Exercise, food and weight loss – the low down
OK, this post is something I have been meaning to write for quite some time. Consistent with the idea behind this site (i.e. black and white), it’s gonna get straight to the point, make a bunch of assumptions, and say “how it is” in very simple language. You should therefore read the disclaimer at the end Oh, and PLEASE PLEASE ignore any ads from pages I link to, I like the content on the pages, but seldom the ads!
I have come to the views on this page thought my experience in the fitness industry (20 years plus as of 2010), talking to some of the worlds leading experts on exercise when I travel the world at attend exercise conferences and generally my own research, experience, and collected views on things.
The VERY short version:
- Do any exercise
- Worry less about calories and more about WHAT you eat
- If you already exercise do MORE of Resistance Training, do MORE of High Intensity Interval Training, do LESS of Steady State Cardio (especially long runs) and do ANYTHING you enjoy
- It’s OK to ask for help – get a Personal Trainer, or even a friend to exercise with
That’s it. End of post. Well almost, let me explain it a little more, actually, let me explain A LOT:
I am gonna start by saying much of what I write here is based on some assumptions, which I should be upfront about. So if these assumptions don’t apply to you SOME of what I write here may not either, but then again much of it still will. Anyway the assumptions are:
- You would like to get effective use of TIME when exercising (ie you do not have unlimited time, so same results for less time is a GOOD thing)
- You want to actually DO, at least some, exercise (a big assumption)
- You have tried some stuff, and it hasn’t worked. Or at least it hasn’t worked for long, or maybe you didn’t stick with it for long.
- There is some desire, be it a sub-goal even, to lose weight. And you are NOT competing against anyone but yourself (i.e you’re not trying to win a gold medal here)
Tip 1: Do any exercise very much applies to anyone who is not presently exercising, and especially true of people that are very overweight (I wont get into definitions of obese or chronically obese here, but suffice it to say the more overweight you are the better this tip works). Do whatever works for you, and whatever you enjoy (or maybe dislike the least). Over time do more of it, and more intensively. That’s it.
Related to this tip is the answer to questions like “When is the best time to work out” or “What’s the best exercise to do” or “How long should I exercise for” or “Where should I do it – home or a gym, or as a sport”. The answer is the same to all questions: Whatever works for you. Workout WHEN you can, and WHAT you like, and for as long as works (yes 15 minutes is OK every day, but then again so is twice a week for a 90 minute walk). Remember this is not about the BEST way, or the MAGIC answer (there isn’t one), but it’s about what works. Just as there is an expression in photography “The best camera is the one you have on you” in reference to the fact that any camera you may have at home is rather useless when you go to take a pic somewhere else. Well the same applies here – the best exercise is the one you actually DO. So the key is, DO IT (and do it WHEN you want, and HOW you want to).
Now many will complain that’s overly simplistic – and yes it is (simplistic) but it works – for an overweight person, especially a VERY overweight person, ANY exercise will work, and it will work well. Doing more of it, and/or doing it more intensely will be better, but to start with the key is doing SOMETHING. And remember tip 1 is aimed at NON exercisers.
Tip 2: Worry less about calories and more about WHAT you eat is all about focusing on what’s important here – eating HEALTHILY, not restricting calories (although eating less is a good thing for many people). In most cases the two (healthy and less calories) go hand in hand, but not always. All too often the so called”common knowledge” that floats around isn’t quite right, and a bit like this blog, oversimplifies things. Everyone want “good” or “bad” (fats – BAD, protein – GOOD, carbs – BAD right? Well not quite). Before I go on let’s to the black and white version since you all want one:
- Fat is not BAD. Trans fat is BAD. Other fats are generally good (that’s why butter is not as bad as many think it is, and some margarine is A LOT worse!)
- Protein is GOOD up unto a point. Like most things, you can over do it.
- Carbs are not BAD but simple carbs (sugar) is. Low GI (Glycemic Index) carbs are fine.
If there is one dietary mistake many people make it’s to focus on FAT (especially total fat). If there is ONE thing people should focus on, at least in a western diet, it consuming less SUGAR/Simple Carbs.
And this one needs a whole section!: EAT WHEN (but only when) you are hungry.
I am not going to go into each of the above, but if you feel so included, good any of of these and do your own research, or just follow the links withing the tips themselves to learn more.
Tip 3: If you already exercise do MORE of Resistance Training, do MORE of High Intensity Interval Training, do LESS of Steady State Cardio (especially long runs) and do ANYTHING you enjoy.
I cheated here, this is really four tips in one:
a) MORE resistance training: There are a whole lots of reasons WHY this works (such as increasing your metabolic rate and also explained here). But the key is DO it. The net effect is you burn MORE calories even when resting (sounds like witchcraft eh? – well it’s TRUE, it does!). Oh and if you REALLY want to know what body parts to work more of (if I had to pick one) – LEGS. Why? Coz they are the biggest muscles, so will burn more calories. That’s why I say the best exercise for getting abs for many people is squats! (that or 5 minutes of HIIT – see below).
b) MORE High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): This one, linked with the next tip, is perhaps the most important, as it’s the one SO many people get wrong. Quite simply the body will TRY to be efficient when using energy (ie using it sparingly), but the key is to make it CONSTANTLY use LOTS of energy for what you do. The way to do this is through high intensity interval training. You can see lots of research on why this works (eg here or here) but to explain the basic idea – think about driving a car and how you would drive it to use LOTS of fuel. You would accelerate HARD and brake HARD and never coast along. Well that’s how you should exercise.
How to do high intensity interval training (in 30 words or less): Pick a traditional aerobic activity (eg running, cycling, rowing, jumping up and down – you get the idea) and do it as HARD AND FAST as you can for 20 seconds. Rest for 20-40 seconds and do it again. Do this 10 times. That’s all (now in fact there are dozens of ways you can modify this and keep with the idea – but I wanted to show you the IDEA 1st). Google it – learn more. One thing I would say is that many people make a BIG mistake here by, when they get bored, thinking that increasing the duration of the ‘hard and fast’ bit, they are making it harder – it doesn’t work that way. The key is keep that SHORT (20 seconds or under) and if you want to make it harder, decrease the rest time. So many web sites get it wrong too! For maximum effect, keep the ‘hard and fast’ bits to 20 seconds or shorter. With HIIT the key is working hard enough during the 20 seconds so its 100% effort for the 20 seconds, so this FORCES the body to use inefficient energy systems to deliver energy needed quickly (just like accelerating hard in a car is good for going fast, but bad on fuel economy). Quite simply if you can go FULL out for 1 full minute then you are not working hard enough – the energy system you SHOULD be using (for maximum IN-efficiency) doesn’t last that long, doesn’t matter how fit you are (Google ATP or see here for more info on how the energy system works)
HIIT is no only good for burning calories (you can burn more calories with 10 x 20 seconds sprints, this than an hour of jogging), but also good for increasing fitness and performance (don’t believe me? – Google it)
c) LESS of Steady State Cardio (especially long runs). As proof I could link to a bunch of web sites such as this one, but I think a far more compelling argument can be found by just viewing the physiques of SPRINTERS and vs MARATHON runners (image from The Vitamin Guru). I could take an extreme approach and say running long distance is BAD for you (which I kinda agree with, try reading the original story of marathon - what happened at the end?) but I will stick to a more moderate view of “it’s just not very efficient”. Once again there are lots of reasons NOT to do this – but the best one is just looking at the alternative (assuming you have limited time) and just do high intensity interval training, as explained above. Less time, better results (and I have to say it – FAR less strain on your body!)
d) do ANYTHING you enjoy should be obvious, and kinda is, but so many people ignore it. Workout WHEN you want to (don’t worry about “Is is better to train 1st thing in the morning, or after work” – do it when it is best for YOU). So many people worry about the finer points of whats more effective on performance, but unless you are an athlete and trying to win a gold medal (see my assumptions above) then performance against any other person is irrelevant, only your own personal results measured against your goals maters.
Tip 4: It’s OK to ask for help – get a Personal Trainer, or even a friend to exercise with
For most things we do, when we are not experts in it, we get help. We get legal help when buying/selling a house, we get investment advice for our retirement, we get sickness (some call it “health”) advice from our Doctor, but when it comes to changing our own behavior with exercise we seam reluctant to get help from an exercise professional. It’s NOT because exercise is hard, it’s because changing human behavior is, at least sometimes, hard (just ask any parent who’s training their kids to brush their teeth twice a day for the 1st time). So the same applies to giving up smoking, starting a new phase in your life that involves a new commitment, or any significant behaviour change. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness here, it’s a sign of commitment – indicating you’re serious about doing it.
You can get help from a friend (so for example having a buddy to go to the gym with – kinda like the “I will go if you go deal, and if you miss it, you buy me lunch”) or from a professional such as a Personal Trainer. (Tip: If you are in New Zealand, make sure they are a REGISTERED Personal Trainer), but getting help can dramatically increasing your success rate (I might do a whole post on this item one day).
Black and White version: Do some exercise, do it hard (but not for long periods) and eat well, and avoid too much sugar, and ask for help if need be.
Disclaimer: This is designed to give me thoughts on the principles of exercise, and a bit on food, but not actually prescribe a programme of exercise for anyone. Take the IDEAS here and use them if you want, but as I say above, get expert help – it’s OK to ask. You will see I suggest you Google stuff, and/or do your own research here, because I am not the world’s expert on this, I just happen to know some stuff and wanna share it.