Why I Want To Lower My Bodyweight Set-Point (And What Is a Set-point Anyway?)
The last few months, I have been firmly focused on healing my gut and dealing with my one lingering health issue, lichen planus (read about the diet changes I’ve made to address this here, here and here). I have begrudgingly allowed myself to gain some weight (7 lbs) because I know that a caloric surplus is very helpful for healing the gut. I tolerated this weight gain because I was seeing steady (albeit slow) improvement in my lichen planus lesions and because I was seeing strength gains in my yoga classes (hello chaturanga!).
But then I booked a long weekend at the beach with my family for Mother’s Day (that’s in just one month!). Suddenly, I was faced with not only the 10-20 pounds I’d still like to lose, but another 7 pounds on top of that! I do try to keep this in perspective: 7 pounds is a drop in the can next to the 120 pounds I’ve lost, but it accentuates that feeling of “I’m still not there”. This desire to finally lose those last pounds is magnified by a growing realization. Frankly, one of the best things that I can do to promote a paleolithic lifestyle is to be the picture of perfect health. For those who know where I came from (265 pounds and suffering a variety of health issues), where I am now is great anecdotal evidence of the benefits of a paleo diet (145+7 pounds and healthy). But, if you don’t know my history, I just look like a woman in her mid-thirties who never lost the pregnancy pounds after having a couple of kids. So, when I talk to people who don’t have much weight to lose (say something like 10-15 pounds like so many of us) and who don’t have health issues that compel them to make major lifestyle changes, I don’t have the “I want to look like her”-factor to support my case. I need to look like Sarah Fragoso (www.everydaypaleo.com) or Melissa Hartwig (www.whole9life.com) or Diane Sanfilippo (www.balancedbites.com), all of whom are gorgeous and lean and “sell” paleo not only by virtue of their intelligence but also because who wouldn’t want to look like them! I have the extra challenge of a fair bit of extra skin, but I believe that would be forgiven if I could get down to a body fat percentage in the teens (and here is where I admit that I actually have no idea what my body fat percentage is, but I just ordered a scale that measures it and plan to use that number rather than my actual weight to evaluate my progress from now on).
So all this means that my focus has shifted back to weight loss, and in particular getting my body past this weight-loss plateau (I have been gaining and losing the same 7-8 pounds for 6 months). I firmly believe in following my hunger cues, but I am also analyzing what is happening in my body hormonally that might be making me hungrier than I should be. How do I make myself less hungry? How do I make my body burn more energy? I can’t find much more time to exercise than I am currently dedicating, so what do I do? How do I make my body WANT to be leaner? To answer these questions, my starting point was a tweet made by Stacy Toth of The Paleo Parents while she was at PaleoFX in Austin last month. She shared some words of wisdom from Mark Sisson (www.marksdailyapple.com), who suggested that a good way to lower your bodyweight set-point is to sprint.
What is a bodyweight set-point? The idea behind bodyweight set-point theory is that diet plus lifestyle factors (and genetics too) add up to a hormonal and chemical balance in your body conducive to maintaining a specific weight and body composition. Basically, your body has a weight it wants to be (regardless of what weight you want your body to be). I will be delving into the specific effects of exercise on different hormone systems in a series of upcoming posts; but, you don’t need to know those details to get the gist of this theory. How you eat, exercise, sleep and manage stress determines your body’s “happy weight”. If food is scarce (as it might have been in the winter for our paleolithic ancestors or might be for you if you are ignoring your hunger cues and following a very calorie-restricted diet), your body will fight to maintain as much stored energy as it can, lowering your metabolism and increasing your set-point. If food becomes plentiful after a fasting period, your body will store as much of it as it can to prepare for the next fast (which is why it is so easy to gain weight back after being on a calorie-restricted diet); your set-point remains high. If food remains plentiful (let’s assume good paleo food) and stress is low, your body will stop prioritizing weight gain, hunger will decrease, and your weight will likely settle down to something somewhat lighter (your set-point lowers). This is why following hunger cues on a paleo diet is so effective at losing most of the weight we need to lose. Now, if food is plentiful but predators are chasing you, your body will prioritize muscle mass and being lean in order to be fast enough to escape being eaten (your set-point lowers even more!). That’s where sprinting comes in.
There are many ways to incorporate sprints into your routine (besides actually running away from a hungry animal). Thursday, I will give you the details of how I am approaching adding sprints to my life, how this has made me feel, and whether or not it’s working to kick my body into weight-loss mode. So stay tuned!