It seems like from the day we graduate high school, we are in a constant flux between "I feel ok" and "I remember when my shape wasn't round ". The time is now for you to start making the appropriate lifestyle changes to never have this inner debate again!
In this article, we will address:
1) The Importance of Food Logging in Weight Loss/Transformation vs. Fad Dieting
2) Why "Exercise" is Overrated Compared to "Activity", and
3) How and When to Use Dietary Supplementation
As soon as you start reflecting on your health and fitness, the FIRST step anyone should take is to see how you are evaluating your lifestyle. Is your food intake matched to your lifestyle? Do you have nutritional deficiencies preventing you from reaching your goal? Are you getting enough active steps in a day? These are the questions you must ask yourself before determining any new course of action. If the answer to even one of these questions is "I don't know", then you will need to begin with the basics outlined here.
Habit #1 - Download and Utilize a Food Logging Application
Dietary tracking applications abound in both online and mobile versions to make this step easy for you. There are several that have initial purchase prices or subscriptions, but I prefer the free version of MyFitnessPal, as it can do the job without the extra expense. MFP has an extensive database, the ability to create your own foods/recipes and options to manipulate your goals within the application.
You can find MyFitnessPal on the Android, iOS and Windows phone app stores, so accessibility should not be an issue. Once you have located it (Calorie Counter - MyFitnessPal), simply download the app and create your account. It will ask you questions related to your current body measures, so you will want to have a current waking bodyweight (preferably taken in the morning before you have showered and eaten, but after you have used the bathroom), height, and desired weight written down and ready to input. The app also asks you how many pounds you would like to lose (weight loss) or gain (body composition) per week. When it comes to weight loss, I generally recommend beginning with the "Lose 2 lbs per Week" option, because most clients that I have seen tend to undereat anyway, and this will be likely a realistic calorie target to start out with (*Note - I am recommending this setting because of its goal calories being lower and more achievable, NOT because we are expecting to lose that much for very long). For body composition or weight gain, I typically recommend selecting the "Gain 0.5 lbs per Week" option because it is unrealistic to expect a pound or more of lean muscle development to occur per week in this early stage. As for the custom goals, there are two places you will want to change. 1) Under "Goals", you will want to change your macro-nutrient goals to 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein and 30% fat. Commonly known as the "Zone Diet" macro split, this protocol is a midpoint where we can start before specifying further depending on your body's response (more precise macro recommendations depend on personal goals, and are discussed in the Setting Up MyFitnessPal for Success article). Then, 2) you will want to set the water goal to a 1/2 oz per pound of body weight (ex. a 150 lb man would want to set it as 75 oz.). Now you are all set up and ready to get started figuring this out! Meticulously inputting your food and water intake for a week is a good starting point, but you will want to keep these numbers up to date as your body changes.
Most personal trainers and coaches will encourage you to utilize a 1-on-1 nutrition coaching approach that does not include food tracking or "calorie-counting", as they point out that the caloric/macro values of most foods established by the USDA are inaccurate by as much as 50%. While this may be true, I wholeheartedly believe that tracking what you are eating and how your body has adapted to changes in your eating habits will give you the best and FREE stick by which to measure your progress before/during/after any coaching intervention. When and if you do eventually decide to enlist the help of a professional, this kind of historical data will actually help them to provide educated recommendations to further enhance your progress from that point.
How much change can you expect to see from this kind of tracking? Well, according to a continuous study at Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research performed by Dr. Jack Hollis et al. published in 2008, patients lost on average about 13 lbs in 6 months (roughly 0.5 lbs/week). This was attributed to the simple fact that the ones who were tracking their food were simply more aware of what they were eating compared to the control group and those that did not consistently track their food. This and multiple other studies have repeatedly shown these correlations. In my experience, clients typically will lose at a much faster rate using our above recommendations. If you are not averaging at least the 0.5 lb/week the studies have shown after about a couple weeks of tracking, you should strongly consider getting more personalized help. Our method of deducing issues from your Health Status Form and aligning your priorities with a coach are the best next step in this situation.
Q: But what "diet" should I be on?! - A: not one
Everyone is quick to jump on a low-carb, low-fat, vegan, ketogenic, etc. kind of diet to quickly change the way their body is working; but realistically there are fundamental physiologies at work that we should identify before EVER delving into a particular type of "diet". The name of the game here is "lifestylechange", so we want to document your current nutritional lifestyle (by tracking) before defaulting to something that only works temporarily. The unfortunate and rarely-mentioned truth of most diets is that your individual response to the protocols is not being measured, so knowing when to adjust your recommendations goes unknown. So just keep it to the small changes while you track until you are working with a qualified professional to determine otherwise.
Habit #2 - Measure and Increase Your Daily Activity
If you actually read any of the surgeon general's recommendations regarding healthy activity levels, you will notice that the words "moderate intensity" on "most days of the week" are often used. This is misleading as nearly every study being referenced to show the benefits of the frequent 30-60 minute cumulative bouts of so-called exercise are actually referring to total "daily activity". When it comes to the differences between daily activity and exercise, I like to point out a couple of things.
1) Daily activity increases things like overall circulation, sensitivity to insulin, stress-tolerance and other factors that do not "shock" the body into any kind of acute adaptation (like building bigger and stronger muscle or increasing VO2). Exercise, on the other hand, is when we specifically overstimulate a system in order to make it change as a direct result of the session.
2) Increases in daily activity will rarely (if ever) make you sore or have detrimental effects on your body because the intensity is from "low to moderate". These intensities allow your body to become more efficient at doing the things that you do every day. Conversely, exercise can easily be overdone, especially when someone is just starting out on their health journey. The "moderate to high" intensities in exercise are needed to create immediate responses in the body and will oftentimes result in overtraining and excess stress put on the body.
To begin this habit of tracking how active you are currently, and establish goals for increasing your daily activity, monitors like those in the Garmin Vivo-series are great options. Such devices track your total number of steps taken per day, will notify you when you need to get up and move, monitor your sleep/stress patterns, etc. You can choose to get all all-in-one device on the higher end of the spectrum, or you can even pick up a significantly cheaper pedometer at a local convenience store without the bells and whistles. Ultimately the choice is yours, but be aware that finding a device that meets more of your needs will save you money in the long run. Our other article entitled "Choosing Your Lifestyle Tracker" goes into the specifics of what you should consider in your situation before purchasing a tracker for your endeavors.
With your tracker set up and ready to use, you should focus on getting the correct amount of activity to better your life before concerning yourself with how many hours you dedicate to exercise. The general recommendation (which you can find from any study performed by nearly any government health organization in the world) will be to achieve approximately 10,000 steps per day of activity. This is ideally broken up into taking 5 minute "activity breaks" 14 hours out of the day. In the above style of monitors, there is usually a visual, audible or vibrational reminder whenever you have been sitting on your butt for over an hour to help you remember. Easy ways to plan this type of activity interval in your already busy day include parking further away from the buildings you frequent, visiting the water fountain on the hour at work, and scheduling time to walk your pet at regular times of the day. Most people think that they already move this much, but actually measuring it will give you new insight into just how inactive most of us really are. Getting this recommended amount of activity will result in roughly 5 miles of total walking per day...which is beyond doable for most of us.
When it comes to actual exercise in this phase, we will want to consider it "extra credit" on top of our daily activity, and partake in it for only 2-4 days per week. The key here is to not over do things in the beginning. Allow yourself to get used to easier training first. A steady-state cardio session (on a bike or elliptical is ideal) or a total body weights workout of 45-60 minutes per session will suffice. Pushing yourself hard for longer or for more sessions just makes it less likely that you will be able to maintain it as part of your regular routine, so let yourself get used to the lower end of the spectrum for a few weeks before adding days or increasing your exercise time. Once this kind of exercise becomes easy for you and has stopped making your body respond, Cardio Coaching,Personal Training or other forms of increased attention can be paid to this area. Just don't mistake exercise as a priority. Remember, increasing your daily activity has been shown to lend far greater results in the early stages of lifestyle change.
Habit #3 - Supplement Only When Necessary...Not by Default
So many clients I work with can tell me more about the supplementation that they are taking than they can about their nutrition, not realizing that no amount of supps or exercise can fix bad eating habits.
Here, we want to focus primarily on the FOOD you are taking in. You can take all of the stress-inducing "fat-burners" you want, but if you are taking in way too many sugars for your body to use, you will be working against yourself. Why take something to burn fat if you are storing fat at an even faster rate than it can work off? This is why Habit #1 of tracking your food intake must be addressed before we even consider supplementation. If we achieve what should be considered "normal" for a given person, and the results are not happening as we would like, then it gives us a peek into the potential problems. Having a better color variety of vegetables/fruits implemented into the diet is a much more sustainable strategy for energy balance than taking a 5-Hour Energy every day, and your body will reward you with a new sense of what energy is supposed to feel like! There are many examples of this with protein, fats, etc. but what you need to know is that a supplement is not the fix until you have identified with a professional that it is necessary for your lifestyle and information from Habit #1.
But what about if you are diabetic? What if you eat how you do because certain foods irritate your stomach? What if your doctor has you on a certain regimen of medications or foods that do not fit into what is considered "normal"? Well, I would never tell you to stop doing what a doctor has told you do (especially in the case of medications), but it is important that you document what is being done so that it can be considered when it comes to your supplement routine. The known benefit of supplementation is that they are usually going to lack major side-effects like medications addressing the same issue; however, there are various supplements that do have negative effects on us when combined improperly or are used in conjunction with certain medications. For example, taking fish oil while being on a baby aspirin or other blood thinner can cause a person to have internal bleeding or other complications that could greatly hinder your health. So you will want to be sure that if you are under the care of a physician, or other medical professional for any aspect of your health, you check with them and your health coach to ensure that all parties are in the know about the changes being made. This is not a small matter, as it is for your own health, and is in fact illegal to do so without your healthcare professional's oversight when on medications.
Due to certain missing elements of your diet, it is common to require a base of fundamentally beneficial supplementation such as a multivitamin, omega-3, and sometimes even a protein powder, but these are typically implemented after food choices have been addressed. Not that these supplements will usually cause an issue if they are started in the early phases of changing your life, but it is usually both safer and cheaper to start with food, check with your experts and go from there.
Q: Are the supplements I get from *insert provider* good? A: Possibly.
The last thing to consider when it comes to supplementation is that not all supplementation is created equal. Visit our Education page entitled All About Supplements for more information on how to tell if a product is actually what you are looking for. Licensed and accredited professionals will have access to the purest forms of supplementation. My personal favorite vendor for this quality is Douglas Labs, but others like Thorne Research also meet vigorous standards to ensure your safety.
Overall, your mantra for Habit #3 should be "real food first, and supplementation when safe and necessary". This will ensure that you are 1) getting the proper nutrition to fuel your goals, 2) you are not taking something that can cause damage, and 3) you do not become dependent on a pricey supplement that could easily be ingested as part of regular meals.
Now that you have learned about The 3 Crucial Habits of Getting Back in Shape, you should have a much stronger feeling of control regarding where your health and fitness journey will take you. Like anything else, taking one habit in isolation will not lend the results you want in this beginning stage. You will need to ensure that you adhere to Habit #1 in order to nourish your body appropriately for the journey ahead, fill in the discovered gaps with the help of a wellness team consisting of your medical professionals and your health coach in Habit #2, and get your body up to a healthy standard with Habit #3. By using all three habits in healthful harmony, you will feel your body begin to thank you in the forms of increased energy, bodily change and stamina that you didn't have before! So without further adieu, organize your tools and get after it...the new and improved you is just a few steps away.
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