Fitness and nutrition gone wrong
I am passionate about influencing people to live healthier lives and I want to share my experiences and those of others whom I have influenced, to do my bit to build happier and healthier communities. As such, like many others in the ‘fitness industry’, I am vocal about the benefits of exercise and good nutrition. But for all of our good intentions, are we passing on the right messages and does our constant promotion of all things food and fitness help or hinder?
Overall I think that we, the fitness community, do some hugely positive things, inspiring people to make changes — which can sometimes be genuinely life-changing. However, I am also aware that in our haste and enthusiasm to promote our fitness ideals, we are also in part to blame for the veil of confusion that has descended upon the fitness scene, which brings with it more questions than answers.
There are a few mainstream messages around which we need to gain some context and clarity, two very common examples being the notion that to lose weight we should simply increase our activity level whilst simultaneously reducing calories, and that the best way to get into shape is to couple a low-carb diet with a regime of high-intensity interval training. Both of these approaches will work at some stage, but neither represents a successful long-term strategy for most of us.
Increased exercise and reduced calorie intake is the most popularised of the two, largely because, in the end, losing or gaining weight comes down to the basic law of thermodynamics. If we consume fewer calories than we expend (a calorie deficit), we lose weight, but consume more than we expend (a calorie surplus) and we gain weight. This being the case, it makes perfect sense that we create a calorie deficit by eating fewer calories and moving more. The problem is that it is not quite that simple in the long run.
It seems counterintuitive to me that while we increase our nutritional requirements, we simultaneously reduce our dietary intake. On the one hand we’re asking more of the body, but on the other we’re purposely providing it with less. This approach is very likely to fail long-term, as the body will not get what it needs and can only function like this for a short period. I agree that we need to create an overall calorie deficit if we want to lose weight, but I would argue that doing it in such an extreme fashion — that is, doing both at once — is not a sustainable long-term approach.
Most of us will do far better if we do things in stages. Sure, you’ll see rapid weight loss if you cut calories and increase activity, but you are likely to lose more than fat, much-needed muscle mass for example, and you’ll soon hit a plateau once your body gets used to your new routine — you adapt. At this point, you’ll need to do something new in order for the body to change, which is where many of us become unstuck.
The reality for most of us is that we don’t have much wiggle room, given that we’ve probably near maximised our calorie reduction and increased movement options. Some of us will go to extremes and continue with further exercise and/or dietary modification, whilst others of us will throw in the towel, because despite exercising three or four times per week and restricting all of the food and drink that we are prepared to, we are still not making progress — something I can certainly relate to.
The answer is to do things more slowly, giving the body a chance to adapt to, and benefit from, smaller and more gradual changes. It is important to recognise that we need to give the body what it needs to perform and recover, rather than simply cut calories, because long-term we cannot continue to live in a way that demands more of us physically but restricts our sources of energy and vital nutrients: this depletes us both mentally and physically and is not sustainable.
When it comes to fat loss and improved health, smaller and more regular changes over time are often much more effective than the typical all-or-nothing approach. Most of us respond less well to extreme approaches and it is a far easier and more enjoyable process, with results more likely to stick, if we do things more gradually, tweaking as we go.