Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bodyfat, a bit of memory

Some 40 years ago, when I graduated from High School, I weighed less than 120 pounds. In the decades since then, I have grown up to as much as 160 pounds on a small boned body towering perhaps 5 ‘ 6”. I now float around 155 pounds. But that’s still a 25 pound increase. And it most certainly isn’t muscle that has grown!

I, as have many others, attempted over the years (and now decades) to slow or even stop this ‘creep.’ I may even have learned a few things that approximate reality. I don’t guarantee that what I say here is reality, just that it approaches reality -- a distinctly different thing.

So, let’s just begin.

First, let me consider what life consisted of back in the day -- keeping in mind that everything from the past is either recovered archival information (Journals, photos and the like -- the detritus of life) or remembered -- and just how trustworthy do we really consider our memories?

But I digress….

I ate what mother put in front of me. Breakfast consisted of hot or cold cereal with a good dollop of whole milk or perhaps a couple of eggs with toast and a bit of butter. Lunch remains a bit vague in memory., most likely soup and sandwich with a soda and perhaps a cookie. Supper always had meat, usually beef, potatoes and some vegetable of color (usually cooked to utter limpness). We also had some sweet dessert to top the meal, ice cream, pie, or perhaps simply a bit of jello (sugared processed animal hooves).

Snacks were limited, a cookie after school and maybe a middle of the evening bit of the old some thing.

So I consumed a steady diet of high fat, moderate to high calorie food.

Given this diet how did I manage to stay skinny?


I have come to believe that weight control consists of several factors. Part of this matrix is what I eat compared to how I exercise. Another element seems to cluster around BMR -- Basal Metabolism Rate.

The ideas behind BMR suggests that since muscle burns energy faster than fat, I am probably better with a lot of muscle and only a little fat (well, duh!). In fact, it appears that thin, muscular people (= high muscle to fat ratio) can eat more than people with more body fat (with a lower muscle to fat ratio), even when they are the same weight. This disturbing fact suggests that it’s possible to be a fat skinny person! It also means that eating less only helps a little for a person who is already overweight. Ugh.


Sherman, set the Way Back machine to Huntington High School, c. 1965.


I loathed gym class. And the ultimate awful gym activity consisted of running back and forth on that shiny wooden floor in that large smelly room with abysmal acoustics while one person managed to run while bouncing a round ball. Occasionally this runner-bouncer would stop, twist from side to side and then hurl the ball at some other unfortunate young man running up and down this wooden courted area.

Once some person threw the ball at me. Surely, this had happened before, but I cannot remember ever catching it and when, this time, I did catch it, I had no idea what to do with it.

What I did do was instantly stop running and freeze. I had learned (through osmosis, I’m certain, since no one had ever bothered to instruct me) that among the strange and arcane rules for this activity was one that demanded the possessor of the ball not move unless bouncing the ball, lest he occasion a violation given the odd name of double dribbling. And since I had no idea how to walk while bouncing the ball (much less run) I preferred the safe course of doing nothing.

So I stood holding the ball and looking, I suspect, much the way a ‘possum looks in the headlights of an oncoming car and feeling about the same…. I vaguely heard voices calling to shoot the ball, but having no gun or other projectile weapon at hand, I merely threw the ball to the nearest person, who turned out a member of the opposing team….

No one ever deliberately threw the ball at me again -- to my utter and lasting relief.

But I digress….

I discovered that, in it’s glorious and profound wisdom, the PTB (the Powers That Be) had decided that a student who participated in an organized school sporting activity would NOT have to take a gym class.

One of the only pleasures I ever had in Gym class consisted of running around the gym or even around the block, probably because the enormous agony of such activity exhausted even my athletic betters (everybody), thus reducing the energy they had to harass persons of less than athletic demeanor (me, among others -- you know who you are!). And so I began to associate running with pleasure (or at least the absence of pain, which, sayeth Epicurus, is pretty much the same thing)….

…. And so the next autumn I attempted to join the Cross Country team. But, alas, running requires endurance and training, of which I had little. And so I found myself unceremoniously tossed from the team (oh, and also I lacked the winner’s spirit, which I seem never to have found, but that’s another story).

In this regard, I was lucky, because one of my friends (how did we become friends? I have no memory….), Mickey Thabit -- 2nd generation Lebanese-American from Kafar and genuine good guy -- being equipped by nature for speed and agility rather than slogging endurance, also found himself off the team.

We now had the choice to either go back to gym class (!) or find a way to run through the fall and winter in preparation for the spring track season.

With this in mind we visited Coach McCoy -- Raymond McCoy, may he ever be blessed! -- who simply said OK when we asked permission to leave school an hour early, walk over to the school used by disabled kids (and which in the not too distant past had served as the -- segregated -- school for children of color) and then run for an hour or so.

How gloriously insane was it that Coach McCoy trusted two 17 year olds to do what they said they would do? Hah. Thank you! Thank you!

Well, it never even occurred to me not to go running every day. And so, every day, we walked the half mile or so to the school, changed into our running gear and ran. First, we ran around the building and that pretty much wore me out. Mickey, being a truly nice guy, was willing those first few days -- OK, those first few weeks -- to trudge along at my sluggard’s pace while I acted as a drag to his progress.

But by the time the weather had become cold enough to necessitate sweat pants and shirts, we found ourselves able to run-jog over to Ritter Park. I won’t go into how the park has changed over the decades, but suffice that the place had then an open primitive opulence about it.

Then sometime before Christmas break the PTB finally noticed that 2 boys left the campus every day an hour before classes ended and that no one seemed to know where they went nor why.

The Assistant Principal called me in for a chat.

“You leave the building at 2:30 every day?”

“Yes.” Imagine me stuttering this out. The AP terrified me!

“And what do you do?”

“Oh, we run.”

“You run?”


“Hmm. And did anyone give you permission to do this?”

“Oh, sure. Coach…” And about this time I had one of my wonderful blank spaces, where I cannot remember someone’s name.

“…. Ah…. Coach…. The track coach…. He said we could. And…”

“Do you mean Coach McCoy or….”

“Yea, Coach McCoy. He….”

And that was that. Somewhere in the labyrinth of the high school, they must have found Coach McCoy and he, sainted man, must have green lighted us, although, as I suggested, I have no idea why.

By winter, when we would sometimes wrap a towel around our necks to keep the icy draft out of our sweat shirts, Mickey and I would run all over the place and on occasion run the incline up from Ritter Park along twisty 8th Street Hill Road (I don’t have a map right now, so I may have misnamed this) where the rich folk (and Mickey, whose family had money, but you’d never know it…) lived. We would scramble up hill sides in the rain and later, in the sleet and snow, we looped around back roads with abrupt dead ends where we would turn around amid trash and the random condom or two.

Finally, spring arrived and I had never been in finer physical condition. My body fat must have been below 10% and I weighed under 120 -- not that I ever weighed myself.

Only I did not realize then the extent of my social needs.

Running in theory is an individual sport. However, I had never actually just ran as an individual. I really enjoyed the talk and camaraderie of the trail. Once track season began, Mickey transformed back into a hurtler of some ability (he managed to earn a ‘letter’ for his running talents) while I found myself relegated to running around the track pretty much by myself. As a distance runner I should have fitted in with the other guys who ran a mile or more, but they had all arrived from the autumn Cross Country team from which I had been tossed. So I just ran around and around pretty much all by myself, although I would sometimes start with (or, to be more accurate, beside) the others. And then watch as they looped around the track at blistering speeds. I had terrific endurance, but not much in the way of speed.

I still enjoyed my running, but I missed the chit-chat. So sometimes as the days grew hot I would wander over to where the hurtlers and pole vaulters lurked. But after a while Coach McCoy would himself just wander over to tell me to run a few more miles before we quit for the day.

It never occurred to me that he had a plan for me. A decade or so later, my brain finally caught up. I realized that he knew that with only a year of base fitness building (the best runners had been at this since Junior High!) I needed a lot more time to ‘toughen’ up into a decent runner. Unfortunately, I didn’t understand. Coach McCoy pretty much spelled it out for me, but I didn’t get it. Well you tried, Coach, you tried. Thanks for the effort. I haven’t forgotten you tried….

I had two moments which were glorious. Two times when I achieved beyond what I imagined I might do, but those stories must wait.

There’s a point of this story. Even with no athletic ability I managed to develop a skinny, yet low fat and thus ‘muscular’ body. My muscle to fat ratio must have been ridiculous -- more or less the same as a world class body builder (only stuck onto a 115 pound body!).

So I ate a typical early ‘60s diet, but matched this with a lean body with a high muscle to fat ratio… and stayed skinny.


Time passes…..


Interim (as time continues to pass): I just looked over the Huntington HS 1965 yearbook and I note two things of no particular importance.

First, the picture of the coach for the Track Team which we see beside the bio of Coach McCoy is a picture of Coach Miller, the football coach. The only pic of Coach McCoy is one where he is seen beside a young man practicing his sprint starts -- and that picture fails even to mention Coach McCoy by name. It’s been 44 years since then… and this is the first time I ever noticed this error. My apologies to Coach McCoy for my extended state of obliviousness!

Second, there is no evidence in the yearbook that I ever had anything to do with the Track team. I never received a ‘letter,’ so I’m not in the group picture and…. Oh wait. In the back there is a listing of all our names and beneath a list of whatever honors and/ or activities we took part in and there I find the magic word: ‘track’ -- ah, sweet, my tale is vindicated!


The clock back ticks into the 21st century and I now weigh around 155. I’m not obviously obese, but I’m certainly visibly plump!

What has happened?

Irrelevant. Something happened, but it’s not important what.

And do I care though that this ‘something’ has happened? And if I do care what am I going to do about it?

I care because I don’t feel as good at 155 as I did at 135 or even 145. There appears to be a weight -- or actually most likely a muscle to fat balance point -- at which I (and probably you, but that’s not up to me!) feel best. And 155 just ain’t it.

Back up a few years to when my friend Noreen needed to gain a bit of weight (yea, I know, but you have to meet her to understand….). She began to write down everything she ate. She kept this up for a few months and I, for some silly reason, decided to ‘support’ her efforts by doing the same thing. Not to gain weight, but to (hopefully) loose weight.

I lost about 10 pounds. And, really, all I did was eat with more awareness. Of course, at the time I actually counted the calories and found myself consuming about 1800 calories a day, while Noreen managed around 3600 per day. She gained a bit, I lost a bit. The universe remained in balance….

She still eats about 2 breakfasts, a good lunch, an afternoon piece of chocolate (‘just 1 small piece, a tinsy, tiny piece.’ he said, suddenly channeling Monty Python), a hearty supper and fruit or juice in the evening (and just manages to maintain her weight…. Go figure.).

I, on the other hand…. Well, I didn't keep the weight off -- let it go, let it go….

So now I’ve begun writing down everything I eat. Calories? I have no idea.

But since I started doing this again, I have managed to completely avoid sugar ‘stuff’ -- no candy, no ice cream, no sugar in the occasional cup of (decaf) coffee -- although I do add a bit (just a tiny bit!) of honey (which I’m told we metabolize in a different way than sugar). Of course, some days, I do still have a glass of (red) wine....

So here’s the real deal: I’m trying to become aware of what I eat...

… And increase my exercise. I’ve done Tai Chi since 1983 (studying with Lau Mok for about 16 years) -- but not every day…. I walk and, now that I’m back living in a village with real sidewalks (finally!) I can do this every day -- but I don’t…. I ride my bicycle -- but not everyday….

Well, you get the drift. I get exercise, but not enough. But perhaps there is a way to do this and make it fun.

Martha King, nee Wild (Susan Wild’s cousin and a graduate of HHS 1966) has a project to ‘walk around the world’ -- she’s about 3500 miles into this -- which, as she reports, puts her “somewhere in the Atlantic now”.

Now Martha WK reports that her goal is 25,000 miles which indicates she is walking the equator (and thus not cheating). Now by my trusty calculator I concluded she’s walked an average of 1.47929 miles every day for the past 2367 days -- and at that average it will take her…, let me get the calculator…. OK, 14,533 days before she completes the trip. And that’s just a bit under 40 years…. But the nifty thing is that even if she sprints the last 10,000 miles or so and finishes in, say, 35 years, she still has the North to South Pole jaunt to enjoy.

Now, I don’t know if Martha does this, but one could put a big world map on the wall and pick a start point on the map -- I find that Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is on the Equator, so that might be a good start. Then every week or so a person could mark how far they had traveled on the map.

Just get a good map that will not fall apart over the next 30 or 40 years that it may take to walk all around.


So, perhaps the key is just to eat well, but not too much; avoid the sugars; walk a lot (by which I mean: walk, bike, swim, do Tai Chi or whatever); and keep smiling….


Hmm…. Does this mean Epicurus had it right all along?