With all those fad diets, conflicting food information, weight loss myths, and 5-minute workout plans, how are we supposed to know how to really be healthy and not just bounce around from useless myth to useless myth? Especially if we’re paying money for any of it!
Well, rule one is that there is no “quick fix.” There is a healthy lifestyle.
So how do we eat right? There’s a bit of variation between healthy diets. Whether you’re doing Weight Watchers (one of the only diets I think works), paleo, eating clean, or something similar, there are a lot of similarities in how and why you’re ultimately going to achieve good end results. These mostly have to do with the macro nutrients you’re taking in and where you’re getting them.
Carbohydrates We see carbs and think “Bad!” but the reality is that there are good carbs (complex carbs) and bad carbs. Mostly it depends where you’re getting the carbs from. Sources like white flour, white rice, and sugar are bad carbs. We need very little of these, and most of our sugar intake should come from natural sugars like in fruit. Complex carbs on the other hand are necessary for energy and even for fat loss. You need these to be healthy. Complex carbs come from fruits and veggies and whole grains, although whole grains should be limited. Its best to get the biggest amounts of carbs in the morning to fuel your day and right before a workout to fuel the workout and help your body burn fat.
Protein Girls see “protein” and think of bulking up. Guys see “protein” and think red meat. Protein is essential for both men and women, especially those who workout regularly. It helps significantly in increasing lean mass (which is good for everyone) and is key to a healthy diet for a number of reasons. And girls–no, you won’t bulk up just because you get enough protein. Protein helps you have lean mass instead of excess fat. The best sources of protein are meats. Dairy, nuts, and some vegetables like spinach also have protein, although not as much nor as complete as in meat. Obviously someone with lactose intolerance shouldn’t count on dairy to get protein. A protein shake is also not a bad resource, although it can be high in sugar, so the best time to drink it is immediately after a workout, when your body processes protein and sugar best.
Fat Believe it or not, you need a certain amount of healthy fat to lose fat and to stay healthy. Meats, especially fish, are great for this, as are nuts, avocados, and cooking oils (choose a healthy,natural cooking oil). A fish oil supplement is also a great idea, as it has other benefits such as lowering risks of certain cancers like breast cancer and boosting your brain as well.
Supplements Obviously they aren’t macro nutrients, but they can help you get what you need that you don’t get from your diet alone. A multivitamin, calcium supplement, and fish oil are good basics.
Calories Each macro nutrient carries calories. Carbs and protein have about the same amount of calories per gram (I think 5?), and fat has a lot more. As far as how many calories you need daily goes, it depends on each person and their activity level. Someone who is in shape and works out regularly needs more calories daily than someone who sits on the couch. Generally, women shouldn’t regularly go below 1200 per day and men shouldn’t go below 1500 per day in order to remain healthy. How many you need daily is determined by your height, weight (or weight goal), and activity level and fitness. There are many resources for finding this range, such as on MyFitnessPal or with a personal trainer.
Now we’ve covered the basics of nutrition. How about working out?
Its best to work out at least three days a week to get results. You do need rest days, so don’t expect to work out 7 days a week. That’s not to say that you can’t do anything on your rest day, but an actual normal workout is a no-no. Your muscles need to rest in order to improve, since you tear them when they work out so they can only grow and strengthen by repairing. Anywhere from 3-6 days a week will get you results, but start with three or four at first and work up if you want to. Don’t feel like you have to.
You need a certain amount of different kinds of activities to achieve overall physical health.
Muscle Strength/Endurance This is best gained through weight lifting, calisthenics, and similar types of exercise. Ladies, don’t be afraid to lift the heaviest weight you can (without losing good form, of course!). We don’t bulk up very easily; it takes either steriods or years of hard effort to bulk for women, and can easily be avoided. Weight lifting will definitely make you stronger and define your muscles, but the result will be a toned body, not a manly body. Don’t be afraid of those squats! Leg days actually release a lot of human growth hormones since they’re stored in large amounts in the large muscles of your legs, so those squats and leg presses help tone the rest of you, too. Remember, muscle burns more calories even when you’re sleeping than fat does, so even if your ultimate goal is to lean out, you should focus on muscle gains too. Weights aren’t the only strength exercises. Plyometrics and calisthenics are good to do as well. You should do muscle strength/endurance exercise probably at least three days a week.
CardioIts almost a curse word to me, but its so necessary. Generally, it should be done at least a couple days a week for at least twenty minutes. Don’t just get stuck on the treadmill or elliptical, though. There’s other cardio options; stair climbers, swimming, Zumba. Have fun with it. Also, don’t think that just going one pace is always the best. Distance running is great, but doing some HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is a great fat burner too. This is done by alternating high intensity cardio with very low intensity, such as by sprinting for a minute and then walking for a minute for twenty minutes. It causes you to burn more calories during and more after because you’re not letting your body fall into a pattern. No matter what you do for cardio, remember to not go to a dead stop (such as lay on the ground) immediately after cardio, especially intense cardio. It can literally stop your heart. Walk for a couple minutes or do something else low intensity where you are still moving. Remember if you’re trying to gain a lot of muscle strength, go really light on the cardio so the calories can go towards building muscles instead. But if you’re trying to lean out a lot, go heavier on the cardio.
FlexibilityStretch after your workout. Stretching cold muscles before a workout can actually increase your chance of injury, but doing it after gives your muscles a good stretch because they’re warmed up and decreases chance of injury. Flexibility will be nice to have through your life, even if only so you can still tie your shoes when you’re 60, so even if you never do the splits, make sure you keep reaching for those toes.
Keep a few other things in mind.
One, always use proper form. If you don’t know it, find someone or something to teach you. I’ve made the most use of the personal trainers at the gym and the exercise database on bodybuilding.com to know how to correctly do workouts. This is especially important when you’re doing heavy weights or something that puts a lot of stress on your back or knees.
Two, abs need rest days too. They do repair faster than other muscles because they are fast-twitch muscles, whereas muscles like your quads are slow-twitch, but they do need repair time still. They’re a muscle group like any other, so work them no more than a couple times a week. Keep in mind there are many workouts, like squats, that work them too, so they’re going to be improving even on days you’re not focusing on them.
Three, there is no way to “target stubborn belly fat with this five minute workout!” or anything like that which you see in the check out line. Fat will come off where it goes off, when it comes off. Consistently following a healthy diet and exercise plan is the best way to get fat off anywhere. It will probably start to look better pretty quickly if you’re toning the muscles underneath the fat and starting to lose, of course, but you can’t specifically remove fat from a certain body part/area except through lypo.
Four, cycling what you’re focusing on can be very helpful. A lot of body builders and fitness models do it. You focus on gaining muscle for a while, and then switch and focus on leaning out. Whether its every other week or every six months (somewhere around four to six weeks if you’re going for a goal like a photo shoot or competition), switching your focus can help you break plateaus and improve your overall fitness. Start by gaining muscle–do only a little cardio and hit the weights hard and heavy. Then switch to doing more intense cardio and lift the weights lighter with more reps. You’ll love the long term results.