and where it creates the opposite effect.
In my last email I told you the story of my client who lost several pounds and 2% body fat on her vacation, even though she ate carbs, drank wine and didn't exercise.
Defeats all common sense, right? Yes, if you look at it from a caloric perspective. Some of the most resistant clients to work with are those that show up and declare: "I work out at least an hour a day and barely eat and yet I'm gaining weight." These clients aren't challenging because I don't know what to do, but because of their beliefs about exercise and nutrition. They believe they have to spend hours in the gym every week and starve themselves to look like an athletic person.
In order for them to see fat-loss, I have to shift them away from overdoing it and moving them towards quality workouts. That means less intense and shorter workouts that are right for their specific metabolism. The first thought that pops up in their mind is: "Oh no, I can't do less. I'll get fat." It is that fearful mindset of gaining weight by doing less that needs to change along with their routine and diet. Only when they shift from fear of getting fat into curiosity about better ways to see changes, the changes happen fast.
If it were the truth that the more you work out, the better your body, then anyone running a marathon, training for a triathlon and spending hours in the gym would look like a fitness magazine cover model. But just take a look at people running a marathon and tell me how many incredible bodies you see. Not to be a body-shamer here - I simply want to drive home the point that more exercise does not equal a perfect body. It's not something I learned as Personal Trainer or even in my Master's Nutrition program. I was only prompted to research this phenomenon when I saw some weird things happening in some of my clients and ultimately in my own body. It made no sense to me at first, but I finally learned that a great body is not a measure of how much you work out, but the result of something else entirely. When I used to teach my Slim & Strong and Brooklyn Bridge Boot Camp classes there were clients that followed the suggested workout recommendations of 2-3 classes a week. There were also women who signed up for 6 workouts a week. If you've been to my classes, you know they were insanely intense and challenging. Something really odd was happening: Those that signed up for 6 workouts a week (against my advice...) struggled the most. Exhaustion, crazy hunger, cravings, water retention, mood swings, weight gain or little change. Those who showed up consistently to 2-3 workouts a week saw incredible changes. How is that possible that the people who did 6 workouts did worse than those who did 2-3 workouts? The person who follows the 'more is better' approach believes that in order to lose weight, she has to burn more calories and eat less. Fair enough. True to some extent and it's what every diet book, every workout studio tells you to do. Even nutritionists and doctors tell you this. But, what they don't tell you is the following:
There is a tipping point at which exercise is effective and creates change and where it creates the opposite effect.
Want to see proof?
Check this out...
This picture was taken when I had just started teaching classes. I was teaching about 6 classes a week, was lean, strong, had definition. Felt amazing mentally and physically. My appetite was normal and I could easily skip sweets.
Here I am about 8 years ago.
I spent about 14 hours a week working out, teaching classes. I slept 5 hours a night, was run down, exhausted, depressed, anxious, constantly hungry, had crazy sugar cravings, had digestive issues and always puffy and bloated. I was probably 15 lbs heavier than in the first picture. I felt like an alien in my own body.
Here I am today.
I strength train about 5-10 minutes a day. I sleep about 7-8 hours (depending on my 2 little boys' sleep) and have perfect digestion, good energy, feel rarely hungry, and have a flexible metabolism.
Why did I gain weight the more I exercised?
When I first started teaching classes, my body responded happily to my increased activity. I got leaner, fitter, more defined. However, over time, my metabolism got used to what I was doing and the changes stopped (that's why a marathoner won't lose any more weight after a few weeks, even though they may train hours a day...). The metabolism adapts to anything you do, so at a certain point, exercise no longer has the same effect. Most people then add MORE exercise to get results moving. (Bad move. You want to change the exercise intensity, not add more time). In my case, my life got very busy and stressful:
I slept only 5 hours (that creates physical stress)
had relationship troubles (emotional stress)
was on a low-carb diet (creates physical stress when paired with excessive exercise because the body thinks it's starving)
I took little down-time to recover (no activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is key in keeping you lean)
I didn't do activities that were relaxing, such as yoga, massage, stretching, meditation, hot baths, cold showers, spending time in nature, etc.
drank too much caffeine to keep me going (kicks up adrenaline, a stress hormone)
Even though I worked out 14 hours a week, I gained weight and looked very bloated because everything I did created a stress response in my body and brain. Even though the exercise was making me FEEL relaxed, physiologically it increased the stress hormones in my body.
Now, when your body is in stress mode, it does everything it can to preserve basic functions. The hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol increase and stay high. That shifts your body into fat storage mode. Especially in women because our bodies are supposed to be fertile, so the body ensures that body fat is preserved -- even if there is excess.
When there is long-term stress, a powerful downstream effect happens. The brain sends signals to your adrenal glands to start producing adrenaline (fight-or-flight-mode). This helps you get stuff done for a while, but, long-term stress may actually diminish adrenaline output and adrenal fatigue may happen. That's a state you don't want to be in because it affects your digestion, mood, thyroid, fertility, and immune system. You may feel depressed, anxious, develop food allergies, have trouble getting pregnant, have low sex drive, get sick frequently, have intense food cravings and no energy. You may develop auto-immune disease and feel like you're not in your own body. You may also gain weight despite insane amounts of exercise, lose muscle mass and find yourself bloated, puffy and out of control.
Recovery takes time and a targeted approach. The body has to recover from the past stress and the parasympathetic nervous system has to be activated (the calm part of your brain) in order to heal and kickstart the metabolism properly. An essential part is that the right amount and right type of exercise is used. It is also crucial to implement various habits that put the body into calm mode, along with some restorative supplements, more sleep, positive mental habits, and most importantly a balanced approach to life that allows you to see lasting health and fitness. Above all, the mindset of 'more is better' needs to change into 'smart is better' and for some even 'less is more'.
In retrospect, I'm grateful that I went through this awful period in my life because I've learned so much about the metabolism that I have been able to help so many people in that situation.
The reason I was able to snap back quickly after my pregnancies was primarily because I balanced my stress well (pregnancy, delivery, breastfeeding, being a new mom is very physically stressful - even though you're blissed out like crazy! My strength training workouts are very short, but very effective. I walk a lot and due to the absence of physical stress, I'm not hungry or have sugar cravings and my energy is fairly balanced. That allows me to stay strong and fit without much effort. Yes, that's possible! Had I worked out like a maniac as a new mom, I would have been crazy hungry, moody, stressed and put on weight. Guaranteed.
If you want to find the right dose of exercise, I suggest you do the following 3 things:
Use your appetite, cravings and energy as your gauge. If you're always hungry, have intense sugar cravings and no energy, you are overdoing the exercise. Shift away from excessive cardio towards strength training and walking. When your appetite is normal, cravings disappear, and your energy is good - you're right on the money.
When you stop seeing results from your workouts, do not add more time or add more classes. Instead, shift towards more effective workouts. Lifting is absolutely the single best way to get lean, strong and defined. Aim for 2-3 full body lifting workouts a week using heavier weights and walk afterwards as that helps burn the fat released during the workout.
When you spot signs, such as weight gain, puffiness, bloat, exhaustion despite lots of working out (and your diet is not to blame), be sure to implement a balancing recovery session for each intense workout. For example, finish your lifting workouts with walking to reduce stress hormones, spend time in Nature, meditate, take hot baths, end hot showers with cold showers, laugh, get massages, hike, bike, etc.
Supplements can help, as much as understanding how you can heal your metabolism, no matter how old you are. And, lastly, changing your mindset into a more balanced one will allow you to make these changes over time without freaking out over potential weight gain.