[Updated June 18 2015 from 5 to 8 pre-requisites. What are the odds it’s exactly one year later?]

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 8 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. 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? Continuing to keep up with your grandkids? 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. If you can’t think of a good reason why you want to do this, are you really going to succeed? If this is you, it doesn’t mean you should do nothing. If being more healthy is a goal, then add in a few simple healthy changes until you sort out your goals. Two of my favourites are:

  1. eat a primary protein
  2. make half your plate vegetables

Do that for at least two 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.

2. Your Goals Must Be Achievable

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!

This also means you 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.

3. 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’m taking 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.


4. Your Medications May Be a Hurdle

If you have fat loss goals and you are on medication, ask your pharmacist or doctor if there are known impacts of the drugs you’re taking on weight. There are prescription drugs that may make it very difficult for you to lose weight. There’s no simple solution here, unfortunately. Your best bet is to talk about it with your doctor about it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve your health through lifestyle changes! It just means you may need to temper your expectations if your goal is fat loss.

5. 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

There is a trap that some people fall into that I hope you will all avoid as you become aware of it. Adding a moderate amount of exercise does not require you to eat extra food. If you are doing intense exercise, then yes, things like pre and post workout nutrition become relevant. For half an hour to an hour of moderate exercise each day, a regular healthy eating plan will do.

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.

6. Be Prepared to Be More Disciplined…for a While

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. If we’re accustomed to eating seconds (one overflowing plate is really the same as seconds), and daily desserts and wine, we’re going to have to cut back on some of that if we want to lose fat. You don’t have to make radical changes, like going from daily chips and coke to no processed foods and no sugar. But you do have to make changes if you want to see changes. Maybe you’ll go from daily dessert to three times per week, or you’ll go for either wine or dessert.

Whatever changes you adopt, be ready for your personal version of the cartoon devil and angel verbally duking it out on your shoulders. Because devil you will try to convince you to give up. Over and over and over.
“It’s just this one time. You can go back to the changes tomorrow.”
“This pie? It’s not really dessert; it’s fruit.”
“Exercise? But you had such a long day. And the new season of Orange is the New Black is out.”

Angel you will be there fighting back to convince you to stick with your plan, with reminders like:
“Just wait 15 minutes and see if you really want it.”
“You’re doing so well, and you get to have a treat tomorrow; so hang on today.”
“You know you’ll feel soooo awesome after you exercise, and then you can wath OITNB.”

The good news is that the more often you give devil you the cold shoulder, the less power her or she will have over your food and exercise choices. And the longer you stick to the changes you make, the easier it is to continue to stick to them.

7. Get Enough Sleep

If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not going to lose fat. Pretty interesting, right? Sleep rules when it comes to fat loss, and a host of other health issues. Studies about sleep and weight have been pretty consistent in their conclusions that lack of sleep makes you more likely to eat bigger servings of food, puts you at a higher risk for obesity, and even for type 2 diabetes.

8. 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.

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