Did you really think that eating right and exercising properly was enough?
The gym takes up about 2% of your week. How you spend the rest of your life matters just as much, if not more.
If you are of South Asian descent, you know you face unique challenges when it comes to your health and fitness.
To truly transform, you must be willing to consider and work on every part of your life, a.k.a. your lifestyle.
I am not interested in half measures. Neither should you be.
Beyond All Recognition
From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, the way you go about your life (how you handle situations, stress, relationships etc.) has very real effects on your health and physique.
By now you are (hopefully):
- are not sleeping enough/optimally
- are not breathing properly
- are using your phone/digital devices too much1https://thebestbrainpossible.com/phone-mental-health-depression-anxiety-addiction/
- are consuming too much coffee/tea (caffeine)
- are socializing with the wrong people
- spending too much time on social media
They all have one thing in common.
They cause stress. Mental as well as physical.
Stress has very real effects on your body, and these effects manifest in your body physiologically in two forms:
Cortisol and Inflammation3https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476783/.
These are the twin terrors responsible for all your physique woes (genetics aside).
Optimize these and you will optimize your health, your body/aesthetics, and maybe even your life.
Cortisol is one of the body’s main hormones and has many important functions4https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-is-cortisol.
The most famous being its ability to regulate stress, aka your “fight or flight” response.
This is done primarily by downregulating Inflammation.
Think of inflammation as an immune response that your body produces to combat/prepare for infection, disease and injury.
This is how an acute stress response works:
Basically you perceive some sort of stressor (step 1), physical (tiger chasing you) or psychological (tiger mom stressing you out).
Your body responds to both of these threats identically.6Why? To your ancient physiology, stress happens when survival is threatened. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/#!po=44.3820 It prepares to resolve the stress and readies for possible injury (steps 2, 3).7https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3412918/
Then cortisol gets involved (step 4).
Cortisol downregulates inflammation and alters your immune response so that these mechanisms don’t go out of control and damage your own cells. 8cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory hence the widespread (mis)use of cortisone injections; more humoral less cellular immunity; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3047790/ https://www.zenodo.org/record/1235876
It also increases your blood sugar and fatty acid levels so you have more fuel readily available to “fight” or “flee” from any threat9All of these mechanisms evolved and adapted to increase your chance of survival, and if you have ever experienced an adrenaline surge you know how powerful and effective they are..
So now with all of that extra energy, you have run away from the tiger, maybe with a few scrapes and bruises(or finished your exams) and the threat has passed/been dealt with.
Cortisol goes down (step 5).
But what about if stress is constant? Daily?
We are all aware that South Asians live a higher stress lifestyle. than most.10ever seen a Pakistani drama… 🤯
Culturally, we are always stressing out and being stressed out over something. Family, money, grades, social opinion etc.11especially in urban areas or in immigrant populations, 12https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-14-154
Now these aren’t life or death scenarios,13although those (over)dramatic sound effects in the serials make you think like the world is ending instead they are smaller, more frequent psychological stressors.
But remember, your body/physiology responds to these the same way as to a physical stressor,
“fight or flight”14albeit to a different degree.
So it releases adrenaline, increases inflammation, mounts an immune response, and then cortisol is released to bring this back to normal, while increasing your blood sugar and fatty acid levels.
This stress response was only meant to happen when our survival was threatened, but now its happening at a low level everyday.
Chronic exposure to stress
Chronic stress takes our healthy acute immune response and hijacks it15https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4263906/.
What do you think happens to those sugar and fat molecules that were released into your bloodstream? They certainly weren’t used to escape a predator.
Instead they are being restored in/on your body.
But.16and this is a big butt 🍑🍑
Are they going back proportionally to the same sites where they were released?
No. This is why:
Cortisol has been shown to be involved in storing bodyfat, specifically abdominal fat.17https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11020091/
An important effect of cortisol that I omitted earlier is that cortisol increases insulin resistance18https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3942672/, our old foe.
This occurs so that the blood sugar and fatty acids released in “fight or flight” scenarios (step 5) aren’t just absorbed by any tissues(random muscle/fat/organs) but only those specific ones that need them for immediate energy19by increasing blood flow to peripheral tissues: www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/190049/epinephrine-and-norepinephrine., like your legs for running.20https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3248697/
However since we aren’t dealing with the stress by physically running away or fighting, these energy molecules (sugar & fat) are reabsorbed…
To the places in your body (cells/tissues) that are the most insulin sensitive, and have the most amount of cortisol receptors(ref) visceral and abdominal fat (step 6), and if you are a woman, your glutes/hips and thighs21for women it has more to do with estrogen and specific adrenergic receptor densities causing repartitioning towards the lower body see: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8697059/ & https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23531620/ .
And here is where the chaos begins…
I originally planned to end this article right here and leave it as a teaser for an upcoming book and also because the science gets a little more involved but decided to simplify it as much as possible and not leave you all hanging. Hope it helps.
You see fat tissue is inflammatory, especially abdominal/belly fat.
In fact obesity is often characterized as being a low grade inflammatory disease.22https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0185106316300737
So what you’re doing when you repeatedly increase your body’s abdominal/visceral fat through exposure to constant(chronic) stress is that you are creating more and more low level, chronic inflammation (step 7).
Its pretty simple:
Chronic Stress -> Chronic Inflammation
So what does your physiology naturally do to lower this inflammation?
Release more cortisol (step 1, again).
Chronic Stress -> Chronic Inflammation-> Chronic Cortisol
Which of course increases insulin resistance23decreases insulin sensitivity (step 5) which results in more fat storage on your belly (step 6) which creates more(!) inflammation (step 7)… and the cycle starts to form:
Chronic Stress -> Chronic Inflammation-> Chronic Cortisol -> increased abdominal fat -> Chronic Inflammation…
What was once a negative feedback loop, now becomes something entirely different.
It starts to self-perpetuate,
In biology this is known as a positive or reinforcing feedback loop.24Think snowball getting bigger as it rolls down a hill.
“The second type of feedback loop is amplifying, reinforcing, self-multiplying, snowballing – a vicious circle that can cause healthy growth or runaway destruction. It is called a reinforcing feedback loop.”Donella Meadows in her book, Thinking in Systems, A Primer.
Now you know why we all have fathers, uncles, mother’s and grandparents constantly dealing with medical concerns such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Even children are being diagnosed with “high cholesterol”25inflammation is the true problem, not cholesterol.
These preventable chronic conditions all start with one cause, chronic stress and inflammation.26This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are other contributive factors that perpetuate chronic inflammation such as decreased GCR binding, oxidative stress, cortisol being pro-inflammatory in some cases etc. but will keep it simple here and expand in another article or book.
It gets worse
As you get older and take on more stress/responsibility (school, family, job etc), more and more fat is repartitioned onto your belly. At first slowly, and then faster and faster as the excess belly fat creates more and more inflammation and hence more belly fat (as we saw above).27you don’t need a study to observe this, it is quite evident just by looking at our older family members but if you need convincing that its your modern lifestyle, here you go: https://mosaicscience.com/story/india-urban-future/ & https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/sep/30/india-urban-migration-good-or-bad-health
Until, boom! Heart attack at 40. Prediabetic by 50. Another heart attack at 60…
Sound familiar?28this is actually what happened to my own father
High blood pressure, arthritis, PCOS, etc. etc.29this is happening to all ethniticities in all industrialized nations. it just happens to us more because of our genetic predisposition towards insulin resistance and higher bodyfat
Welcome to the runaway cycle of inflammation, obesity and disease.
But wait, we aren’t finished, to add to the chaos, lets introduce a modern industrialized diet high in processed foods and sugar which creates even more inflammation. Not to mention a severe lack of exercise and wellness habits.
You can see where this is headed…
Letting this cycle run rampant opens a big can of worms.30https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7466429/
It contributes to depression, PCOS, auto immunity, thyroid issues… the list goes on.
Be we wont get into that.31yet
Lets bring our focus to the physical aspect.
Looking Good32vanity usually comes with some health benefits
Now we know to get of that belly fat we also need to improve our lifestyle.
How?33have you been paying attention?
So how do we do that.
There are a myriad of ways which I will cover in more detail in future articles or in my upcoming book, but we will focus here on the three that will give you the most bang for your buck and that you can implement right away.
Sleep is more important than foodTony Schwartz
Cortisol and sleep are inextricably linked.
Infact it is one of the two main hormones that regulates your sleep-wake cycle, the other being melatonin.
In the morning your cortisol peaks naturally and tapers off throughout the day.34en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortisol_awakening_response) Since it is a stimulating hormone35https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/sleep-newzzz/202004/the-effects-cortisol-your-sleep (activates fight or flight and promotes wakefulness) this makes sense.
However, when your sleep is insufficient, poor or irregular you require more cortisol to stay alert36https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688585/.
This of course leads to more insulin resistance, higher blood sugar etc.37https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3767932/
Basically another chronic stressor.
To make matters worse, higher levels of chronic cortisol make sleeping difficult, which starts off another vicious cycle (aka positive feedback loop) of sleep deprivation.
More fuel to the chronic stress fire.
But that isn’t all.
Lack of sleep also has powerful consequences on appetite.
When you sleep less you are hungrier38https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535701/.
Not only that but the longer you are awake, the more time you have to eat.39that’s me just pitching in some common sense for you, no reference needed 😉
The greatest increase in appetite rating [from sleep deprivation] was for energy-dense, high-carbohydrate foods.Julie Schlisky, The New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center
This goes on..
The body is a system of systems that works in perfect harmony but when that balance is upset, the effects are far ranging.40https://irp.nih.gov/catalyst/v19i6/systems-biology-as-defined-by-nih
Mess with sleep and you mess with everything else.
As a last example let’s consider Testosterone.
A Brief Aside: Hormones
Having optimal hormone(Testosterone & Estrogen) levels is key for building the physique you see here (high muscle mass and low bodyfat).41https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4154787/
However, The interactions between various hormones (and their effects on bodyfat) are very complex.42https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5434832/
So instead of going after them directly43or taking PED’s: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/performance-enhancing-drugs/art-20046134, it’s actually more useful to start by optimizing the processes44Cortisol/inflammation/stress that tends to work against them.45in terms of body composition and fat storage Do this and you will begin to naturally optimize your overall hormonal profile.
To keep it brief,46note this applies to men, will cover women and estrogen in a later article
More sleep = more testosterone.47https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cen.12747
More testosterone = more muscle and lower bodyfat.48https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2701485/
Less sleep = less testosterone.49https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110531162142.htm
Less sleep = more cortisol.50and vice versa, see loop above
More cortisol also = less testosterone.51https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3880087/
Less testosterone = less muscle and more bodyfat.52https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6119844/
And more cortisol = well…. you know…
So how much sleep should you get?
Easy answer, 8-9 hours a night (for most).
Even easier way to find out:
Stop setting an alarm.
Your body will probably sleep a bit more at first to make up for your sleep debt and then slowly normalize.
If you sleep late, cut out any digital stimulation 1-2 hours before bed and your body will naturally sleep earlier and earlier.
Practice good sleep hygiene,
And let nature’s ultimate recovery tool work its magic.
#2 Avoid excess digital stimulation
Cortisol and melationin53the hormone that prepares the body for sleep are inversely correlated.
When cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa.
These hormones respond to light and circadian rhythmns.
We were made to rise and rest with the sun.
However, since the advent of modern lighting and technology this natural balance has been disrupted, especially as of late.
We now have mini-suns illuminating our lives every evening.
In our living rooms, hands, laps and even bedrooms.
All of our devices emit light at times when in most of our history there was darkness.54Fun Fact: In most of our history, before modern lighting, our sleep was often fragmented into two parts, first and second sleep, with a period of wakefulness in between where we would do things.https://www.sciencealert.com/humans-used-to-sleep-in-two-shifts-maybe-we-should-again
So every evening you are signalling to your body that it is still daytime.
This of course has consequences.
Light suppresses melatonin, and when melatonin goes down, cortisol goes up.
To make matters worse,…
The light emitted from our televisions, phones and fluorescent light bulbs is primarily blue light.
Blue light is what the sun emits during the day.
All light suppresses melatonin but blue light those most.
Have a wind down routine free of technology:
- Read a book
- Talk/catchup with loved ones or friends
- Drink herbal tea
- Listen to (relaxing) music
Basically any non-stimulating or vigorous activity.
Blue light filters/glasses may help but are far from perfect.55https://www.npr.org/2021/02/21/969886124/do-blue-light-blocking-glasses-really-work
Use of tech in general has been shown to increase stress.56https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0747563217306908
Even having your phone near you and visible57https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/well/mind/putting-down-your-phone-may-help-you-live-longer.html.
Put it away. Turn off your notifications and lastly,
Never charge it in your room.
Bedrooms are for sleeping and sex only.
Bonus: Swap out all your bright white fluorescent light bulbs for older style incandescent yellow bulbs or yellow halogens. At the very least have a few in lamps you can switch to in the evening.
#3 Shift Perspective
Nothing in modern life is that important.
If you asked your ancestors “Whats the worst that can happen”
They would likely answer: famine, war, infection, predation etc.
Disappoint your boss? Your parents? Move back home? Collect social security?
In most of human history our fears58moreover our instincts to to deal with them were meant to help us survive.
Now these same instincts activate in scenarios that are mere inconveniences in comparison.
So how do we deal with our fears without resorting to our old “fight or flight” instincts59(save those for when actual bears are chasing you)
By defining them.
Practice what Tim Ferris calls “Fear Setting”.
Basically you keep asking yourself:
For every scenario in your life that you don’t want to happen, or are afraid of, what’s the worst that can happen?
And then keep going.
Define your nightmare.
Once you do this, you will realize a couple things.
You can handle it.
By merely bringing intentional awareness to our greatest fears and potential discomfort, they lose their power to cause one stress.
Even more crucially, if hell strikes all at once, it would not be impossible to salvage almost any scenario and get back to where you were, let alone survive.
It’s a law of the universe:
Whatever happened, happened for the good;
Whatever is happening, is happening for the good;
Whatever will happen, will also happen for the good only.
What did you lose that you cry about?
What did you bring with you, which you think you have lost?
Whatever you took, you took from God. Whatever you gave, you gave to him.
You came empty handed, you will leave empty handed.
What is yours today, belonged to someone else yesterday, and will belong to someone else the day after tomorrow.-Life Lessons from the Bhagavad Gita
By becoming aware of60and slowly letting go your attachments they are less likely to cause you suffering.
Try it and see for yourself.
It’s On You
There you have it.
You now understand the complex relationship between your lifestyle, your stress response and your physique.
Try out the three strategies above to start optimizing your life and watch the change unfold.
I will cover many more in my future articles, book, and they come integrated into my new coaching programs.
Addendum: How Did He Do It?
You may be wondering how Hollywood transformations such as the one above occur, especially in such a relatively short time frame(~1 year or less)61this is relatively short considering most lifters would have to train seriously for 2 years to get results even close to this drug-free, especially with South Asian genetics for low lean mass. .
They have help.62https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/hollywood-steroid-use-a-list-609091/ Don’t believe me? there are several pro bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts who openly use PEDs and took the time to debunk this in detail all across the web. Here is one example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uyl6TWNtxJ4&ab_channel=MorePlatesMoreDates Usually through some sort of exogenous testosterone (the famous anabolic aka ‘muscle building’ hormone) at minimum.63https://www.healthline.com/health/trt
And honestly I don’t blame them. If I had partial responsibility of multi-billion dollar movie franchise I probably would too.
Notes and References
- 6Why? To your ancient physiology, stress happens when survival is threatened. See: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/#!po=44.3820
- 8cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory hence the widespread (mis)use of cortisone injections; more humoral less cellular immunity; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3047790/ https://www.zenodo.org/record/1235876
- 9All of these mechanisms evolved and adapted to increase your chance of survival, and if you have ever experienced an adrenaline surge you know how powerful and effective they are.
- 10ever seen a Pakistani drama… 🤯
- 11especially in urban areas or in immigrant populations,
- 13although those (over)dramatic sound effects in the serials make you think like the world is ending
- 14albeit to a different degree
- 16and this is a big butt 🍑🍑
- 19by increasing blood flow to peripheral tissues: www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/190049/epinephrine-and-norepinephrine.
- 23decreases insulin sensitivity
- 24Think snowball getting bigger as it rolls down a hill.
- 25inflammation is the true problem, not cholesterol
- 26This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are other contributive factors that perpetuate chronic inflammation such as decreased GCR binding, oxidative stress, cortisol being pro-inflammatory in some cases etc. but will keep it simple here and expand in another article or book.
- 27you don’t need a study to observe this, it is quite evident just by looking at our older family members but if you need convincing that its your modern lifestyle, here you go: https://mosaicscience.com/story/india-urban-future/ & https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/sep/30/india-urban-migration-good-or-bad-health
- 28this is actually what happened to my own father
- 29this is happening to all ethniticities in all industrialized nations. it just happens to us more because of our genetic predisposition towards insulin resistance and higher bodyfat
- 32vanity usually comes with some health benefits
- 33have you been paying attention?
- 39that’s me just pitching in some common sense for you, no reference needed 😉
- 45in terms of body composition and fat storage
- 46note this applies to men, will cover women and estrogen in a later article
- 50and vice versa, see loop above
- 53the hormone that prepares the body for sleep
- 54Fun Fact: In most of our history, before modern lighting, our sleep was often fragmented into two parts, first and second sleep, with a period of wakefulness in between where we would do things.https://www.sciencealert.com/humans-used-to-sleep-in-two-shifts-maybe-we-should-again
- 58moreover our instincts to to deal with them
- 59(save those for when actual bears are chasing you)
- 60and slowly letting go
- 61this is relatively short considering most lifters would have to train seriously for 2 years to get results even close to this drug-free, especially with South Asian genetics for low lean mass.
- 62https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/hollywood-steroid-use-a-list-609091/ Don’t believe me? there are several pro bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts who openly use PEDs and took the time to debunk this in detail all across the web. Here is one example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uyl6TWNtxJ4&ab_channel=MorePlatesMoreDates