Each year, Americans spend billions of dollars trying to lose weight and get in shape. Of course, with New Year's right around the corner, anyone who spends time in a gym knows this means only one thing - the invasion of the "resolutionists' (sometimes called "resolutionistas") who descend on treadmills and ellipticals, new sneakers squeaking, synthetic fibers swishing, and iPods clipped securely to armbands with an environmentally friendly water bottle at the ready. Some are long-time members who have made the resolution to spend more time at the gym, others are soft and doughy but filled with the inspiration that this year will be different, this year, they will lose the weight (or so the advertisement goes). Gyms profit from these members - the ones who actually use the gym are loss leaders, the gym banks on people joining, using the services for a few months and then disappearing (but locked in to one of those sketchy contracts they are so famous for).
Let me say that I don't have a problem with New Year's resolutions or people who arbitrarily decide that just because the calendar is changing, *that* is just the right time to turn over a new leaf. I did it myself almost 12 years ago. I stubbed out my last cigarette on December 31, 1999 and have not touched one since. In fact, I took a similar inventory that many people do around this time every year - I did not like what was reflected back at me in the mirror, I was not happy that I got winded going up a flight of stairs and I was overweight. Being a smoker did not help, but my diet was poor, I was sedentary and rarely got exercise.
Fortunately, there had been a time in my life where I was more active, weighed less and took better care of myself, so I knew it could be done, but I raised the bar ever so slightly because in the time between when I did quit smoking and finally got in the gym (about 3 months), I packed on another 10 pounds. Almost 12 years later, diet, exercise and fitness are the three-legged stool that I live my (non-work) life around and because of that, I want to save you some money and clue you in to a couple of dirty little secrets about weight loss and fitness. These are my opinions, and I know some person will say, "No, Scary Lawyer Guy, I have done Atkins for 10 years and it works for me" or "I do not believe in weight training, and I'm skinny," and to those people, I say good for you, you are either the exception to the rule or have found a level of fitness that is acceptable to you; however, for everyone else, here are my tips:
Diets Do Not Work
You cannot subsist for a long period of time on any of the fad (or quack) diets that get peddled around this time each year. Severely restricting caloric intake through pre-packaged meals or eating protein-only meals are not long-term solutions any more than cookie diets or colonics. One of the key mistakes people make is radically changing their diet THE MINUTE they decide it's time to roll out the new year's resolution. If there was a market for lettuce futures in December, we would all be millionaires in January and poor by March. The reason so many of these companies are profitable is because they do not work, or more specifically, are not long-term solutions for people trying to become healthy. Paradoxically, the less they work, the more profitable they are, because there is always a steady clientele of people who line up to try again.
You Cannot Lose 100 Pounds All At Once
I say this tongue in cheek, but if you come to the gym in January, you get the feeling some people are trying to lose 100 pounds in a day. The downside to pushing yourself too hard/so hard when you start out is that it is easy to get discouraged (not to mention injured). People spend a week or two at the gym and make some changes to their diet and expect to look great immediately. It doesn't work that way folks, and depending on how deep a hole you have dug yourself, it could be months before you see any appreciable changes in your appearance. Be honest with yourself about your level of fitness and gradually build up your endurance. Speaking of which …
Set Realistic Goals
We all have a "magic" number that we want to see on the scale. I think it is important to set goals, but be realistic about them and do not tie your goals exclusively to a number on the scale. In recent years, more literature has been produced that focuses on things like body fat and body mass index. Skinny does not necessarily mean "in shape" and losing large amounts of weight in a short period of time is not necessarily healthy. Be realistic about how much weight you want to lose and in what time frame and also realize that you will hit plateaus along the way and that just because you get close to (or even reach) your magic number does not mean you can stop doing what it is that got you there. In fact, in many ways, getting to a "magic number" is just the start, because once there, staying at (or around) that weight, requires great vigilance.
Do Not Be A Slave to the Scale
There are two schools of thought about how frequently you should weigh yourself - one school says you need to weigh yourself daily. The theory is that by monitoring your weight constantly, it serves as a disincentive to binge and also tells you whether you are seeing results. The other school of thought (which I happen to subscribe to), is that your weight fluctuates day-to-day even when you are working out and that weighing yourself constantly makes you too focused on what the number is each day. Instead, I weigh myself once a week - same time, same day. It allows me to keep an eye on my weight without allowing it to dominate my life.
How Your Clothes Fit Matters
This goes hand in hand with the scale. I'm a firm believer in using your clothes as a barometer for whether you are transforming your body. If your weight has yo-yoed, you invariably have 2 (or even 3) sets of clothes - skinny clothes, regular clothes, and fat clothes, or whatever you want to call them. How do your clothes fit? Are your "fat clothes" starting to dangle off you like a Talking Heads video or are you barely squeezing into your "regular clothes." If you are weight training as a means of losing weight, you may not lose the weight but lose the bulk, which can be just as valuable, but may not translate to a "number" on a scale.
Your Co-Workers Are Not Your Friends
Many offices turn into hives of activity after the first of the year. Cookies are banished in place of healthy snacks, birthday parties suddenly lose their guilty pleasure quality, everyone is ready to power walk with you at lunch and the fridge is suddenly filled to overflowing with every form of leafy green vegetable known to man. I'm sorry Dave from Accounting and Sally from HR, but you are not my friends. The same people who are ready to brave the cold January air for a 20 minute stroll around the building are the same people that will be making fast food runs 2 months from now. Think of the New Year's resolution crowd like the one I encountered in law school - on the first day of class, the Dean said "look to your left and look to your right, one of you won't be here this time next year." There's a reason some iteration of "losing weight" or "getting in shape" is the most popular New Year's resolution going - most people fail at either or both, therefore, they just keep making the same resolution over and over. Don't be that person and don't involve yourself with the people who, this time next year, will be dusting off the salad spinner because this year, *they swear* will be different.
You Do Not Have To Spend A Lot Of Money To Get Fit, But It Helps
There are plenty of free places to work out - your neighborhood streets may be conducive to a good 3 mile run or the local high school track may be right around the corner. Cable companies have workouts available through their ON DEMAND menus and libraries are stocked with every kind of video and DVD to turn your abs (and buns) into steel. Of course, it rains, gets really hot (and really cold) in most places, making outdoor exercise spotty as a primary means of working up a sweat and videos can get old or maybe you don't want to do yoga poses while your 4 year old is lapping up his Cheerios. Personally, I've always sworn by a good, full-service gym that has a well stocked weight area, cardio equipment, a pool and a good class schedule. It reduces the risk that you get bored with one particular routine, is likely to have flexible operating hours and even child care services.
You Cannot Lose Weight By Changing Your Diet Alone
If you change your diet but do not exercise, the likely outcome is you will maintain your current weight, or maybe even lose a little weight, but also run the risk of just gaining weight more slowly over time. Many people ignore the fact that exercise is just as important to weight loss and a healthy lifestyle as ditching the greasy food and not overindulging in dessert.
That Food Did Not Get Into Your House By Itself
The good news about your diet is that you have complete control over it and what you put in your body is predicated almost entirely by what you put in your grocery cart when you shop. Those Klondike bars don't just *appear* in your freezer, you had to put them in your basket and pay for them, so stop doing that. I know, it is not that easy, but it actually is not that hard, either. Changing your eating habits is one of the most critical aspects of getting in shape, and it can only be done by putting better food in your system. For me, that means starting the day with a healthy breakfast, preferably one that includes fiber (which is filling, keeps you regular and good for you), having a light snack (usually a piece of fruit) mid-morning, a lunch that includes at least another additional fruit or vegetable, protein (usually chicken, but sometimes beef or turkey/chicken sausage), a starch (rice or pasta), and yes, a small sweet (usually 1-2 Hershey's Kisses or similar candy), a midday snack (fruit, granola, etc.) and a light dinner after the gym. I try to front load my calories so I am burning energy all day and not loading up at night, but never feel really hungry, therefore avoiding the temptation to binge.
But Scary Lawyer Guy, you say, I don't have time to prepare my own meals at home because I have kids or a spouse or work too damn hard to make time to cook meals. Scary Lawyer Guy says that's bullshit. Never in the history of mankind has more information been available to us about food, its properties, how to prepare it and with what. Come up with some staple dishes that are nutritious, filling and taste good and prepare them all at once. For example, I will cook 3-4 large chicken breasts at a time, cut them up and mix them with rice and just stick them in the refrigerator. In an hour, I've made meals for the entire week. Similarly, take 20 minutes to peel or cook vegetables. Bananas and apples don't need anything other than to be put in your bag before you leave home in the morning and oatmeal or whole grain cereal can be prepared in minutes. Even better, by making your meals, you will save money by not going out as much and you will get better control over your food portions. A total win/win and a no brainer.
Also, don't binge when you go out to eat (restaurants notoriously put far more than you need to consume on your plate), avoid soda and alcohol in favor of water and of course, stop smoking.
Guess what. At some point, no matter how strong your willpower, you will crave a big bag of potato chips or a bowl of Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, I know I do. To me, there are two ways to handle cravings. First, I do allow myself a little "taste" of sweetness each day. Not a lot, less than 100 calories, but enough to satisfy my craving. Second, I designate Sunday as a "cheat day." I know, not that original, but I do think there is something to be said for responsibly treating yourself to something once a week and not feeling guilty about it. Note, I said "responsible," this does not mean you hit the McDonald's drive-thru for breakfast and lunch and then wash it all down with a double milkshake. One meal, on one day, that does not double as a heart attack on a platter. Deal? As long as you are good the rest of the week and exercising regularly, please cheat.
Lift Weights A Little More Than You Think You Should/Do A Little Less Cardio Than You Want To
Cardio is the easy way out at the gym (or on your own). Run some, hop on an elliptical, even use one of those dated rowing machines for 30-45 minutes and you figure, I'm gold. Not so. It took me a little while to come around to weight training, but it is essential to your work out. You do not need to look like a jacked up bodybuilder, but find some routines (again, information is literally at your fingertips) to work the major muscle groups 2-3 times a week. When in doubt, do a little more weight training and a little less cardio, the weight training will fire your metabolism longer after you go home, too.
If You Are Not Going To Make Time, Don't Bother
I am not one of those people who subscribes to the idea that if you can only find 10 or 15 minutes for exercise, that is better than nothing. If you're serious about making lifestyle changes, part of that seriousness has to be reflected in the time you are willing to put into fitness. You make commitments to work, to your kids, to your spouse and family, you also have to make a commitment to your physical fitness. How you spend your time is a reflection on what you value. If you cannot find 4-5 hours a week to exercise, you are not serious about fitness. If the people in your life gripe about it, remind them that not only will you look and feel better, but exercise is a great stress reliever and will make you a more pleasant spouse/parent/child to live with.
You Are Changing Your Lifestyle, Not Dieting
If you think that one day you can stop doing the things that commit you to better health and fitness, you are wrong. I think people fail at "resolutions" because they either do not want to or are not willing to make the changes in their lives that are needed to get in better shape. These changes take time to take root, but you cannot allow an occasional lapse or slip-up to keep you from making these changes. Which reminds me ...
Routine Is Boring, But Effective
At those work parties where cake is being served, if I decline, I inevitably get a "you can afford to, you're skinny." I just laugh it off, but what I feel like saying is that I work my ass off to be SKINNY, it does not just happen. I changed my lifestyle 12 years ago and I *still* struggle. Trust me, when it is 10 degrees out and I had a crappy day at work, the last thing I want to do is get back in the car and go to the gym, but you know what? I do it. I do it because I made a commitment that I would take care of myself and stay in shape. Discipline is a difficult thing to instill, especially when so much of what we see, hear and smell is pushing us to fail, but that routine you create, that becomes part of your new lifestyle, is what will save you when you don't want to do anything other than plunge that spoon into a pint of ice cream.
You Pay For Your Misdeeds
That pint (or even part of a pint) of ice cream is a killer. Weight gain and loss is insidious. You work far harder to lose a small amount of weight than you do to gain it. The holiday season spirals out of control or a series of family events or weddings occurs, you blink and 5 pounds appear out of nowhere. It will take you much longer to work off those 5 pounds than it took to put them on. Consider the consequences.
It's A Marathon, Not A Sprint
So I've sentenced you to a life of boring routine where you don't get to eat much "fun" food, are going to the gym for hours on end every week and even then, you may not get the result you want. You're welcome. But that's the reality and that's the dirty little secret of weight loss that the folks peddling fad diets to you don't want you to know. Weight loss and fitness requires making very hard (and long-term) commitments to completely changing the way you live your life. It's no wonder most people fail. You will fight a day-to-day math battle of calories consumed versus calories burned and biology puts its thumb on the scale against you because as you get older, it gets harder. But in all of this, remember, it is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be bumps along the way and not every day will be perfect, but if you get a good plan together and stick to it, those little errors and mistakes will not derail you. In exchange for these changes, you will feel better, look younger, and be more energetic, amorous and desirable. You will sleep better, you will look forward to a warm day in spring and think "outside" - a hike, run or 2 hours of yard work - or see a "mud run" and think, I am SO doing that. You will challenge yourself, you will look at people your own age and be amazed at the difference in how they look compared to you and you will be doing the best things to increase the chances that you will live a long and healthy life. Not a bad trade off if you are willing to make it.