How to Make a Fitness New Years Resolution You’ll Actually Do

How to Make a Fitness New Years Resolution You’ll Actually Do

Raise your hand if you said something like:

“In 2016, I’m finally going to lose weight!”

If you did, you’re not alone.  According to Statistics Brain Institute, a company that compiles statistics on a variety of topics and industries, losing weight was (unsurprisingly) the #1 New Year’s resolution made in 2015.

However, according to the same research, only 8% of people reported achieving their resolution by the end of 2015.  Also not terribly surprising.

But forget 2015.  It’s now into the third week of 2016, and this year is the year that you can actually achieve your fitness/weight loss goal.  It’s completely possible; you just need to go about it the right way.

Yes, it will take hard work and dedication. No, it doesn’t mean that you have to give up everything you enjoy doing (unless what you enjoy doing is surviving on exclusively burgers and soda).  Follow the below steps and by this time next year, you’ll be celebrating the beginning of 2017 with a new, fitter you.

Step 1: Throw Your Scale out the Window

This is key. In 2016, you’re going to part with your bathroom scale. Why? Because it’s been serving you a steady stream of lies every time you’ve stepped on it in the past.

 

How?

You say that you want to lose weight.  But what is weight, really? It’s really just a number, and seeing a number rise or fall on the scale doesn’t tell even close to the whole story. What you’re actually trying to say when you say you want to lose weight – whether you realize it or not – is you want to lose fat. Pounds of fat.

The truth is: your body isn’t just a vessel that weighs a certain amount; it’s made up of a lot of different things, including fat, muscle, bone mineral, and body water.  This way of dividing your body into its parts is called your body composition.  When you lose (or gain weight), the actual changes in your body that your scale registers as weight changes are actually changes in one or more parts of your body composition – changes in muscle, changes in fat, etc.

Weighing yourself on the scale when you’re trying to lose weight – or worse: weighing yourself every day – can set you up for failure by not accurately reporting your progress, causing you to become discouraged. Here’s how.
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Here’s a profile of someone who is just beginning their fitness program, and is doing moderate to heavy weight lifting as part of their plan.  Here’s the same person, about three months later.

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As a result of a proper diet and consistent exercise, this person has lost 5 pounds of fat. But because this person has been building muscle as well, their weight hasn’t changed at all.

If this person’s goal was simply “weight loss,” despite their positive gains in muscle and losses in fat, this person might think that no progress was made.  After months of kicking yourself into shape and being super careful about your diet, a lack of movement on the scale can be extremely discouraging.

This is why you need to focus on improving your body composition – not weight loss.  Weight loss doesn’t mean anything if you don’t know what you’re losing and gaining.

Step 2: Learn a bit about calories

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“Counting calories.”

For some people, this phrase brings feelings of the purest dread.  Not only do people think it’s a lot of work, but that it also means the end of eating anything delicious.

Fortunately, keeping track of calories isn’t that hard, and depending on what your goals are, you may be able to eat more than you think.  But first, here are some basic truths on calories.

First: let’s get something straight right now – from an energy storing perspective, it doesn’t matter all that much how often/when you eat.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (bold text added):

The time of day isn’t what affects how your body uses calories. It’s the overall number of calories you eat and the calories you burn over the course of 24 hours that affects your weight.

It helps to think of your caloric needs like a daily budget.  If your needs are 2,400 calories and you “spend” a 1,000 calories on breakfast, that’s fine – it’s just that you only get 1,400 calories until breakfast the next day.

Second: everyone’s caloric needs are different; so that 2,000 daily recommended calorie intake on the nutrition label? Consider that to be the most general, vaguest set of guidelines that almost certainly will set you up for failure, especially since it was picked in no small part because it was just an easy number to remember, rounded off to the nearest thousand for convenience 1.

To find your individual caloric needs, you need to estimate something called your Total Daily Energy Expenditure– the amount of calories that you burn in a 24-hour period.  Generally speaking, your TDEE has two major components:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): the total number of calories your body requires to “stay on” and power bodily processes like brain activity, pumping blood, breathing, digesting, etc.
  • Activity Rate: an estimated index of how active you are over 24 hours

To get TDEE, multiply BMR with Activity Rate. For example, someone with a BMR of 1600 calories and is moderately active (exercises 3-5x a week) would have a total caloric need of around 2,480 calories, nearly 500 calories more than the traditional 2,000 calorie diet.

Use your TDEE as the baseline from how you create your diet.  “Cutting calories” doesn’t mean “starvation” – it means making a moderate reduction in your caloric intake as determined by your daily needs.

Based on what your goals are, designing a diet and knowing what’s an appropriate caloric intake does get a little more complicated, but there’s a complete guide to using BMR to creating a diet right here.

Step 3: Choose 1 Goal (from 2 options) and Plan Your Diet

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In 2016, you’re not going to think about “weight loss” any more.  Instead, you’re going to think about choosing from one of the two following goals: “fat loss” or “muscle gain.”  Both of these goals will have the effect ofreducing your overall body fat percentage but achieve it in different ways.

But just one goal – not both at the same time? Can’t you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time? Maybe. But it will be extremely difficult to effectively do both over any extended period of time.  This is because the nutritional and caloric needs your body requires to gain muscle effectively are different from those when you want your body to lose fat.

  • FAT LOSS

If you want to lose fat, you need to encourage your body to enter what’s called a catabolic state – a state when your body breaks down body tissue instead of building it.  This requires you to take in fewer calories than you bring in.

But remember: your TDEE is made of two parts, BMR and Activity Level, so taking in fewer calories doesn’t necessarily (and shouldn’t) mean you have to cut out breakfast completely or something equally drastic.  If you weren’t working out at all before, simply increasing your activity level by starting an exercise program whilemaintaining your caloric intake may be enough to trigger fat loss.  If this sounds like you, simply beginning an exercise program is a good way to get started.

However, most people will need a combination of caloric reduction and exercise to achieve consistent and healthy fat loss.  How many calories you need to reduce will vary based on your individual body composition and goals.

  • MUSCLE GAIN

You can’t lose fat forever, and at some point you will need to work on developing muscle – or at the very least, work to preserve the muscle that you have already.  This will require a different diet and exercise plan than the one designed for fat loss.  Instead of getting your body into a catabolic state, you’ll want to enter into an anabolic state – a state where your body builds tissue instead of breaking it down.

To build muscle, your body needs resources.  This means proper nutrition – sufficient protein intake is critical when trying to increase muscle mass – but equally as important is eating enough calories.  There is a popular misconception that taking in excessive amounts of protein is the key to muscle gain, but in a Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition publication, high performance athletes who failed to meet their caloric needs were found to have limited lean body mass gains, despite increasing their protein beyond their daily recommended needs.

So what is a good estimate of your caloric needs for this goal?  Although nutrition plays a large role in determining diet, from a caloric standpoint, research suggests that maintaining an energy surplus of about 15% is appropriate for developing musculature.  This means, all else being equal, the moderately active person with a BMR of 1,600 calories would want to shoot for around 2,852 calories a day.

Step 4: Plan for a Marathon, not a 100-yard dash

In a world where virtually every piece of information in all of human history can be searched for in seconds by anyone with a smartphone, people are used to getting the results they want when they want them.  Unfortunately, you can’t expect the same from your body.

 

That’s why if you hang around enough fitness people for long enough, you’ll eventually hear them talk about a “fitness journey.”  That’s because that’s exactly what fitness is – a journey. It’s not a sprint, and it will take time to make meaningful changes that last.

For example, in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, participants were divided into two groups that created a 25% energy gap between what they ate and what they burned. The first group did this by only dieting (25% caloric reduction) and the second achieving it by splitting the energy deficit by both diet and exercise (12.5% caloric reduction + 12.5% increase in energy use due to increased exercise).

The results were interesting: both groups were able to reduce their body weight by about 10% and their total fat mass by 24%, indicating that for fat/weight reduction, caloric reduction by any means is critical, regardless of how it is achieved.  For a 180 pound person, a 10% reduction comes out to 3 pounds of loss per month, which is less than a pound a week.

This can be challenging for some people – to not see any measurable changes on the scale after a week of diet/diet+exercise.  Even after two weeks, you may only see your weight decrease by a pound, maybe two.  If you’re measuring your weight by just using a scale, this can be especially frustrating (another reason why you should get rid of it).

Plan for the long term, and don’t expect to see dramatic changes right away.  And because you’re planning for the long term, that also means that you don’t need to be perfect every single day.  That’s going to put on too much pressure, cause frustration, and maybe cause you to fail.  That’s why this guide’s final step is important.

 

Step 5: Let Cheat Days Happen (and don’t feel bad about it)

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That’s right.  Break your diet every once in a while. Skip the odd gym day and go out for pizza and beer. It’s OK.

Didn’t expect that, did you?

But wait! Isn’t this how you “gain it all back”?  You hear stories about people breaking their diets and then gaining 5 pounds or more over a cheat weekend, erasing a month of hard work.

This is where your scale – if you’re still using one – really can screw you up with negative thinking and discouragement.  So you gained 5 pounds over the weekend; is your scale lying?  Not exactly. Yes you gained 5 pounds, but more than likely, it’s 5 pounds of water.

Your weight will fluctuate throughout the day based on what you eat and drink.  If you’re dieting, a pretty common/near universal strategy is to reduce your carbohydrate intake (aka “cutting carbs”).

By reducing your intake of foods rich in carbohydrates, you’re reducing your overall glycogen stores. Glycogen is a molecule your body converts into energy and is a source of short-term energy; as opposed to fat, which is typically used in cases where energy from glycogen or other short-term energy sources aren’t available.

What does glycogen have to do with scales, water, and cheat days? Everything, actually.

Water molecules love glycogen.  In fact, for every gram of glycogen in your body, there will be 3-4 grams of water bonded to it.  Your loading your body with glycogen when you’re eating your carbohydrate-dense food and drinks on your cheat day, and water is bonding to it.  So when you step on the scale the day after, it’s very possible to see yourself gain several pounds in a day.

This doesn’t mean you gained it all back.  Chances are, it’s just water and once you get back on your diet and exercise program, your weight will be back to where it was in a couple days. Watch.

5 Step Plan Review

Let’s review your 5 step plans for a weight loss plan that you’ll actually do in 2016.

  1. Throw out your scale and get your body composition tested.  If your gym doesn’t do it, join one that does. The longer you stick with a scale, the longer you’ll be frustrated.
  2. Learn the basics of calories and find your TDEE.
  3. Pick 1 goal. You can change it later.
  4. Prepare for your own “fitness journey.” Slow and steady wins the race.
  5. Have a cheat day. It will help you stay sane, and it will give you something to look forward to every week or two to keep you motivated.

Good luck!

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Muscle and Fat

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Muscle and Fat

Your body is a wonderful and complex machine. Without any conscious direction from you, your body manages to convert food into energy, regulate your body temperature, create new cells, remove waste, and perform thousands of other processes to keep you alive and healthy.

Because your body is such a complex machine, a lot of misconceptions and half-truths exist about how it works, especially when it comes to muscle and fat. This makes it hard to figure out what’s true and what isn’t, especially since nowadays there seems to be a supplement for everything and a steady stream of late night infomercials claiming to have the next greatest invention for fat loss or muscle gain.

To help shed some light on these issues and cut through the clutter, we’ve collected a few key points about muscle and fat for you to take away to help you make the right decisions when you are ready to get healthier and optimize your body composition.

#1: Muscle Isn't Just for Strong Bodies

Many people think that developing muscle is only necessary if you’re an athlete.  Why would you need to be stronger if you aren’t doing competitive sports?  Not everyone needs to fight off an opposing defensive back, but everyone needs to be able to fight off infection.

What does muscle have to do with infection? Quite a lot actually.

Protein is a major and important macronutrient that your body requires in order to function properly. Muscle is made up of primarily water and protein content.  When your body enters a stressed state (becomes sick), your body’s protein demands suddenly skyrocket, up to four times the amount it normally requires in the event of serious trauma.

If your body does not get the necessary protein it needs from your diet, it will look to your muscles – which your body can treat as large protein reserves – and begin breaking them down.  If your muscles aren’t sufficiently developed or underdeveloped, you will have a reduced ability to fight off current infections and may be more susceptible to future ones, especially in serious cases.  According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

If there is a preexisting deficiency of muscle mass before trauma, the acute loss of muscle mass and function may push an individual over a threshold that makes recovery of normal function unlikely to ever occur.

Take care of your muscles, and they very well may take care of you in return.

#2: There’s 2 types of Fat – and one is really dangerous

Most people know that being overweight can lead to health problems over the long term, but not many people know why.  Current research is now revealing that fat isn’t just empty weight like a bag of sand, but is in factmetabolically active tissue that acts like an organ inside your body.

But unlike the other organs inside your body that are designed to help keep your body in proper condition, excess fat works to sabotage it.

According to Harvard University, fat, and particularly visceral (belly) fat, can have significant negative effects on your health.  Visceral fat spreads certain types of chemical called cytokines into the body, and although cytokines aren’t by their nature harmful, the types of cytokines emitted by fat can have serious repercussions on insulin resistance, cholesterol level, and blood pressure.  

Over time, visceral fat can lead to developing serious diseases like cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  Fortunately, working to reduce fat mass in your body can help reduce some of these harmful effects visceral fat can have.  

#3: “Lean Mass” Isn’t the Same as “Muscle”

Lean Mass. Lean Body Mass. Muscle Mass. Skeletal Muscle Mass. It can be really easy to get lost in all these same-sounding terms. Are they all the same?

The most common mistake is when people use the term “lean mass” and when talking about increasing it – “lean gains.” Many people equate muscle with lean mass, which is only partially correct.

While it is true that if you develop your muscles you are developing lean mass, that doesn’t mean that your muscle gains are lean gains. Lean Body Mass is different from skeletal muscle in that Lean Body Mass includes the weight attributed to muscle, body water, bone, and everything else that isn’t fat.

To illustrate, take a look at the body composition breakdown of this 162-pound male:

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Note that this subject has a Lean Body Mass of 128.5 pounds, the majority of which is reflected by Total Body Water.  The actual muscle that people try to develop in the gym – skeletal muscle – only accounts for 73.2 pounds of body weight.

While it isn’t likely that the weight of your organs or bones will change significantly, your muscles and water can change in volume and mass depending on a variety of circumstances.  Because Lean Mass includes body water, increasing your weight by hydrating your cells with sufficient intracellular water is also technically a “lean gain.”

Another way of thinking about it: All muscle gains are lean gains, but not all lean gains are muscle gains.  Get it?

#4: Muscle Doesn’t Become Fat

Admit it– you were pretty sure it didn’t work like this, but you sometimes catch yourself saying that your muscle turned into fat.

Although your body is an amazing machine, there is no process by which your body converts muscle into fat tissue.  Many people comment that their muscle has turned into fat after they stop working out regularly, and it really does seem like that’s what’s occurring – you were once lean and muscular, and now you have less muscle and look flabbier.

But what’s really going on is a change in body composition – a loss in muscle mass that occurs at the same time fat mass increases.

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This can happen for any number of reasons.  Many people, especially athletes, can experience muscle loss and fat gain in the off-season or when they stop performing entirely if they continue to eat like they did when they were playing at a competitive level. That’s because the amount of calories you use in a day – your Total Daily Energy Expenditure – decreases significantly if you change your activity level.

#5: Being Skinny Isn’t Great If You Have No Muscle

When people think of someone with an unhealthy body, they think of someone who is overweight.  So, when people think of someone with a healthy body, they naturally think of someone who is skinny.

Not so fast: just because someone looks like a runway model doesn’t mean they are healthy.  In fact, it is often the opposite.  In some cases, people who strive to be skinny – like runway models for instance –  become so excessively skinny that they become severely underweight and  develop conditions like anorexia. It was for this reason in particular that the French government imposed a ban on hiring runway models with BMIs of less than 18.0 in 2015.

However, not everyone is a runway model, and a much more common condition that some skinny people have that is certainly not healthy is something called sarcopenic obesity, something popularly referred to as being “skinny fat.”  Skinny fat people don’t have healthy amounts of muscle mass, so they can actually have a body fat percentage that is similar to someone who is obese, even though they appear to be skinny.  They often have body composition profiles resembling this one:

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Despite having a normal weight (within 15% of the ideal weight for this person’s height), muscle mass is very underdeveloped while body fat mass is quite high.  By dividing fat mass by weight, this person’s body fat percentage would be 36.9%, well over any acceptable range for women – including the ranges set by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise.

End the Confusion

Lots of these myths and misconceptions occur because many people do not measure their weight accurately.

The only way to properly understand your weight is to have your body composition analyzed. Body composition analysis breaks down your weight into muscle, fat, and body water. Relying on a scale only leaves you in the dark as to why your weight is increasing or decreasing, which can lead you to such thoughts as “my muscle turned into fat.” To learn more about body composition, click here.

How To Read Nutrition Labels

How To Read Nutrition Labels

Ideally to achieve maximum health we would eat only fresh, natural, organic foods and we would completely avoid processed or packaged options. But nothing is ideal in reality and so there are times that we must depend on the information that is provided to us through nutrition labels on packaged food items to determine which processed options are better than others. The nutritional values of fresh, natural and organic foods are also important to consider when deciding what to purchase and consume but these are not always as easily found.

Fresh, Natural, or Organic Foods

Fresh produce, beef, and seafood don’t come with nutritional labels printed out on them, but that doesn’t mean that the information isn’t out there and available for you if you decide to look. These nutritional facts will read much like the labels on your packaged food, except that in most cases you’ll find that what you’re consuming with natural foods is much healthier than what’s packed inside processed food. Some packaged food will read as “organic”, “all natural”, or “nothing artificial” but those are not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about non-packaged and fresh fruits, vegetables, beef, chicken, pork, salmon, tilapia, etc.

Packaged Foods

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Nutritional labels on packaged foods allow you to compare the calorie, fat, trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar content in any given food. With that knowledge you are in an informed position to make the most accurate decision about which foods to stay away from due to higher levels of these ingredients.

To determine which foods are better for your specific and personal dietary choices it’s also important to peruse the ingredients list to see what additives and other ingredients are present. It is always better to choose options with ingredients that you have in your own kitchen, while avoiding the chemical additives. Often times the smaller ingredient lists and larger vitamin lists provide healthier content, but this is not always the case, and the lengths of these lists should only be considered one of many things to look at when reading a nutritional label.

Some packaged food will even say “organic”, “ natural”, or “no artificial ingredients” but many people don’t know what the difference is, so they end up buying the wrong products, for their personal dietary needs.

Packaging TermWhat It Means
Organic
  • Free of growth hormones and antibiotics
  • 95% of the ingredients are organic
  • Grown with non synthetic or sewage fertilizers
  • No GMO’s
All Natural
  • No FDA requirements
  • Foods are generally made of natural ingredients but may contain hydrogenated oils, added sugars, flavoring (as long as it’s a natural flavoring), and other non natural ingredients
No Artificial Ingredients
  • Least regulated
  • Food may be made of an even mixture of natural and artificial ingredients, so you’ll have to read the nutrition label carefully

 

Making Sense Of Nutrition Labels

Although the information is laid out for you in a seemingly organized fashion, making sense of what you’re reading when looking at a nutritional label is not always an easy task. Many people don’t consume enough iron, calcium, fiber, or vitamins A and C, despite the fact that they are always included on the nutritional labels. Here are the main characteristics you should look at on a nutritional label and what they mean.

Chart SectionWhat It Tells You
Serving Size
  • How large a serving is usually in both standard and metric measurements
  • How many servings are present
Calorie Information
  • How many calories, and calories from fat are present in a single serving
Daily Value %
  • How much of your daily nutrient requirement is satisfied by a single serving (shown in percentage form)
  • Usually based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet
Nutrients
  • List of nutrients including: fat, sugar, carbohydrates, and protein
  • How many grams of each nutrient are included in a single serving
  • Usually the lower daily value percentages are the healthier options in this section (protein is the exception)
Vitamins & Minerals
  • List of vitamins & minerals that are included in a single serving (Try to consume 100% of your daily value for Vitamin A and C, iron, calcium, and fiber everyday)
Footnote
  • List of key nutrients paired with how much of each you should consume
  • Usually based on a 2,000 calorie per day diet

nutritionlabel_mediumThe footnote section is the best place to look for clarification if you’re confused about how much of a certain nutrient you should be consuming in any given day.There are also some commonly printed phrases printed on nutrition labels and packaged food containersthat be confusing if you don’t know what they mean. These are phrases that you should become familiar with so that you better understand what it is that you’re purchasing and eating. Here are a few of the most popularly printed phrases and what they really mean:

PhraseWhat It Really Means
No Fat/Fat FreeMay contain some fat, as long as it’s less that ½ gram per serving
Lower or Reduced FatWill contain at least 25% less fat per serving than the original food item
Low FatWill contain less than 3 grams of fat per serving
LiteWill contain either ⅓ of the calories or ½ of the fat that would be found in the original food item
No Calories/Calorie FreeMay contain calories, as long as it’s less that 5 calories per serving
Low CaloriesWill contain no more than 50% of the calories per serving than the original food item
Sugar FreeMay contain some sugar, as long as it’s less that ½ gram per serving
Reduced SugarWill contain at least 25% less sugar per serving than the original food item
No PreservativesWill not contain any preservatives (natural or chemical)
No Preservatives AddedWill not contain chemically added preservatives.
Low SodiumWill contain less than 140 mgs of sodium per serving
No Salt/Salt FreeMay contain salt, as long as it’s less than 5 mgs of sodium per serving
High FiberWill contain at least 5 grams of fiber (or more) per serving
Good Source of FiberWill contain 2.5 grams to 4.9 grams of fiber per serving
More/Added FiberWill contain at least 2.5 grams more fiber per serving than the original food item

Your Metabolism and Your Body Composition

Your Metabolism and Your Body Composition

You probably don’t think about your body composition when you’re thinking about your metabolism. But you should.

When you think of your metabolism, you probably think about it in terms of speed: “My metabolism is fast” or “my metabolism is slowing down.” If that sounds like you, you’re not alone: simply googling the word “metabolism” yields 4 articles in the top 10 all based around boosting/increasing your metabolism.

Why so many articles about increasing metabolism? Because people are afraid of their metabolism slowing and the weight gain they know comes with it. To some extent, those worries are well-founded.

Metabolism is linked with weight gain and loss, but that’s because metabolism has to do with energy and calories – not the speed you process your food.

The Mayo Clinic defines metabolism as:

…the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex biochemical process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function.

In medical terminology, metabolism is known as your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is the minimum number of calories your body needs to perform basic bodily functions. BMR is usually expressed in terms of calories.  BMR also has another interesting quality: the more Lean Body Mass you have, the greater your BMR will be.

So, to talk about metabolism, the conversation should always start with how many calories your body needs. But because your BMR and Lean Body Mass are linked, that means any conversation about metabolism becomes a conversation about your body composition.

Your Body Composition Is Linked To Your Metabolism

Why is it that some people seem to be able to eat whatever they want and never gain any weight, while other people – even skinny people – gain weight much more easily when they eat something not in their regular diet?

It’s not because their metabolism is “faster”; it’s because they have a “bigger” metabolism.  What’s a “bigger” metabolism?

Take a look at these two body composition profiles, and see if you can spot the difference.

low_LBM_and_BMR

high_LBM_and_BMR

Beyond the obvious differences in weight, the first person has a much smaller BMR than the second.  This means that the second person needs more calories than the first person in order to provide their body with the necessary energy to function without losing weight.  Because the BMR is bigger, the metabolism is “bigger.”

Greater than height and gender, the most important factor playing into BMR is the amount Lean Body Mass each person has.  That’s because, as research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states, the more Lean Body Mass you have, the greater your Basal Metabolic Rate will be.

This is why people who are big/have above average weights can eat more than people who are smaller.  Their body literally requires them to eat more to maintain their weight, and specifically – their Lean Body Mass.

OK, you say, but these two people are very different in body weight – of course the second person will have a faster/bigger metabolism.  Take a look at the two people below, who we’ll call “Jane” and “Sarah”, this time who are much more similar body in age, height, weight, and gender.

Jane

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Despite being similar in age, height, weight, and gender, these two people have very different body composition profiles.  As a result, they have different Basal Metabolic Rates.  Although Jane has a body weight within the normal range (identified by being near the 100% mark), her body composition is defined by having a higher body fat percentage (less LBM and more body fat) than Sarah.

The person below has a lower body fat percentage and more Lean Body Mass – which is why when looking at this person, you’d describe them as “lean.”  Again, because this person has more than 10 pounds more Lean Body Mass, her Basal Metabolic Rate comes out over a hundred calories greater than the person above.

Metabolism and Weight Gain Over Time

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Let’s take a deeper look at what you might call a “slow” metabolism. Far from being an issue of fastness or slowness, weight gain is almost always the result of a caloric imbalance that goes unchecked over a long period of time.

But first, something needs to be clarified – your Basal Metabolic Rate is not the only factor that plays into your overall caloric needs, and it’s not the total amount of calories you need in a day.  There are two other major influencers, which are:

  • Your energy level – how active you are
  • The thermic effect of food – the energy your body uses to digest your food

These taken together with BMR provide your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). This is the amount of calories your body burns in a day.

BMR is a necessary piece of information to estimate TDEE. Although they’re not exact, equations exist for estimating your TDEE based on your activity level and BMR.  These are based on multiplying your BMR with an “activity factor” – a number between 1 and 2 – that increases the more active you are.

To take a closer look into metabolism and weight gain, let’s take the two people whose body compositions we’ve looked at above, Jane and Sarah, and see what could happen in a real world example and accounting for diet and exercise.

For this exercise, we first need to estimate TDEE for Jane and Sarah, using their BMRs as a guide.  Based on Jane and Sarah’s compositions, it would be fair to assume that Jane does less exercise/is less active than Sarah, so we’ll assign an activity level of “Sedentary” for Jane and assign “Lightly Active” for Sarah.

bmr-8

Using these numbers and multiplying it by the appropriate activity factor, we can estimate Jane’s TDEE to be 1573 calories and Sarah’s to be 1953 calories, a difference of 380 calories.

Notice how although the difference in BMR was a little over 100 calories, when activity levels are factored in, the difference in actual caloric needs/metabolism becomes magnified.

Now that we have an estimate of the calories Jane and Sarah will need/burn in a day, let’s give them calories to take in. Let’s put them both on a diet of 1,800 calories a day – the estimated caloric intake suggested by the USDA for sedentary women between the ages of 26-30.

Assuming that Jane and Sarah both follow the 1,800 calorie diet perfectly without any extra, high caloric snacks or treats, Jane would end each day with a caloric surplus of 227 calories/day.On the other hand, Sarah would end each day in a slight caloric deficit of 153 calories a day.

When you are in a caloric surplus – taking in more calories than you use – and live a mostly sedentary lifestyle, you gain weight, and specifically, fat. An extra 227 calories a day might not seem like a lot at first – that’s about a single soda -, but over time, 227 extra calories a day becomes 1589 extra calories a week and 7037 extra calories a month: roughly 2 pounds of fat gain per month.

Bottom line: despite being the same height, same gender, similar weight, and similar ages, because of the difference between Jane and Sarah’s body compositions, Jane will gain fat mass over time while Sarah most likely won’t, even though their diets are the same.  That’s because the differences in their metabolisms, although seemingly small at first, become significant differences when allowed to persist over time.

It’s not about their age or anything else; it’s about their body compositions determining their metabolism/caloric needs.

Making Your Metabolism Work For You

metabolism-2_grandeBecause your metabolism isn’t something that slows down or speeds up depending on things like age, this actually gives you some control over it.  With the correct exercise and dietary plan, you can make your metabolism work for you

  • Improve and increase your metabolism

It all goes back to improving and maintaining a healthy body composition.

Because your body needs more energy to support itself when it has more Lean Body Mass, working to increase your Lean Body Mass can actually increase your Basal Metabolic Rate/metabolism, which can have a huge impact on your TDEE once you factor in your activity level.

  • Avoid a decrease in your metabolism

For many people, simply maintaining their metabolism or avoiding a “slowdown” of their metabolism (which as we’ve seen, is a myth right up there with muscle turning into fat) is an important goal.

How can you avoid a decrease of your metabolism?

In short: by maintaining the Lean Body Mass that you already have.  That means maintaining your Skeletal Muscle Mass.

Your Skeletal Muscle Mass isn’t the same as your Lean Body Mass, but it is the overall biggest contributor to it. It’s the muscle that you can actually grow and develop through exercise, and increases/decreases in SMM have a strong influence on increases/decreases in Lean Body Mass.

Skeletal Muscle Mass is best developed through strength training and resistance exercise along with a proper diet.  A regular exercise plan that includes strength training and resistance exercise will help you maintain your Skeletal Muscle Mass.

This can be especially important as you age.  As people become older and busier, activity levels tend to drop and a proper diet can become harder to maintain as responsibilities increase.  Poor diet and nutrition can lead to loss of Lean Body Mass over time, which leads to a decrease in overall metabolism – not a slowdown.

  • Balance your diet and with your metabolism

The example of Jane is a good example of a well-intentioned dietary plan that doesn’t match the metabolism of the person practicing it.

Even though Jane has been led to believe that 1,800 calories is right for her age and gender, because her metabolism doesn’t require that many calories, she will end up gaining weight despite her efforts to eat a healthy diet – and probably will end up blaming her “slowing metabolism.”

It’s examples like Jane’s that show how important understanding the link between metabolism and body composition is.

How much Lean Body Mass do you have?  What might your BMR be?  These questions should be answered first before starting any weight loss or diet program, as well as conversations about metabolism.

The first step is always to get the information you need to get the answers to these questions by getting your body composition accurately tested.  Your metabolism and your body composition are strongly linked, so in order to truly understand your metabolism and weight, you must get your body composition tested.

Does A Cheat Day Undo A Week at the Gym?

Does A Cheat Day Undo A Week at the Gym?

Of all the fun activities you could spend your time doing, dieting probably doesn’t rank very high.

Dieting involves keeping track of calories, substituting some of your favorite snacks for healthier alternatives, and feeling periodically hungry.  Far from fun – dieting usually feels like hard work.

Then, after weeks and months of keeping your diet, you finally start to see the changes in weight you’ve been working for.  Then a week later, there’s a special event. Maybe it’s someone’s birthday.  Maybe you had a vacation planned. You’ve already lost some weight, and you’re on your way to meeting your goal, so you think, “I can cheat this weekend, just this once. I can just go out and have fun for a couple days and get right back on my diet.”

When Monday comes, you weigh yourself on the scale – just once a week, because you already know that you shouldn’t weigh yourself every day – and you see something that stops you in your tracks: you’ve gained 5 pounds.

The 5 pounds you worked 2 months to get rid of. All your hard work has been erased.

Or has it?

Good news: you almost certainly didn’t gain 5 real pounds, and it’s definitely not 5 pounds of fat.  More than likely, the 5 scary pounds that you see displayed to you by your scale Monday morning is nothing more than 5 pounds of water weight.

How can you tell?

Gaining Fat is "Hard Work"

First of all, let’s get one thing cleared up right now: you can’t gain a pound of fat in a day. Biologically, it would be astounding if you did.  You are probably already very aware of how difficult it is to lose fat, but would you believe that it’s also “difficult” to gain it?

Fat gain and loss has a lot to do with your energy/caloric balance – how many calories you take in vs. how many calories you use during the day.  If you are using more energy than you take in, your body gets some of the energy it needs from your fat stores.  If you’re taking in more energy – overeating beyond your body’s needs – then the opposite happens: you build fat stores.

A commonly held formula in the health and fitness world is that there are 3,500 calories stored in a pound of fat. The theory goes that if you reduce your daily caloric intake by 500 every day of the week, in 7 days you’ll lose a pound of fat.  Conversely, if you overeat by 500 calories a day, you can gain a pound of fat in a week.

Although researchers are still debating how reliable the 3,500 Cal = 1 lb of fat rule is, the point is: you have to actually “work” at gaining AND losing fat. And in both cases, it takes time.

Now, is the “work” you have to do to gain fat easier than the “work” you do to lose it? Of course!  Adding on an extra 500 calories is extremely easy: a large blended coffee-flavored drink will do it right away, for example. So will a 32 oz cup (the kind you get standard at fast food restaurants) of orange soda.

So in order to gain a pound of fat, you would need to add about 500 calories a day on top of your normal diet, every day, for about 7 days.  This makes gaining any amount of fat over a short period such as cheat day extremely difficult and unlikely.  To gain 7 pounds of fat in a day, you’d have to eat about 24,500 calories on top of what you usually eat in a day.  That’s about the entire daily caloric intake of 8 – 10 adult men.

Water Weight

waterweight2

So if that 7 pounds of weight isn’t fat, then what is it? And how long is it going to stick around?  The answer involves your body’s favorite energy source: a molecule called glycogen.

Glycogen is an energy source that is produced primarily from carbohydrates.  Your body loves glycogen because it’s an easily accessible energy source that provides a lot of energy.

Glycogen also has an interesting attribute: it bonds really well with water.  In fact, for every gram of carbohydrate in your body, there are about 3 to 4 molecules of water bonded to it. This can cause some large increases in weight, but weight due to water, not fat. Depending on what kind of diet you were on, loading up on carbs on a cheat day can increase your weight noticeably.

If you were dieting to lose fat, you likely were trying to cut carbohydrates out of your diet.  It’s a very popular dieting technique, and diets structured around low carbohydrate and low caloric intake are about as basic a diet as they come.  The Mayo Clinic notes that a diet targeting low carbohydrate intake constitutes about 60-130 grams of carbs a day.  Some popular diets – such as the Atkins Diet – target extremely low levels of carbohydrates, as low as 18 grams a day.

If you’re taking in 60 grams of carbs a day on your diet, you’re holding onto approximately 210 grams of water. That’s about half a pound of water.

But if on a cheat day, you decide to eat and drink whatever you want and load up to 300 grams of carbohydrates (the average number of carbs eaten by men, according to the US Department of Agriculture), you would be retaining around 1kg of water, or 2.2 pounds.  If you were on a 60 carbs/day diet, you could be a pound and a half heavier already.  If you went up to 400 grams of carbs, you could add on 2 ½ pounds of water.

However, glycogen is far from the only substance or factor that can cause your body to retain extra water.  Excess sodium (salt), something found in a lot of cheat day foods, can also cause your body to hold onto water on top of the water held onto by your glycogen.  Once you factor in the effects of other things you ate and drank, your hormones, and your unique body composition, you can see why your weight can fluctuate so much.

It’s a marathon, not a 100-yard dash

A cheat day every once in a while will not erase weeks and months of hard work.  You can’t gain huge amounts of fat over a day or two.

Changing your body composition and losing weight is a long-term process, but if you do it right, you’ll have results that last.  Quick fixes and crash diets that focus on cutting out nearly all carbohydrates for a short period don’t actually achieve lasting results, and now that you understand a little about glycogen, you also understand why.

However, this doesn’t mean you can get carried away on cheat days.  Extra calories add up over time, a lot faster than you think.

If your cheat day becomes a cheat weekend, and your cheat weekend starts including Fridays too, then before you know it you’re only on your diet just 57% of the time.

Bottom line: it’s OK to give yourself a break. Just make sure after you’ve had your fun, you get back on your fitness journey and keep working towards your goals.

Why Everyone Needs Protein. Yes, Even You

Why Everyone Needs Protein. Yes, Even You

Many people correctly associate protein with muscle mass, as well they should, since protein and the amino acids that make it up constitute the building blocks of the muscle in your body.  If your muscles are a house, protein is the bricks.

However, because people link protein and muscle in their minds, sometimes they think that eating too much protein is going to make them automatically grow bigger muscle, or “bulk up.” This isn’t true, and this leads to a false understanding about your body’s need for protein and overall need for muscle mass.

You don’t need to convince many guys to take in additional protein to bulk up.  Even rookie weightlifters usually know that they need to increase their protein intake if they want to gain muscle mass and size.

But not everyone is a weightlifter. Not everyone’s an athlete. Not everyone wants to get (choose your favorite) huge/swole/bulked up/arms like cannons/abs of steel.

Some people just want to get toned. They don’t want to get bulky.  They’re afraid of having a body that looks like this:

Do people who just want to be toned need protein too? Absolutely they do, and even more importantly, they need enough protein to support muscle growth.

That’s because people who say they want to be toned – whether they know it or not – actually want to improve their body composition by reducing their fat mass and increasing their Lean Body Mass.  Protein plays a big role in achieving these goals; in fact, without protein, getting fit and looking good is almost impossible.

Where the “Bulky” Look Comes From

Most people who want to get toned say this because they don’t have any desire to be as huge as a professional bodybuilder.  That’s understandable.  It’s an extreme sport – bodybuilding requires your body to undergo drastic changes and huge amounts of physical development as well as specialized nutrition that, yes, typically involves consuming supplemental protein.

However, it’s not the protein that causes bodybuilders to look the way they do. It’s what they do to their body composition in their training that leads to their huge, ripped look.

When people imagine what a bodybuilder looks like, what they’re actually imagining is a bodybuilder incompetition shape.

In order to get into competition shape and get their muscles to pop out, a bodybuilder must drop their body fat percentage to dangerously low levels that nears their essential fat levels, which for men is about 3% and women 10-12% body fat.  That type of body composition looks like this:

female_bodybuilder_1024x1024

If your body composition looks like this, you will have huge, bulky muscles visible all over your body. For most people, this isn’t the goal.

Bodybuilders are one end of the extreme, but what’s on the other end isn’t much better.

The Consequence of Low Protein: Skinny Fat

You’ve probably heard a lot about being skinny fat. Skinny fat people look skinny but flabby: not toned and with no definition to their body at all.

Someone who is “skinny fat” is someone who looks skinny and has a “normal weight” according to the BMI but internally shares many characteristics with someone who is obese.

Normal weight, but obese? How is that possible?  Skinny fat is actually a popular term for a real medical condition called sarcopenic obesity. Someone who is sarcopenic obese has very low levels of skeletal muscle mass for someone of their weight.  They have body composition profiles that look like this:

skinny_fat_body_comp_1024x1024

Notice the large difference between the lengths of the bars showing Skeletal Muscle Mass.  It’s the complete inverse of the bodybuilder’s composition that we saw above.  Far from being close to essential fat, this person’s body fat percentage is 35%, 7% over what is considered healthy for women.

How do people become skinny fat?  One “popular” way to become skinny fat is actually something a lot of people believe to be “good fitness advice” for losing fat: cut calories and do tons of cardio without a focus on protein and muscle development. If this sounds like your workout strategy, you could be sabotaging yourself by breaking down your muscles.

A study in the Journal of Physiology examined a group of test subjects and had them do leg exercises under interesting circumstances: one leg was brought to a glycogen-reduced state (by exercising only that leg) and tested against the other leg with normal levels. The results? The researchers observed a net degradation of muscle protein in the glycogen-reduced leg.

By avoiding proper nutrition and muscle development, you will get no closer to achieving a toned look.  But unlike being a bulky bodybuilder, on this end of the spectrum, you’ll be flabby and skinny fat.

lean_model_grandeSo if bodybuilders are too bulky but skinny fat people are too flabby, how do you reach a goal of becoming and looking toned?

Develop a lean body composition.  What’s a lean body composition? One that is characterized by sufficient development of muscle mass and low amounts of fat mass: a kind of happy medium between a bulky bodybuilder and a skinny fat person.

In order to develop a lean body composition, you have to develop your Lean Body Mass. To develop your Lean Body Mass, you need to do some type of weight or resistance training. But in order to be successful, you need to give your body the nutrients it needs to grow, and that includes protein.

This doesn’t mean that you have to guzzle down protein shakes like you see bodybuilders and other athletes at the gym do.  In fact, overloading yourself on protein to develop your muscles is a complete myth.

In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers compared the muscle development of three groups of athletes on the same exercise regimen, but different levels of protein intake.  One group was given less than the daily recommended amount (1.4g/kg of body weight), one group the recommended level (1.8g/kg of body weight), and one group over the daily recommended level (>2.0kg/ of body weight).

The researchers found no recorded benefit in strength or body composition changes in the group that exceeded the recommended amount of protein needed for strength training.  They found that 0.8 – 0.9 grams per pound of body weight was sufficient to see favorable changes in body composition.

Let’s say you weigh 125 pounds, and you’re working to increase your Lean Body Mass.  You would need to set a target of about 100 grams.

100 grams might seem like a lot, but consider that 1 cup (140 grams) of chicken contains 43 grams of protein.  That’s just the protein in just one part of just one meal in your day.  A can of tuna can contain as much as 49 grams.  With a cup of chicken and a can of tuna, you’d almost entirely meet your protein needs.  Add in a glass of 2% milk (9-10 grams), and you’re well over 100 grams for the day.

As you can see, getting the protein you need to develop your Lean Body Mass and build a toned body isn’t actually very hard, but you do need to be aware of your protein needs so that you can meet them.

Think about your dietary choices. If they include lots of fruits and vegetables, that’s great!  But if you’re not supplementing your enough protein in your diet from protein-dense foods such as meat and fish, you can easily have several days where you don’t meet your protein requirements.

More Protein = More Muscle and Less Fat

Developing your body through strength training and giving it the protein and other nutrients it needs to grow efficiently have another bonus: increasing your metabolism.  It’s an added bonus that can help you shed fat, which is what many people set out to do when they get on a diet and exercise plan. The muscle that you can grow and develop through exercise is called Skeletal Muscle Mass.  Skeletal Muscle Mass is also the largest component of your Lean Body Mass.  That’s important because, as research has shown,increased Lean Body Mass leads to increases in Basal Metabolic Rate – what you probably refer to as your “metabolism.” Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the total number of calories that your body requires to maintain its Lean Body Mass at rest, and any increase in your BMR adds to the total number of calories your body burns in a day.  How does this help you lose fat? According to the Centers for Disease Control, you need to burn more calories than you eat to lose fat mass.  Assume for the moment that your total caloric needs for the day are 2,500 Calories and you eat exactly 2,500 calories to match. That’s called being in a “caloric balance.” Now suppose that through proper nutrition and exercise, you increase your Lean Body Mass over the course of several months and your BMR increases by 250 calories as a result. Now your body will require 2,750 calories to maintain your weight. Now provided you maintain your diet at 2,500 calories and don’t start eating more, that metabolism increase of 250 calories becomes a -250 caloric deficit, which, if you can maintain over the course of weeks and months with proper diet and exercise, can lead to you losing fat.

Diet and Exercise Works (but you knew that)

It’s natural for people to want shortcuts – you only need to be on the internet for a few minutes before you find the latest fad diet/juice cleanse/detox that claims to be the “one weird rule” that will unlock the key to fat loss. Shortcuts and “life hacks” offer the promise of fantastic results without having to put in the hard work.

However, the truth is that the age-old advice for fitness – diet and exercise – is always going to be the most reliable and consistent way to reach your fitness goals and get you the look you want.  And part of that age-old advice is: include enough protein in your diet. It’s not going to make you bulky, huge, or anything of the sortunless you push your body to grow that way with heavy exercise.

Protein is a macronutrient, and together with carbohydrates and fat, is one of the three main sources your body uses for calories.  It’s not a synthetic growth hormone like steroids. Protein is as important to you as any other nutrient source.

So don’t be afraid of protein.