My Top 10 Health & Fitness Tips: In-Laws Edition

This past October, my in-laws asked me to send them a list of 10 fitness tips. Obviously, I obliged...

LIFESTYLE

1. Do not worry about calories. This is not the same as "calories don't matter, ever." I could talk ad nauseam about the specifics behind it, but it is not something that should, especially initially, even be taken into consideration. I liken it to building a house: saying I need to eat 2000 calories per day is like saying I'm going to Home Depot to buy 2000 square feet of material. Sure, an average house will have been built with an average number of square feet of material, and major excesses or deficits will make a big difference in its form and structure, but what's much more important is what those materials are, and when and how they are used.

NOTE: Be aware that calorie counting goes by MANY other names, but it's all the same. "Eat less, move more." "Portion control." "Everything in moderation." "Burn more than you expend." "Calories in/calories out." It all refers back to calorie counting, which is not helpful. Some people will even (incorrectly) try to apply the first law of thermodynamics! Useless and counterproductive.

2. Realize that doctors have little (if any) training in nutrition. And what little they may have had was way back when they were in medical school. To exemplify this point, think of the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that helps control (induce/reduce) hunger signals. But guess what? Ghrelin wasn't even discovered until 1996! Doctors have their place, but helping people with healthy, sustainable fat loss and nutritional health is most likely not one of them.

3. A good general rule is to only even consider nutritional information that you find and to completely ignore any information that finds you. If an article or a "study" or a product or new bit of information (etc.) finds you, it's most likely been sensationalized to make a headline or is advertising of some sort. There's good information out there, but you have to go find it.

4. There are 4 main "inputs" that have the majority of control over health: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress. For optimal health, all 4 need to be addressed. This sort of relates back to point 3 about information being sensationalized; some of the most popular books on health nowadays, while they contain great information, are a little too reductionist in that they pare their message down to just one of these things and act as though it's the Holy Grail of health. Sure, what the book has to say might be great information, but all 4 inputs require some management in order to reach peak health.

EXERCISE

I really love the dictum lift heavy weights, walk often, sprint* occasionally, and never jog. It really sums up my views on the exercise portion of things. 

5. Lift heavy weights. (Remember, heavy is relative.) Both of you should be trying to go to the gym to lift weights and get stronger. I guarantee you neither of you has anything to worry about in the "get too bulky" department. Gaining substantial muscle mass is a very difficult thing, especially for women. But strength training carries myriad benefits, not the least of which being: increased lean body mass (not only relegated to "muscle," and a big predictor of overall health); fat loss; increased metabolism; more transferable/functional skill (think about the last time you had to run an extended distance versus the last time you had to lift something heavy off the floor).

NOTE: Always remember that, when lifting weights, the purpose is to move your body through a specific range of motion, NOT to move the weight a certain number of times. Sure, you'll probably have a goal for the number of reps you do, but if you're not performing the movement correctly, then you're really missing the point.

6. You are not exercising to "burn calories." Exercise is a very poor way to lose weight and/or burn calories. HOWEVER, it's VERY important for activating a lot of beneficial metabolic and hormonal processes that get your body into a healthy enough state to no longer want to hold onto its body fat stores. I feel any more detail here would require A LOT more detail and explanation, so let me know if you want to hear more...

7. Walk often. Again, we're not looking for calorie burning. We're looking to give our bodies an input that they'll understand. Our bodies are meant to perform a lot of low level aerobic activity. Oddly enough, this is where the mainstream media actually got something right (though they do view it through the tainted lens of calorie counting). Park a little farther away in the parking lot; take the stairs; go for a walk; take a hike. Just try to move more. When the experts I listen to are asked about the minimum or maximum amount of walking one should do in a day, their answer is the same: "as much as you can."

NOTE: We can revisit the "sprint occasionally" part of this at a later time. The most important things to focus on should be walking more and lifting heavy things (two times per week should be totally sufficient, honestly).

*Here, we are defining a sprint as working for short bursts at 100% intensity. So you can "sprint" on an exercise bike for bouts of 20 seconds each, or you can "sprint" by pushing a weighted sled, or you can "sprint" by doing kettlebell swings. It does not just mean running fast

NUTRITION

8. For a generally healthy lifestyle, you should limit your consumption of grains and sugars. For a fat loss goal, you should try your best to eliminate it completely (which, during a fat loss phase, would include limiting fruit consumption).

9. Remove carbohydrates from breakfast. If you need to eat breakfast, stick to fat and protein. There are many ways to accomplish this and many resources/recipes/ideas available to help. Pinterest is a treasure trove of simple cooking ideas. Push any carb consumption to later in the day (this does not include leafy and/or fibrous veggies; those are fine during the day, mostly due to their fiber content).

10. Don't be afraid of fat. Red meat, bacon, butter, cream, cheese (if well tolerated), olive oil, coconut oil, dark meat chicken, big ol' pork chops. One benefit of this is that the fattier cuts, especially of chicken, are usually less expensive because there's a smaller demand for them. Give me a chicken thigh over a breast any day, and it's usually half the price! 

It's at this point that most people will mention something about "yeah, but only good fats, right?" Meh. Splitting hairs. If you're eating real food (which you both seem to already have a good grasp on, but you'd be surprised with some people...), sure there are considerations to be made, but stressing over minutiae like that will really just become counterproductive. Remember - one of the inputs we need to manage is stress!

(Your body does not need a constant supply of carbohydrates, and if anyone starts telling you otherwise or giving you a hard time, or you're just curious, then let me know and I'll explain more. But in general, I think of it in terms of earning your carbs. [Long, boring explanation of metabolic energy pathways deleted], your carb intake should mirror your exercise intensity.)

BONUS:

11. Prioritize sleep. Most of the people I follow would put sleep above everything else I've said (assuming it were a list in order of importance, which it's really not...). Have to choose between a full night's sleep and making it to the gym? Take the sleep.

12. When it comes to stress, the name of the game is stress management and not elimination. We live in a stressful world, and there's no way to avoid it. In fact, trying to eliminate stress can end up being stressful in and of itself! But trying to find more and better ways to deal with and manage stress, that's helpful. 

And as far as stress with food goes, DON'T DO IT. Strive for perfection with your diet, and if you hit around 80% then you're doing pretty gosh darn well. There's a saying (I think in Eastern medicine) that "It's better to eat the wrong thing with the right attitude than the right thing with the wrong attitude." So in practice, it's healthier to enjoy a cupcake and not worry about it than it is to stressfully make yourself scarf down a plate of vegetables.

It was really great seeing you both this weekend. Thanks for coming up! 

And please, let me know your thoughts on this list. It's hard for me, nerdy and inquisitive as I am, to gauge most folks' idea of "the right amount of detail." Most people, because this doesn't interest them the way it does me, are ok with getting a tip. I, however, seem to always think, "Yeah, but why? How's that work? What's the point?..." 

Thanks! Hope to see you soon!