I interrupt the usual nerdy shit I post on this blog with a ton of fitness-related nerdy shit. You have been warned!
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really like talking about my travails with fitness beyond a few similarly health-nut friends because (1) most of my friends aren’t very interested, anyway, and (2) half of those are probably judging me right now. HAHA. But since I get fitness-related questions all the time, I thought, well, I might as well post the stuff I’ve learned through experience and tons of reading here. But, but, but: I am no “expert” or professional, am probably not qualified to give advice even on an anecdotal level (I’ve lost like 45 pounds in two years but I still need to lose ten to fifteen pounds to get to my target weight!). Though I devour dozens of health and wellness articles weekly and read books on the subject, I encourage you to seek out professional health advice and not just take my word for it. BTW, this is mostly about losing weight, because, aside from looking up tips to gain muscle mass for fat loss, I don’t really read up on how to gain weight, as it is irrelevant to my personal goals. :p
To lose weight, you have to maintain an energy deficit by expending more energy than what you take in. To lose a pound, you have to have a 3500 calorie deficit a week — that’s 500 calories a day. A 1 to 2 lb. loss a week is considered safe (although obese people can lose a lot more for the first few weeks. Then it stalls). Try not to go beyond a 700-calorie deficit a day or your body will think it’s being deprived and will therefore hoard all those energy stores you’re trying to lose.
To achieve the needed deficit, you have three options:
- Eat a lot less
- Exercise a lot more
- Eat a little less, exercise a little more
The first two options kinda suck (though they’re better than not doing anything at all, I suppose), because, taken to extremes, they have you run the risk of not getting proper nutrition and overtraining, leading to fatigue and injury. They could also turn you into a raging bitch. By merely restricting calories, you may lose weight, but you wouldn’t be doing your fitness level any favors. And without building muscle mass through strength training, you’d just look saggy, not toned. Exercising too much can lead to burnout, and anyway, unless you’re an athlete compelled to train all day, it’s kinda hard to achieve a considerable deficit if you still eat like a Snorlax. An hour of gym time after an 8-hour desk job ain’t gonna cut it. Take it from Aristotle, you wanna go the Golden Mean.
How do you calculate this stuff? Ideally, you don’t. Just eat more mindfully and healthfully, and move about. Steer away from junk food, fast food, sodas, and other sugary crap; pile on the veggies and lean meats; watch your portions; drink lots of water; eat slowly and chew your food well; stop eating when you’re 80% full; focus on your food (no eating while surfing or watching TV! When your brain’s too busy deciphering LOLcat macros, it doesn’t realize when you’re full — and before you know it, you’ve gobbled up the whole bag of potato chips worth half your daily calorie needs). Walk or bike instead of riding horrid, smoke-belching tricycles; take the stairs instead of the escalator; walk your dog everyday; take up a sport. You know this stuff.
But if you’re like me who can’t live without planners, tables, lists, graphs, and details details details, this is what you do:
- Determine if you really have to lose weight. Get your BMI (Body Mass Index). It doesn’t really measure how much fat you have (and consequently how much prone you are to fat-related diseases), but as a rough estimate of how imperative it is for you to lose or gain weight, it’ll do for now. If your BMI is below 18.5, dear, eat lots and healthily, and try to get some meat on those bones through strength training. If it’s 18.5-24.9, please for the love of health stop whining about how fat you are and just do strength training to get toned. 25-29.9, try to lose weight. Above 30, GO SEE A DOCTOR NOW. (EDIT: Note that BMI as a standard is more useful for novices than for, say, an athlete or a bodybuilder. Lean muscle mass weighs three times more than fat, so if you’re muscular, you may have a high BMI — even be classified “overweight” — but actually be fit.)
- Calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) — the energy you expend by merely existing. Factor in your activity level and get an idea of how many calories your body burns in a day. This is a nifty calculator that does just that. For example, a 23-year-old, 150-pound, 5’2″ woman has a BMR of 1390 calories. If she exercises lightly, she burns about 1911 calories/day. If she wants to lose weight, she has to eat at a deficit of 500 calories daily — that’s 1411 calories. Note that as your weight decreases, your BMR decreases too, so be sure to keep updated and adjust your food intake accordingly. BTW, 1200 calories is the absolute minimum required calorie intake for an adult female, 1800 for males (cos they naturally have more muscle mass and less body fat than women, which makes for faster metabolism. Life is unfair, haha). If you go below those values for more than three days, your body goes into “starvation mode” — instead of burning fat, it will slow down metabolism, burn muscle mass, and hold on to fat stores like hell, anticipating famished times ahead. If, to achieve a 500-calorie daily deficit, you think that you have to eat less than those values, don’t. Exercise more and get adequate nutrition instead.
I love Michael Pollan’s rules for eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Eat food. Not food products. Fewer ingredients = better for you. The more processed the food is, the more calories and the less nutrients it packs (notable exception: fortified cereals). As advocates of the Paleo Diet say, food is supposed to be perishable. Anything with a long shelf life is suspect.
Not too much. This involves self-awareness. Watch your portions. Aim to satiate hunger, not to burst out buttons or starve yourself to a size 1. Eat in such a way that you’d feel better afterwards. Feeling tight, bloated, and very very guilty is not better. Feeling famished and deprived is not better.
Mostly plants. Ideally, half your plate should consist of non-starchy, water- and nutrients-dense, high-fiber fruits and vegetables (greens, ampalaya, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes, etc.). A quarter should consist of protein (lean meat, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, etc.). A quarter of bread/grain/pasta or starchy vegetables (potatoes, beans, lentils, etc.)
Making healthy food choices and getting reasonable portions are usually enough, but if you wanna go all OC about it — as I do — I suggest you keep a food diary. I use Calorie Counter to log food intake and corresponding calories, keep track of which nutrients I still need, and how much energy I burn in a day. This allows me to develop a sense of accountability and awareness, and ensure that I’m getting all the nutrients I need. It also satisfies my control-freak need for certainty.XD
- Learn how to read food labels and nutrition facts. Check out the number of servings in a package, not just the number of calories per serving.
- If you’re feeling hungry, drink water. If you still feel hungry, eat (drinking will not satiate hunger). If not, you were just thirsty. Stay hydrated!
- DON’T SKIP BREAKFAST! It’s the most important meal of the day. It starts up your metabolism, gives you energy to start running, makes you less likely to overeat at brunch and lunch.
- It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to realize that the stomach is full. So eat slowly and chew your food properly, deliciate in the tastes, textures, aroma. (like, I love smelling parmesan cheese on steamed broccoli.)
- Use smaller plates, shallower bowls, narrower and taller glasses. They make servings look bigger. Sometimes visuals factor in satiety. Using forks and chopsticks helps you not shovel food into your mouth.
- Fill your plate with adequate portions and don’t go for seconds (this is kinda hard in our traditional meal setting, with all the food laid out on the table). Don’t eat from the bag or box. Measure out the portion you want and stash the rest out of sight.
- Restaurant servings are usually twice or thrice the reasonable portion. Split the meal, split the bill. Or have half the meal wrapped up before you start eating.
- Shop for yourself. Cook your own food if you can, so you know exactly what you’re putting in your mouth. Also, cooking is fun! (Just try not to graze too much while cooking!)
- Out of sight, out of mind. If you don’t fill your fridge with ice-cream and cake, you won’t be tempted to eat them at midnight when you’re feeling lonely. Keep stocked with good stuff — nuts, carrot sticks, fruits, etc. — to snack on. Don’t starve yourself — this’ll make you more likely to overeat on your next meal.
- Speaking of midnight bingeing and emotional eating, get enough sleep, and sleep at the right time (i.e. certainly not at 3 AM)! Sleep deprivation and abnormal (nocturnal) sleeping patterns cause depression-like symptoms and raise cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels — and stress causes you to overeat, with a preference for fatty, “comfort” food. Cortisol is also a catabolic hormone, so it not only makes the body crave fatty food and conserve fat stores, it also contributes to burning lean muscle! Perhaps this is the reason why many of my friends who worked in call centers blamed that job for depression and weight gain.
- Slip-ups are normal and to be expected, especially when you struggle to maintain control. If you overeat one day, forgive yourself and start over. Re-evaluate your diet: maybe you’re being too restrictive or trying to make drastic changes too soon? Start small, do things in gradation. My diet now (pescetarian, Mediterranean-style) emphasizes whole, fresh foods. The only processed food I regularly eat are probably canned tuna, tofu, soy milk, dairy, and wholewheat bread. I hardly eat rice, treating it like a vegetable in a side dish.XD I rarely eat fried stuff (preferring to steam/grill/bake/stir-fry using a teflon pan haha) or use condiments. And I actually like it this way! (Now fried food makes my throat itch, and the smell of meat makes me feel nauseated — this is normal, says vegetarian friends.) But I got to this point in phases: in 2009, I quit rice. In 2010, I quit red meat. In 2011, I quit chicken. Now I’m trying to wean meself off most breads and pastries and opt for fortified, wholewheat cereals/grains and double-fiber bread, but it’s kinda hard cos I love cake! But I’m the sort of person who thrives on parameters (I have an excessive personality, so when I don’t set certain limitations I tend to go overboard — this applies to most aspects of my life), so this works for me. It probably won’t for most everyone. So find a regimen that works for you and is, more importantly, sustainable.
- Reward yourself, but not with food (clothes are nice, although I try not to invest in pricey ones until I get to my goal weight, haha). Also, allow yourself a cheat day. I usually monitor my calories religiously and get antsy when I don’t, but I try not to count on weekends and instead practice intuitive eating. This has led to slip-ups, but at least I am trying to loosen up.XD
- Remember that eating is not just about nutrition. As Pollan says, “there are many other reasons to eat food: pleasure, social community, identity, and ritual. Health is not the only thing going on on our plates.” I agree with that. Though I quite often get dissed for my diet (I’ve been called pretentious, walang pakisama, a buzzkill, etc.), the important thing is, I enjoy what I eat. My food choices are part of my identity. I make allowances for social gatherings that involve food. I hope others also respect that.
Aim to get at least four hours of cardiovascular activity (jogging, swimming, jump-rope, dancing, biking, etc.) per week. Try to get huffing and puffing 20 minutes a day. Cardio burns more energy than other types of exercises.
Muscle, unlike fat, burns energy even at rest. Aesthetically, it’s the muscles that give you a toned, defined look. So, try to build your lean muscle mass. Do two to three 25-minute sessions of strength training a week (more if you really wanna bulk up, but give your body a chance to rest and recuperate! You don’t build muscle in the gym — you tear them there. They build up during down time. Get 7-8 hours of sleep a day!). Weight training also improves strength, power, balance, and stability. Train to progress. Up weights every week or so.
Stretch. It keeps you flexible, makes your muscles supple and heal more efficiently. Also helps with posture. Get into yoga, t’ai chi, pilates!
- Do you need to get a gym membership? No. If you can, jog around the neighborhood, walk your dog, take up a sport, climb mountains, do lots of housework (your mother will love you more HAHA), use the local playground, do calisthenics at home, download exercise videos, buy dumbbells (cheaper than a gym membership)! You don’t even need free weights, body weight exercises can be very challenging! (I just like going to the gym because (1) I like a structured day: after work, go to gym. Establishing routines helps me stick to my fitness regime. (2) The thought of the money I’m spending on it is another source of motivation especially when I’m feeling lazy!) The important thing is to GET MOVING.
- Do you need a fitness trainer/coach? If you’re an absolute beginner, I’d say yes — especially if you plan to do strength training. Reading and watching YouTube videos can only get you so far. Having someone to guide you through basic principles and proper form avoids injury and inefficient workouts. A trainer also pushes you to do things you didn’t think you were capable of, but are. Of course, make the most of your time with a trainer — work hard and learn as much as you can. They’re very expensive.XD
- Do something you enjoy, so you’ll stick with it. If you get lonely jogging alone at night, feeling the wind against your face and counting lampposts as you pass them by while listening to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Runaway” (CHOSSS), then by all means sign up for Zumba class and happily flail with a bunch of other sweaty people.XD
- Make sure you’ve got perfect form when performing an exercise — check the mirror or have a spotter. Otherwise you might get injured.
- Nautilus strength machines may produce fast results by isolating and working large muscle groups, but working with free weights (dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, etc.) and bodyweight better develops your overall strength, power, balance, and coordination. A trainer who only sticks his clients to machines and never progresses to free weights and compound exercises is a bad, lazy trainer.
- Warm up, then do strength training (around 45 mins.) before cardio (at least 20 mins). It uses up your glycogen stores so when you do cardio, you burn predominantly fat. Better yet, do circuit training and keep your heart rate up! Don’t forget to stretch afterwards so you don’t feel sore. Never stretch cold muscles because you might tear them.
- Eat before you work out! If you don’t, you won’t be able to perform your best, you may even pass out (this happened to a friend!) Eat a proper meal (carbs + protein + fat) two to three hours before you exercise. Eat something light, carb-y, and easily digestible 30 to 15 minutes before you work out (my pre-workout snack is an orange, a banana, or a small box of raisins).
- Eat something protein-rich within 30 minutes after you work out — gives your muscles the nourishment to start recuperating. Add a bit of carbs cos it helps muscles absorb protein faster.
- Sitting for more than two hours at a time inhibits your metabolic mechanism — i.e. sit for too long and your body stops burning energy. This is why I stand at my desk all day, haha! It was hard at first, but now if I sit for more than 30 minutes at a time, my butt starts to hurt. Also, standing tones your butt and legs, so yay! Could contribute to varicose veins, though.
Science tells us that 1 pound of fat is equal to 3500 calories, so a daily calorie deficit of 500 should result in 1 pound per week fat loss. In reality things don’t quite work that efficiently!
… Over time our bodies adapt to the lowered calorie level. Our body becomes more efficient at using energy (lowered metabolism), and therefore burns less fat.
This is why most of us reach a weight loss plateau. At this point, the only option is to boost metabolism; increased cardio, weight training, ‘cheat’ meals (i.e. occasional high-calorie meals), cycling (or zig-zagging) calories, and even manipulating macro-nutrient ratios can all help to do this (don’t forget adequate sleep and hydration). You often find that the nearer you get to your goal weight (or body fat percentage) — the harder things get!
Continually dropping calories only serves to lower metabolism even further — the moment you return to ‘normal’ eating — the weight comes back on.
UPDATE (21 Sept 2011): Been reading more about CKD — apparently those first five pounds were just water weight that went off with glycogen depletion (glycogen apparently is stored with water, so you lose glycogen, you also lose water). You gain this back during the refeed or carb-up day, as your glycogen stores fill up.
- Calorie Count – daily food and exercise log; nutritional analysis; a compendium of weight loss tips; community support
- WebMD – everything you need to know about health is there, and then some
- Stumptuous – focuses more on women’s health; very friendly admins, as opposed to Testosterone Nation (bodybuilding site), which is composed largely of professional trainers and athletes, and is therefore not very n00b-friendly (nor politically correct, with machoshit being the predominant discourse. VERY useful info there, though)
- Body Recomposition– scientific, comprehensive, no-nonsense info on general nutrition, fitness training, fat loss, muscle gain
- ExRx – comprehensive exercise compendium, with very useful GIFs
- Gain Fitness – love love love their workout generator!
- Eating Well – healthy, yummy recipes
- Free Dieting – lots of nifty calculators, tables, and figures (just what I love! XD) and useful tips for weight loss
- Answer Fitness– SERIOUSLY NERDY STUFF
- Salon Food – quirky recipes, intelligent discussion
- Daily Health Tips – I need me daily health advice in less than 140 characters
- Yoga Journal – for poses and doses of wisdom
- Pinoy Fitness and Takbo – info about local fitness events — I hope to join a marathon someday!
- Pinoy Mountaineer – for inspiration <3
- Fitness is a lifetime commitment, and it entails hard work and perseverance. Be patient. I can’t stress this enough. Quick-fix solutions (“lose 20 pounds in two weeks!” “just pop this pill and you’re good!”) are utter bullshit.
- Train according to your goals, tastes, inclinations, and have fun. If you hate all the effort you put into it, re-examine your motivations and your regimen.
- Keep goals realistic. Reward yourself for small successes.
- Trust me, no food is worth being obese over. I was morbidly obese and pretty whatevs about it — but now I never, ever want to go back to that.XD
- Health over aesthetics, always. I know, I’m one to talk — I think I’m already fit, but I still want to lose weight because of vanity. HAHA. But I’ve always, always been a perfectionist, so~ :p Anyway, I want a stronger, leaner, meaner body! Pangarap ko pang sumali sa UP Mountaineers (a.k.a. Kapisanan ng mga Hardcore) at UP Indak Oryantal (“The hottest org in UP,” as their ads say).
- Beauty is beyond physique — how you look is part of it, but your general health along with attitude and other non-physical attributes matter more in the long run. And yes, anyone who tells you otherwise is a shallow bastard. :p
- You can only do so much; sometimes you can’t fight genetics. If you’re a big-boned endomorph, no amount of exercise and dieting will turn you into a pixie ectomorph. Make the most of what you have and don’t aim for the impossible (unless you’d rather shell out a fortune for tons of cosmetic procedures haha)
- Respect your limitations even while trying to push them. Love your body and listen to it. As Nietzsche said, “There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”