Opinion Column

FIT FOR LIFE: Fat vs. muscle

By Donna Cotnam, Daily Observer

So how long do I have to work out before my fat to turns into muscle? When I stop exercising will all my muscle turn back into fat? I do sit-ups and crunches everyday, but I still can’t get rid of this roll, why not?

If I have heard those questions once I’ve heard them a thousand times. Every time I do, I realize that there are still many misconceptions about body fat and muscle. I hope to clear up a few of these misconceptions over the next two articles.

The first thing you have to understand is that ‘fat is fat’ and ‘muscle is muscle.’ They are two different types of tissues. They have different functions and react differently to exercise (training).

Fat is solely based on caloric intake. The amount of fat one has is determined by the number of calories we take in. When the body consumes excessive amounts of food (calories), be it carbohydrates, protein or dairy, it turns it into fat.

Conversely, regular exercise, sports or just being physical active will burn these calories. Knowing this, the thousands of fat cells in our body have basically three options – grow and perhaps divide, remain as is or shrink in size. We cannot decrease the number of fat cells we have, we can only reduce their size.

How your fat cells respond will be determined by how many calories you consume verses how many calories you burn.

Muscle on the other hand is very different than fat. Each muscle is made up of thousands of individual cells called fibers. Though we can not increase the number of muscle fibers we have, we can increase their size, density and performance. These changes may happen at the same time, but not necessarily to the same level. All changes will result in increased muscle strength.

An increase in strength is not related to calories or your dietary intake. Assuming that you are eating a well balanced diet, your muscles are affected by the amount of stress placed upon them. The stressors can be job related, daily chores, aerobic activity or weight-training. What you need to keep in mind is that the muscle will only react to added ‘stress’ – things you do outside of the day to day routine activities you perform.

Understanding the difference between fat and muscle is crucial in order to improve your physical health. Now let's de-bunk some myths about fat and muscle.

Fat can only be reduced if the calories spent (used) in the day exceed the calories consumed. Your body fat will increase if the opposite occurs. If you stop exercising, but decrease your caloric intake at the same time, your fat should not increase. Conversely if you start training and increase your caloric intake, odds are you will increase your fat content.

The nasty thing about body fat is that you cannot choose what part of your body you gain and loose the fat from. There is no such thing as spot reducing.

Changes in muscle size, density and efficiency can only happen when the muscle is worked (stimulated) beyond what it is accustomed to.

Weight training is the easiest way to monitor changes to your muscle composition. You do this by controlling the number of sets and reps performed as well and the amount of weight used. Unlike fat, you can target a particular muscle to achieve the desired effect (shape/size).

When you start to lose weight, you will lose muscle as well as fat. That is why when you change your eating habits you need to be sure to use all of the calories that you take in. Next you need to increase your muscular activity, since muscles burn calories. That is why a fit body burns more calories at rest, than an unfit body.

There are two things that you really want to avoid. One is yo-yo dieting. You may lose weight quickly, but it comes from the muscle and the fat. When you return to 'normal' or your regular eating habits the weight gain is all fat.

The other thing to avoid is over-training. Too much exercise can put undo stress on the body and may cause injuries.

I would like to leave you with one last image about body fat. We all know that a pound is a pound. However the size or volume of the pound is what is important. A pound of fat is much larger in volume than a pound of muscle. Muscle fibers are much denser tissues than fat cells. That is why I have always encouraged people to monitor their inches lost rather than their weight lose. It's better to go down a size or two in a pair of pants, than a pound or two on the scales.

If you are interested in knowing more about anything discussed in this column, or you have an idea or topic you would like to see addressed, please send your request to fitmom@hotmail.com .

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