I still remember the first time I set foot in a commercial gym. I was 16 years old and had a burning desire to get in better shape. I also had a VERY limited understanding of how to reach that goal most effectively.
I wasn’t overweight, having played basketball and biked everywhere for years, but I was about to start high school and the “aerobic-body” look was the ideal at the time, so I slowly got sucked into the fitness universe. Needless to say, I was clueless (and continued to be for years) on how to get the results I was hoping for. With so much contradictory information out there from magazines, friends, and dubious experts, I had no idea who to believe, or what the truth was.
The thing is, the truth is going to differ from person to person. We are all on our own personal journeys, and what works for one might not be the right solution for another. However, I have learned five key lessons from my mistakes and successes, and I think they apply to most people. Here are the 5 things I wish I’d known earlier about food and fitness.
Define exactly what your goal is
Are you hoping to run a 10K, be able to walk around the block without feeling winded, look like Heidi Klum, or compete in a fitness competition? Each goal will have its own recipe for success, and you’ll need different tools to be successful at each of them.
When I walked into that fitness studio back in the early 90’s I just wanted to be skinny, but I had no real idea about what that meant. I didn’t have a concrete goal for my weight and I had no aesthetic ideal to work towards. I just thought I wanted to be “smaller”.
Because of that, my sole focus was on cardio (aerobic classes, jumping up and down in my Jane Fonda inspired leotard). It wasn’t effective at all, and even if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have liked how I looked if I had lost the weight I was trying to lose.
What I should have done: I should have found a few women whose physiques I liked and studied how they looked. If I had done that, I would have realized that I didn’t really want to be skinny. I wanted to look FIT! That would have changed everything I did in the gym back then.
Forget about “toning” and focus on “building”
When I started at university, the mainstream mantra had changed and my goal was now to be ‘toned’.
I still hear a lot of women use that term today (not to mention pretty much every women’s magazine’s January issue). When you break ‘toning’ down, I guess it means having a low enough body fat percentage that you can show off your abs and lean legs and not have too much that jiggles when you walk.
As you can probably sense, I’m not a big fan of that term, because it leaves out a crucial step. Before you can show off those gorgeous “toned” abs and legs, you have to build them by lifting weights and eating a healthy diet. When you focus on building your body, it will take care of the ‘toning’ by itself.
What I should have done: I should have stopped focusing on lowering my body fat percentage and focused more on building the muscles beneath the fat. It doesn’t matter how lean you are (and I was actually pretty lean back then) — if you don’t have any muscles to show off, you won’t get ‘toned’. You can have flabby arms at 15% body fat!
Learn how many calories to eat and what kind
It still blows my mind that I could work out and diet for more than 10 years without calculating my daily calorie need. It’s the most basic and powerful information you can have when it comes to your diet and it takes literally 5 minutes to calculate. Tobias has written a great step-by-step guide explaining how to find your daily calorie need.
What I should have done: Instead of following random diets from magazines, I should have focused on finding my calorie needs and adjusting my eating habits accordingly.
When you know how many calories to eat, the next step is to think about the quality of the food you eat. This is what took me the longest to learn.
In many ways, how ‘clean’ you eat is just as important as how much you eat. Always make sure to get enough lean protein (chicken, fish, etc.), healthy fat (avocado, nuts, etc.) and quality carbs (oats, brown rice, etc.) to fuel your body. You can read this Fit With Diabetes meal plan for inspiration to what a clean daily diet could look like.
Before I started cleaning up my diet, I would only see slow changes to how I looked and I felt like my body was fighting me all the way. I would also suffer from all the usual problems that seem to affect most women (digestion issues, bloating, etc.). When I started eating high-quality food, most of that went away and the results I was aiming for came MUCH quicker.
What I should have done: Cut out the processed junk and eaten more quality food.
Don’t just be a cardio bunny
Please come join the fun in the weightlifting room! Even if your goal is “just to be skinny”, you will get so much more return on your investment if you add weights to your routine. And I’m not talking about the small pink ones! If they don’t feel heavy, they aren’t doing you any good. To quote someone I found on Pinterest, “You shouldn’t be lifting weights that weigh less than your purse”.
If you find free weights intimidating, focus on the machines. Just do some kind of resistance training. There are so many benefits!
- Muscles burn energy – you’ll be burning fat even after you leave the gym.
- You will become stronger – it’s kind of nice not having to ask for help opening that jar of peanut butter.
- You will look better – I challenge you to find any really beautiful celebrity who doesn’t have at least some muscles.
What I should have done: Run less, lift more!
If had known all of this when I was 18, I probably wouldn’t have spent years being frustrated and mystified by my inability to achieve my fitness goals. It’s a little crazy to feel like I am healthier and in better shape than I have ever been before at the age of 39 (not that I am complaining 😀 ).
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