Being told what you want to hear is nice, and comforting.
Being told what you need to hear is not always pleasant, but it’s extremely helpful.
There’s a ton of blatant nonsense in the health and fitness industry. Let’s filter through some of it right now with some uncomfortable truths about nutrition, health, and fitness.
Noticeable progress is possible in a 12-week span, but make no mistake that building a very strong, lean body (depending on a person’s starting point) more often takes months, even years, of consistent effort. The people you see in fitness magazines, for example, didn’t get that way in a few short months. That is years of consistent work.
This shouldn’t be a discouragement. Rather, it highlights the importance of creating an enjoyable lifestyle. You must enjoy (for the most part) what you do this week, so you’ll keep doing it next week, next month, and next year.
Think about any great artist or musician. A magnificent piano player didn’t touch the keys for the first time a few months ago, and a great painter didn’t create masterpieces within the first few months of putting brush to canvas. They practiced their craft diligently and consistently. If you want to be healthier, stronger, leaner, or just feel incredible, treat the way you eat and move your body in the same way. (This is not to suggest you must devote a ton of time to eating well and working out — but you must do the few big things that produce the greatest results frequently and consistently.)
There are individuals who get strong quickly, learn proper exercise form instantly and effortlessly, those who stay lean easily, those who seem to get lean with ease. Then there are those who must be extra diligent and more disciplined. Strength is harder to gain. Building muscle is a struggle. Losing fat is no easy feat. Keeping fat off is even more challenging.
Are you the type of person that gains weight easily and must work harder than your friends to lose weight (i.e., a personal who proclaims to have genetics that suck)? As much as that sucks for you, it’s your reality. Acknowledge it, embrace it, and keep charging forward. Don’t allow the challenge to be an excuse not to become the best version of yourself.
Some days, or even spans of time, you will not want to work out. Or your schedule will be unpredictably chaotic when getting in regular workouts is a challenge. It’ll be up to you to do it anyway, in whatever capacity possible (e.g., shorter workouts: instead of having the luxury of a 60-90 minute workout window, you may have to accomplish what you can in 45 minutes).
Motivation is not always abundant, and neither is time. But don’t let this dishearten you. Simply accept it as a fact of life, and then have a plan to deal with such situations.
When things are good, take advantage. When your plans get wrecked, find a way to work with what you have.
Refer to the article Achieving Goals is Hard and Most People Fail. Here’s How to (Finally) Succeed to help out.
This applies to diet and fitness. Using myself as an example: my wife and I eat the same foods every day. A few years ago my total cholesterol was in the mid 400s; my wife’s was below 200. We ate the same foods, every day, and we’re both active. To get my cholesterol down I had to be more vigilant about what I ate. That meant decreasing my saturated fat intake and eating more oatmeal, beans, olive oil in place of other fats, fish, and doing so consistently (i.e., week after week, month after month). That finally brought my cholesterol down into an acceptable range.
Your friend may swear by her bodyweight workouts, but you may enjoy and respond better to squatting, deadlifting, and pressing progressively heavier weights and using bodyweight exercises to complement your barbell training. Your friend may swear that skipping breakfast helped her shed those last few stubborn pounds, but skipping breakfast may mean struggling to get through the first part of the day for you.
Everyone is different. Pay attention to how your body responds, and don’t be afraid to take a different path. It’s your body — you must be your own guru.
We all want to like how we look, and we want to feel confident in our clothes. And some people think if they look healthy then they must be healthy. That’s not always the case. For example: I certainly looked healthy and ate well when my cholesterol was well over 400, but that number needed to be improved. Likewise, when I was consumed with disordered eating habits to the point it negatively affected my social life, revolved my life around the gym, and was completely obsessed with how I looked — I looked good, but that lifestyle and mindset was not healthy.
Looks can be deceiving. Health is not primarily about looking good in a swimsuit. Health is reflected in the way you think about what you eat and how you move your body. Health is revealed in blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, triglycerides, inflammation markers, and other markers. Health is revealed in how you feel, the energy you have to do the things you enjoy. A true healthy lifestyle makes you the best version of yourself and is a proactive approach to being healthy and warding off disease.
A round booty, a huge deadlift, or a defined set of arms? These things can be awesome too, but it’s something you achieve or do because you’re healthy or are trying to get healthier, they don’t define it exclusively.
But, what about after you reach those goals? If you want to maintain the results you achieve, look beyond the immediate goal. Ask: how can I maintain the results I’m aiming to achieve? Can I continue doing next year what I did to reach my goal? If the answer isn’t yes, you need to rethink the path you’re on.
Short-term goals can be rewarding, but don’t let them derail you for the future.
Look at it this way: wouldn’t you rather not only look great for your next big event, but still look and feel great for the next one too?
If you’ve read this website for an appreciable amount of time, you know I encourage women to eat for health and train for strength; allow fat loss and looking better to be side effects. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t want to lose weight. If you’re overweight and want to get rid of joint pain, improve your health, and have energy to play with your kids or do something like hike the strenuous trail at your local state park without feeling like you’re going to vomit, or you just want to feel confident in your skin, then losing weight is a great goal.
Weight loss is not a great goal, however, when you tie your happiness and self-worth to that outcome, or think it’ll make people like you more. I’ve worked with people who at one time tried to “hate their way” to a leaner, lighter body. They felt like garbage and hated the entire process and if they did reach that goal, they were dismayed to discover they still weren’t happy.
Contrast this to a woman, for example, who’s overweight and decides she’s tired of how much her knees ache and throb just from walking. She’s tired of feeling run down. She’s frustrated that she can’t play with her kids without getting winded in a matter of moments. She decides to improve her health and lose weight because she wants to feel great and have a body that allows her to do the things that are important to her, and improve her quality of life.
Don’t lose sight of why you’re doing what you’re doing. And do it for the right reasons.
Many will sorta-kinda try it for a couple weeks and when they don’t look noticeably different, they blame the diet and exclaim, “I knew that was too simple to work!” But, in reality, they did not do it. Either they practiced the guidelines sporadically, or didn’t do them long enough.
Don’t look for something complex or “advanced” until you master the basics. I mean doing the proven things — eat mostly real food, eat sufficient protein, make sleep a priority, strength train at least two or three times per week — for many months.
Be honest with yourself: are you doing the things you know are important, consistently? If not, how can you change that, starting today?
This is why fat-burning pills and wraps exist, and marketers promote their “revolutionary” fat burning workout programs, and why turn-key, get-rich-quick products and mastermind groups thrive. We all want fast results. Marketers know this, so they will push that button to get your attention long enough for you to whip out your credit card. Acknowledge this innate temptation for a short-cut or fast results. And when you’re tempted by something promising just that, tell yourself it’s likely not going to work. (How many fat burning supplements/get-lean-fast diets and programs have you tried, or heard about your friends trying?)
Once you’re aware of this trait within us all, you can call it out for what it is: a desire for the path of least resistance to immediate results. And then remind yourself, with extremely rare exceptions, nothing great comes quickly or easily. Be it a leaner body, achieving your first unassisted chin-up, building a thriving career — lots of consistent work and perseverance are mandatory.
For example, I recommend that women focus on eating mostly real foods, include a good source of protein in each meal, and participate in a progressive strength training program. “But, Nia, will lifting heavy with squats, deadlifts, presses, and chin-ups and applying that nutrition information help me lose fat and build a better looking body?”
I can say “Yes” until my face is blue because I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count — but the only way to really know, is to try it and see. And “try it and see” meaning committing to doing those things for a minimum of 12 weeks, and see what happens.
Some people intentionally churn out massive amounts of misinformation to serve their own interests; some people are simply ignorant; some people think they’re truly helping and spreading the truth. Knowing the difference can be challenging.
I’m no exception. Several years ago I experimented with the Paleo style of eating. I thought low-carb was the best way to eat for health and to get a lean body. The nutrition experts I followed at the time had studies and experience backing up the theory that that style of eating was the best way, for everyone, to eat. Thankfully, I later realized the people and resources I was reading to back up such claims were only showing studies that supported their point of view (i.e., confirmation bias) while completely ignoring studies and experience that suggested otherwise.
Rule of thumb: look at both sides of nutrition, and fitness, claims. Don’t look for what you want to see — be objective (easier said than done, and this is why some people are extremely dogmatic with their views and even send lengthy, hateful emails defending their eating preferences — it’s personal to them).
Know why you believe what you believe, and look at both sides to have a true understanding.
To get started, there are a few basic truths with nutrition. The first being, as proven by science, that you should eat mostly real, minimally processed, nutrient dense foods. The second, there is no single best diet for losing fat or maintaining weight loss (more on this in number 15). The third, the diet that will produce the best results is the one you can follow consistently.
I’ve stated repeatedly that there isn’t one thing that works for everyone. Taking myself as an example, counting calories or even tracking macronutrients (aiming for a specific amount of carbs, fat, and protein each day) leads me down an old, terrifying path of obsessive eating habits.
You need to find what’s best for you. If that is counting calories, then count away. If that’s following simple guidelines, do that. If a form of intermittent fasting works best for you, then do it. Don’t adopt guidelines that make things more stressful or lead to obsessive habits.
Another example I’m seeing with more frequency: some people started wearing fitness trackers to see how many steps they took each day, or to track their heart rate. But then they started obsessing over burning a certain number of calories and made themselves work out harder or longer. Workouts became a chore because they were obsessed with reaching a certain calorie burn or heart rate. Once they realized the problem, they tossed the fitness tracker aside and got back to simply focusing on getting stronger and improving their performance each workout. This took away the stress from chasing a huge calorie burn, and enjoyment returned.
Some tools can be helpful. But for some people, certain things can create a mental burden.
I’ve seen it too many times to count, and experienced it myself.
Getting good results leads to a lusting for great results; even better results. Not to say this is always a bad thing — seeing (or feeling) the results from your effort boosts motivation so you want to keep going. There is a problem, however, when a good thing gets ruined from being taken to an unhealthy, obsessive extreme.
Good food choices can turn into extreme restriction, which can lead to obsessive eating habits, binge eating, and eating disorders.
Going to the gym consistently can turn into compulsive exercise and feeling the compelling need to “earn your food” or “burn off” the unhealthy stuff you ate over the weekend.
For example, some people rant and rave that you should only eat fresh vegetables — frozen is inferior, especially when you microwave them, so they say.
Fantastic! So the busy mom who wants to improve her health and her family’s health and has been buying microwaveable veggies because it saves time now thinks she has to clean, chop, and prepare veggies or else she’s not doing “good enough.”
But what’s ideal or better isn’t actually better if you can’t do those things consistently. If a busy mom has to choose between buying a head of broccoli, chopping it, and steaming it over something convenient like the drive through window at the local fast food restaurant, she may think, “Eating well is just too hard.” Sure, buying broccoli from a local farmer and preparing it yourself is likely a bit healthier than buying a bag of chopped frozen broccoli that you can microwave in the bag. But I’d much rather someone eat microwaved veggies than eat french fries from the drive through most days of the week.
Bottom line: don’t stress over doing everything perfectly. Something “good” practiced frequently is better than “ideal” practiced occasionally.
Medical conditions that use nutrition as part of a treatment method aside, when it comes to fat loss, specifically, no one diet is superior to another. This is especially true when it comes to long-term results. The diet that will provide the best results while ensuring you retain those results, is the diet you can adhere to.
It’s easy to understand why the average person is confused and frustrated when it comes to nutrition: there are dozens of people and sources claiming their diet is “best” or “superior.” And since they have testimonials to back-up their claims, and (sometimes) select scientific studies to back them up, it seems hard to argue with them, unless you know how to read and dissect research.
Research has revealed that when total calories and protein are kept the same, there’s no fat loss advantage to a low-carb or low-fat diet. Both work. There was a massive diet and body composition review headed by Alan Aragon that explains this in detail.
A few key points (direct quotes) from this research article:
There is no “best” diet, only what’s best for you.
Don’t allow dogma to cloud your judgement.
Some people allow these things to derail them. Some people use the “Well I made horrible food choices today so I might as well eat whatever the hell I want all weekend and start over Monday” as a viable excuse. Some people sustain an injury or allow an old injury to hold them back. They only look at the list of things they can’t do with despair. Successful people (and many women in my coaching groups and those in the Beautiful Badass Course are absolute rockstars at this) choose to focus solely on what they can do, and make the most of it.
You can always do something. And when you get derailed, find a way to get back on track immediately, without any guilt or shame. Start moving forward again.
Maybe you’re one of the women who knows too well what it’s like to see a larger-than-expected number on the bathroom scale, and it sets a negative tone for your entire day. Maybe you know what it’s like to scrutinize every piece of food you eat and feel guilty if you eat something “bad.”
Some people can step on the bathroom scale and use the data as objective information. E.g.: “I gained 10 pounds without realizing it. Well, I’ll start making better food choices and repurchase my gym membership and start a beginner strength training program.”
Some people, however, cannot look at the number objectively, free from emotion. E.g.: “Oh my gosh I only lost one pound in two weeks. It should have been so much more than that. That’s it — I’m going to get more strict with what I eat and start adding in extra workouts until I see at least a five pound drop.”
If you can’t eliminate the emotional element attached to the number on the bathroom scale, then stay off it and use other indicators to track your success. If you need to lose weight you can use other objective measures such as how your clothes fit, waist circumference, how diligently you practice good habits, your workout performance.
This is a mistake I’ve made. With strength training, for example, I used to declare that free weights were superior to machines. That, if you could, you should be squatting and deadlifting a barbell. But then I realized: what about people who don’t have that equipment? What about people who hate those exercises? What about those who physically can’t do those movements correctly?
As much as it pains me to see it happening, more and more gyms don’t have barbells, or don’t allow deadlifts to be performed. For some people, those gyms are the only available facilities to train at. If they see a “You absolutely must deadlift or you’re wasting your time!” statement but their gym doesn’t allow deadlifts, they may think there’s no hope for them.
And that’s terrible, and just wrong.
Squats, deadlifts, and presses with a barbell are all you need to get strong and healthy, but they’re not the only tools and exercises that produce great results.
Do what you can. Work with what you have available. Make the most of it, and improve your performance consistently. You can use this template to create your own workouts too.
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