It’s a new year which means new goals and aspirations to better yourself.
A common theme is for people to “lose weight” or to “get into shape”.
I don’t like those goals because they are very narrowly focused and often have a temporary sort of feel to them. “My goal is to lose 30 pounds.” OK. So you lose 30 pounds. Maybe 35. Maybe 20. Now what. Are you free to dive into the potato chips and start eating cereal and bagels for breakfast again? How will you maintain this weight loss? Are you going to continue to get up at 4:30 am and drag yourself to “bootcamp” to kill yourself every morning for the sake of “getting in shape.” There is nothing inherently wrong with a particular weight loss goal or with going to bootcamp, but the overall focus sometimes is wrong. What we need to focus on is getting healthier for the long-term. Getting healthier is more than just weight loss. Weight loss doesn’t cause you to get healthier, rather, getting healthier results in many positive things, one of these might be weight loss. Taking a sensible approach to getting healthy is important because it needs to be sustainable. Fad diets, extreme workout programs, excessive calorie counting and/or calorie restriction, fancy supplements people are selling all over Facebook promising life-changing results– these are all temporary things. Some may or may not produce favorable results but it really doesn’t matter because these are not meant to last a lifetime.
For example, if you are a 35 year-old mom and you want to shed some weight after having 2 or 3 babies and after gaining a few more pounds over the holidays, a common approach is to sign up for some high intensity workout class, look into purchasing some “magical” supplement, and trying to follow some sort of diet (Weight Watchers, Low-carb, Paleo, Whole 30, etc). You might do this for a few days, a few weeks, a few months but like most people, you don’t stick with it. The “battle of the bulge” continues. Mid-afternoon crashes are still happening almost daily. No energy to play with the kids continues. The next thing you know a year has gone by and you’re really no better than when you started all of this and you start it over again. Year after year it’s the same approach. You aren’t going to your workout class regularly, your dietary habits aren’t great and that magical supplement is burning a hole in your pocket so you aren’t buying it anymore.
What’s wrong with this scenario? Firstly, the focus is off. This hypothetical 35 yr old mom wants to lose weight so she is going to do drastic measures to try and do this. She goes from no regular workout and eating plan to some regimented workout and eating plan. If she misses a workout she feels guilty. Maybe she continues to push through workouts even on days she is tired, stressed or didn’t sleep well, which causes burnout. She is so dogmatic with her dietary plan she feels very restricted and this lasts several weeks before she caves in and eats a pint of Haagen Dazs only to feel shame for being so “weak”.
After years of indulging myself into health and fitness, working in the medical field, research and reading books and listening to podcasts, becoming a Primal Health coach and health coaching others, and conversations with other health and wellness professionals, along with my own self-experimentation over many years, I have come up with some basic concepts and interventions that everyone should focus on in order to start on their path to good health and well-being.
- Make getting healthy your primary goal. If getting healthy is not your primary goal then you will be setting yourself up for eventual failure. If you take the steps to achieve good health the side effects will be achieving and maintaining a healthy body composition, having plenty of energy and general feelings of awesomeness. Achieving a certain weight by extreme dieting and/or extreme workouts is NOT a healthy or sustainable method. For example, looking good doesn’t equate to being healthy as many of the fitness models (male and female) you see on social media, TV or on magazine covers have multiple health problems (such as hormonal issues as well as eating disorders) so you can’t necessarily judge a book by its cover.
- Work on sleeping more. The more I read and research, and the more I implement interventions into my own life, good, quality sleep is quickly moving towards the top of the list as one of the most important things a person can do for themselves. In the US there has been somewhat of a badge of honor to people who work hard and sleep less. If you are trying to burn yourself out and develop health problems then enjoy wearing that badge, otherwise work on your sleep and enjoy the multitude of health benefits that result. Sleep is when your body repairs and restores itself and when your hormones are produced and optimized. Lack of sleep is associated with many negative things, such as heart disease, insulin resistance, decreased production, depression, etc. Nothing good happens with poor sleep. If your workout program has you sacrificing sleep to get up and work out then you need to figure out another time to work out or go to bed much earlier. If you are cutting your sleep short to get up and slave away in the gym you potentially could be doing more harm than good. Aim for at least 7 hours of quality sleep a night.
- Eat Real Food. I think proper nutrition to achieve health is pretty much a no-brainer, but there is quite a bit of confusion about which “plan” is best. When you look at various societies that have health and longevity the basic premise is they eat real food. The bulk of food should be plant based—a variety of vegetables as well as fruits, followed by healthy animal products, healthy fats, etc. This can be given many labels—Paleo, Primal, Whole 30—but in essence it is what our bodies and our genes expect us to eat. Knowing what to avoid is also important. Avoiding any food that causes blood sugar to spike is a good place to start. The obvious offenders are the sweets category—soda, candy, breakfast cereals, but also grains such as bread, cereal bars, bagels, and pasta. Starches can be bad for some people, such as rice and potatoes. Blood sugar spikes lead to insulin release. Insulin stores excess carbs as fat. Lots of this over time leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance leads to type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular disease, premature aging, etc. If you focus on eating lots of plants (veggies, moderate fruits, and tubers for some people), healthy protein sources (meat, fish, nuts), healthy fats (olive oil, avocado oil) and eliminate processed foods and sweets and most things that come in a box, you are doing better than 90% of westernized people and will be healthier for it. Eating real food that is nutrient dense will leave you feeling healthy, satisfied and send the proper signals to you body about how to function and thrive.
- Stress management. Stress is a normal part of life. Some stress is good (think of a brief, high intense workout). Chronic stress is bad. Unfortunately, in our society most of our stress is the chronic kind—we sleep poorly, we work too much, we are over-committed, we have deadlines and meetings, we eat poorly, etc. This causes release of cortisol, our stress hormone, which is meant to make our focus sharp and to potentially save our lives in critical situations. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed release of cortisol to run away from predators or to hunt down prey. Our current stress level in our society causes a chronic elevation of cortisol and stress hormones. This is a bad thing as it can contribute to lower immunity, weight gain, poor sleep, high risk for medical problems and chronic disease and it just overall makes us feel lousy.
- Movement. Regular, slow paced movement is essential to our lives. We are designed for slow movement with occasional, brief sessions of increased intensity. We do not move enough as a society. We sit at desks or in meetings all day. We sit on the couch. As a whole, we are lazy. Even being lazy most of the day but getting that 30 minute “cardio” workout in doesn’t help much (according to some studies). The healthiest societies are those that move most of the day. Aim for 10,000 steps (consider a tracker if need be) spread throughout the day as a starting point.
- Play. Act like a kid. Play. Find a physical activity you enjoy and then do it. Walk in a park. Play in a pick-up basketball game. Ride a bike. Hike. Climb a tree. Exercise doesn’t have to be a regimented plan that you dread. Find something you enjoy and then do it.
- Strength training and Sprinting. Forget jogging and other forms of steady state cardio. This is minimally helpful for optimal health and body composition (think of all those poor people who jog or do the elliptical machine who never look any different) and if overdone can even be harmful to one’s health. We are designed for lots of slow movement (see #5), moving heavy things, and sprinting once in a while. That’s it. Move daily, do SOME strength training 1-3 days a week (can be very brief, 10-15 minutes) and sprint about once a week or so. This will OPTIMIZE the expression of your genetic potential and will reshape your body. You don’t have to go to bodypump or Crossfit to do this (if this is something you enjoy, can do safely, and is not causing too much stress then go for it) as this can be done in your own home. Changing your body composition (more muscle and less body fat) should be the goal, not attaining a specific weight. There are a lot of runners out there who may be at a “good” weight but they are “skinny fat”, meaning although they might be at a “healthy” weight, they have little muscle and higher than desirable bodyfat percentage. Think about all those skinny guys who run and have a pot belly or the ladies that run and might be “thin” but are not really all that tone.
- Take time to relax. With all this talk about working out and moving it’s important to remember to relax and take life easy. Take a nap. Enjoy your significant other and your kids. Utilize your vacation time. Try some stretching and yoga. Pray and/or meditate daily. With all of our society’s chronic stress it’s important to balance that with relaxation activities as well.
That’s it. It’s not rocket science but does require some discipline and a plan to get going. If this seems overwhelming or you want some help to get started contact me and we can discuss setting up a coaching session to discuss your individual situation and I can help you formulate a plan to get you going on the road to a healthier you. https://parnhamhealth.com/contact/