I'm often asked about what I do to stay in shape...especially, by folks who knew me when I was 35lbs larger. This difference is actually bigger than the scale shows since I've added a ton of muscle. In truth, this is going to be a bit of a "do as I say, not as I do" piece (though I'll make acknowledgment of that at points)...I have some not-so-great habits that I don't think others should share b/c they come from an unhealthy place in my head. That said, I do have a lot of knowledge so here's some of it, aimed at someone looking to get started in the fitness game:
This will be long....but it will have bullets to help :P
GENERAL WORKOUT TIPS
- There's lots out there on what is the "best" activity, both for weight loss and just for heart health. The info can be helpful but I think it is better to start by thinking about what you can stick to. If running is awful, try a kickboxing class. If you are better working out alone, maybe an elliptical would work. You need something you will keep doing. I don't think you need to love it...that's ideal but not always realistic...but you need to be willing to stick to it.
- In that vein -- It is GREAT if you love your fitness routine. But plenty of folks don't. I love the results and I love the feeling when my workout is finished (esp. when it was early AM and I had done a great w/o before the rest of the world woke up!). That's enough to keep me motivated.
- Likewise, don't worry about what time of day experts says is best. Schedule your workouts when you are best able to maintain the habit. For me, this has varied over time...in Atlanta, I hit the gym on the way home; in Boston, it was early AM; now, I kick off my workouts between noon and one.
- Make it a habit. Making a habit is hard, but it is SO worth it. It becomes routine, like a cup of morning coffee (okay, maybe not THAT easy). Experts say 21 days makes a habit...I'd go more like a month. But once you've got it as part of your routine, it is MUCH easier to keep it going. In Boston, I'd often remind myself how hard the AM habit was to start and that would motivate me when the alarm felt way too early. It is easier to stay on the bandwagon than it is to get back on if you fall.
- That said, do know that sometimes rest IS best. It can be tough to judge, but if you truly need the extra sleep or are truly over-sore, then REST (though sometimes I find a light w/o a better fix for soreness than total rest). Just be truly honest about whether it is a matter of needing the rest or just being a bit lazy. One tip I read a lot that I do think has merit (but works better for PM w/o...not so much for first-thing folks) is to start a w/o with the promise that you can quit after 15min if you still aren't feeling it. Often, you'll keep going but sometimes it'll confirm the need to rest.
- Make it EASY...well, as easy as possible. When I went after work, I packed my gym stuff the night before and put it in the car. When I got in the car, I put it right next to me to help resist the urge to skip (I also put my purse in the trunk to make it harder to divert to comfort food). When I went before 5AM, I put my clothes out the night before...I even tucked the socks in the shoes (some are right/left specific but that took too much attention in the AM)....I could be in the building gym in about 5min which saved time. I honestly wasn't truly awake until halfway through the treadmill date.
- Like many women, my genes have me carrying some not-muscles on my middle...I doubt I could see a six-pack without getting to an unhealthy low weight. My thighs were still a bit jiggly even at my very lowest weight (when losing more would have been unhealty). It is sometimes important to recognize that our bodies are programmed to gain and lose in certain ways. Work for YOUR best healthy self...not a magazine cover.
- I will admit I do too much cardio. I won't tell you how much b/c I know hearing it from other people would hit a competitive bone in me. My overdoing it is partly tied to the limitations of my injured body and also because unemployment makes for long days. I do, however, always take a full day off each week and that is essential...both for sanity and for health. I think most people looking for weight loss should aim around 4-5 cardio sessions a week of 30-45 min.
- Okay...this is tough to put in the right words. A woman I knew in an online fitness forum once remarked about how slow she felt compared to other runners there. I spent some time in phrasing it right when I noted that she was a good bit bigger than the women she compared herself to and that they'd have slowed down too if they carried a 75lb backpack. The point here is that cardio should be a workout for you and at a pace right for you. Heavier people work harder in many exercises (i.e. walking, running, aerobics classes). Don't go too hard or push yourself to meet someone else's goals Just work to steadily improve YOUR times.
- Intervals can be great. The exercise scientists will say it is fabulous for your metabolism and it seems to be backed up. But it also helps prevent boredom and it can help you improve over time. I had never run (see this post for my history) and started by fiddling with the treadmill on a Manual setting and trying to run a bit longer each week. I worked on increasing time first, it can be a bit too much to try and add time and speed at the same time.
- DO THEM! I think the message has gotten around but it is worth repeating that the vast majority of women are not going to get crazy bulky. Female bodybuilders work crazy hard to get that way. A standard routine, even a tough one, won't make that happen. We're not wired that way. But strength training will give you such a great, fit appearance (I'd say "toned" but I get skittish with that word...building muscle and getting toned are the same but I feel like people treat them differently. A pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat BUT it takes up a lot less space so LOOKS very different. It is also metabolically active which means it burns calories even at rest. More muscle = more cookies without the guilt or gain.
- If you can afford it, time with a good trainer is totally worth it. I'm generally a solo gym gal, but I did learn the ropes first. You don't need a long contract, a few sessions with someone who can show you the ropes is plenty and so much more informative than any article or blog. Ideally, the training session can be wherever you will be working out regularly so it fits the equipment (or lack thereof...you can develop strength with at home work too using body weight and maybe a few dumbbells to supplement). Ask for recommendations and check they have a certification (other websites have better info on that). Pick a personality that fits you....I couldn't deal with a Jillian Anderson yelling at me and I prefer a trainer who looks "real" and has an attainable figure, not a model type (both b/c I like some muscle and I just want a source of inspiration, not perfection that feels impossible in a normal life).
- I've never been a fan of whole body workouts, but plenty of people like them and some particularly advocate them for beginners. I prefer a "split" which just means focusing on different body parts on different days. My current one isn't the most rational but I do two days a week with upper body on one and lower body and back on the other. The following split is where I started though and more rational given that most exercises overlap a bit (i.e. back and biceps are often hit together...so my split isn't good for consecutive days:
- Day 1 - shoulders/chest/triceps
- Day 2 - back/biceps
- Day 3 - legs
- I currently do two 30min strength sessions. That's plenty to maintain. When I did the three day split, it was three 20min sessions. More is would be better, but that is enough to get results.
- Do notice and applaud your progress. Look at those new muscles in the mirror during the workout! For me, my biceps showed a bit of definition first but it's the triceps that make me smile since they took longer to "pop". Looking at them helps with motivation.
- I do weights before strength. People go back and forth on what is "best" but I ignore that. I'd leave the gym without doing weights. I wouldn't leave without cardio. Therefore, I do weights first simply to make sure I do them.
- I do core work after both strength sessions. My routine focuses on "deep core" because it is more aimed at helping my injury than at bikini wear.
- I honestly can't give as much advice here because I am pretty messed up myself. That's a tip in itself....DO work on feeding yourself right, but DON'T let it carry you away. I think counting calories can be really helpful, but don't let it take over your life.
- If you do count, eat ENOUGH. Magazines always warn women to not dip under 1200cal/day. To many women, that then becomes a goal. Perfection. But, for most women, that's WAY too little. Your body will NOT function well with too little fuel, just like your car wouldn't run on empty. You will lose weight better on a bit more because your body isn't freaking out...our bodies are programmed to hold on to every morsel if we eat too little...it thinks you are starving and protects. If you eat more (but still less than you burn), it will behave better.
- And that's the key...in versus out. I think most women need at least 1500 calories a day to lose weight in a healthy manner, 1800 to maintain (more if you workout harder). Of course, it varies by individual, including by age, activity level, and size. And 210 calories of fruit may be the same number as 210 in a candy bar but nutrients are important too. And healthy calories are almost always more filling so you are satisified longer after a salad than a cookie.
- If programs help you, Weight Watchers is great. I think it is more of a lifestyle shift than a short-term fix and short-term fixes don't last. I think packaged food plans can help if you had a specific gain (i.e. extra weight due to stress) and they just get back to your norm. You DO need to make the right choices on WW though....I tried for a bit and used my points poorly which meant I got WAY too few calories.
- Healthy weight loss is SLOW. It might go faster at first, especially if you have a lot to lose, but ultimately one pound a week can be the best goal. Yes, it is slow...but it will LAST because you are building a better lifestyle rather than using a temporary fix and then going back to old habits and regaining the loss.
- I think veggies are magic. They are filling and nutrient dense but low in calories. Fruit is great too, but you do need to keep more of an eye on the calories.
- I'm HORRIBLE about this, but to avoid judgmental language. It isn't productive to talk about "good" and "bad"...try "nutritious" and "splurge". Further, I hate that the word "diet" is unfairly tie to the short-term fixes. I prefer to use "diet" to mean your overall eating style.
- Have fun and allow yourself some indulgences. Michelle Obama got slammed for going out for a burger, fries, and a shake, but I admire her for it. A healthy lifestyle has room for some splurges.
(I gave in and made a Part Two with some added tips).