When I look around at people who want to lose weight and get in better shape, I see in practice the mindset of “more is better”. They realize they’re out of shape, they feel fat and unhappy in their skin. At their most unhappy, they then decide that working out worked last time and they resolve to work out every day. Hard. To exhaustion. Cardio here, HIIT there, strength training and more running. The danger in this approach is that this old model of weight loss is long outdated and hasn’t really worked for those struggling to lose weight. Show me one person who has developed a lean, ripped, strong and defined body by doing cardio every day, eating very little and has maintained that for more than a year without yo-yo weight fluctuations, metabolic issues, thyroid slow-down, digestive issues and mood imbalances.
Yes, the diet books tell you to eat less and cut carbs. Your trainer tells you that you have to do more cardio. Your nutritionist tells you to count your calories so you can lose weight, but they all feed into the model of ‘eat less, exercise more’. The crazy thing is that people still buy into it even after having failed all their previous attempts at it. Not only is the diet mindset boring, but if it worked, then why are there still marathon runners out there that carry a spare tire? Why do you still see people who work out 7 days a week with excess body fat? More exercise is not the answer to developing a kickass body. Let me tell you why by using my own metabolic mishaps as an example:
Last week the weather was so gorgeous, I decided to take my road bike out for a spin to New Jersey. I had just finished teaching a class and got on my bike to cross over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. A fellow (strange) rider decided to join me and before I knew it, I pushed myself a little harder than I wanted to. I was really going for a leisurely ride since it was only my second ride of the season and I wanted to relax. I eventually ditched him on the ride back because I cherished my alone time and wanted to enjoy being in nature, not being distracted by someone next to me. The ride felt good, but the hills coming back were a lot harder than usual. My legs felt like rocks. Once I got back, I went about the rest of the day as usual, seeing clients and working. But came evening, I was exhausted on the couch and couldn’t keep my eyes open past 9pm. Thursday morning I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was hungover. Not until Sunday morning did I feel like my energy was back to normal. Now, it’s not unusual to feel more tired when starting a new training program, but to feel so tired for 3 days is unusual and not good. My sleep was disrupted and I woke up at around 3am every night, I had night sweats and my sugar cravings were all of a sudden present again after dinner every night. My appetite for carbs increased. I also felt restless and unfocused and a bit impatient. My digestion wasn’t what it usually is, and I noticed that in the warm-up portion of my class, my heart rate shot up unusually fast – like heart palpitations – making me feel out of breath within the first few minutes – all uncharacteristic signs for me as of late and yet very familiar signs of something larger. All are signs of overtraining and metabolic disturbances. I knew them well because about 2 years ago I had damaged my metabolism so badly, it took me months to get out of it and lose the 15 lbs I had gained seemingly overnight and resolve the symptoms that made me feel like an alien was inhabiting my body. Years ago I would have looked at all these signs as isolated issues. Now, I can recognize them as connected and as signs of metabolic damage, so when I see women in my nutrition consultations illustrating their struggles with weight loss despite eating clean and exercising a lot, I know to dig deeper.
Here are the mistakes I made. I hope that as you read them and recognize some or all as your own, you understand how they’re all connected.
- Too much intensity without an aerobic base: Instead of going for a leisurely bike ride that would have been relaxing and de-stressing for my metabolism and would have helped me build a sold aerobic base, I allowed someone to push me into anaerobic too fast, which then resulted in me burning through the sugar in my muscles and liver fast. Had I stayed at a slower pace, it would have allowed me to stay in fat burning mode, where my body is happiest. Burning sugar as fuel isn’t nearly as good for your body as burning fat (ketones) when you look at the metabolic waste products created and the amount of oxidation that occurs.
- Too much stress physically and hormonally: The intensity of the ride over 3.5 hours stimulated adrenaline, which in the short run is helpful. It boosts performance and fat burning, but due to the long duration, it likely also kicked up cortisol, the stress hormone known to promote fat storage. When those two hormones are up, they also increase insulin, even if you eat a super-clean diet.That puts you into fat storage and water retention/bloat mode. The sleep disruption is another classic sign of a stress response. Waking up between the hours of 1-3 am is typical for those with metabolic damage, as are the racing thoughts and mood swings with an inability to concentrate. The digestive issues further signal that there was a disruption in the perfect balance of the nervous systems working together. Too much fight-or-flight (sympathetic nervous system stimulation) and not enough rest-and-digest activity (the parasympathetic nervous system). This imbalance can over time create issues affecting your menstruation, thyroid, digestion and mood.
- Not enough rest to balance out the workout: I went about my day without considering recovery. I should have taken an epsom salt bath, stretched, foam rolled and even napped afterwards to allow my stress hormone levels to return to normal. My appetite was increased because I went out too hard, forcing my body to burn sugar instead of fat and that brought on carb cravings. The sugar cravings were caused by the imbalance in brain chemistry and the added stress on my body and too little rest.
- Insufficient nutrition: Given that I had just finished teaching an intense class and then hopped on the bike a bit later, I should have fueled with more protein and carbs, before and after the workout and bike ride. I had a muffin at my destination, but that only forces my body to burn more sugar as fuel and stay out of fat burning mode.I should have also taken my adaptogenic supplements afterwards that come into play whenever my intensity increases in training. Adaptogens allow the body to adapt to stress better without releasing crazy amounts of adrenaline, cortisol and insulin. I swear by a supplement that includes Ashwaganda and Rhodiola.
- Rest-based training: I should have added slow and relaxing walks to my days following the bike ride and scaled down the intensity of the workouts in the days after the bike ride.
Progress in workouts happens when you create a solid base of aerobic training. You only want to push yourself into anaerobic high-intensity workouts when you have created a solid base. Then you need to add strength training to stimulate muscle growth, the release of growth hormone to burn fat and stay young. Cardio is important too, but too much cardio raises stress hormones, which then put your body into a state of muscle loss, sugar cravings, inflammation, delayed recovery, sleep disruption and actually sets you back overall. How do you know how much is enough? Look out for the symptoms described above. If you experience an increase in appetite, sugar cravings, low energy, then you know something’s off. Even worse, if your digestion, sleep, thyroid, mood, menstruation and weight is affected, then you are already in trouble mode.
Make sure you stay in tune with your body at all times and don’t just blindly follow a workout plan because it has worked for others or because it’s the latest and greatest and was recently reviewed by US weekly, or because your friend swears by it. Stay connected to your body and listen to the signals. You then have to adjust accordingly. Not all workouts are for all people and not all workouts will produce the same results for all people because everyone’s metabolism is different. Stick to the basics:
- Strength train ideally 3 x a week with a rest day in between
- Do short cardio workouts of high intensity (less than 30 minutes) 2-3 times a week (that depends on your metabolic type)
- Eat a clean diet of mostly veggies, lean proteins, limited fruit and lots of water. Eat slightly more carbs on workout days to ensure muscle recovery, avoid energy drops and sugar cravings. Here’s my post-workout dinner: a piece of salmon with butternut squash,brussels sprouts and a few mini potatoes for starch.
- Balance out your stress (exercise can be stressful to your system) by walking, sleeping at least 7-8 hours a night, avoiding all sugar and processed food, keeping a positive mindset, and creating an environment in which you can thrive.
- Keep it simple and you’ll stick to it.
So, to sum it up: More exercise is not better. The quality of your workouts matter, especially if they are in line with your energy, appetite and cravings. And, if your body is changing at the same time, you can be pretty damn sure that you hit the metabolic jackpot.
Now, back to my protein shake and foam rolling!