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The suntan analogy

Fitness industry gurus Neale and Hayley Bergman at Parallel Coaching have been travelling in Southeast Asia, which gave me flashbacks to my traumatic Thailand experience in 2002...

I’ve always been sensitive to the sun, likewise for my brother. When we were kids, we often stayed out too long and got toasted. One holiday in Lowestoft ended up with us getting prickly heat, and we went berserk scratching each other’s backs to shreds!

My Thailand experience involved a crowd of girls following me around shouting, “Hey Mister! Number one white skin!” I spent a day on the beach on the island of Ko Samet. It was cloudy, but I still slapped on what I thought was enough sunscreen to block those equatorial rays.

I got back to my jungle hut after sunset, and looked in the mirror in horror. I was now ‘number one lobster skin’ and no amount of aftersun could sort this out. The next day was ten times worse. I hadn’t put anywhere near enough sunscreen on my feet and ankles, and I had blisters the size of flying saucer sweets.

Following a hospital visit to get some burn cream and bandages, I hobbled through the airport to board my plane home. The time spent sat down on the long haul flight made my feet swell up like balloons! So much so, I couldn’t actually walk, and had to be pushed through Heathrow airport in a wheelchair. Lesson most definitely learned. It took a good few weeks before I started to look normal again.


So how does this relate to health and fitness, other than sunburning, which should definitely be avoided!

It’s all about the Minimum Effective Dose.

It’s important to note that sensible sun exposure does not directly cause a tan, it provides a stress to the skin to produce more melanin afterwards. This is comparable to resistance training. The time spent lifting weights causes a positive stress to the nervous system, muscle fibres, bones and connective tissues, which then adapt by becoming stronger over the next several days.

The key is to appreciate that not all stress is bad – it’s all about getting the right amount. Too much sun for your skin type causes a burn, and too much intense exercise causes overtraining, which increases the risk of injury and weakens your immune system.

If you plotted this on a graph like the one below, the optimal ‘dose response’ follows a bell-shaped curve, and the goal is to hit the peak of the curve.

From the left, you can see that a small dose produces little benefit, such as doing minimal exercise, or having very little sun exposure. Once the benefit curve peaks and the dose continues to increase, the benefits start to decrease. Benefits can soon turn into negatives if the dose continues to be applied.

This principle applies to many things in life. Fitness does not usually equal good health at the extreme ranges. Obviously if you’re very unfit, you’re not going to be healthy, but athletes who push themselves beyond their limits can achieve superhuman levels of fitness, but their physical (and mental) health can suffer as a result.

Everything in moderation?

This can apply to nutrition too. Broccoli is without doubt an incredibly healthy vegetable, but if all you ate was mountains of broccoli each day, you would get very ill!

This is why when beginners start resistance training, they should be assessed beforehand to determine their tolerance – in the same way that someone with pale skin knows they can’t stay out in the sun as long as someone with darker skin.

Exercise progression should be gradual, and at the right intensity to stimulate ongoing positive adaptations – but not so hard that the trainee is constantly wiped out! Again, this is the same tactic to gradually building a tan, you shouldn’t try to go from pale to bronzed in one day.

A final tale courtesy of my brother. Before I knew better, I took him to the gym with me when we were teenagers. He had never worked out before, and I gave him the same routine I was on. He was then bed-ridden with crippling muscle soreness for the next two days! Mum was not best pleased, and he never trained again. A classic example of exceeding the minimal effective dose!

PS. Credit goes to master trainer Drew Baye for highlighting the suntan analogy. His experience and knowledge have definitely influenced the resistance training principles at Set for Life.

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