This may be counter-intuitive, coming from a gym, but joining a gym and exercising is not the most effective way to lose weight.
Not what you were expecting, right? Don’t get me wrong; exercise is extremely important for good health and energy, and it does play a role in weight loss. I’ll get to that in a bit but let’s first address the elephant in the room.
Most people who have a New Year’s resolution to lose weight or get in shape give up after a few months. This might even be in the back of your mind right now; you don’t want to be one of those people!
Why does it happen? In some cases, because people start down a road without really understanding what moves the needle and what doesn’t. In other cases, people set themselves up to fail with impossibly high standards. In still other cases, people try a few months at their nearest gym, which may even have promised them a 30-day body transformation, and having given it their best shot, after a few months they don’t look or feel much different than they did when they started.
So, do you want to know the secret? Develop consistent habits in your lifestyle. Much of the below you may already know; some of it comes as a surprise to a lot of people.
Choose High Quality Food
You may have heard the phrase “you can’t out-train a bad diet.” Well, it’s true. You can do all the cardio you want, but if you want to lose weight you will need to change the way that you feed yourself.
The most important factor in body composition is food intake, which we can think of as being part of a category called nutrition. This isn’t rocket science, and we all know this on an intuitive level. Yes, a reduction in caloric intake will lead to a reduction in weight, but it’s not true that all calories are created equal. Obviously, a calorie of broccoli is going to be processed by your body in a substantially different way than a calorie of a chocolate bar.
So does this mean giving up fish & chips, Coke, beer, wine, etc and switching to a diet consisting entirely of steamed broccoli and grilled chicken breast? Of course not. What it means is, if you want to lose weight you need to change food quality, food quantity, or both.
Food quantity is straightforward – eat smaller portions. Serve yourself a smaller portion when eating at home. When eating out, take a container with and put half (or a third) of the meal into a takeaway container to eat the next day for lunch, or eat part of the meal and ask for the rest for takeaway.
Food quality is the subject of many blog posts (not to mention entire books!) but to keep it simple – in general, you want to eat real foods. This means minimising processed foods (e.g. most ready-to-eat items that come in bags or boxes!) and sugar. Instead, you want to eat a mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fat. Protein will typically be items like chicken, fish, beef, lamb, eggs, pork, etc. Carbs means everything from potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut, rice, and whole grains to fruit, berries, leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, etc. Healthy fats are things like avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, and the like.
The key to losing weight and keeping it off is making choices that are sustainable in the long term. If you feel like you are cutting out a food or series of foods ‘forever’ then you are setting yourself up to feel deprived. You will probably eventually eat your ‘forbidden’ foods and might even then feel like you are ‘failing.’ The road to health and weight loss is about consistency, and making small changes that add up over time. Yes, you CAN make more drastic changes to lose weight quickly but when doing so it is very important to consider what happens when the diet ends. The very word diet is usually associated with something you will do temporarily; what happens afterwards? If you go back to the way you’ve been eating which has you at a weight you aren’t happy with, the weight will come back. So thinking through the balance that will be sustainable for you is important.
There are some diets and advice out there which are really extreme. Usually such diets are either very restrictive in terms of food quantity (leaving you constantly hungry, which is not sustainable!), or quality. For example, some diets advocate removing starchy carbs entirely. Women in particular need to be very careful when attempting extreme caloric restrictions, especially while exercising, in order to maintain hormone balance, which is critical for health and weight loss. Some other diets advocate weighing and measuring your food so you understand exactly how much you are consuming. This is more detail than most people need, and is very hard to do when travelling or eating out. This is why we advocate understanding the concepts behind nutrition and weight loss rather than just following a template or protocol. What then happens when it ends or if you want to/need to deviate?
If you want to lose weight, think about filling your tank with quality foods. Yes, spinach and cauliflower is better for you than potato. If you’re having rice or potato every night at dinner, try replacing it with a green vegetable 3 nights a week. Small changes add up. Use the 80/20 rule. It’s not about eating “perfectly” 100% of the time. It’s about making good choices 80+% of the time. Want to go out for burgers and chips? Maybe think about having a salad for lunch.
Finally, eat slowly. Chew your food. You absorb more nutrients that way, and you may also find that you feel full sooner. Win-win!
Get More Sleep
Yes, sleep! There are a lot of sleep studies out there. It seems like the general consensus is that adults should sleep for at least 7 hours per night. 8 to 9 would be ideal, especially for people who are stressed for any reason, such as work or intense exercise. Intuitively it makes sense that the more stressed the body, the more sleep would be needed to rest, repair, and rejuvenate.
So how does sleep affect weight loss (or weight retention)?
Sleep restores the body. Proper sleep and low stress are needed for the body to receive the signals that it can safely repair and, if you are working out, gain lean muscle.
In his book Go Wild, John Ratey, MD, refers to sleep deprivation studies which consistently show that lack of sleep is associated with weight gain, even when there is no change in energy expenditure or caloric intake. This is because too little sleep triggers a spike in cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone. Cortisol signals your body to conserve energy. In practice, this means that you hold onto your fat stores even when you’ve reduced your calories.
It’s worth pointing out that researchers have a hard time controlling for increased caloric intake when doing sleep deprivation studies. Not getting enough sleep causes disruption of hormones that signal satiety, resulting in cravings for sugar and carbohydrates, especially in the evening. Insufficient sleep also affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is the centre for higher reasoning. So when we haven’t slept enough it’s easier for us to give into temptation or grab junk food rather than making healthier choices.
All too often, people try and push themselves to go to the gym or perform a workout when they haven’t had enough sleep because they think if they work out they will be better off. However, the reverse can be true. Without proper sleep, they probably don’t get much benefit from the workout and might even have the opposite effect – if the body is feeling stressed it is more likely to hold on to fat stores. Sleep deprivation is stress. So is exercise.
Also, life is just better when you’ve had enough sleep and you aren’t stressed. Challenge yourself to get a minimum of 8 hours a night for two weeks. You will almost certainly feel a huge difference once your body is getting enough rest. If getting 8 hours isn’t possible, do try to make a concerted effort to increase your sleep as much as you can, and consider switching off electronics and reading a book before bed in order to help you fall asleep faster.
Boost Your Metabolism
One of the biggest misconceptions people have is that doing cardio, whether that means long runs, bike rides/spinning, or even bodyweight/light weight circuits in a gym is the best way to lose weight. Yes, cardio burns calories but it’s very easy to put those calories right back in your body through your food choices. Doing a long cardio session usually makes people pretty hungry, which then can easily result in choosing to eat another slice of pizza or choosing chips over salad, thereby negating the cardio workout entirely.
The best way to use exercise to lose weight is to include strength training. Why? Because strength training raises your metabolism.
Metabolism is the rate at which your body uses the food for energy. You need a certain amount of energy every day even if you’re completely sedentary – things like keeping your heart pumping, digesting your food, breathing, and so on. The higher your metabolism, the more food you can eat without gaining weight. In the context of weight loss, if you can raise your metabolism while lowering your caloric intake in a sustainable way, that is where the magic happens. The biggest factor that is within your control that affects your metabolism is your lean muscle mass.
Now this doesn’t mean you need to become huge and muscular – that toned look that you see in healthy men and women is lean muscle mass combined with low body fat (we’ve covered the body fat topic earlier).
A well-designed training programme will include both strength training and cardio. Strength training will build lean muscle which is what makes you look toned, boosts your metabolism, and (this is especially important for women) it prevents bone loss as you age and is therefore critical in preventing osteoporosis. Cardio is great for your heart, lungs, and overall well-being. Also, yes, it does burn calories. The two go hand-in-hand, but especially if you’ve been doing cardio for a while and not seeing results, this could be one of the factors at play.
You also don’t want to do so much exercise (of any sort) that you feel beat down and broken afterwards. It’s not hard to design a workout that will make you feel like you got a really hard session in. It’s harder to make sure that you get in a good workout but are not so beaten down that you are sore for three days or risk an overuse injury. Remember from earlier that the body will tend not to lose weight if it’s under too much stress. You want to give the body enough of a stimulus with exercise that it leads to weight loss, but not so much that the body retains the fat for protection from the constant stress.
Yes, My CrossFit is a gym and out of all the factors discussed, this is the one where we can help. We combine moderate strength training with different kinds of cardio. Some cardio is long and slow, some is short and fast, and some is in between. We provide variety not just for the fun of it, but for balance and longevity.
Because we provide group training, the camaraderie of a group class makes exercise more fun for many people. They come to lose weight and stay for the smiles, fun, and friendships. This is also important because the most effective form of exercise is the one you believe in and enjoy. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re eventually going to stop! Our flavour of mixed strength and varied cardio isn’t to everyone’s liking, but there’s no question that it does work for a lot of people. No matter what kind of exercise you pick, make sure you include some strength training in there and remember that strength training doesn’t always mean weights – exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and dips (or variations of these) will also build strength.
Think Small for Big Change
The best strategy for making changes stick is to turn them into habits, and the best way to make habits stick is to make small changes, one or a few at a time, rather than trying to make drastic changes at one time.
Thinking small has big advantages. It is daunting to think of making huge changes, or even a lot of small changes all at once. On the other hand, making one or two small changes is much easier. Make a few changes, stick to them, and the feeling of success will be addictive and will give you confidence for your next change.
Finally, incremental changes add up. Make five or six “one percent” changes and you wind up with a 5-6% change. Don’t discount the effect that small changes (good or bad) can have. If you’ve gained weight, it didn’t happen in one week. Similarly, you can’t expect to lose a lot of weight in one week or even one month. Any ‘quick fixes’ are usually superficial, meaning you drop water weight but not fat, and, as mentioned above, diets of dramatic deprivation are not sustainable over even the medium term, let alone long term.
What are some examples of how to set yourself up for success?
- Start Early: Pick something you can achieve early in the day and knock it out. Maybe it’s drinking a full glass of water. Maybe it’s eating a healthy breakfast. Starting the day with an easy win sets you up with a positive mindset for the day to come.
- Prep Your Pantry: Stock your shelves with healthy foods like fruits, nuts, eggs, and biltong, and your refrigerator with healthy snacks like baby carrots, celery, cucumber, and sweet peppers rather than processed food like chocolate bars, cookies, chips, and popcorn. The best strategy to avoid temptation is not to keep around foods you don’t actually want to eat. Now if you get the munchies and have a snack, it’s not one you will regret later.
- Plan Ahead: Cooking a tray of chicken breasts and steaming six heads of broccoli for meal prep sounds pretty terrible. But healthy food doesn’t need to be boring! Prepare an extra portion of supper and pack it away for lunch the next day. If you’re in a rush and think you might get takeaways, try and stop by the supermarket and grab a rotisserie chicken and some veggies and fruit, which can be comparable in price based on what you select. Even some restaurants have relatively healthy choices. If you plan in advance what you want to eat, you’ll be more likely to follow through than if you decide spur of the moment.
- Pre-Commit: One of the reasons group training like CrossFit works so well for many people is the built-in commitment to someone else. Even if you’re not doing CrossFit, plan to meet a friend at the gym. No one wants to be the sort of person who bails on a commitment. Similarly, if you know your colleagues go out at mid-morning to grab a coffee and a pastry, decide ahead of time to skip the pastry or bring a fresh apple to work instead. Once you’ve decided to take a healthy action you will need to go out of your way not to be healthy.
- Double-up: Add a healthy habit onto an existing habit. Rather than driving to the coffee shop, walk (if possible). Park your car as far away from the entrance to the shops as possible. Do a few pushups after taking your dog for a walk. Half the battle sometimes is remembering to fit things in, so especially if you’re trying to form a new habit it makes sense to pair it up with an existing habit.
To achieve anything you need to apply your mind, decide you are going to do something, figure out the necessary steps and follow through.
Missteps and obstacles are going to occur. Maybe you need to stay up late to finish something for work, don’t get enough sleep, don’t eat well because you’re stressed and under-slept, and then miss the gym. Guess what? Life happens. One day doesn’t determine your future. One juicy burger with chips doesn’t determine your body composition. It is the sum of your decisions that matters. The long term matters, not the short term.
Focus on your goal and focus on your short-term trajectory. What you did six months ago, or even this morning, doesn’t affect what you choose to do next. Celebrate your recent successes, enjoy how they make you feel, and the rest will come naturally.
If you’ve read this far, it’s either because you want to lose weight or just because you want to get a few tips and reminders on how to keep up with or improve your healthy lifestyle. No matter what your motivation, we wish you success!