There are literally thousands of articles with thousands of different pieces of advice for the best ways to approach fitness and nutrition. Such a large magnitude of contradictory information can lead to mass confusion among readers as to what is the best approach. While there is no single best way to go about starting a fitness program or eating healthily, we can certainly separate the most important, fundamental concepts from the fluff. By sticking with the fundamentals, most people can achieve their goal of being fit and healthy without being bogged down by often confusing “advanced” training techniques and nutritional strategies. Below are the top 5 tips for a successful fitness program. By following these tips you can lose weight, get stronger, improve your health, and gain more confidence.
1) Log your food.
Keeping an accurate food log can sometimes be tedious, but it has been shown to be well worth it. One study concluded that individuals who logged their food on average six days per week lost double the amount of weight as individuals who logged on average only one day per week.1 We know that food logs aid in weight loss, but why? There are a few avenues in which keeping a food journal can help you stay on track.
Many people gain extra weight because of unhealthy eating choices. These unhealthy eating patterns have become habits, and habits occur on an unconscious level.2 In other words, we don’t necessarily know that we are making these choices. It is going to be very frustrating trying to improve the food choices we make if we aren’t even aware that these decisions are being made. By keeping an accurate journal of what we eat, we can identify where we may be making mistakes, because now we have our choices on paper that we can look back on.
The second reason that food logging can aid in weight loss is by giving us a better estimate of our calorie consumption. It is the most fundamental concept in weight loss that in order to lose weight you must consume fewer calories than you expend through activity during the day. There are techniques that can be used to estimate calorie consumption without writing it down and measuring (i.e. using your palm as a measuring tool for portion size). Personally I am very analytical when it comes to these sorts of things, and food logging (when done correctly) can be far more accurate than palm estimations. By logging your calories you will be able to clearly see if you are sticking to your daily calorie goal, or whether you are over- or under-shooting it.
The third reason you will want to begin a food journal is that it will help you make more mindful food choices. When we are faced with a tempting food, it is sometimes hard to stop ourselves from rationalizing why it is OK to indulge in our craving. If we force ourselves to write these choices down in our food log, regardless of whether it was a good or bad choice, we can begin to hold ourselves accountable. It is much easier to indulge in a craving (which you know you aren’t supposed to do) and then forget about it, compared to having to write it in your journal to look back on later. By logging everything you eat indiscriminately, you may begin to second-guess whether it is actually a good idea to eat that office-provided donut that’s been tempting you all morning.
2) Eat protein with each meal.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (along with carbohydrates and fats). Protein plays an important role in weight loss, particularly in building new lean tissue (muscle). When we exercise, we are essentially putting our body in a state of destroying this lean tissue. After exercise, and throughout the day, it is important to consume enough protein to ensure we instead build new tissue. Having enough available protein in your body will aid in protein synthesis, or the process in which your body builds new muscle.3 New muscle raises your resting metabolism and caloric needs, which means you burn more calories doing all of life’s activities. Therefore more muscle equals easier potential weight loss (and maintenance!).4
Even though this macronutrient has been shown to be super important for aiding in weight loss, many people still don’t consume enough. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein, the minimal amount suggested to maintain health, is approximately 0.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight daily, or roughly 10-35% of your daily calories.5,6 However, other research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that this amount may be too low for active adults.7 An additional suggestion is to consume 25-30g of protein with each meal in order to maximize protein synthesis.8
Not only is protein important for building new muscle, but it also helps keep you full for longer periods between meals. Protein consumption has been found to be more satisfying than both carbohydrates and fats in terms of satiety.9 By consuming enough protein you will likely remain full for longer periods between meals. This is important because prolonged hunger (feeling hungry during the day) has been shown to produce binge-eating behavior later in the evening.10
3) Drink enough water.
Getting the right amount of calories in the appropriate macronutrients is important, but an often overlooked aspect of weight loss, exercise performance, and general health is water consumption. Our bodies are made up of approximately 65% water.11 Neglecting this important facet of fitness could hold you back from making the type of progress you want to see. One study found that consuming appropriate amounts of water, when paired with a weight loss diet, showed greater amounts of weight loss than the weight loss diet alone.12 Additionally, substituting water for sugary drinks can decrease total energy intake (calorie consumption) between 7-15%.13 How exactly does dehydration (a state of decreased water intake) affect us physiologically? Below are some examples of potential side effects of even mild dehydration.14,15,16
- Disrupts our body’s temperature regulation.
- Can lead to headaches in a moderately dehydrated state.
- Negatively affects skin health.
- Decreased exercise performance – due to decreased blood volume, increased blood viscosity, and altered core body temperature.
- Increased water retention – due to fluid recirculation instead of expulsion.
- Decreased fat metabolism and general digestion disruption.
All of these symptoms can be prevented by consuming enough water daily. Additionally, consuming enough water can help you feel more satiated and improve mental alertness.16 So, how much water should you drink? The answer depends on a couple factors, including age, gender, activity level, climate, etc. The Institute of Medicine suggests women consume 91 fluid ounces of water and men consume 125 fluid ounces of water daily.17 This recommended daily intake of water includes water from all sources, including soup broths and fruit (i.e. watermelon), in addition to normal water consumed as a beverage. Drink enough water and not only will you feel better, but you will help yourself lose to more weight.
4) Lift weights… and do cardio.
When it comes to which exercise is best for weight loss, you will run into those who claim resistance training with weights is the only way to go, and cardiovascular-based (aerobic) exercise, such as running, biking, and swimming, are a waste of time and effort. On the other hand you will also find individuals who swear that cardio is king when it comes to weight loss. Don’t be fooled.
Resistance training with heavy weights has been shown to increase lean body mass (muscle) and aid in decreasing fat mass (body fat).18 Resistance training with heavy weights will allow you to gain additional muscle which in turn will help raise your resting metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn at rest), allowing you to burn more calories doing all of life’s activities than had you not participated in a resistance training program.19 This is a result of the fact that muscle is metabolically active, meaning it take calories in the form of energy to maintain those tissues. Body fat, on the other hand, lives rent-free on the body and requires very little effort to store. Weight training has a variety of other health benefits as well, including a positive effect on bone density, blood pressure, insulin resistance, depression, and sleep, to name a few.20,21,22 As you can see resistance training is very important for weight loss and general health, but guess what—so is cardiovascular exercise.
Aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, swimming, etc., has a variety of health benefits all on its own. Some of these benefits include improved heart health, improved blood lipids, improved stamina, lowered blood pressure, as well as improvements in hormone levels.23 While resistance training has been shown to have a greater influence on metabolism, an exercise program combining both aerobic and resistance training has the greatest effect on metabolism.18 Make sure you incorporate both aerobic and resistance training into your program for the best results.
Some may fear over-doing aerobic exercises for fear of losing “muscle gains.” This is based on the idea that because prolonged aerobic exercise breaks down lean tissues in the body (a process called catabolism), you are essentially killing your progress from the resistance training when doing both concurrently. While an extreme aerobic training program may negatively affect your ability to build muscle and strength24 (think training for a marathon), aerobic workouts lasting 20-60 minutes two to three times per week are unlikely to cause any negative effect on your strength. Participate in aerobic exercise two-three times per week, as well as resistance training two-three times per week, and as long as you are making good food choices you will see progress. Remember, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet!
5) Stay consistent.
Without a doubt one of the most important pieces of advice I can give you is that no matter your program, you have to be consistent. You have to remember that you didn’t gain x amount of extra pounds overnight, so thinking you can lose it overnight is insanity. Even small, yet consistent, dietary changes of even 100-200 calories daily can mean the difference of 20 pounds over the span of a year.25
An important thing to remember is that fitness is very much a skill, and just like any skill it will take practice before you get good at it. You wouldn’t get down on yourself if you weren’t fluent in a new language within the first month, so don’t beat yourself up for not losing an unrealistic amount of weight in an unrealistic amount of time. The more you exercise, and the more you practice making good food choices, the better you will get at this whole fitness thing.
With each small win, your confidence and your trust in the process will grow. However, you will never get to that point if you quit before you’ve had the chance to really learn and practice these good behaviors. Make fitness a part of your daily routine, so that it becomes as automatic as brushing your teeth in the morning. Once fitness becomes automatic it becomes a lifestyle, and once it’s a lifestyle it becomes permanent.
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