I strongly dislike the term “losing* weight.” “Losing weight” can mean anything: clothes? bones? brain matter?? When people say they want to “lose weight” what they typically mean is that they want to lose fat, or what many refer to as “leaning out.”
[*As much as I dislike the term “losing weight,” “loosing weight” is even worse.]
Most professionals would agree that your body composition is largely due to your diet. Those percentages can range anywhere from 80-95%, but what about the other 5-20% of your life? There are other factors we need to think about if we are looking to lean out.
Your diet can be full of leafy green vegetables, grass-fed protein, and good fats, but if you’re sleeping 4 hours a night, you’re probably still not in great shape. Sleep is your body’s chance to reset. Lack of sleep means that appetite hormones such as leptin and ghrelin are thrown off, your stress hormone cortisol is sky-high, and your brain won’t make great decisions during the day, especially when it comes to food. For people working the night shift, it’s even worse news. Even if you’re getting 8+ hours of sleep during the day, your circadian rhythm is thrown off and you experience similar effects of only getting a few hours sleep. In an ideal world, you’re getting 8+ uninterrupted hours of sleep in a cool, dark room at night.
Whatever that means for you, relax and have fun. Spend time with friends, go for a walk with your family, listen to your favorite music, get a massage, etc. The goal here is to lower stress. Lowering stress lowers cortisol and lowering chronic cortisol is a good thing. Cortisol is not inherently a bad thing – it’s part of the fight-or-flight response to danger. But if we are consistently stressed out, this hormone will tend to store fat along the midsection and mess with other non-essential functions including our memory and immune system.
3. STRENGTH TRAIN
One of the best ways to lean out is to strength train and build muscle. The goal here is not to burn calories WHILE exercising (a common misconception), but to build an engine that will burn fat throughout the day. Muscle is very expensive tissue – it takes a lot of calories to maintain muscle compared to fat, so let’s take advantage of this fact. This goes for men and women alike – put those 5 lb. dumbbells down and pick up a barbell. Compound movements such as the back squat, deadlift, and push press are all great muscle builders. Women: that “toning” that you want? This is the best way to get it. Bulking up like a professional body builder won’t happen the way you think it might. As an initial goal, men should be able to squat 1.5x bodyweight and women should be able to squat 1x bodyweight.
Sprinting can be in the traditional sense of running, but it can also be any acute, high-intensity exercise. The benefits are almost too many to list: fat loss, better insulin sensitivity, increased growth hormone to build muscle, better circulation and heart health, etc. Sprinting is efficient, easy to do (no equipment needed!) and has a myriad of benefits that I’ve already listed and that you can Google. Only once or twice a week is needed – that’s how potent these things are. Do a hill sprint every 2 minutes for 14 minutes and you’ll know what I mean.
5. GET VITAMIN D
Vitamin D is actually not even a vitamin, it’s a hormone and it’s essential. It’s incredibly good at countering stress (cortisol), increasing bone density, increasing testosterone, boosting the immune system, and reducing inflammation – all things related to leaning out. The best way to get vitamin D is directly from the sun. It only takes 15 minutes to get the best exposure from the sun, but in winter months or cloudy days, you may want to grab some Vitamin D3 from a store. You should do some research on how much to take – I find that most brands will recommend far less than is actually optimal. You might find recommended doses of 400 IU on the bottle, but I’ve read about people taking upwards of 20-40,000 IU. Personally if it’s winter or dark out, I’ll take 8-12,000 IU and don’t experience any negative side effects. Depending on your skin tone and other factors, your mileage may vary, so do your own research.
What you put through your pie hole absolutely matters when it comes to health and body composition. But there are a few other factors to keep in mind that aren’t related to food. Getting quality sleep, reducing your stress, strength training, sprinting, and getting adequate Vitamin D are all going to help you lean out. Instead of trying to do all things at once, pick one that you think is achievable and set a goal of being consistent with that for two weeks. If you can do that, add another element and continue in this fashion until you hit all five.
Lastly, don’t let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of good. Yes, in a perfect world you’re getting 9 hours of sleep in a cool dark room. If you are improving from 4 hours to 7 hours interrupted by a crying baby, is that failure? No way! (Am I speaking from personal experience? Maybe) We’re all on a journey and will have different priorities at different times in our lives. Do what’s best for you right now and don’t worry about everyone else. Do you.