Longevity Vs. Athletic Performance: How Intermittent-Fasting might be the key to both!

copyright Max Wettstein 2012

Background: My Training Progression & Evolution: Athlete ~ Model ~ Holistic Health


            As I age into my 40s I’ve witnessed my training & nutrition goals become more ‘holistic’ in nature and evolve through various phases, sometimes back & forth, from basically bodybuilding, to body-sculpting as a professional fitness-model, to training for athletic performance, to now training for holistic health and ‘longevity’.  I’d like to say that I’m getting wiser as I get older, but also I’m trying to stick around a long time too, being the father & coach of two daughters.  Ideally speaking, a truly complete training & nutrition plan should simultaneously and equally improve athletic performance, sculpt an aesthetically appealing physique, and, combat aging and age-related diseases.  If nothing else, to be sure, some kind of exercise every day, ideally outdoors, will go a long way towards accomplishing all of the above.  But if you’re a fitness aficionado there’s way more to this story, depending on what your primary fitness goals are.

For me personally, athletic performance and optimal function used to always trump all else fitness.  However, to be completely candid, there was a period during the peak of my fitness-modeling career when I was booking jobs weekly to include magazine cover-tries, that aesthetics actually trumped all my other training goals.  This amounted to me basically always striving to improve lean-body mass & body composition.  Being that I am a professional model and not a professional athlete, I have no regrets about focusing on aesthetics so much.  Now I’ve become more focused on total holistic-health, maintaining range of motion, and exploring longevity, AKA, anti-aging techniques.  I feel like this is a natural progression and evolution that most athletes will arrive at as they age and begin families.


Longevity & The Athlete's Dietary Conundrum...


As I study the many lifestyle factors that contribute to longevity and anti-aging, (genetics & heredity & culture all play a huge role in determining lifespan but I'm not going to discuss those here), surprisingly I have found a few direct, major conflicts between training (and eating) to maximize lifespan versus training to maximize athletic performance & increase muscle-mass.  I found this conflict of interest disturbing actually, since I have been doing things I thought were healthy, but in the long run may not be.  I now realize there has to be a compromise – a tradeoff.  One cannot simultaneously train to maximize longevity while also training to maximize their athletic performance.  - One of these training goals must ultimately trump the other.  Disturbing but true indeed, according to many studies.  The conflict centers around three main dietary conundrums that athletes must face:  1. Chronic elevated Insulin levels; 2. Excessive Calorie consumption; 3. Excessive animal-based protein consumption.  All this could be attributed to athletes & bodybuilders constantly chasing an ‘anabolic-state’ (growth & repair-state) to either top-off glycogen (energy) stores pre-workout, or recover and repair muscle tissue post-workout, or to gain additional muscle-mass.  Also contributing to the accelerated-aging problem are excessive Insulin-like Growth Factors, and blunted Growth Hormone (spiked insulin blunts Growth Hormone).

Numerous, legitimate clinical studies are now suggesting that restricting calories (and therefore minimizing insulin and IGF 1 &2), and even incorporating occasional fasting (which maximizes Growth Hormone and further increases ‘insulin-sensitivity’ and regulates the hunger hormone Ghrelin’), is linked to longer lifespan, at least in rodents and some other lab mammals.  This is because chronic levels of elevated insulin in the bloodstream over time causes systemic inflammation and increase risk of diabetes, Metabolic-Syndrome and obesity.  We already knew that obesity was linked to early-death and higher disease rates, but research is now going even further and finding that minimal-calorie and even calorie-restricted diets may contribute to increasing lifespan.  This could be interpreted as meaning that, given all other factors are equal, 'skinny' people tend to live longer.  And in many cultures diets based high in animal-protein have shown higher rates of cancer.

So with a little bit of deductive reasoning one can see the potential conflict of interest for an athlete who is training to improve performance and especially for a bodybuilder who is trying to build a large amount of muscle-mass:  Calorie-restriction would jeopardize optimum performance and follow-on muscle recovery, and of course it is impossible to gain any kind of mass while in a state of calorie-deficit.  But if the payoff is a longer lifespan, then isn’t it worth it?  And while athletes and bodybuilders alike are hyper insulin-sensitive, (meaning very little insulin hormone is required metabolize sugar and to shuttle glucose out of the bloodstream and into their liver and muscles to store as glycogen), from years of training and consistent exercise, they still secrete some amount of insulin every time they eat, especially if ingesting high-glycemic carbohydrates and sugar, which athletes often will intentionally do during their training and recovery meals.  Even Whey protein has a relatively high glycemic-index and triggers insulin secretion.  Bodybuilders sometimes consume 5000 calories a day during their mass-gain phase - that's a lot of insulin required!

        Insulin: Friend or Foe?  Friend as long as you moderate it!


Insulin just so happens to be one of the most anabolic hormones that humans produce (along with Testosterone), so bodybuilders rely on it during their ‘mass-building’ phase of training, and in fact will try to maximize its secretion during their post-workout meal.  But now they're in a 'catch-22' because, again, insulin hormone is the #1 cited accelerated-aging factor and culprit across all the longevity studies I encountered, and elevated blood-insulin is the primary killer of those already in a state of insulin-resistant-dysfunction, such as type-2 Adult-onset diabetics.  Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 & 2, is the partner in crime, yet also has powerful anabolic benefits sought after by over-trained athletes and mass-seeking bodybuilders alike.


Decide your PRIMARY Training Goal: Increasing Longevity or Improving Performance?


So what do us athletes and health aficionados do?  We have to decide our PRIMARY training goal - Our primary fitness goal:  Is it athletic PERFORMANCE and muscle-mass gain and/or preservation? - Or is it LONGEVITY and weight-loss/fat-loss?  Eventually the wise family-man as he ages will transition towards opting for longevity above all else, perhaps at the expense of becoming skinny (but lean) and not winning races as often.

Again, in the broader scope of life for most of us, just exercising consistently and eating sensibly, while being mindful of sweets and managing insulin, will be more than adequate and more than most will ever do.  This combo will serve to improve fitness, aesthetics and longevity without fretting any further.  But professional athletes, bodybuilders and weekend-warriors all warrant giving further consideration of this calorie conundrum, because NO athlete out there of any sport can perform at their full potential while restricting calories.


Intermittent-Fasting: The Ultimate Compromise?


There is another option though, one that offers a more strategic approach to tapping into longevity benefits without sacrificing performance or catabolizing muscle-mass.  It is a relatively, newly recognized and controversial strategy known as Intermittent-Fasting.  In fact many of us by default have been fasting to some degree, even if unintended simply because we’re busy, on the go, or don’t have access to food every minute of the day.  But now the fitness nerds have given it an official label and Intermittent Fasting is the latest weight-loss buzz, (not to be incorrectly confused with ‘yo-yo dieting’ which is still bad.).  Fitness trends & fads come & go and get recycled with different names, but with all sincerity I have found some actual validity and value to Intermittent-Fasting and will attempt to sum it up for you right now, but first a confession.

Before I go any further, like most of my fitness colleagues this strategy contradicts what we’ve been telling you for the past 10 years, and I’m the first to admit this.  You’ve been hearing things like, “Eat 5 to 6 times a day” and to "graze throughout the day to keep your metabolism stoked".  We’ve told you not to skip breakfast.  We’ve told you that if you exercise regularly you become insulin-sensitive and glucose-tolerant and that insulin can be your anabolic friend.  We’ve told you to keep the protein flowing every 2 to 3 hours so you don’t risk becoming catabolic and breaking down your own precious muscle tissue for energy and repair.  We’ve told you that carbohydrates provide the BEST fuel for high-intensity cardio exercise and strength training and that you have to eat prior to exercise for optimal performance.  Yes I’m guilty of telling you all this, but in as far as I can tell all of this still holds true when athletic performance, gaining muscle, and improving lean-body mass are your primary training goals!  But Intermittent Fasting does have value when applied correctly: When you need to correct insulin dysfunction, shed a lot of body fat, or desire to focus on incorporating anti-aging - then you truly should consider adding Intermittent Fasting into your training plan.

        How Intermittent Fasting Works & How to Apply I.F.

        How does Intermittent Fasting work?  Simply put, exactly like it sounds:  Every other day or at least 3 times per week, fast (Do not eat!  Liquids are okay), for about a 12 to 14 hour period of the day.  To maximize the fat-burning, Growth-Hormone triggering and anti-aging effects, be sure to EXERCISE for at least 30 minutes during this fasting period, preferably high-intensity cardio or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio.  Studies so far, show that metabolism is actually boosted, fat-burning physiology is utilized, Growth Hormone is triggered, insulin is minimized to zero, muscles become insulin-sensitive, systemic inflammation is reduced, and the hunger-signaling hormone Ghrelin is reset.  This is an acute-fasting period, strategically incorporated into days where athletic performance is not paramount, because your physical performance will be degraded to some degree while training so depleted.  However, surprisingly muscle-catabolism (breakdown) has shown to be negligible due to stored glycogen and amino acids within the liver that are mobilized by cortisol and caffiene during exercise.  However, if you are concerned with muscle-catabolism then it is feasible to ingest some BCAAs or perhaps even 20 grams of protein before your workout.  Obviously, with everything else remaining equal, if we add in 3 days of intermittent-fasting per week, unless we make-up for those lost calories somewhere else, we are going to lose weight - hopefully mostly body fat - so be aware and check your specs!

Most who have had success using Intermittent Fasting (and make no mistake the jury is still out on the long term success of this strategy for now), begin their fasting phase while sleeping at night.  It is the most practical and physiological ideal way to acquire the initial 8 hours of fasting, but instead of ‘breaking the fast’ during breakfast, they then perform their first workout of the day upon waking on an empty stomach to maximize fat-burning and Growth Hormone secretion (typically cardio exercise).  Although high-intensity exercise uses primarily carbohydrates and glycogen for fuel, the fasting will help deplete your glycogen levels quicker, forcing you to access back-up fat stores & sky-rocketing your metabolism for hours afterwards (thanks to EPOC effect.)  Going intense enough to accumulate lactic-acid build-up/burn in the muscles will further enhance Growth Hormone trigger.  (Growth Hormone is the most powerful lean-body mass and restorative hormone we produce).  Serious athletes and bodybuilders should consider ingesting 20 to 40 grams of protein post-workout even if they want to continue their fast to the full 12 to 14 hours to enhance muscle-recovery and minimize catabolism.  NOTE:  This is a liquid-tolerant fast, so drink plenty of water, especially to assist your body to detox!  Coffee, tea and other non-caloric drinks may also be consumed during the fast.  Once your fast is complete, you can immediately go right back into your normal training plan diet.  Carbo-loading may be worth considering if you’re an athlete with a race or huge workout approaching.  Carbo-loading is actually enhanced post fast, due to depleted glycogen stores, increased insulin-sensitivity and improved glucose-metabolism, so it can be accomplished in a shorter amount of time.


Fasting Has Always Existed in Almost Every Culture in History - It's Natural & Intuitive


For me personally, though I have not yet written about or advocated fasting for other than cleansing and detox purposes thus far, I’ve actually always been applying it in my own life, out of sheer intuition because at certain times it just felt right.  Like when I go fly the jet on a redeye for 7 hours straight and then straight to the hotel layover to day-sleep.  My body is used to not eating during those late hours anyway, so why would I just because I’m flying?  Why not enter into a long fat-burning window?  Or if I do, I would naturally go low-carb to minimize insulin trigger.  During back to back flying over a 2 day period I often cut my calories by 1/2 and will do my cardio on an empty stomach at very high-intensity, since I was basically living an acute, sedentary lifestyle for that period.  In a way you too can probably sense that Intermittent Fasting is natural and intuitive and even common sense, and maybe you’ve already been applying it intermittently!  Every culture throughout history has advocated fasting in some form or another, whether it be for religous beliefs, detox, political leverage, longevity or now, now weight-loss.  But watch out folks, all the so-called fitness experts have now given it an official name and are beginning to buzz about it!  But if anybody ever tries to sell you a 'Fasting Kit or Plan' - do yourself a favor and runaway from them!  Here’s to our health and longevity.  Here’s to looking into your children’s eyes and knowing you will be around to enjoy them growing up, or if you’re like me, trying to keep up with them on the playing fieldJ

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