Tag Archive for: “is thin healthy?”

Thin is fit….or is it?

There is much debate at the moment regarding the body weight of women like Kate Middleton, The Duchess of Cambridge and Leanne Rimes the popular US country music singer. Are these young women healthy and fit or not? My friend and colleague Nutritional Practitioner and Personal Trainer Ian Craig addresses the “Thin is fit” notion………..

There is a prevailing dogma within the health and fitness industry that deserves some serious discussion. We are in an era of ‘thin is fit’, which perhaps stems from the fitness boom of the 1970’s and 80’s when the mass public of the Western World started running marathons and watching their dietary fat intake. The approach doesn’t appear to have worked particularly well but nonetheless, the increasing struggle with our waistlines has probably added to the perception that ‘thin is fit’.

So how do we become thin and fit? Well, if you follow the trends of the fitness clubs and popular health magazines, you will spend an hour per day on a treadmill or X-trainer and eat low-Calorie, low-fat food. The problem is that long-term, this approach is generally ineffective. The usual trend is for the body weight to initially drop, but to stabilise after a while. In an effort to drop more weight, the person may increase the cardiovascular exercise and further restrict the calories. This may or may not result in ‘thinness’ depending on the individual’s body type, but when you actually measure percentage body fat, it is often at surprisingly high levels.

Introducing Sarcopenia
Would you believe me if I told you that many skinny models are actually fat? They don’t look fat, but their body fat might exceed 30% of total body weight, compared to healthy levels of 20-25% for women and athletic levels of 15-20%. Looking at figure 1, both slim women appear the same, but one has a healthy body composition and the other a high percentage body fat plus accompanying health risks.

If you have done your maths, a bolstered fat-mass with the same body weight means a reduced muscle mass. There is actually a term for this; “Sarcopenia”, which in Greek means ‘poverty of flesh’! It is mostly used to describe the gradual loss of muscle mass as we get older,1 but is entirely relevant to individuals caught on the dieting/exercise cycle.

Of course, people who are outwardly overweight also often have depleted muscle mass and can produce some quite meagre strength outputs. In comparison, strength-based sports people (such as rugby and weight lifting) will often weight a lot, but are extremely lean because they carry a lot of muscle-mass.

Exercise for Fitness, not Fatness
If the high-Cardio, low-Calorie approach doesn’t produce the leanest, fittest body, then what does? Try combining some resistance exercise with CV training, along with appropriate eating patterns for your body type.

Resistance Training
Due to an increase in muscle mass, resistance exercise is thought to raise an individual’s metabolic rate. A meta-analysis and literature review have supported this viewpoint by observing that resistance exercise is effective in facilitating improvements in body composition, which may be due to its ability to increase or maintain lean body mass.2, 3 In my practical experience, resistance training, via free-weights, machine weights, circuits or core stability training can be an extremely effective and rapid way of improving body composition.

Cardiovascular Training
You may be mistaken in thinking after reading the previous paragraphs that CV exercise leads you into a state of Sarcopenia and puts your fat-loss efforts into jeopardy. CV training is often used as the base of a weight-loss programme: the respected American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)4 recommends progressively increasing exercise to 3 – 5 hours of exercise per week. After-all, we were designed to move and traditional workers (like my shepherd example in the last edition) generally stay lean and fit into old age. The problem comes when Caloric restriction is maintained for prolonged periods along with heavy CV exercise – excessive strain is put onto the adrenal glands, pancreas and liver to support blood sugar levels without adequate fuel intake and metabolic suppression tends to follow.

What is the optimum intensity to do CV training at? 14 pre-menopausal untrained women demonstrated that exercise training at 45% of maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) produced a greater weight loss than burning the same number of Calories at 72% of VO2max, whereas the higher intensity exercise tended to maintain muscle mass.5

Practical Recommendations
Based on the theory of fat-loss that I have presented to you, along with experiential observations, I would suggest the following: If you are already quite fit, aim for at least 3 hours of cardiovascular training per week (perhaps 2 hours of low- to moderate-intensity and 1 hour of high-intensity) and at least 1 hour of resistance training per week (2 X 30min sessions).

If you are starting from a low fitness base, the most appropriate approach may be to start with a low-intensity exercise such as walking. In this way, the programme will be achievable, doesn’t require specialised equipment and may be more successful than a formal exercise approach: compliance to exercise referral programmes can be as low as 31%.6 Over-weight individuals should aim to accumulate an hour of low-intensity exercise most days7 and tools like step counters and activity diaries may be helpful to boost adherence. Resistance-based exercise can be done by anyone and you can chose from formal weight-training, super-circuits (in most S African gyms) or Pilates and tone classes. The basic requirement is to use large muscle groups in a repetitive way until some fatigue is felt. Some sample weight training exercises are shown in Table 1.

Additionally, your exercise experience must be enjoyable: Activities such as dancing, swimming, cycling and exercise classes can be shared with family or friends. In addition to planned exercise sessions, spontaneous minor activity can account for 20% of the differences of energy expenditure in a 24 hour time frame.8 Therefore, general activity, such as house work, gardening, walking to the shops and taking the stairs instead of the elevator can be extremely accumulative.

Does Food Matter?
It is important to note before concluding this article that in my professional career, I have never helped an individual towards a ‘lean and mean’ body shape without some attention to their food intake. The fat-loss effects of exercise can be potentiated by the addition of an individual meal plan. For example, a meta-analysis of 493 studies showed weight lost through exercise, diet or diet plus exercise to be 2.9, 10.7 and 11.0 kg respectively for the period of study.9 At one-year follow-up, diet plus exercise tended to be the superior program, possibly due to maintenance of muscle mass.

For an effective ‘fit, not fat’ programme, many components of health should be considered. A comprehensive exercise programme which maintains or increases lean muscle mass should certainly be an integral part of your plans. In addition to potentiating fat-loss, you are likely to experience many of the considerable health benefits that I discussed in the last edition.

  • Table 1
    Weight Training Exercises for Fat Loss
    Squats or Leg Press
    Bench Press or Chest Press
    Bent-Over Row or Seated Row
    Lunges or Step-ups
    Ab Crunchies on a Fit Ball or Floor
    Back Extensions on a Frame or Floor

Complete 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions for each exercise. After a 2-4wk period of getting used to the exercises, choose a weight that produces failure within 12reps in your final set. If you are new to weight training, I thoroughly recommend seeking a good Personal Trainer to get you started.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.charlenehutsebaut.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/ian-headshot.jpg[/author_image] [author_info] Ian has more than 20 years’ experience as a competitive Middle Distance runner and is now a recreational triathlete. He studied Exercise Physiology to MSc level in America, before qualifying as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and spending several years as a Personal Trainer and Coach. Now a Nutritional Therapist, he integrates the two, often disparate, fields of Sports Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy in an applied way so that both health and performance of athletes are considered. He leads and lectures on the Competitive Athlete post-grad programme at CNELM (The Centre for Nutrition Education and Lifestyle Management) during his annual trips to the UK. Now based in South Africa, Ian lectures at Stellenbosch university, runs nutrition clinics and workshops and coaches runners and triathletes. www.craigcoaching.com Ian has nutrition and coaching practices in both London and South Africa. Reach him at ian@craigcoaching.com www.craigcoaching.com[/author_info] [/author]


1. Marcell TJ, Sarcopenia: Causes, Consequences and Preventions. Journal of Gerontology 2003; 58A(10): 911-916.
2. Ballor, DL & Keesey RE, A meta-analysis of the factors affecting exercise-induced changes in body mass, fat mass and fat-free mass in males and females. Int J Obes 1991; 15(11): 717-726.
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