So you’ve started your crash diet, and you’re ready to drop those unwanted pounds. But you know there’s still one thing you need to factor in, and honestly, it’s even worse than not eating your favorite junk foods. How can you introduce exercise into your weekly schedule? Why do you even need to? And while we’re on the topic, does it matter what exercises you do?
Welcome back everyone! This week we’re going to delve into one of the four keys to weight loss – exercise. For all of you who read my 68lbs. weight-loss journey, you’ll remember that exercise was a huge part of how I got in shape. Today I’d like to delve into how you can add exercise to your life, and make sure it’s helping you lose weight.
Now before we start, I would like to make a note about my site. Up to now, the Veggie Novelist has been primarily a source of vegetarian recipes. But after seeing the response to my weight loss story, I’ve realized that I have something else to offer. We all want to be healthy. For many of you, it may seem more like a dream than a realistic goal, but you want it. Well I’ve been there, and I managed to push through to become a healthy person. And what I did, I truly believe anyone can do. So moving forward, this site will be dedicated to helping others reach their fitness goals. I’ve learned a lot in the process of getting where I am, and I want to share that with you. And I have more goals to reach, and new things to learn, so what I discover going forward will be here for everyone to read. My recipe section will remain, and there will be new recipes to come. Being vegetarian is part of my identity, so all the food on this site will stay vegetarian. However, moving forward, it will be my focus to share my experience with all the readers out there. I appreciate your support and am happy to hear any suggestions you may have.
So now that that’s covered, let’s talk about exercise. Why do you need to exercise to lose weight? The truth is, you don’t. The key to weight loss is to eat less calories than you burn. We talked about that in our weight loss article, and it’s still just as true today. However, exercise is key for the right kind of weight loss. Confused yet? If you’re losing weight, isn’t that always the right kind of weight loss? Actually, a lot of people loss start dieting and lose both fat and muscle. Of course, losing fat is great. But losing muscle is a problem. After all, muscle burns calories. If you lose it, your body will burn even less than it did before (e.g. you have to eat even less to lose the same amount of weight). Even worse though, losing muscle ruins your ultimate goal. Chances are, you’re not losing weight to look “skinny-fat”. Well, that’s where muscle loss takes you. You may lose all your fat, but you’ll have no muscle either.
Why does the body work this way? It’s really simple. Your body is the ultimate (and heartless) prioritizer. It analyses what you’re using, and what you’re not, and makes decisions accordingly. So if you’re running through fat stores left and right(a.k.a. on a diet), but you have a bunch of muscle you never use, fat becomes more important. After all, you may not like your fat, but to your body, that fat is it’s only defense against starvation.
So how do you protect your valuable muscle while burning fat? It’s simple: change the prioritizer’s priorities. Your body does value fat. However, if in use, it values muscle even more. When you push your muscles, your body becomes concerned. “Will I have to do that again? What if that happens tomorrow?” Suddenly, it has to be ready for the next “attack” on it’s muscles. So what does it do? Rebuild those muscles – bigger and stronger.
How does this correspond with your goals? This is the solution to preserve muscle while losing fat! If you strain your muscles – specifically with weight training – your body will keep those muscles around. Now because of the nature of muscle growth, you shouldn’t expect to gain a lot of muscle while you’re losing weight. However, you can preserve what you have. This will accelerate your weight loss, improve your health, and have you looking good as you drop those pesky pounds of fat.
At this point, you should be convinced of the benefits of exercise. But what kinds of exercise will help you to lose weight? Here are the top exercises. Read through each, and think about how they can work for you. Once you’re done, plan out a workout schedule, and put what you know into action. You won’t regret it!
1. Resistance Training
That’s right, weight-lifting isn’t just the key to muscle-growth, but the key to weight loss. Like we talked about up above, you MUST convince your body that the muscle it has is necessary. And weight-lifting is by far the best way to do that. But that’s not all. Say you work out one hour a day(which is impressive), you still have twenty-three other hours where you’re not doing anything. Wouldn’t it be great if you could burn calories while just going through your daily life? Well weight lifting does exactly that! It increases your “resting metabolic rate”. That’s a big word that basically means “how many calories you burn when you’re not doing anything”. So if you lift weights, you don’t just burn calories while you’re working out – you burn calories after you’re done!
Why would your body keep burning calories once you stop exercising? Simply, because your body is in the repair process. You’ve damaged the muscles with your workout, and they need fixed for the next weight training session. If this means using more calories to fix them, so be it! Amazingly, this process could last 24-48 hours, or more! Weight lifting pays huge dividends in weight loss!
What exercises should you do? There are innumerable resistance-training exercises you could do. With that said, they are not all created equal. By far, whole body exercises get you the most bang for your buck in weight lifting. These include: squats, deadlifts, benching, and the like. Basically, if it uses a lot of muscle groups at once, it’s a good exercise to incorporate. After all, your goal is to convince your body that your muscles are necesary. If you work more muscles at a time, you have less risk of missing one. Of course, never risk hurting yourself. If you’re especially out of shape, or have and old injury or health condition, you may want to choose less strenuous lifts, or resistance-training without weights (e.g. sit-ups). Full body exercises are great, but they usually involve doing the heaviest weights you can. Don’t hurt yourself just for one exercise.
After incorporating whole body exercises, you can still add some additional exercises. The goal is to make sure all your main muscle groups are getting attention each week. So make sure your routine covers: Arms, Core, Back, and Legs. Perhaps for arms, you’ll incorporate bicep curls. For core, crunches. Just make sure all the main muscle groups are getting attention. With all your exercises, aim for a weight that you can do for 8-15 reps(perform 8-15 times), for 3 sets(each group of reps. For each set, you generally lower or raise the weight). However, on whole body exercises, I suggest trying to hit your highest weight(called a 1RM[rep max]). So if you’re benching, see what the highest weight is you can bench one time. This will give you the mental satisfaction of seeing improvement(and lifting heavier weights), and it will put greater strain on your muscles.
Have I lost you yet? If you’re like me, a lot of this vocabulary seems pretty foreign. Perhaps your saying, “I think I know what the bicep curl thing is from this one movie, but what the heck is a deadlift?” And if so, that’s ok. I had to learn what all these exercises were too. And that’s one of the fun parts of getting in shape – learning. All you have to do is google one of these exercises, and you’ll find plenty of helpful videos to explain how they work. Soon, you’ll start to see the method behind it all. Lifting is just about targeting the muscle(s) you want to exercise. When you know the name of that muscle, and know which exercise works it, you can now make that muscle stronger. It may not seem that important, but just wait until you try it. After a couple months of lifting, you’ll be suprised how much easier it is to move that couch/tv/mid-sized sedan(well, maybe not the sedan;) ). Just keep at it, and soon enough all those weird buff guys contorting their bodies will make sense.
How often should you lift? Personally, I suggest three times a week. Because you’re on a diet, your body will need more time to recover. Anything more than three days a week could make it difficult for you to heal properly from the strain of lifting. One or two days will still get you some benefits, but it may not put the necessary strain on your muscles to convince your body they’re indespensible.
Finally, how to lift properly. This is one of those things that won’t matter to you now, but will later. You’re just starting, so any lifting is good lifting. However, that’s not really the case. When lifting, you always need to have proper form. This makes sure you’re targeting the right muscle, and keeps you safe. Now on machines, it’s harder to mess up your form. When dealing with free weights(like bicep curls), it’s very easy. Bad form puts strain on the wrong muscles. Straining the wrong muscles stunts progress(because you’re using the wrong muscle), and it makes it very likely you’ll get hurt(which is basically the worst thing you can do).
The second key to lifting properly is intensity. Granted, you’re out of shape. You can’t do what everyone else does. But you can do your best! Push yourself! Don’t be embarrassed to pant, or sweat, or grunt. If you’re not panting, and not sweating, you’re probably doing something wrong. This was a mistake I made when I first started lifting, and I want you to avoid it. You only have so much time at the gym. Milk every ounce of gain out of those minutes. If you are lifting, lift as hard as you can. Don’t rest for minutes on end. Keep your heart rate up. Do not lift half-heartedly, unless you want half-hearted results. Never forget, “pain = gain”. Do not injure yourself. Don’t ignore your body. However, remember that weight lifting is muscle injury. If it doesn’t strain you to do 10 squats, you’re not pushing yourself with high enough weights. If your arm isn’t saying “I can’t curl a single time more”, then you need to keep going. Focus, and push yourself. The rewards won’t just be physical, but they’ll spill over into every part of your life.
Cardio doesn’t give you the same benefits as weight lifting. It won’t make you look like the Rock, for one. However, it is an integral part of overall fitness. Plus, it has tons of upside for anyone trying to lose weight. Cardio does a lot of good for the vascular system of the body. It’s great for heart health, which is a big concern for anyone who’s overweight. And like weight-lifting, cardio can also raise your resting metabolic rate (especially HIIT; see number 3).
What type of cardio should you do? In large part, this comes down to personal preference and limitations. Running, biking, jogging, swimming, stair-stepping, and even walking are all great cardio options. What you choose depends on you. If you need a low-impact exercise, biking or swimming may be ideal for you. If you’re especially out of shape, starting out with a long walk may be the way to go. The key is to choose something that challenges you. If your breathing increases and your sweat starts dripping, then you’ve found a good exercise.
How often should you perform cardio? That depends on your time, goals, bodytype, and other related factors. During the bulk of my weight-loss journey, I performed cardio six days a week . Generally, I would suggest no less than three, both because of the benefits to your health, and the amount of calories burned. But this will vary person to person. If you have a family and work full-time, three days a week may be a major accomplishment. If you have a lot of free time, six days a week may be pretty manageable. What’s important is that you choose a schedule you can follow, while at the same time challenging your body.
How long your cardio lasts also depends on you. Suggestions range anywhere from 15-60 minutes. But for someone who doesn’t exercise, an hour of cardio is pretty intimidating. Actually, even though I can now call myself “someone who does exercise”, I don’t do an hour of cardio at a time. It’s simply not realistic for me. Instead, I figure out where cardio becomes intense for me, and work from there. Do the same thing. Start small, but make sure it’s challenging. Set challenging but realistic goals (like distance run, calories burned, etc.).
Be Intense! That leads to our next point – make sure your cardio is challenging. There is nothing worse than wasting a workout session. Have you ever gone to the gym and seen someone talking on their phone, or even reading a book(for real), while on the treadmill? Well, I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say they WEREN’T challenging their body. Just simple logic: If you want to be in better shape than you are now, and your body(in the shape it is in now) feels comfortable doing an exercise, you are not getting anything out of that exercise that will help you be in better shape. Our body improves when we give it a reason to improve. If you can talk while doing cardio, let alone read, then you’re probably not giving your body a reason to improve.
With cardio, some experts suggest doing an exercise that puts your heart rate at 50-75% of maximum to maximize benefits (Figuring out max heart rate is simple. Take the number 220, subtract your age, and the result is your max heart rate.). Although your exact heart rate is really not critical, this does give a good guideline for intensity. If your heart rate is 50-75% max, you’re not taking it easy on your body. And in turn, you’re burning more calories and strengthening your cardiovascular system. Don’t worry about monitoring your heart rate(although if you can, go for it!). Instead, make sure your intensity is up. That’s the key to any successful workout.
3. HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training)
Pronounced “hit”, HIIT is a cardio exercise with special benefits. As the name implies, HIIT is intense, and it’s done in intervals. Effective with most types of cardio, it’s not so much an exercise as a way of performing exercise. Basically, HIIT means you go all out for short bursts. So if you’re running, you go full speed for thirty seconds and the rest/slow down for thrity seconds(or longer, if necessary). Swimming- same thing. Do your best Michael Phelps then float in a lazy river. HIIT aims for a target heart rate of 75-90% max (Just a couple notes: One, don’t go higher. Hitting your max heart rate could be dangerous. Two, if you have heart problems, talk to your doctor before performing any exercise, especially high-intensity exercises). To rephrase that simply, it means you’re going as fast as you can.
How long should your intervals be? Really, it will vary. The key is that you are going all-out. Don’t go so long that you slow down to a more typical speed. The same thing applies for rest. You may need more rest, especially if you’re overweight. But don’t rest so long that your heart rate returns to normal. Keep your heart rate up, and you’ll get better results from the exercise(you don’t need a heart rate monitor for this. Just ask yourself, “is my heart still beating fast?”).
How many intervals should you do? Again, it varies. I generally do 10. Some people may be able to do more. Some may do less. The key is that you push yourself, but when you’ve exhausted your energy supplies and have “nothing left in the tank”, call it and be satisfied with your results.
Of course, we still need to cover why intervals are so valuable. Simply put, they give all the benefits of cardio, and burn a lot of calories in a short time. But they also carry many of the benefits of weight-lifting. Studies have shown that intervals can raise your resting metabolic rate for a day or two after the exercise! One important note with intervals: don’t do them every day. Just like with weight lifting, your body needs time to recover. My personal approach is to do intervals on my non-lifting day, and regular cardio on my lifting days.
So those are our three key exercises to lose weight! Exercise is a key to weight loss. And really, it should be apart of everyone’s life. We all want to be healthy and feel good. Exercise produces that euphoric feel, makes us stronger, and lowers our risk of many diseases. Now that you have the keys to a successful exercise routine, it’s time to put them into action. And as always, keep learning! I’ll do my best to help you along the way. If you would like to know when a new article is published, sign up for the Veggie Novelist newsletter right here.
Remember, workouts get easier with time. And when you understand what your workout accomplishes, you become “zero-ed in” at the gym. But even if you feel reluctant to work out, remember your ultimate goal. Nothing worth having is easy to get. But fitness is worth having! And if you work – really work at it – you will succeed. I assure you, you’ll never regret it!