“Eat Less, Move More” Took Me Only So Far
When I first set out on my pursuit of a lean, strong, healthy body, my main focus was to drop some extra pounds I’d accumulated by drinking a bit too much beer and eating a bit too much Jimmy John’s during my final year at Virginia Tech. While being “healthy” was somewhat of a goal of mine, really I was just trying to make some adjustments to the “calories in calories out” concept I’d heard so much about to drop the extra weight. At the time, the obvious solution was to start cleaning up my eating/drinking habits and start exercising.
The year was 2009 and I hadn’t quite learned about MyFitnessPal (if it even existed) or any other online tracking tools, so I was (NERD ALERT) keeping an Excel spreadsheet of my caloric intake and comparing it with my daily caloric need – which I calculated using an online tool that accounted for height, age, weight, and activity level. I ensured that there was a deficit between the two and my weight (which I was also tracking in a spreadsheet) started to drop.
This approach worked pretty well for a while. However, my progress would eventually stall from time to time. When this would happen, I would either start eating less or start moving more by cutting calories a bit here and there, and started making my runs a bit more often or more frequent.
The Plateau and Regain Trap
After a few iterations of stall, decrease food, increase running, I got pretty damned skinny. Not lean. Not fit. Skinny.
By focusing only on “weight” (which I wrote about in an earlier post) and depending solely on eating less and moving more as a means of reducing body fat, I became in some ways a slave to food and exercise. It seemed as though the moment I went off track with my eating habits, or the day I took a break from my exercise routine, the weight seemed to pile back on faster than ever. I can’t tell you how many times I stressed over being in a situation where my food options aren’t 100% aligned with whatever my current “rules” happened to be at that time, or paniced because life got in the way of making it to the gym.
As mentioned before, I dealt with this for several years. Since I started to gain body fat any time I wasn’t actively losing weight, I just continued pushing to be lighter and lighter. Sure, I switched things up by trying different diets and different exercise routines, perhaps, but I could not break out of the cycle of weight loss and fat gain. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
My problem wasn’t lack of effort. My problem wasn’t lack of willpower. My problem wasn’t lack of motivation or disciple. My problem was that I was only focusing on two factors – movement and food – involved in becoming and staying lean, strong, and healthy. I was failing to achieve the body I wanted because I was only looking at a part of the equation.
Four Pillars of Getting Lean, Strong, and Healthy
To be successful for the long run in our efforts to look and feel amazing, we’re going to need to focus on four areas of our life– what we eat, how we move, how we sleep, and how we manage stress. Below we’re define these four “Pillars”, and briefly discuss the general ideas associated with each one. In future posts, we’ll dive a bit deeper with a more detailed exploration of where I went wrong, and what changes I learned I had to make to start seeing my body change how I wanted it to.
These four pillars can be defined as:
- Stress management
Eating is so much more than something we have to do every day that just so happens to make us bigger or smaller.
Do calories count in the context of bodyweight? Absolutely. As you’ve probably heard already, the laws of thermodynamics cannot be ignored. However, thermodynamics is freaking COMPLICATED. Our bodies process and utilize what we eat in completely different ways based on what nutrients those foods provide, our individual needs and tolerances, and our overall hormonal environment (a totally separate and complex subject in and of itself).
If we want to make long-term, sustainable changes to our bodies, we’re going to have to consider food quality. We can make tremendous changes to our appetite, cravings, energy levels, mood, digestion, body composition, and overall health by making relatively simple changes to our food choices and eating habits.
Exercise, training, physical activity, or whatever we want to call our movement practice, is about so much more than trying to “earn” or “burn” the food we eat. Movement is not solely a means for us to manipulate the “calories in, calories out” equation.
Our bodies are very much “use it or lose it” machines, and adapt to the movements and physical challenges to which we subject them on a consistent basis. If all we do is sit on our asses and type on a computer, guess what we’ll be able to do in ten years? Sit on our asses and type on a computer, and that’s about it. Likewise, if we move often, through a variety of types of motion, and with varying loads and intensities, we’ll be able to continue to do so for years to come.
Sure, specific details (training modality, frequency, and intensity) may need to be sorted out based on our specific goals and preferences but, for the most part, we all need to move often and challenge our bodies beyond our day-to-day modern tasks to look, feel, and perform our best over the long term.
Essentially every single change that takes place in our bodies, especially with respect to how we adapt to movement/training and how we utilize nutrients, is the result of our overall hormonal environment. Poor sleep sets us up for insulin resistance (lower tolerance for carbs and more prone to store fat), reduced satiety, increased cravings, and a more reactive mindset that makes sticking to our healthy habits much more difficult than it would be if we were well rested. We all have different needs when it comes to sleep but, as a general statement, if we neglect sleep, our other efforts will likely get us nowhere.
4. Stress management
How we respond to what occurs on a daily basis is another biggie when it comes to creating the hormonal environment that accommodates healthy body fat levels, physical ability, and enjoying our short time here on earth.
We’re designed to handle short-term, acute bouts of stress – like running from a tiger. We either survive and chill TF out, or we die. Either way, we don’t have to deal with that tiger for very long at once. These days, however, with traffic, work deadlines, whining children, and nagging partners, we are being chased by tigers all the time. We’re constantly under stress, which – even
If we’re not aware of and managing how we respond to the stressors we encounter each day, and then throw restrictive dieting and excessive exercise into the mix, we’re only adding stress on top of stress. This does nothing but send the signals to our bodies that life on Earth sucks and that we need to focus on survival. Forget about building muscle, getting lean, and reproducing. All our brains will want us to do is seek out food, store fat for the hard times, and put all of our resources towards making it to tomorrow.
Not only does stress set us up physiologically for being weak, sick, fat, and tired but – much like lack of sleep – also puts us in a reactive state that makes decisions like skipping our training and going apeshit on some moose tracks much easier than it would be otherwise.
What To Expect
I understand that what we’ve just covered is quite broad and not very deep. The intent of this post is to set the stage – to act as a compass, if you will – for what we’ll be doing over the coming months. Now that we’ve provided a bit of context for what to expect, we can move forward with some more detailed posts and specific strategies.
If you like what you read above, use the form below to sign up for my mailing list and receive automatic notification whenever I post new content. You’ll also be able to respond to directly to me with any questions, comments, or article requests you may have.