When it comes to fat loss, exercise seems to get a lot of the attention. Often, when a person’s progress stalls, one of the first things they do is increase exercise duration, frequency, or intensity— sometimes all three!
While training is important, to bust through plateaus we need to look at four other things first. This is what I call the Hierarchy of Fat Loss:
- Daily movement
Each of these factors affect the other, and in order to get the best results possible it’s important to optimize each of these areas.
Jump-starting fat loss in a sustainable and healthy manner is about much more than simply adding more exercise.
If one or more of these areas are greatly suffering, that could be the reason why you aren’t seeing the results that you expected to see.
Nutrition: Exercise less, eat less
What you eat and how much of it are the most important factors when it comes to losing body fat. Often, people eat more food than their bodies need, and then they attempt to “work it off” with exercise, but that typically doesn’t lead to the results they thought they’d get. Doing obscene amounts of exercise usually further increases appetite for many people, which leads to eating even more than necessary, so they add more exercise to “balance things out”—it becomes a vicious cycle.
Additionally, chronically over-eating and over-stressing (which can include over-exercising), can lead to insulin resistance. In this article about insulin and cortisol Dr. Brooke Kalanick provides some helpful understanding of how those (and other hormones, like leptin and grehlin) work, and how they affect body composition.
When a client isn’t making the progress she wants, it’s much more common for me to recommend that she decrease the amount of exercise that she is doing and also decrease the amount of food that she’s eating.
The ‘exercise less, eat less’ approach can help prevent some people from eating too much as a result of increased appetite from working out so often. If your fat loss efforts are stuck, and you feel you may be exercising too much and not reaping the rewards, you may have great success with this approach.
Try it out: For the next couple of weeks, try scaling back your workouts a bit. You could do this by shortening the duration, decreasing the frequency, or dialing back the intensity. Then, decrease your food intake just a bit. Start by taking about two to three bites less at each meal, and see how you feel. Find peace knowing that you can always adjust.
Have you ever noticed that when you are tired, your cravings for carbohydrates and sweets skyrocket? That isn’t a coincidence. When you’re in a chronic sleep deficit, your body wants quick energy, and it also tanks your willpower. This is a double-whammy when it comes to being able to make healthy nutrition choices.
This is why the pastries at the coffee shop in the morning, or the donuts in the break room seem especially tempting when you’re tired.
Sleep is the cornerstone for optimal health, and when you are short on sleep it affects everything from mood, hormones, stress levels, appetite, willpower, energy, the ability to train hard and recover well, and so much more. If you find that you’re frequently getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, there is a good chance that this is hindering your fat loss.
Try it out: For the next few weeks, make a plan to ensure that you get a bit more sleep each night. It may be an extra hour on some nights, or an additional 15 minutes on others, but know that every extra bit counts, and will help you towards your goals. Consider dimming the lights in your home, and turning off electronics at least one hour before bedtime. If you are tempted by the notifications on your phone, you may benefit from turning it off altogether, or putting it into airplane mode. If you find that you’re staying up to watch your favorite show, try recording it instead.
It also helps to establish a bedtime routine. Eventually, this tells your body to start winding down and prepare for sleep. It could be a bath, followed by a book, or whatever serves you and your lifestyle best. However, it should be something that you find soothing, peaceful, and relaxing.
I was recently at a fitness conference in which the presenter asked a room full of about 200 women who felt stressed out, and every single hand in the room went up. This is not surprising. Between jobs, partners, kids, and everything else that makes up our unique lives, we—as a population—seem to be dealing with extremely high levels of stress all of the time.
Some stress is necessary, and even a good thing, but too much of it for longer periods of time will cause problems.
In the context of fat loss, stress can prevent us from getting good sleep, and it can contribute to emotional eating. Not only that, but the body also views intense training as a form of stress, and when you start piling stress on top of stress, it can affect your fat loss efforts, not to mention that you won’t feel great.
Try it out: I recommend that my clients put together a small list of things they find to be incredibly comforting, and do something from that list every day. One day you may have five minutes to work on this, and other times you may have an hour. Try to put a few things on the list that take various amounts of time.
For example, it may be a five-minute guided meditation, lying down to snuggle your pup for 10 minutes, taking a 15-minute leisurely walk, or spending 20 minutes in a warm bath reading magazines. Whatever you choose, do your best to incorporate one of these into your day. On some days, it could be something as simple as opening your front door, sitting on the porch taking ten deep belly breaths, and softening your shoulders and jaw.
Bringing chronic stress down will help you sleep better at night, and help prevent emotional eating.
Surprisingly, the majority of people who train four to five times per week are still sedentary. Most people sit for eight hours or more each day, which makes them quite inactive. It’s important to get up and move your body as often as possible. This gives you a chance to get out of the same, seated position, and possibly prevent musculoskeletal imbalances that often arise from sitting for long periods of time. Every time you move you add to your energy expenditure.
If you’re already training several times a week, think of ways to increase your non-exercise physical activity. Move your body at every given opportunity.
Try it out: How can you get some more movement in your day? Take the stairs, park farther away from the store, play an extra game of fetch with your dogs, take a daily walk, or throw yourself a dance party while you fold your laundry.
Though you’ve heard all this before, it bears repeating because it truly all adds up. Get creative, because you body loves to move!
Ah, training, finally. Training is important for things like preserving and building muscle, fixing imbalances, gaining confidence, improving bone density, and keeping your heart healthy, just to name a few benefits. More muscle mass means more calories are burned at rest, and the energy expenditure of training certainly contributes to the bottom line, but training is not the be-all-end-all for fat loss. It however, is amazingly effective when you get it to work in unison with the four other factors in the Hierarchy that I have mentioned so far.
We recommend the following for most women who want to feel better, lose fat, and gain or preserve muscle:
- Strength training three to four times per week, prioritizing big multi-joint movements, and following it up with supplemental work, hypertrophy or “beach” work (typically single-joint movements like biceps curls, triceps extensions, and calf raises), and core work.
- Moderate-intensity cardio twice per week for about 25 minutes per session, keeping heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute
- One or two interval sessions, or HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions per week.
- your nutrition is right for your body
- you’re getting plenty of high-quality sleep
- you’re keeping your stress in check, and
- you’re moving your body a lot each day
… then the training I mentioned above (and which Molly discusses in more detail in this article about the GGS Formula) should be just right to help you reach your goals while keeping appetite under control.
When working towards fat loss, it’s so important to look at the process as a “team effort” with your team being nutrition, sleep, stress control, daily movement, and training. If you can make small improvements on the ones that are lagging, you will likely reap big rewards, because they all work best as a cohesive unit. Remember, everything counts! Make small improvements consistently and you’ll move in the right direction in leaps and bounds!