Tag Archives: weight loss

8 Pre-Requisites for Fat Loss

[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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How many minute abs? Really?

My new year’s wish is that media outlets one day are required to substantiate the things they print, like “15-Minute Flat Belly Workout”. Does anyone believe that they will get a flat belly by doing 15 minutes worth of ab exercises? I think it’s shameful. And harmful. Because some people will believe it. And they’ll try it. And then they’ll be disappointed when they don’t get a flat belly from it, because flat bellies come from sound nutrition and regular exercise; not from 15 minutes of daily ab work.  What if those people conclude that since they were unable to get the body they want with that program, that no program will work for them?  If you ever see me when I read one of these magazine headlines, take a look at my ears –  you’ll probably see steam coming out, and if you listen carefully, odds are you’ll hear a whistling sound.

I didn’t actually see the magazine; my brother did, and mentioned it in a joking “I can’t believe they print that” tone. I kept thinking about it, and that I wished I could provide a retort to each of these articles to give people the perspective they deserve. That got me thinking about why I do what I do. A few different smart and successful people have told me on different occasions that you have to understand your why to make it as an entrepreneur. Helping people with sound and helpful exercise and nutrition advice and coaching is my why.

In fact it’s a big part of what motivated me to quit my job as an engineer and become a personal trainer. If you have a job where your work, regardless of whether it’s good or bad,  just ends up on a shelf somewhere, then you know the yearning to do something that actually matters. Even if it pays less.

I actively implement my why everyday. I stand on my virtual soapbox and spread the word that:

  • Success for most people requires getting past the need to lose all the weight now
  • It will take more than 15 minutes
  • Unless you’re a real superhero, it’s best to have goals that are reasonable and achievable for mere mortals
  • It is possible to improve your health and body composition
  • It doesn’t have to be excruciating

And then I get to blather on about the many health and other benefits like weight loss, improved energy, reduced pain, and even improved mental function.

I look forward to having more and more people turning their backs on the quick fix and tuning in to soapbox broadcasts like mine that provide honest but achievable approaches.

In fact I’m not even going to apologize for using today’s soapbox to refer you to my Get Lean program. Yes technically that makes this a sales letter, but here’s the thing: it’s a great program! It’s all about making some simple changes in a reasonable time frame, with a focus on achievable goals, and on long term habit changes so that those who try it continue to see success long after finishing the program. That’s not to say everyone will lose weight on this program. It’s a good program, but it is not a magic pill, and that means not everyone will have complete success. But everyone will take something from it. If someone feels they didn’t get anything out of it I’ll happily provide a refund.

If I have turned you off with this selliness, then my apologies. And rest assured it isn’t the new direction for my blog. It’s just that, if I’m going to really have success at countering the 15 minute flat belly crap, I need reach more people. And if I keep taking digs at fitness magazine and newspaper articles, I’m not likely going to do it by getting published in them!

So there you go – that’s my why. Well that and helping people train around, through, or after injuries or other challenges that make exercise tricky to sort out. Ya, I have a pretty awesome job. Although it is not without hardship! Running my own personal training business is both the most rewarding and the most challenging job I have ever had. 

What’s your why?

Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer who may have an opinion or two. 

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Struggling with weight loss? Maybe there’s more to it

It seems to always come down to diet and exercise in some capacity. Eat less, move more. Eat the right foods. Stay away from, or cut back on, the wrong foods. Eat at the right time. Do the right kind of exercise. Have you ever read an article about how to lose weight that espoused anything else? We could probably add sleep more and curb mindless eating habits to that list, but otherwise, I think that covers it.

For many people, the answer is in there, and the challenge becomes figuring out which of the many variants of food and exercise is right for them. Well, that’s part of the challenge. The other part is finding the desire and motivation to stick with that approach. Ideally you find an approach that you feel allows you to live a good life as opposed to one that is so restrictive that you feel deprived. The latter will probably lead to falling off the wagon eventually.
But what about those people who have been there, done that? The people who don’t seem to be able to stick with their plan? Are they just weak? Is the person who sets their goals, makes a plan, and then follows that plan to fat loss success just a better person than the person who tries and fails? Think about your friends and family who struggle with their weight. Are they lesser persons?
Maybe there is actually more to it than food and exercise.
For many people there is a strong emotional element to weight and to food. Feelings of self-worth, loneliness, depression, fear. For many people, these emotions have a strong influence on their capacity to succeed on a weight loss program. Notice I chose the word capacity instead of ability. If you find yourself nodding in agreement to this paragraph, then maybe it’s time you brought a mental health practitioner into your weight loss team. I am not going to try to pretend to understand what anyone is facing when it comes to negative emotions, but left unchecked, success with fat loss will be at best much harder than it needs to be, and at worst impossible.
Food and exercise are still important factors for everyone when it comes to fat loss, but for some people, it is a distant second to emotional and psychological guidance.
Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who gets that helping clients with exercise and nutrition isn’t always enough.

On mindless eating

Anyone else prone to mindless eating? You know, you’re sitting at home or in the office, and you’re either bored or stress or thinking about a delicious food item (or both), and even though you’re not hungry, before you know it you’re standing with the fridge door open, or you’re looking into the display case at the local cupcakery.

I’m a believer that mindless eating is a big, big, big contributor to the North American waistline expansion. There are definitely people who only eat when they are hungry, and stop eating when they are full, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they are not overweight. This post is not for those people. For the rest of us…

Do you ever stop yourself when you’re about to go get some food even though you’re not hungry? Ever think that maybe there’s another solution to your boredom, stress, or desire for that rewarding feeling you get from eating something delicious?

This is really another look into my new found fascination with habits and behaviour, which I also wrote about last month in the post, should you eat when you’re not hungry?. In this post, I suggested a couple of options for self-rewards that I found effective. I suspect those might be a bit flighty for some, so I thought I’d offer up some more alternatives to mindless eating.

Did you know that the brain’s reward system is actually based on food and sex? It makes sense if  you think about it. We are wired to encourage survival, which requires us to eat and have sex. So is it any surprise that we yearn for delicious food?

I think this is an interesting consideration when we look at mindless eating. I’m not suggesting that we should give up on resisting the temptation of delicious foods at all hours of the day – that would be a health nightmare! I am suggesting that we should recognize it; acknowledge it; and then come up with strategies to address it. And by “it”, I mean the notion that food is a reward.

If each bout of mindless eating is a yearning for a reward, then couldn’t we come up with alternative rewards? Ones that don’t contribute to weight gain?

Next time you find your feet taking you for a walk to the fridge, take a look at this list and see if there’s something here you can do instead of eating that will feel rewarding:

  1. phone a friend
  2. go for a walk
  3. have sex
  4. do some push ups (from the knees or to the counter instead of the floor counts)
  5. listen to your favourite song
  6. draw
  7. read a few pages of a great book
  8. play with your kids
  9. take care of an item on your ‘to do’ list
  10. masturbate
  11. hug your partner
  12. go for a bike ride
  13. fly a kite
  14. write a thank you note to someone important to you
  15. pet your cat
  16. go outside and admire your garden
  17. dance to whatever song is playing
  18. play fetch with your dog
  19. go outside and talk to your neighbour
  20. donate ten bucks to your favourite charity

Twenty things you can do that will give you as much or more of a rewarding feeling than any cookie or bag of chips could. I just avoided a handful of chocolate chips by being aware of what I was doing and choosing to call one of my best friends instead. Much more satisfying!

Have you ever tried this approach to avoiding mindless eating? Do you have any suggestions to add to the list?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who is fascinated by human behaviour.


Healthy eating is about choices

I was at the bike store-coffee shop this morning for an Americano between clients (Cyclelogik has great Americanos – featuring beans from Francescos….mmm…) and was feeling a little snacky. It was almost 1130 and I had another couple of assessments before lunch. So I noticed the snack offerings they had today: a big oatmeal raisin cooking and a protein bar. Not thrilling, but I considered them enough to look at the nutrition numbers for each. The power bar looked decent: less than 250 calories, and it was somewhere in the 3:1 to 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. It has fat, but fat is really not such a big deal – unless there is so much that it increases the calorie content too much. In fact some would call fat essential. And by some, I mean smart people who understand nutrition: The “Essential” in Essential Fatty Acids is not just a marketing thing.
Continue reading Healthy eating is about choices

Is it really the carbohydrates?

If you listen to Gary Taubes (author of Why We Get Fat, and Good Calories, Bad Calories), you would believe that the reason we are fat is because we eat too much carbohydrate, and that the way to solve the problem is to stop eating carbohydrates.

I’m not sure that the facts exist to support Taubes’ thesis. One hole, is that we in North America are fatter than virtually everyone else in the world (32% of men and 35% of women in the US are obese), but we eat less bread than they do. In fact North Americans ate an average of 60 lbs of bread per capita in 2000, which is less than half of what the skinnier Spaniards (15% of men and 21% of women are obese), Danes (no data found), and Germans (20% of men and 21% of women are obese) ate.1,2
Continue reading Is it really the carbohydrates?

My Precision Nutrition Journal: Quick Start Day

I decided last week to give Precision Nutrition a try. It’s been on the back of my mind for some time, and I’ve also been half-heartedly trying to drop 5-10 lbs for some time, but without success. And one day, I just realized that if I want different results, I have to try something different.

I am generally not a fan of most “diets”, or even “nutritional approaches”. They just seem to be spending too much effort trying to convince people of their merits. I don’t know why that turns me off, but it does. Maybe because in that process, they tend to ignore a lot of truths to support their thesis.
Continue reading My Precision Nutrition Journal: Quick Start Day

Snack time! What are you eating?

I snack. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I try to snack a bit less often, and I try to keep most of my snacks relatively healthy. But snacks definitely have a place in my life.

Delicious fro-yoFor a while I was on a mission to find those great tasting snacks that are still reasonable in terms of calories. And boy did I find some. Ever had Chapman’s Frozen Yogurt? Wow. It’s seriously tasty. I recently had some Caramel Pecan Crunch. I’m amazed that it tastes that good at only 140 calories per 1/2 cup serving. I was thinking that this is amazing – basically the same nutritional impact as boring old yogurt, but tastes like ice cream (seriously – it’s good). Obviously this has to be a regular snack item.

But sadly there is a problem. Continue reading Snack time! What are you eating?

The One True Diet: Does it Include Donuts?

Millions of North Americans are trapped in some stage of the weight loss cycle:
- Thinking about dieting
- Buying into a diet book/program
- Dieting
- Giving up on the diet
- Feeling bad about themselves for giving up
- Gaining weight
- Thinking about dieting…

Some people actually succeed and make the necessary and sustainable changes that lead to a new and healthy life. Unfortunately, most are stuck in some stage of that cycle.

Continue reading The One True Diet: Does it Include Donuts?