Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
26 Jan

Dear Mark: Body Composition Through the Years

I got this email from a reader a couple months ago and was reminded of it when I stumbled across some old race photos recently.

Dear Mark,

I saw your photo on your blog post called Washboard Abs on a High-Fat Diet, No Ab Workouts and No Cardio and it got me wondering what you looked like as an endurance athlete when you were younger. Did you look like a typical long distance runner with hardly any muscle mass to speak of? You’ve noted that you used to eat a high-carb diet. How, if at all, do you think this played into your body composition at the time? Also, do you have any photos to share?!

Pat G.

Then my friend, blogger-cartoonist Enrique Gonzales (with whom I have had a few philosophical discussions as to “why be fit?”), asked this:

Dear Mark,

Did you at any time in your life ever up your calorie intake to get bigger? Since you were a marathon runner, I am guessing that you were not very large. Was it a clean bulk or did you simply adopt a primal-esque diet as the muscle slowly packed on? Also, what advice would you give to scrawny guys that wish to have nothing more than a light athletic build like Bruce Lee or Zac Efron?

In the coming weeks, we’ll be looking more into the question of just what constitutes “ideal body composition.” It’s a broad philosophical discussion that often pits genetics against lifestyle, body-building against functional strength, and even health against fitness. I thought today I might open by using the above questions to analyze my own changes over the years and explain how I got to where I am today.

I was a distance runner from the age of 13 until about 28. During that time, I had a typical high-carb diet (1000+ grams of carbs most days) which I burned off every day. Even though I also consumed large amounts of protein and I lifted weights as part of my training, I just couldn’t keep much upper body mass. Chronic cardio does that; it’s catabolic and sugar-driven. The signals I gave my genes from running 70-100 miles a week created the body-composition I wound up with. I raced at 142 pounds (actually a little heavy for a 5’10” marathoner) and 7% body fat, but was still over twenty pounds lighter than I am today. For grins, here’s a picture of me finishing the Boston Marathon in 1974. Typical body-type of a marathoner, but very lacking in muscle mass.

A series of classic overuse injuries forced me to retire from running at the elite level in 1980 and I found myself doing triathlons for a few years. I raced Ironman Hawaii (4th place overall in 1982) at 152 pounds. Running less, but swimming and cycling more allowed me to put ten more pounds of muscle on my legs, chest and shoulders (different gene signals). I was still at 7-8% body fat then, and I still needed tons of carbs (mostly from grains) to fuel the beast. Here’s a Runner’s World cover I did in 1986 at that weight. A little more upper body, but still not much.

I retired from all competition after I won my age-group in the 1988 Desert Princess Duathlon World Championships. My wife Carrie and I were about to get married. She and I had met at a gym so I knew she was into fitness. We did a photo shoot for Triathlete Magazine in January 1989 – almost 20 years ago to the day. Sorry about the neon Speedo – it was the 80’s.

Shortly thereafter, I completely revamped both my eating style and my exercise style. I cut way back on cardio and increased the intensity of my strength-training (as did Carrie). I also cut way back on carbs and increased protein and fat. Eventually I eliminated grains altogether (as has Carrie). Here we are last year in Cabo – nearly twenty years later. She won’t mind my saying that she’s now 53, and I’m 55 (52 and 54 in the photo below). Based on the gene signals (I call it “gene reprogramming” in the book) we have been generating from our diet and exercise styles, we are both at the same or lower body fat than we were 20 years ago when we were both doing far more cardio and both eating the Conventional Wisdom high-complex-carb diet! Today I weigh 164 and still carry around 8% body fat, so I have maybe 16 pounds more muscle than I did when I was a marathoner.

I have tried on several occasions to increase my muscle mass through a focused program of more intense weight-training and more copius eating. But I’m what we call a “hardgainer”. The most I was ever able to weigh was 169. That extra five pounds of muscle was not only difficult to achieve (and still keep body fat low) it was almost impossible to retain. I had to eat way more (and more often) than I intuitively wanted to and couldn’t skip more than a few hard workouts or I’d start to lose the muscle. I also couldn’t play hard without burning it up. I realized that this was a totally non-Primal pursuit.

The Primal Blueprint is about finding your own personal optimum body composition by eating and moving like Grok. It’s about functional strength and power-to-weight ratios – not excessive body fat, but also not excessive and “expensive to maintain” muscles. It’s about arriving at a comfortable lean mass that reflects the signals you have given your genes. In my case, at 55 years old, I just want to have fun, be able to move well and stay healthy. I said when I turned 40 that “I no longer want to be fit. I just want to look fit.” But the reality is that I work out now mostly to be able to play. I stay flexible enough to play golf (OK, not well). I sprint once a week and do leg work to be able to snowboard five days in a row or to dash for the long bomb in my weekend Ultimate Frisbee games. I do upper body work to be able to go out for two hours on a stand-up paddle surfboard. I hike because it’s play (not work), but if I decide to start running a trail, I can. So, I guess I am fit.

There’s another important consideration. I don’t want to get injured. Trying to pack on extra muscles that supersede your ideal body composition can invite injury. Muscles don’t get bigger unless you add more stress. It takes a lot more work for someone like me, who’s already been lifting “heavy” for 30 years to start upping it a notch. I hit a personal record on the bench press two years ago and am still paying for it with a rotator cuff issue. From here on in, I don’t want to have to sit on the sideline.

Finally, from a health and longevity perspective, the less I can eat and still maintain functional composition (Primal Fitness) the better. Because my high-fat, moderate protein, low carb diet has the effect of decreasing hunger and appetite, I naturally eat less than I would have in the old carb days. But since I also don’t work out as much, I maintain the muscle mass I do have on what many might consider a Spartan diet. Of course, the only “proven” strategy for increased lifespan is calorie-restriction, so that’s an added benefit of going for the Bruce Lee look versus the Hulk Hogan look. It just feels better.

Here are a few more pics to illustrate my changes in body composition through the years as they relate to the various signals I have sent my genes. A few are from this year’s trip to Cabo – almost 20 years to the day from the date the Triathlete Magazine photo above was taken. (You may need to scroll down the page a bit to view the enlarged version.)

Early Racing Photo Runner's World Cover Cycling Photo Cabo Photo Cabo Photo Cabo Photo

Further Reading:

Dear Mark: Healthy Body Weight?

A Primal Blueprint Sample Menu

Dear Mark: Weightlifting Weary

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Very cool. I still do all those endurance sports cause I find them fun! Hoping I look that good when I’m 50!

    Fit Mommy wrote on January 26th, 2009
  2. Thanks for the link Mark. I imagined your body composition right, but I was cracking up at the speedo image. I’m still laughing as I type, but oh well, you should see my hair style. It’s essentially a giant blonde jerri-curl afro. I keep it on because it adds about a good 4 inches to my height. If I may say so, your wife looks gorgeous! Is there any plastic surgery anywhere? If not, the Primal Blueprint is officially the better than Doctor 90210. The only signs of your age is the gray hairs and some subtle crow’s feet, but seriously, I hope to look this good when I reach your age. As for you Mark, with some dehydration and a carb-load, you’d be perfect for the cover of Men’s Fitness.

    JE Gonzalez wrote on January 26th, 2009
  3. Forget Bruce Lee and Hulk Hogan. When I’m 55, I want to have the Mark Sisson look!

    Lee wrote on January 26th, 2009
  4. what a great visual to really see how the Primal Blueprint can change one’s body (esp compared to CW). thanks for sharing the pics… even if the neon yellow speedo might give readers nightmares 😉

    Holly wrote on January 26th, 2009
  5. If I cover your heads with my hand while looking at the pictures of the older versions of you, I would swear you both are in your 20’s. Looking good.

    Greg Lowe wrote on January 26th, 2009
  6. Great story and great pics, Mark. Grok would be proud.

    P. Singh wrote on January 26th, 2009
  7. I meant the newer version, as in when you are older… recently.

    Greg Lowe wrote on January 26th, 2009
  8. Needs a NSFW tag.

    Robert M. wrote on January 26th, 2009
  9. Great job, Mark.

    It is good to read about body fat %, and not worry so much about weight.

    I bought a body fat analyzer a couple months ago and really like it. It is amazing how much more you push yourself when the results are right there in your face. They are pretty inexpensive too. I bought mine online at

    Joey Simmons wrote on January 26th, 2009
  10. Lol @ roberts comment.

    I think the speedo is hawt!! hee hee
    and please tell your wife that i hope to someday have a bod like that.. its bangin!!

    anna wrote on January 26th, 2009
  11. You both look great!

    Has Carrie found living the PB lifestyle has been helpful to her with women’s aging issues (pre/post menopause symptoms)? Would she comment on that topic sometime for us?

    Sheri wrote on January 26th, 2009
  12. Fascinating post (and I’m not just saying that because of the Speedo!). Although the perverse part of me says “if you got a marathoners body eating high carb and running so much and I actually want a marathoners body…” You see where this is going, don’t you?

    Also, I thought you wrote before that your wife & son were vegetarians. What does your wife eat if she doesn’t eat grains either? (She looks fab btw!!!)

    charlotte wrote on January 26th, 2009
  13. Straight up Mark.. you look WAY better now thn you did when you were younger. Look at those skinny little legs in the 74 marathon! Arnold would most certainly call you girly man.

    But seriously, you have had amazing success in everything you have done and are an inspiration.

    the SoG

    Son of Grok wrote on January 26th, 2009
  14. Very impressive Mark. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. You both look great!

    – Dave

    David at Animal-Kingdom-Workouts wrote on January 26th, 2009
  15. Oooooh the speedo. LOL. The look on your face makes that pic priceless!

    I second Sheri & Charlotte! Im thinking a Carrie guest-post is in order.

    Thanks Mark, for a great visual on how PB can change a body. Im only about 3 weeks in and I feel great!

    Tara wrote on January 26th, 2009
  16. Ok, now for a more serious comment on body composition:

    I notice a lot of people complain about plateauing on a diet. Similarly people plateau when they try and gain muscle mass. This appears to be related to the fact that people can fill fat or muscle tissue with lipids and protein respectively relatively easily, but the body doesn’t want to actually change the number of cells. A good piece of research on this subject is the Nature letter,

    Dynamics of fat cell turnover in humans

    Researchers used the amount of radioactive carbon-14 found in fat cells (leftover from open-air nuclear bomb tests) to determine their average age. They found that fat cells typically live for about ten years.

    They also found that when dieting the number of fat cells (adipose tissue) was held more or less constant. Rather, the fat cells discharged lipids and became less swollen. An excerpt, “Even after significant weight loss in adulthood and reduced adipocyte [ed: fat cell] volume, the adipocyte number remains the same. Although we show that the adipocyte number is static in adults, we also demonstrate that there is remarkable turnover within this population, indicating that adipocyte number is tightly controlled and not influenced by the energy balance.”

    According to their research, total number of fat cells is more or less fixed in adolescence. As fat cells become less full, there appears to be some form of hormonal feedback mechanism that prevents them from becoming too starved. The most likely hormone that controls fat cell fullness is leptin (the fat equivalent to muscle’s myostatin) although it could be another hormone that we haven’t found yet via centrifuge.

    So while one can diet to decrease fat cell fullness eventually everyone is going to hit a wall. I plateau at around 10 % body fat, Mark looks to be more around 6 %, probably because he was leaner as a teenager. If fat cells take ten years to die off, then you may need to maintain low levels of fat cell fullness for 10-20 years to effect whatever your hormones are setting your fat cell numbers at.

    The obvious follow-up question is, how do we trick the body into maintaining a permanently lower level of fat cells and higher level of muscle cells? I’m sort of lost on that one.

    Robert M. wrote on January 26th, 2009
  17. Great pics Mark!

    Your motivation to stay fit and healthy is obvious but I can´t help to wonder about something.
    Don´t you ever get the urge to participate in events that are fun; open water swims, trail runs, 5 k´s, sprint triathlons etc? Endurance events but still pretty short compared to what´s really out there.

    For someone that has trained and raced at that level you would recognize the mental boost of a really hard race effort and finishing an event as fast as one can. Yes, it hurts but it´s also a very satisfying feeling.
    And I don´t think a race here and there would be counterproductive for primal health?

    I´m just curious to see what you think; if you´re just done with racing, if you feel it´s unhealthy or if you find the risk for injury too big.

    I know that if I have that kind of physique when I´m 55 I´d want to race with it!

    On the other end of the spectrum there´s another pretty fit 55-year old dude; Dave Scott! Incidentally, he´s also big on weights but is still pushing the endurance throttle pretty well.

    Jonas Colting wrote on January 26th, 2009
  18. hey mark,

    awesome post!!! YOu explained how you are a hardgainer, and by the looks of it you are an ectomorph body type. I am sure you have got this question or comment alot already, but don’t you think its easier for an ectomorph to stay leaner than other body types on even a high carb diet. I have a mesomorph bodytype and i can’t stay as lean ass you unless i cut carbs below 30 or so a day and IF hardcore. Do you have any insight on body types?

    thanks and you guys look great!!!

    Troy wrote on January 26th, 2009
  19. on the speedo pic you look a lot like dirty harry… :)

    congrats on living and aging so well.

    crt wrote on January 26th, 2009
  20. um, wow.

    Im 10 years behind you and can only hope to look as good as you and your amazing wife…

    MizFit wrote on January 26th, 2009
  21. Looking good Mark. Keep up the hard work.

    Zen Fritta wrote on January 26th, 2009
  22. You and your wife are the poster couple for primal fitness. You two don’t look good for your age. You look GOOD. Thanks for sharing your old photos.

    Sonagi wrote on January 26th, 2009
  23. I second Sheri & Charlotte and Tara! “Im thinking a Carrie guest-post is in order.”

    Sue wrote on January 26th, 2009
  24. You guys look terrific! It would be awesome if your wife wrote a post or if you’d post a bit about her workouts, food she loves, and other primal lifestyle experiences. She’s as much of an inspiration as you are Mark!

    Kat wrote on January 27th, 2009
  25. Mark and Carrie, you 2 look fantastic, but, also look good together, you’re both picture perfect of health!!!

    You’re an example to us all to eat healthy, exercise, but you’re also an example to your kids which i’m a big believer to teach kids “early” in life the importance of eating Primal and sports. I learned as a child that exercise was fun.

    I also agree with some of you, Carrie, i’d love to hear what you’ve got to say, how about writing a post here on MDA!!!
    Carrie, you do NOT look 53 years young, what an inspiration you are!!

    Donna wrote on January 27th, 2009
  26. Wow you both look great!

    Earth Beauty wrote on January 27th, 2009
  27. I’m glad everyone had a good chuckle at the Speedo shot. I almost didn’t publish it, but thought what the heck.

    Thanks for all the compliments, everyone. I appreciate it. Though, this post wasn’t in anyway meant to be self-serving. It is meant to illustrate the body composition changes associated with specific lifestyle behaviors and highlight the profound power that living according the Primal Blueprint provides.

    In fact, though I am in better shape than most people at 55 I am not likely the most dramatic testimonial for this lifestyle in so far as there are people that have, for example, gone from scrawny to brawny or flabby to ripped after making the transition to the PB. I have been fit for my entire life so the changes, although significant from other perspectives, aren’t quite as visually striking.

    charlotte – I hear you but this logic is flawed for a number of reasons. One can have this sort of physique without the demanding and time consuming efforts associated with endurance training. Additionally, eating large amounts of carbs (required if you run as much as I did) has long term negative health effects: insulin resistance and inflammation, for example.

    Thanks for the interest in having Carrie write a post. I’ll see if I can arrange that.

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 27th, 2009
  28. charlotte –

    My wife eats fish, eggs and, on occasion, cheese. Between this and protein powder she has no trouble getting enough protein.

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 27th, 2009
  29. Wow! The banana hammock and the sweat band are priceless! Your hair looks fabulous throughout though, and since I had the aweful overpermed 80’s look I really can’t talk smack about your fashion. You look the most muscular in the bike photo of all the old ones.

    I really appreciate this because I was leaning toward IronMan training again, and then I realized that although triathletes have much more attractive bodies than just runners or cyclists or swimmers, that I would have to train like a nut to get the lean muscle look. PB living has helped me see my midsection again, and it’s getting a nice firm sloping look and I am not working out much at all (sometimes 1 day a week). But I cut grains and dairy and all processed food pretty much (beer and nachos appear sometimes, as does good Italian but I always try to balance it with mostly primal eating). This tells me that I don’t want to get back into triathons because I really enjoy NOT having to train. I engage in physical activity because I want to, not because I fear I won’t be trained enough, and I play when I do it (fins and goggles in the leisure pool makes me a Navy SEAL in my mind). No more lap swimming, now I do it like I was a kid, how long can I hold my breath and how far without coming up for air? Ditto on my bikes… they sat all summer unridden and unloved when I should have been playing on them. And I run unencumbered by monitors or other devices which means I can play in the dirt and stop to look at the creek and rocks. But as you pointed out, I realized I like hiking more, and also other “activities” like trying to surf or tube all day.. you do it all day for a reason… because you LIKE it. Today I shoveled snow and it was kinda fun even.

    Thanks for giving me a good reason not to get back on the endurance treadmill. Because it was starting to turn into just that… a dreaded task. And my body composition was just plain soft. I hope to never have a Gatorade or gu-like product ever again.

    I even read different magazines now… National Geographic Explorer, Backpacker, Outside… anything that doesn’t talk about training and goals at the expensive of having an adventure, even if it’s right in your own backyard.

    IF was the last component that helped me. My sugar levels no longer go crazy in the morning, unless I’ve eaten poorly the day before, and I can go until afternoon and feel really focused.

    Tarzan is the ultimate male, IMO, and you look more like him now, and your abs look like a bug’s exoskeleton. The skinny marathon look is just too stringy. And the wife looks great like Betty Rubble. All she needs is a bone in her hair. I would have never guessed her age.

    Thanks for posting the transformation pics.


    TrailGrrl wrote on January 27th, 2009
  30. Hi Mark,

    Really fantastic pictures;very inspirational.

    As a female and vegetrian,I would love to know Carrie’s diet and exercise plan.

    shailja wrote on January 27th, 2009
  31. You looked good too when you were a triathlete. So I think you are not that good exmple for the fact that endurance sports and high carb diet is bad for our health or leastwise for our look. But I do understand that you feel fitter in these primal days.

    Tom wrote on January 28th, 2009
  32. Fantastic post. I HATE exercise, but love to move when it is associated with something fun. It just makes you feel good to be playing soccer, hiking, or doing other fun things with your kids. The problem is…right now I’m too out of shape to do it! So, now I can focus on some primal changes…like the sprints (which take up so much less time) and weights (which I don’t mind) and the dietary changes and look forward to the body of a 53 year old!

    Star Trec wrote on January 28th, 2009
  33. Oh, and I would love to hear from Carrie, too. 😉

    Star Trec wrote on January 28th, 2009
  34. Dear Mark,

    In your blog I often see you mention that our genes change and signal something when we exercise. I trust that these events probably often happen, though I don’t know when and how they happen. I have no knowledge of processes on that molecular level, and I don’t see how I could use the fact that my genes possibly change along the way. You don’t give me any clue either. As far as I could see, our awareness of gene signals and changes produced no useful idea or tool for our practice of exercise and training. We exercise the body, so the body adapts by improving strength and endurance. That is really important and useful knowledge, and we can see and measure the changes in our body.
    Such adaptation of the body has always been the response to exercise and training. It was a complete picture long before we learned from the scientists that there are also genes involved. If I am not a researcher in biochemistry, I cannot see or measure how our genes signal or change. My question then is this: why even bring up the genes into our picture of exercise, when we cannot get any practical gain from that information at the present state of science? I feel that talking often about gene adaptation in such casual manner is kind of useless guesswork and a distraction. But I hope you have your reason.

    Best Regards

    Alex wrote on January 28th, 2009
  35. Hi, just wondering why Carrie doesn’t eat grass fed and finished beef???thanks

    Terrilee wrote on January 29th, 2009
  36. Mark,

    Great post! You look fantastic for a 35-year old (wink). Your wife does too. Much respect for leading by example!

    Stephan wrote on January 29th, 2009
  37. Hi Mark,
    I read all the referenced posts about genes you gave me, and it was a waste of time.
    I’m all for the healthy lifestyle you promote, and I happily practice it. As for our genes, I’ve got it that the genes do not necessarily define our destiny, we have a good chance to influence our fate by our lifestyle. OK, that is clear, and that is about all that makes sense to me.
    The rest is useless guesswork because we cannot get any practical gain from gene information at the present state of science. This science probably holds good potential to uncover mechanics of gene identification, control and influence on our health in the future. There is some room for fantasy there, but that should not be all fantasy all the time.
    Bonny also commented on January 12, 2009 at that “the mechanisms controlling gene expression are unknown. Truth be told, scientists look at changes in gene expressions and can make little sense of them beyond a few unexplained patterns and correlations.” She obviously knows it as she works in that field.


    Alex wrote on January 29th, 2009
  38. Hi Mark

    Firstly, you and Carrie look amazing! I bet you feel that way too. I’ve been reading almonst daily your blog for a few months now and love it! Everything just makes so much more sense now. I have mostly been following it for that time as well. I feel alot better, but I want to loose 10lbs and 6%bf. I am 5’4″ 130. My thought is to really strictly adhere to a ketogenic diet for 8 weeks ish(re-evaluate at that point) Am I correct saying that would be to keep it under 50g carbs/day? I am also doing TT, and enjoy it and HIIT and the odd tabata sprint session…. (at least thats the plan. I’ve done it for about a week.) I would love your input and knowledge to help me out on my goal. I would like it to happen pretty quickly:)
    Also, what does Carrie’s workouts and diet look like?
    Thank you ever so much! I am so glad I found your site, I plan on buying a copy of your book for everyone I’ve told about your blog.

    All the best!

    Alecia wrote on January 29th, 2009
  39. Alex, sorry you feel the references were a “waste of time” and understanding gene expression is “useless”. The book will explain all this in detail. I guess I missed Bonnie’s comments earlier as well. She suggests that there is no “good” or “bad” gene expression; and she is correct. Genes don’t know or care when they switch on or off. They simply respond to the signals they are given by other genes or by chemical signals in their immediate environment. Type 2 diabetes happens when some specific genes are desperately responding to a chronic excess of toxic sugar in your bloodstream. They don’t know or care that you get sick in the long term because they are only responding in the short term (to keep you alive or to try to maintain homeostasis). Autoimmune dieases are the result of genes associated with your immune function over-reacting to perceived threats (which may or may not be real). Mesenchymal stem cells “decide” to become fat cells or muscle cells or bone cells depending on signals you (through your diet and/or other behavior) send the genes that are involved in their maturation or transformation. When I talk about “good” or “bad” gene expression, I have “anthropomorphosized” the discussion with an understanding that my readers get what I mean by good and bad – that some gene direction is favorable to health, longevity, fitness, etc and that some is not.

    Genes are being switched on (or not) every second of every day of your life. You reference working out. Your workout choices most assuredly direct which genes invloved in muscle growth, energy production, bone density, etc get switched on (or not). That’s why marathoners look different from body-builders. It’s not magic. It all comes down to the signals generated by YOUR choice of activity (as well as your choice of what you eat in fueling that activity). Genes respond to everything we do. Not all, of course, but many more than most people could ever imagine. That’s the personal power that we wield and what we at MDA find so fascinating.

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 30th, 2009

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