Monday 18 February 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'I'm two years younger than An Taoiseach... that's metabolically speaking, of course'

When Leo threw down the gauntlet by revealing he has the metabolism of a 53-year-old, Brendan O'Connor decided to take up the challenge

Leo Varadkar (53) jogs in the Phoenix Park
Leo Varadkar (53) jogs in the Phoenix Park
The hale and healthy Brendan O’Connor (51)
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

One of the great milestones in life is not when the gardai seem younger. The real blow is when the Taoiseach is younger than you.

That's when you get the sense that we are all going to hell in a handcart. As long as politicians are older than you, you can comfort yourself with the fact that there are still some adults in charge, grey old men who have left the folly of youth behind. And then one day, you wake up and the Taoiseach is practically a decade younger than you.

On a personal level, you obviously question what you've been doing with your life that you didn't become Taoiseach at 38. And on a societal level, you think back to what an idiot you were at that age and you shudder for mankind.

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So the chance to be younger than the Taoiseach was not one to be passed up. Admittedly, we're talking metabolically younger, but still. Metabolically, the Taoiseach is 53.

I know, right?

Did you see his face when he found out the news on Operation Transformation? He tried to laugh and joke about it - but the smile didn't quite reach the eyes.

He was clearly thinking about who he needed to fire for having this bright idea. And it was obviously dawning on him too, that he should have had his "metabolic age" checked somewhere before he found it out on TV. Never ask a question to which you don't already know the answer and all that.

For a man presumably obsessed with spin, and spinning, this was a major boo-boo.

Leo Varadkar reacts to his results on Operation Transformation
Leo Varadkar reacts to his results on Operation Transformation

Leo's health and fitness are an important part of the package. We've all seen far too many pictures of him in sporty gear coming and going from gyms and manly triathlon-type events. He is vital, virile, thrusting, young.

What other Taoiseach in recent years could jog around next to Justin Trudeau and look nearly as good as the Canadian hunk? Well - Enda, probably. But anyway, Brand Leo was a sporty, thrusting brand.

And it was all blown in about 30 seconds on TV, when it was revealed that Leo has the body of a 53-year-old man.

Not strictly true, and we'll come to that, but basically, that's how most people half-watching their TV will have interpreted it.

It didn't help that most of the other celebs who took the test on air were about half their chronological age. Kathryn Thomas, who is Leo's age, has the body of someone half his age, and RTE's Blathnaid Treacy had a metabolic age of about 15. Leo was suddenly the oldest man in the room.

Operation Transformation invited everyone to go to chemists around the country the next day to take the test - and of course, everyone wanted to show they were in better shape than Leo.

Two places I checked were claiming the machines had broken down from the crowds. When I eventually got a slot somewhere, the woman who did it for me, who was clearly coming to the end of a long, hard day of satisfying people's idle curiosity, confessed to me that she wasn't that keen on Leo before - but she liked him even less now for inflicting the hordes on her.

Because it seems that while the nurses were out on strike on Thursday, and the real sick people couldn't get seen to, the worried were descending on chemists for more measurements to be neurotic about.

I know you just want to hear my metabolic age now so you can then get on with your day - and I promise, I'll give it to you in a sec, but first I should explain a few things. I'm not quite "questioning the science" like Leo did. But I think we need some context on this.

So as far as I can figure it out, this whole metabolic age thing is a slightly fancier version of BMI, or body mass index. We all know at this stage that BMI is a useless measure. It involves pretty much taking your weight and dividing it by your height which means that, for example, I probably have a better BMI than most of the Ireland rugby squad, even though I carry much more body fat than any of them. So the scales Leo and I used endeavour to get a better measure of things by ascertaining BMR, or basal metabolic rate.

Strictly speaking, BMR is measured after you've been fasting for 12 hours, and you need to lie down for half an hour to be measured. What these body fat scales apparently do is send a charge through your body.

How the woman in the chemists explained it to me is that the pulse is impeded by fat. So roughly speaking, it figures out how much muscle you have versus how much fat. And then, taking into account your height, your weight, your age and your gender, it does some calculations to work out how fast or slow your metabolism is - as in, how fast your body burns energy.

A higher metabolism is generally a good thing and your metabolism slows down as you get older. But essentially, as far as I can see, this is a measurement of how much fat you are carrying versus how much muscle you have.

Calling the resulting number a "metabolic age" is probably a bit misleading. What the "age" essentially means is that when the scales give a metabolic rate for you, they then look at what age group tends to have that metabolic rate and assigns you that age.

So Leo is not like Benjamin Button or whatever. He is not a 40-year-old trapped in a 53-year-old's body. He just has a relatively low metabolic rate, according to one rather cursory check.

We don't have the complete breakdown of his results, but what this suggests, according to the slightly simplistic measuring technique Leo and I used, is that he needs to either lose some fat or gain some muscle. You will notice I am subtly talking down this whole enterprise. But I'm not saying it's not vaguely useful, just that it seems quite simplistic, and you would be likely to get a different answer on a different day.

My results were not wildly surprising. I have quite a high body fat index (34.9pc, according to the body fat scales) which is kind of odd, given that, like Leo, I have lost a lot of weight in recent years.

According to that, I am well into the obesity zone. But then perhaps Leo and I are both skinny/fat types. We are tall, and we look thin, but we carry a lot of weight hidden away on our large frames.

My body-water percentage was slightly low, too, though not into the dehydration zone. I would put that down to a couple of drinks the night before, which might have dehydrated me slightly. I weigh 80kg and have a muscle mass of 50kg in that. I don't know where the 50kg of muscle is hiding, but it must be there somewhere.

Paradoxically, I have very good visceral fat levels. Visceral fat is the fat you carry around the middle, which is bad, because it means you have fat around a lot of your important organs. I scored an exemplary six on that scale. Up to 12 is healthy. That's weird, too, because I carry nearly all of my fat around the middle. So somehow I'm obese, but I have really healthy fat levels around my fattest area.

So there you go. That's about everything. What's that? My metabolic age? Oh yeah, I'd forgotten that.

So given all the qualifications outlined above, you might obviously "question the science" around this. But... 51. Yes. It's 51, OK? Two years older than my actual age of 49. Happy now? So my metabolic self is older than me - but younger than the Taoiseach, and that's the main thing. So I challenge him to a fight, or indeed an eating contest, any time.

I think if there is anything to be learnt from all this, for Leo and for me, it's possibly that we should start building some more muscle as we get older. But Leo, you knew that anyway, didn't you, old boy?

And now, in the national interest, I think Enda should take the test and publish his results.

Sunday Independent

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