Ageism in Reverse

Grumpy Old Man

I’ll never forget that day.

I was speaking with a guy who was proudly accounting the details of his efforts to lose weight. We’d just met, so he had no idea that I’d studied to be a personal trainer. It wasn’t clear whether this was his attempt at boasting or perhaps he was simply seeking commiseration, but it was clear he wasn’t seeking advice from me.

I had come to accept this was a monologue, and I determined to keep my mouth shut. This became more difficult as he began reciting a laundry list of terrible practices that were giving him the short-term gains he was looking for but I knew to be highly unhealthy and inevitably counterproductive in the long run. He was skipping breakfast to cut calories, for crying out loud! That’s breaking one of the basic rules of Metabolism 101.

He pompously stated he’d shed 37 pounds in only four months on a diet I’d immediately recognized as simple malnutrition, which meant he’d likely lost a significant amount of muscle mass in those lost pounds. That also meant he was extremely likely to gain it all back plus more as fat once his dietary restrictions returned to normal levels. That’s why the National Institute of Health reported that there’s no such thing as a successful weight loss diet, going back as far as the 90s. Still, I remained silent. Something just told me he wouldn’t be open to suggestions, must less the desperate criticism ricocheting off the back of my tightly locked lips.

“Once I lose some more weight…”

Then he said something that was just too much. “Once I lose some more weight, I’ll start lifting some weights.”

First, let me hit you with some science, yo. Malnourished bodies like this guy’s tap into fat stores as a last resort to make up for caloric (energy/fuel) deficiency. Contrary to popular opinion, starving yourself doesn’t easily make your body start burning fat. Fat cells store up energy generally for the long term, primarily to fuel the brain and other essential organs when all other resources have been depleted. Fat will release energy if manipulated right, but insufficient caloric intake has the opposite effect: it makes the fat lock down and store everything it can get; dark days are coming, it thinks, and I must be prepared!

Fat will release energy if manipulated right, but insufficient caloric intake has the opposite effect: it makes the fat lock down and store everything it can get; dark days are coming!

Unless you’ve been starving yourself for a while, you’ve got other resources to deplete. The most convenient source of fuel is your muscle tissue. This energy-rich source is often the first thing to go as your body begins to cannibalize itself, particularly when the deficiencies are extreme and/or chronic. However, using muscles in regular resistance exercise is one way to tell your metabolism to seek its energy elsewhere (like, I dunno, fat maybe?). Basically, if your body sees you need a muscle because it’s being regularly used, it’s less likely to cannibalize it early in the starvation process. So you can see why this guy shouldn’t be putting off weightlifting.

Additionally, increased muscle mass results in an increased basal metabolic rate, meaning more muscles burn more calories more quickly. And it’s gotta get those calories from somewhere, right? Where does the body store calories long-term? That’s right, boys and girls: fat!

More muscle cells means a higher demand for energy just to stay alive (about eleven calories per day per pound, on average), even without considering the possibilities of increased exertion in movement. That’s how metabolism works. It’s foundational science in the field. Increased lean body weight (such as muscles) increases calories burned, which is why any client of mine seeking fat loss will do some sort of resistance training. And it should now be doubly apparent why this guy needed some, too.

I Opened My Mouth

For some reason, this particular glaring flaw — which was honestly no worse than some of his others — in his plan struck such a chord in me that I forgot my earlier insights and offered my opinion. “For what it’s worth,” I said, “if you did some basic weightlifting now, it might help you burn fat faster.”

He scoffed. “That’s not how it works for me.”

Hogwash, I thought. And I was right; increased muscle mass (which, admittedly, would require increased nutrition in his case) always affects metabolism. It’s hardly metabolism’s only influence, but it’s a fairly reliable one. Yet hogwash or not, he wasn’t hearing it. I’d forgotten my earlier discernment and now defended my claim like an idiot. “Actually, if you do it right, it could work for you, too,” I suggested encouragingly.

Then a dull whitewash of annoyance congealed on his scowl. “How old are you, Phil?”

Confused by the seeming change of subject, I answered, “Thirty-one.”

He harrumphed. Seriously, he did. I don’t know if I’ve even heard a genuine harrumph before that or since, but this was the real deal. “Yeah, well I’m fifty-one,” he countered with the mater-of-fact tone one uses with petulant children. “I have a bit more knowledge and experience than you, so why don’t you just shut your mouth.” Now, don’t let the wording mislead you; that was a statement, not a question.

I managed a flimsy “Well I have studied the subject a lot,” but I was too taken aback by the ignorant, closed-minded ageism to pursue it any further.

Ageism against the Young

Express your concerns and doubts, sure, but hear out the answers.

I’d encountered such things in the prior decade, but I’d convinced myself such dismissals were a thing of the past once I’d reached thirty. I’m old enough to be treated as a grown-up, experienced man now, I told myself. Heh, needless to say I know better now. Even now, I can still be looked down upon by my elders, and I’ll never outgrow that.

That said, for you readers out there with a trainer (a real trainer, that is; not just a buddy who subscribes to a fitness magazine or two with all their anecdotal pseudoscience and presumptions on clinical studies presented as fact): please don’t dismiss what they say out of hand because they’re young or thin or a different gender.

Express your concerns and doubts, sure, but hear out the answers. You should be comfortable with their direction and trust that they know what they’re talking about, and an honest dialogue is the best thing for that. Maybe they can back it up with science (they should be able to). Perhaps they know something you don’t. That’s their job, after all.

Originally posted 2016-07-08 08:00:30.

Photo credit: sweetron1982 / Foter / CC BY
About Phil (251 Articles)
Philip Osgood is a Christian husband, father, and writer who considers himself a passable video game player, fiction reader, camping and hiking enthusiast, welder, computer guy, and fitness aficionado, though real experts in each field might just die of laughter to hear him claim it. He has been called snarky, cynical, intelligent, eccentric, creative, logical, and Steve for some reason. Phil and his beautiful wife Clara live in Texas with their children in a house with a dog but no white picket fence. He does own a titanium spork from ThinkGeek, though, so he must be alright.