brain takes over to protect you from burning out, and you end up feeling tired and sluggish, with no motivation to exercise, and the weight gain cycle starts. Essentially it programs you to ‘shut down’ in many, many ways.

What I find really sad, is that I see it again and again, where people get ‘motivated’ to get fit and healthy, and they commit to it and really put in a lot of effort and discipline. The only problem is that they exercise too hard, for too short a period of time and just burn sugar. And before you know it, they’ve fallen off the wagon, they are sore and sick and tired, and they just give up on the whole thing.

If only they started slowly, trained their body to burn fat, not sugar, and were kind to themselves….they’d develop a sustainable aerobic foundation that, once developed, would stay with them for life.

Tips for health and fitness

If you want to make the change from tired to terrific, the first step is to start a simple exercise regime that includes a warm-up period, an exercise period, and a cool-down period, while strictly following a maximum heart rate limit using a heart rate monitor.

The optimum heart rate to work within to build a strong aerobic foundation, is 180 beats per minute, less your age. So, if you’re 40 years old, your maximum exercise heart rate should not exceed 140 beats per minute. At first, you may be frustrated and feel that you’re ‘not really exercising’, but over time, as your aerobic foundation builds, you will find that you have to work harder and harder to get into that optimum heart rate range.

If you want to learn more about the health benefits of this approach, may I suggest you check out anything from Dr. Phil Maffetone.

A great book of his: “Training for Endurance”, would also be a recommended read if you are serious about wanting to learn how to get healthy, not just fit.

I hope I’ve inspired you to be more intentional about understanding what drives your energy, your cravings, and your overall health.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the topic.

Keep well, Broadie