By James Fell Ask Men
Everybody thinks exercise is about burning calories, but in reality, that is just about the least important thing it does.
In Part 1 of the Exercise-Eating Connection, we looked at the obesogenic environment we live in and how without a lot of knowledge and some ass-kicking mental discipline, you’re pretty much screwed.
Seriously, modern society seems pretty damn determined to make us fat, and for most of us, it’s succeeding in turning us all into tubs of bacon grease.
But if you don’t want to look like you’re 10 months pregnant, then you need to do something about fighting the system. Fighting that system starts with exercise, but not for the reasons you might think.
When it comes to exercise, we need to start with a warning.
Watch out for the reward mentality
What I mean is, your ability to be successful at sustaining a healthy, calorie-restricted diet is significantly boosted if you first get active because it acts as a “gateway behavior” to better eating. That is, if you don’t fall for the trap of the reward mentality. The thing is, some people have a tendency to increase their food intake when they exercise, wiping out their caloric burning efforts. These people will burn off 300 calories on a treadmill and reward themselves with a 500 calorie piece of cheesecake, and that’s just bad math.
In order for exercise to truly change the way you eat, you must be mindful. Instead of thinking, “I exercised, therefore I deserve a reward,” switch to, “I exercised, therefore I’ve improved my ability to resist crap.” You can take it a step further by seeing a need to fuel your body with high-octane go juice.
Understanding what exercise really is about
Everybody thinks exercise is about burning calories, but in reality, that is just about the least important thing it does. The most important thing it does is provide a training response. This means it makes you faster, stronger, more agile and flexible, and generally healthier from head to toe. It also can prevent brain deterioration with age, anxiety disorders, reverse type 2 diabetes, stave off heart disease and cancer, arthritis, and probably prevents a bunch of other nasty conditions that we don’t even know about.
The second most important thing about it -- as already mentioned -- is the way it empowers you around food.
OK, sorry about using the word “empower.” That’s an Oprahism. Never again. Still friends? Great.
Finally, and perhaps least important, exercise burns calories.
Exercise first. Everything else later
People hate change, and if you try and jump onto the complete lifestyle overhaul in one day, then it’s a recipe for a crash and a burn. So you tackle the easier of the two first, and that’s exercise. The reason why exercise is easier is simple: You can start slow and just add small increments of time and intensity and frequency each week. If you get up to being pretty hardcore and working out six or more hours each week, then that’s only six hours out of each week that you actually need to be motivated to exercise. The rest of the time you can be a lazy ass if you like.
Conversely, diet requires 24/7 motivation. If you’re focusing on weight loss, you can derail days worth of caloric restriction in just an hour of drunken gluttony.
And this is why exercise comes first, because just focusing on that one thing -- integrating exercise into your life -- increases the likelihood you will persevere at it. Then, once ingrained, being a regular exerciser gives you the power to resist junk food.
Your brain on exercise
Junk food is addictive, and this addiction works on the same neurochemical pathways in your brain that do drugs, alcohol and gambling.
You want to know what else works on those same neurological pathways? The good feelings you get from exercise. What this means is that people who exercise a lot can get that same feel-good “fix” from exercise as they do from eating crap. Well, not literal crap. I mean stuff like salt-and-vinegar potato chips and Oreo ice-cream sandwiches.
When your need for a rush is satisfied via strenuous effort rather than food, that’s a good thing.
So how do you get there? James Fell shows you how its done, next...
The key to success is to do this in a mindful way. There are cases of people who actually gain weight when they start an exercise program (and I’m not talking about building muscle) because they adopt a “reward mentality” that I mentioned earlier.
The key with exercise is the way you visualize what it does for you. You’ve got to go way beyond seeing it as just a calorie burner because, again, that’s just about the least important thing it does until you get up into hardcore territory -- then it can start making a significant contribution to weight loss and weight management. The vast majority of the population is never going to burn a ton of calories via exercise. Weight loss will always mostly be a dietary issue.
So, instead of seeing exercise as something that allows you to be rewarded with eating junk, you must view it as something that gives you the power to resist such garbage. What’s more, you can cross over to the good side and visualize it as something that makes you crave healthier foods to fuel your new, high-performance lifestyle.
There’s a lot of chemical interactions taking place in your brain that help the above come to fruition, but you’ve got to think it to make it happen. It’s a mixture of physiology, with your body starting to send you signals about what healthy foods you should be eating, and psychology, which involves some positive self-talk and self-hypnosis even about convincing yourself that you’re ready to handle giving up the crap and embracing good food.
Are you working up an appetite?
But what about working up an appetite? Doesn’t exercise cause you to eat more?
This is a myth that is in desperate need of busting. Yes, there are some critics of exercise who say that exercising will “work up an appetite” and cause you to actually gain weight.
It sounds good as a hypothesis. If you exercise really hard then you are going to want to eat more to fuel that exercise, right? That axiom about working up an appetite has been around for a long time, hasn’t it? Well, when you actually look at the science, this, this, this and this research all beg to differ.
There is also the fact that stress can lead to eating, and exercise is proven to reduce stress, creating an environment better for making healthy food choices.
Step 1: Gradually integrating exercise
The first step for the doughnut-scarfing couch potato is a simple and gradual integration of exercise.
The key factor is finding something that you actually like doing. It doesn’t have to be the greatest calorie burner or generate a massive training response. It’s just got to be something that gets you to move your ass for a little while a couple of times a week. What you’re doing here is not losing weight -- you are developing a routine.
But let’s back up just a minute first. Before we get into an exercise routine, we need to look at your schedule. I realize that work and other commitments have the ability to suck the life out of you and fill up every hour in your day. The best advice I can give on this front is that you need to seriously re-evaluate your priorities.
It is an axiom that if everything is a priority, then nothing is. Well, the fact is that your health should come way before work. No one lies on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office, but almost everyone lies on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time exercising. Especially since they might not be dying just then if they had.
If you put yourself first and take good care of your body, you’ll be more capable at doing those things that others rely on you for, like looking after family and fulfilling work obligations. If you’re unhealthy, you’re more likely to suck at those things. You’ve got to decide to take some “me time” to exercise. Later on, you’ll have to be willing to take the time required to focus on healthier eating rather than spending two minutes on the phone ordering a pizza.
So how do you get more exercise in your life and like it? James Fell tells you after the break...
And when it comes to weight loss, if you’ve accepted the fact that you’re a tough case in this regard, then you also must accept that the path to success is a slow and steady one, which is why for the beginning months you need to just forget about losing any weight at all. What you’re doing in the early phases is getting ready to get started on losing weight. Make sense?
Once you’ve found an exercise that you don’t hate and can do a couple of times a week, then you need to start experimenting and pushing yourself in small increments. Here is what you push:
- Length of time spent exercising each session.
- Number of sessions each week.
- Intensity at which you work during those sessions.
- The intensity of the type of exercise -- this means looking at other kinds of exercise that garner better results in terms of training response and caloric burn.
Now, if this sounds daunting, consider this simple bit of math: If you start off exercising just 15 minutes twice a week and add to that only five minutes of exercise each week, then by the time a year passes, you will be working out almost five hours every week, which is getting you up into workout warrior territory. And you want to know something? A year goes by really fast. You could try the quick-fix method to getting in shape and fail, and then that year is going to pass anyway, or you could take the slow and steady approach and make amazing progress. You decide.
Remember, any weight loss that happens during this time is just a bonus. You’re not focused on weight loss here but just on becoming a regular exerciser. Weight loss is not the measurement of success; sticking to a regime is.
And be proud. If you are not an exerciser and you get to the point where you get active on a regular basis, then this is a major accomplishment. It’s something you should be proud of, weight loss be damned.
Step 2: Increasing caloric awareness
The next phase is about becoming more calorically aware of what’s in your food and setting yourself up for counter-conditioning against eating high-calorie junk. You can do this at the same time you are working on integrating exercise, because it doesn’t actually involve changes to your diet, but just becoming more aware of how many calories are in the foods you eat.
You’re still in the “getting ready to get started” mode at this point.
And this is where you will learn that eating out is one of the main contributors to being overweight. Restaurant food is notoriously high in calories and must be avoided as much as possible. In many cases, the nutritional information is hard to find, and even when it is, they lie. Time and time again it’s been proven that the portion size they use for calculating caloric content of restaurant foods, and how much actually ends up on your plate, are not the same. The latter is often much more.
Beyond reading labels and checking restaurant websites, you can also use an online calorie counter to do this.
Step 3: Developing counter-conditioning
So, what is counter-conditioning?
It’s learning to hate what you love, and it’s a critical component of changing the way you eat.
You need to start viewing overly processed, high-calorie junk as toxic, because this takes some of the fun out of eating it. Most overweight people are that way because they are focused on eating for pleasure. The better you understand just how bad junk food is and how it is designed to make you lose control while eating it, then this dramatically reduces the pleasure factor. It may seem negative to say so, but you’ve got to up the guilt factor in guilty pleasure.
Start realizing just how bad this stuff manipulates you. Think of it as crack in food form. Begin to view it the way a former smoker views cigarettes. Learn to hate it for what it really is. When you see Ronald McDonald, think of this instead.
Step 4: Baby steps to dietary change
Take baby steps and work on slow integration of things like more fruits and vegetables. Find out where all the crap is in your diet and slowly cut it back in small bits and pieces over time. Measure your progress and write things down if it helps, keeping track of how many fewer times you are giving into junk food temptation now compared to before. You can also use a technique called “crowding out,” where you focus on eating more and more good stuff like fruits and vegetables, and eventually this will push out the crap you eat.
Slowly, gradually, painstakingly, make those baby step changes from doughnut-scarfing couch potato to diet-conscious workout warrior. The awesome body will come as a side benefit.
Finally, remember that you can’t go back to your old lifestyle and expect to keep your new body. Eventually you’ll level off at a plateau that is in line with your current level of exercise and dietary habits. If you want to maintain that body, you need to maintain the lifestyle that got you there.
Feel the love
And to do all of this, you need to feel the love.
Feel the love of exercise and healthy eating. I’m not going to lie to you. Healthy food doesn’t taste as good as junk does, but it feels better. It may not be as good on the tongue, but it’s way better everywhere else in your body if you just try to feel it work.
And, finally, this is again where exercise is your friend. When you become a workout warrior, your body wants the high-octane, high-performance exercise fuel. It won’t like the crap so much anymore. It will send you signals asking you for the good food.
You need to be listening.