rethink how you exercise: An interview with Rob Turner – Part 1

Meet Rob Turner, a former professional American footballer, and now personal trainer, health coach and educator, founder and owner Functional Performance Systems gym in California.  Rob kindly agreed to share with me some of his wealth of knowledge on the misconceptions of ‘fitness’, the potential dangers of aerobic activity, and how to exercise efficiently and intelligently, with minimal stress or metabolic damage.

Emma: Rob, recently on your facebook page you put up this quote:

“The dictionary defines fitness as: possessing a quality of strength and overall health. Nevertheless, for many people today, fitness has become more about how one looks than how one feels. This is a cultural standard that has nothing to do with what is natural to our species’ design.” – Kathleen Porter

Today we associate being fit with looking “cut”, being able to run for miles, and having a low resting pulse.  How do you think we came to this definition of fitness and why is this not necessarily a “healthy” state?

Rob: I had a conversation with a female figure competitor this week, and we spoke about her preparation leading up to the competition. She was on a near zero carbohydrate diet 14 days before the show while also maintaining her training schedule of two workouts a day including fasted cardio in the mornings. During this time period, she experienced fatigue, sleep issues, a spaced out feeling, and found herself unknowingly sitting at green lights in her car a few times. Her brain energy supply was low as a consequence of the carbohydrate restriction. Despite having what modern culture at large would consider an impressive and lean physique, she was not feeling healthy during her show prep.

Body fat percentage nor muscle size define health status. The “cut” look is a relatively new cultural phenomenon with a genesis during the late 1970s when bodybuilding started to progressively gain more acceptance. A “ripped” person can be healthy, but having a “6 pack” doesn’t guarantee a state of health. For example, women or girls with too low a body fat percentage have delayed sexual development, amenorrhea, sterility, or other menstrual disorders.

Interestingly, vintage advertisements in America from the middle of the 20th century have pictures of women with curves and slogans like “if you want to be popular you can’t afford to be skinny,” “men wouldn’t look at me when I was skinny,” and “gain weight! stop being skinny and tired!” These ads’ images are a far cry from the thin-crazed female models of today.  Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 11.08.27 AM

In mammals, the rate of oxygen consumption correlates positively with longevity. Healthy young people have a high respiratory quotient and an elevated demand for oxygen and nutrients to be delivered via the circulatory system. This healthy state is accompanied by a pulse rate around 75-85 beats per minute to meet metabolic demands.

A low heart rate is common among athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Some feel that a low pulse rate suggests that the heart doesn’t have to work hard because it’s working so efficiently, and this fits nicely into the cultural concept that people that workout often are healthy. I heard an MMA fighter proudly mention his resting heart rate in the mid 30s in an interview last year.

Unfortunately, a low pulse rate isn’t a sign of cardiovascular efficiency or circulatory strength but rather a sign of a damaged metabolism and a decreased need for oxygen and nutrients. These outcomes in athletes are a stress-induced adaptation from training frequently, allowing them to perform sports skills for longer. According to Ray Peat, PhD a low pulse rate indicates thyroid deficiency. The work of Dr. Broda Barnes strongly suggests that hypothyroidism is the causative factor in heart disease.

Emma: Can you explain to my readers about exercise-induced hypothyroidism?

Rob: Hypothyroidism is a deficiency of T3 or triiodothyronine. T3 is our most basic anti-stress hormone. It regulates the metabolic rate or how intensely cells consume oxygen and produce energy. Energy allows cells to relax and function optimally. Thyroid hormone also regulates the efficiency by which stress-balancing and health protective steroid hormones such as pregnenolone, DHEA, progesterone and testosterone are formed from cholesterol.

The presence of adequate cellular energy and protective steroid hormones reserves are the basic recipe for successful adaptation to any stress. It’s important to use our adaptive energy and hormone reserves wisely in a similar way that one would manage the money in a bank account. Exercise raises the demand for energy and serves as a drain on this bank account. The trick is to spend within the confines of your available reserves and only write checks your body can cash to avoid metabolic slow downs.

In combination with a drop in blood sugar, substances like free fatty acids, cortisol, lactate, adrenaline, serotonin, estrogen, and endotoxin rise during by exercise. These effects are antagonistic to thyroid gland function, slow the formation of T3 from thyroxine (T4) in the liver, or encourage the production of anti-metabolism reverse T3. Exercise, therefore, raises the demand for energy while simultaneously promoting substances that interfere with thyroid function and efficient energy production.

During youth and good health, the demands of exercise are offset and a stable physiology is restored following an exercise session because of the presence of ample adaptive energy and hormone reserves. However, when a substantial gap consistently exists between the available energy reserves and stimulation from exercise, restoration of the high energy, relaxed state becomes increasingly more difficult. Backup systems involving the pituitary and the adrenal glands emerge in the attempt to make up for the energy deficiency from thyroid suppression.

Emma: What would you say a better definition of “fitness” would be?

Rob: I think the definition should extend beyond a person’s surface appearance or performance capabilities. Since our ultimate fitness (or survivability) really boils down to how our cells are functioning, I’d like to see a more balanced definition that integrates an aesthetic component while respecting the importance of overall health, cellular health, and how a person feels.

Dr. Peat says in his May 2010 newsletter that, “The needs on the cellular level guide the organism’s adaptation.” In the unrestrained pursuit of physical fitness, adverse changes can happen on the cellular level that create unfavorable adaptations, lowering survivability. Despite being in “good shape,” the veteran marathoner who dies suddenly from a heart attack lacked the cellular fitness to sustain life.

The following are aspects of fitness that integrate aesthetics, performance, cellular health, and well being:

  • Competency in biomotor abilities (strength, endurance, power, flexibility, balance, speed, agility, coordination) in relation to needs or goals
  • Muscle size, body composition, and activity level that matches needs or goals, not societal definitions or pressures
  • Mobile joints & relaxed muscles
  • Natural spinal and body alignment fostered by strong bones
  • Effortless nasal, diaphragmatic breathing
  • Youthful respiratory quotient (optimal body temperature and pulse rate)
  • Efficient digestion and elimination
  • Healthy heart and good circulation (strong pulse and warm extremities, tip of nose)
  • Rarely experience sickness
  • Excellent sleep, libido, and fertility
  • Relaxed yet focused mind
  • Positive outlook

Emma: Why do you encourage strength/resistance training over ‘aerobic’ exercise?

Rob: Resistance training is superior to aerobic training for maintaining or increasing fat free mass, which helps to offset the age-related decline in the resting metabolic rate (RMR). The RMR comprises the largest portion of our daily energy expenditure (about 55-80%). Skeletal muscle and thyroid hormone are contributors to the intensity of an individual’s RMR.

Since muscle consumes mainly fats while in a resting state, it’s important for changing the body shape and losing fat. Increased insulin sensitivity, improved strength, maintenance of the bone density, and a better self-image are additional benefits of resistance training. An increase is muscle mass may raise the trainee’s scale weight, but this is a positive consequence.

The demands of aerobic exercise aren’t sufficient enough to stimulate a significant muscle-building response. Frequent aerobic training lowers the RMR by wasting muscle tissue and slowing thyroid function because of prolonged cortisol and adrenaline secretion. To improve running economy, it’s ideal to lower oxygen needs and shed heavy lean tissue, but these effects are not the best from a weight management, anti-aging, or health perspective.

Emma: What health issues do you see arise from the popular ‘Paleo’ diet that many Cross-Fit gyms recommend?   (ie; high protein, muscle meat, no sugar, low carb, salad etc. coupled with high intensity exercise)

Rob: Low libido, sleep issues, digestive dysfunction, and fatigue are the most common complaints. These are predictable outcomes from long-term carbohydrate restriction. The sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system becomes over active during carbohydrate restriction and high density exercise augments the stress alarm. Each person has his/her own individual tolerance for how long they can withstand this type of lifestyle.

The fight or flight response is a lifesaver for the occasional stresses and when used appropriately is akin to the fire department. We need the resources of the fire department from time to time for emergencies, but the fire department shouldn’t have a significant role in our day-to-day activities. During carbohydrate restriction, emergency resources are utilised too frequently, depleting energy reserves and the protective hormones, eventually resulting in the symptoms I mentioned above.

Read Part 2 of this interview here

* Rob writes a brilliant blog and facebook page on which he posts regularly with an abundance of fascinating research and helpful tips.  If you haven’t already, “Like” it!

fpsIf you’re in the South California area, you can contact Rob for personally training at Functional Performance Systems. Rob also coaches clients via Skye around the world in his evidence-based lifestyle and nutritional foundations.


Disclaimer:  My posts are not meant to be individualised treatment plans, protocols, etc.  I share what I research and use, and that is it. They are meant to spark thought based on the normal anatomy, physiology and biochemistry of the body.  The information contained in this blog should not be used to treat or diagnose disease or health problems and is provided for your information only.