E = You, Lean and Mean²
Forget what you've heard about calories, pounds, carbs, or milesthe adventure athlete's real secret to optimal weight is all about energy management
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
WE ARE MISLED. Experts want us to believe that managing weight concerns only two factors: diet (energy in) and exercise (energy out). Exercise more than you eat, they say, and the pounds fall away. Argue otherwise and they’ll brain you with a food-pyramid paperweight. But as that fleshy guy who beat you in last fall’s triathlon sadly proved, you can exercise all the time and still have, well, a lot to show for it. The problem is that the energy-in/energy-out dialectic ignores the importance of your metabolism ratehow fast you burn energy at rest. If you can simultaneously ramp up your metabolism while stabilizing food intake and activity level, you’ll have a three-pillared attack that can control your weight forever.
True, there’s a legion of sponsored athletes who’ve defied the odds and still inhabit the same bodies they had in high schoolforget them; it’s their job to keep the pounds off. If you’re anything like the rest of us, your hectic lifestyle, an injury, or (ahem) the holiday season are eventually going to inhibit your activity and slap you with a five- to ten-pound fine. When you resume your healthy routine, losing that weight is less about how “good” you are, the number of miles you run, or how many calories you consume than it is about keeping your internal engine humming. What follows is the latest research on mastering your metabolism through weight training, balancing fuel intake, and breaking bad habits. Since these points all deal with the management of fuel, we’ve also crafted a tip list based on the core principles of energy. Ignore these ten commandments and you’ll watch your energy tank and your cravings skyrocket; drill them into your life, however, and your doughy triathlon rival will soon be whimpering in his wetsuit.
Energy Zen—The Top Ten
Our unfashionable guide to a body-weight solution that actually works
1. Don’t Restrict
Using willpower to deny yourself food, what the nutritionists call “restricting,” will only lead you to pile on more pounds. Judging by how long some wait to eat, obese people have extraordinary willpower, while some of the country’s more whippetlike folk are spineless when it comes to temptation. What gives? When you restrict yourself, your body goes for too long without an energy source, and it responds by temporarily slowing your metabolism. When you finally do eat, your body responds viscerally, hoarding calories and urging you to consume more calories than your body can burn. What’s more, exercising on top of restrictions will result in an even more sluggish metabolism—anorexics who exercise actually lose weight more slowly than those who avoid working out. Don’t mess around with this powerful internal energy shut-off mechanism: Steer clear of crash diets.
2.Rev Up Your Engine
We’re sorry to report that metabolism naturally slows down as we age; that’s why weight gain creeps up on us beginning with college graduation. “You are losing muscle every year past 20, and this is causing your ability to burn energy to decline,” says Jim Karas, author of The Business Plan for the Body and proprietor of Solo Sessions, a weight-loss and exercise program in Chicago. Since muscle burns up to 25 times more energy than fat does, its presence is essential to keeping your metabolism humming. But not only does your body naturally lose muscle as you age, every time you lose weight through food restriction, it comes out of muscle. When you put the weight back on, it goes on as fat. The result is a continual decline in metabolic efficiency. You’re going to need to raise your metabolism each year just to stay even. Like planning for retirement, now is the time to habitualize exercise.
3. Lift Weights
Your body burns nearly three-quarters of your daily energy while you sit around twiddling your thumbs. Indeed, your body has the potential to burn far more calories in between your daily bike rides than on the rides themselves. The key is to raise your resting metabolic rate (RMR), and the best way to do this is through strength training. (Remember, muscle is the key to burning more energy.) You may loathe the gym, but Karas advocates three 30- to 45-minute sessions of strength training per week: “You get a 7 to 15 percent boost in basal metabolic rate from increased lean muscle tissue,” he says. “It’s the one area in our metabolism we can control.” 4. Be Mindful when You’re Hungry
The body’s energy-depletion alarm system is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer heritage, when uncertain food supplies necessitated slowing the engine to get through lean times. But now that we live in hamburger-rich environments, that familiar coiling in your stomach is weight management’s greatest enemy. Why? By the time you salivate, you’re much more interested in a 700-calorie brownie than a more sensible high-fiber food like wheat crackers. Not only that, but you’ll consume more because you’ve diminished your capacity to feel satisfied (see #1: “Don’t Restrict”) and are more likely to make poor food choices. Once your stomach starts telling you it’s empty, be more conscious in your selection and portion sizes. If you simply go with your gut, you’ll fall victim to your body’s Stone Age agenda.
5. Eat Often
“When it comes to weight, all the nutritional advice, like the food pyramid, may be barking up the wrong tree,” says Dan Benardot, associate dean of research for the College of Health and Human Sciences at Georgia State University and one of the first nutritionists to look at how subtle energy fluctuations during the day affect body composition. In a study of gymnasts and endurance runners, Benardot found that the more athletes let their energy levels dip below a certain point—in short, the hungrier they got before eating each meal—the higher their body fat. “Frequent eating is linked with lower body-fat percentage, less stress hormones, and less insulin response,” says Benardot. “More food intake does lead to more weight, but not in an equal fashion—it depends on how it is consumed.” Don’t let your fuel tank fall into the red. Benardot advises eschewing the typical 600-, 800-, 1,000-calorie meal plan for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Divide your meals in half, and eat approximately every three hours. Keep your largest meal under 800 calories.
Energy Zen—The Top Ten (Cont.)
6. Eat Foods That Take Up Space
Any effective food plan has to leave you satisfied. The good news is that studies in satiety—the science of dietary satisfaction—show that we subconsciously determine if we’ve eaten enough based on the volume and weight, rather than the tastiness, nutritional content, or caloric count, of what we eat. In a 1998 Penn State study conducted by nutritionist Barbara Rolls, subjects eating foods of differing density until satisfaction repeatedly chose to eat the same amount of food by weight or volume, not by calories. The group eating a vegetable casserole ate the same amount as a group eating a calorically denser pasta casserole. Thus, the second group ended up consuming more calories to arrive at the same level of satisfaction. “In the past, the approach to diet has been focused on balancing fat, carbohydrates, and protein,” says Rolls, author of The Volumetrics Weight Control Plan. “But now we know that water and fiber, which control a food’s weight and volume, have a much bigger impact on the amount of calories you take in.” Rolls’s tips: Avoid foods that are calorie-dense. These include all the usual suspects (fats and sweets), and some not-so-obvious ones like bagels and dried fruits. Don’t cut them out completely, but know how they affect you. And meanwhile, eat more foods with high levels of water and fiber, including raw vegetables, whole grains, water-based soups, and whole wheat al dente pasta.
7. Understand the GI
The glycemic index, or GI, was originally developed for diabetics—it ranks foods on a scale of 100 by how quickly a given carbohydrate is converted to blood glucose. The higher the number, the faster the carb becomes blood sugar. Foods with a high GI rating rush sugar into your bloodstream and initiate an excessive insulin response wherein more carbohydrate is stored as fat, and you feel less easily satisfied and hungrier sooner. While some nutritionists debate the usefulness of the GI, many agree that unless you have just finished a hard workout, at which time a high GI carbohydrate is great for recovery, high-glycemic foods are simply too potent—like filling your Zippo with enriched uranium instead of lighter fluid. As a general rule, when at rest, seek out foods with a GI rating below 80. The University of Sydney’s GI Web page (www.glycemicindex.com) has more information on how the index works and includes a database listing the GIs of most foods. For staples, pasta is fine if it is cooked al dente. Rice is okay if it is of the parboiled (Indian, or non-sticky) variety. Be careful: Most non-whole-grain breads rank high, as do many popular breakfast cereals. See our chart below for more substitutes. 8. Separate Your Social Life from Your Stomach
In a perfect world, meetings, gatherings with friends, and dinners out would jibe perfectly with your new six-meals-per-day schedule. In the real world, meetings delay lunch by hours, that nice couple next door pushes dinner back to 8 o’clock, and your favorite restaurant doesn’t have a reservation until 9 p.m. Nutritionists call what happens next the what-the-hell effect: Having decided that we’ve blown our plan already, we subsequently abandon all good habits for the remainder of the meal. “You’re running up against the psychology of going out,” says Karas. “In the old days it was a treat, a time to break the rules, and so people are still treating it as ‘special time,’ off the books, when in fact we eat out more than ever.” If your week includes a lot of special time, approach meal dates as social events. Eat before you go out, and at restaurants try sharing an entrée, since upscale establishments tend to serve large, decadent meals, not rice and beans.
9. Eat a Variety of Foods (the Truest Cliché)
Energy intake is jacked up by palatability, that is, the tastiness of foods. Being predisposed to nosh scrumptious items like sweets, meats, and deep-dish pizza is another attribute left over from our Cro-Magnon days, when hoarding fats was important for species survival. But some of the most nutritious foods taste terrible at first. In fact, studies have shown that it is the very bitterness of phytochemicals in low-density foods like brussels sprouts and spinach that signal their cancer-fighting properties. The good news is that you can develop a taste for a variety of textures and flavors—just like you did with beer and coffee—thereby consuming less fat and calories and more nutritional variety. Every time you go to the grocery store make a point of buying foods like vegetables, fruits, and fish that you haven’t tried before. Drawing a blank? Try spending a greater proportion of your budget in the bright, leafy outer aisles where the whole foods are, rather than the dark, tempting inner aisles where the processed foods and microwave dinners hold sway.
10. Believe in the Existential Payoffs of Balanced Energy
When it comes to energy balance, good habits beget healthy metabolism, lean muscle mass, and less body fat. Rapid weight loss inevitably means lost muscle tissue and subsequent metabolic slowdown. Putting weight back on gives you a higher percentage of body fat than when you started losing weight. For all these reasons, change is necessary, and should be permanent. Fortunately, these ten principles are lifelong goals, not an entrance exam, and if you can adhere to just a few of them over time, the subject of weight will no longer be an enigma. Not only that, but by keeping your energy supply stable throughout the day, you’ll be less grouchy at four o’clock, less susceptible to cravings, and less at the mercy of the runaway schedule of your life.
Serious Monkey Business
Time to check out a resistance-training program that turns basic movements into a state-of-the-art power plan
We could learn a thing or two from our simian ancestry. So says Paul Chek, author of Movement That Matters and director of the Corrective High-performance Exercise Kinesiology Institute in Encinitas, California, where he’s trained professional athletes and coaches for 18 years. Chek’s workout is based on simple, basic motionssquat, lunge, bend, twist, push, and pulljust the kind of thing our hunting, gathering forefathers would have been doing regularly. Now updated for the 21st century (you won’t be called upon to hunt or gather, unless you want to), Chek’s Primal Patterns program runs dramatically counter to old-school strength training, which operates under the belief that the best way to build muscle is by exercising isolated muscle groups. But how often do you do curls or bench press in your actual sport? You don’t, says Chek. You utilize muscle groups together. “The brain doesn’t know muscles,” he says, “the brain only knows patterns of movement.” Hence the following 12-week Chek-inspired plan that, combined with a normal cardio routine, offers total fitness in a modest five workouts a week. Plus, you’ll never have trouble swinging from trees again.
Reverse Wood Chop
Use a weight cable (shown) or a resistance band secured at ankle height. Take a wide stance with your left side facing the resistance and most of your weight on your left foot. Using both arms, pull the cable upward and across your body, beginning outside your left ankle and finishing above your right shoulder. Avoid arching your back as you move through the motion. Return to the start position. After a full set (see regimen below for repetition numbers), switch sides.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Brace a long weight bar on your upper back (see “The Primal Program” below for the appropriate amount of weight). Take a moderately large step forward with your left foot and then slowly dip down until the knee of your right leg almost touches the floor. Keep your torso upright and your left knee directly over your left foot. Press back upright without moving either foot for one complete repetition. After a full set, switch legs.
Single-Arm Cable Push
Use a resistance band or a gym cable slightly above shoulder height. Assume a split stance, one foot about two and a half to three feet in front of the other, and face away from the resistance with most of your weight on your rear foot. Holding the cable handle against your chest in your right hand, reach forward with your left arm. Now throw a smooth, controlled jab with your right hand. Initiate the movement from the legs, then twist the trunk and finish by emphasizing the pushing arm. After a full set, switch arms.
Single-Arm Cable Pull
Secure your resistance band or gym cable a couple of feet above shoulder height. Assume a split stance, facing the resistance, with most of your weight on your forward foot. Hold the handle in one hand at full forward reach. Pull the handle toward your armpit. Initiate the movement from your legs, then twist your trunk, and finish with an emphasis on pulling your arm to your armpit. As you retract the pulling arm, reach forward with the other and twist your trunk. After a full set, switch arms.
The Primal Program
Perform the above exercises as a circuit with a 90-second rest between each set (consider one set to include both sides). Beginners should do two circuits; those already following a strength regimen can try three or four. The 12-week program will take you through three four-week phases that vary resistance, repetitions, and tempo for each repetition. Use the table below to see how you might mix the functional training circuits with your cardio training during any given phase.
|Month 1:||Strength Phase: 10 repetitions, 12 RM* weight, moderate tempo||Month 2:||Power Phase: 8 reps, 10 RM weight, fast tempo||Month 3:||Coordination Phase: 12 reps, very light weight, moderate tempo|
*RM stands for repitition maximum, the amount of weight that will bring you to failurei.e., 10 RM means you should be able to do no more than 10 repitions with that weight per set.