This is a guest post by Dick Talens, an amateur competitive bodybuilder and the co-founder and CTO of Fitocracy. He once looked like the kid from Up (except much rounder) until he traded in his video game time for gym time. Over the last eight years, he’s spent 1000+ hours reading about nutrition and training so that others don’t have to. He tweets about startups and fitness @DickTalens, or you can find him on Fitocracy with that same handle.
Over the last decade I’ve gone from comically fat (note the homeless guy laughing at me) to amateur competitive bodybuilder. At the same time, I’ve whittled down the hours I spend working out every week from 20+ to less than three, and improved my results.
Because I co-founded a startup, I obsess over the ROI of my time on fitness for myself and my trainees. There’s nothing more painful than seeing people spend hours every week on the treadmill without seeing any change. So how do you remain fit* while working 80+ hours/week at a startup? Here’s what you should know.
*There are many definitions of fitness. I am focusing on losing fat and improving body composition, since this is by far the most-cited fitness goal when people approach me for advice.
1. Cardio sucks for fat loss.
An interesting read from the blog of Dr. John Briffa perfectly summarizes cardio’s effect on fat loss. A 2010 study by Friedenreich et al. sought to find out how much weight people lose by exercising in which 160 women exercised for three hours per week for a year. At the end of the study, their weight loss was compared with a control (non-exercising) group. The exercise group lost 4.4 lbs more than non-exercising group. Not too shabby at first glance, right? However, as I’m sure your inner data geek already spotted, this means that it took 35 hours of exercise to lose each pound.
That’s a horrible return on your time! If you think that this study is an anomaly, these results have been corroborated over and over (and over and over) again. Don’t get me wrong … the health effects of cardio are numerous. Just don’t use cardio to get lean. That is, unless you have a time machine.
2. It’s all about diet.
O.K., so we’ve established that cardio sucks for losing fat. Here’s another story: a professor of nutrition at the University of Kansas went on a “Twinkie diet” For 10 weeks he ate 1,800 calories in pure junk food every day (mmm… Doritos). Guess what happened. He dropped 27 lbs, while improving his body composition and cholesterol.
Let this be one of your most important lessons in fitness–working smarter almost always trumps working harder. You can exercise your tush off for a year and get crappy results, or you can eat junk food intelligently for ten weeks, and achieve phenomenal results.
Professor Junkfood dropped weight, because he consumed less calories than he burned each day. The most important factor in losing fat is this creation of a “caloric deficit,” rather than some magical restriction to “healthy” foods. In fact, I know a well-known fitness blogger that fits Pop Tarts into his diet as frequently as his calories allow and has made amazing progress.
That being said, comprising your diet of mostly natural, unprocessed foods is obviously superior from a health and satiety (i.e. “fullness”) perspective. Everyone also benefits from keeping protein high (at least one gram per every pound of your goal weight), as it boosts your metabolism, keeps you full, and helps you build muscle if you’re weight training.
For many individuals, lowering or eliminating carbohydrate consumption leads to significant fat loss. The less active you are, the less you actually need carbohydrates. Reducing carbs encourages stored fat to be used as fuel, while reducing your caloric consumption.
3. Weight lifting rocks all around.
So what type of exercise yields the best ROI? Weight lifting. Your body composition doesn’t only depend on how much fat you’re carrying, but also on the amount of muscle that you have. Weight lifting also improves “nutrient partitioning,” which essentially means that more calories are steered towards muscle growth and less towards fat storage.
In addition, every pound of muscle burns roughly 10 additional calories per day while you’re sitting on your butt. Let’s say you put on 10 lbs of muscle over your lifetime. That’s 100 extra calories/day or 36,500 calories per year. A pound of fat contains 3,500 calories, so that’s an additional expenditure of 10 lbs of fat per year.
Focus on compound movements such as squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. These work every muscle group, which means you can achieve great results with only 45 minutes in the gym, three times per week. For the best return on your time, check out the beginner’s program “Starting Strength.”
4. Eat more food, less often.
You might have heard that eating smaller, more frequent meals (e.g. six meals per day) “stokes your metabolism.” That’s rubbish. Not only does frequent feeding do nothing to boost your metabolism, it causes people to constantly interrupt their daily lives in order to eat. Instead, eat two or three larger meals per day, and you’ll spend much less time and energy thinking about food. Less time thinking about food means more time being productive, and more time being productive means less time thinking about food. Fewer meals are more satisfying as well.
5. You cannot manage what you don’t measure.
It always surprises me that the same people who compulsively measure metrics on their startups don’t translate this same mentality to fitness. The key to maximizing your ROI in fitness is to keep hitting personal records (PRs) on everything that you do. Hitting new PRs forces your body to adapt and grow stronger, which means that more of your time is spent on progressing your fitness, rather than maintaining it.