Get in Shape and Stay in Shape with Simple Principles and Hard Work

Hello. As you may have guessed by the little muscle man icon below, I’m not Kim. So first, introductions are in order. I’m the guy Kim has been referring to as her fella these past few months. And since she invited me to guest-write for The Kim Challenge, I figured the “Fitness Fella” had a nice ring to it. But you can call me Roy.

And why, exactly, did Kim ask me to write here? I’m glad you asked. My quick bio blurb: I’ve been a personal trainer and health & fitness journalist for 11 years now. I’m a vet (boom-boom, not mew-mew), have a B.Sc./B.Ed. in Exercise Physiology with a major in Kinesiology and minor in Performance Nutrition, grad coursework in Physical Therapy and Biomechanics & Ergonomics, and a bunch of eclectic certifications like Pilates, Pre & Post Natal Exercise, Silver & Golden Age Populations, Krav Maga, etc. I’m not a proponent of any one school of thought of exercise or diet; find what works for you, just keep at it.

That’s me (my grandma taught me a gentleman introduces himself first). You are, naturally, the adoring fans of the effervescent Ms. Miller. Aren’t we all. [editor’s note: aww, blushing]

Now, on to business. If you’re a Kim reader, it’s a safe bet you know the basics; salad good, donut bad. Water good, Coke bad. Walking good, TV zombie bad. So I want to go a step further here, and focus less on the what and more on the how. It’s the difference between results and great results. Being result-oriented in your diet and exercise sounds obvious, right? But how many times have you hit the gym and spin classes for weeks on end, only to lose five meager pounds? Or watched what you ate, avoided temptations, and did lose some weight—but then gained it all back? Many times it’s because a lot of your energy is wasted in the wrong direction, and not enough is channeled in the right direction. So atten-hut, soldier! I’m going to debrief you on the winning strategy for strength training, cardio, diet, and their reciprocation.


First Things First: Correctly Defining Your Goals

If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. “Get in better shape” is nice and dandy, but that can mean a whole lot of things, and you can’t accomplish all of them at once. So it’s important to figure out what your primary goal is, then secondary, tertiary, etc., so you can focus your efforts accordingly.

Obviously, exercise has a positive effect on a plethora of illnesses and health risk factors, like low insulin sensitivity, blood hypertension, lipids profile, risk of stroke, and degenerative joint diseases, to name but a few. Simply, if you exercise you’re much likelier to live longer, age slower, and be healthy and productive. But that’s too big a subject to get into specifics here, so our focus will be on the “conventional” goal—looking and feeling better.


The Difference between Losing Weight, Reducing Body Fat, Building Muscle, and Sculpting & Toning

Fact is, there’s not nearly as much difference as you might think. They’re very different names for very similar things. But diet and exercise are huge industries (the biggest after food, ironically…), from DVDs to pills to magazines, and variety and faux-specifics help sell. The bad news is that the reality is a little more boring. The good news is that it’s much simpler.

There are two tissues in the body in which change has to occur in order to reach your desired result: the muscle tissue and the fat tissue (yes, water retention can affect your weight, but we’re talking about significant and sustainable change). In both muscle and fat, you can really only elicit two effects: add or reduce. That’s it. The seemingly completely different goals—toning, bodybuilding, losing weight—are in truth just different endpoints to the same process. We all pretty much want exactly the same thing; less fat and more muscle. It’s just that we each have different ratios in mind.

To simplify:

A lot less fat + a little more muscle = weight loss.

A little less fat + a little more muscle = sculpting or toning.

A little less fat + a lot more muscle = bodybuilding.

It’s a simple game of + or – (mind you, simple doesn’t mean easy). There’s no difference between losing 5 lbs. for toning and losing 50 lbs. for weight loss. And there’s no difference between gaining a little muscle for sculpting and gaining a lot of muscle for building. Different scale, same process.

A word about body fat %: this term doesn’t refer to the total amount of fat you have in your body, but to the ratio between your fat and the rest of you. The rest—muscle, bone, organs—is called Lean Body Mass or Fat-Free Mass, and as I mentioned, the only thing you can significantly change there is your muscle mass. So in practice, your body fat % is the ratio of fat to muscle in your body. You can reduce it solely by adding muscle, or solely by losing fat, but you aren’t reading this whole megillah for half measures. For the best results you have to focus on both.


The Contribution of Cardiovascular (Aerobic) Exercise

Cardio doesn’t have to be boring or monotonous. Anything that gets your heart rate up is as effective as the next. Playing Frisbee is one of my favorites: you just need to keep running after it. And if you have enough people with you, you can have two of them flying around simultaneously.

When you hear “cardio” you naturally think of jogging, spinning, step classes, etc.—things that are specifically workouts—but don’t overlook other opportunities to do cardio; taking the stairs, riding a bike, playing ball, horsing around with your kid, playing Wii, even clubbing (providing you don’t drink triple the calories you burn). Aerobic physical activity is basically any motion in which the skeletal muscles consume a significant amount of oxygen and your heart has to pump faster and harder to supply them. How many calories you burn depends on your heart rate, and it doesn’t matter at all how you get it up there. Run or do the Chicken Dance, it all counts.

But how does doing cardio actually help you, you must be wondering. Well, I shall tell you. Because of its chemical composition, fat can dissolve when it comes into contact with oxygen. So the more oxygen flows through your system, the more body fat you’ll burn. Simply put—the more you move around, the thinner you’ll be.

That’s the what and why. “How much?” is really three questions: how frequently, how intensely, and how much time. It’s a little more complex, but I’ll keep it as short as possible while giving you tools to work with.

Frequency: It’s recommended you do cardio as frequently as possible. You consume calories every day, so you should try and expend them every day. Think about it this way; eating an entire pizza pie on Monday and running a marathon on Friday doesn’t quite balance out, but eating a slice and doing a little jogging each day does. The magic number is 200 minutes a week—studies show that’s the minimum needed to effectively reduce weight. That’s half an hour a day on average. Compared to your time spent in front of the TV or computer, that’s certainly doable, isn’t it? (Reading Kim’s blog doesn’t count since it’s inspirational and all…)

Intensity: One of the prevailing myths surrounding aerobic exercise is the fat burn target heart rate, which recommends you limit the intensity of your cardio to a level which supposedly burns the most fat. It doesn’t. It just gets you less results for your time. It is true that the lower the effort the more your body will tap its fat storages for energy, but the total energy you spend is lower. By % you burn the most fat when you sleep. So what’s the better deal; burning 80% fat out of 100 calories, or 20% out of 1000 calories?

Also, there ain’t nothin’ bad ’bout burning carbs. What your body doesn’t use up it stores in your tuchus, so preempting that is half the battle. The key thing to realize is that you don’t have to burn fat in real-time to lose fat; a caloric deficit—of any origin—makes your body use up its existing fat storages. So calories are your bottom line, not fat.

Moreover, more intense aerobic workouts better improve your physical fitness, so you can do more each workout (distance, repetitions, ranges of motion, etc.) and so burn more calories.

Time: Another misconception is that your cardio workout should be prolonged, at least 20 consecutive minutes. Supposedly that’s when you’ve used up your carbs and start burning fat. It’s irrelevant for two main reasons: one, it’s an inaccurate finger-formula that widely varies with subjective factors like your metabolism, what and when you ate, etc. Second, as abovementioned, what you burn doesn’t matter.

For the very important goal of improving your health and fitness it’s true that your workouts should last over 30 minutes, and if you’re in good shape over 60 minutes. But as far as calorie burning is concerned, a 2 mile jog in the morning and a 2 mile jog in the evening will have the exact same effect as a single 4 mile jog. Or 4 separate 1 mile jogs. The effect is accumulative, so string together as many “cardio minutes” as you can.

So when all is said and done—do your cardio as frequently as you can, as hard as you can, and as much as you can (all within your ability of course). The more work = the more results.


The Contribution of Strength Training

You don’t get points just for showing up. If you made it to the gym or studio, get the most results for your time there. Don’t spend it idling by or reading a magazine while going through effortless motions. Challenge yourself so your body will actually evolve.

On the other end of the spectrum from aerobic physical activity is anaerobic, which is any short and intense burst of effort. The difference is that the demand for immediate and high energy causes the muscles to rely on their glycogen (sugar) storages rather than oxygen. This includes resistance training with machines and weights, as well as sprint runs, 25-meter swims, Pilates, or dashing to catch the bus.

Here’s the thing to know; whether you’re interested in bulking up (pumping up, adding mass, bodybuilding, etc.) or toning (sculpting, adding definition, etc.), you still do pretty much the same thing. You can only add muscle mass. You can’t make your muscles longer. You can’t etch shape into them. How they’ll look depends on how much mass you add, and how much fat you retain between them and the skin. Again—it’s all just a game of + or – .

But since not everyone understands this fundamentality, and people with something to sell often promote fitness gobbledygook, the common misconception is that, to tone your muscles, you should perform numerous repetitions of each exercise. The claim is that the high number of reps will define your muscles and not “pump them up.” What you’ll actually get from this is improved muscle stamina and very little change in your muscle mass. This isn’t bad of course, but it isn’t the best use of your time, either.

Another fallacy that hinders results, particularly for women, is that you should avoid intense workouts and heavy weights so you don’t bulk up. We’ve already established that muscle “tone” is really just a little bit of muscle mass, so there’s no need to be afraid of them. Muscle mass accretion requires a great and prolonged effort (especially for women, with 10% the anabolic hormones as men), so if you’re still trepidatious simply limit the total number of sets and exercises per muscle group. A short and intense workout is far more efficient than a long moderate one.

Don’t waste your time at the gym or studio on lip service. Within the confines of proper technique (and any limitations you may have, naturally) use weights that challenge you, and if you’re advanced as heavy as possible, to the point of failing at the end of most sets.
Broadly speaking, most of your sets should be between 6-15 repetitions, with 45-90 seconds of rest in between.

A very important note on “targeting your problem areas”: we all have them, but the fact is that body fat can’t be reduced locally. The proportions of fat in our body are intrinsic, and we can’t choose where to lose it from. It’s an all-or-nothing system. So while exercises for the butt, thighs, and abs may develop the muscles and so help improve the overall look, they can’t get rid of the fat stored there. You can do crunches all day long, but if you want a flat abdomen you have to reduce your body fat.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you couldn’t care less about muscle tone and you just want to lose weight. Do you have to do strength training? No. You can lose weight just fine without it. You can lose weight without doing any cardio either, for that matter. But hitting the gym will help. The first reason is that during weight loss, especially in the early stages, there’s an inevitable process of muscle breakdown. It can be substantial, depending on the severity of the diet and the amount of exercise. The more muscle you lose, the more your metabolism lowers: 1 lb. of muscle consumes ~5 calories daily. If you lose 15 lbs. of weight, for example, but 10 lbs. of them are muscle tissue, you’d expend about 350 calories less
per week. This means you’d have to run an extra 30 minutes each week—just to maintain your weight. However, if you add 10 lbs. of muscle you’d lose an extra lb. every other month, regardless of exercise. Or alternatively afford to eat an extra dessert a week and not gain weight. It’s like putting a bigger, stronger engine in your car—it’d drive faster and burn more gas. But in your case it’d be fat.

But burning off fat is only half the battle. Keeping it off is the other half, and here strength training plays a pivotal role. Preserving or increasing your muscle mass maintains or improves your metabolism, and so reduces your body’s tendency to store fat. This is actually part of the reason for “yo-yo” diets; you lose weight, but too much of it is muscle, your metabolism drops, you burn less and store more, then bounce back.

And besides, whatever your goals, you want to look and feel like a lean, mean machine, not a mollusk….


The Contribution of a Balanced Diet

My two golden rules for healthy eating and successful diet: 1. Don’t put anything in your mouth if you don’t know what’s in it (you’d think this is a given, but do you really know…?) and 2. Don’t improvise. When you wake up in the morning, have at least an idea of what you’ll be eating by the time you go to sleep. Trouble starts when your hunger takes over and the nearest thing is pizza.

Here’s the thing; food isn’t some esoteric thing that interacts with your body in some ephemeral way. “You are what you eat” is true in the most literal meaning— your body is actually made of the food you eat. Each and every cell in your body originates from nutrients. Eating unhealthy for an extended period of time is like building a skyscraper with substandard materials. What do you think will happen?

The basic concept of what you need to do to lose weight isn’t rocket science; if the sum energy you consume (calories) exceeds the energy you expend (in daily existence and physical activity), then the body will store the excess calories as fat (returning to the car metaphor—if you get too much gas for your fuel tank, you’ll have to carry the surplus in your trunk…). But if the balance is negative, meaning you spend more calories than you consume, then your body will have to tap its existing fat storages and you’ll lose weight. It’s really that simple. But as I said, simple doesn’t mean easy.

The catch is that spending a significant amount of calories requires a great deal of effort, while consuming calories is very quick and easy. An average spin class, for example, will burn you the equivalent of a large muffin. If you eat one, you won’t lose any weight. If you eat one with a cup of hot cocoa, you’ll gain weight. So the accumulated affect of exercise can easily be lost by uncontrolled eating (and drinking—don’t overlook the calorie cost of a night out).

If you want to lose weight or reduce your body fat, watching what you eat is far more important than exercise. Exercise helps the war effort, but it’s how strict you are in your eating that will win the war.

The term “balanced diet” means it should consist of all the food groups and with no extreme segregations or exclusions. If you cut too many calories out or deprive your body of essential nutrients no amount of exercise will be able to preserve your muscle mass. Many popular diets base themselves on this bluff; you see the scale needle drop, but much, if not most of that is really fluids and muscle. As a result these diets enjoy impressive short term “success,” but very little long term success. What you end up with is a flaccid look, lower metabolism, and most often back right where you started.

The rate of weight loss should be moderate and maintainable. As a rule of thumb, you should be losing no more than 2.5 lbs. per week during the first few weeks of your diet, and about 1 lb. per week following.


To Sum Up

The unfortunate statistic is that out of every 100 overweight or obese adults, only 3 will ever succeed in losing the excess weight—and keeping it off. And that’s really the trick; magic-promise diets and pills are easy to buy into because when it comes to our self-image we’re all emotional creatures and our reason goes flying out the window. But what sets the successful 3% apart is that they internalize a new lifestyle of regular physical activity and proper eating. Don’t think about it as a sprint run; think about it as a continuous walk. Key word is sustainability.

You should do your cardio/aerobic exercise as frequently and as intensely as possible. Your strength training, be it in the weight room or Pilates studio, should be genuinely challenging. For best gains of both muscle tone and mass use heavy weights within a limited range of repetitions.

Moderate effort = mediocre results. Going to the gym every so often when you find the time and kinda-sorta keeping to your diet won’t get you the body you want, no matter how badly you want it. Real results take simple principles, but hard work.


Hope you found this interesting and helpful. Looking forward to your thoughts….