Meditation as it relates to fitness & health, and my body transformation episode I

I am rather rowdy for an Asian lady but I am a devout Buddhist. Buddhism saved my life during my life turmoil as a teenager. Also, I think Buddha is a great scientist and a self-experimenter, although he was definitely not the only person in his time and place to experiment with all kinds of odd things to achieve enlightenment.

Since I was around 9, I started practicing Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation at Ampawan temple. The whole experience will be described in a future post. Aside from the prayers and practicing the day-to-day mindfulness, I was taught how to do both walking, standing and sitting meditation. [Keep in mind that Buddhists do Vipassana meditation to achieve enlightenment or get over a suffering more so than to improve their quality of life, but the quality of life was a great side benefits.]

As it relates to fitness the most and perhaps the lessor known form of meditation in the west is the walking meditation.

The benefits of walking meditations as described by the Buddhist canon (in blue) and my personal experience (in brown) as it relates to fitness:

1. High endurance, enabling meditator to walk long distance

My endurance definitely improved from the first day of doing walking meditation. While I started it as a rather obese, inactive child, it made it much easier for me to start an exercise regime and stick with it. I maintained the endurance throughout the years.

Before I started weight training, I regularly engaged in and enjoyed endurance activities. I biked 70 km, ran 10k and swam 3k when I found the time to. This also allowed me to perform long weight training sessions (1 – 2 hours) involving mostly compound movements.

2. High tenacity, enabling meditator to perform with higher effort and for longer

Tenacity is my strength that has led me to accomplish a multitude of successes. I am neither exceptionally sharp nor genetically built to be successful. I work hard. I attack problems and I overcome obstacles, so I see results in my body transformation. It wasn’t always easy and there were stumbling blocks to achieving my goals.

(digression alert) Even in my research, I presented a dataset at a conference where 2 other groups came up to me and told me that they started the same thing and gave up. So, try walking meditation if you want to be successful.

3. Less chances of illnesses and faster healing

My eczema disappeared right around when I started it. It came back 10 years later but improve dramatically when I get more serious with meditation again. I also got less colds back then and now. (Frequent and lingering colds run in my family.)

And I heard a few stories of how cancer disappears in some cancer patients who were told they had only months to live. (But I heard too many of these now that I will believe like 50% of it. I’m glad the cancer patients survived, though.)

4. Better digestion 

This is absolutely true for me. Buddhist monks and serious meditators practice intermittent fasting by stop eating from after 12 PM to after their morning prayers (8 AM). When I practiced this, my stomach didn’t always like breakfast that much. Going right back to walking meditation definitely helped, to a greater degree than a typical walks would.

5. Better concentration during the sitting phase of the meditation

Walking meditation improves mind-body awareness better than a sit-down form of meditation. For me, it was easier to concentrate on the movements than on breathing. My minds were less likely to wander. There is also this culture of quality over quality. The teachers say that real benefits: breakthroughs and enlightenments arise from walking as slowly as possible.

Having only reflected on this recently, I thought, perhaps meditation is the difference between I and some exercisers who have issues with motivation, endurance and consistency. Although in fitness, we train for strengths, flexibility and endurance, there are also other aspects that are not completely understood and hence not usually trained. Meditation seems to help with neurological, hormonal, emotional and psychological aspects of motivation and endurance. It clearly has contributed to my life successes and health. I will consider teaching this to my personal training clients to help them improve.

I am not qualified to teach meditations, yet. It’s not one of those things you can get a degree about or certified to teach. The people who practice take it seriously and only meditators who achieved major breakthroughs with it were allowed to teach at Ampawan temple. This VDO is a great resource where a qualified monk demonstrates how it’s done. That’s exactly how I was taught to do it. I will be happy to answer questions about this as much as I can, though.

Perhaps throw your scale out?

I get lots of questions about how to lose 5 – 10 lbs, how to lose flabby something and etc.

To those of you who fit into these categories and are not morbidly obese, I want you to lose your scale first thing. Alternatively, you can leave it at my house and come get it when you achieve your goal. Here are my 3 reasons:

1) It’s probably not the weight you want to lose. If your concern involves problem areas, you may tackle that by changing your body composition to reduce your body fat, or addressing any hormonal imbalances you may have that causes fat to deposit more in certain areas. Permanent and effective fat loss requires a lifestyle change and that your body be healthy (that topic requires another blog post, so I will leave that for another day). As a matter of fact, I only lost 12 lbs over the course of a year, but I lost 10% body fat, so I went from flabby to having abs.

2) When you are actually losing, the weight is a very misleading measures. The first few weeks of trying anything (if it works), you will lose a dramatic amount of weight. That’s because you may lose water and glycogen weight. After that phase, it will stop and you will actually see the fat weight coming off at a more steady rate. More importantly, you lose water weight during exercise, so it’s not surprising that you can lose a pound or two after an hour of exercise. If you go straight to donuts after the zumba class every time because you lose that 2 lbs, you are almost guaranteed to gain fat.

3) It bruises your ego and has the tendency to derail you more than anything. Your body doesn’t respond to stimuli in a linear manner, but your mind tends to think linearly. First of all, when you put on weight, it can be water, glycogen, anything and fat. The conditions have to be right for you to put on water, glycogen, muscles, or fat. These depends on your hormonal states at the time. It is indeed possible to put on 5 – 10 lbs overnight just by over-eating. I thought about it that it takes about 3,500 calories to gain a pound of fat. A sit-down meal rarely contains more than 3,500 calories (although it may weight +10 lbs the next day), so there is no way you actually put on 10 lbs of fat overnight. People getting upset over these numbers over the year-end holidays have been known to make gyms crowded every January before disappearing by February. Another frequent possibility is that the false perception that they haven’t (or have) made progress sometimes cause them to binge and tricker a vicious cycle.

So what do I do?

Lose your scale. Throw it out. Give it to a friend. Maybe only give yourself access to the scale once or twice a month. That’s enough.

Decide what’s the problem. Do you mind being at the current weight if you are 2 sizes smaller or no longer have a flabby belly?

If looking better is what you want to work on, take photos.

If getting smaller in clothes size is the goal, use that piece of clothing to measure how it fits as a way to measure your progress.

Take measures and calipers are a great tool, too.

More digital body fat measures may work, although mine hasn’t changed in 6 months; but my pictures look significantly different every month.

It’s a good idea to have multiple ways to measure your progress, but don’t let the numbers drive you nuts. Have behavioral goals as well as outcome goals. You can’t always control the outcome. Focus on progression, not outcome or perfection.



First attempt as a powerlifter totally got me high on Friday!

Squated 150 lbs and deadlifted 160 lbs today (ran out of space on the little BB to add more, so I will have to try at another gym). That’s about 10% more than my body weight. It was so much fun! Like wow I didn’t know I can do that, and I didn’t blow up. It’s my first attempt at this so I wanted to make sure I did it safely. Thanks Marco Girgenti for spotting and believing in me. Another trainer that happened to be in the gym rolled his eyes as I giggled “this is a warmup, right?” with the 85 lbs dumbbell in my hands. The other skinny lady with some questionable lunge form glanced at us like we were from a different planet.

I got fitness geeky enough to start greeting boys with “nice lats!”. My goal is to be able to greet them with “I can deadlift you.”

The best part is when I got in the elevator on my way back to my apartment, I ran into the security guard Arden. He said “You know what? We have a camera in the gym. I see your workout intensity is so admirable that it motivates me to work out hard at home.” My response: “I’m on a mission to change the way women work out.”

That’s what makes my Friday awesome. Ear to ear grinning.

Ending the carb wars by learning your genetics

In one of my previous posts, I stated that I opposed genetic testing to determine lifestyle decisions. One of the reasons is because your phenotypes (traits) are influenced by so many things more than just your genes. The best thing to do is to look at your phenotypes rather than your genotypes (changes in your DNA sequence).

I have tried 7 different diets, been anywhere from 90 lbs to 165 lbs. Finally I settled in to low glycemic impact eating and eventually really like Paleo although I don’t fixate on following either of these all the time.

A lot of people just get turned off outright when we start talking about carbs. I won’t argue that a lot of people are attached to carbs in one form or the other, maybe because they grow up eating pasta, bread, rice noodles as staples. For most North Americans, those are way too much carbs for our activity level. Diet trends came up and say you should eat low fat and high carbs, and then one that say very little carbs and high fat. Neither one has 100% success rate. The determinant comes to your phenotypes as determined by your genes and your current state of health and lifestyle choices. There’s rarely a generalization that is correct. Researchers often find primitive populations that are unbelievably healthy on any diet that contradict what western dieticians suggest. (I’ll leave that topic for another day.)

To people who care about body composition, it is quite clear that a high protein diet is great for improving your body composition (i.e. increasing or preserving muscle mass, given that you do activities that stimulate muscle growth or preservation). The rest of the macronutrients remain to be manipulated are carbs and fat. Some people get leaner by consuming more fat because fat consumption increases fat oxidation for them, others fail miserably (have their hormones go wired) as they reduce their carb intakes. Whether you will do well on a high carb or a high fat diet can be determined by 2 things: your insulin sensitivity and insulin secretion.

You can determine your insulin sensitivity by how you feel after a large intake of starchy carb:
1. Does increasing carb intake give you more energy or does it make you bloated and groggy?
If the former, you have good insulin sensitivity. Otherwise, you may be insulin resistant.

2. After a high carb meal, do you have steady energy levels all day or do you crash after an hour? If the former, you have normal to low levels of insulin. The latter, you have higher insulin secretion.

People with low insulin secretion and high insulin sensitivity tend to do well in moderate to high carb/low fat diets. At the other end of the spectrum, insulin resistant people tend to do better with low carb/high fat diets or a full-blown ketogenic diet.

That being said, everyone is different, and there are always exceptions to the rule. Individualization is key. Bodybuilders always know to self-experiment. They try things out and record what they do to figure out what is best for them.

As much as I hate calorie counting, protein counting, carb counting or anything that makes me more obsessed with foods, I have to admit that I need to do it when I try to get really lean. For starters, you may only need to start with perhaps about 40% carbs, 20% fat and 40% protein if you are insulin sensitive with low insulin secretion. If you are insulin resistance and/or have high insulin secretion, you may do better with lower carbs like 35% fat, 25% carb and 40% protein.

It is a good idea to do a basic calculation and measure things out the first time to see what a typical portion should be like with respect to your hands, and then just live by doing hand measurements. For example, 4 oz of chicken has about 30 g of protein and it is about the size of my palm. It saves my sanity that way.

For more reading or references on this topic, click here.