This post came to me while running on the beach this morning. Ya, hard life. I thought about the fact that my main source of exercise during my vacation this week is running, not going to the gym. This made me think about Alwyn Cosgrove’s great article, The Hierarchy of Fat Loss, which is one of my favourite fitness articles ever. My version of exercise this week is way down the list. And yet it strikes me as exactly what I need right now because it’s relaxing and beautiful, and more importantly, I want to do it.
All this lead me to think about a different perspective on the hierarchy of fat loss. And so I came up with my own version: The 5 Pre-Requisites for Fat Loss.
1. Have Goals
It’s really hard to stick with something when you don’t know what the point is. Let’s face it, we live in a world where food and beverage temptations surround us almost constantly. Some of them are literally manufactured with the intent of being so delicious that you have to muster every ounce of willpower to say no to them. That’s a lot easier to do when you know that it’s contributing to something meaningful.
Some people try for goals like “lose weight”, or “be more healthy”. That rarely works. Not surprisingly – what does that even mean? Goals need to be more specific to be helpful. They have to mean something. I wrote more about this a while ago while I was going through a period where I was struggling with saying no to chips and saying yes to working out. I didn’t have any meaningful goals to keep me on track.
You need goals that mean something to you. Is it sports performance? Looking awesome in a bathing suit? Avoiding having your pre-diabetes become full-fledged diabetes? Preventing another heart attack? Losing weight to take strain off your painful knees? Proving to yourself that you can run a mile, or bike for an hour, or lift weights, or play a round of golf…There is no end to the possibilities when it comes to meaningful goals. Think about what eating better and being more fit will really mean for you. Can’t come up with any goals that really mean something to you? Then maybe fat loss is not a viable option on your short term to do list. Wait until something drives you to, because realistically – if you can’t think of a good reason why you want to do this, you’re not going to do it. Now you could add in a few simple healthy changes until you sort out your goals. Two of my favourites are: eat a primary protein and make half your plate vegetables at least 2 meals each day. It’s a great step toward health, makes you mindful of the connection between eating and health, and isn’t that hard to do because it doesn’t require taking anything away.
Part two of having goals is making sure they are realistic. Losing 50 pounds in 3 months is not a realistic goal. Yes, I know you saw someone do it on the Biggest Loser, but that’s television. It’s not real. Not even a little bit. Weight loss goals should be achievable in the real world. Think closer to 1 pound per week. If you overshoot it, great! If you meet it, still great. Remember, this is your life and your health we’re talking about: here’s hoping it’s a long race!
The third thing to remember about goal setting is that you really need to break it into bits. If your goal involves losing 50 pounds, break that down into 5 or 10 pound chunks. That means you’ll be thinking about 5 to 10 week periods. Celebrate each mini victory along the way. This is crucial because our brain works like the economy. Your brain evaluates rewards using a net present value principle. That is, it discounts rewards that are far in the future, and places a higher value on immediate rewards. That chocolate cake next to you is delicious and now. Your reward for saying no to it is in the future. The more meaningful the goal, and the less time until you meet it (the first part), the more likely you’ll be to say no to another piece of chocolate cake.
2. Address Why You Eat
“Do you only eat when you’re hungry?”
“Do you stop eating when you’re full?”
I believe these are the two most important questions you can ask about fat loss, and I’m guessing most of you answered no to one or both of those questions. I know I did. What that means is that there’s an emotional element to your weight. This is the crux of why I think books like Why We Get Fat are mostly irrelevant: they address eating with the assumption that people eat too much because they’re hungry. But most of us actually eat for many reasons. Sometimes it’s out of hunger,but other times it’s because we start thinking about (or see) delicious food, which leads to thinking about how much we’ll enjoy it. That’s enough to fire up our brain’s pleasure centre, and before we know it, we’ve got our hand in the cookie jar.
Other times we eat because we’re stressed. Or because it makes us feel less lonely. Or in some cases, it’s a defence mechanism. I think I just took us into a bit of an uncomfortable topic, but it’s too important to ignore. The truth is that for many people, food is an emotional response to issues that we’re having trouble addressing. Neither a trainer, nor a nutritionist is equipped to help us address that. For many of us, getting psychological counselling to help us address these underlying emotional reasons is the most important step we can take for our physical health.
3. The Best Exercise is the One You’ll Do
In the aforementioned article, “The Hierarchy of Fat Loss”, Alwyn Cosgrove lists the order of importance for what type of exercise you should do to optimize fat loss. I believe he is 100% right from a physiological perspective. Assuming you will do the exercise, the order he presents is bang on. The problem is that’s a big if. The reality is that most people don’t continue their exercise regimen. They stick to it for somewhere between a few days and a few months but then they quit. If that’s the case, then the best exercise program is not much better than the worst one.
What if you found a form of exercise that you really enjoy? You might actually look forward to it. Odds are you won’t quit if it’s something you love. If you’re someone who has a hard timing sticking to an exercise regimen, it’s time you started thinking about movement that you love. Do you play sports? Did you as a kid? Maybe it’s time to take up a sport again? If you never have, have you wanted to? Odds are there are beginner adult leagues in your area. Let coach google help you find one. No? What about running? Hiking? Biking? Yoga? Weightlifting? Swimming? In-line skating?
What’s the ideal? In my opinion, the ideal week of exercise is what I include in my Get Lean Challenge:
- Some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes, at least 5 times per week.
- At least one each of the following:
- Something that makes you stronger
- Something that makes you move
- Some physical activity that you love
That’s it. What are you waiting for?
By the way, did you know exercise makes you smarter? Fact! A new area of research has shown that in addition to the many physical benefits to exercise, it is also one of the best ways to generate new brain cells. Neuroplasticity! Is there anything exercise can’t do?
Here’s a great chalk-board animation about the ridiculously long list of physical benefits of exercise.
4. Be Prepared to Be More Disciplined
Let’s be honest with ourselves here. Are we really being fair to ourselves with our own discipline in regards to frequency of junk food and serving size of other foods? Those of you who have kids: would you let your kids eat poorly as often as you do yourself? Those of you who don’t have kids – do you have pets? Do you feed them more healthfully than you do yourself?
You’re not feeding your loved ones healthfully as a punishment: you’re doing it because you love them and you want the best for them. What if you started to think “Would I Let My Kids Eat This?” every time you contemplate eating something that’s less than healthy? It’s easier to eat well when someone else is making the decisions for us, but for good and bad, as adults we have to be our own loving guardian. WILMKET? If the answer is yes, then enjoy; if the answer is no, then walk away.
5. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
What if instead of chastising yourself when you stumble on your eating and exercise plan, you asked yourself “what happened and what could I do differently to prevent the stumble next time?“, and then let it go instead of beating yourself up? The reality is that focussing on the negative as a means to motivate yourself doesn’t work for most of us. And it’s unpleasant for all of us. One thing I’ve noticed about the clients I have who have done my Get Lean program, is that the ones whose self-talk sounds something like:
“I felt guilty about the night before!”
“I was chaste after my indulgences of yesterday and frankly too angry at myself to be naughty two days in a row. I guess sometimes guilt is a very useful thing :-)”
“I fell off the wagon and feel very guilty and bad about it…. I just needed to start doing it “
are less successful than those who focus on a positive goal. I think this ties back to the point above about how the brain assesses rewards: the focus on feelings of negativity about previous performance is not a powerful motivator!
If you’re someone who beats yourself up, and you motivate yourself with feelings of guilt or shame, do yourself a favour and try a different tactic for a while: focus on a positive goal and see how you do. You may find you have more success, with the fringe benefit that you’ll likely feel better about yourself in the process.
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.