Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Are You In Debt to Oxygen?

There are some sleepless nights that go along with thinking about big life goals to be achieved before one turns 40.

I was at the gym working out with my trainer Naz after a particularly sleepless night, since getting into athlete shape is high on my list of things to accomplish in the next year. I’d barely slept the night before, so I was dragging my flabby abs sluggishly across the gym floor, as Naz urged me to continue on between sets with no rest.

“Don’t rest, keep going, tough it out!” he urged, not knowing how seriously I was contemplating murder.

”50 squats. 50 jumping jacks. 25 push-ups. As fast as you can,
no rest. Go. Go. Go!”

Since he’s a bit of a hottie, and I wanted to impress him, I pushed hard through the sets until I was completely out of breath.

As I stood gasping to suck in more air, he suddenly exclaimed,

“Yes! That’s what I want! Oxygen debt!”

“Oxygen what?”

Oxygen debt. A phrase I’d be willing to bet most dedicated gym-toilers have never heard of. I’ve been working out consistently for at least 15 years, and consider myself to be knowledgeable on fitness, how the body works, and what to do to stay in shape. Yet the science behind this simple phrase was completely unknown to me, and when I searched for information on the Internet, I could only find one obscure article about the myth of the Fat Burning Zone that explained it in laymen’s terms. On Amazon, the only books about it were written for hardcore weightlifters, certain not to be read by average people just looking for the best way to stay in shape and maximize workout time.

So, here’s how oxygen debt works, in simple terms: We’ve all learned through bestsellers like “The Fat Burning Zone” that supposedly it is better to work out at a low intensity for longer periods of time. This causes the body to start converting fat into energy. Unfortunately, since your heart rate is staying relatively low, as soon as you stop working out, you stop burning calories.

However, when you work out at an extremely high intensity for a short period of time – say 20 – 40 minutes – and work out so hard that you are literally out of breath, you create a situation where your body is out of oxygen and has to “borrow” it from other places in the body. This is known as “oxygen debt.” Having borrowed the oxygen from other places in the body, it has to then pay it back. Which it does for the next 24 hours after the workout stops. And, this is the key aha moment: while it is in the recovery period of paying the oxygen back, you continue to burn about 10-15% more calories than you would at a normal resting rate! For 24 hours you are burning 10-15% more calories than normal.

For me, this means that after a 45 minute session with my trainer, during which I’m probably burning between 500 calories at a high intensity, I’m burning another 400 calories or so in the 24 hours after the workout ends just sitting on the couch. This kind of jump in metabolism can lead to dramatically increased results in the gym with shorter workouts. Maybe I’m the only one late to the party on this, but I just don’t think many people understand this.

I'm sure hardcore fitness buffs, weight-lifters, etc. are aware of this, but I'm talking about the average gym-goer who is dutifully doing their 45 minutes of low-intensity cardio a day. As I looked through Amazon, I found a few books on boosting metabolism, which is certainly not a new phenomenon, and they briefly covered high intensity exercise, but for me understanding the link between being out of breath during exercise and the resulting increased calorie burn afterwards was the motivation I needed to work out much harder.

If I were in the fitness business, I’d be working on a book on this pronto. This is the kind of information that fitness phenomenon’s are made of!

In the two weeks since I learned how this works, I’ve lost 5 pounds and increased my muscle ratio by 3% while working out for less time and eating more! This totally works for me.

You could argue that it is really hard to workout at a higher intensity, which is true, and that is why it is easy to buy into the myth that lower intensity workouts burn more fat—lower intensity workouts are easier! However, as with anything in life, if you want to achieve a goal you have to power through with no excuses, so go for it!

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