Nishant is a fellow member of the Octopus Garden Yoga Studio in Toronto. I had a chat with him recently about his dramatic weight loss over the past couple of years and some of the lessons he’s learned.

Nish, I’m interested to hear about your experiments in weight loss. In 2017 you tried to lose weight merely by dieting. Although you achieved your weight loss goal, most of what you lost was muscle mass, which you didn’t want to do. And then after returning to your regular routine, you regained some of the weight. In 2018 you tried again, only this time you added a regular yoga practice and resistance exercises into the equation with dramatically improved results. Basically, this time around, you lost 5 kilos but kept your muscle mass.

Yes, David, I attempted weight loss between 2015-2017 relying solely on a big calorie deficit. My weight went down rapidly, I lost about 25 kilos in all, and that was the end of it, I thought.

25 kilos?!! Let’s not skip over that so quickly! That’s a huge weight loss. What were you eating during this time, and about how many calories per day? Did you feel well or tired during the diet? Did the lack of calories impair your thinking? What made you want to lose the weight? How did you know when to stop?

Yes, 25 kilos was a lot. I was on a calorie deficit of 800-1,000 per day for more than 6 months over the 2 years. My diet was really varied. I was eating semi-junk food initially, which made it considerably harder than it should have been. I think calorie deficits can be made much easier if one eats more whole foods. I felt cranky sometimes, but didn’t feel a big lack of energy. It’s hard to remember what motivated me in the first place. What kept me going was realizing how I felt so, so much better not being overweight. It’s like you’ve been carrying a massive backpack your whole life and then you put it down. I stopped when people started telling me I looked skinny.

Towards the end of 2018 I realized I had gained back some of it (about 5 kilos) so I decided to lose that weight, again relying on a calorie deficit with a small bit of yoga and running thrown in. I had a DEXA scan before my weight loss and one after it.

Can you explain what a DEXA scan is please?

DEXA is a bone density scan which also gives you other metrics like how much of your body weight is made up of fat and how much is lean mass, or muscle. It is one of the few ways to accurately measure your body fat.

I was surprised by the DEXA results: I realized that of the 5 kilos or so I had lost, 50% was lean mass. One interesting observation of my DEXA was that I did not lose any lean mass from my arms, but a lot from the rest of my body. Looking back, it made sense since I was doing a lot of arm workouts like push-ups, and pull-ups.

I know that resistance training (lifting weights) is recommended during weight loss but I didn’t give it much thought, until then.

I decided to lose another few kilos, this time with a smaller calorie deficit and a more structured lifting routine. My lifting routine included pull-ups, push-ups, body weight squats, daily yoga, and curls using barbells. I didn’t want to get a gym membership and wanted to rely on my body weight more.

I’m not keen on the gym either. What turned you off from it?

Gym never felt like home to me. I didn’t enjoy it for the sake of it, definitely not like I enjoy running or yoga. Gym felt like a means to an end.

I went from losing 0.8 kilos a week to about 0.4 kilos a week. I took photographs and measured my waist to keep a track of the body fat and realized that I was losing the same body fat with my latter regimen (which resulted in 0.4 kilos lost a week) as I did while losing 0.8 kilos a week, all the while maintaining my lean mass/muscles.

So you were eating more food, doing more body weight exercise, and only losing fat instead of muscle?

Yes, absolutely.

Looking back my advice for myself would be:

1. Weight loss is not the same as fat loss.

2. Keep a small calorie deficit. In my case about 18% of maintenance calories. Even smaller if you’re already lean.

What was this in real terms for you? Did you work out what calories you needed per day, about 2,500, then take about 18% from that number?

I know that my maintenance calories are 2,400. It depends on your weight, height, and frame. There are many ways to calculate that. I also have a Garmin watch that gives me a good estimate. I read a lot of studies on pubmed (a directory of trials (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/) and a blog called StrongerByScience on different calorie deficit targets. Your body can only lose so much fat before it starts to consume the muscles. One study puts that number at 55 calories per kilo of body fat. In my case that number comes out to a deficit of about 480 calories, which is a 20% deficit on my maintenance calories of 2,400.

My third and final piece of advice would be, include resistance training in your regimen, especially compound movements like squats and pull-ups.

So can we surmise from your experience that if you want to lose weight but keep muscle, then you have to operate on a daily calorie deficit and have a holistic exercise routine that is going to keep all parts of the body in use in order to keep the muscles active, such as yoga, pilates and maybe a little swimming, cycling or running?

Not quite. Resistance training (lifting weights or yoga) is different from other aerobic workouts like running, swimming, or cycling. RT involves breaking down the muscles which signals your body to keep building muscles. To preserve muscle mass it has to be the former. The latter, running, swimming, etc, while great for the body, does not do much to preserve muscle mass during a deficit.

You do a lot of yoga these days. Do you feel that you get enough resistance in class or do you do extra work away from the studio?

I do yoga at Octopus Garden Studio and road running, not much else. I practice hand balances and mobility routines as an extension of my yoga practice at home. I am at a satisfactory body weight and don’t feel the need to do heavy resistance training anymore.

During your weight loss, did you find any online sources, or books, that were particularly useful in your attempts to lose weight yet maintain lean muscle?

The two best resources I can recommend for learning about fat loss are the website and blog I’ve mentioned – Pubmed and StrongerByScience.

One can be inundated with all this information. At the end of the day there is little to it other than, “Eat your veggies. Exercise wisely. Be consistent.”