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Growing up on a dairy farm in northeast Wisconsin in the 1970s had its advantages. Computers were the stuff of Star Trek reruns and staying in the house was a form of punishment.
The kids in my family loved summer. We would run and bike down the road and through fresh mown fields of alfalfa. The only neighbor within striking distance was a rental property. To our great fortune the couple who moved in also had kids reasonably close to our age. They were soon sworn in members of our cult.
In the summer we would play cops and robbers on our bikes. Len was a big dude and always wanted to play the cop. The advantage we had is we were wiry kids born of solid German stock. Our lean bodies could bike faster than Len could ever hope to keep up with. The robbers won every time.
During winter we would build massive snow forts. A few winters in the mid to late 1970s included record snowfall for our little corner of the world. The snow plow would pile snow to the highline wires.
Grandma would scold us kids as we built forts in the massive banks. Finally a truce was called where we were allowed to dig our snow mansions into the side of the snow banks on the side away from the road. Those were the best of times.
Then the 1970s came to an end. Len and his brother Joel and their sister Dawn were gone. (If you guys read this please contact me. I really would like to know whatever happened to you guys. I pray you had a good life.) The first signs of financial strain were showing on the farm. I was halfway through high school.
Then the dream was over.
Fitness was never an issue in my younger days. High levels of activity kept me fit and trim. The food we ate was clean and pure, most of it raised on our own farm.
Adulthood brought with it a more sedentary life. The family farm was gone and within four years I was living the good life of retirement wondering what the heck to do with myself.
Mrs. Accountant, a new business and kiddos soon filled the wonder. I decided sitting in a chair and reading all day was fun, but hard on the body. I was still is super-great shape consuming my youthful legacy.
By the time the candles on the birthday cake reached into the 40s the legacy was gone. I was out of shape and had extra pounds.
Something had to be done. Guzzling soda no longer was fun. It upset my stomach and seemed to grow there too. No more free rides.
I took action when the scale tipped 220 pounds (100 kilograms). The weight didn’t sit nice either.
Fed up with my physical condition I started running. To my surprise I couldn’t make it a quarter mile (.4 kilometers) before stopping with my hands on knees out of breath.
The closest crossroad to my home was a quarter mile away. I insisted I make the distance. Much of it was walked, but I did make it back home. My lungs burned.
What happened to me? It was never like this?
I was shocked into action. Every day I ran. First to the corner, then a bit further. Soon my strength increased and endurance improved.
Before long I was pushing a mile (1.6 kilometers), then two, then five and even more. The weight peeled off. I even ran a half marathon and finished in a respectable time.
Weight was no longer an issue as long as I was addicted to running. Over 50 pounds (23 kilograms) was gone and I have no idea where I placed it. The wiry kid was back.
There is a difference between farm boys and runners. I lost the weight, but my muscle mass was nil outside my legs.
Once I dropped below 170 pounds (77 kilograms) I no longer looked health. I was too thin. I was hungry all the time and the unrelenting running schedule was felt in my joints and lower back. Time to go back to the drawing board.
Heavy running will peel off excess weight. It was a schedule I couldn’t keep up forever. As pleasant as a runner’s high was I needed to tweak my gameplan.
Running made me hungry all the time. I ate whatever and whenever I wanted. And I ate a lot. As much as I ate as a growing boy running all day on the farm. A half dozen eggs was a good start for a meal.
The eating had to happen with all the calories I was burning. However, no amount of strength training would add muscle since I burned every bit of food I stuffed down my throat.
I thought I could have it all! I started to workout at the gym to build muscle mass. I would cap a workout with a 10 mile run. For some reason I couldn’t build muscle. Go figure.
A trainer at the gym finally convinced me I had to ease up on the running if I wanted to build muscle. Two years later I was bench pressing 265 (120 kilograms) and squatting 370 (168 kilograms). On good days I could push even more.
I ate lean and had muscle and could run like the wind. It also took a lot of time. Then this blog came along.
You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. I think I heard that somewhere. Writing is something I love as much as the running. More time was required to write and service all the new clients. You know the story. Most of you here have lived or are living a similar timeline. Spoooooky.
The something that gave was the running. Hernia surgery didn’t end the running—I ran five miles four days out of surgery much to the doctor’s chagrin. But my muscle mass was about at a peak for my age and body type unless I wanted to go professional or extreme. My policy is exercise in moderation. (Notice I slipped the pun in?)
I kept running for a while until I joined a gym between my office and home. Three days a week I lifted, reaching the numbers listed above. I also ran three days a week with one day off.
Eventually I focused on the weight training to further enhance my appearance. Running ebbed until I wasn’t running much at all.
The weight started creeping up. Hunger was still ravenous like it was when running so the diet didn’t change when the exertion did.
If you are still with me it is because you struggled at least once in your life with body weight and/or muscle build. Western lifestyles are not conducive to a healthy body. Life is good so we MUST make an effort to retain or rebuild our health.
Weight lifting made me feel as good as running and I was starting to look pretty darn good. Mrs. Accountant couldn’t keep her hands off me. Not that I was complaining.
I kept reducing the running part of my exercise schedule because I noticed the less I ran the more muscle I built. But the pounds started adding on before long.
A year later I was at 214 pounds (97 kilograms) again, slightly less than I was as flab-boy several years back.
The good news is that a lot of the weight was muscle. But let’s be honest, there was plenty of fat on the scene too.
Some of the weight I took off eventually was added back as muscle; the rest was lard. My legs and arm were chiseled; my midsection was another story.
Men tend to put excess weight on in the stomach area first and women on the tail. Exercise can reduce this excess, but it takes a lot of work and diet MUST be a part of the process or you will never succeed unless you are lucky enough to have a body that will allow you to run 20 miles (32 kilometers) a day. And even then . . .
I needed new goals I could use the remainder of my life. Here is how I broke down my physical goals:
- Running: I want to have endurance without training to marathon levels. If I can run 5 miles (8 kilometers) comfortably on a long day and 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) on a normal day I would consider that appropriate. My goal is to run 2-3 times per week.
- Strength: Bench press: 215 pounds (98 kilograms); squats: 265 pounds (120 kilograms); bicep curls: 35 pounds (16 kilograms) per arm, et cetera.
- Weight: Ideal weight goal would be somewhere in the 180s (84 kilograms). Not too heavy and not too light. Plenty of heft for muscle and endurance, but not too much to look flabby.
Some of these physical goals would still be a stretch while I adjusted to my new diet and exercise schedule. It was okay. I didn’t have to bench the peak amount every day. If things felt good I can always lift more or run further as long as it is a periodic, rather than normal, part of my training.
The real goal was to get rid of the gut. Soda, junk food and alcohol were partly to blame. The rest of the blame lies with eating too much all the time.
The physical goals required few adjustments. I started running again at least two times a week. It didn’t take long to feel comfortable pushing two miles or so on a typical run. I also interspersed hiking and biking into the mix without reducing the run frequency.
You Are What You Eat
Activity wasn’t my problem, eating was. My craving for junk food was my great undoing. Soda is the worst. At home we don’t keep soda, but at the office we provide free beverages to clients and employees, including soda. Sometimes I can’t resist. (I’d make a joke here, but this is too serious an issue. Our lives depend on it.)
I worked hard to clean up my diet. I stopped drinking alcohol. In my younger days I drank a lot. Then I spent decades drinking almost no alcohol. It was purely a choice. Then I started drinking a bit more. Beer is not something I ever crave, but a shot or three of whisky is good. (Whisky has up to 300 calories per shot!) For the record I will still drink in social settings so don’t worry about offending me if you offer a beer. If I don’t want it I’ll say so; if I haven’t overindulged lately I’ll probably say yes.
Soda is a boogeyman in the room. I cut soda out for several weeks and now drink maybe a can or two per week. (I’m human and far from perfect.)
Snacks are the interesting part. My craving for chips, crackers and other assorted snacks is all but gone. I still eat the stuff in social setting, but at home I rarely touch the stuff and when I do it is a small portion as it doesn’t sit with me.
My goals and diet were defined. I started eating cleaner. For some reason the scale kept reading 214 pounds (97 kilograms)! What gives?
First, as I started this new phase of my life I kept eating pretty much as I always have. Even without soda, alcohol and junk food I wasn’t shedding tonnage. It was disappointing. If I lost a pound or two, hunger returned and so did the weight. I was stuck in neutral. If I were most people I could have been satisfied. I had great muscle mass with a gut. One out of two isn’t bad. Right? Wrong!
The real problem I knew existed in the back of my mind had to be addressed. I am 53 years old. Not 16, not 45; 53. Okay. Age makes a difference!
My metabolism was slowing down with age and I needed to adjust for it and/or do something to speed it back up. That is when my research discovered fasting.
I practiced fasting in the past. Never seriously, but more as a thought experiment. This is where my story has to end and the real facts get exposed so you can improve your life.
I’ll share my experiences so you have an example to guide you, but we have to talk facts. This gets serious now.
Lies, Lies and More Lies: The Intermittent Fasting Story
Is there anyone left in the room who hasn’t heard the most important meal of the day is breakfast? And it’s the biggest lie ever used to assault the health of the American people and is spreading to the rest of the world.
Two hundred years ago and prior eating breakfast was considered a form of gluttony. According to Heather Arndt Anderson is her book Breakfast: A History, nothing was consumed with the exception of coffee or tea prior to lunch.
So where did this crazy idea you had to eat first thing after jumping out of bed start? My research reveals the quote came from a 1917 article written by Lenna Cooper and published in Good Health magazine.
The breakfast cereal companies saw a grand marketing opportunity and the rest is history. You were brainwashed by a lie disguised as common knowledge. People even argue kids suffer greatly in their ability to learn if they skip breakfast. We’ll expose that lie in a bit.
First we want to go back and review what Cooper really said. She said breakfast is the most important meal of the day because it is the first. This meal should be simple, easy to digest, enjoyed with the family and not over 500 calories. Processed cereal and sugar filled products were not what Cooper recommended. I can only imagine what the marketers will do to twist my words to their advantage. Just the thought makes me nauseous.
Breakfast is important, even the most important meal of the day. You enjoy this meal around noon and it must be healthy! What makes for an ideal breakfast? Steel-cut oatmeal, fruit and nuts. Your body will thank you if you break your fast with these foods.
I fell for the ‘ol eat right away in the morning gag too. And it was near impossible to lose weight! My breakfast was healthy. Oatmeal was common, but eggs were more common. And the calorie count was low.
It also fired up the system. My pancreas released insulin to help process any sugars in the food. It doesn’t take much to get the system turned back on.
Processing food takes energy normally segregated for the brain’s use. Some people report greater mental acuity when fasting and this might be the reason why. A belly full of food diverts resources from the brain to the gut.
Once the system is turned on it wants to keep going and requires periodic refilling of the tank. The three square meals a day is another big lie.
One source I found claims Europeans started the three meals a day mantra when they arrived in the New World. It seems the Native Americans ate whenever they felt like it. The morning, noon and early evening regular meal schedule was seen by the Europeans as a sign of their sophistication whereas the Native American eating style was seen as uncivilized.
This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with better health, weight loss or intermittent fasting?
The Beginner’s Fast
I was trying everything to lose weight and it wasn’t working. Running was sure to make a difference, but if I slowed my pace in the future weight was sure to start sticking to my abs. And I am well aware of the calendar. Eventually time will slow my metabolism more and my body will be unable to deliver consistent massive runs.
My research took me to intermittent fasting. YouTube videos were a massive help, but I had to be careful. Some videos are better than others. After over 100 videos and articles I felt my level of competence was high enough to put the plan into action.
There are several types of intermittent fasting. The method I chose is sometimes called 18:6. Under this type of fasting I eat during a six hour window each day and fast the remaining 18 hours.
Other types of intermittent fasting include eating normal one day and no more than 600 calories the next. You continue alternating on and off days. Another style included fasting for an entire day one or two days a week.
I picked the 6 hours feeding window type because it didn’t require a special diet nor long-term fasts which could affect my workout performance.
The nice thing about the 18:6 fast is that you can start small. Begin by missing breakfast. Over time the feeding window should shrink until you are eating during a small timeframe each day.
I chose a feeding window in the evening. My normal eating pattern favors more evening consumption of food. Breakfast was easy to miss as I am rarely hungry early in the morning. Unless I am totally disengaged I can avoid food easier during the daytime than early evening.
My feeding window shrunk to 4-5 hours quickly without much bother. Some days I got hungry and if it was too much I ate something light. If a client wanted to have lunch, I had lunch. This wasn’t a hard and fast rule. It was a guideline I could bend when circumstances dictated as long as I didn’t find an excuse on a regular basis. I didn’t. I stayed true to the program.
The results? Well, I dropped twelve pounds (5.4 kilograms) so far. Another twelve and I will have reached the top end of my acceptable weight band.
Muscle mass is good. I don’t think I lost any muscle, but below I will share how I lost some strength when heavy lifting.
I felt better as I dropped the pounds. Running started to feel better. The lower weight made it easier to run and put less stress on the joints.
There are additional benefits to eating during a small evening window. I agree with people reporting their mental concentration improved. I no longer need to brown bag a lunch for the office either.
The best part is my body started to adjust so I rarely felt hungry during the day. Workouts and running were better before I ate. That’s right! I am heavy lifting and running after twenty hours without food! And my workouts are better now than ever.
Since I put no diet restrictions on my fasting I was worried I might binge. I found the opposite to be true. I drink less soda without cravings. Most junk food turns my stomach. My calorie intake is probably a bit lower, but I make no effort to restrict calories. Calorie restriction generally leads to muscle loss and I made muscle a priority.
The six hour feeding window (that term sounds funny to this farm boy) ended up shrinking to 4-5 hours most days. Some days I ate during a seven our window; sometimes in only a 2-3 hour window. Things were going well.
Then I did something stupid.
In the past I tried a few full-day fasts. They worked, but I found them hard to do. Twenty four hours is a long time to go without food. Now that I trained my body to go longer periods of time between eating I felt I was ready to give long-term fasting another chance.
The advantage of fasting is to train the body to burn fat. By eating all the time our body never gets a rest. It is always digesting and burning sugar (glycol). As soon as glycol runs low in the liver our body sends hungry signals to get another sugar fix.
Your body wants sugar all the time because sugar is addicting and people living in the Western world are sugar addicts. You can’t avoid the stuff.
Fasting solves the problem. After about twelve hours the liver runs out of glycol. The body then turns to glycol in the muscles (not to be confused with muscle loss) and fat. Intermittent fasting trains the body to burn fat for part of the day. That was the main reason I couldn’t lose weight when I was eating all day. Fat was never burned. I ate clean, but if I wanted to preserve muscle mass I couldn’t restrict many calories. A restricted calorie diet will cause your body to burn muscle.
My body had adjusted to 18-20 hours without food daily. It was time to try a long-term fast. I wanted to go all-in. The goal was to fast for 4-5 days. My reasoning was that after about two days the body starts killing off white blood cells and grows fresh new ones better able to fight disease. There is evidence long-term fasting can lead to longer life and even prevent cancer.
I am uncertain of the claims, but I still wanted to experience a long-term fast. Not just a day, mind you. Something I could be proud of.
Boy, did the proverbial manure hit the fan fast (notice yet another pun).
Fasting is all between the ears. You can easily live without food for a day. The average adult can live somewhere around 60 days without food. Unless you have medical issues, long-term fasting can be beneficial!
So the day was set. I was going to start on a Thursday and go until at least Sunday night without eating.
Wednesday night I ate my last food as I normally do and Thursday morning I woke up so darn hungry I could have eaten the back side out of a skunk.
What was up with that? It wasn’t even twelve hours since I had food last and I was already psyched out. If I wasn’t starting a multi-day fast I would not have eaten for another 10-12 hours anyway.
Just the thought worked on me. I wasn’t going to eat for days.
Thursday night I went to bed hungry and dreamt food. Oh, for crying out loud, Accountant! Man up!
Friday I thought of food all day. It drove me crazy. Friday is a normal gym day so I did a light workout. Long-term fasting requires rigorous exercise be reduced. Light exercise only.
By Friday night I was so mentally twisted I broke down after 48 hours and a few minutes without food. I enjoyed three eggs, if you must know.
I felt terrible for failing.
The worst part is my strength collapsed. At the gym the amount I could press was down seriously. Even running was down. Long-term fasting sapped my endurance and strength.
And I know it was all between the temples. I allowed the whole process to twist my thinking. It has been a while since mental weakness was so pronounced in me. It was a wakeup call.
All the grandstanding I read about where the first day is the hardest, then it gets easier was bull. Day two was a major slog. Mentally I was unprepared for the 4-day fast.
Back to Intermittent Fasting
I don’t give up easy. The next day I went back into my regular intermittent fasting schedule. Everything seemed fine because my brain knew I would eat that evening.
Tim Ferris said he doesn’t lose muscle when he fasts for several days. My research indicates most fasting doesn’t lead to muscle loss, whereas, calorie restriction does. Intermittent fasting can actually help increase muscle growth because you don’t necessarily eat fewer calories, but your body learns to burn fat on demand!
Intermittent fasting has helped me lose some weight while increasing my endurance. My strength is returning to normal from the long-term fast. My workouts now are actually shorter (about 20 minutes) as I started high intensity interval training (HIIT). I spend a lot of time outdoors during the summer so I get plenty of exercise outside the gym. Winter in NE Wisconsin is more of a challenge and the workouts might expand back toward an hour three times per week. Running may decline as weather restricts outdoor activities and I hate treadmills. Regardless, I think I will stick to 2-3 days of running even if it means running indoors. My runs are now only 20-30 minutes anyway so they are easy to fit in.
I don’t give up easy! That long-term fast has me mesmerized. More research is in order. With a 48 hour fast now part of my experience I plan on trying again and making it at least 72 hours with a goal of 96 hours.
Long-term, multi-day fasts should only be tried a few times per year. Intermittent fasting is something you can do daily.
When friends come over or you are at a social gathering there is no reason to enjoy a cold beer, snacks or a small meal even if it doesn’t fit your normal intermittent fasting schedule.
Remember to drink plenty of water while fasting so your body can flush out all the garbage. Tea and coffee are okay. Some people allow creamer or a small amount of sweetener in their tea or coffee. I disagree. Sugar, cream or any substitutes causes an insulin response in the body. At that point the fast is over. The goal is to avoid an insulin response for as long as possible so your body starts burning fat. Remember, insulin builds fat!
Share your experiences with fasting in the comments section. I’ll update periodically. The next long-term fast certainly deserves a mention.
Disclaimer: Whenever talking about health, diet and exercise I must remind you to use common sense. Consult with your doctor or medical professional before engaging any of the activities in this post. Also, don’t try to perform at my level. I’m in pretty good shape. You need to build to lift and run at the levels I do. Some readers are younger or in better shape than I am and will lift more and run longer than I currently do. Please keep safety in mind. I want to see you happy and healthy.
[Writing is a funny business. The process of creating a story takes time and evolves over time. In looking over my notes, here is a paragraph I wrote as part of my original outline. I must have thought it was a good idea at the time.
The best part is not having to eat all the time. Like Kim Jong-un I don’t have to eat or the thing you do after digesting the eaten food. My first game of golf I managed a hole in one on all 18 holes, just like Kim. I never sweat when I workout either. Is it any wonder I don’t own a small third world nation of my own?
Aren’t you glad I took a different approach in what I did publish? Me, too.]