This blog post is part 3 of a series on nutrition and exercise. If you haven't seen them already, I recommend reading part 1 now, which provides a general overview, and part 2 detailing nutrition. This blog post will go into more details on exercise.
I'm going to break down exercise into three broad categories:
These categories can overlap. For example, a weighted squat could be seen as both resistance training and mobility work. Circuit training could be seen as cardio and resistance. But typically there are distinct benefits for each categories, and fairly distinct activities that achieve those goals.
For the completely impatient, here are my recommendations on where you should get started. I strongly encourage reading the rest of the post so that these recommendations make sense and you can tweak them for your own personal needs:
Before diving into the details, I want to talk about two related but distinct terms. Definitions on these two terms vary quite a bit, but I'd like to give my own simplified definitions based on the input of many other sources:
What I'm trying to get across in these definitions is that health is about reaching a baseline where your body is not working against you. By contrast, fitness lets you push the boundaries of what you're capable of.
Often times, these go hand in hand. Being able to run a mile in 15 minutes, for instance, is a good indication that you are not suffering from any respiratory conditions, your bones are strong enough to withstand the impact of running, you have decent lower body muscle mass, and so on.
However, these two concepts can and do diverge. The ability to deadlift 300kg (660lbs) is not by any reasonable standard a prerequisite for a healthy body, but certainly measures fitness. Running a 4 minute mile is an amazing feat of prowess in fitness, but doesn't really tell me you're healthier than the person running an 8 minute mile.
I point this distinction out here because this series of posts is intended to cover health, and using nutrition and exercise to achieve it. It is very tempting to get caught up in numbers and goals that measure fitness, while throwing health to the wind. For the most trivial example of this: taking steroids to improve your powerlifting numbers will certainly improve your fitness. However, I'd argue pretty strongly against it, since it's bad for your health.
All that said, there's nothing wrong with pursuing fitness goals, and as I mentioned in why I lift, doing so can be a lot of fun. Having something to compete against—even yourself—is a huge motivator. Just make sure you're not sacrificing your health in the process.
This is also known as strength training. Let's rip off the definition straight from Wikipedia:
Strength training is a type of physical exercise specializing in the use of resistance to induce muscular contraction which builds the strength, anaerobic endurance, and size of skeletal muscles.
The term strength training tells us the why, whereas resistance training hints more at how we achieve these goals. Resistance training involves exerting your muscles against some external resistance. Probably the most emblematic version of this is resisting against gravity in the form of lifting weights, but we'll see that there are many other approaches available.
This could be my own personal experience that others have not felt, but growing up I always had the impression that training for strength was somehow bad. Lifting weights was a vain pursuit of bigger muscles, and real health benefits only came from cardio like jogging.
If you never had these misconceptions, congratulations. I certainly did. And in case others do as well, let me dispel them:
That's a lot of benefits, and it's far from a complete list. You may not relate to all of the points above, but hopefully it makes the point that strength training is not just for young guys wanting to impress people with their biceps. Strength training is a vital component of good health for everyone, regardless of age or gender.
All strength/resistance training fits into the same basic idea. You want to move some part of your body by contracting a muscle. You want to use some technique to make that contraction difficult so that your muscle has to struggle. By challenging the muscle, you trigger—through various pathways—your body to:
These benefits occur during recovery, or the time after you stop exercising. This is important: if you keep exercising non-stop for days on end, you will get weaker, not stronger. The formula then is:
This kind of exercise is anaerobic, meaning "without air." Because resistance training is short bursts of heavy intensity, it mostly relies upon glycogen for energy, which can be burned without oxygen. This may seem to imply that resistance training has no benefits on the cardiovascular (heart and lung) system, and doesn't help burn fat (which requires oxygen to break down). Neither of these is true, however. During the recovery phase, your body will need to rely on your fat stores to provide energy to rebuild muscles, which will put demands on the cardiovascular system to provide additional oxygen.
Last bit of theory here before we dive into how to do all of this. Another way of looking at exercise is a stress we are applying to our body. Stress has a bad rap, and for good reason: chronic stress, such as we experience in our daily life from work and continual electronic stimulation, is damaging. However, in small doses, stress is wonderful for our body.
When we temporarily stress our body, it provides a stimulus for our body to get better, so it is able to more easily handle the stress in the future. Stressing our muscles causes them to get stronger. Stressing our bones makes them more dense. And stressing our cardiovascular system with extra oxygen demands makes our heart and lungs more efficient.
Temporary stress with proper recovery is the very heart of exercise, and will carry through to everything in this post.
OK, let's actually talk about some exercises! The most easily accessible form of resistance training is body weight exercises, or bodyweights. The concept here is simple: use your own body and gravity to provide a resistance for your muscles to exert against.
Probably the most famous example of this is the pushup. You are pushing against the ground with your arm, shoulder, and chest muscles to create enough force to move your body against gravity. Your own body weight is working against your muscles.
If you read the word "pushup" and thought "I can't do that," no need to worry. Bodyweight exercises usually follow some form of progression, where you can start with easier forms of the exercise and gradually move to more difficult versions. Taking a pushup as an example, a progression may look something like:
There are other variations you can perform: changing the width of your grip by putting your hands closer or farther apart to focus on different muscles. You can also follow a one-arm pushup progression instead of a vertical pushup progression. Vertical pushups put more stress on your shoulder muscles, while one-arm pushups put more focus on your chest muscles.
If all of this sounds confusing and a bit daunting, don't worry. Some very helpful people online have already created programs around bodyweights. Some references:
All of these routines follow the same basic principles: use compound movements to target all of your major muscle groups, progressively overload those muscles, and provide ample time for recovery. If those terms are confusing, don't worry, there are sections below dedicated to explaining them.
If you're feeling overwhelmed or confused, let me remind of something from the first post in this series: don't let confusion get in your way! These are all great routines, and doing something is better than doing nothing. Pick something and do it for a few weeks, and after you get comfortable, you'll be ready to make a more informed decision about how you want to proceed.
Let's see how bodyweight exercises stack up against alternatives:
Weight lifting is the act of moving some external weight against gravity (or sometimes against friction and inertia). The category breaks down broadly into machines and free weights. Free weights are things like barbells, dumbells, and kettlebells. For those unfamiliar with these terms:
Free weights have an advantage over machines in that they are unstable. This means you need to use more muscle groups to keep control of the weight. By contrast, a machine keeps the weight in more a less a straight line, which takes some of the stress off of your body. Additionally, machines are usually easier to learn to use and less dangerous.
If you're too intimidated by free weights, by all means start right away with machines. But if you avoid free weights indefinitely, you're limiting yourself significantly. I strongly recommend you get comfortable with using a barbell. Start with low weights and build up slowly. Focus on getting the movements correct (aka good form), and slowly build up to heavy weights (where heavy is a personal assessment of what is difficult for you).
If you're going to pursue a machine-based routine, I'd recommend speaking with one of the trainers at the gym you're attending. I'm not familiar with good machine-based routines available online, and it will depend a lot on what equipment you have available.
If you want to get started with free weights, there are two very popular routines to consider:
If you go to popular weight lifting forums, you'll see a lot of flamewars between these two routines. To cut through some of this: Starting Strength was the original program, is designed by a coach (Mark Rippetoe) with a huge amount of experience training individuals, and was groundbreaking when first released. StrongLifts is basically a variation of Starting Strength and doesn't have as much experience to back it up.
Based on that, it would seem that Starting Strength is the way to go. I personally decided to go with StrongLifts, and my reasons were:
I'm sure these reasons sound shallow, and some people will be upset with this. But the reality is: do whichever routine you want (or a completely different one). As long as you're lifting, you're better off.
And one word of warning from my own experience: don't become so obsessed with progressing through the program that you ignore your body's complaints. I trained to injury a few times because I ignored pain and put on extra weight when I shouldn't have. Don't be stupid!
I'm not going to say much about these, since I haven't really used them. But I wanted to make it clear that there are drastically different approaches to resistance training. Resistance bands are pieces of rubber which you can stretch, and which become harder to stretch the further you've pulled them. You can use them in place of weights for many kinds of workouts. Your body doesn't care what's causing the resistance. It just wants something to be resisting it.
There's a YouTube channel which I find very beginner-friendly, called "Picture Fit." Here are two videos I recommend watching that summarize the three categories mentioned:
I've presented the information so far as a choice among competitors. This is far from the case. Many of these techniques can be combined to gain the advantages of each. For example, consider a workout routine consisting of:
There's no reason to avoid mixing and matching. However, building your own routine is a more advanced activity. When you're getting started, I recommend choosing one of the routines I linked to above and sticking to it until you get comfortable with the exercises.
Let's talk nomenclature. A rep is short for a repetition, and it describes performing one complete exercise. For example, with a pushup, a repetition consists of lowering your body to the ground and raising yourself back up to the starting position.
A set is a collection repetitions performed without rest. For example, a set may consist of 8 reps.
Often times, workout programs will be given in terms of sets and reps like so:
You'll also need to consider how long to rest between sets. Usually your program will tell you this. Valid answers here can be as little as 30 seconds and as much as 5 minutes. Typically different rest periods will work your body in different ways: shorter rest gives more endurance training, whereas longer rest gives more strength gains.
Think of a bench press: you're lying on your back with a barbell over you. You bend your elbows, your wrist bends, and your shoulder joint activates. You push back up using your chest muscles, your shoulder muscles, and your arm muscles (tricpes in particular).
Now think of a bicep curl: you hold a dumbbell in your hand and you bend your elbow.
The former is called a compound movement: it involves multiple muscle groups moving mutiple joints in your body. The latter is an isolation exercise: it targets just one muscle group via one joint.
Generally speaking, you'll get better results by focusing on compound movements. They stress the body more, and in more natural ways. They lead to more balanced development of muscles. And they are more time efficient: you work more muslces in less time.
That's not to say you should never use isolation exercises, but in my opinion they should be considered accessories to main, compound movement. Use them to help develop weak spots in your strength.
You'll notice that the routines I listed above all focus on compound movements. That's not by chance.
If you do 10 pushups a day for the rest of your life, after a certain point you aren't going to get stronger. In order to reap the full benefits of strength training, you need to progressively overload your muscles by increasing the stress/stimulus. You can do this in multiple ways:
A good program will build in this kind of progressive overload, as do the programs I linked to above. The basic idea is to avoid stagnating by constantly challenging yourself to improve.
In order to modify the weight of a barbell, we can add extra weight to it. These weights come in the form of plates, circular pieces of metal—sometimes rubberized—that are put on the sides of the bar.
If you're going to be doing barbell exercises, it's important to get comfortable with adding up weights, also known as plate math. I'll start with the metric system, since it's easier to handle, and what I use.
A standard barbell weighs 20kg. The plates you'll put on the barbell must be balanced: you put the same amount on the left and right side. If you put a 10kg and 5kg weight on each side, you'll end up with:
I find it easiest in most cases to add up the weight per side of the bar, double it, and add 20. So in the above example, I'd do "10 + 5 = 15, 15 * 2 = 30, 30 + 20 = 50." This is just arithmetic, so don't get too hung up on it, and do what's comfortable.
Now let's do this in reverse. Suppose you're planning on benching 70kg. In order to figure out what to put on the bar, you would do this:
Try not to just match the total weight, but also the plate distribution. In other words, don't put a 20kg on one side of the bar and 4 5kg plates on the other. That will feel unbalanced. Most gyms will have plates of size 20kg, 10kg, 5kg, 2.5kg, and 1.25kg. Some may also have 25kg and 15kg.
You may also hear people say things like "squatting 2 plate," or on stranger parts of the internet, "2pl8." This means you have 2 20kg plates per side of the barbell. Why 20kg? Convention. Do the math, I'll give you the total weight for this at the end of this section.
For you Americans, the numbers are slightly different. Instead of a barbell weighing 20kg, it weights 45lbs, which is just slightly more than 20kg (20.4kg). And the plates come in sizes of 45lbs, 35lbs, 25lbs, 10lbs, 5lbs, and 2.5lbs. As a developer, I love the power-of-2 system employed by the metric plates, but if you have to use imperial measurements, just get used to doing the math.
This has the funny side-effect that if you say "I squatted 2 plate," it means something different between America and the rest of the world. (Go ahead and figure out what that total pound value is.) The numbers are close, but not exactly the same.
Answer: 2 plate is 100kg, or 225lbs.
You'll read this just about everywhere that discusses weight lifting, but I'll say it here too: using proper form on your lifts is absolutely crucial. Using proper form will:
There are two particular points of proper form that I want to point out:
A full body workout is a routine that exercises all (or most) muscle groups each day you train. A split routine somehow splits up days of the week to specific muscle groups. There are many tradeoffs between these two approaches, and I won't be able to cover them all here. But here's a basic idea: you should always have a day of rest between training a specific muscle group. But having too many rest days in between is limiting your growth potential.
If you're going to work out three days a week, you can do a full body routine each of those days and have 1 or 2 days of rest in between. By contrast, if you're going to work out 6 days a week, doing a full body routine each day won't give you any time to rest and recover.
The routines above are all full body routines. That's probably the right place to start; I would highly advise against strength training for more than three days a week as a beginner. If you later want to progress to more days of working out a week, you can consider some kind of split. There are many preexisting routines based on splits, and you can of course make your own.
Personally, I've found the PPL (Push/Pull/Leg) split approach to be pretty good. The idea is to first separate out all lower-body/leg exercises to their own day. Then, of upper body exercises, break them up by whether they push the weight away from your body (like a bench press) or are pulling the weight toward your body (like a curl or barbell row). This ends up pretty cleanly dividing up the upper body muscle groups.
If you're just getting started with strength training, you don't need to worry too much about eating. Follow nutrition advice from the previous post. If you're trying to lose fat, eat at a caloric deficit. When you're initially going from untrained to trained, you get to experience what are known as "noob gains," which lifters treat as the magical ability for your body to get stronger and leaner at the same time.
Once you're past that initial beginner phase, it gets harder to pull this off. You'll hear people talk about bulking and cutting, on the premise that you need to eat extra food to fuel muscle growth (bulk), and then go for a period of caloric deficit to burn off the extra fat you gained (cut). Other approaches believe in trying for a recomp, or body recomposition, consisting of careful balancing of calories to get just enough to gain muscle and burn fat. Other approaches like Lean Gains believe in carb and calorie cycling: eating more carbs and calories on training days, and less carbs and calories on rest days.
This is all rocket science versus what we're discussing here. I'm mentioning it all so that you know you don't need to freak out about it. Remember, your goal is to get used to training, enjoy it, nail down form, and get basic strength gains. If you decide to pursue strength training more aggressively (like I have), there will be plenty of time in the gym to read hundreds of articles on the right way to eat. For now: eat healthy and lift heavy things.
Final note: be sure to get plenty of protein while strength training. You'll be using protein to rebuild your muscles after working them in the gym. If you don't have enough protein in your diet, your body will be unable to recover.
There are many different muscles in your body. However, when talking about weight lifting, we usually break the body down into major muscle groups. The basic breakdown often discussed is:
You should get comfortable with identifying these muscle groups, and at flexing the different muscle groups. Some exercises will say things like "activate your glutes" or "stabilize with your lats." Don't worry if you're having trouble feeling your pecs or lats, working them out will help.
Make sure that, with whatever exercise routine you're following, you're hitting all of this muscle groups at least once per week (and ideally 2-3 times).
Wow, that was a lot! I honestly didn't realize I had that much to say on the subject of resistance training, and there's still a lot more worth saying. But hopefully this gives you a good place to start. In sum:
I'll say right now that I know more about resistance training than cardio and mobility, so these two sections will not be as detailed as resistance training. (And after everything you just read through, you may be relieved to hear that).
Cardio is also known as aerobic exercise. Aerobic means "with oxygen," and describes the energy system used during typical cardio workouts. When you go for a 30 minutes jog, you'll end up using fat as a major energy source, which requires oxygen to break down. This energy production is not as fast as glycogen, but we don't need to have the same level of explosive energy as we do with weight lifting.
Advantages of cardio:
It's good for burning fat
There are also some downsides:
There are many different ways you can perform cardio. Some of the most popular are:
Cardio can be performed on a daily basis. There is far less concern of overtraining like with weight training, since the exercise will not break down your muscles to the same extent. Common durations for a session range from 15 minutes to an hour. My recommendation: start off with something you can manage easily, get used to the activity, and then ramp it up over time.
I haven't personally done this program, but I've heard good reviews of the Couch to 5k program, which trains you to be able to run 5 kilometers (or just over 3 miles) in 9 weeks.
It may be slightly incorrect to include High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT, as a subheading within cardio, but I'll explain my motivation shortly. Cardio as described above is also known as Low Intensity Steady State (LISS), where you keep to a mostly-fixed level of exertion which can be maintained for a significant period of time. By contrast, HIIT uses short bursts of high intensity exertion for a shorter period of time.
A typical HIIT protocol may look like: perform a cycle of 8 sprints. For each sprint, run as fast as you possibly can for 20 seconds, and then rest for 10 seconds. (This specific protocol is known as tabatas.) This full workout will take only 4 minutes, but as I saw someone once describe it, "it's 4 minutes of suck." Also, since HIIT is more physically taxing than LISS, you should take at least one rest day between sessions.
Before getting into the physical comparison, I want to point out that both HIIT and LISS are appealing. HIIT is anything but boring, and it's incredibly time efficient (imagine replacing a daily 30 minute run with a 4 minute sprint 3 days a week). But it's a hard workout. In fact, it's hard enough that I'd encourage people to not try to start exercising with regular HIIT sessions, as it may encourage you to give up. Instead, try a HIIT session interspersed with other workouts, and only consider making it part of your routine when you're confident that you won't give up. Remember, any exercise is better than no exercise.
So, if HIIT is so very different than normal cardio, why did I include it here? Because research is indicating that it can deliver on the same benefits people try to get from LISS cardio:
In addition, HIIT claims some advantages over LISS, like more favorable hormonal responses and possibly better blood glucose control.
Short story: there is a lot of positive to be said about HIIT, but the science is not conclusive yet. If you want to try HIIT, and you don't believe you'll be discouraged by the intensity, go for it.
To make my biases clear in this: I almost never do dedicated LISS cardio sessions, but instead rely on HIIT for cardiovascular health. It's worked well for me, with improvements in my blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory system (far less symptoms of asthma). But given that HIIT is still considered somewhat less established than LISS, I want it to be clear that I am not advocating for anyone to stop standard cardio workouts.
You can do HIIT with lots of different exercises:
There are also similar programs, like circuit training, which involve high intensity as well as weight lifting.
One other very interesting approach for overall strength and cardiovascular health is presented in the book "Body by Science." I'm throwing this in here just to give a taste of how varied theories of good exercise are, and to encourage you to continue research beyond this naive overview.
Body by Science makes the bold claim that you can get "strength training, body building, and complete fitness in 12 minutes a week." I'll present a massively simplified version of what they claim, and encourage you to read the book itself if you're interested in more.
I've never done this program myself, but that's mostly because I actually enjoy my time in the gym, and don't want to reduce it to just 15 minutes a week. At the very least, the book is a great read with lots of valuable information.
This is a very common problem with people doing cardio: get on the treadmill for 45 minutes, walk at a decent (but not particular strenuous pace), and then get some kind of recovery smoothie (or insert other food item here). Take a guess: how many calories did the treadmill burn, and how many are in the smoothie?
Unfortunately, for many people, the smoothie completely outweighs the workout itself. Don't fall into this trap! Figure out your nutrition, and stick to it. Don't convince yourself that you're free to eat whatever you want because you went for a run today. You'll be undoing all of your hard work.
Another idea to throw in is, outside of "exercise," it's a good idea to simply be more active. Taking a nightly walk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, playing some easy sports, taking a break at the office to step outside, or a dozen other tweaks you can make throughout your day, all make you less sedentary. Sure, these activities help you burn a few more calories. But I would argue—as would many better authorities—that simply being more active is a reward in and of itself.
Flexibility measures the range of movement of a joint. Flexibility can be improved with stretching. Given the sedentary lifestyles most of us live today, we end up having reduced flexibility. While flexibility and stretching typically have to do with the static range of motion of our joints, mobility refers to our ability to effectively move our joints.
An important distinction to make in these kinds of routines is dynamic vs static. Dynamic movements will involve moving a joint constantly. These are good to warm up before another exercise session. By contrast, static stretches will hold your joints in a fixed position. These can increase overall flexibility, but are generally best saved for after a workout.
This is the area in this post I am least familiar with, so I'm not going to go into much detail. Probably the most popular technique out there right now for improving your flexibility and mobility is Yoga. Many other people can give better advice than I can for getting started with it.
One pair of programs I followed (for less time than I should have) for mobility and flexibility are Molding Mobility and Starting Stretching. I found it much easier to grasp when I watched a set of Youtube videos demonstrating them:
The idea with this order is to perform the dynamic mobility routine first, perform any resistance training next, and then finally perform static stretches at the end.
Thank you for making it through these three posts, I know I didn't make it easy. Hopefully they have provided you with lots of information, a good idea of the terms at play, and encouragement to go read more from better sources. And, of course, I hope you don't just make this an intellectual endeavor, but start taking control of your health!
My recommendation for getting started with this: get your nutrition improved, and to a place where you're comfortable with your daily eating routine. Try not to focus on a scale goal; focus on eating better. Experiment, and find what works. Introduce some exercise. Make sure you're ultimately getting in exercise that both improves your strength level, and improves your cardiovascular system.
I hope this was useful. If you have questions, please send them to me. I still haven't decided if I'll be making more health-related posts. If this is something you'd like to see from me, please say so, it's more likely to happen with such feedback.
This blog post is part 2 of a series on nutrition and exercise. If you haven't seen it already, I recommend reading part 1 now. This blog post will go into more details on nutrition.
For the completely impatient, here are my recommendations on where you should get started, in a priority-sorted list (start with #1, and add more recommendations as you're ready):
Of course, I strongly recommend you read the rest of this blog post for more details.
We need to get two different things from our food:
Essential nutrients are things that our body requires to live, and cannot make itself. Energy is what powers us. Without either of these, we die. You've probably heard of calories before. A calorie is a unit of measurement for energy. Each person has different requirements for both essential nutrients and calories, which we'll get to shortly.
The thing is that these two requirements overlap significantly. For example, Omega 3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient, but they also provide energy. Therefore, it's impossible to say something like "I'm going to get all of my energy from carbohydrates," since you'll be required to eat protein and fat as well.
Alright, let's break down nutrients:
Macronutrients, aka macros, are either protein, carbohydrates (carbs), or fat. All three of these provide some level of energy (more on that later). As far as the essential aspects of these are concerned:
Protein is made up of amino acids. There are 21 different amino acids, of which 9 are essential. Amino acids are used by your body for building most of its structure (muscles, organs, bones).
There are two essential fatty acids: Omega 3 and Omega 6. You've probably heard a lot about Omega 3. That's because our modern diets (for reasons I won't get into) have a much higher level of Omega 6 relative to Omega 3, which is theorized to be a cause of many diseases via inflammation. That means you likely don't need to worry about getting enough Omega 6, but may want to supplement Omega 3 (such as with fish oil pills).
Other than that, you don't need to eat any fats. Your body can create its own fat (via de novo lipogensis) for fat storage.
There are no essential carbs. Fiber is a form of carbs that our bodies don't break down well, and help with digestion. Fiber also helps us feel full. But by saying it is non-essential, my point is: you can eat a diet without any carbs at all and survive. (Whether you should is a different issue.)
NOTE You also get calories from alcohol. I'm not going to discuss that here; alcohol is completely unnecessary in your diet, and has many negative impacts on health. I certainly enjoy a drink from time to time, but if you're drinking enough that the calorie impact of the alcohol is meaningful, you're sabotaging your health significantly.
Unimportant side note: One calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. When you read calories on food, it's actually talking about kilo-calories, or Calories (capital C), or food calories. The point is: there are a thousand "real" calories in a food calorie. I only mention this because it can be a point of confusion. We'll in general be talking about food calories, and just referring to them as calories.
Each of the macronutrients provides a different amount of calories:
But these numbers don't add up exactly as you'd expect. For example, protein is harder to convert into usable energy than the other two, and therefore it takes more energy to perform the breakdown. This is called the thermic effect of food, and means that you'll get less net energy from 9 grams of protein than from 4 grams of fat or 9 grams of carbs, even though in theory they should be the same.
This brings us to our first important point: during digestion, each macronutrient follows a different metabolic pathway, and therefore can have different effects on the body. We'll cover the difference between carbs and fat in a later section. For now, I want to point out that protein is a suboptimal energy source. This greatly affects how we want to consider protein as part of our diet (also in an upcoming section).
Your body needs energy to operate. The total energy it needs on a daily basis is the TDEE, or Total Daily Energy Expenditure. If you eat more energy than this number, the excess will be stored as fat. If you eat less, the difference will be taken from fat. This is known as calories-in/calories-out.
You'll see lots of debates online about this point. Here's my personal take: it's a truism, but misses a lot of the point. Yes, if you eat a lot more food, you'll put on weight. But the situation is quite a bit more complicated than this. The amount and type of food you eat affects hormone levels that influence your energy expenditure and hunger levels. And while my simplified model talks about adding and losing fat, we have other body mass (glycogen and muscle) which will be affected as well.
What's my point in all of this? Yes, you should be aware of your TDEE. Let it be a general guide (in addition to hunger signals) to how much you should eat. But realize it's an estimate, and that trying to change it (such as by eating only 500 calories a day) will not immediately result in losing the amount of fat you expect. Your body may slow down its metabolism to compensate, you may cheat more often, etc.
You can find lots of TDEE calculators online, here's one I find with a quick search. Also, one pound of body fat contains 3500 calories (7700 per kilogram), so in theory, you'd need to eat at a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day for a week to lose one pound of fat.
Since, as we said above, protein isn't a great source for energy, we primarily want to include protein in our diet for its non-energy aspects. This involves the "essential" bit about providing amino acids. However, there's another big benefit that comes from eating protein: you tend to stay full longer when you eat protein. One recommendation that I like to follow is to include a protein source in every meal.
So then the question is: how much protein do you need? You'll see lots of values thrown around for this. For example, 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. That means, if you weigh 170 pounds (77kg for those of us outside the US), you'd target 170 grams of protein per day. But numbers really vary all over the place. Some standards place this as a certain number of grams per pound of lean body weight (meaning, ignoring your body fat). How much you need also varies with what kind of activity you're doing: if you're trying to build muscle, you'll usually want to eat more protein.
I'd recommend doing some research yourself on how much protein you need to get per day, I'm going to avoid making a recommendation. I will, instead, try to debunk some myths:
One of the biggest downsides with protein is that it tends to be relatively expensive (compare the cost of a steak vs a loaf of bread). Also, different protein sources have different absorption rates in the body. Finally, referring back to the essential amino acids, not all protein sources are complete, especially not vegan ones. (Complete here means it contains all 9 essential amino acids.) If you're eating animal products, you're probably fine. With vegan products, do a little more research on what you're eating (hemp seed and quinoa are both complete proteins).
Summary Get enough protein, and eat it at each meal to help you stay full longer.
Alright, once you're done putting protein into your diet, you'll be filling up the rest of your calories from carbs and fat. This is probably one of the biggest areas where that issue of complication I mentioned comes into play. If you want my simple recommendation: start off by getting adequate protein and avoiding processed foods. In my opinion, you'll be getting 80% of the way to a great diet with just those steps.
OK, you want to get into the details of carbs vs fat? I would say that, first and foremost, a lot of the most sensational claims out there are simply not true. Fat doesn't clog your arteries. Carbs don't magically make you fat. Things are far more nuanced. I'm going to give a list of benefits for each of these macronutrients.
Benefits of carbs
Benefits of fats
There are clearly arguments in favor of both macronutrients. I'd argue that it has been the obvious case throughout human history that we have eaten diets high in carbs, high in fats, and high in both, and we can survive well on any of them. I've personally used all kinds of diets with good results.
There is one thing I've seen claimed that I think has a lot of logic to it. Some of the most successful diets today seem to be based around banning either carbs or fat. Perhaps the reason they work is that the biggest reward foods—ice cream, potato chips, chocolate, etc—are high in both carbs and fat. By allowing yourself large quantities of food, but naturally avoiding these highly tempting and easy-to-binge reward foods, it becomes much easier to adhere to a diet.
My recommendation Unless you have some ethical or religious reason guiding your eating, try out whatever popular diet plan appeals to you. Give it a few weeks at least, ideally a few months, and see how you respond. If you find that you're constantly fighting cravings even after trying the diet for a few weeks, consider trying something else. And if you are not losing body fat, either the diet's a bad one (don't fall for the ice cream diet!) or you're not following it well.
I mentioned above that carbs get stored as glycogen. When your body stores glycogen, it stores some water to go along with it. This is one of the reasons why low carb diets have such amazing short term results: when you first become fat adapted, you burn up your glycogen stores quickly, and flush out that extra water (in your urine) at the same time. You can lose a few pounds/kilos in a few short days.
Don't fall into this all-too-common trap:
Wow, I lost 3 pounds in my first week alone! This is great! If I just continue like this for the next 2 months, I'll lose 25 pounds in no time!
Then, when you of course can't continue peeing out 2.5 pounds of water per week and you eventually hit a weight loss plateu, you decide your diet isn't working and give up. In other words:
Be wary of the scale, it will lie to you!
Something popping up much more recently is intermittent fasting, where you spend a certain number of hours per day not eating. Perhaps the most common is the 16-8 fast: you fast 16 hours and only eat for 8. That might sound rough, but when you realize that sleep is part of this, and the schedule is "fit all of your eating into 11am-7pm or similar", it's not too bad.
There are some theoretical health benefits of fasting on its own. Our bodies can swing between catabolic (breaking down) and anabolic (building up) phases, and there are advantages to both. If we're constantly stuffing our faces, our body never has to enter catabolism, which can be detrimental.
But intermittent fasting has a much simpler motivator: it makes it easier to eat within your TDEE if you don't spend all day eating. And during the part of the day you're not eating, it's much easier to control yourself. At least for me, a simple binary on/off switch for "am I allowed to eat" is easy.
Do you have to do this? Absolutely not. But if you're feeling like trying something, go for it. If nothing else, convincing yourself that you're strong enough to go regularly without eating is a good psychological barrier to overcome.
Saturated. Unsaturated. Monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated. Omegas. Trans. What's up with all of this? Well, it's just chemistry. Fats are chains of carbons. Each carbon can form four bonds, and hydrogen can form one bond. So in theory, each carbon can bond to the carbon to its left, the carbon to its right, and two hydrogens. If that happens, you have a saturated fat. This is saturated because each carbon is fully saturated by two hydrogens.
However, sometimes we'll be missing hydrogens. Instead of binding to two hydrogens, two carbons can form a double bond. Each of those carbons will bond with one hydrogen and one other neighboring carbon. When such a double bond forms, we have an unsaturated fat. Because double bonds are more flexible, unsaturated fats melt (turn liquid) at lower temperatures. That's why saturated fats (like butter) tend to be solid at room temperature, but unsaturated fats (like olive oil) are liquid.
If a fat has just one double bond in it, it's monounsaturated. If it has more than one, it's polyunsaturated. Two of these polyunsaturated fats are special: omega 3 and omega 6 are differentiated by the distance between the tail of the carbon chain and the first double bond.
Trans fats are unsaturated fats which have been chemically altered to make them solid at higher temperatures. This is done by hydrogenating them. Because trans fats occur very rarely naturally, it seems that our bodies are not particularly good at digesting them, with the result being that they're bad for our health. Basically: avoid trans fats.
As mentioned above, both omega 3 and omega 6 are essential fatty acids. We get plenty of omega 6, so you should try to get more omega 3.
Beyond that, what kind of fats should you go for? That's a topic of much debate. Up until recently, the answer would be to prefer polyunsaturated vegetable oils. However, newer evidence points to saturated fat not being the villain it was thought to be, and vegetable oil in fact being dangerous. Monounsaturated fats—especially olive oil—seem to be pretty well accepted as being good for us.
Personally, I avoid vegetable oils and don't avoid saturated fats. But you'll get lots of conflicting advice on this area. I recommend reading up.
Simple. Complex. Sugar. Glucose. Fructose. Lactose. Starch. What exactly are carbs? Time for some more chemistry!
Saccharide is another term of carbohydrates. The monosaccharides and disaccharides make up what we call the sugars. The most common monosaccharides are:
Disaccharides are pairs of monosaccharides, such as:
Longer chains of saccharides form polysaccharides, such as starch (as you'd find in potatos or rice) and cellulose. Cellulose gives plants their structure and is indigestible (for the most part) to humans; you've already seen it referred to here as dietary fiber. However, some gut bacteria can digest fiber and generate molecules we can digest.
When digesting, our body will break down carbohydrates into monosaccharides so they can be absorbed in the large intenstine. Because this breakdown takes time, the more complex the carbohydrate (meaning the more saccharides are bound together), the slower the digestion. This will leave you feeling full longer and avoid a blood sugar spike.
When your blood sugar spikes, your body releases insulin to remove the toxic levels of sugar from the blood and store it as glycogen and fat. One working theory is that, when you eat a diet filled with simple sugars, you bounce between sugar highs and sugar crashes, the latter leaving you hungry and irritable, and reaching for that next sugary snack. All this is to say: avoid simple sugars!
One method for measuring how quickly carbs are absorbed is the glycemic index (GI), where a higher value means the food is more quickly absorbed. By this standard, you should probably stick to low GI foods, unless you have a specific reason to do otherwise (such as some kind of athletic competition or muscle recovery... but that's complicated and you should do research on it before trying it out).
Of the three monosaccharides, glucose is the one that our body cells can use directly. Fructose and galactose must be processed first by the liver. There are some claims that having a high-fructose diet can put undue strain on the liver, giving one reason why High Fructose Corn Syrup has such a bad rap. This is also a reason why binge-eating fruit—which is high in fructose—may not be a great idea.
I'm only putting in this section because people will ask. The story with salt is, in my opinion, completely unclear. There are many contradictory studies. If you have hypertension, general consensus is to reduce salt. Beyond that, conventional wisdom says reducing salt is a good thing, but many newer studies show that it has no benefit. And also, if you're going for a ketogenic diet, make sure to get plenty of electrolytes, including salt, potassium, and magnesium.
Whew, that's a lot of information! Let me try to simplify all of that down into some practical advice.
I'll tie up this series in my next post, which will go into details on exercise.
Some family and friends have been asking me to write up my thoughts on the topic of nutrition and exercise. To give proper warning, I want to say right from the beginning of this that I am not in any way a qualified expert. I'm a computer programmer who was overweight and unhealthy for most of my life until my mid-twenties, when I decided to take control, did a bunch of reading, and have been (mostly) in shape and far healthier since.
I don't want you to take anything I say as gospel; it's not. Hopefully this will give you ideas of where to start, topics worth researching, and short-circuit some of the very self-defeating confusion that I think most of us have suffered through. I'm not providing sources for what I'm writing, partly because I want you to read up on topics yourself, and mostly because I'm too lazy :).
This is something of a continuation on my post on why I lift, though in reality I started on this post first. Also, I had originally intended to make one massive post covering nutrition and exercise. Instead, I'm breaking this up into three parts. This post will set the tone and give some background information, and the following two posts will dive into each of nutrition and exercise in more detail (though still as a "naive overview").
This post series is very off the beaten track for me, and I'm still unsure if I'll be writing more like it. If you do like it and want to see more, or have some specific questions, please mention so in the comments and I'll be more likely to make future posts on these topics.
I've come up with the following philosophical points about health and fitness, which guide my own decisions a lot:
I mentioned this a bit in the why I lift post, but I want to give a little more background here. Odds are pretty good that my baseline level of health and fitness is lower than you, the reader. As a child and young adult, I was overweight. I ate junk food constantly. I hardly exercised. I had a few brief bouts where I lost some weight, but it always came back within a year, and with a vengeance.
I've been programming since I was 10 years old. I spent hours on end almost every day since then on a computer or playing video games. I wasn't quite at the stereotype of sitting in a darkened room eating Cheetos and Mountain Dew, but I was pretty close.
Around the age of 25 (give or take a few years), I decided I had enough. I was tired of being overweight. I was scared of developing diabetes. I could barely sit at my desk for 10 minutes without back pain. I woke up in the morning and had trouble getting out of bed. I finally decided that bad health—at least in my case—wasn't a curse of genetics, but something I'd brought on myself, and only I would be able to fix it.
So as you read these posts, I don't want you to become discouraged and think "well, this guy can do this, but I never could, I'm just your average office worker." It's quite the opposite. If I've been able to overcome a lifetime of bad habits and genetic predispositions to negative health conditions, you can too.
It's useless to talk about "getting healthy" or "getting fit" without some definition of what that means. Some people are going to have very specific goals; for example, a power lifter may want to deadlift as much weight as possible, even if the process shortens his/her lifespan by 10 years. If you have such specific goals, odds are this post isn't for you.
I'm going to guess that most people reading this will probably have the same three goals, though their priorities among the goals will differ:
Improve general health/increase longevity/feel better. This would include improvements in things like:
I was specific in my wording on those first two bullets. You may think you want to lose weight, but you won't be happy if you lose weight in the form of muscle mass or (worse) organs. Similarly, you may not think you want to gain muscle, but I'd argue that you do:
Caveat: I'm not talking about bodybuilder levels here.
Nutrition is what food you put into your body. Exercise is what activities you do with your body. Based on the goals above, we need to acknowledge that you need to address both nutrition and exercise to address your goals. This is the first big mistake I'll address in this post.
So this is important: you need to do both. Period. If you're going to pick one of them to start off with... I guess I'd say start with nutrition, but it's really a personal call. I'd recommend starting with whatever you believe you're more likely to stick with.
My next post will dive into details on the nutrition half of the equation, and the following post will dive into exercise. If there are enough questions raised in the comments in these three posts, I'll likely add a fourth Q&A post to this series.
And if you're just desperate to read more now, don't forget about my why I lift post.
WARNING Believe it or not, this post is about health and fitness, not monad transformers.
Anyone following me on Twitter over the past year has probably noticed that I've started weight lifting. At the request of some friends and family, I've been meaning for a while to write up an in-depth blog post on some topics around exercise and nutrition. But after some discussions with others at LambdaConf last week, I decided to start off with a much smaller blog post: why I started lifting, and why I think most developers—or anyone with a desk job—should do the same.
My background on this is, unfortunately, pretty standard these days.
About five years ago, I decided to stop ignoring nagging health issues, fight off the laziness, do research, and make myself healthier. I've learned a lot in that time, much of which I hope to share in an upcoming blog post. In this blog post, I just want to motivate why I am so passionate about this topic now, and why I think you should be too.
While the main focus here is on weight lifting, in the sense of going to the gym and picking up heavy pieces of metal, I'd like to point out that it's hardly been an isolated activity in this journey. Highly related changes have included:
Most of the benefits I'll list below are more generally about resistance training, which will include bodyweight training, resistance bands, and weight machines. If for some reason you really don't want to lift weights, consider those as good alternatives.
NOTE Despite many stereotypes out there, my comments here are not targetted specifically at men. I believe that barring specific male advantages (like spiking testosterone production), weight lifting is just as important for women as for men. The points I list below are gender neutral. If you read any of them and think they don't apply to women, I encourage you to rethink your stance.
I can't speak universally, but I definitely know this for myself and a number of people in my life. There's a pervasive idea in the modern world that our bodies just break down, and we need doctors and medicine to fix them. While this is certainly the case sometimes, I think we've often become overly reliant on pills, where lifestyle changes could be more effective with less side effects.
Weight lifting and the other changes I mentioned are a way of taking that control back.
I think there's often a negative stereotype of a "meathead" or similar who trades in brain for brawn. Besides being contradicted by actual correlative studies, this stereotype implies that strength isn't an inherently good thing for our bodies.
The main thing that got me to start going into the gym was my bad back. I would wake up some mornings and be almost unable to move. It would happen seemingly randomly. I also have a family history of this, so I just assumed this would be a regular part of my life, and I would pop ibuprofen as needed.
But then I started deadlifting. As I raised the weight (meaning I had gotten stronger), an amazing thing happened: my back didn't trouble me as much. Focus on good posture, sitting correctly at my desk, and regular heating of my back muscles have all contributed. But I believe that the most important change I've made has been the deadlifts and, to a slightly lesser extent, barbell squats.
I should also mention the negative side of lifting on this topic: if you aren't careful, you can injure yourself in the gym. I've unfortunately done this. My advice—which is ripped off from others—is to start off with very light weights and focus on perfecting your form. Don't "ego lift," meaning don't lift more weight than you can handle to feel good about some number. Lift what you can safely handle, and add weight as you get stronger and are ready for it.
If I had heard "increased muscle mass" 10 years ago, I probably would have thought of some bodybuilder, and thought it was a vain pursuit of aesthetic beauty. And while increased muscle mass can in fact be an aesthetic feature, I believe the health benefits are even greater.
When we get sick, we'll often lose muscle mass. Having a little extra reserve prevents us from getting into danger levels. Increased body mass also leads to increased caloric requirements. Meaning if you eat a specific number of calories but have extra muscle on you, you won't put on as much fat.
We've all heard back-and-forths over the past decade about whether carbs are good or bad for us. I don't want to get into that now. However, I will say that elevated blood glucose levels are clearly unhealthy, as is insulin insensitivity.
One of the great things about lifting weights is that it burns muscle glycogen, your major body storage of carbohydrates. When you do this, your muscles will quickly soak up the glucose in your bloodstream, instead of it getting turned into fat or, worse, harming your body organs.
We all have stress in our lives. Family, work, finances, and hundreds of others. It can be difficult to cope with it.
Lifting weights is also a stress, but it's a completely different kind of stress. It's physical (though sometimes a bit mentally terrifying as well). And it's short-term, instead of the really unhealthy, cortisol-producing chronic stress many of us have.
But here's the best part for me: lifting is an escape, in a way that most other "leisure" activities (reading, watching TV, etc) are not. When I'm doing a bench press, it is a simple battle between me and gravity. There are no complex deadlocks to debug, no decisions around corporate strategy to make, no challenges with children's education.
There's a heavy thing. I pick it up. I put it down. I do it again. Its simplicity is its virtue.
Far too many of us developers spend our entire lives on electronic devices. We wake up and check Reddit/Hacker News/whatever. We watch some TV or YouTube videos. We spend all day in an office (or, in my case, home office) writing code or discussing issues on Slack/IRC/whatever. We're constantly answering emails on our phones. And then when work is over, how many of us either play video games, read Reddit some more, or work on hobby programming projects.
Far be it from me to tell people not to have open source development they do outside of work (that would be pretty hypocritical). But having something which is explicitly different from the rest of our electronic activities is a much needed break, and at least for me leads to better producitivity in the rest of my day.
I mentioned ego lifting above, and this section is certainly bordering on it. But it's also one of the things I enjoy the most about lifting: it's a constant new challenge. I can set new goals all the time: increase the weight on my lifts, do more reps at the same weight, or even modifying my tempo.
I need to regularly remind myself not to be stupid and push too hard. And I also need to admit that I have done stupid things in the gym in the past while trying to challenge myself. But if done safely, the constant challenges can be invigorating, exciting, and fun.
Speaking of fun: when you get stronger, life is just more fun. I have four kids. They like to play (well, the three month old is slightly less active than the others). They like to play physically. And the fact that I can pick them up, toss them in the air, run around with them, and even climb through play structures in the park makes that play so much better.
Since lifting, I can play with them for longer, despite the fact that they've all grown bigger and heavier. (Though I'll admit that tossing my 4 year old is significantly easier than tossing my 9 year old.) I can't imagine what life would be like if I was unable to do more than a half-hearted game of catch for five minutes.
I've never really been into sports, so I'm not using that as a personal example. But I'd imagine those of you who do enjoy sports will find much more enjoyment in it once you've increased your strength and endurance.
I remember reading a tutorial on deadlifting, and seeing the comment that it teaches you the right way to lift objects. I now regularly find myself, while moving objects around the house, naturally using deadlift techniques and cues. This helps prevent injury, and makes me a more useful person.
I have a genetic history that leads to an achilles tendon which is overly short. This leads to such issues as toe-walking, foot pain while standing, and lack of mobility/flexibility. In line with the comment above of taking control of our bodies, working on my squat has drastically improved the situation with my tendon, leading to improvements in all mentioned areas. (Though to be fair, I do still have issues here.)
In order to lift correctly, you'll need to learn how to tighten your core, tighten your lats, engage your glutes. You'll discover muscle groups you can control that you didn't know you could. You'll need to perfect your posture to nail down form.
Don't think of weight lifting as learning an isolated skill. It's a transferable activity with payoff in almost every aspect of your day to day life.
I'm hoping to dive into details in a later blog post, but if you want to get started, my advice is: don't overcomplicate! I have a theory that a significant part of why so many people are unhealthy is the confusion around the topic (think of the paradox of choice). Choose a resistance activity and do it.
I personally think that StrongLifts 5x5 is a great place to start with weight lifting. If you want to start with bodyweights instead, I had a lot of success with the Start Bodyweight program.
This blog post is obviously an anomaly versus most of my other development-related posts. If this is something you like and would enjoy more of, please let me know. Depending on interest in it and the volume of posts on the topic, I may put the health and fitness posts in a separate part of my site. Feedback welcome!
About five years ago, I decided to start working out at home since I wanted to get in better shape. About three years ago, I got more serious about it as I realized my health was slipping (specifically, recurrence of asthmatic symptoms after 20 years of being clear). But I only started weight lifting 1.5 years ago, and the reason was simple: back pain.
Like many people in our industry—our industry being the "sit in front of a computer all day" industry—I suffered from chronic lower back pain. I'd been having problems with it on or off since I was a teenager (yeah, I was sitting in front of a computer then too). But over the preceeding few years, it got significantly worse. I had many episodes of waking up unable to get out of bed without significant pain. I had a few cases of my spine turning S-shaped for days on end, unable to stand up straight at all.
I have a strong family history of back pain. Like going bald, I'd taken it as a given for many years that this would happen. I went to an orthopedist, who prescribed painkillers. And that could have been the rest of my life: regular pain, popping pills, waiting to see if I'd kill my liver with the pills before something else got me. And most likely, inactivity due to back pain could have led to plenty of other health problems.
Today is a different story. I won't claim that I'm totally back pain free—problems still crop up from time to time. But the debilitating level I had previously is gone. And when some negative event occurs (like getting knocked down and back slammed by a wave this Sunday), I'm far more resilient to the damage. I'm writing this blog post since I strongly believe many of my friends, family, colleagues, and general fellow programmers suffer terribly from back pain, when they could greatly improve the situation. I'll tell you what I've done, and what I continue to do.
If you suffer from back pain, I strongly recommend you consider being proactive about it. Feel free to take my experiences into account, but also do your own research and determine what you think is your best course of action. There is unfortunately—like most things in the health world—quite a bit of contradictory advice out there.
From my research, I decided that there were likely two things I could do (outside of pill popping) that I could do to improve the situation with my back:
The first bit is easy to explain. I'd been doing bodyweight workouts at home until then, which—according to the program I was following, don't really offer a good alternative to the deadlift for posterior chain work. That's why I switched to Stronglifts 5x5 and put a large emphasis on the deadlift, also focusing on stabilizing my core a lot during the squat.
I'll be honest: I threw my back out badly a few times on the squat. I almost gave up. I'm glad I didn't. I (finally) figured out how I was misusing my back on the exercises, and now can squat and deadlift almost twice the weight that had previously thrown my back out. I consider it a huge success.
In addition to the muscle improvements, the other takeaway is: lifting weights taught me how to use my back in a safer way.
But now on to the (for me) more complicated bit. I watched tons of YouTube videos, read articles, browsed forums, and spoke with doctors and chiropractors about proper posture. The problem is that there are different schools of thought on what it means to stand or sit correctly. From my reading, the most contentious point comes down to pelvic tilt. To demonstrate visually:
There's a basic question: should your pelvis tip slightly forward, slightly backwards, or be neutral (perfectly vertical). As far as I can tell, the most mainstream opinion is a neutral pelvis. I'm always nervous to give anything close to health advice, especially contrary to mainstream opinion, so instead I'll say: I found a lot of success with the Gokhale Method, and specifically Esther's book "8 Steps to a Pain Free Back."
The reasoning Esther uses to arrive at her conclusions is solid to me. Analyzing the shape of the vertebrae, and specifically the L5-S1 joint, does make a good case for the pelvis needing to be slightly anteverted. In addition, I buy her argument of the source of back pain being the predominance of slouching introduced in the western world in the earlier 20th century. The evidence of more uniform posture among cultures unexposed to this slouching epidemic, and their relative lack of back problems, is compelling.
I won't try to describe the method here; her book and YouTube videos do a better job than I ever could. I will, however, comment on some of the takeaways that I try to keep in mind throughout the day:
Keep in mind that this is not an overnight change. You'll need to practice better posture and get it to the point of muscle memory. I think it's worth every second of investment you can give it. It's not worth living your life in pain, afraid to move, and constantly doped up.
Two things happened this week that made me want to write this blog post. I took my kids to the beach on Sunday, and as I mentioned above, got knocked down hard by a wave, which twisted my back in a bad angle. For the next few seconds that I was under water, absolute fear went through my mind. "Oh no, did my back just go out? How am I going to drive the kids home? How will I work this week? What if one of the kids gets pulled under the water and I can't save him/her?"
The wave subsided, my feet touched the floor, I stood up... and everything was fine. I know in my bones (hah!) that that kind of impact would have put me out for a week just a few years ago. I'm sitting at my desk typing this now, after having done a deadlift session in the gym, and everything is fine.
Yesterday I took a trip to the doctor (not the topic of today's post). I sat in the patient's chair in his office, and noticed that—contrary to prior visits—I was sitting perfectly upright. I hadn't thought about it. The chair wasn't really well designed either: using the back support would have required leaning back and no longer remaining straight. It was a minor victory, but I'll take it.
Yesterday on Twitter, a lot of people were interested in the multiday fast I’m currently doing. Since I’m awake at 4am (more on that below), now seems like a great time to explain a bit about the fasting. I will drop the major caveat at the start: I am in no way an expert on fasting. For that, you’d want Dr. Jason Fung, and likely his book The Complete Guide to Fasting. This will be my personal anecdotes version of that information.
There are many reasons to consider fasting, including:
Alright, let’s get into the details of how to do this.
I’ll get this out of the way right now. I am not a doctor. I cannot give you health advice. I’m telling you about what works for me, a decently healthy person without preexisting conditions. If you are taking medication, especially insulin or anything that affects your blood sugar, talk with a doctor before doing this, or at the very least read one of Dr. Fung’s books.
The process is simple: stop eating. This isn’t a “bread and water” fast. This isn’t a “maple syrup and cayenne pepper” fast (worst TED talk I’ve ever seen by the way, I refuse to link to it). You are consuming virtually no calories. (We’ll get to virtually in a second.)
You should continue drinking water, and lots of it. Drinking green tea is helpful too, and black and herbal teas are fine. There’s also no problem with coffee. In fact: the caffeine in coffee can help you burn fat, which will help the fast progress more easily.
You should not drink any sugary drinks. (That’s not just advice for a fast, that’s advice for life too.) You should probably avoid artificial sweeteners as well, since they can cause an insulin spike, and some contain calories.
There are three other things you can include in your fast if desired:
The latter two do contribute some calories, almost entirely from fat. Don’t overdo this, you’ll be counteracting the point of the fast. And definitely avoid getting protein or any carbs mixed in; do not eat some of the meat off the bones, or throw in carrots or other starchy vegetables.
If you’re doing a fast for anti-cancer reasons, I’ve read that you should eliminate the cream and broth as well, and maybe consider leaving out the coffee and even tea. Again: I’m not an expert here, and I’ve never tried that kind of fast.
Fasting does not require any preparation. Just decide to do it, and stop eating! I typically like to stop eating around 6pm one day, and see how many days I can go before I cave in and eat. I’ll mention some reasons to cave in below.
My maximum fasting time is currently four days. It’s doubtful I’ll ever get beyond six days due to the weekly Jewish Sabbath, but that’s currently my goal. If you’re doing a multiday fast, I’d recommend targeting at least three days, since the second day is by far the hardest (from personal experience, and what I’ve read), and you should see it through till it gets easier.
By the way, the world record longest fast is 382 days. The rules for fasting change a bit at that point, and you would need to take vitamins and minerals to make it through.
The biggest fear people have is hunger. This is a normal, natural reaction. As someone who has done fasts plenty of times, I still sometimes feel the fear of being hungry. Allow me to share some personal experience.
When I’m in the middle of eating food, the thought of purposely witholding from eating is terrifying. Once I’ve stopped eating for half a day or so, that terror seems in retrospect to be completely irrational. I strongly believe that I, like many others, can react with an almost chemical addiction-like response to food. It’s nice to occassionally break that dependence.
Many people assume that they’ll be overcome with hunger once they’ve gone somewhere around 8 hours without eating. I’d recommend thinking of it as a challenge: can you handle not eating? Your body is built to withstand times of no food, you’ll be fine. This is a straight mind-over-matter moment.
Another concern many have is memories of trying to diet, and feeling miserable the whole time. Let me relate that it is significantly easier to spend a day not eating anything, and another day eating normally, than it is to spend two days eating less. The simple decision to not eat at all is massively simplifying.
When most people hear “keto,” they’re thinking of a diet plan that involves eating an absurd amount of bacon with an occassional avocado. In reality, ketosis is a state in the body where your liver is generating ketone bodies for energy. Here’s the gist of it:
I’m honestly a bit unsure of the whole topic of proteins in ketosis, as I’ve read conflicting information. But the basic idea of restricting carbs is straightforward. One way to do this is to eat a very-high-fat diet. But another approach is to eat nothing at all. The same process will take place in your body, and you’ll end up in ketosis, likely faster than with a ketogenic diet.
At this point, your whole body will be running off of a combination of ketones and fats, with a small amount of sugar circulating for some cells which can only run on glucose. This explains some of the purported benefits I mentioned above:
One final note: people familiar with Type 1 diabetes may be terrified of the term “keto” due to ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis is a dangerous medical condition, and does involve ketones. However, it is not the same state as ketosis, and being in ketosis is not dangerous. (But remember my caveats about not being a doctor above, especially if you are a type 1 diabetic.)
My personal approach to exercise on a fast is:
For weight lifting, I follow an RPE-based program, which essentially adjusts the weight on the bar to how hard it feels. Therefore, as I progress through the fast, I can typically continue following the same program, but the weight I lift will naturally go down a bit.
Side note: at the time of writing this blog post, I’m recovering from wrist tendonitis, and was already deloaded in my lifting, which is why I’m not lifting hard. It’s not because of the fast, but it is affecting how I’m responding to the fast most likely.
There are some side effects to fasting worth mentioning, including why I’m writing this blog post now:
There are certainly others, these are just the ones that have most affected me.
I’ve ended the fast in the past because I either felt sick, or because of some personal obligation where I didn’t want to be “compromised” in a fasted state. (This was likely just a cop-out on my part, going on a 4 hour trip with a group of fourth graders isn’t that taxing.) I would recommend setting a goal for how long you want to try to fast for, and be ready to be flexible with that goal (either longer or shorter) depending on how you’re responding.
I don’t really have any great recommendations on what to break your fast with. However, you may want to continue eating a low carb or ketogenic diet. You’ve just put yourself into a deep state of ketosis, which many people struggle to do. May as well take advantage of it!
This may not be universal, and I won’t go into details, but expect some GI distress after the fast ends. Your digestive system has been off duty for a few days, it needs to reboot.
Alright, so that was a lot of information all over the place. You’re probably wondering: what should I do? Frankly, you can do whatever you want! You can choose to dive in at the deep end and start off immediately with a multiday fast. Dr. Fung mentions this in his book. However, in my own experience, I started much more gradually:
Keep in mind: many people in the world today have never skipped a meal. Consider starting with something as easy as not having breakfast to prove to yourself that you don’t need to consume calories all waking hours of the day.
If you have questions you’d like me to answer in a follow up post, either on fasting, or other related health topics, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter.
I’m not going to claim that fasting is the miracle that allows us to gain muscle and lose fat. I don’t have enough personal experience to vouch for that even in my own body, and the research I’ve seen is conflicted on the topic. As I love doing n=1 experiments on myself, I intend to do more tests with fasting following periods of moderate over eating to see what happens.
For anyone in a healthy or above weight range, your body is carrying more than enough calories in fat to sustain you for days, likely weeks. If you do some quick math: there are 3,500 calories in 1 pound (0.45 kg) of fat. If you burn about 2,000 calories a day, you can burn roughly half a pound (.22kg) of fat a day. A 165 pound (70kg) person at 20% bodyfat would have 115,500 calories in fat storage, enough to survive over 55 days. Point being: once you’ve entered the ketosis stage of your fast, you essentially have unlimited energy stores available to use, as opposed to needing another hit from a meal to recharge.
To be a broken record: I’m not an expert on this topic. But the basic idea of anti-cancer claims for fasting come down to starving out the cancer cells. Cancer cells require lots of glucose (and a bit of protein) for energy. Fasting starves out the cancer cells. I’m not telling anyone to skip chemo or radiation. But I do personally know someone who defeated breast cancer with an (I believe) 11 day fast.
Here are some of the relevant tweets from the discussion yesterday.
I’d like to present two fairly straightforward points:
That said, I continue to write these blog posts, share information with friends and family, and make decisions for myself. How do I reconcile this? How do I approach the truly terrifying level of contradictory information available in the health/nutrition/exercise landscape? How do I want other people reading content from me to relate to it, given that I’m a self-acknowledged non-expert?
I strongly believe that the biggest hurdle for people to adopt healthy lifestyle choices these days is knowing where to begin (with willpower to do so in second place). Are you supposed to follow low carb, or low fat? Jog, or sprint? Body weight training, or free weights?
In general, this is similar to the Paradox of Choice, only worse: not only can you become paralyzed by the sheer number of options out there, but you can also be paralyzed by the fact that different sources will claim that each alternative will actively harm you. Given that landscape, it’s only natural for people to walk away saying “the experts are just going to change their minds in 10 years, there’s no point trying to make changes to my lifestyle.” And I should know: I felt that way for years.
Having established my credentials as a non-expert in this field, here’s how I’ve approached gathering knowledge and making decisions on the topics:
My sources of information these days tend towards voices in the low carb and barbell training communities. More on how I ended up here a bit below. As I said above, I’d strongly recommend gathering many different sources. And even if you disagree with one side (e.g., you’re either pro- or anti-vegan), I suggest finding the best sources on each side that you can.
Here are some of the sources I read or listen to.
And books I’ve read and recommend:
Some notes on these:
There’s a huge amount of information out there. It’s simply not humanly possible to read everything, experiment with everything, etc. You’ll need to ultimately install some filters to help you parse through the information. Here are some I use:
I like to be educated on a topic. But if it doesn’t affect me personally, or I’m happy with my approach for the moment, I’ll stop focusing on it.
I believe sources are biased. This applies to me (as I tried to point out a bit above, and will do more so of soon). As a religious Jew, I use this example: if a Rabbi told me that eating pork was unhealthy, I would distrust him. I believe there’s quite a bit of that in the health space, where moral arguments end up influencing, for example, complete avoidance of animal products or using only humanely raised products. I’m not going to comment here on the moral arguments at all, but I will say that I think they bias many proponents. Similarly, people who have made a career on advocating a certain dietary or exercise approach will have a vested interest in continue to espouse it, despite new evidence contradicting.
We can’t eliminate this bias, it’s human nature. My best advice, and what I try to do, is to identify it, and weigh arguments. When possible, I try to find less-biased sources on topics, such as Jeff Nippard’s video on vegan diet science.
After I get into a rut of a specific approach, I try to force myself to listen to contradicting views again. It’s enlightening to see how I will react negatively on hearing the arguments. I try hard to force myself to get past my own biases and judge the information on its own. Basically: when I listen to a video or read a post/article/book, I try to turn off my falsehood filter temporarily, absorb the information, and only analyze its veracity after the fact.
I’m currently actively looking for information sources which are more positive of high-carb and vegan eating approaches. The sources I’ve found so far typically have been too moralistic (eating animals is bad) or authoritarian (all major organizations support what we say) for my taste. I’d be happy if people want to leave some recommendations below.
This section is mostly irrelevant, but for those curious, I want to be more explicit about my current biases:
Some relevant backstory: I’ve been experimenting quite a bit over the past 6 months to see how I respond to different eating patterns. Included in that have been a few months of high carb consumption, focusing mostly on starches as an energy source. However, I’m generally in a low-carb mode, and my family are pretty familiar with that. With that information…
A family member recently asked me why oatmeal is healthy. The question makes sense: if I typically avoid carbohydrates, why would oatmeal—a food I ate quite a bit of during that high carb phase—be a healthy choice?
In that conversation, I introduced the concept of context for diet. This isn’t a novel concept I’ve come up with, but I wanted to explain it here anyway. Let’s start off with the extreme versions of this.
“Is sugar healthy?” I’ve written plenty here already claiming that sugar is not healthy. However, if someone is about to die due to lack of sufficient calories, sugar would be very healthy (it will prevent imminent death).
Which is healthier: a cheeseburger or a cucumber? Most people probably think the cucumber. In the context of modern Western disease, where overconsumption is rampant, the cucumber is probably healthier. However, the cheeseburger includes more micronutrients, and for someone with a deficiency may be considered healthier.
Coming back to the oatmeal. When I was following a high carb diet, I considered oatmeal a healthy choice (others may disagree). I was eating a whole grain, so taking in significant fiber with the starch. To my knowledge, I have no insulin resistance, and therefore can tolerate carbohydrates well. Oatmeal is satiating, making it less likely that I would overeat it. And it provides a decent amount of protein, something which I was looking for in my context (significant resistance training).
Right now, I’m eating a ketogenic diet. If I was to eat a bowl of oatmeal, it would kick me out of ketosis and spike my insulin. All of that fat that I’m eating during this keto phase would likely end up getting stored as body fat, something I’m trying to avoid. It would be a terrible idea.
Similarly, during that high carb phase, if I’d eaten a super-high-fat meal like I do right now, most of that fat would have gone to storage instead of to providing my body’s energy needs.
Keep this in mind when making nutrition choices. Even if someone else who is highly health conscious is eating it, it may not be the right choice for you. Make sure to analyze:
Also, if you’re vegan, vegetarian, or keep kosher, that cheeseburger I mentioned above is probably always a bad choice.
This is a guide for losing weight for health reasons. This assumes a few things:
For most people in western countries, both of these will be true. There are four basic ways to approach losing weight. They can be approached simultaneously, but it’s important to distinguish starting points:
Overall, if your goal is to lose weight, exercise is not where you should start. I strongly recommend exercise, and it’s a good thing to do. In particular, resistance training can help you build muscle which can improve overall health and assist in long term weight loss. But assuming you have limited time, energy, and will power, this is not going to give the best result.
This is in line with standard diet advice: eat less, move more! This advice has failed for decades. 95% of people who “diet” end up gaining back all the weight within a year. It’s for a simple reason: eating the same foods in the same way, but just eating less of it, requires a huge amount of willpower. You spend every minute of every day fighting hunger and cravings. You sit down to a meal, try to eat a small amount, and eventually give in, consume everything in sight, and gain the weight back.
There are lots of hormonal issues at play that make this happen, but the most important thing most people need to hear is:
The first rule of thermodynamics says that energy can’t be created or destroyed. Some people take this law of physics to say that “it doesn’t matter what you eat, it’s all about calories.” This is wrong, shortsighted, and idiotic. The type of food you eat affects you hormonally, mentally, and even emotionally. What you choose to eat can increase or decrease your appetite, change how much you want to exercise, and alter your body’s metabolic rate.
There are a few simple rules for “what to eat” that are fairly universal:
My personal recommendation is low carb. It helps fight cravings the best in my opinion. That said, any diet that sticks to real foods, and doesn’t overwhelm you with too much of the combination of both carbs and fat will be successful. You can lose weight on both a carnivore and vegan diet. Just choose one and stick with it!
Modern medical advice includes insanity like “eat 6 small meals a day.” This is dumb. “Eat more often so you eat less.” No, that’s dumb. I’ll prove it to you. I know a method that every person on the planet agrees will result in weight loss. You know what that is: stop eating for a few days. Therefore: you don’t need to eat 6 small meals a day to lose weight.
There are lots of points in favor of restricted eating windows, where you have certain times of the day or the week when you don’t eat at all. It affects you hormonally, letting insulin levels drop, for instance. Will you eat more at the next meal? Probably. But it’s OK, because overall you’re eating less and losing weight.
I find that a 12pm-8pm eating window is really easy to incorporate. Start the morning with a cup of coffee or tea if you like, with a small amount of cream if desired, and then don’t eat until noon. Then try to keep your eating to two meals (lunch and dinner), finishing before 8pm. Add in 1 snack if you need to, ideally something like nuts.
You want to get started, and just get told what to do? OK, follow these steps, which are optimized to avoid demanding a lot of willpower:
There are lots of more advanced topics. I mean, a lot. “How do I improve my lipids?” “How do I gain muscle while losing fat?” And so on. Don’t think about those now! Prove to yourself you can lose some weight, keep the weight off, and not suffer in the process. Don’t worry about the long term effects of what you’re doing. If you’re overweight or obese, and you bring down your body fat levels, you’re almost certainly making yourself healthier in the long term.