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Nishant Agrawal – On losing fat, not muscle

Interviews Posted on Mon, June 17, 2019 11:13AM

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.”



RUN TO REACH! An Interview with Liz Warner

Interviews, Runs Posted on Thu, February 28, 2019 05:25PM

“Run to Reach is a personal and international fundraising effort to support global communities by completing 30 marathons in 30 countries before I turn 30, in June 2020.”

Liz Warner

Liz, your list of marathons and charities are unusual, exciting and relevant, there seems to have been a lot of thought put into the ‘Run to Reach’ project. Can you recall what set you on the path to creating the project, where there any great inspirations or happenings? And what were the major hurdles between conception and launch?

At the end of last year, I was at a point of transition and deep reflection in my life…one could call it a very mild existential crisis. I knew that whatever I chose to do next had to positively impact the world outside my own personal bubble. It would also have to inspire others to show them that, in their power as one individual, they too have the capacity to change the lives of others. And finally, I knew that the only way I was going to be able to personally achieve this, was if I could somehow insert my two loves in life into this equation: running marathons and traveling the world.

The time frame (3 months) to organize this charity marathon mission felt very overwhelming – finalizing the marathon schedule, choosing all the charities, getting my website going.

There were definitely many hurdles along the way, mostly trying to figure out the best way to collect funds for all the different charities. For weeks, I was conflicted about whether I should start my own 501c3 or have separate fundraisers for each of the races. Then of course, the occasional dark cloud of self-doubt set in, where I questioned my own abilities to take on such a project. But I am learning so much along the way and I do find comfort in knowing that there is always a solution to every challenge faced. And if it wasn’t challenging, everyone would do it, right?

How did you choose which marathons you wanted to take part in?

I definitely wanted to choose marathons that were more off-the-beaten path. Once I had a general idea of the countries I wanted to run in, it was very important for me to find organizations within each country, whose mission I strongly believed in and felt a deep connection to. I also felt it was a moral duty to sign up for marathons in areas of conflict, such as such as in Palestine or Kurdistan Iraq, to demonstrate how running can be a powerful, unifying act of peace and movement. By traveling to Palestine and Kurdistan Iraq, I hope to paint these countries in a better light and show the rest of the world a small piece of their vibrant cultures.

Regarding the charities, how did you decide which ones to support in each case? Was each charity found after much googling and reading, to see what gelled most with your feelings, or did you have another way of making your choices?

It was a very time-consuming process choosing all of the different organizations. It did take a considerable amount of time researching and connecting with each organization to learn more about the specific types of projects they were working on. Overall, I made it my highest priority to select charities that I felt a strong connection to, who demonstrated a substantial amount of transparency, and were also keen to support me as much as possible during my campaign. Many of these organizations were selected based on their high ‘effectiveness’ ranking on the GiveWell website. Others were chosen based on actions they were taking to actively empowering the communities (and environment) in need, by enabling them to increase control over their lives and achieve genuine self-sufficiency.

You’ve already done 11 marathons as part of the project so far, Beirut, Vienna and the Bagan Temple Marathon in Myanmar particularly attracted my attention. Any memories you’d like to share from them, the races themselves or the charities you got involved with there?

Beirut holds a very dear place in my heart, it is truly one of the beautiful cities in the world with the warmest people, food, and culture. Yet, it has also gone through so much political strife over the past fifty years. Running the Beirut marathon was particularly memorable race for me, as it happened right when the current prime minister was being held hostage in Saudi Arabia. As this happened, the Beirut marathon turned into so much more than a competitive race; but a peaceful demonstration of unity and camaraderie amongst local Lebanese and foreign runners. It was a very powerful four hours of running, witnessing the city come alive and unite for this event.

Do you feel that your attitude to life, or running, has changed since you ran your 1st marathon?

Absolutely. I was much more numbers-focused and goal-orientated when I signed up for my first marathon. My running identity was always shaped by numbers, how many miles I was clocking in per week, my goal PB time.

Now, after six years of running marathons, I’ve become much more ‘process-oriented’ during training, which has completely transformed the way I feel about running. I prefer to focus now on the immeasurable components of how my body is responding to running, such as my daily energy levels and mood. During each of my training runs, instead of focusing on the distance ahead of me, I strive to achieve a certain level of meditative ‘flow’ – where I forget that I am even running at all. I think this new ‘mindful mindset’ towards running has allowed me to no longer fear the crazy big physical goals I have set for myself over the next year and a half.

I suspect that at some point you weighed up the question of carbon emissions created by flying and travel vs the potential worth of the project. Can you talk me through your thoughts on that?

Yes, I have been very conscious about this question of carbon emissions during the planning of my expedition. I am actually in the process of working with several companies to try to offset my CO2 emission by supporting different energy, emission reduction, forestry and water projects, building low carbon growth and sustainable development in the areas that need it the most.

Your next 4 months are going to be outstanding, but a great challenge I’m sure, with marathons in Algeria, Guatemala, Palestine, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan and Sierra Leone.

Now, as somebody who’s been to Palestine/Israel many times and has colleagues who go there to do business in Palestine occasionally, I think that the fact that you’re going to Palestine to do such an event is going to get you a 4 hour interrogation and a strip search at Israeli customs, for sure. Then there’ll be the emotional turmoil of running through refugee camps and hearing the many shocking, sad stories that people are always ready to tell, and the extreme kindness and genuine welcomes into humble homes and existences. And then you’ll need to get out of Israel, which’ll be another interrogation and strip search. This could take a huge mental toll. And you’re doing all this after having been in Guatemala, which is a beautiful country but one that also has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America, and a refugee camp in Algeria, another place that’s going to offer a highly emotionally charged visit. It’s not just that these places are potentially dangerous, it’s also that each one of them is what many of us would call a life changing trip, offering you so much positive info to process and integrate into your own worldview. So, have you any plan (such as lots of time off work!) in place to help you deal with the potential info overload, mental trauma, as well as the travel fatigue, of your program?

I could not have phrased this whole experience better myself! It is indeed going to be a dive into some kind of high-wattage, mind-expanding, soul-enriching adventure that will undoubtedly change my life forever. I am planning to stay at least two weeks in each of these countries to try to immerse myself as much as possible in the culture and allow for a deeper understanding of the many issues facing these countries. A huge goal of mine is to show the rest of the world the beauty of each of these countries and the rich culture they each hold.

I feel like the resilience and strength of the local people I encounter in each of these countries, will give me the energy to keep moving. I’m sure there will be moments of serious fatigue, but I am determined to show the rest of the world these countries and the strikingly unique and beautiful cultures that define them.

The marathon in Algeria, tell me about what you know about the race, the location and the aim of the charity you’re working with there. I saw a little video on their website, seems like they’re helping to re-imagine the once nomadic community into a static setting, and giving them a voice to talk about their situation through the creation of some beautiful music?

The race is taking place at the Sahawari Refugee camp in Tindouf, Western Algeria; home to over 150,000 refugees of a ‘forgotten conflict’: an older generation who lived through the war against Morocco for this land until 1991, and a younger generation born in the camp’s state of limbo since the war’s ceasefire agreement. Yet, despite being one of the oldest refugee camps in the world, the Sahrawis of Western Sahara are an indigenous African people hardly known in the West. Very little media has shed any light or visibility on their plight; yet, their longstanding resilience persists. The Sahara marathon is a solidarity race with aim of putting the Sahawari cause on the minds of our global, collective conscious.

The money I raise ahead of this marathon will directly go towards the Stave House project, launched by the Sandblast Foundation. The Stave House project offers music and English classes to children in one primary school in the smallest camp of Boujdour. Two hour classes are given every day, after school, to engage the children and develop their potential. Through the project, Sandblast also supports the training of local Saharawi teachers to deliver the programme, so that the local teachers will be able to run the project autonomously in the future.

The marathon experience in Sierra Leone sounds amazing. You don’t just go there for a 1 day event, it’s 5 days long and takes you to see many projects that the marathon raises funds for, so you can see how your fundraising is changing the lives of communities across the country. You must be very excited for this experience!

Yes, I am very excited for this marathon! Street Child, the organization I am working with ahead of this marathon, has launched such admirable community empowerment projects throughout Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is still plagued by extreme poverty, but I do hope to show a better image of the country than what our global conscious understands it as.

The marathon in Kyrgyzstan, I’m pleased to see that Helvetas, the charity you’re raising funds for there, is helping farmers to grow Fairtrade, organic cotton. It’s an area that desperately needs help, the cotton business there has been dreadfully managed in the past, with little attention paid to water usage/draining of lakes, and there’s been much talk of slave/child labour. Can you talk a little about what made you focus on this charity?

After learning about the prevalence and seriousness of human rights abuses taking place in the cotton sector in both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, I knew I wanted to focus all of my energy supporting an organization that was directly tackling this issue. Helvetas has completely transformed the cotton sector in Kyrgyzstan by converting over 18,925 ha of land to be certified for organic production, which allows farmer to completely avoid the use of both pesticides and chemical fertilizers. A percentage of the funds raised for the organic cotton project also went towards building schools in these farming regions, allowing children (who were previously forced to skip school to work in the cotton fields) to resume schooling. Helvetas was the perfect example of an organization that was not only helping the community in need, but completely empowering them to lead more self-sufficient lives.

Finally let’s put the spotlight on your Guatemalan race. What are you expecting from this one?

I am honestly a bit nervous for the actual marathon! There is a good 2300m incline going up the Pacaya volcano at the beginning of the 42km route, which will be extremely challenging, even for the fittest.

Regarding your running kit, what thought has been given to the varying climates that you’ll be running through; have you got the same kit for all races or a variety of gear?

I do tend to stick to the same sort of running kit for all of my races. I always buy the same Asics running shoes (had to stock up on six pairs of these ahead of all of my marathons!). I’ve been recently trying to switch to more environmentally-friendly athletic wear and am now a huge fan of Bamboo Clothing and Sundried, whose clothing is made from used coffee grounds and plastic bottles, as well as Teko eco-performance running socks. To protect my skin against the sun, I throw on a Sol Wrap, a sun protective, cooling long-sleeved top.

Do you plan to take your own running fuel, or are you eating whatever is available locally?

I will be sure to bring some of my own energy gels (Huma Gels) with me for the races. But when I am on the road traveling, I am super excited to carbo-load on all of the local delicacies. Before my most recent marathon in Oman, I could not get enough of their spiced rice and curry dishes, which I’m convinced was the reason behind my personal record marathon time there!

How would you describe your training in between your marathons?

A lot of my marathons are spaced out only one or two weeks apart from the other, so I think training my body and mind to endure that many miles was a big initial challenge. I somehow keep making it through and continue to feel great afterwards, which is the biggest motivator to keep going! During the down periods between marathons, I focus on doing a lot of strength training exercises (pilates, yoga) and stretching to try to prevent any injuries.

You’re aiming to raise $100,000 for your charities, how are you going about that? Do you offer fundraising talks about your races, or are you focusing on awareness and asking people to donate via the individual charities websites, or have you other ways of turning what you’re doing into much needed funds?

This is the biggest challenge as I was very new to fundraising when I first started this project.

As I continue the fundraising efforts for this campaign, I am now approaching businesses within the countries that I am running in to solicit donations to the local charities. I am also meeting with artists in each country and collecting some of their artwork, to be auctioned off at several fundraising dinners I am hosting throughout the year. Down the line, I definitely do plan to organize some talks at a lot of these marathons and running events.

I’d really like to hear how the next 4 months pan out for you, it’s got the potential to be a fascinating learning experience as well as a big physical and mental challenge. And I’d like to hear more about the next group of 2019 marathons, which will include trips to Iraq, Cuba and Argentina. For readers who want to delve more before then though, what’s the best way to get up to speed on your project, and then to follow along with your adventures?

Endless thank yous for all of your support! I will soon be posting regular updates on the blog of my website (www.runtoreach.com), but for a closer look at the ins and outs of my journey – please follow my Instagram (@runtoreach.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/runtoreach). Here is also the link to my charity donation page if you are interested in contributing.