We need to talk about resolutions

Yes, it’s that time again, the diet vultures are circling, waiting to pick you off as you repent against the excesses of the last month.

For the diet industry, January sales are a predictor of how the rest of the year will play out for them. They know they need to get you now, it’s their best shot to suck you in with their snake oil, false hope and self flagellation. They know that what they’re selling doesn’t work (95 per cent of dieters gain all the weight back, plus more, within a year).  They don’t care. All the better for them, because then you keep coming back.

The fitness industry isn’t much better. “Beat the fat”, “a whole new you” etc. Tones of punishment and self hate. But the whole thing thrives on you feeling bad about yourself, giving you a whiff of “success” in a way that is never going to be sustainable, and then telling you it’s your fault when you fail. You just didn’t have the willpower, so give us your money again, but this time try REALLY hard.

It never works. Because positive change comes from sustainable habits and, crucially, a place of self love, acceptance and respect.

So why not improve your chances of keeping to your resolutions next year by making them something positive and awesome? Add, instead of taking away.* Instead of losing weight/getting smaller/cutting out carbs why not eat more veg/climb a mountain/become ludicrously strong? Give yourself something to really achieve, and watch as all the other stuff falls into place.

*Unless you’re giving up smoking. And don’t wait until January to do this.

“I don’t want to get bulky”

Ladies, like many of you, my time in the gym used to consist of 45 high intensity minutes on the cross trainer, followed by a few crunches and some time spent wondering why I didn’t have a six pack.

The idea that weight loss/maintenance/a slim physique is brought about by hours of cardio is one that has been hawked by the mainstream media for yonks, and has become entrenched to the extent that, for very many women, the likes of running and spin class are the only exercise they do.

I’m not anti-cardio – it’s great for your health, and if you enjoy it then of course you should do it. But if you’re doing it in the hope that you’re somehow going to look like an Olympic distance runner, then I’ve got news for you…

Professional distance runners lift weights.

As personal trainers, one of the things we hear most often from women is that they don’t want to get “bulky”. That as soon as they do x exercise, y body part bulks up.

Now, first of all, that’s a physiological impossibility. Muscle growth is imperceptibly slow. The idea that you could do some squats one day and have thighs like Chris Froome the next is just fanciful. People who actually want to get muscular, and do everything to optimise muscle growth, dream of gaining a few pounds in a year. One year, of training week in, week out, for a few pounds. It’s not going to happen to you in a couple of weeks.

Now if you think I’m taking a mocking tone, let me tell you that I once thought I was getting bigger arms from using the cross trainer. Yeah.

After years of working out in this compulsive, habitual way, addicted to the calories on the screen (they’re not accurate, by the way), I decided to find out what I should actually be doing to get the kind of ripped physique I craved (I was thinking Cameron Diaz’s body at the time). Everything kept bringing me back to barbells.

And so, six years ago, I started picking things up and putting them down again, as it were. And, after a little time, I started to see some abs appearing. And my thighs, which had touched, stopped touching. My bum, which used to melt into my hamstrings became round a pert. What’s more, I learned to love lifting weights, getting a buzz out of my own sense of strength and power. Now the weights room is my favourite place to be.

Because, unless you’re some sort of genetic snowflake, lifting weights won’t make you bulky (those female bodybuilders that look like men in wigs – they took steroids to look that way). It will give you feminine curvature, and help to recomposition your body for a firmer, sleeker look.

If you’re training for a an endurance event or want to increase your endurance then it’s obvious you should be doing plenty of cardio. But that’s the only good reason I can think of for slaving away on a treadmill, cross trainer or bike. And you should still have a stretching and strengthening programme to complement this training, which will help improve your performance and prevent injury.

But if you’re slogging it out at cardio hoping to lose weight, improve your health and tone up, then I’m afraid you’re making poor use of your time. You can achieve a good aerobic workout with the same benefits for your health and fitness in a much shorter time using HIIT, which won’t contribute to lean tissue break down in the way that steady state exercise does. You can also manipulate weights sessions so that they provide a good cardio workout simultaneously, with the use of circuits or supersets.

So please, stop worrying about bulking up and get in the weights room. Oh, and don’t feel intimidated by those guys in there, often they’re training in flip flops and just standing around texting their mates anyway.

“Just eat less and move more”

…Also known as the idiot’s solution to obesity.

Do I believe that a negative energy balance isn’t essential to lose weight? No, it obviously is. But to reduce something with a myriad of complex social, environmental, genetic and psychological factors to one simple suggestion is idiotic.

But that wasn’t to be the point of this post.

We are led to believe by the media and those looking to make a quick buck by capitalising on society’s preoccupation with weight that we can, and should, eat as little as 1200 or 1500 calories a day, or even less. And furthermore, that we can, and should, exercise as well.

1200 calories is roughly the figure an adult male IN A COMA requires to keep his basic functions ticking over. Like, y’know, breathing, heart beating, hair growing. This is highly unlikely to be enough for a moving, non-vegetative person.

So it’s unsurprising that most of us are only able to ‘stick’ to these diets for a short time before we get utterly miserable and start eyeing up our children as a potential food source. It’s not lack of willpower, it’s called being ravenous.

But there are further consequences of attempting to create such a big caloric deficit. For women, we need an energy balance of around 40 calories per kg of lean body mass. That’s AFTER exercise. What you need left over for your body to perform its functions, especially those dependent on oestrogen.

If you try to eat this few calories, and exercise as well, you’re likely to be notching up somewhere well south of this. Levels of hormones IGF-1 and T3 decline and menstrual cycles and bone density start to suffer. You want to be thin, but do you want to be injured and ill? Infertile?

There’s a reason that 2000 calories is recommended intake for adult women. It wasn’t just plucked out of the air. And yet we’ve become so warped in our attitudes to food consumption that it seems like a dirty word. I know I would once have considered a day in which I ate this many calories a failure or a binge. Eating the recommended intake may not help you to lose 14lbs in 7 days or anything else ridiculous, but you will be able to ‘stick’ to it, and you won’t wreck your health and your mind.

So don’t just eat less and move more. Eat enough, and move enough.

Lift or run

You want to be toned, so you lift weights. You drink your protein shake and eat your egg whites and oats. You’re doing it right, you think.

But you want to be skinner, so you have to eat at a deficit, right? So you keep your calories low and do a load of cardio too.

But you’re just spinning your wheels, making no progress. Why?

Because muscles can’t grow without enough fuel. You’re giving them the stimulus in the gym, but not giving them the nutrition to repair themselves by always trying to be in a caloric deficit.

Add to this that a by-product of aerobic exercise (cardio) called AMPK inhibits mTOR, the molecular trigger for hypertrophy (muscle growth), and you can see that, unless you’re going to eat enough food and stop trying to cancel out calories with cardio, you’re basically wasting your time lifting those weights.

Decide what your goals are. Do you want to be fit? Be able to run for hours? Be toned? Be strong? If you want to recomposition your body then consider doing not a lot of cardio. It is possible to lose weight and build muscle at the same time in the first year or so of lifting weights, but you’ll severely inhibit yourself if you do lots of cardio too.

I’m not suggesting doing NO cardio. It has a myriad of benefits and everyone should do some aerobic exercise. But don’t start or finish your lifting session with lengthy cardio and don’t use it to create a massive deficit, especially on the days you lift. If possible, do separate sessions with proper nutrition in between, or alternate days lifting and cardio. And eat enough food to support both these activities.

It is, of course, possible to be a super-shredded endurance athlete, and if that’s your goal then you will have to time your sessions to account for the chemical reactions instigated by the different activities and to have a proper nutritional plan to make sure that you eat enough to support your training, but also maintain a level of leanness for athleticism.

Stop seeing exercise as calories burned

Chances are you’ve seen something like this in a magazine. You need to do x number/minutes of [insert exercise] to burn off that chocolate bar/burger/cocktail. The preoccupation with weight loss, even in people of a healthy weight, in today’s world, has led to nutrition and exercise being reduced to a simple sum: calories in vs calories out. And it’s endemic. I hear so many people talking about how many calories they’ve burned on the cross trainer or in spin class (which is probably way off beam in any case, unless they’ve been wearing a heart rate monitor).

Seeing exercise in this way is problematic on a number of levels. First of all, the benefits of exercise extend way beyond how much energy it utilises. Just by doing exercise at all, you’ll be extending your life and improving your health. But if you’re choosing lengthy cardio sessions to burn as many calories as possible, then you’re missing out on the many benefits of resistance training, which, as it happens, will be way more effective in achieving the physique you want in any case.

Of course, cardiovascular exercise has benefits. Improving your aerobic fitness is an important part of keeping healthy, and, yes, it can help you to manage your weight. But unless you’re training for an endurance event, there’s no need to be notching up sessions of more than 30 minutes, or for those sessions to be super-intense. Free up some time to do strength and flexibility training so that you can reap the benefits across the exercise spectrum.

This way of thinking also leads to a distorted view of food and eating. It starts from the premise that calories are the enemy, and if you consume them you must nullify them and bring the balance sheet back to 0. It implies that you either have to earn the right to eat by exercising, or that eating must be punished, or balanced out, by burning off the calories. The fact of the matter is that we actually need food to live, we need calories to live. There’s no need to atone for a snack.

Food and exercise should both be enjoyable, not guilt-ridden and punitive. Reducing exercise to calories burned takes the pleasure out of it and negates to acknowledge its far reaching benefits.