Ask most people today about how to be in the best shape, and the usual answer will involve lots of cardio, and eating less. They are spouting conventional wisdom passed down to us from the fitness and diet industries. The fitness industry takes in almost 18 Billion per year, while the diet industry rakes in over twice that! I am not saying that there is a vast conspiracy here; after all, they are just trying to make a living. However, the best way to make a living is to keep folks coming back for more.
Let’s consider “The Biggest Loser” method: Loads of punishing exercise accompanied by starvation diets. And guess what? It works, doesn’t it? But you can’t fool Mother Nature. Prolonged starvation ultimately leads to very poor health, and ultimately death. Along the way, the body becomes increasingly more efficient at retaining fat stores. Studies show that when food becomes available again, the body is over 300% more efficient at gaining weight! I think that if you take a look at most of your friends that diet all the time, you will find this to be the case. Sadly in most instances, lean muscle mass has also been decimated in the starvation process.
Now let us take a look at what goes on at the average gym: endless hours logged on elliptical machines. Usually, this is done after a full day of work, or in the wee hours before work. The saying “ stuck on a treadmill” has a negative connotation for a reason- it is no fun. We also grew up with the saying “No pain, no gain”. I don’t know where this came from, but pain generally produces avoidance behaviors. If ignored for too long, damage results. But again, with diligence, folks can lose weight doing this.
The two above scenarios are generally difficult to maintain, as they are torturous, and tedious. The will to keep at it generally gives out. As previously stated, the body is now very primed to add body fat. The weight quickly comes back, and continues until the new weight is now greater than that of the old weight. After a while, the will power comes back; Jenny Craig and Lucille Roberts have you back as a paying customer, blaming yourself for being too lazy and not having enough will power.
In the last decade or two, the concept of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) has come into its own. The concept is simple: short periods of maximum effort punctuated by lighter exercise intervals, or periods of rest. Science shows that the results in muscle gain and fat loss are superior to hours of cardio. Think P90X or Insanity here. But before you go out and purchase the DVD’s, you should know that they have you doing this stuff for an hour or more almost every day. Do you know anyone that has bragged that they are doing P90X, only to quit a week or two into it? I certainly do. The problem here is that a little is good, a lot is terrible. Think of a little sun being ok, but too much, and you get burned.
The body produces certain hormones during HIIT, which in small doses result in fat loss and muscle gain. The problem with prolonged HIIT is that one of the hormones increased is Cortisol. This is the “stress” hormone, which will make you crash and burn if around in high doses for too long. High cortisol leads to high blood sugar, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease. It also interferes with sleep, which in turn leads to higher cortisol production. Lack of sleep, incidentally, leads to carbohydrate cravings and overeating. This vicious cycle can go on for only so long. Illness will usually derail this train. This condition is called adrenal burnout. The body stops producing cortisol, and the body is left overly fatigued.
So here is the solution
Don’t deprive yourself of sleep, especially if you are doing so to workout. The body requires eight hours of sleep, and maybe more if you are very active. The body breaks down during workouts. The gains come from sleep and rest.
Take it easy. If you had a really stressful day, don’t work out so hard. Mobility work and yoga are great, and you can do them after a hard day. Stress need to be minimized in order to optimize your health- plain and simple.
Eat real food! This is eighty percent of the whole equation. Since this site is mostly dedicated to ancestral ways of eating, I will keep the brief. Avoid flours and food made from flours of all kinds, not just wheat. Avoid sugars of all kinds (fruit is fine). I am talking about high fructose corn syrup, table sugar, agave, etc. Avoid industrial seed oils like soy, canola, corn, etc. Avoid nut butters which are also chock full of industrial seed oils.
Walk as much as you can during the day. I recommend a step counter as a most helpful tool. Shoot for 10,000 steps if you can.
Do five to fifteen minutes of HIIT two or three times a week. It does not have to be anything fancy. No gym membership required. Here is a sample: As many rounds as possible for 5 minutes of 10 air squats, 15 sit-ups, and 5 pushups (cheating if need be). That’s it. A few days later, do something else like going as fast as you can for twenty seconds on a bike, rest ten seconds, and do it all over again for four minutes. You could also rotate kettle bell swings, jumping rope or pull ups into any of these routines
I have always been a person who wants the best return for the least investment. That is why sleeping more, eating more of the right foods, chilling out more, and working out a lot less fits for me. I am not telling you to quit your cycling team if that means not spending fun time with your buddies and being bored. What I am saying that if the easy way gets you farther, why not choose that path.