Diet and exercise get all of the attention when it comes to fat loss. While they both do play a major role in the process, it’s not quite as simple as “eat less and move more.” So many people repeat this mantra with full conviction—after all, it can work for a while. However, in general, it’s outdated, and there’s so much more to fat loss than that.
I’m going to share with you the four things that I emphasize with my clients to make sure they continue to make progress. I’ll also give you some troubleshooting questions to ask yourself if your fat loss progress has stalled.
- Get sufficient sleep.
I know what you’re thinking—”More sleep talk? Borrrrrring!” I understand. Sleep isn’t an exciting topic. However, if you’re serious about optimizing your health and/or losing fat, there are some things about sleep that you must know. If my client’s fat loss stalls, I don’t start analyzing her food intake or increasing her exercise frequency or intensity. Instead, I look at her sleep quality and quantity, and her chronic stress level. Really. It’s that important.
We are a chronically sleep-deprived, over-stressed society. Each of these things can cause health problems and hinder fat loss. Combine them, and it’s a double-whammy. Have you noticed that when you are exhausted you feel hungrier than usual? This is not your imagination. Not getting enough sleep affects leptin and ghrelin, which are (to oversimplify) your hunger hormones.
A sleep deficit will make you hungrier and more impulsive, and you’ll have a strong craving for high-carbohydrate foods. This makes avoiding the muffins at the coffee shop or turning down the douughnuts at the office a nearly impossible feat. Being chronically sleep-deprived can also mean elevated cortisol and insulin resistance. This doesn’t bode well for fat loss, much less your overall health.
If this isn’t enough reason to turn in a bit earlier, let me remind you that adequate sleep is also imperative for cognitive function, maintaining a sunny disposition, and having a steady supply of energy so that you can keep up with your kids on the playground, run around with your dog, lift heavier weights, and all the other active things you love to do. Ask yourself:
- Am I averaging at least seven hours of sleep per night?
- If not, am I willing to make concessions to ensure I get a little more shut-eye? (For example: Can you record your favorite show rather than stay up to watch it? Can you turn your phone off earlier to avoid the temptation to stay up perusing social media?)
- Don’t try to out-train your diet.
Back when I was the reigning Cardio Queen, I felt like I could never get enough food. I used to love a particular 90-minute, high-intensity cardio kickboxing class. It was a blast, the music was awesome, and all of my friends went. The problem was that it revved up my appetite so much that I would race home to eat… and eat… and eat.
It took me many years to realize that high-intensity, steady-state exercise is not the best approach for me—it turns me into a bottomless pit. It was far too easy for me to “out-eat” my training, which meant I was forever spinning my wheels.
We always recommend applying the Minimum Effective Dose to your training. Meaning, while we appreciate that you love exercise, it’s important that you do just enough to elicit the desired results while keeping your hormones happy and your appetite in check.
For most women, this typically means two or three heavy strength-training days, one or two short-duration HIIT (high-intensity interval training) sessions, and no more than a couple of moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio sessions per week.
Getting too aggressive with exercise and doing an obscene amount of cardio, spending hours in the weight room each day, or doing two-a-day training sessions can lead to a voracious appetite—which is probably not in line with your goals.
- Is any type of exercise that I’m doing increasing my appetite to the point that it may be sabotaging, instead of supporting, my goals?
- What kind of exercise can I do instead to see how that makes me feel? (Example: Instead of running for 45 minutes, how about trying 15 minutes of intervals? Instead of that 60-minute Spin class, how about breaking it up into two 30-minute moderate-intensity cardio sessions throughout the week?)
- Eat foods that make you feel satisfied.
When people think of fat loss, most think it means eating the same boring foods, Groundhog Day-style. Dry chicken breast, soggy broccoli, egg whites, oats, and protein powder, day in and day out.
This can work, sure. There’s nothing nutritionally wrong with it. But I can promise you one thing: It won’t work for long, unless you actually love to eat like this and truly feel satisfied. A person can only tolerate so much bland, crappy food that she doesn’t even like before she frantically waves the white flag and dives into a pile of junk food, never to return to her George Foreman grill again.
The key to sticking with your nutrition approach is to ensure that you love what you’re eating. You have to enjoy your food in order to be satisfied. If you choke down a meal that you hate, the likelihood that you’ll be foraging through your pantry afterward for something to please your palate is extremely high.
Thanks to the Internet, there are millions of recipes right at your fingertips. While it may take you 20 minutes to bake a week’s worth of bland chicken breasts, it would only take you an additional few minutes to whip up a tasty sauce for them, try a new seasoning blend, or another way of cooking them. You can bake, broil, roast, slow cook, grill, steam, or sauté your food into a tastebud explosion with just a tiny bit more effort. Trust me, it’s worth it.
- Am I currently eating foods I can’t stand but eat them anyway because I feel like I’m “supposed” to?
- What can I do to those foods, or what can I substitute, to enjoy my eating experience?
- Can I spare an extra 10 to 20 minutes per day to improve the taste of my food? (Hint: The answer is yes.)
- Choose the right amount of cardio.
Cardio is a funny thing. For a while, it’s all many women wanted to do. Thankfully, things are evolving, and a growing number of women have embraced the empowering feeling of slinging some heavy iron. The only downside to that is that cardio has started to get lambasted. Cardio, like most other things, can be a wonderful tool when used correctly.
Is cardio necessary for everyone who wants to get leaner? Not really. But if you find that you’re a bit stuck, incorporating a couple of sessions per week could help.
Moderate-intensity, steady-state cardio is a way to burn calories, sure. More importantly, it improves work capacity, which can mean improved training. It can also aid in recovery from your strength workouts. This is not a pass for a cardio free-for-all. Whatever form of cardio you choose, please make sure you’re doing the type that keeps stress low and your hunger under control.
- What kind of cardio do I enjoy most? Brisk walking, biking, riding the elliptical?
- Can I spare 20 minutes twice a week to incorporate some low/moderate-intensity cardio?
- How did that cardio make me feel? Do I feel in control of my appetite? Do I feel energized? If the answer to those questions is yes, stick with it for a few weeks and see what changes you notice.
As you can see, when it comes to fat loss, there is more to the equation than simply restricting food intake and doing more exercise. If you find yourself stuck and not making any progress, take a look at these four things and see if making a few changes can help push things forward.
One last but important note: Once you make a change, stick with it for a few weeks, and then evaluate your progress.
This article originally appeared on Girls Gone Strong and was reposted with the author’s permission. Jen Comas is a personal trainer, certified through NASM and USAW as a Level One Olympic Weight Lifting coach, and a Vinyasa yoga practitioner and instructor. You can read more about Comas on her website.