Why Intermittent Fasting and Exercise Have a Big Impact on Your Health
Three years ago, I wrote a column on intermittent fasting. I had done research and was intrigued by what I had found, but I was not a practitioner. In other words, I wrote an informative column but had no personal experience or ideas.
Frankly I didn’t give it much thought until it was published and I got an incredible response from readers, way more emails on this topic than any other topic I have covered in my 43 years as a health columnist. Plus, the responses have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, touting incredible effects and benefits. As a result, I decided I needed to get more first-hand knowledge, so I took the plunge.
Let me start with the different types of intermittent fasting. The first is the type I follow daily where I squeeze my food into a narrow window. At first, that window was eight hours, which meant that I consumed everything I was going to eat for the day between about 1 and 9 p.m., and I was just fasting (nothing but water, unsweetened tea or black coffee) the rest of the day. It was easy and no problem for me as I was a firm believer in eating when I’m hungry rather than eating at a set time, and usually I’m not hungry when I wake up in the morning so skipping the small -lunch was no big deal.
Around 1 p.m., I was getting hungry and had lunch. But I would go easy on the food and typically consume 24-32 ounces of a nutritious homemade blend with lots of leafy greens and a few carrots, fruit (an orange, apple, blueberries, etc.), high-protein soy powder (chocolate flavor), raw nuts, and soy milk, blended in a high-powered Vitamix blender. There are other brands of blenders to choose from, but the key is high power because a regular blender can’t do the job.
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I did this for a while, but was eager to make progress and did it quickly, reducing my eating window to six hours, then four, and often just two hours. This meant that I fasted for 18, then 20, and finally up to 22 hours a day. The results were fantastic and similar to the emails I had received earlier. More noticeably, my abdominal fat is gone, not only the deep abdominal fat under the muscle layer, but also the subcutaneous fat just under the skin. This amazed me because despite all my workouts, I never thought I would lose the “love handles” on my hips or see the “six-pack abs” I had as a young man. But I did, on my way to losing 15 pounds and hitting my goal of 190, my sophomore high school weight.
Other approaches to intermittent fasting may be more to your liking. One is the alternate day approach in which you eat normally and hopefully healthy one day and then fast the next. This could involve a complete fast for the whole day, or more generally people will consume a small meal during the day of around 500 calories. Another less demanding approach is the 5:2 method, which involves fasting two out of seven days a week. Again, fast days can be no food, or just a small midday meal of around 500 calories.
What are the benefits of intermittent fasting and exercise?
I have become a huge fan of the research of Dr. Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Aging and a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Thousands of research studies have been done on calorie restriction and intermittent fasting in animals, but little was done on humans until Mattson began his work 25 years ago. At first he was intrigued by the research prospects of intermittent fasting, then he embraced the lifestyle for himself to improve his health.
Mattson argues that intermittent fasting has many of the same benefits as exercise, as they are what he calls “good stressors.” They both stress the body, but instead of having a negative outcome, the good stressors increase the shedding of old cells and trigger their replacement with younger, more viable cells, and they also provide an anti-aging effect. -pronounced inflammatory.
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According to Mattson, “If you don’t expose yourself to mild bioenergetic stress, whether it’s exercise or intermittent fasting, it’s not so good for your cells, especially as you age. You’re not harnessing all the processes that help cells resist stress, function efficiently, and fight disease.
Mattson points out that exercise engages the muscles, making them more efficient. He adds that exercise can cause muscles to release proteins (myokines) that signal the brain to promote new connections between nerves. Exercise has been shown to be a key factor in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and this process of myokine release could be a useful mechanism. Along the same lines, a two-year intermittent fasting research study supports a positive effect on the brain similar to exercise, with improved cognitive function and memory, possibly helping to prevent mental decline and dementia in later years.
Mattson draws another parallel between exercise and intermittent fasting by pointing out that muscle building does not occur during exercise. This happens later when you eat and rest. Likewise, intermittent fasting stresses cells, pushing them like exercise into a stress-resistant mode that causes helpful changes, but those changes only happen when you eat and rest. Another similarity is that the effects of a longer fast are like increasing your exercise intensity and duration.
Intermittent fasting also mimics exercise to increase the rate of production and release of human growth hormone, which helps reduce belly fat while promoting increased muscle mass.
And finally, intermittent fasting and exercise support immune system health. Given these similar benefits, it makes sense to combine the two and maximize the benefits. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past two years and I’ve gotten far greater benefits than I imagined at my current age of 75.
Contact Bryant Stamford, professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Hanover College, at firstname.lastname@example.org.