By Leo Babauta
I would bet that I’m not alone here in wanting to get leaner and fitter — it’s something that many of us would like to do, and many of us are striving for all the time.
We don’t want to lose weight, although that’s often stated as the goal — we want to get leaner. We want to shed the fat and leave just the lean muscle (some of us want to increase the muscle, others just want to lose the fat). We want to be healthy and in good shape and able to be physically active.
Unfortunately, with the stresses of our daily lives, with the frustrations of being overweight and living an unhealthy lifestyle, with the difficulties of changing ingrained habits … getting leaner and fitter isn’t always an easy process. Many of us give up before we get very far.
A little more than a month ago I announced my plan to become lighter and leaner in The Rules of the Unbelievable Lightness of Being Club. In summary, I planned to:
- Eat when I was lightly hungry, eat slowly, and stop when I was lightly full.
- Eat light foods (nothing heavy or greasy).
- Add weight lifting to my running, and start lightly (just one set of light weights to start with).
I’d like to give you my successful one-month report (I’m not stopping yet, but plans have changed a bit), and then share some of my tips for getting leaner and fitter — things that are working for me that I think could work for you too.
My One-Month Assessment – Success!
Since I published my plan in early April, I started a training blog and announced my overall goal and some sub-goals (see below). Also, since posting that plan I decided to try to do a couple of sprint triathlons (the first is this weekend!) which meant adding swim and bike workouts to my plan.
Now, to give you some background, I’m a runner but a complete novice when it comes to the swim and the bike. So I’ve been building up a little endurance and learning some skills, and generally having a blast. I won’t be competitive in the triathlons, but I will have fun. :)
Another thing to note is that I’ve now become addicted to triathlon training. It’s so much fun, and I recommend it to anyone trying to get lean (it’s included in my list of tips at the bottom of this post).
OK, let’s take a look at my goals from a month ago, and the progress I’ve made on each:
My overall goal is just to get myself in good shape for my honeymoon in late June, and then after that to prepare for my 3rd marathon in December. Progress: I’ve been exercising almost every single day and eating pretty healthy in the last month. I’ve added triathlon training to my running and weight lifting and feel fitter than ever. I’ve lost an inch or two on my waist and about 5 lbs so far, though my weight has plateaued a bit. I really feel fitter than I was a month ago and feel like I’ll be seeing even more results in the next few weeks.
1. Start and stick to a regular strength training routine. I’m going to do 2 full-body workouts a week, just 6 exercises: bench press, standing rows, shoulder presses, pullups, bicep curls and squats. I might add deadlifts and dips later, and maybe a 3rd day per week once I’ve gotten into the habit (after 3 weeks maybe). Progress: I’ve stuck to this strength training routine extremely well so far, doing more than 5 weeks of this schedule. I’ve gone from one set per exercise to four (starting today) and have increased the weights for each exercise. I also feel stronger than ever. This is my longest ever to stick with a weight routine!
2. Build my running back up to a decent level. My focus won’t be on running, but I’d like to have a decent base (maybe 30 miles per week eventually) before I start my marathon training. I’ll also do a faster workout once a week, to increase fat burning and to get me in good shape for some shorter races I’ll be doing for the next few months. Progress: I’ve not only built my running back up to a decent level (25+ miles per week and still increasing), but have started doing hills/speedwork once a week and am feeling strong on the run. Also, not in the original plan, but since I’ve begun triathlon training I’m now doing more cardio than ever before. I feel amazing!
3. Eat lightly. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post, but I’ve created my own meal plan, and will be eating 4-5 times per day, about 300-400 calories per meal. Sometimes a little more. Eat when I’m lightly hungry (instead of ravenous), eat slowly, eat until I’m lightly full (not stuffed), eat light foods (not heavy). Allow myself to cheat a couple meals per week. Progress: I have definitely been eating more often, and eating less per meal, and eating healthy foods for the most part. The cheat meals haven’t been too bad, and while I haven’t stuck exactly to the meal plan, I think my eating has been really good in the last month. I eat when I’m hungry and don’t starve myself, but don’t stuff myself either – very healthy eating style.
4. Stay accountable. I will be trying to post daily (or so) here on my training blog, as well as keeping a public training and eating log on FitDay. Progress: I’ve posted reports each day (though I was late on a couple) so I’ve been pretty much perfect here. And while I don’t use FitDay anymore, I’ve switched to the much better The Daily Plate (see my diary) and have been logging faithfully every day. The accountability of this log and the training blog have really helped keep me on track.
As you can see from my progress on each sub-goal above, I’ve been doing great on every account – overall fitness, strength training, running, eating healthy, and staying accountable. I’ve also added swimming and biking and am having such a great time!
A few indicators:
- Weight: Started at 189.5 and have dropped to 185.5. While my weight loss has leveled off, I think the overall loss is decent and the plateau is probably temporary.
- Waist: Started at 38 inches, down to 36 inches as of this week. Hooray!
- Strength: Went from 1 set of light weights to 4 sets of heavier weights.
- Running: Went from running 4x a week, 13 miles a week (my first week) to running 5x a week and 25 miles a week (last week).
- Overall exercise: Went from 6 workouts in a week the first week, total of 2 hrs 40 mins, to 11 workouts last week for a total of 8 hours and 20 minutes. That’s an increase of more than 3 times my total exercise minutes!
I’m obviously very happy with the last month and hope to just continue the exercise I’ve been doing and continue my healthy eating. I will continue to progress gradually with all four sports (weights, running, cycling, swimming) but will obviously not make the same kind of increases in total exercise time. If I just continue my schedule, I should do well over the next month
Tips for Getting Lean and Fit
The last month has been an enlightening part of my continuing journey over the last couple years to get leaner (and I still have a ways to go). One of the things that’s a bit tricky is losing fat while maintaining or even increasing your muscle mass — it’s hard to do as you tend to lose muscle as you lose fat, as a rule.
However, I’ve been finding that my muscle mass has actually been increasing (not at a huge rate, but at least it’s not decreasing) while I’m losing fat at the same time. Here are some tips for doing that and getting fitter than ever — as always, remember that I’m not an expert and these are just things that have been working for me:
- Increase cardio. I know that you’ll read magazines and hear from bodybuilders that building muscle is the best way to lose fat. And to some extent, I agree that’s a good strategy. However, losing fat is really about being in a calorie deficit — if you burn more calories than you eat, your body will burn fat for fuel. And there’s no better way to get into calorie deficit, in my experience, than lots of cardio. It’s hard to burn 1,300 calories in one workout by lifting weights, as I did in my bike ride yesterday, or even 800+ calories, as I did in my run yesterday. Even the amount your metabolism is boosted by having extra muscle is negligible when compared to these high amounts of calories burned by cardio. I know this one tip will spark a debate, as it always does, but let me just say that by swimming, biking and running for more than an hour a day (sometimes two) I’ve been burning a lot of fat. You can use whatever strategy works for you, but this method is proven to be successful.
- Do triathlon training. This is an extension of the first tip, but I think it’s a great tip — I’ve never had as much fun training as I have since I started triathlon training. Each day is a new challenge — a long run today, learning to improve my stroke tomorrow, a long bike ride the day after, then a hill run, then an endurance swim, then intervals on the bike, with weight workouts mixed into all of that. You never get bored. My suggestion is to look for a triathlon near you, maybe three or four months away — choose a sprint triathlon to start with. Then look for a beginner’s plan online, something that doesn’t start too hard, and slowly begin to build up endurance in each sport. Don’t overdo it in the beginning — even 20 minutes a day will make big improvements over time, until you’re doing 45-60 minutes most days of the week a month or two later. You’ll be fitter than ever, and your body will be leaner without a doubt.
- Lift heavy. This is where I agree with many magazines and bodybuilders. If you just do a lot of cardio, you will lose fat, but you’ll also lose muscle. But if you lift heavy weights (whether you’re a man or a woman), you’ll force your body to keep that muscle. Lots of repetitions with light weights don’t really do much — you have to work your way up to heavier and heavier weights with fewer reps. Compound lifts are best — ones that work multiple muscle groups, like squats and deadlifts and bench press and so forth. Now, if you’re trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, you won’t gain as much muscle as you would if you just tried to gain muscle and didn’t worry about the fat. Bodybuilders usually have periods of bulking (gaining muscle with a caloric surplus) and cutting (losing fat with a caloric deficit). You can do this too, but I’ve found that just lifting heavy and doing a lot of cardio will get you leaner.
- Eat adequate protein. This tip will also spark off a debate, because many bodybuilders will recommend one gram of protein intake per pound of body weight. However, most nutritionists will recommend 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight (divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get kilograms) for those trying to build muscle, and less for those who don’t exercise. If you eat a regular American diet with lots of meat, you eat well over this amount, so don’t worry about it. Vegetarians like myself can also easily get this amount if they try to get good sources of protein with every meal (nuts and nut butters, beans, tofu, soy milk, whole grains, etc.). I suggest non-vegetarians also focus on getting lean proteins, including those I just mentioned and lean sources of poultry, fish and red meat.
- Focus on bodyfat, not weight. While I like to monitor my weight, I know that it’s a very imperfect measure of how lean I’m getting. What’s better is bodyfat percentage, and while there’s no convenient way to get an accurate measurement of that percentage, there are a couple of methods that will suffice. The first is a bodyfat scale — there a a bunch of good models on the market, and while none of them is very accurate, they are consistent, and changes in the readings of these scales will reflect actual improvement in your body composition. The second is just using a tape measure to measure your body — you can measure waist, hips, chest, arms, thighs and neck, but if you’re shooting for easiness maybe just do waist (right around where your belly button is, not where your pants go around your body). With these kinds of measurements to monitor your improvements, you’ll have a better reflection of whether you’re getting leaner or not.
- Be accountable. My training blog has been a great way for me to stay accountable for my exercise and eating — it’s very motivational. I highly recommend starting such a blog to keep yourself accountable. Online forums, such as the Zen Habits forums, are also good ways to stay accountable, especially if they have daily reporting threads where you can tell people what you ate and what exercise you did every day. Sites such as The Daily Plate, where you log your food and exercise and other people can look at your log and post comments, are also good accountability tools. If you don’t use one of these online tools, at least have a group of friends and family to whom you give updates on your training, in person or through email.
- Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full. This seems like such basic advice but the problem is many of us don’t follow it. We’re out of tune with our bodies and instead eat when it’s “time to eat” or when we have time or when we’re out with others and there’s food available. These are unhealthy eating patterns. First, we shouldn’t go hungry just because it’s not time to eat or we don’t have time. Always have healthy snacks, whether at work or on the road, and eat when you’re a little or moderately hungry. If you wait until you’re ravenous, you’ll overeat. Second, don’t keep eating if you’re satiated. Many times we are so ravenous that we eat past the point when we’re full, and then we’re stuffed. Or we eat seconds or even thirds because the food tastes so good, or because we’re too busy talking or watching TV to realize we’re full. Learn to eat slower, to pause in your eating for a few minutes even if you don’t think you’re full yet, and to listen to your body. Sometimes if you just wait for 5 minutes, you’ll realize you really are full. Avoiding overeating is crucial to getting leaner.
- Get into calorie deficit. As I said above, it’s only when your body is in caloric deficit (you burn more calories than you eat) that it really taps into fat as a fuel source. Your body burns fat all the time (it’s doing it right now as you read this article) but after you eat a lot of food, if your body doesn’t need all of those calories, it’ll store them as more fat. So on balance you’re not losing fat if you’re not in caloric deficit. How do you get into caloric deficit? First use an online calculator to calculate how much your body needs to maintain itself. Then subtract 500 calories from that amount and aim to take in that much each day — that’s the deficit you need to lose about a pound a week, which is a safe amount. Don’t go into a deficit of more than 1,000 calories per day, as that will result in an unhealthy rate of weight loss. Also don’t go below 1,200 calories per day if you’re a woman or 1,500 if you’re a man, as that’s generally said to be too little — you won’t get the nutrients you need.
- But don’t be in deficit during your exercise window. While being in caloric deficit is important if you want to lose fat, if you’re increasing your exercise (as I am and as I recommend above), then your body needs fuel for the exercise and for recovery and growth. Starving yourself while increasing exercise will only lead to low energy and the breakdown of your body. Here’s what I do: I think of the couple hours before my exercise, plus the time of my exercise, and the couple hours after my exercise, as my “exercise window”. So if I do an hour of exercise at 5 p.m., then my exercise window is 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. That’s when your body needs fuel — before and during exercise to fuel the exercise, and after the exercise to promote recovery and growth. Don’t go into caloric deficit during this time — try to get healthy, nutritious food with lots of carbs and protein. The rest of the day, you can be in deficit, but not during exercise if you want to get leaner and grow some muscle mass.
- Eat clean if possible. What’s clean eating? It’s a lack of junk food and as little processed food as possible. It’s whole grains, lean protein, fruits and veggies, good fats, beans and nuts. Basically, healthy food. You don’t need any fancy diet plan — just eat these kinds of clean foods, and eat a variety of them. Now, you can eat “unclean” foods of course, but as much as you can, eat clean.
- But don’t severely deny yourself. If you “go on a diet” and restrict yourself from foods your body craves, you will eventually binge. That’s not a healthy eating pattern either — restrict yourself severely and then binge, then repeat. Instead, indulge in what your body is craving, but do it in moderation. Then, instead of feeling guilty, move on and aim for clean foods most of the time. Feel free to indulge, as long as it’s the exception and not the rule. You want to have an eating pattern that you can live with, not something that will last a month and then collapse.
- Eat lotsa veggies and fruits. If there’s any single diet change you make that will make the biggest difference in getting you leaner. Two reasons: one is that they are high in fiber and vitamins and minerals, which most people are lacking in their diet and which promote a healthier body. Two is that they are high in volume without being high in fat or calories. You can eat lots of fruits and veggies but have very few calories.
- High-quality carbs are your friends. While in many circles carbs have been villified — and in the case of white breads and sugary foods, justifiably so — the truth is that if you’re going to increase your exercise, you need carbs. But you should aim for ones that are high in quality — whole grains, without a lot of fat or sugar, high in fiber and nutrients. Fruit, veggies, oatmeal and whole-grain breads are some good example of high-quality carbs.
- Drink water only. Well, almost only. I have a cup of coffee in the morning, and an occasional beer or glass of wine (especially if I burned a lot of calories exercising that day). But other than that, I only drink water, all day long. I don’t consume massive amounts of it, as that hasn’t been shown to contribute to weight loss, but I make sure that I stay hydrated, and drinking water instead of juice or sweet drinks is a good way to keep out those extra calories.
- Increase intensity. After you’ve built up some endurance in whatever exercise you choose — whether that’s walking or running or cycling or swimming or rowing or hiking — you should increase the intensity of that exercise perhaps once or twice a week. That doesn’t mean do an all-out effort, but doing faster-paced intervals, or walking or running or biking up hills, helps increase fitness, calorie burn and leanness. I’m a fan of long, slow miles, but more intense workouts really improve performance and get you fitter than ever.
- Rest is just as important as exercise. Many people make the mistake of exercising at a high level all the time, and think that rest is for wimps. Well, it’s not. Rest is when your body heals itself and grows stronger. If you just exercise all the time, your body will break down, and you’ll get injured or burned out. It’s something I have to do all the time: force myself to take a break. To ensure that you’re getting proper rest, make sure that 1) you take at least one full rest day a week, and two if you’re just starting out; 2) you follow a hard workout day with an easy one (or a rest day); and 3) you get lots of sleep — even take naps if you’re doing a lot of exercise.
- Most of all, enjoy yourself! Getting leaner and fitter doesn’t happen overnight, or even after a week or three. It’s a long process and it takes patience — and you’ll quit if all you’re looking for are results on the scale or in the mirror, especially if you don’t enjoy the exercise and good eating. If you really want to get lean and fit, you need to stick with it for the long haul, and that means you need to do it because you enjoy it. Make exercise fun! Don’t do it if you hate it (however, give it a couple weeks before you decide — often it gets much easier and more enjoyable after a couple weeks). Find exercise you love to do, that you look forward to doing. Find healthy foods that you enjoy. Living the healthy lifestyle can be a real pleasure if you make it so — and it’ll help you to get to where you’re going if you enjoy the journey.
Tell me who you are again?
I’m Leo Babauta, founder of Zen Habits. I transformed my life about 15 years ago, and have helped thousands of people change theirs through habit change and mindfulness training. I’m a vegan dad, a husband, and we’re now living in San Diego. Read about my mission to change the world through uncertainty training.
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