In the survey I send out to newsletter subscribers, I ask the question of “what would you like to see more of on A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss?”
As a response, someone sent in the following:
Health for the rest of us. We don’t want to become runners, or do marathons, or even spend 5 days a week at the gym. Just tell me how to play the numbers game. Best calories in that fuel my body. Food is fuel! I should be able to get to and maintain a healthy weight without all the shenanigans. Right?
I have to admit I laughed, because it’s real. Some of us look at the lives we lead right now, and see how packed our schedules already are. There’s no way in hell we’d be able to fit in all of the nonsense involved with being active. We need the lives we have right now, and we need those lives to also somehow result in weight loss.
Surely, this can be done with just altering our diets, right?
At one point in time, I might’ve said yes – but now, I’m not so sure.
There are a lot of reasons why “developing an active lifestyle” needs to become a part of your weight loss plan. Weight loss is a numbers game of varying kinds – macronutrient values, yes; body fat percentage, yes; calories consumed, yes; calories burned, yes. But a more active lifestyle is the only thing that gives you the most control over how these numbers work in your favor.
Let me explain.
Calorie counting – the numbers game you refer to – can work, but it can only take you but so far, especially if you lived a particularly sedentary lifestyle. The balance of calories in and calories out matters (not to mention macronutrients), and you don’t entirely need exercise to tip the scales in your favor, but you’ll most certainly want it.
As I’ve written before, your metabolism is a little bit more than simply how many calories you can burn in a given day. Metabolism is literally the total energy we use fueling all of our body’s individual processes over the course of the day. It’s not just how many calories you burn walking, but how many calories you burn breathing. How many calories you burn menstruating. How many calories you burn digesting something. Every process your body requires in order to keep you running optimally throughout the day, is a process that requires calories to function.
Lots of people, when they cut calories, they cut too many. A person who’s 250lbs shouldn’t be on a 1200 calorie diet, but that’s often what they’ll do because they hear that “1200” number so often, and they’ll think this is the magic figure.
Except, when you cut too many calories at once, things start going haywire. Cutting too much – with regard to your individual height, weight, and body fat percentage – in the form of carbohydrates (any and all carbohydrates) results in an inability to think, speak, remain awake, complete intellectual tasks, or control your mood. Cutting too much in the form of dietary fat results in a loss of hair, a reduction in the quality of your skin, and diminishing quality of your nails. Cutting too many calories in the form of protein – and this is important – results in the loss of muscle.
Actually, when you cut too many calories of any kind for too long, your body eats away at muscle first as a means of surviving – muscle burns the most amount of calories, sure, but what that also means is that muscle increases your appetite. If your body believes it’s in a state of famine, then muscle is a liability – you can’t have this thing around that eats up all the calories, when there are more important things to be managed, like your reproductive organs or your digestive tract or your functioning brain.
As I’ve shared before, muscle is an integral component of a weight loss plan, and it is your ace in the hole when it comes to weight maintenance. The numbers on this are still being debated, but consider the numbers I’m giving you here as an example: whereas you might burn 2 calories per pound of fat that you carry per hour, you burn 6 calories for every pound of muscle that you carry. Per hour. Muscle greatly increases your metabolism, even as you lose body fat.
Lots of people go on calorie cutting sprees that result in large amounts of weight loss, but that weight loss is never quantified. If you’re incorporating large amounts of veggies in your diet for the first time, you’re likely to lose a lot of weight because you’re finally going number 2 regularly (not to be crass, but being honest.) You’re likely to lose a lot of water weight, because a reduction in calories also usually means a reduction in salt and other things that cause acidity in the body that result in bloat. And, you’re likely to lose that muscle.
Your metabolism is affected by your weight. The more you weigh, the higher your metabolism. The more you lose, the more your metabolism shrinks. When you go on a calorie cutting diet, you’re already lowering your metabolism because of the fat loss, but when the muscle is gone, too? Your metabolism decreases rapidly.
What does this mean? Instead of your metabolism being somewhere around a 1900 when you’ve achieved your goal weight, it could be somewhere around a 1300, instead. Same weight, different body composition – the muscle makes the difference. If you’re 5’4 and you reach 130lbs at a 22% body fat, your metabolism will be far higher than the woman who’s 5’4″ and 130lbs with a 39% body fat.
It’s really hard to have a pleasurable social life on 1300 calories a day for many people. You have to decide for yourself if you’re one of those people.
All of this is based on whether or not you can consistently manage a calorie-cutting-only diet for that long. The reality is, many people can’t. Many people’s habits will interfere with their ability to maintain for that long. Many people have permanent components of their lifestyles that literally promote weight gain, or have work spaces that are hostile to healthy eating, or work lives that require a lot of wining and dining, or, or, or…. it’s difficult – extremely difficult – without a regular regimen of activity.
I’m not a fan of “marathon training” as a form of weight loss. You’re pushing your body to its ultimate limits – that isn’t a time to be thinking about caloric deficits. Too much of a caloric deficit in training for a marathon could result in injury. You need to be eating all the calories and not be shy about it. That being said, though running consistently is easily one of the cheapest and easiest methods of weight management there ever was, I still don’t think it’s right for everyone. Running is hard – it requires a lot of you. It’s frustrating. It’s hard on the joints for some of us. It’s not always safe for all of us. It’s a lot of things that turn people off.
It’s also not the only way to get it done.
Joining a gym can be one of the best things a newly-active person can do for their social lives. If the challenge is incorporating activity in a lifestyle full of people who aren’t active, it’s just time to make more active friends. Making friends who are just as fitness-focused as you are or hope to be can be invaluable to your journey. You’ll have people in your life who aren’t squatting over every positive effort you put forth.
Taking classes – spin, Zumba, kickboxing, whatever – can take an hour out of your day, teach you something you never knew before, and get you very fit in a very small amount of time. At-home high intensity interval training workouts can get you exactly what you need to maintain the muscle you have, burn a few extra calories, and can get you the physique you’re most likely after. Not only that, but you’ll be preserving your metabolism as best as you can while on a metabolic decline, you’ll be improving your quality of life, and also most likely be improving your confidence levels in a new way in yourself. Nothing can beat that, truly.
Is it possible to just do this thing with calorie modification alone? Yes. Is it a path that I would recommend someone take? No. For all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, sure, but also? Weight maintenance is about a shift in how you live – ensuring that the way you live accommodates the way you care for your body, be it nutritionally or physically, and maintaining healthy living as a priority. Can you do that when you so adamantly deny yourself a key component of it all for so long? I’m inclined to think it’s especially rare.
All in all, I’d discourage you from embracing the parts of healthy living that turn you off – the marathons, the funny looking running shoes, the kale – and find a way to make it fit into your life and make it a part of you. Keep an open mind, and try a little bit of everything…including that kale. I’ve got a recipe that might possibly make you a believer!
This is a wonderful article. While a very wise man said, “You can’t out-train a bad diet,” it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t train AT ALL. What you say about muscle burning more calories than fat is spot on, & I’ve also heard that muscle burns more calories after a workout than fat does (meaning you’re burning more calories sitting on your duff after a good gym session than you would be … well… just sitting on your duff!)
On an anecdotal note, I’m not a fan of running. My opinion is: If no one is chasing me, I ain’t running. But, I love using the elliptical, gliding through a workout with the greatest of ease. Well, OK, not the GREATEST of ease, but less stress on my joints & sore muscles.
I’m also not a huge fan of weight machines. I much prefer free weights & body weight exercises to a machine, which, I think, does some of the work for more & which takes a lot of the functional, everyday movements possible away from the exercise. I think that creates strength that can only be utilized on that specific machine, because I’m not balancing, holding the weight, moving my muscles in a way that I would normally. Only the machine can recreate the experience. Real life activity just doesn’t use the muscles in the same exact way. (I would LOVE to see your opinions on the matter of free weights/body weight vs. machines, if you haven’t already posted on it; if you have, please share a link!)
Personally, I had NO IDEA how many calories I burned on an average day, nor any ballpark figure, before I got my Fitbit (little gadget uses my height, weight, heart rate, steps, activity, etc. to give me an idea, even though it’s, clearly, not perfect). I’m extrrrrrrrrrrrrrremely sedentary (disabled atm), so I only burn about 1200 calories on the daily if I don’t get some sort of exercise or extended physical activity. But, in a lot of ways, my daily activities mimic someone who has a desk job, I think.
So, in order for me to lose weight, just by nutrition alone, at a snail’s pace of approximately 0.5 pounds per week, I would have to eat 500 calories FEWER than I exert. At a super sedentary rate of 1200 calories burned per day, I would need to eat 700 calories or fewer. I’ve done that before when I was focused on appearance-based results only, at the expense of my health. Not only was it straight up H*ll, but, once I stopped eating such a deficit, I gained every ounce back… plus 20 pounds.
While eating healthy is the golden key to weight loss (& maintenance… & existing…), it can’t be the only steps a person takes, especially if that person is sedentary in day-to-day life. The weight loss won’t be as healthy, as sustainable, or as pleasant. YES, exercise CAN be pleasant! I think the most important part of exercising, besides consistency, is finding an activity a person enjoys… otherwise, it’s just a different kind of H*ll.
Much <3 to BGGTW for this amazing article. As always, it is just spot on.
My personal experience backs up what you just discussed, Erica!
My first steps toward an active lifestyle were itty-bitty sized steps: I happened to find a yoga DVD at the library that offered 20 minute practices. I had never done yoga before, and 20 minutes seemed like an okay length. Doing yoga made me pay attention to my body in a way I couldn’t have otherwise (isn’t this true of all the exercises we try for the first time though?) So much so that, a year later, joining the local YMCA, eating oatmeal for breakfast, and cooking at home started to seem like fun ideas to try. YMCA started with treadmills and weights, cookbooks helped managed my budget — but the more ideas I tried and the more connections I made, the more interesting things I found out about and wanted to try. Five years later, I’ve tried detoxes and celebrity programs and kickboxing and learned a lot about what my body can and cannot do. But it never felt hard, probably because each new area or connection that I explored led naturally to the next world. I think it helped that I was not shy about leaving behind things my body did not like (I loved Tracy Anderson’s daily 40 minute cardio workout, but could not survive the 1200 calorie diet her program required).
I think the best part about exploring active lifestyle is giving yourself chance (credit?) to explore a whole new side of yourself and being open to a whole different kind of pleasures and connections and even relationships. I don’t think I ever thought of what I do as being fit — I just remember feeling badass for being able to do 30 minutes of cardio straight for the first time, and pretending to be Chuck Norris in kickboxing class, and feeling alert for the first time because I brought a salad for lunch instead of going out with the girls. It felt like I was waking up!
I have maintained a 100+ lbs loss for over two years and adding muscle was a game changer for me. Look better, eat more, feel badass with more muscle. I also run and it is by far the most effective way to rapidly slim down for me. That said, those benefits aren’t why I embrace an active lifestyle. I do it for wellness, because I feel better, it lifts my mood and self esteem and because it is no longer about losing weight as much as it is being healthy. Now being active is self-perpetuating and I do because I can. Find your own fit formula that works for you…marathon training, CrossFit and insane cardio are not the only or even best options (note: those folks get injured a lot). Start slow and explore, with the only goal of doing a lil but more than you did yesterday, last month or last year. Do what you like…walking, dancing, jump rope with the kids…it all helps! Just move and then move a lil more…
Way to go, MeToo!!
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