I’ve seen it many times - with athletes, regular joes and even friends & family, they make the ultimate decision - I’m going to lose this extra weight and get into the best shape of my life! Things usually start off really well. They clean out their fridge and pantry, buy fruits, vegetables, lean meats, get more sleep, go to the gym 3 days/week, run 10k for the first time….the list goes on and on. They finish their first couple weeks without missing a beat; daily exercise and diet spot on. A few weeks go by and things begin to slip - 3 days/wk in the gym have turned into 1 day/wk….a couple extra cheat meals...motivation to run has turned into fatigue. “It’s ok” they say, “I’ll get back to it on Monday”. But the cycle just repeats itself.
Does this sound familiar? It’s a pretty common trend and THE MAIN REASON most of us can’t stick to an exercise and nutrition plan - we try to do TOO MUCH TOO SOON. This isn’t sustainable. Which is why most people feel defeated and just go back to their regular routines. Don’t worry, there’s a better way of getting the job done but we have to look at it from a long-term perspective - because that’s essentially what we all want right, to be fit and healthy for YEARS and YEARS to come.
THE DO'S AND DON'TS
Nutrition - DO'S
Before you get crazy and throw away 90% of your fridge, figure out what your current diet is all about my tracking your intake for at least 3 days. You’ll probably realize that your diet isn’t so bad after all and 2 or 3 minor changes may be what it takes to clean up your eating habits. Here are few tips to keeping a food journal:
1. Make sure to jot down the time of each feeding. Meal frequency is an important part of a good nutrition plan so knowing when and if you are eating is critical.
2. Counting calories can work but it’s not necessary for success. It can be just as effective to write down something like ‘large portion of broccoli’ or ‘handful of cashews’.
3. If you ARE in fact going to count calories, use and app. Myfitnesspal is a great choice - you can even scan the barcode of your favorite foods and it’ll automatically provide you with calorie values as well as macronutrient distributions.
4. Write down how full you felt after each meal or snack. You could do this a number of ways. Examples: I’m super full, moderately full etc. OR I’m 9/10 full OR I’m 90% full.
After a few days of logging your food intake, you’ll get a pretty good picture of what your diet looks like. If you’re not sure what to do from there, here are a few basics.
GOOD EATING HABIT DO'S
1. Slow down - it takes about 20 minutes (or more) for signals to be sent to our brain telling us that we’re no longer hungry. Take your time - set your fork down after every bite and chat with a friend.
2. Eat more protein - yes you heard me. This is especially important during a diet when regular exercise is involved (scroll down to read more about exercise during weight loss). When you exercise, you literally ‘break down’ muscle. It’s the recovery after exercise, not the exercise itself, that starts the muscle building process.
==> Check out The Truth About Protein and Strength Training - Part 1 and Part 2 to learn more about this topic.
3. Drink more water - this one is pretty straightforward but you’d be surprised how many people get it wrong. Basic rule of thumb, if your urine is clear/light yellow you're more or less hydrated, if it's bright yellow you're definitely dehydrated and if it's dark yellow drink a bottle (or 2) of water immediately! And don't worry about drink 8 cups (or whatever measure you've heard) - simply have water on hand throughout the day and drink at your own pace.
DON’T starve yourself
Although the research is pretty evident, people who decrease their caloric intakes DO lose weight, BUT, it’s neither healthy nor sustainable to try to lose too much weight too soon (like 5 pounds of body mass a week - for example - I’ve heard goals like this in the past, believe me, they don’t work).
Before we continue, here’s a quick overview of the whole calories IN calories OUT story. When we consume more calories than we burn, we have a net positive caloric balance - i.e. we will gain weight. When we consume less calories than we burn, we have a net negative caloric balance - i.e. we will lose weight. And if we consume about the same amount of calories that we burn, we have a net neutral caloric balance - i.e. we will maintain our current weight. Now, to lose 1 pound of weight, we must expend 3500 calories more than we consume (3500 calories is equivalent to 1 pound). Researchers suggests that we strive to lose about 1-2 pounds of body weight per week.
Here’s an example of how effective a more conservative approach can be. If I need 2500 calories to maintain my current weight, then I would need to consume 2000 calories/day to lose 1 pound of body mass (500 less calories per day than normal multiplied by 7 days is equal to 3500). And if I break that down even further - let’s say I eat 5 meals a day - I would need to eat 100 calories less per meal to reach the 500 calorie/day deficit. That doesn’t seem that hard does it? At this rate, in 2 months, I’ll be 8-10 pounds lighter.
Exercise - DO'S
1. Pick one aerobic type of training you KNOW you can follow.
This could be as simple as going for a 20 min walk 3 times a week or a bike ride a couple times a week. Apart from burning extra calories, long-term adherence to cardiovascular exercise staves off many illnesses and promotes longevity. Furthermore, it feels good to get outdoors and move around - the research backs this statement - exercise has big benefits to cognitive health including improvements in mood and happiness.
2. STRENGTH TRAIN!
This can be intimidating for many newbies to the exercise world so it’s important we outline what strength training really means and why the benefits are so vast.
What strength training IS NOT
When you think of strength training you may think of a sweaty gym flooded with guys in tanks top doing bench press and curls (not that there’s anything wrong with this picture….or these 2 exercises as both can have a function and purpose). But there is certainly more to strength training than just this.
Strength training in a nutshell
Strength - or better yet - resistance training, is just that. It’s the process of overcoming some sort of resistance through a variety of movements while engaging different body parts. This could be an exercise like the bench press where you’re overcoming an EXTERNAL resistance (the barbell) but it could also mean doing something like bodyweight squats where you’re overcoming an INTERNAL resistance (your body!). I work with many young athletes and this is the type of strength training we focus on FIRST - having the ability to do overcome our own body weight before adding external load.
Benefits of strength training during a weight loss plan
1. An increase or maintenance of muscle mass. Prepare to be shocked - when dieting, it’s almost physiologically impossible to lose ONLY fat mass - you actually lose BOTH fat mass AND muscle mass. While restricting calories, strength training can attenuate this loss of muscle so that a greater proportion of weight loss comes from fat rather than muscle. There is a small amount of research (cite) suggesting that muscle can be gained while only fat being lost during weight loss but the evidence is scarce.
2. Less of a decline in metabolism. Yes this is also true - when we restrict calories our body essentially tries to maintain its ‘set point’ (the weight at which it’s been for an extended period - more on this in another post). Various processes occur that slow down our metabolisms - our daily energy expenditures decrease - so we essentially burn less calories at rest. How does strength training help? Basically, when we exercise, we burn calories (to access energy to fuel the workout) BUT, after some squats, push-ups and lunges, our bodies not only burn calories during exercise, they continue to burn calories after exercise (because of an increase of fat-free mass - FFM).
3. Your aerobic workouts best friend. More and more research suggests that strength training for runners is beneficial. Many top marathoners and triathletes have implemented strength training into their weekly schedules and the results don’t lie. The main benefits - less injuries and faster races.
==> Read 5 Training Tactics to Increase Muscle Size to REALLY get your training going
Exercise - DON’TS
1. DON'T DO HIGH VOLUMES OF AEROBIC TRAINING OFF THE BAT
Don’t run 10k your first week into your new program. Unless you’ve been running extensively for at least a year and don’t have a laundry list of injuries, you should start with a brisk walk, a light jog or some other modality you enjoy. Why is this the case? When we run, the ground reaction forces can be quite high, especially if we’re overweight. What does this mean exactly? Simply put, the more weight you carry, the more IMPACT there is on your tendons, ligaments, joints etc. while you’re running. Don’t get me wrong, running can be a fantastic way to get in shape and shed some extra pounds - but it should be implemented into a proper long-term weight loss strategy. It may be more beneficial to start off with some strength training instead to protect your body.
2. DON'T START WITH BARBELL EXERCISES IF YOU'RE NEW TO THEM
Don't jump into barbell back squats, presses or pulls if you've never done any of these types of exercises before. Yes these exercises are extremely beneficial when it comes to changes in body composition (on top of making you strong as heck) but that doesn't mean you can start lifting heavy right out of the gate. If you're new to strength training, it's best to see a professional - if they know what they're doing, they'll take you through some basic assessments and help you get started with the APPROPRIATE exercises for your particular level. If you don't have access to a trainer you can start off by doing basic lunges and squats with light loads can be very effective for beginners - you can work on your form and still get a great workout.
There are many other strategies that can be effective but it's important to find the strategies that work best for YOU. For some this may mean hitting the gym 3 days a week while for other, one strength training session every 10 days could be enough. Whatever you decide, take the long term approach and don't wear yourself out the first week in.
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Delmonico and Lofgren. Resistance Training During Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese Older Adults:What Are the Benefits? American J Lifestyle Med. 2010.
Heden et al. One-set resistance training elevates energy expenditure for 72 h similar to three sets. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011.
Paoli et al. Lift Weights to Fight Overweight. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2015.
Vilaca et al. Energy Expenditure Combining Strength and Aerobic Training. J Human Kinetics 2011.