As surely as night follows day, January will see gyms everywhere packed with newbies as resolutions to fight the flab take hold. Treadmills, cross-trainers and rowing machines that lay idle in December will attract queues of new members impatient to shed the results of their festive over-indulgence.
If you're planning on being one of those newbies (or you've become one already), here is one big reason why you shouldn't join a gym and another big one why you should.
But before that, recognise that you did NOT become overweight between Christmas and New Year! It actually happened between January and December! Putting on fat is due to consistently being in an energy surplus (consuming more calories from food and drink than you expend in all your activity) over an extended period of time.
If you ate an excess of 500 calories a day for the two weeks of Christmas you'd gain just two pounds (less than a kilo) of body fat. But continue that habit until NEXT Christmas and you'd put on 23.5kg, almost four stone, in fat.
1. DON'T join a gym to lose fat
Regular exercise is great for us. It improves our mood, self-esteem, energy levels and sleep quality. It reduces stress and the risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, dementia and depression.
Further, if we are inactive we burn barely more calories than our bodies use to just tick over and it's very easy therefore to be in an energy (calorie) surplus and start storing body fat.
HOWEVER, for a lot of people joining a gym to spend an hour on the treadmill or rower is NOT the best way to get rid of body fat. In fact, it can prove to be a very poor strategy for weight loss.
Why? Because it takes a HELL OF A LOT of exercise to burn a significant number of calories, which are wiped out the next time you put food in your mouth.
Almost regardless of the speed at which you run, an average person will burn about 100 calories per mile. An hour on the treadmill at 10 minutes per mile will therefore burn about 600 calories.
LUNCH AT PRET: 720 calories. AN HOUR ON THE TREADMILL: 600 calories.
If you then lunch on a Pret chicken and avocado sandwich (484 calories) your lunchtime calorie deficit is almost gone. Add a 'healthy' Berry Blast smoothie (240 calories) and you can see that your slog in the gym wasn't quite the fat-burner you'd hoped.
Of course, you shouldn't be thinking about a calorie surplus or deficit on a meal-by-meal basis (see point 3 below) but rather of your total energy balance on a daily or weekly basis.
Other reasons why exercise may not be a good fat-burning strategy for you:
1. If you don't actually like doing scheduled activities (like running, rowing or swimming) then the chances are you'll give them up.
2. If you have a busy job, putting aside 45-60minutes every day could be very hard to achieve.
3. If you're new to exercise and you're using it to reduce body fat, it can lead you into a mindset where you end up trying to offset or mitigate the effects of exercise with food, along the lines of: “I just burned 600 calories on the treadmill so I can eat more now.” That way of thinking is almost certain to put you back into a calorie surplus.
4. Exercising makes a lot people hungry, so you could end up eating more than you normally would and putting yourself into an even bigger overall calorie surplus than if you hadn't gone to the gym in the first place.
LESSON: Rather than try and 'burn' calories through formal, scheduled exercise, it is much more effective and infinitely quicker to simply not eat the calories in the first place. In other words, use nutrition as your prime weapon in the fight against fat.
That certainly doesn't mean we should aim to be sedentary (remember all those amazing benefits of exercise above plus the fact that going to the gym may make encourage you to make better food choices). But increasing our activity (especially our step count) throughout the day is a much easier way to build exercise more effortlessly into our lives. Walking to and from work (or from a more distant bus stop), taking the stairs and going for a walk at lunchtime are simple, realistic, sustainable ways to increase activity. Ten thousand steps a day is a great target.
REMEMBER: If you can put yourself into a consistent calorie deficit of 500 below 'maintenance' (what your body needs to maintain the same body weight) and you will lose 12 pounds (5.5kg) in three months.
To estimate your maintenance calories based on your activity level, use our Bodyscan calculator.
2. DO join a gym to improve the quality of your fat loss
So, if I want to lose weight, I should steer clear of the gym?
No! Because you don't want to lose weight. You want to lose fat!
If you're on a calorie-restricted diet (ie, eating fewer calories that you expend) you want to be sure that most, if not all, of your weight loss is actually fat and not muscle.
To preserve muscle when in a calorie deficit you need to do resistance training and ensure you have sufficient protein in your diet (a good rule of thumb is 2g per kilo of body weight).
That means bypassing the treadmills and using free weights (dumbbells and barbells) or weight-machines. The process of building muscle is more complex, variable and takes longer than losing fat, but suffice to say that the weights room is the main reason you should join a gym if fat loss is your goal.
LESSON: Resistance training and nutrition are the best tools for you to look better in the buff.
Happy New Year!
Sticking to your diet (dietary adherence) is the make or break of fat loss success and the biggest predictor for long-term weight maintenance.
A common theme among dieters who have been successful in losing body weight is the belief that their method is the only one that works and that success with any other method is inconceivable. They become evangelical about, and emotionally attached to, one particular, restrictive dieting protocol.
The truth is, different diets work differently for different people. Why? Because there are countless methods to lose body fat, but the best one for you is the one you can stick to.
Calorie counting is one such method, and I am very much a proponent of it as a tool in the fat loss arsenal. Tracking calories for a given period can be educational and eye-opening and, for most people, a method worth trialling at least once.
But is not the be-all-and-end-all for dieting success nor a prerequisite for losing body fat.
Calorie counting can certainly be tedious; so if you shudder at the thought of meticulously tracking and/or weighing out your food, or if the diet that worked so well for your friend didn’t work for you, why not try some, or all, of these simple-to-follow tips to help steer you towards achieving your fat loss goals.
THE PRINCIPLE OF FAT LOSS
Before we delve into some non-tracking methods, let me first outline the principle for body fat loss and gain. A change in body tissue mass is most closely related to energy balance over time – i.e. the total amount of fat gained, or lost, over a prolonged period depends on whether you are in a calorie surplus or calorie deficit.
Thus, the fundamental principle governing meaningful fat loss (beyond short-lived fluctuations) is adherence to an appropriate and sustained energy (calorie) deficit. This can be achieved via calorie restriction through the diet, an increase in energy expenditure, or a combination of both.
You do not have to count calories to lose body fat, but there’s no denying that calories count.
TIP 1: AMPLE PROTEIN
Protein is known to have the highest satiating effect (meaning it makes you feel full for longer), per unit calorie, compared to fat and carbohydrates. In free-living conditions, increasing protein intake from 15% to 30% of total energy has been shown to result in a spontaneous drop in energy/calorie intake by 440kcal/day – leading to a body weight decrease of 4.9kg in 12 weeks. Inclusion of a higher protein diet may help combat hunger between meals, thus making the dieting process slightly more pleasant.
Further, with better hunger control, one may reduce the temptations (often experienced when in an energy/calorie deficit) to make poorer food choices, leading to overconsumption of calories, which can ultimately undermine fat loss efforts.
It is worth bearing in mind that dietary protein intake does not need to be overdone. Ideally, ‘how much protein’ should be assessed on an individual level based on age, body composition, training requirements and goal(s), and not using a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
That being said, a pragmatic recommendation of about 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight works well for most, when looking to lose body fat. If you are overweight/obese, you may wish to aim slightly lower (if hunger is not an issue); if you are leaner, it may be prudent to go slightly higher.
TIP 2: ONE CARBOHYDRATE-FREE MEAL PER DAY
While carbohydrates don’t directly make us fat, per se, there is a tendency for sedentary individuals (e.g. office workers) to over-consume them and therefore ingest too many calories, with respect to their activity levels and lifestyle.
This is particularly true for carbohydrate sources that are nutrient-poor (low in fibre and micronutrients). Consuming one low-carbohydrate, or carbohydrate-free, meal per day can often increase the nutrient quality and protein content of that meal and potentially lead to a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake (because you feel full quicker), meaning greater fat loss!
Note - to maximise training quality, it may be prudent to have the higher carbs closer to your exercise session to aid performance. Trial and error works best here, to figure out what is most suitable for you, considering the nature of your session.
TIP 3: RESISTANCE TRAINING
The health benefits associated with regular exercise are multi-faceted, both with, or without, fat loss, e.g. reduction in visceral fat, decrease in insulin resistance, better mood and increased cardiorespiratory fitness. Regular participation in resistance training, in particular, during an energy deficit can help maintain or even build muscle and therefore improve the quality of the weight loss (ie, most or all of your weight lost is fat, not muscle) Do this in conjunction with ample protein and you’re golden.
Aside from the health and muscle retention benefits, building healthful training/exercise habits, and continuing them post-dieting period, can be fundamental to weight loss maintenance success.
TIP 4: INTERMITTENT FASTING
For many with busy lifestyles, families and work commitments, it is those who combine consistency with simplicity that often reap the best results. One such fat loss and/or weight management tool is intermittent fasting (IF), or time-restricted feeding. IF simply refers to periods of food consumption followed by extended periods of no-to-low food intake, e.g. an 8-hour period of normal-pattern eating, in combination with 16 hours fasting (aka 16:8), the 5:2 Diet; Eat-Stop-Eat (24-hour fasting); and alternate day fasting.
The beauty of this approach is the ability to alter feeding patterns to best suit you. For fat loss, there is no real right, or wrong, way to do it – remember consistency in conjunction with a structure that improves overall adherence and satisfaction is what a dieter should be striving to achieve.
IF as a fat loss tool can work wonders for some – the underlying principle being that it enables one to consume fewer calories than expended, over time. IF will not be suitable approach if it encourages you to (over-)compensate for the skipped meals, by eating more total calories later that day, or the next day, or later that week. Remember: net energy balance matters!
If you are someone who can last extended periods without food, or someone who has yet to try an IF protocol, it may be something worth considering. Experiment with different IF variants, to find out what works best for you. You may surprise yourself, and find it easier to adhere to an energy deficit compared to more traditional dieting approaches.
IF is not magical, but it may be a viable strategy for some to shed those extra pounds of excess body fat. Your best bet is to try it out for yourself.
TIP 5: KEEP YOUR STEPS UP
Finally, tracking the number of steps you take each day is a seamless way to increase energy expenditure, and thus can be a significant contributor towards creating an energy imbalance. Downloading a tracking app on your phone or investment in a tracking device can be hugely beneficial to ramp up activity levels outside of formal exercise and lead one to become more health conscious.
Similarly, activity trackers can also act as an invaluable awareness tool, provide accountability, and enable one to set realistic/achievable targets. Recent research has also shown greater fat loss for individuals who regularly walked throughout their diet period, compared to those that didn’t.
10,000 steps per day has been shown to help with body composition/weight management and other health-related goals. Shooting for 50,000+ steps over the course of a week is a great place to start!
IMPORTANT NOTE: Devices that track steps (like FitBit and Apple Watch) can be very good at tracking the number of steps you WALK but don’t rely on them to tell you how many calories you burn, particularly when you increase the pace to a a jog or run. They can become woefully inaccurate at higher intensities. Similarly, treadmills, bikes and cross-trainers in gyms will attempt to tell you how many calories you just burned but typically bear no resemblance to reality.
Devices that claim to count your calories can also lead you into a mindset where you end up trying to offset or mitigate the effects of exercise with food, along the lines of: “I just burned 600 calories on the treadmill so I can eat more now.” That mindset is almost certain to put you back into a calorie surplus.
To sum up, all of these suggestions ultimately work towards the fundamental principle for sustained fat loss – adherence towards a sustained negative energy balance.
Caveat – if you find you are unable to continue to progress towards your fat loss goals and/or you have experienced the dreaded weight/fat loss plateau, perhaps calorie-tracking for a given period is necessary for you to get you back on track.
Finally, food for thought (pun intended) – ‘Do you have to look at your car’s speedometer to stay under the speed limit? Not really… But if you keep finding yourself with speeding tickets, maybe it’s time to start looking at the dashboard more often.’ – Myolean Fitness
Bodyscan Consultant and Nutritionist