5 Ways to Lean Out That Have Nothing to Do with Food

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.

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.

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.


Guest Post: 8 Tips for Better Sleep by Dr. Jackie Halpern

I’m excited to offer a guest post from Dr. Jackie Halpern. Jackie is a member of CrossFit King of Prussia and a member of BarBelles. During the first and current sessions of BarBelles, the topic of sleep came up. We know that sleep is absolutely vital to good health and fitness, but with technology and stress surrounding us, it can be hard to get good sleep, even with blue blockers. Falling asleep comes fairly easy to me, but can be troublesome to many. Since this is a topic of expertise for Dr. Halpern, I asked her to write a guest post for all three of my readers. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments and Dr. Halpern will do her best to answer them. 





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Sleep is important for daily functioning, but can be elusive
for some. Most people will suffer from insomnia at some point in their life,
whether it is trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early. Not
being able to sleep can be incredibly frustrating and really takes a toll on
other areas of your life. Luckily, because sleep is a learned skill, insomnia
can often be treated with changes in your sleep habits. Sometimes, even simple
changes can make a huge difference.

Sleep hygiene is a fancy term psychologists use to describe
sleep habits. If you google it, you’re going to find a whole bunch of
information about how to work on your sleep habits. Good sleep hygiene leads to
good sleep. Before I get into the nitty gritty of some ways to improve your
sleep hygiene, just remember that sleep is unique for everyone. What might work
for some, may not work for you; so, you may have to experiment with what works
best for you. If you are having trouble sleeping, there are many strategies to
try, and here are a few key points that have been shown through research to be

1. Leave some time for winding down before going to
bed. Don’t go work out at 9 pm at expect to go to sleep right when you are
done. You’re going to need at least 30 minutes of quieter time before you go to
lie down. Develop a routine that is comfortable and relaxing for you.

2. Make sure your room is cool and dark. Our
lifestyles don’t often lend themselves to have dark in our rooms, but it really
helps. So shut off those phones, turn your alarm clock around, and make sure
all other devices that make light and noise are off. Yes, that includes the TV
(remember, these points are the gold standard, you may or may not need to follow
these exactly as written to alter your sleep habits).

3. Reserve the bed for 2 activities only: sleep and
sex. You don’t want to link being in bed with being frustrated, angry, or any
other negative emotions. (So no fighting with your significant other in bed or
reading something that will get you worked up) You also don’t want to link it
with doing things that keep you awake, like reading or watching TV.

4. Don’t go to bed unless you are sleepy. We’ve all
been there…it is your normal bed time, you aren’t especially tired, but you
head to bed and lay down anyway…and you can’t fall asleep. Now you are
frustrated and laying there (which brings us back to number 3 and linking bed
with frustration).

5. If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get
up and do something quiet until you feel drowsy again then go lay down; don’t
just lay there for hours on end. (This goes for falling asleep for the first
time or if you wake up in the middle of the night)

6. If you have trouble with worrying and you can’t
shut your mind off, here are a few things that can help:

  • Have a note pad next to your bed to write down
    all the things you need to do or all the things you are worrying about before
    you lay down or if you wake in the middle of the night and worry. Then practice
    letting them go; the bed is a worry-free zone. It will all still be there
    tomorrow, and now that you wrote it down, you won’t forget.
  • Do some relaxation exercises. It can be as
    simple as focusing on your breathing (make sure you are breathing from your
    abdomen and taking deep breaths) or you can do something like progressive
    muscle relaxation, PMR (where you tense each muscle and release it), or even
    meditation. There are lots of CDs or other tools out there to help you with

7. Avoid napping in the day time. If you are not
sleeping well, you are naturally going to be tired during the day. Unfortunately,
napping can disrupt your sleep at night. But, if you REALLY aren’t going to
make it to bed time, 2 rules for napping: 1. Nap before 3 pm and 2. Don’t nap
for more than 30 minutes.

8. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol before bed
time. Some people may have to stop all of these around mid-day in order to be
ready to sleep at night. So be prepared to experiment with this one as needed.

Try using some or all of these
tips to help change your habits if you are struggling with sleep. There will
always be obstacles in your way, like the significant other who doesn’t have
sleep problems and wants to watch TV in bed or the dog who insists on sleeping
with you and constantly wakes you up. You need to decide in the face of these
obstacles what is more important to you, sleeping or having the dog in the bed
(for example). If you find that even after implementing these changes, you are
still dealing with insomnia, it might be time to seek help from a
psychologist/therapist who can work with you to improve your sleep hygiene. Remember,
sleep is a learned habit, so therefore bad sleep can be unlearned most of the
time with a little work!

Chris here. For those looking for better sleep, I might also recommend some magnesium like Natural Calm or using Blue Blockers, but I really like Jackie’s tips because they are not only practical and tangible action items, they are also free! 

If you have any sleep tips or questions for Dr. Halpern, leave them in the comments!

Jackie Halpern is a licensed psychologist who received her doctoral degree from La Salle University in 2010. She completed her internship at the Syracuse VAMC, with a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and continued this work during her post-doctoral position at the Philadelphia VAMC, where she worked on a study examining sleep interventions for Veterans with PTSD and sleep disturbances. Currently, she is working full time at home raising her 1 year old son and plans to return to the field soon to continue treating anxiety and mood disorders.

Paleo Discussion and Q+A at CF KoP

This past Saturday, Laura Pappas and I did an open discussion about all things Paleo and fitness at CrossFit King of Prussia. Originally meant to be a talk about what we learned at PaleoFX, it evolved into a Q+A. Members of CrossFit King of Prussia were invited to come out and ask questions about anything nutrition wise and we sure did get a lot of questions on all topics. We originally planned for about 90 minutes of discussion, but we went almost 2.5 hours!

Topics included sleep, budget, eating out, coffee (yum), lifting, losing fat, strength training, carbs (of course)….way too much to write in one blog post. However, chances are that I’ve written about a lot of these topics, so hit that search button at the bottom of the blog. 

Do you have any questions about these topics? Ask me in the comments and I’ll get back to you!