|Image source: Microsoft Clipart|
To use a recent example, whilst waiting to into a Body Pump class, a fellow member asked me how long she'd have to attend the class to see 'results'. I had to ask her to clarify what precisely she meant by 'results' as this could have meant absolutely anything from wanting to losing body fat or inches to gaining strength. Perhaps surprisingly so, she didn't really know herself what specifically it was she had set out to achieve.
This is a common occurrence with exercise and healthy eating regimes. Particularly so in the gym, as often people join because they feel it it's the 'right thing to do', along with wishing people they haven't spoken to for ages 'happy birthday' on Facebook and agreeing to work overtime on top of an already hectic schedule.
It's great that you're exercising, but problem with this approach is that you'll never know when you've achieved what you've set out to do if you haven't defined precisely what that is. When you're motivation is flagging is vital to have a goal or 'mission objective' and a way of measuring this to remind yourself of the progress you've already made. This goal or objective could be in the form of one big overall objective or a series of 'mini goals' as discussed here.
More importantly, your particular goal will shape your routine as there is no 'one size fits all' approach to healthy eating and exercise. Here are some examples:
Goal: "I want to go from obese to a health weight without crash dieting"
Assuming you're perfectly aware of the dangers of faddy diets and rapid weight loss (if you're not, keep reading this blog!) this goal is likely to put you on the path of reducing calories to the tune of around 500 calories a day in order to lose 1lb a week. This could be done by burning off an additional 250 calories per day whilst simultaneously reducing your daily calories by a further 250 calories for a more comfortable 50/50 compromise - because who wants to go hungry?! The math behind this approach is explained more here.
Goal: "I've hit a plateau and would like to get the scale moving again or simply reduce my body fat%"
In both of these cases it's likely that you need to 'jump start' your metabolism. I'll be writing about this extensively in the near future as I'm currently carrying out my own metabolic experiment, but briefly summarised your approach is likely to involve eating all of the calories you would burn off in a day (including day to day living and exercise) for a few months (2 or more). This is then followed by making a small deficit of around 150-250 calories a day in order to encourage your body to make use of remaining excess fat stores.
Not sure how many calories you burn on a daily basis? Use an online calculator like this one or wear a handy gadget like a FitBit. This approach is also even easier when combined with strength training as this builds muscle tissue (don't worry female readers, you won't get bulky!) which burns calories even when you're not working out - thus increasing your metabolism. You can read more about this method on the Eat More 2 Weigh Less website and the book: New Rules of Lifting for Women.
Goal: "I want to improve my health, I'm at risk of diabetes and/or I have high blood pressure"
With this goal in mind you really need to focus on diet primarily. Pay particular attention to salt/sodium levels, saturated fat and sugar. Keeping these as low as possible by substituting any item of food which throws these figures off with a food that keeps them in line. It's often easier to chuck out the boxed foods and learn to cook healthy meals from scratch - especially those that can be frozen and used throughout the working week! Gradually introduce light cardio exercises and if you wish, some strength training. Swimming is a great one for reducing blood pressure as it strengthens your heart, works all of your muscles and relaxes your mind!
Goal: "I've reached my goal weight but I still feel flabby"
Strength training and protein is key for this! Increase your protein intake to make up around 25%-30% of your daily calories and lift heavy weights. Once again female readers- I remind you that as a woman with no where near the testosterone levels of a man - you will not get bulky! Instead, you develop a layer of firm muscle tissue under your skin to replace the squishy layer of fat you've just lost. You'll even boost your metabolism at the same time - meaning more food can be enjoyed! hooray!
A side note with this goal - you may wish to ditch the scale and rely entirely on the tape measure, the fitting of your clothes and photos to inform you of your progress as increasing muscle mass can do funny things to that number on the scale for a number of reasons (namely the density of the muscle tissue and the fluid it can hold after an intense strength training workout).
Tracking & measuring your progress
For any of the above goal it's important that you give some thought to how you will measure your progress. This could be a target body fat percentage,a healthy blood pressure reading or blood sugar reading, a particular dress size - anything! But make sure you measure it in pretty much the same conditions on a regular basis. For example, if you take your blood sugar reading before a meal, then always take it before a meal at roughly the same time. Likewise with blood pressure, if you take this in the mornings upon waking up, then stick to this routine when tracking your progress. If you're tracking using photos, then make sure you're wearing pretty much the same outfit and take the photo is the same lighting conditions (and ideally the same time of month to reduce the risk of TOM bloating skewing your results!).
If you're focusing on nutritional goals - whether you're keeping an eye on your sodium, sugar or saturate fat levels, or increasing your fibre and protein intake, then log your food using a dairy or more simply, an app or website such as MyFitnessPal as this will provide you with detailed feedback and also reports for your progress over time.
Only by being sure of what results you're after, will you have a solid reason and source of motivation to do whatever it is you're doing. You'll also know when you've achieved your goal and you may even decide after your amazing victory that there's a new goal you want to set your sights on, whether it's running a marathon or squatting with your own body weight on the bar!