For me, weight loss was the easy part. Run more, eat less equals weight loss. Consistently. Every time. The struggle for me was keeping the weight off—maintaining that weight loss. Ideally, when you set out to lose weight, you do it correctly the first time. When done correctly, weight loss can be permanent, but it involves changing your lifestyle and maybe even more importantly, your mindset.
I never gained any significant weight until I reached my late twenties. Then one day, seemingly out the blue, I looked down at the scale, and I had gained twenty-five pounds. All my poor eating and drinking habits caught up to me. But it wasn't out of the blue, a decade of poor choices combined with a sedentary job resulted in excess weight on my small frame. It happens to the best of us if we aren't paying attention
I started running because I had heard that it was the fastest way to lose weight. I went on a restrictive diet. I was motivated to lose weight, so I was very consistent with my running and (reduced) food intake. I erred on the side of too much running and too little food, which was my first mistake.
Once I lost the weight, I was thrilled! I did it! Everyone told me how great I looked. I felt confident, and that motivation to lose weight was gone, so my motivation to run a lot and eat a lot less also waned.
I slowly but surely reverted to my old habits. After all, I had lost the weight; I could go back to my normal life again! What a relief! But my regular life is what got me in this mess in the first place. Within six months to a year, I had gained back all the weight I had lost, maybe even put on a few extra. That was the start of my decade of yo-yo weight loss and gain. Yes, I said a decade.
Suddenly I was motivated again! I have to lose weight, and I knew exactly how to do it! Run more, eat less. Ninety days later, I was back down. Whew!
But then this process kept repeating itself. Lose, gain, lose, gain; More times than I care to admit. I knew how to lose weight with extreme measures and unsustainable practices, but I didn't know how to keep it off. It took me many years of trial and error to finally get it right. I shifted my mindset, my habits, and my lifestyle to achieve permanent fat loss.
FOCUS ON FAT LOSS NOT WEIGHT LOSS
I have a thick head of hair (or maybe just a thick head - you decide). Once when I was running by a neighbor's house, she shouted out at me, "Hey, Lea if you want to lose any more weight, you're gonna have to chop off your hair." It speaks to the misconception that the only reason that a person would run is to lose weight, but also highlights the importance of focusing on losing the right kind of weight. Losing five pounds of hair doesn't help you, and losing muscle along with fat is detrimental to permanent weight loss.
When I was running too much, I was asking my body to shed weight to adapt to the stress of running so that I could run more efficiently. Sounds great, right? But when I combined too much running with a low-calorie diet, I wasn't giving my body the fuel or stimulus it needed to maintain muscle, so my body shed fat, but I also lost precious muscle.
It may feel good to see a lower number on the scale, but when you lose muscle along with fat, you lower your metabolism, which makes it harder to maintain weight loss, because now your body needs even fewer calories to operate. The more muscle you have on your body, the higher your metabolism, which means you can eat more calories to maintain your weight.
What you don't want is to get into a position with lowered muscle, when your body needs so few calories to operate that a small increase of calories over an already low intake causes weight gain. If you continue to reduce food and increase cardio, the number of calories you can eat to maintain weight gets smaller and smaller. It's a losing battle. The goal should be to eat as much as possible while maintaining your weight. Adding muscle will help you achieve that goal.
How to do you lose fat and maintain muscle? Strength training and adequate protein intake. Muscle doesn't make you bulky; muscle makes you look lean and toned. At the very least work to maintain the muscle you already have, but ideally, work to gain additional muscle.
You won't blow up like a person on steroids, and if you ever get to the point that you feel you have enough muscle, you can change the way you train to maintain. It's tough to gain muscle, and very few people (aka almost no one except the genetically gifted) can accidentally get too muscular, so there's no downside to training to put on muscle.
Aim for .8 to one gram of protein per pound of goal body weight per day. The protein will help you hold on the muscle you already have and support new muscle growth.
CHOOSE A LIFESTYLE VS. A DIET
Diets end, a lifestyle is forever. The easiest way to determine if you are on a diet or if you are living a healthy lifestyle is to ask yourself if you can maintain your way of eating for the rest of your life. If your diet is overly restrictive, it likely only will have short-term benefits. The key is to find a balance between what you enjoy and what supports your healthy lifestyle.
You build a healthy lifestyle by working on building healthy habits. Habits are the actions and activities that you perform on autopilot. Once making healthy choices, exercising, and daily movement becomes a part of your life, and you are no longer relying on willpower and motivation, you have achieved a healthy lifestyle. It's not about being perfect, but being mindful and responsible when making choices.
The most significant shift happens when what you want to eat changes. Grocery store sheet cake at office birthday parties aren't tempting. I prefer to eat my packed lunch over to going out for fast food. I enjoy healthy foods over junk food. I make healthy choices most of the time because I want to — not because I think I need to lose or maintain my weight.
It's not to say I don't like pizza or french fries, but those indulgences are rare enough that they are special treats. If you eat junk food every day or every week, you don't enjoy it as much as if you occasionally splurge.
MAKE THE CONNECTION BETWEEN WHAT YOU EAT AND HOW YOU FEEL
I told the story in a blog post of how I started taking CBD oil and fell into a pit of depression and anxiety for three months last year before I made the connection between the supplement and my emotions. Food can have the same effect. If you can make a connection between poor food choices and poor mood, or physical distress, it makes it easier to avoid the foods don't make you feel well. It's not always about junk food; sometimes, people have allergies to wheat or dairy or Gluten that cause negative physical and emotional symptoms.
I don't have any food allergies, so I enjoy dairy, wheat, and Gluten without any negative consequences, but I learned that when I overeat sugar, drink too much alcohol, or consume processed foods that it can play out in bouts of anxiety and depression in the coming days and weeks. When I avoid, I feel better physically and mentally, so it is much easier to make healthy choices when I understand the consequences of poor ones.
An excellent way to determine what foods don't make you feel well is to keep a daily food and emotion journal. Write down what you eat every day, then also write how you feel. Were you stressed? Irritable? Sad? Worried? Depressed? These feelings can be a direct relation to what you ate over the previous few days. It's not always an instant reaction, the wine I drank Sunday, may play out in a depressed mood through the following week. The best way to make the connection is to keep a journal, it’s not always obvious. You don't need anything fancy, just a cheap notebook and a pen will do the trick.
FOLLOW THE 80/20 RULE
The 80/20 rule means to eat well (usually means minimally processed whole-foods from nature) 80% of the time and allow 20% for treats. It's an easy way to introduce moderation into a healthy lifestyle. You can forget about eating perfectly (which can lead to obsession or overindulgence) and do the best you can.
The mistake I made is that would plan my 20% treats diligently, because healthy choices weren't habitual yet. Healthy options felt like deprivation of what I loved, so I lived for 20%.
The problem is that if you plan for 20%, life will hand you 40% due to life circumstances and unplanned events. You meant to eat healthy for lunch, but your boss ordered in pizza for a mandatory lunch meeting. You wanted to cook healthy for dinner, but the kids had a recital that ran long and an accident on the highway left you waiting in traffic instead of hitting the grocery store.
Life happens; you have to learn to roll with it. I have been most successful with the 80/20 rule when I plan for 95/5, and I allow life circumstances to claim the other 15%. Do the best you can most of the time, and when shit goes down, you can handle it, because you already assumed you wouldn't be perfect.
What does 80/20 mean? (Or 95/5?) You can look at it as your total calorie intake, for example, if you eat 1800 calories a day in a deficit with a plan to lose fat, 350 or less can go to less than ideal intake. Remember the idea is not to plan your 350 calories of indulgences but to know that when life gets in the way of your perfectly laid out plans (spoiler alert: it will) that you have a bit of wiggle room.
It's not an exact science; the math isn't perfect; it's just a concept that helps some people with moderation. Choose foods that support your goals most of the time, and allow a small portion of your calories for less-than-ideal choices.
EAT IN A CALORIE DEFICIT
A calorie deficit means you are consuming fewer calories than you burn. That's the way we lose weight. A slight to moderate calorie deficit works best, cutting too many calories at once may backfire.
Most people can start with 300 to 500 fewer a day and add in a bit of movement to get the needle moving in the right direction. The goal, however tempting, is to not lose as much weight possible in the shortest time possible because we already discussed what happens when we lose muscle. A slow and steady decline of fat of .5 to one pound a week is an ideal average for most people (although, of course, there are individual variances).
There are many ways to eat in a calorie deficit, and the key is the find the way the works best for you, long term. Remember, this is not a diet but a long-term strategy.
Some people weigh and measure what they eat and enter the calories into an app to keep track. Some people reduce carbs, which in turn reduces calories because even though all carbs aren't bad for you, most junk foods are carbs. Reducing carbs is a simple way to control calories. Some people use intermittent fasting, fewer hours in the day available to eat creates an easy method to reduce calories. Others track points; others reduce fats because fats have more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates.
It doesn't matter which method you use, find one that works for you and your lifestyle. All diets work if you stick them and they cease to be a diet, but a way of life. If it makes you look, feel, and perform your best, you've found the right strategy. What works for a coworker or your best friend may not work for you.
How do you know if you are in a calorie deficit? Generally speaking (again there are individual differences) but in most healthy adults, if you lose weight week to week you are in a deficit if your weight stays the same, you are in calorie maintenance, and if you gain weight, you are in a calorie surplus. Keep track and adjust as needed.
I love to run. I self-identify as a runner. I would like it if more people took up running. I run for health, heart health, and emotional health. But more is not always better. Cardio can boost fat loss in the early stages of fat loss, but when your body adapts to the cardio you perform, you need to do more cardio or cardio at a higher intensity to continue to see new results.
If you run the same mileage at the same pace week after week, month after month, year after year, then the fast loss will stall, and you will need to continue that baseline of running to maintain your weight.
We all reach a limit of how far or how fast we can run. You don't want to have to run three hours a day, or a seven-minute mile to see new results; you'll likely see an over-use injury before your goal weight.
I am not anti-running; I am a running coach. Running is healthy when performed responsibly. Running is excellent for initial fat loss phases and maintaining weight loss, but excessive running can have adverse effects on continued fat loss.
The key is the minimum effective dose; you run the minimum that you need to elicit results.
A moderate amount of running, combined with resistance training and protein intake, will lead you to healthy body composition. I ran and ran for years and ignored weight training and my body weight fluctuated in response. Well, I said it once before, but it bears repeating now: gaining or maintaining muscle is the key to permanent fat loss.
It's admirable to run endurance races, and it's a great goal for many reasons, but running a marathon and losing weight are not goals that align well. Many people gain weight during marathon training because it's essential to choose, are you running for performance, or running for weight loss? Because the way you need to train is different for each goal. It's best to focus on one or the other. There isn’t a right and wrong choice. I will support you whether which one you choose.
EXERCISE FOR HEALTH, NOT WEIGHT LOSS
My thought process was all wrong. I ran to lose weight, so when I lost the weight, I didn't have the motivation to keep running. If you exercise for health and longevity, the mindset shift will help you stay motivated to exercise even when you don't have weight to lose. Make movement a way of life, rather than a short-term strategy for weight loss.
Don't focus on how many calories you burn each workout (fitness trackers, cardio machines, and even heart-rate monitors likely overestimate calories burned), focus on how strong you feel, how much your performance has improved over time, how exercise makes you feel both physically and emotionally. This mindset sets you up for a lifestyle of healthy movement.
If you only exercise for weight loss, you're more likely to quit exercising when you achieve your goal or if you don’t see results as quickly as you hoped. Exercise and eat for health and longevity and allow fat loss to be a welcomed side effect. Consistent effort over a lifetime yields permanent results.
Learn from my mistakes, lose weight the healthy way, and maintain for life!
I finally lost the weight once and for all in 2014. Five years later, my weight may occasionally fluctuate five pounds up and down, but my mindset and a healthy lifestyle help me keep it off for life with little effort.
You can do it too.
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