It's that time of year again. The motivation is high as promises of a new year, new you, and the ever-so-popular (never-changing) fitness goals occupy the mind and social media feeds of people in virtually every city in the country. This isn't the first time you've done this. You eat well, pick up a gym membership, and maybe even actually start attending regularly.
It feels like you have done everything right, but the only thing that's consistently missing every year at the end of this cycle is the results. So what gives? Why aren't you seeing the results and reaping the rewards of your efforts? It's possible that even with the best of intentions, you are focusing too much of your energy on the wrong things.
Most goals in health and fitness can be achieved quite simply. Now, make sure that you don't confuse simple with easy here. Just because the execution is simple and easy to understand, doesn't mean it won't still require hard work. However, if you put your effort into working on the right areas, you will waste a lot less time and make this the year that you actually ACHIEVE the goal you set for yourself at the beginning of the year.
Things that ARE helping you change your physique:
1. Lifting Weights: It's no secret that exercise is one of the key components in any weight loss or physique enhancing journey, but it's common that people spend too much time spinning their wheels with the wrong kinds of exercise. Certainly some exercise is better than none, but strength training is what will really change your body. Don't believe me? Just check out this study indicating that even two strength training sessions per week was enough to decrease body fat and increase muscle mass to a measurable degree: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12629559
2. Eating Enough Protein: To support muscle maintenance and/or increases in lean body mass, it's a good idea (for the wide majority of people) to ensure you are eating at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. In addition to favorable changes in muscle mass, protein is the most metabolically active macronutrient, meaning that you will burn more calories just to digest protein than you will when digesting carbs and/or fats.
3. Eat Appropriate Calories: This is HUGE. If your goal is weight loss, eat in a slight deficit. If your goal is muscle/weight gain, eat in a slight surplus. If you want to do BOTH at the same time (which will be slightly harder, but not impossible for most), you are probably best off setting your calories at maintenance. Once you have a calorie goal, it's important to make sure that you're actually eating the amount of calories that you think you are. Most people underestimate the number of calories they are eating by at least 500-1,000 calories/day (certainly enough to derail progress)!
4. Sleep. Don't underestimate the power that seep can have on your physique. Although calories in vs calories out will ultimately determine your body mass (how much you weigh), getting more sleep can have a drastic impact on the shape of your body, how much muscle you carry vs how much fat you carry, and even where you carry your body-fat. Those who get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night notoriously have smaller waists, more muscle, less fat, and more energy to live a higher quality of life.
5. Stress. It's important to understand that you will encounter stress from nearly everything you do in life. It may be emotional, physical or mental, but it all needs to be moderated for optimal health and body composition. Elevated cortisol levels can play a huge role in increased abdominal obesity, increased risk for over-eating, and many other physique sabotaging phenomenons.
6. Get Regular Non-Exercise Activity. It's common to pick up a gym routine or set ambitious goals for workouts when making an effort to change your physique, but not as common to think about the bigger picture. Getting in an hour workout is great, but simply moving around more during your day (especially if you sit at a desk for the majority of the day) may even have a bigger impact on your weight than your standard 'workouts'.
7. Drink Enough Water. It's practically common knowledge at this point to associate changes in weight with changes in calorie intake (and rightfully so), but the importance of water intake is often overlooked. Increasing your water intake will help all of your internal organs function optimally, keep you full between meals (thus preventing over-eating), increase energy (and calorie expenditure) and much, much more. Muscle tissue is around 75% water, so drinking more water will also help your muscles function properly and help you to appear more defined and/or muscular.
Things that AREN'T changing your physique
1. Fat Burners. There is no research supporting the effectiveness of ANY fat burners. At best, they may help increase your energy (due to the high levels of caffeine present in most brands) which will promote you to move more, thus, increasing energy expenditure.
2. 'Super' foods. While there is certainly merit to aiming for a diet full of nutrient-dense foods, there are no foods that will directly help you to lose weight (or decrease the size of your waist). When it comes to weight loss and body composition changes, all calories are created equal.
3. Obsessing. It's GREAT to have goals and work hard toward them, but remember that your fitness goals should be enhancing your quality of life, not diminishing it. If your entire life begins to revolve around your goal to lose fat and/or gain some size in the right places, you will not likely be able to stick to the lifestyle changes for a very long period of time.
4. Eating 'natural'. Unfortunately, the word 'natural' means virtually nothing in today's world of modernized nutrition. There are candy bars that can rightfully be labeled as 'natural' due to the fact that all of the ingredients originally came from a natural source. Even if you have higher standards for what you call a 'natural' food (such as non-processed), you must still pay mind to the caloric content of the food in order to see body composition changes.
5. Coconut Oil. Seriously, stop putting coconut oil on everything. Oil is one of THE most calorically dense foods on the planet and the fact that it's from a coconut doesn't change that.
6. Over-Dieting. When attempting to lower your caloric intake, make sure that you set a realistic goal for yourself. Usually, this means nothing more than a deficit of 200-300 calories per day (which will be enough to see results for most people). Setting a deficit too large will increase the risk of bingeing, decrease adherence for a long period of time, and ultimately land you in the same spot you are in now 6 months down the road (even if you DO lose some weight initially).
7. Excessive Exercise. Yes, there is such a thing as too much exercise. Regular activity is important, but too much can actually be counter-intuitive. Research consistently shows that too much volume in the weight room will actually decrease the amount of muscle you carry, while excessive cardio can a) promote over-eating, b) burn through muscle (and take away from creating a more shapely physique), c) elevate cortisol levels beyond that of what is healthy and normal and d) decrease metabolism when you begin to burn through metabolically active tissue.
8. BCAA's. Branch chain amino acids have earned themselves a big name for preserving and/or building muscle in many fitness communities. While it's true that BCAA's are the building blocks of protein and are essential for building muscle, BCAA's are present and ample in all complete protein sources. This means that as long as you are able to eat enough protein through your diet, additional BCAA's will provide NO additional benefit.
9. Waist Trainers. Some of these actually can decrease the circumference of your waist, but the change is due entirely to water loss and the benefits will quickly fade once the waist trainer is taken off.
10. Unrealistic #goals. It's great to have aspirations and visualize your goals, but often times it won't play in your favor to have other people serve as your goal. Your goal should always be to be the best version of YOU, not to become anyone else. Otherwise, you will more than likely end up upset every time, regardless of how much progress you are making from where you started.
Having goals is important and a great first step, but focusing on the wrong things to get to those goals is a fast track to broken promises and giving up on yourself. If you want to actually reap the benefits from the hard work you put in, make sure to put your effort in the RIGHT places.