The Seven Questions: A Journey to Sustainable Fitness, Part 1

Where do you want to go...today, tomorrow?

Where do you want to go…today, tomorrow?
Photo: ntwowe and freedigitalphotos.net

I’m excited to share The Seven Questions.  I ask these questions to uncover clients’ true motivations for change and create a realistic action plan to achieve sustainable health and fitness – and I hope they can do the same for you!  The questions will be released over the next couple months.  If you’re interested in receiving an email notifying you when the next one is posted, join the Death of the Diet newsletter.

Here are the first two questions to get you started on the path to permanent health and fitness results. Don’t water down your thoughts – be as honest as possible.  Try to keep your answers to these, and all of the other questions, on the same page or notepad, because each question will build on previous ones.  Ok, enough chit-chat – let’s get to it:

Question #1: How do you feel about your body or health right now? Do you want to improve it?

It may sound too simple, but one of the most important things to consider is whether you really want to change your current situation.  The body you have now comes from the habits you have now, and usually your current habits are dictated by your current schedule, preferences and priorities.  It’s also called the status quo, comfort zone or path of least resistance.

Getting out of your comfort zone will require effort. But if you’re motivated enough to change, you’ll put in the effort.  Most people can’t reason themselves into being motivated, though – motivation usually comes from feeling, not from logic. For example, we know eating broccoli is healthier, but that cookie still looks better…especially if you’re stressed.  Being told by the doctor that you need to lose weight or seeing a loved one become sick from obesity may be a kick in the pants to change, but ultimately knowing doesn’t always translate into doing.

So in response to today’s question, don’t just think about what’s causing your current situation (i.e. work demands, lifestyle demands, emotional demands), but think about how you feel about your current condition. Use as many descriptive words as possible and be honest: do you feel sad, mad, embarrassed, guilty or helpless?  Go beyond the logical – your desire for change is what will have to be strong enough to see you through the process of changing – even when the going gets tough.

Finally, write down why you feel that way.  What’s causing that emotion?  The more you can make those feelings concrete, on paper or in type, the more you can understand what’s causing them, and whether you want to make changes to fight them.  If your feelings about change are not significant, then this may not be the right time for you to change.  The next question will get into more details, but for now, get those feelings about your current situation (and potentially it’s contributing factors) out and on the table.

Question #2: Seeking success?  See it first.  What about your life would be different or improved if you had healthier habits?

Whatever makes the effort of changing worth it for you – that’s your motivation to change. Looking great in a dress or suit, feeling energetic when playing with your kids, being able to compete better or having more self-confidence are just a few common ones.  And remember – if you want to make big changes, you need big motivation.

You can’t aim without a target.  Use this question to create your target. The better you can define how your life will be different, what actions you’ll be doing differently and how you’ll feel as the “new and improved” you, the more you can aim your decisions towards achieving those goals.  It orients you to get from Point A (where you are now) to Point B (where you want to be). I wrote a blog post on defining your motivations to change, called What’s Your Why. Give it a look-see.

If you have trouble coming up with your own motivations, you can always use peer support by publicizing your intention to change, and the steps you’re taking, on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Financial motivation is another handy way to get started – write a sizable check to an organization you hate, and send it if you don’t meet your goals…a la stickK.com.

*Note: External motivations like the financial trick can get you started, but they only last a while; eventually you’ll need a self-driven motivation to keep you going.  Getting healthy takes some time.  Staying healthy takes a lifetime.

In the next installment of The Seven Questions, you’ll create a personalized list of which steps or actions you can take to get started towards achieving your vision of a healthier, happier you.

What’s Your Why?

What's Your Why?

Photo courtesy of: Castillo Dominici and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The New Year is rapidly approaching. Reflections on the year passed, looking forward to new beginnings and a big shiny ball falling from the sky. While discussions about New Years’ Resolutions are overplayed, the underlying drive that creates them, year after year, remains of great interest to me. Everyone knows that a resolution made on New Years’ technically has no greater chance of sticking than one made on May 27th, but for some reason our minds like neat definitions when starting change – 1st of the year, beginning of the month, on Monday.

I dare say starting major habit changes on these “convenient days” lower your chances of sticking with them. If you attempt to make positive changes at the same times over-and-over, without success, your mind could subconsciously be pre-disposed to the routine of: set intention to change on Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Set intention for the following Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Your brain gets good at executing routines…including bad ones.

Even more insidious in this routine is the lost reason of WHY you’re making the change to begin with. Why do you want to lose weight, get more toned, healthier or stronger? Why are you trying to eat better or be more active? Is it because the calendar says Monday, or January 1st? That doesn’t seem like a very compelling reason to maintain your habits beyond Monday, or January 1st!

Why Change?

I devote an entire chapter in Death of the Diet (get the first two chapters free here) to answering this question. Distilled from that chapter and other areas of the book, I pose to you the following three questions and activity to reflect upon and answer this holiday season. If these questions lead you to start making changes, do me one favor. Start them the day you feel ready to change, regardless of the day of the week or the date on the calendar.

Question 1: Are you satisfied with your current health, fitness or weight?

If yes, then keep doing what you’re doing and no need to continue reading. If no, answer question #2.

Question 2: Why Change?

Your current results (health, fitness, weight, etc.) are the result of your current habits. To change your results, you need to change your habits. However, habits are there for a reason – they are the path of least resistance based on the circumstances in your life right now. You may have had other priorities in the past, but right now this is what you’re starting with. Use the activity below to determine why you would be willing to put in the effort to change those habits:

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in six to twelve months. On a piece of paper write down one to three weight, fitness or health results that you want to accomplish based on making positive changes to your eating and/or physical activity habits. Some common results include losing weight, being more toned or having more energy – but of course, what matters here is what’s important to you. Then, rank how motivating each of them is to you on a scale of zero (no motivation to change) to ten (the largest motivating factor in my life, above all other commitments).

Now look at each result again and ask yourself: “Why do I want to achieve these changes? How will achieving this allow me to live a better life or do things I’m currently not able to do?” Dig deep…usually your initial desires have deeper reasons. Weight loss, strength, energy, toning are means to an end – what’s your end? What are you going to use this new-found slimmer weight, stronger body, greater energy for? That’s your Why.

Physical health is only one aspect of wellness. Consider how making improvements can improve other aspects of your life and wellness (based on Anspaugh’s Seven Dimensions of Wellness): social (relationships), emotional (feeling about self/others), occupational (work/career), intellectual (improving knowledge/skills), spiritual (morals/values) and environmental (sustainability/impact on nature).

If you find a deeper Why than the result you initially listed, draw an arrow at the end of the original reason and write down the new one. Rate the motivation gained from this new reason. It will likely be higher than the original reason. Repeat this process for all of your desired health, fitness or weight results so each one has tangible life improvements associated with it. These are your true Whys. You can use the space provided below or if you used a piece of paper, write them next to the original Whys.

If I initially decided I wanted to lose 30 pounds, here are two examples of potential deeper Whys:

  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I no longer want to get winded doing everyday activities like going up stairs and walking a few blocks. (Motivation: 7)
  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I want to look great in all of my old clothes that no longer fit (a particular dress or pants size?) (Motivation: 6) –> I want to feel confident in myself and my body. (Motivation: 8)

Write down your Whys on a few index cards and put them in places where you can see them often (at work, in your wallet/purse, at home, etc.).

Question #3: What is one action I can take today or this week to get me one step closer to my Whys?

Once you know where you want to go and why, the next step is determining how you’re going to get there. There are many paths to living healthier, much like there are many ways to get from New York to San Francisco (different roads, airplane, train, etc.). The key is determining which path works best for your needs, preferences, priorities and schedule and then taking consistent action to travel along that path.

Changing your habits can be generalized into three main “buckets”:

Physical Activity: Working out, playing sports, taking the stairs more often, gardening, going for more walks, dancing, hiking, etc.

Eating Habits: Eating more fruits and veggies, drinking more water, eating smaller portions, less alcohol, etc.

Lifestyle Habits: Getting more sleep, reducing stress levels, quit smoking, making more time for physical activity and eating habits (your schedule), get regular medical/dental checkups, etc.

The key to making successful, lasting change is choosing new actions that are as easy as possible for you to do on a regular basis and work on just that action for a few weeks until it kicks out the old habit. Research shows it usually takes at least three weeks of consistent action to form a new habit.

Getting from where you are to where you want to be is rarely a straight shot to the top; it’s more like two steps forward and one step back. Which is still one step forward. There will be mistakes made, lessons learned, obstacles, frustrations and most of all, progress. Give yourself credit for your successes while taking responsibilities for the mishaps. Which can be summarized by a quote I strive to live my life by: There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback™.

TELL US: What’s your Why?  and get support from 75+ daily readers at Death of the Diet!

The Epic Quest for Six Pack Abs

Six Pack Abs and a Band.

Six Pack Abs – and a Band.
Image Courtesy of imagerymajestic and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In Death of the Diet, I stress the importance of determining your Why – the true motivating force driving you to improve your eating and physical activity habits.  While many people “would like” six pack abs, not everyone realizes the amount of effort required to not only attain, but sustain such a low percentage of body fat (likely in the mid-to-high single digits for men, and the low double digits for women).  However, I understand some people still want to give it their all and see what they can accomplish, so this blog post is my contribution for those committed to the epic quest for six pack abs.

 

1. A Disclaimer: Genetics Often Dictate the Effort Required to Attain and Sustain Six Pack Abs

Consider that six pack abs are the “pinnacle” of body composition, much like professional athletes or CEOs achieve the pinnacle of their respective fields.

Genetics play a tremendous role in how easy, or hard, it is for a person to attain the highest levels of performance, or six pack abs (see my “proprietary” drawing below).  While it would be nice to achieve them, do not place your entire self-worth on seeing those six abs.  You are more than just a set of abs – appreciate the healthy eating and physical activity habits you will be performing to achieve those results, and consider which ones you can continue long-term.  Everyone can be healthy, fit and happy, regardless of the number of abs you see.

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

While I sincerely hope you do achieve them, be ok with the fact that the effort you put in to achieve six pack abs may not be sustainable long-term.  Even the leanest of the bunch, bodybuilders, only maintain their shredded physique for a few days of the year for their competitions.  Look at them two weeks after a competition, it’s usually a whole different story.  Just like other accomplishments, give yourself a major pat on the back for achieving something many others will never do (myself included, thus far). I’ll discuss my personal attempt at six pack abs at the end of the post.

2. Make Your Body Inefficient

Research has shown that those who tend to lose weight easily (ectomorphs), have more “inefficient” bodies.  They have more brown fat – a type of fat that burns calories (researchers don’t know how to apply these findings…yet).  They tend to have more non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), a.k.a. they fidget and move around more.  And they are also usually quite active. In other words, their bodies require more fuel (calories) to perform their daily routines.  While you may not be able to channel your inner brown fat, there are methods for eating and physical activity that can increase your personal inefficiency:

Nutrition / Eating

Increase your thermal effect of food (the amount of calories needed to break down and digest the food you eat) by having less processed, whole foods rich in fiber, water and protein such as fruits, veggies, lean meats, oatmeal, nuts, beans and dairy (for those that are lactose tolerant).  Think of it this way: The less processed the food is, the harder it is for your body to break down those plant cell walls and proteins to get the available calories.  For example, recent research has shown that your body actually attains about 20% less calories from raw almonds than listed on the package.

On the flipside, consider that in many cases processing = pre-digestion.  Machines are doing the digestion for you so absorption is faster and easier.  However, the easier it is for your body to suck up the calories, the more likely they will go to fat if you’re not burning them.  For that reason, the pursuit of six pack abs often means bye-bye to most highly processed foods, sugary foods/beverages, baked goods, alcohol, etc.  Each person is unique – you’ll have to learn how often you can indulge while still maintaining progress towards your ultimate goal – six pack abs.  For some it will be monthly, others weekly, others daily (see the genetic component above).

Exercise

From an exercise perspective, staying inefficient means performing exercises that require large amounts of muscle groups to work, whether it be cardiovascular training, kettlebell swings, upper/lower body splits, interval training, density training or circuit training.  But remember, the more you do something, the better and more efficient your body gets at performing it.   So as soon as your body starts to adapt and an activity starts to feel too easy (usually within 3 to 5 weeks), throw in a deload week to recover, and then change up the routine completely to keep the body learning…and the calories burning.

Also, throw in a heavier weight strength day or two each week to ensure your body does all it can to maintain its metabolically active lean body mass during the weight loss.  Well controlled, multi joint lifts such as pushes/presses, rows/pulls, squats, hip hinges and loaded carries (thanks, Dan John!), not only work the hell out of your muscles, but they also burn a ton of calories.  In summary, tell your body to burn fat, not muscle through what you eat and how you move.

3. Maintain Your Metabolism by Periodizing Your Nutrition

Unsurprisingly, your body doesn’t like feeling starved. That’s why your body burns calories, and fat, best by being in a slight calorie deficit – consuming slightly less than you burn.  If you burn more, you can eat more and still get results (see energy flux topic below).  If you burn too much and eat too little, however, your body will quickly recognize the significant imbalance and return the favor by stalling your metabolism and potentially burning precious lean body mass.  That’s why periodizing your nutrition is so vital.  I discuss the finer, scientific points of stalled metabolism in Death of the Diet’s latest e-book, 12 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Weight Permanently, and How to Beat ‘Em, available for free to newsletter members.

You can periodize your nutrition on either a daily, or weekly basis (or both – but don’t drive yourself nuts over it):

  • On a daily basis, you could eat a little more on training days (with the extra fuel focused on your workouts and recovery), and have less on off days while aiming to maintain a slight calorie deficit each day.  Once a week, aim to eat a little more than usual to keep the metabolism churning.
  • Or you can couple a few weeks of higher intensity calorie imbalance (eating less, burning more) with recovery phases (increasing your food intake to achieve calorie balance, or even slightly above), much like you need a deload week every 3 to 5 weeks with consistent, hard training.  In fact, you could pair your deload nutrition week with your deload training week. While you may gain a small amount of weight due to the replenishment of your fluid and glycogen stores during a deload week, the act of eating a little more and training a little less will send a signal to your body that all is well metabolically, and it has no reason to horde calories and fat.  Then you can resume your higher intensity phase the following week. It’s all about resting for a moment before the next ascent.

4. Move and Exercise Consistently to Increase Energy Flux

The “afterburn” effect of most exercise sessions is minimal – only about 10% to 20% of the calories actually burned when performing the exercise.  There are two moderate exceptions to this rule: the time immediately after significant, high intensity training (as great as this sounds, be sure to train safe since an injury will undoubtedly derail your six pack dreams), and people/athletes who have “high energy flux.”

High energy flux is a result of being very active each and every day.  It’s why Michael Phelps and sprinters can eat like a horse (pizza, pasta, etc.) and look ripped.  The amount of physical activity they do each allows them to burn through whatever they want and not gain an ounce.  Not only are those calories going to fuel their workouts, but it’s going to replenish glycogen stores, increase intramuscular triglyceride stores (specialized fuel stores for active people), repair their muscles and maintain their significant lean body mass.  Research has shown that achieving significant weight loss, especially six pack abs, is best served by maintaining a high level activity, not just cutting calories alone.  Like the previous point mentioned, your body does not like to feel starved.

Keep that metabolic fire stoked 24/7 by sitting less, walking more, training often and recovering well.  The biggest threat to not achieving six pack abs is an injury.

5. Putting It All Together: Assess Where You Are and Create a Plan

Achieving six-pack abs can be a considerable undertaking, similar to climbing a mountain.  Research recommends climbing mountains over 10,000 feet high in 1,000 foot stages and then resting before continuing on.  Do the same with your six pack ab pursuit.  Are you just getting off the couch (below base camp), or are you halfway up (physically active, but no six-pack)?  The amount of effort you should be putting in should be just a bit beyond your current position.  Get there, get comfortable, then forge ahead.  Perform the six pack abs ascent in stages.  If you go too far too fast, you may get gassed, or worse yet, injured.  Climbing a mountain is a process.  So is achieving six pack abs.

Using the information and ideas above, the best first step you can take to achieve six-pack abs is to create a personalized action plan to get there.  Choose the one or two ideas that resonate most with you, and then write down exactly how you’re going to do them.  The more details, the better. Why is creating a plan important?

  • It organizes your thoughts.
  • It gives you immediate actions you can take to start getting results.
  • You can track, and manage, the execution of your action plan to see which changes are getting you the best effects and make adjustments as needed.

Epilogue: My Personal Attempt at Six Pack Abs

My personal attempt stopped at around 9.8% during my initial weight loss in 2005.  I looked good, but still only had the initial outline of four abs.  And I realized that I was cutting out many of the foods and cooking experiences I enjoyed, which took a toll on my overall happiness in life.  My personal Why evolved into one more focused on confidence in my body (even if I could only count two abs, not six) along with my long-term health, strength and happiness – which means staying active, but also giving in to my foodie self on occasion.  When asked what I eat, I typically tell my clients and workshop attendees, “I eat chocolate and broccoli.  I just make sure I eat more broccoli than chocolate.”

TELL ME: Have you attempted, or achieved six pack abs?  What did it take?  Share your story and help others learn about the process.

Measuring Fitness Results Beyond the Scale

Scale

Weight: Only One Marker of Fitness Results
Image Courtesy of Microsoft Images

The one instrument that most people use to measure health and fitness progress – the scale – is the one that we have the least amount of control over.  Lots of other things influence weight (i.e. time of day, recent meals, what you’re wearing, the scale you use, the time of the month, maybe you’ve gained muscle, etc.), and it’s usually the last to respond to the progress we make compared to many other markers such as better energy levels, less stress and even a slimmer waistline! You may lose inches before pounds if you’re gaining muscle and lean mass while losing fat.

So while body weight is one way of measuring fitness results, by no means should it be the only one.  I like to “triangulate” results with my clients.  In other words, if someone does want to track weight, I try to have them choose at least a couple of other indicators of meaningful results, such as:

  • Pants, dress or waist size
  • Ability to perform a sport or daily activity better
  • Energy levels
  • Stress levels
  • Hunger levels
  • Self-confidence levels (in your body/physique)
  • Non-Scale Victories (NSV’s)

I came across the idea of NSV’s in a book called Coach Yourself Thin, written by Michael Scholtz and Greg Hottinger.  An NSV is any success you’ve had in the past day, week, or month related to eating better or being physically active that is not related to your weight, but is still meaningful for you.  Something as simple as saying “no” to a free cookie and choosing a piece of fruit instead is a non-scale victory.  Here’s a link with more examples: http://www.weightwatchers.co.uk/util/art/index_art.aspx?tabnum=1&art_id=40701.

Ultimately, weight is really just a means to an end, whether it’s looking sexier, performing better or feeling more energized.  Connect with the real reasons why you want to lose weight and track those too.  Then when looking at results in 4, 6 or 8 weeks from now, review progress on all counts and consider the majority: if your waist is slimmer, you feel better, and you have a list of 10 NSV’s staring you in the face, odds are the improvements you made to your eating and exercise habits have had a positive result, even if the scale only shows a couple pounds of weight loss.

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