The Hamster Wheel

It is not by muscle, speed or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.


A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the book Body by Science. When I first started eating differently, I followed the advice I still believe: eat right first. Then you’ll feel better and start losing some weight, and then you’ll have interest and energy for exercise. Exercise is not your primary or first weight loss tool.

But now I do feel good, and this book was recommended by several people whose opinions in these areas I respect. I read it and started putting into practice. I haven’t discussed it till now because I wanted to give you some results to go with it. Those will come in Post #2.


Go buy this book
Go buy this book

First let’s do the Cliff Notes version of the book, shall we? My version is going to be simplistic. If you really want to understand, go get the book. But I’ll try to encapsulate here what impressed me the most and made decide to give it try.

1. The authors make a great case for why you need muscle. Muscle is life. We all know we need muscle to lift things, but sadly that is as far as some people’s understanding ever goes. This is especially true of women, who tend to fear that they will look like Governor Schwarzenegger if they ever lift weights, while simultaneously thinking they don’t need muscle: because lifting things is what God made husbands and sons for.

So what else do you need muscle for? Four important things in particular:

  • Muscle growth stimulates the strengthening of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. You can’t “get fit” by running around the track or using the elliptical. All you can ever do is become more efficient at running or ellipticall-ill-ing. -Ing. Not only will “cardio” in the traditional sense not improve your cardiovascular function, but it involves incredible wear and tear on your body as well as wasting your time. Building muscle, however, will stimulate growth in the cardiovascular system, making it stronger and more efficient. It is also possible to stimulate this growth with virtually no wear and tear on your joints and with minimal time commitment. Building muscle is the only way to truly “get fit.”
  • Muscle protects you, especially as you age. We all want to be able to shift the car off ourselves after an accident. While it’s certainly true that muscle would be useful in that situation, that’s not really what I mean, though. First, muscle helps keep you from falling. Then, if you do fall anyway, the force of the fall is absorbed and spread through your muscles. The reason Suzy fell down the stairs and came away with nothing more than bruises, while Grandma broke her hip, may or may not have something to do with bone density–but it definitely has to do with Grandma’s lack of muscle to absorb the hit. Not to mention that weight lifting would have increased Grandma’s bone density. A third way muscle protects you is when you need bigger organs. Increase your muscle and every organ in your body increases its functional capacity as your muscles grow. When you are lying in the hospital fighting for your life from disease or that horrible car accident, how long you have before multi-system organ failure and death–all other things being equal–is determined by your organ weight when you arrive. The more muscle mass, the bigger the organs, the longer you can hang on.
  • Muscle assists you in controlling your blood sugar. This is good for everyone, but especially diabetics and the diabetic-prone. Why can 20-year-olds at frat parties snarf down amounts of carbohydrate-rich pizza, candy, and beer that would kill them twenty years later? Because, in part, of muscle. For one thing, the extra muscle they have requires more energy to maintain. Hence at age 20 they’re burning more sugar just sitting around playing Xbox than they will be at 40. But beyond that, muscle is particularly sensitive to insulin, and this is a good thing. Insulin helps maintain stable blood sugars by binding to receptors on your cells, but that only works if the cells will receive the message. Through those receptors, glucose gets transported from the bloodstream into the cell. You don’t want any more glucose filling your fat cells, now do you? But what you do want is lots of muscle. Increase your muscle and you can increase your overall sensitivity to insulin. More than that, your muscle cells will store sugar in the form of glycogen. It keeps this store to allow you an emergency fuel source. Not only does building muscle give you more room to store glycogen (other than on your hips), but when you exercise to muscle failure–even if that only takes you 10 minutes–you empty those glycogen stores. Most sedentary modern people never empty those stores.
  • Muscle makes everything easier. Let’s say that today you have to run three errands, do laundry, go to a meeting, make three meals and clean up after them, take a kid to baseball practice, and then tidy up the house before you crash into bed. That’s not counting chasing the toddler around the house because he doesn’t want his bath. The more muscle you have, the less metabolically expensive each of those efforts becomes. Build muscle and each step you take becomes easier. Each minute you breath fewer times and your heart has to do less work than it did before. Suddenly you have more energy at the end of the day than you did before–because you didn’t expend as much of your muscle energy doing the dishes, walking to the car, carrying books into a classroom, or picking up a bag of groceries. As The Roommate said a few weeks ago, it’s not that life has gotten easier: it’s that we’ve learned a way to “cheat.” It doesn’t cost as much to do life as it did a few months ago.

2. “Health” is “the best you can be given your genetic baseline.” There’s no such thing as super-health. You do not have the right to life, liberty and “good health.” You have a genetically–and Providentially–determined baseline of strength, muscle potential, flexibility, freedom from disease, etc. By dint of supreme effort and will you may even be able to get a little past your baseline. But you cannot be something you are not. You cannot make yourself build more muscle than you have potential for. You cannot become a world-class gymnast by sheer force of will. Despite what health magazines show you on their covers, you cannot look like that guy. You cannot guarantee you will never fall to a disease. All you can do is reach the height of your own health potential–you can be all that you can be.

Think about it like this: Do wives object to their husbands getting motorcycles because they naively think that only those who ride a motorcycle will ever be injured in a vehicular accident? Of course not. Anyone can be hurt by or in a vehicle.

A wise person would want to minimize that risk to its lowest possible practical level. To make that risk 0% would be utterly impractical and would increase risk of other things. But there are ways to minimize risk by doing some things and avoiding others. One thing you can do that significantly minimizes your risk of vehicular injury is to avoid motorcycles. (Sorry guys). The point is that you can ride around on a rainy night, helmet-less on your motorcycle by letting your muscles waste away; or you can reach for your baseline and be as healthy as you can be at the time of life in which you find yourself. As the authors put it on page 98:

To someone residing below baseline in muscular fitness and potential, the fulfillment of muscular potential…can be the difference between a dreary life of frustration, pain, and chronic anxiety and a life of enjoyment, options, less stress and no pain.

Reaching your muscle potential will not only minimize your risk for accident and disease, but help you endure them if they come anyway.

3. Muscle is even more important for women than for men. This was not something I’d ever really thought about, but once it was explained I was struck by the truth of it. Most women I’ve met assume that since women can’t ever have as much muscle as most men, and since women are considered to look most appealing with toned thinness rather than visible muscle, that they shouldn’t really have much of any muscle at all. At least none that you can really see.

But the fact that women have less muscular potential than men makes it all the more important that women develop the muscle they have potential for. (As an aside, it is not correct to say “men are stronger than women.” The accurate statement is “men have greater muscular potential than women.”) Ladies, you need muscle every bit as much as men do–it provides you with all the health benefits listed above. Have any of you married women ever grumbled to yourselves at how much easier it is for hubby to lose body fat than you? Especially after the first few weeks/months of the diet? Muscle is one of the key reasons. His greater muscle mass makes him more sensitive to insulin and gives him more room to store glycogen.

The good news is that you don’t have to look like Arnold, or even like your husband, to experience this benefit. “It’s all relative” goes the saying, and since you’re smaller than he is you don’t need as much muscle to accomplish the same metabolic task. It’s fine that your muscle potential is less; your body is smaller. But it isn’t fine for you to just give up on gaining muscle entirely.

Ladies, don’t worry. You’re never going to look like a brute linebacker. Muscle building health rags are designed to do one thing: sell you stuff. They can’t get you to buy stuff unless they can convince you that if you just take pill X, subscribe to mag Y or follow Exercise Fad of the Week Q they can make you look like a champion bodybuilder. As a consequence, men fall for every gimmick pill or powder that comes along when they just can’t seem to build the muscle they were promised. Meanwhile women engage in utterly useless “toning” out of fear that they will build muscle and look hideous.

Neither realizes they are being played. Only a small minority of genetic freaks will ever look like a champion bodybuilder. Now that’s not to say those champions didn’t work hard to get there–they did. But their hard work only succeeded because of their genetics. You can work just as hard and you’ll never look like those people. For the vast majority of us, muscle is not only healthy, but proportional. Most of us don’t look brutely with more muscle, ladies.

There’s a word for what we look like…let me think of it…oh yes.


One more thing to consider, girls: even if your muscular potential is such that you might look a bit beefier than you’d like: who cares? If muscle is key to your good health, then who cares if society thinks you look a bit too muscular? Your neighbor doesn’t get to say that you have to sacrifice your health and future just because he likes women to look like twigs, any more than he gets to have you hobbling around, crippled by deformed bound feet just because he likes women with small feet. Other women don’t get to say that for you, either. Barbie is not real, and I’m pretty sure Twiggy isn’t either. That’s not your goal. Your goal is the healthiest you you can manage, however it is that God made you.

More tomorrow.


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