A Father’s Reflection on Fitness and Men’s Health

With June being Men’s Health Month, this post is for the guys out there — and the women who love them.

I finally got the kids to bed after a busy Father’s Day, and took some time to sit back and think about how lucky I am. We had a pretty active day, starting with a hike, some soccer and a game of basketball with the neighborhood kids. Not only am I lucky enough to have two healthy kids, but I am fit and healthy enough to run around and play with them. To do shoulder rides when they got tired of hiking uphill. To be able to sprint after my crazy (and speedy) two year old and catch up with him before he runs off a cliff (yes that happened). It got me thinking about how my fitness goals have changed over the years: It’s all about them now, and about being healthy enough to be there for them in whatever capacity I can.

After flipping on Game 5 of the NBA finals, it wasn’t long before thoughts about motivation shifted a bit. The first of several commercials I saw that night touting the benefits of a prescription drug aimed at combatting low T came on. As I get nearer to “the big 4-0” I know there are some aspects of aging that are just unavoidable. I’ve always been a big believer that age is just a number, and you’re only as old as you feel. I still believe this is true, but I know our bodies do change over time, and as such, it makes sense that our motivation and fitness philosophy might change too.

From studying the human body and ways to optimize our performance, I’ve learned all about the value of testosterone, and it’s importance for men. Testosterone is an androgen, a male hormone produced in the body that helps stimulate reproductive tissue, maintain bone density, and increase muscle strength, among other things. Women also produce testosterone, but in much smaller amounts; actually about one tenth of the amount produced by males. This is one of the reasons that women generally don’t “bulk up” when they strength train — even with heavy lifting.

As we age, and especially as we get beyond prime reproductive years, our testosterone production decreases. Our bodies think we don’t need testosterone as much anymore. The problem is, when T levels get too low, we can experience depression, decreased energy, strength, and sex drive. But those of us that refuse to grow up (or old) and want to continue to build muscle, be healthy and perform at our absolute best may not agree with our bodies. The good news is we do have some say in the matter, and as usual, it comes back to healthy living and the choices we make. We can combat low testosterone the same way we battle many other biomarkers of aging.

While my health and fitness motivation may change a bit as I age, fortunately, when it comes to maintaining my T levels, my methods don’t have to. A by-product of the healthy exercise habits I maintain by Smartraining, and living a healthy lifestyle, should be maintenance of healthy testosterone levels, even as I age. Here are some of the ways us guys can naturally maintain testosterone levels. If you work out at Koko, much of this should sound familiar.

  1. Sprinting: Sprint training has repeatedly been shown to increase hormones that improve body composition. For instance, male wrestlers who did short-sprint interval training (six 35-meter sprints with 10 seconds recovery) significantly increased testosterone and decreased cortisol. Cortisol, another hormone naturally produced in our bodies, can be like testosterone’s kryptonite. We need to produce cortisol too, but the key is balance. The levels measured in this study  led to a favorable ratio of the two hormones for building muscle and burning fat. Don’t worry if you are not a male wrestler! If you are doing Koko Cardio, or any well-designed HIIT Cardio program, one of the benefits will be proper hormonal balance.
  2. Strength Training: Lifting weights is great for our bodies for so many reasons. But to realize the maximum testosterone-boosting benefits of strength training, you have to train hard and lift heavy. Now “heavy” is a relative term, so just be sure that your weights are challenging for you to lift properly. It’s not about the weight alone, it’s also about how fast you raise and lower those weights. Moving the weights slowly, and increasing the Time Under Tension (TUT) for the muscles involved, can make a set of 6 reps really challenging, even if it’s not at the heaviest weight you can lift. The key is intensity. At Koko we generally work in the 6-10 rep range, with moderately high TUT, and as long as it’s not easy to finish the desired number of reps, the testosterone-boosting effects will be maximized. One UK study compared heavy lifters and sprinters against a control group. After a morning workout, afternoon testosterone levels were higher for both the sprinters and the lifters when compared to the control group. But the subjects with the most elevated T levels were the weight lifters.
  3. Reduce Stress: Easier said than done at times, but one healthy and proven way to reduce stress is to exercise. I’ve quoted Dr. Michael Otto, PhD, professor of psychology at Boston University, and author of Exercise for Mood and Anxiety before because his research on this topic is among the best, and Dr. Otto says,  “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”
  4. Cut back on sugar: Anyone who follows a Koko Fuel nutrition plan will notice that there is not much if any sugar built into your meal plan. This is true regardless of your goal. Whether it’s a program designed to burn fat or build muscle, sugar is not part of the plan for many reasons. One of the many negative affects of sugar consumption is a rapid increase in blood sugar which can send T levels way down. One study showed a single sugar rich meal could reduce T levels by 25%. Yikes.
  5. Reduce Excess Body Fat: A healthy level of body fat reduces risk of non-communicable diseases like Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, and many types of cancer. Not to mention a healthy level of body fat will help you to look and feel your best. And if that’s not enough reason to work towards cutting unnecessary body fat, research shows it will also help with Testosterone levels. Research findings presented at the 2012 Endochrine Society meeting showed that overweight men are more likely to have low T levels, and that shedding that excess body fat may increase those levels. The challenge for most is of course how to do it. Well I’d advise to start with 1-4 above!

There are other ways to naturally boost low testosterone, but I thought I’d keep it simple and leave it at these five. When you look back at this list, do you see how all these things work together? It’s really a recipe for healthy living. It’s fascinating to me when researching so many different health conditions that are prevalent in our society today that the answers almost always turn out the same. Workout; strength and cardio. Eat healthy; lots of veggies, lean protein, while minimizing the sugar and processed foods. Try not to stress out. I’d add in to get plenty of sleep (another way to boost testosterone) and you have a pretty solid recipe for health, longevity, and maximizing your time here on this planet.

It makes me wonder why everyone isn’t doing all these things. But I know that everyone has challenges.  Obstacles. Knowing where to start and what to do. Finding the time is a big one that I struggle with at times. But hopefully people who aren’t exercising will realize how important it is to find a way to make it happen. Bringing it back to my Father’s Day reflection, I think of it as a responsibility to my kids. So if you’re a dad, and you’ve been working out, pat yourself on the back. If you’ve been struggling with motivation, just take a look at your kids, and if doing it for yourself isn’t working, think about doing it for them.

Michael Wood, CSCS
Chief Fitness Officer, Koko FitClub

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About Michael Wood, Chief Fitness Officer
Michael Wood, CSCS, is Chief Fitness Officer at Koko FitClub, driving the development of integrated strength and cardio training and nutrition programs for Koko members nationwide. A nationally acclaimed fitness expert, Michael has conducted research as a Senior Exercise Physiologist at the Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory at the Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and has lectured at Boston University and the University of Connecticut. He has been named Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” Personal Trainer, and made the Men’s Journal “Dream Team” list of the nine best trainers in the U.S. Michael and his family live in North Attleboro, MA.

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