We're coming up to mid June as I'm writing this, bang in the middle of ‘summer shred’ workout plans, usually advertised with pictures of 6 pack abs in a holiday setting.
Weird time for a PT to write a blog about how an exercise plan without any consideration for nutrition has very little success on a weight loss journey, right?
Well, honesty and transparency has always been a non negotiable for me, especially as a PT, so here are some facts and thoughts…
Weight loss is achieved through a calorie deficit (fact). This is where you consume fewer overall calories than you burn.
Another fact worth considering is that movement only accounts for around 20% of calories burned in a day, even for those who exercise. The remaining 80% (more or less) comes from life-sustaining functions of the body, as well as food digestion.
Using exercise solely for burning calories in order to create a calorie deficit is incredibly ineffective, time consuming, and not particularly enjoyable, especially when simple food swaps/changes can be made to achieve the desired outcome.
Here are a few close examples of what it takes for a 70kg adult to burn the calories of certain foods:
Jogging - 45 minutes - 551 kcal
Pret chicken salad sandwich - 520 kcal
Vigorous Weightlifting - 30 minutes - 215 kcal
Mars Bar - 228 kcal
Cycling - 1 hour - 502 kcal
2 pints of 5% beer - 478 kcal
As you can see, consumption takes very little time compared to the duration of exercise it takes to ‘burn’ these calories.
So, how do we go about creating a calorie deficit?
Any successful weight loss journey that has been sustained for a solid period of time will have had a primary focus on nutrition, yet without the use of heavily restrictive diets.
There are many ways that people enjoy consuming calories as part of their life. A nice meal out with family, a work lunch to unwind, weekend drinks with friends, and so on.
A successful and sustainable approach to creating and maintaining a calorie deficit cannot exclude these aspects of life, and nor does it need to.
However, whilst clients are wishing to pursue a weight loss journey, it’s imperative to ask those questions that will ultimately be the key to creating a sustainable and manageable weight loss strategy:
Instead of that shop-bought sandwich, would it be possible to make that chicken salad sandwich at home with low fat mayo instead?
Do you need a mars bar every day after lunch or can we limit that to once or twice a week?
Any chance the alcohol consumption could be limited to one night a week instead of 2?
Rather than punishing yourself with hours of exercise or completely cutting out enjoyable foods and drinks, sustainable adjustments can be made that have a profound effect on your overall calorie intake.
The vast majority of people who wish to take on these ‘6 week summer shred’ workout programmes will no doubt have been in a calorie surplus (consuming more calories than being burned) for potentially quite some time. Take Bob for example:
Bob has been noticeably gaining weight for a few months. He burns an average of 2,100 kcal per day = 14,700 kcal per week.
He consumes on average 1,800 kcal per day Monday to Thursday, and 3,200 kcal per day Friday to Sunday = 16,800 kcal per week.
Bob is convinced that he ‘needs’ to have a much lower body fat % to enjoy his upcoming summer holiday by a PT/company who (surprise, surprise) are going to sell him the answer whilst paying zero attention to Bobs current lifestyle.
Bob engages in a 6 week workout programme that absolutely no way places him in a calorie deficit based on his current consumption and, not only does the totally unrealistic goal not get hit, Bob also feels like like absolute s**t after making a positive change and not seeing the results he expected, or any for that matter as he's still in a calorie surplus!
Not to mention the likelihood of an increase in hunger, which, due to current food patterns, could even place Bob in a greater surplus than he was even in before.
For gyms and fitness professionals to claim that a few hours exercise per week for 6 weeks will have such a huge impact on body composition whilst totally neglecting the key fundamentals of how weight loss is achieved is complete bulls**t.
So how would an honest Personal Trainer who helps clients with a weight loss journey approach Bob’s situation?
1 - Encourage Bobs decision to engage in regular exercise. Among many other benefits, implementing this positive change will:
Strengthen muscles and bones.
Improve cardiovascular health and fitness.
Boosts mood and confidence.
Make everyday tasks more manageable.
Reduce risk of heart disease.
Reduce risk of bone/joint disease.
Improve blood pressure.
Increase energy levels and cognitive function.
2 - Explain how weight loss actually occurs, then gather as much information as possible regarding Bobs current lifestyle to then together devise a strategy to create a manageable calorie deficit for Bob. Like all goals, this needs to be agreed and attainable. For example; ideally Bobs weekend calorie consumption is reduced, but if that’s unlikely due to upcoming social events, then a greater deficit will be needed throughout the week to compensate.
3 - Give Bob an honest expectation of what he can achieve in the time frame he has. If it is six weeks then noticeable results can absolutely be achieved through a consistent week-to-week calorie deficit, just not the absurd claims made by a lot of the aforementioned toxic marketing ploys made in the fitness industry.
Body composition goals are very individual, and people should never be discouraged from embarking on a change they deem as positive. They should however be advised on optimal methods to achieve those goals as well as realistic expectations based on time frames at hand.
My general advice for anyone, without knowing them, wishing to pursue a weight loss journey would be to:
Gain some understanding of what your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) is. Whilst it will vary day to day, an idea of roughly what it is will be essential to maintaining a calorie deficit.
Maintain a high protein diet. Protein will help build and maintain muscle which helps with long term fat loss (explained in 3). Protein is also the most satiating macronutrient as it takes the most time to digest, leaving you feeling fuller for longer.
Engage in strength training using exercises you enjoy and are more likely to stick to. This is not to burn calories, but to increase muscle mass, therefore increasing your TDEE and resting metabolism, allowing you to consume more calories and still maintain a deficit, making the fat loss process far easier to sustain long-term.
Prioritise sleep. Fatigue may affect hunger-regulating hormones which can to cravings for foods higher in added sugar, fat and sodium. Optimal sleep also has a profound effect on mental and physical performance.
Increase your daily NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). Adding more movement to your lifestyle will do far more for you long term than gruelling workouts you don’t enjoy. A few examples could be:
Walking or cycling to destinations if possible, or at least park your car further away from your destination and walk the rest of the journey.
Taking the stairs instead of escalators.
Standing more than sitting.
Regular walking breaks.
Increase household chores.
Despite how little regular exercise alone does to create a calorie deficit, and therefore weight loss, I do still believe that resistance based training plays a major role in long term body fat management, purely based on increasing muscle mass, and therefore resting metabolism.
Taking up regular exercise has an abundance of proven benefits that have a profound impact on health and wellbeing. 'Shredding' isn't one of them.
Thanks for reading!