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Is your body ageing gracefully?

How would you even know? And what can you do about it?

Samarth Bansal
5 min read • 
8 October 2022

It’s comically frustrating how most conversations around fitness end up on weight loss.

“You exercise five times a week? How much weight do you want to lose? Stop now!”

“Oh, red rice over white. Are you on a diet?”

“Hiking in the hills? Wanna lose inches?”

No, no, and no. My body weight hasn’t changed for many months now. These are habits. Things I do on autopilot.

I am not saying body weight does not matter. Why will I? You may have read about my weight loss journey in the second issue of Truth Be Told. You may want to if you haven’t.

The problem is how this singular metric dominates the idea of fitness at the cost of ignoring everything else. Remember: you can be slim and unfit simultaneously.

Or you may talk about Body Mass Index (BMI), which suggests the ideal body weight given a person’s height — 18-25 range is considered ‘normal’. It’s a reasonably good metric for most people, but like all indices aiming to condense the answer to a complex question to a single number, it offers an imperfect and incomplete picture. It doesn’t help after a point and is definitely not the ideal metric for long-term fitness.

Or you may look at body composition: the fat, bone, and muscle percentage in your body. Healthier body composition means less fat and more muscle. Too much body fat can lead to risks like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

You can invent more. What matters and what does not boils down to your goal.

Re-wiring our brains

I will tell you mine. I want to feel energetic as I get through the day — not tired, stressed or anxious. The body moves smoothly; the brain functions sharply. I can feel when things are off, and more often than not, I also know why that is so: a big heavy meal, needless late-night snacking, minimal movement. All that.

But there is another big factor in my calculus, the one that’s less knowable: ageing well — long-term fitness. Which does NOT mean looking like a 20-year-old when I am 60. It’s about staying healthy in the later years as we age and avoiding the fight with chronic illness, especially lifestyle diseases, linked with diet and exercise, the ones we can partially control.

But let’s face it: we can’t really predict what will happen in the future as we age. We don’t have a one-on-one mapping of daily behaviours and long-term impact.

It’s complicated.

As Bill Bryson wrote in ‘The Body: A Guide for Occupants’:

“It is important to distinguish between probability and destiny. Just because you are obese or a smoker or couch potato doesn’t mean you are doomed to die before your time or that if you follow an ascetic regime you will avoid peril.

Roughly 40 percent of people with diabetes, chronic hypertension, or cardiovascular disease were fit as a fiddle before they got ill, and roughly 20 percent of people who are severely overweight live to a ripe old age without ever doing anything about it.

Just because you exercise regularly and eat a lot of salad doesn’t mean you have bought yourself a better life span. What you have bought is a better chance of having a better life span.”

This is a great way to think about long-term health: there is no guarantee, no certainty. We can do everything’ right’ and yet get diabetes. Or a sudden stroke. That’s life. All we can do is reduce risk. Improve our chances.

How are we supposed to know?

This approach — focusing on reducing long-term risk — does not come to us naturally. We are not wired to think this way. We discount the future. So we binge eat chips, cola and cake because instant gratification surpasses whatever harmful effects may occur 20 years from now.

The story complicates itself once you realise what’s happening inside our body. The invisible drama happening at the microscopic level is something else. Our cute little cells are doing a thankless job while we behave like the horrible boss no one wants: we have no clue about the insane amount of work our 37 trillion cells do outside our conscious awareness to keep us alive. They work round the clock to help us grow, digest food, excrete waste, breathe, and more.

We don’t even acknowledge their existence — forget appreciation for the fab job.

I would have quit. Fortunately, cells have a better temperament. As long as a salary is credited, they are happy to do the job. Not in dollars or rupees. The currency here is energy. Cells need the energy to keep going and do their work.

Where is the energy coming from? Nothing fancy. Most of it comes from something we enjoy: eating food.

The stuff that happens in between — the biochemical process converting what we eat and drink into energy — is called ‘metabolism’. And it’s so crucial for overall health.

Think about it: what happens to a company where overworked employees are underpaid, the salary is not credited on time, and cash flow is irregular and unpredictable?

You know the answer: it’s a recipe for disaster. If workers start underperforming, operations will falter. Profits will drop. The company will fail. Not instantly. Eventually. The crisis builds up. Slowly.

The lens of metabolism

That’s exactly what happens in our bodies: if the process of generating and using energy — reminder, that’s metabolism — becomes dysfunctional, the cells can’t do their job properly. And because that is the most fundamental process to sustain life, it cascades into multiple health crises as we age.

“Metabolism is the unseen foundation underlying everything, slowly shifting and shaping our lives,” evolutionary anthropologist Herman Pontzer wrote in his book Burn. “Obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and nearly all of the other diseases that plague us in the modernized world are, at their core, rooted in the ways our bodies take in and expend energy,” he wrote.

The lens of metabolism to understand chronic diseases is a different way to look at the same problem. Some, like Pontzer, will argue it’s much closer to the root cause than other ways.

That’s why there is an increasing discussion (though in limited circles) about ‘metabolic health’ — the health of the energy-generating and energy-processing apparatus inside our body.

Wait. Why and how did I go from ranting about body weight, which we mostly associate with physical health, to talk cells and metabolic health?

Because they are connected. The point is this: things might be internally screwed even with the perfect body weight. We don’t get to know because we don’t have visibility into the microscopic cellular machinery.

There is no CCTV camera to observe how food is converted to energy and how it’s being used. So how do you find a solution when you can’t pinpoint the problem? In fact, how do you know if the problem even exists?

How do I ensure long-term well-being?

We only become aware when things go south, when we get the disease. And it is far tougher to solve the problem after it has developed enough to manifest as a disease with visible symptoms.

I have no intention of instilling fear. I am just trying to highlight a problem I have thought about: how do I ensure long-term well-being?

If you are not doing the most essential things — cutting back on added sugar, avoiding ultra-processed foods, regular exercise, and so on — you know exactly where to start. Most things in nutrition, fitness and ageing well boil down to the basics. My friend Shashank covered those in a previous article.

But if you are on that journey already, you can take it one step forward by learning more about yourself. And get a better understanding of long-term risks — and reduce the chance of getting chronic diseases. To age well and live better every day.

Fitness beyond body weight

One way to get there is through data. To find out what’s going on and take action if needed. We can use blood tests to monitor fasting blood glucose, triglyceride levels and HDL/LDL cholesterol — all these are critical biomarkers of metabolic health. We can use a continuous glucose monitor to track blood sugar levels in real time — that’s all the buzz in the fitness world today. This allows us to test for vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

And not only when the doc prescribes it. More proactively. We know what’s happening and do something about it. So the poor boss — who is ignorant, but has the right intention — knows how to turn things around. We can recognise that cells are finding it hard to keep up with our lifestyle — and we help them help us live better and age gracefully.

That’s it for today. I wanted to set the frame in which we think about long-term fitness and the role data can play.

In upcoming issues of Truth Be Told, we will dive deeper into diagnostic and monitoring tools to explain how these can help you live better.

And hopefully, once and for all, move the fitness discussion beyond body weight. For Lord’s sake.

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