5 Lessons from Improving my Health
Content Warning: This email contains lots of references to body weight, calories, protein, body fat % etc. If you’re not a fan of those topics for whatever reason, you may like to skip this issue 😃
I recently had my third DEXA scan. A DEXA scan is a sort-of full-body X-ray that doctors normally use to check out a patient’s bone density, to see if they’ve got osteoporosis (weak bones) usually in old age. But a DEXA scan also tells you some great information about how much fat and muscle there is on your body.
Those two quantitative bits of data – fat and muscle mass – are why DEXA scans are quite popular with athletes, and also with people like me who want to take their health more seriously and who enjoy seeing broadly objective metrics.
I had my first scan 12 months ago, and then the second one 6 months ago, and then the third one this week. And these scans have been probably the single most game-changing thing for my health that I’ve ever done (they cost around £100/$150 each).
First, a tip of the hat to my friend Cliff Weitzman for turning me onto the idea of having regular DEXA scans. Cliff is absolutely jacked, and when I first got to know him over Zoom during lockdown, I asked him how he did it. He recommended getting a DEXA scan every 3-6 months as an objective way to track progress. So I waited a few years to take his advice, but finally bit the bullet a year ago.
The very first scan I did a year ago was a wake-up call for me. I was around 76kg, and at around 26% body fat, a lot of which was Visceral Adipose Tissue, ie: fat surrounding my inner organs in the abdomen. This is the ‘bad’ kind of fat, the fat that you don’t necessarily see on someone’s body, but that correlates with all the bad health outcomes like cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Not good.
The guy who did the scan for me (BodyScan UK) explained the results afterwards. He explained that I was quite ‘skinny fat’ – ie: I looked skinny, but I actually had quite a lot of fat in me. This is the standard setup for South Asian men (he told me), so if I wanted to be healthier, I’d have to take some action. And the first thing to do would be to lose quite a bit of fat, not to aim to get six-pack abs, but instead to get the Visceral Adipose Tissue down to reasonable levels so that it would reduce my risks of developing heart disease etc.
So then I did some low calorie dieting for a bit, started weighing myself everyday, and dropped 3kg over the next 6 months. I went in for my DEXA scan 6 months later (ie: 6 months ago) hoping for a pat on the back. What we found was that yes, I’d lost 3kg, but actually, most of that loss was in muscle rather than fat. What?!
See, turns out that when you’re on a caloric deficit, you lose weight. But if you want to maintain muscle mass while losing weight, you need 2 things: (1) high enough protein intake, and (2) a stimulus for muscle growth, ie: weight training. I was half-arsing both of those things, which meant that my body was breaking down muscle rather than fat. All those hours in the gym trying to become a Gymshark athlete, wasted because of lack of consistency in my diet and in my workout regimen.
This was a second wake-up call. So at the start of 2023, when I was setting my personal and company goals with Eric Partaker, my CEO coach, I decided to set a personal goal to build more muscle. That would involve weight training 3 times a week. Eric asked if I could add further accountability to this, and I remembered that I’d come across a fitness coach on Twitter by the name of Dan Go. I’d seen that Dan had been tweeting some really helpful threads about how to build muscle, and how to stay healthy, in a way that didn’t idolise six-pack abs but that seemed genuinely about helping people live healthier lives across the board. So I messaged Dan and asked if he’d work with me.
He very kindly said yes, and so I’ve been working with Dan for the past (almost) 6 months. He’s been programming my workouts, and helping to keep me accountable for tracking my macros, hitting my protein targets etc.
And the results from the latest DEXA scan are showing positive results – I’ve maintained a weight of 73kg, but in the past 6 months, I’ve lost around 1.5kg of fat, and gained around 1.5kg of muscle! This went exactly according to plan – we’re trying to do a body recomposition, where we maintain my weight, but try to lose fat while gaining muscle. This is a very long process, but hopefully by staying consistent with it, I’ll be healthier in terms of reduced fat, but also in terms of increased muscle mass. Both these things (reduced fat, increased muscle) seem to be pretty correlated with positive health outcomes and longevity (side note: I’m reading Peter Attia’s new book Outlive these days, and so far it’s absolutely phenomenal – I’m around 20% through it).
Anyway, that was a lot of long-winded context for what I wanted to share in this email – some lessons that I’ve learned over the past 12 months of taking my health more seriously.
As usual, these are notes and reminders for myself, but I’m hoping that if you’re reading this, you might find some of them helpful too.
Tip 1: It’s useful to weigh yourself everyday – There was apparently a study that found that if you took two groups of people, and one of them weighed themselves everyday, and the other didn’t, then with zero additional things, the group that weighed themselves lost weight on average. I’ve been weighing myself everyday (unless travelling) for the past 6 months, and it’s pretty useful to see the fluctuations in my weight. I use a WiFi Enabled Smart Scale which syncs aytomatically with Apple Health.
Tip 2: Automate your protein intake. I’ve been aiming for 150g protein per day. This is actually somewhat hard to do. The trick is to automate protein intake – 2 protein shakes a day, 40g each = 80g sorted, which means just 70g needed the rest of the day, which is way more doable (lunch and dinner with a high ish protein serving of chicken or fish does the trick). On days where I have a protein shake as the first thing in the morning, and then as a mid-afternoon snack, I’m 100x more likely to hit my protein target than on days where I don’t. Need to make this more of a habit.
Tip 3: Don’t drink calories. When you’re tracking everything with MyFitnessPal, you realise very quickly that calories add up, and that drinking calories is a recipe for blowing through the “calorie budget” for the day. Sparkling water, black coffee (or coffee with a splash of milk), tea (with a small amount of milk) are reasonable options. Sparkling water is particularly good because it’s more filling than still or tap water.
Tip 4: Avoid red meat. Yes it’s a good protein source, but usually there’s a tonne of fat in steaks etc, which ramps up the calorie count. Plus I found out recently that my cholesterol is a little higher than it should be, so cutting down on red meat is pretty sensible anyway.
Tip 5: Get the 10,000 steps in per day. Walking is a remarkably underrated activity for “burning” calories while preserving muscle mass, and as a generally relaxing and nice thing to do. I’ve found that investing £300 in a treadmill underneath my standing desk has been a great way to get in the extra steps while working, or while playing video games. In X days of using the treadmill, I’ve managed to walk Y km, which is Y km more than I’d have walked if I’d just been sitting at the desk instead. I find that walking while working on deep work tasks is also nice as a way of helping me stay focused and not get distracted.
There are plenty more tips that I’ve learned over the past 6 months but I think 5 is enough for now 🙂
Here’s a struggle though – currently, I don’t enjoy working out. My goal is to build muscle and lose fat. But I also want to generally ‘improve my fitness’ through better cardiovascular ability (eg: VO2 max). And I want to be flexible and mobile so I can do cool stuff like acro yoga and martial arts.
But right now, this strength-training-in-the-gym stuff feels like I’m having to go uphill. Each time I see ‘gym’ on my calendar, I tell myself “argh I don’t feel like doing this, but I know it’s good for me and I value the goal, therefore I should do it”. This is commonly referred to as “discipline”.
The issue is that I don’t enjoy relying on discipline to fuel my performance. I think discipline is fine in small doses, but it’s an unsustainable recipe over the long term. Instead, I’d love to find a way to make improving my fitness feel good. I’d love to find a way to make it enjoyable and energising, to the point that I look forward to my workouts / exercise each day, rather than feeling like I have to push myself to do them.
This has always been my approach to work and productivity – instead of relying on discipline or willpower, find a way to make it enjoyable and energising so that I want to do it, rather than feeling like I have to do it. In fact, this is exactly what my upcoming book’s about – more on that in a few weeks 😉
But when it comes to fitness, I haven’t yet figured out an approach to weight training that feels enjoyable and energising. I’m working with Dan to craft one, and we’re trying out a new workout routine from next week that’ll hopefully tick that box. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you – have you managed to find a way to make gaining strength, losing fat, improving cardiovascular fitness, and increasing flexibility and mobility, more fun?
If so, I’d love if you could hit <reply> and let me know.
Anyway, I hope you found something in this email interesting or at least vaguely useful.
Have a great week!
PS: A huge thank you to the 200+ people who replied to last week’s email – I’ve managed to reply to around 50 of you, but probably can’t make the time to reply to the other 150+. I do however, read absolutely every reply personally, so your email isn’t being lost in the ether, it’s just piling up in my ‘emails I should probably reply to but realistically won’t have the time’ list lol. If that admission means you’re less likely to reply to future emails, then no hard feelings – just thought I’d flag that up in case it changes anything for you. But if you like the idea of replying to these emails knowing they’re being read, but not necessarily replied to, then I’d love for you to continue replying to these – I love reading them and they’re often very insightful, interesting and helpful for me 😀
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✍️ Quote of the Week
“If you’re ready to realize a much bigger and more powerful future, then you must stop asking yourself, “How can I accomplish this?” That question, although common, leads to mediocre results, frustration, and a life of regrets. A much better question is: “Who can help me achieve this?”