October 11, 2015

Are you fat and out of shape? This article will help you out


Recently, a casual friend asked me how a completely out-of-
shape beginner should (or could) get started on a path toward
better fitness, and what that path might look like over the course
of a couple of years.
“Define ‘completely out-of-shape?’” I prodded.
“Let’s say maybe 50-60 pounds overweight, but with no real
health issues aside from being overweight. And let’s also say, no
experience at all” she offered.
You might be surprised to know that I found this to be a
challenging question. I suppose that’s because I’m supposed to
be an expert. Or maybe because it’s an answer that a lot of
people could really benefit from. In either case, this article is my
personal take on that hypothetical.
First, I’ll qualify that this is just one possible path to success.
The “best” path depends on particulars that can and do vary from
person to person — access to competent coaching, motivation
level, local climate, and so on. But with that caveat in mind, let’s
dive into one possible trajectory for our overweight and out-of-
shape beginner:
As a starting point, specificity and consistency must be seen as
the dual master principles: you’ve gotta do the right things, and
you’ve gotta do them frequently and over a long period of time.
Specificity dictates that “the right thing” means that you’ve gotta
move more, eat less, or both. Now this perspective has
been criticized, on the grounds that the suggestion to “move
more/eat less” is far too simplistic: eating too much, for example,
isn’t the “root cause” (to quote Dr. Jason Fung of The
Scarborough Hospital in Toronto), it’s the “proximal cause.” To
use one of Fung’s analogies, it isn’t terribly helpful to state that
the cause of alcoholism is drinking too much — while that
statement is true, what we need to determine is why the
alchoholic drinks too much.
So while it’s important to recognize that there are often
psychological and emotional underpinnings to obesity, and that
these potential causes should be addressed through some type
of counseling, as a fitness coach, my scope of responsibility is
limited to the actual physical interventions that can be applied to
the problem. So with that in mind, I’ll restrict this discussion to
the best ways clients can begin to move more, and eat less.
The specificity principle dictates the need for movement,
and consistency requires that this movement is not excessively
difficult or overwhelming. A third principle — progressive overload
— suggests that for a sedentary person, any movement — no
matter how easy it may be — is a form of overload, at least for
All of this leads me to walking. If you’ve
been completely sedentary for years, taking a 1 mile walk every
other day is a lot of work, relatively speaking. That’s where I’d
start. The first walk should be at least a 5, but not more than a 7,
on a 1-10 scale of difficulty. Once a mile-walk becomes less than
a 5 on this scale, increase to walking a mile 6 days a week. This
doubles the training volume. After this increase in frequency, once
any given walk becomes less than a 5, increase the distance to
1.5 miles. Rinse and repeat.
During this time, a few simple nutritional interventions should be
made. While I’m a big believer in tracking calories, I don’t think
that level of tracking is necessary or even beneficial early on. If
the intensity of behavior-change increases too rapidly, those
changes will likely not last. Early nutritional interventions should
focus on awareness and basic education, nut
ascetic perfectionism.
In terms of awareness, a few good questions to ask might
“What types of events and circumstances lead you to overeat?”
“What time of the day do you usually feel hungriest?”
“Do you know the difference between real hunger
and ‘emotional’ hunger?”
“Do you feel guilty after eating ‘bad’ foods?”
In terms of basic nutrition education, our hypothetical
beginner should initially learn about the concept of energy balance,
the difference between micro and macronutrients, the caloric
value of the 3 macronutrient categories, and so on.
Typically, at a certain point, walking and simple
nutritional interventions will fail to result in additional weight loss.
At this point, resistance training should be implemented. At first,
machines and perhaps a few simple free weight drills. A schedule
of lifting 3 non-consecutive days a week, and walking on 3 non-
lifting days, with day 7 off, is a nice way to organize this.
Often, at a certain point in this process, a new client will signal
interest in more “advanced” types of lifting — he or she might
express curiosity about squats or deadlifts for example. When
this happens, I take it as a sign that we now have the emotional
fuel necessary to propel us to the next step in the process, which
is (ultimately) a fitness program based mostly on compound free-
weight movements, supplemented by light cardio and nutritional
Now it should be stated that lifting is not necessary for everyone,
and not everyone has the same warm fuzzies as I do about
lifting. Plenty of people have lost lots of weight doing other
things, such as distance running, recreational basketball, P90X,
and all sorts of other things. I bring this up because there are
two broad categories of activity that must ultimately be reconciled
— the “best” things to do, and the things you will do. The best
possible weight loss activities aren’t worth a thing if someone
won’t do them. And, conversely, weight loss activities
of “mediocre” impact work fantastically well if they are pursued
progressively and consistently. It’s all about the intersection
of “things that work well” and “things I’ll actually do.”
I’ll close by reminding you that the process I’ve just described is
only one of many possible alternatives. A fantastic nutrition coach
might emphasize the nutritional component much more than I did
here. A great yoga teacher will steer her beginner clients toward
bodyweight exercise, and if she’s really great, her clients will learn
to love it. As a strength coach, well you know about how when
you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail, right?
Don’t let the fact that there are numerous options available
distract you from the fundamental principles: in order to improve,
we all need to gradually move more than we’re accustomed to. If
we’re overweight, we need to figure out how to ingest slightly less
fuel than we burn. And finally, these things must be sustainable
for months and years — ideally, for a lifetime. So do the least,
not the most. Get out of your comfort zone, but not so far out
that you’ll drown. Focus on the things that really matter, and relax
a little about the things that aren’t as critical. If what you’re doing
is producing results, keep doing it. If not, do something different.
Finally, surround yourself as much as possible with people who
support your goals. Social support is both hard to solicit but
critical for success. Get a coach, join a class, find
helpful online communities, avoid toxicpeople who feel like less at
the thought of you becoming more.
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