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A new year is upon us and we're not here to talk about your summer beach body. We're not here to talk about how you can lose 15 pounds in 15 days. Instead, we're here to talk about a new kind of resolution: Change that lasts.
Because the other kind of changes -- fad diets and juice cleanses and that new treadmill in the corner of the family room -- are temporary at best. Roughly 90 percent of people who lose a significant amount of weight eventually regain just about all of it. And they're throwing their metabolism out of whack while they're doing it.
But what about that other 10%? What are they doing to keep that fat off? Chances are, they're losing a half pound a week here and there, nothing dramatic. They're building a foundation where the excess fat comes off and stays off. Advances in the modern science of fat loss are giving us new insights into how and why our bodies store away excess amounts of fat and what we can do to attain and maintain a leaner -- and healthier -- physique.
Notice too that we're talking about losing fat here, not "losing weight." When the number on your scale starts to creep downward day by day, you're inevitably losing some muscle mass along with fat. The key is to keep that percentage of muscle loss compared to fat loss as small as possible, because muscle retention is key to your overall fat loss efforts, as we'll get into later. At any rate, let's take a look at what lasting fat loss looks like:
1. Get In About 300 Minutes of Physical Activity Per Week.
Yes, we know, that seems like a lot. But really, it's just 45 minutes per day. And "physical activity" doesn't mean we're sending you off to the squat rack every day. It means going for a walk or playing a game of tennis or going for a bike ride. (It also means going to the gym three times a week because really, you should go to the gym.) Mainly, it means getting off your butt for a while each day.
Why 300 minutes? Researchers have long known that people who take up exercise regimens tend to eat more, but they didn't know why except to speculate that exercisers were somehow rewarding themselves. An interesting new study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggests there may be another reason. Researchers gathered two groups (men and women) and gave one of them a regimen of exercising twice a week, for at least 90 minutes, until they had burned about 750 calories a session, or 1,500 for the week. The other half exercised six times a week for about 40 to 60 minutes, burning close to 500 calories a session, for a weekly total of about 3,000 a week.
At the end of the study, only the second group that had exercised six days a week had shed much weight, dropping about four pounds of body fat. More interestingly, this second group experienced increases in their bodies’ levels of leptin, an appetite hormone that can reduce appetite. There were no changes in leptin levels in the group exercising twice per week. The group that exercised more consistently throughout the week appeared to exhibit increased sensitivity to leptin, helping them better regulate their desire to eat (Flack 1). More study is needed here, of course, but gentler, longer-interval exercise would seem to have fat-loss benefits.
2. Drink More Water.
At any given moment, 75% of Americans are walking around chronically dehydrated. This is according to a survey of 3003 Americans conducted by the Nutrition Information Center at New York-Cornell Medical Center. Why are they dehydrated? Because they drink too many caffeinated beverages, they consume too much sodium, and they just don't drink enough water.
This is bad news, because dehydration causes fatigue, which makes even moderate exercise difficult, and it increases the likelihood that you'll resort to unhealthy snacking to perk yourself up. It also slows your metabolism, which facilitates excess fat gain.
In fact, in a study published in the The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, simply drinking cold water helped boost healthy men's and women’s metabolic rate by 30 percent (Boschmann 2). How much water should you be drinking? Eight 8-oz glasses of water a day. That's a half gallon. You can do it.
3. Eat When You’re Hungry, But Not Otherwise.
How many times do you come home from work and walk immediately to the refrigerator (or the cabinet where you keep the snacks) and eat something? Not because you’re hungry, mind you. But just because that’s what you do? How many times do you sit down to a big meal, not particularly hungry, and then clean your plate because there it is, in front of you?
For many of us, eating has lost its connection to real hunger and instead has become a behavior grounded in daily habits, a response to stress, or a social activity. Eating in a healthy manner requires being mindful of what you’re eating and why. It also means eating smaller portions when you are hungry. Eat a small portion and then wait twenty minutes. Chances are your hunger will fade and you’ll be glad you didn’t pick anything from the dessert tray.
When you’re hungry, your body is trying to tell you something. It’s also trying to tell you something when you’re NOT hungry. It’s time to start listening.
4. Get Stronger.
Earlier we pointed out the benefits of mild exercise for helping you lose fat. However, we would be remiss if we didn't emphasize that strength is inextricably bound up in enhanced quality of life, and this includes being able to get and stay lean.
If you want to burn fat, you have to lift weights regularly so you can get stronger, increase your training volume, and add muscle mass. Muscle mass is the furnace of fat loss. The more of it you have, the more fuel it takes to maintain, the more fat you will burn. You don't have to become a bodybuilding mass monster; you just have to develop basic functional strength. Forty-five minutes of fairly swift-paced lifting, with an emphasis on keeping rest intervals short, should be more than enough.
5. Prioritize Rest.
In a better, saner world people would attend to the details of their sleep with all the rigorous attention they bring to their workouts. Because proper rest is every bit as important as a good workout when it comes to support of the bodily functions that keep us vital and well. It's during sleep that your body repairs cells, restores energy, releases essential hormones and gets rid of toxic waste. Intriguingly, it's also when your nerve cells strengthen vital connections and your brain files away new information (which we call "dreaming").
Does lack of sleep lead to fat gain? It would certainly seem so. In a weight-loss intervention trial published in the journal Obesity, researchers sought to determine the association between sleep characteristics and weight loss in overweight or obese women enrolled in a randomized clinical trial of a weight-loss program. In the study, 245 women were randomized and asked to complete a Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index at baseline and 6 months. Researchers found that better subjective sleep quality increased the likelihood of weight-loss success by 33% (Thomson 3).
So turn your phone off, draw the shades, turn the thermostat down to a cool but comfortable setting, and put the TV in another room. If you're taking a thermogenic fat-loss or energy catalyst, take it in the morning. Likewise caffeine. Then get your ZZZ's. About 7 hours worth.
6. Stop Counting Calories.
It's not the number of calories, it's the quality of calories. A turkey breast and a big handful of potato chips can both have the same amount of calories. One will support muscle growth and repair while also having a distinct fat-burning thermogenic effect on your body. The other will go directly to fat gain without providing much (or any) benefit at all.
This is where all the low-cal and no-cal nutritional options out there are hindering your fat-loss efforts. Those same "low cal" cookies that are helping you stay within your arbitrary daily caloric budget are providing precisely none of the essential nutrition your body needs to facilitate the many physiological processes that support muscle mass increase and fat loss. If you must restrict calories, it becomes more important than ever to make sure that every calorie you consume performs an important function.
Oh, and one more thing. High-quality calories like lean meats, healthy fats, and green vegetables tend to be more filling than junk foods that lead to insulin spikes and energy crashes. So eating healthy foods naturally creates the satiety that leads to restricted calories. Magic!
7. Prep Your Meals in Advance.
Most people have little idea of what constitutes proper portion size. Left to their own devices, they consistently underestimate the amount of food they're eating. They equate serving sizes with portion sizes. They ladle on absurd amounts of dressings or condiments. They eat out of packages instead of off plates. Don't even get us started on the sheer caloric overload present in any typical restaurant meal.
The solution to all this is to weigh and measure the food you eat, prepare it in a healthy manner, and stack your meals up in the refrigerator and freezer for when you need them. This allows you to monitor and document what you eat and prevents counterproductive snacking. It also frees up more time for you to attend to the other productive elements of your new, healthy, sustainable lifestyle.
8. Adopt a Lifestyle You Can Live With.
If you're not living a life you love, it's not going to last. That means, if you find running tedious, get yourself a bike. Take a spin class. Heck, try yoga. If you find lifting weights a little daunting, treat yourself to a stint with a professional trainer. Find a friend to go to the gym with.
If your life is so jam-packed with responsibilities and chores and social events that you never seem to have a moment to yourself, write it all out and see how much of it is really necessary. And then set aside fifteen minutes -- Just fifteen minutes! You can do it! -- for quiet meditation. Remind yourself every day, this isn't a crash diet; my goal isn't coming due in three weeks or three years. This is my new life now. Make the best of it.
1 Flack, Kyle D., Hays, Harry M., Moreland, Jack, Long, Douglas E. Exercise for Weight Loss: Further Evaluating Energy Compensation with Exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: November 2020, Volume 52, Issue 11, p 2466-2475.
2 Boschmann, M, Et. Al (2003). Water-induced thermogenesis. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 88(12), 6015-6019.
3 Thomson CA, Morrow KL, Flatt SW, Wertheim BC, Perfect MM, Ravia JJ, Sherwood NE, Karanja N, Rock CL. Relationship between sleep quality and quantity and weight loss in women participating in a weight-loss intervention trial. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012 Jul;20(7):1419-25. doi: 10.1038/oby.2012.62. Epub 2012 Mar 8.
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