By Seamus Toomey
Gary McGowan is a second year studying Physiotherapy in UL. He’s also an advocate of healthy living and a fan of the sport of bodybuilding. Invested in the subculture of the fitness world including powerlifting, bodybuilding and various other sports and trends, Gary has developed some strong opinions and acquired a substantial amount of knowledge during his own leisure and through his coursework. This being said, Gary is not a doctor and his thoughts in this interview are his opinions and beliefs on what is healthy. Gary’s opinions are not to be taken as gospel or fact and are part of a human interest interview conducted by An Focal.
So why should you listen to him? Well for a start he looks the part – he’s muscular and fit looking and sports impressive numbers on his lifts, moreover he’s been doing this for more than four years and he offers online coaching as well as having a following of 3,545 people on his Instagram and has his own YouTube channel.
While Gary himself will warn about listening to someone based solely on their popularity or beauty, I invite you to enjoy some of his insights and at the very least this will get you thinking about your own health and where it falls on your list of priorities. If you do want to follow him on Instagram you can find him at @skinnygaz
The basics to being healthy – what would you consider them to be?
Without being too cliché, the first thing is lifestyle. Sleep is probably ahead of everything and it’s completely underutilised – athletes, students and everyone. If you were to do nothing else to make yourself healthy but sleep 8 to 10 hours a night consistently then that can actually make a massive difference to psychological wellbeing, physical wellbeing and productivity, which all carries over into your health. If you consider chronic pain, the main contributor to that is not injury or blunt trauma, it’s usually due to lifestyle factors like rest. If you have a really stressful period in your life, let’s say you left your girlfriend or your kids are going through school or things are really difficult for you in your job, then that stress will bring any existing or previous pain further and that in turn will affect your sleep and your sleep will affect it back.
Lifestyle is probably number one to being healthy, after that just general exercise and nutrition. Not everyone likes to lift weights, not everyone wants to eat a certain way, but if you’re just mindful in eating your fruits and vegetables then eating a bar of chocolate at the end of the day won’t do you any harm. If you’re doing your half hour to an hour of exercise every day and if you just implement those three things – eat kind of good, exercise kind of regularly and sleep really well – the overall difference it will make to your wellbeing is just so much greater than you’d think.
People often believe being healthy equates to looking good and vice versa – Is there a distinction between body image and health?
They are two different spectrums – of course there is a correlation but that doesn’t equate to causality. You can be really healthy and not look like the lifeguard or that skinny girl you see in the media. There are people who look incredibly good but underneath it all feel horrible. If you look at 90% of diets that are popular, like Weight Watchers, they’re all quick fixes, no one wants to look at health. If someone comes to me (for online coaching) they generally want a quick fix and I have to bring the harsh reality to them – look I don’t want to give quick fixes, you might not necessarily see the changes immediately. In regards to body composition, you can lose weight by eating less or exercising more.
There are certain situations where that doesn’t apply but if you’re a female and you’re eating 1500 calories or less and you’re not losing weight, and you drop that to 1200 calories and you stop losing weight again but you still want to lose 4 more stone it’s not practical for you to continue dropping calories and it’s going to affect your personal life, your mood, your results in college and all of those things are health. All those things are primarily psychological. If you look at Instagram, it’s kind of poisoned the idea of what it means to be healthy because you have all these people who look absolutely amazing but give terrible advice, but everyone wants to look like them so they take their advice.
The way I look at it is, I want to keep health as my primary focus and with that other things will come in the future. If I look at my goals ten years down the line – so for me my goal is bodybuilding – that doesn’t mean I have to look good every day. Looking good doesn’t really mean that much to me and it sounds ridiculous because the whole sport is based on body composition but primarily for me it’s all about just being healthy, living a productive lifestyle that allows me to, and if you follow me on social media you’ll know my motto is: “Always be happy – just chase that happiness and that’s where health is.”
So for example Matt Kroc coming out as transgender and transitioning into Janae Marie Kroc…
That to me is health. [She] is so happy in [herself], [she] is comfortable. You hear all these clichés – do what you want to do, and be you, do you. All the girls have these posters but everyone is afraid of what other people are thinking. Even if you think your lifestyle is healthy, it’s probably not because people follow crowds in student life. If you don’t want to go out on a Thursday night chances are all your friends are going to force you to go out – you tell yourself it was your choice but maybe it wasn’t and chances are the next day you wake up and feel like shit.
What do you need to do to look good and what do you need to do to be healthy?
If you put being healthy as the primary short term goal, and with the daily focus on that, will come the body composition changes and looking good. Looking good isn’t going to be the same for everyone – social media brands it as looking aesthetic or there’s a certain female physique. You can be healthy as a male and be 15% body fat but that in the bodybuilding world is fat. There’s a massive difference between, chasing optimal health and looking good.
A year or two in the fitness world is short term. If you get someone to focus on exercising regularly, drinking lots of water then that’s primarily looking at health but with that builds up the good habits of “I’m sleeping better, I’m eating less processed foods but if I really want them I’ll have them, ok.” If you can break the cycle of sleeping until one o’clock in the day, eating what’s convenient and binge eating – binge eating is a massive thing and people don’t even realise they do it – and of course going out drinking. If you just make the lifestyle changes then the body composition will come.
Most people that chase looking good will go to that quick fix: Weight Watchers, Unislim, Slimfast, all these things – if you look at within 5 years, 95 percent of people who lose weight gain back more weight than they lost. The American government don’t even use the words ‘weight loss’, they use the term ‘weight management’ because they’ve more or less accepted weight loss is not actually possible and they’ve said if you don’t want to be fat don’t gain the weight originally.
People don’t look at long term plans, they look at short term fixes. As a result, you end up damaging your metabolism and you’re eating really low calories and it’s just not sustainable. You have to find something sustainable for you long term if you want to make those changes. Anything that promises quick changes in six to twelve weeks, I’m sorry but you’re just going to end up looking worse and less healthy. If you can choose something you enjoy, then you know that’s sustainable long term. That is the much better option for you than wanting to train like me or someone else. It’s all individual. The diet that works for me might not work for another person.
That’s why the calories in calories out tracking your macronutrient has become so popular because it’s all about flexible dieting so you have your goals for calories for the day – within that you consume 80 to 90% of that from whole-foods and that doesn’t mean it has to be chicken and broccoli. You might prefer turkey, white potatoes over sweet potatoes, basmati rice or brown rice, its whatever you enjoy doing and it’ll be sustainable for you. If I get two people and they’re the same weight, everything is the same, and I put one person on a chicken and broccoli diet and the other on a bar of chocolate and a slice of pizza and every day fit it into their macronutrients, the first person is going to hate themselves and will binge, and binge bad when they do so and anyone that tells you that you can’t put on a lot of body fat just from one binge, its bull – I went on holidays two years ago to Santa Ponsa, I put on 26 pounds in one week.
Can you be healthy for cheap? Is a gym necessary?
It’s really not as expensive as you’d think to eat well. It’s not really expensive at all – if you look at my diet, its mainly just whole foods, chicken breasts are cheap, potatoes are so cheap, go to an Indian shop and you’ll get 10 kilos of rice for €10. It’s so cheap. People are going and they’re buying pizzas in boxes, readymade meals, all this stuff, that’s the stuff that’s expensive – alcohol is expensive. Keep in mind I eat a lot more calories than most students. I could buy my food for the week on the price of one night out for the majority of students.
What are signs to watch out for in regards to health? What would be a red light to you that you’re not healthy?
Just general things, things that your GP would ask you, like sleep quality for me is one of the big tell-tale signs you are not healthy because stress is one of the major factors in chronic diseases, and stress and sleep tie in together massively. If you’re stressed you are not going to have good quality sleep, and in turn that’ll carry over to other things throughout the day, like your energy levels. It’s all individual but if you can get six to ten hours of sleep per night then you’re in a good position – and to be fair I don’t mean six to ten hours from 5am until 12, that’s not the same thing as going to bed at eleven and getting up at 6am.
You have something called your circadian rhythm and that’s your body-clock so to speak. That adapts and it’s habitual so it gets used to regular sleeping patterns. Eventually you won’t need an alarm clock if you’re used to the same routine. One of the signs you’re not getting enough sleep is simply not being able to get out of bed in the morning – to me that’s something I can’t understand anymore. After that, things like the colour of your urine, how regularly you’re going to the bathroom, your skin, just all general health qualities that you’ll hear from a doctor.
At the same time I’ve sugar coated a lot of the body composition points in this interview. Body fat percentage does matter – being obese or overweight, it’s not healthy and no matter how nice I can be about it it’s not healthy and you need to address it. That does not mean you have to be incredibly lean and have a six pack or be like the poster girls or poster boys but just be in a healthy range of body fat and as soon as you start to focus on that you’ll notice all of these various things begin to improve, even the way your mind feels when studying or in a lecture.
One of the major turning points in my life was starting to go to the gym and eating healthy because from my junior cert I didn’t get any ‘A’s I was a very mediocre student and I had always been told that I had such potential but it had never been used, but getting into a routine and eating better foods I ended up getting 540 points in my leaving cert, so you’re looking at mainly ‘A’s there. That was for me not a massive extra effort that I had put in but it was just the lifestyle changes I made.