Photo: Instagram / jmalacoff
This story originally appeared on Shape.com by Julia Malacoff.
At the end of the holiday season, people start thinking about their health and fitness goals for the following year. But many people give up on their goals before the first month of the year is even over. That's why I recently decided to share my own transformation—something that took me way out of my comfort zone.
April 2017 - today In the past, I probably wouldn’t have posted something like this. But working on telling the stories of other people’s transformations for @precisionnutrition over the past couple of weeks has made me turn inward. Back in April 2017, even though I’d been working in the fitness industry as a writer and editor for years, I felt like I was missing some secret that would give me my “best body ever.” Here’s what I didn’t know: THERE IS NO SECRET. The stuff you have to do to change your body is hard. It requires reflection, honesty, and the courage to confront the uncomfortable feelings that come along with change. My body didn’t change in 12 weeks. The body composition changes I’ve experienced are the result of many small changes I made over time. Here are the three biggest things I learned along the way: •When it comes to workouts, more is not always better. I used to do intense HIIT workouts 5-6 days a week. Then I met @sterkher, and she put a stop to that. These days, I train by lifting heavy 3/4 days a week. No burpees required (unless you like that kind of thing.) If changing your body composition is your goal, you have to look at your diet. Changing your diet is not easy. For me, it brought up all kinds of emotions about food that I wasn’t expecting. I have counted macros for almost 2 years (most recently with the guidance of the amazing @soheefit). Macros aren’t a great fit for everyone, but they worked well for me. In 2019, my goal is to transition to mindful/intuitive eating. Perfection is the enemy of progress. I still drink alcohol in moderation. I still eat foods that are not “clean.” I still sometimes overeat. The key for me was learning to be okay with “good enough” instead of trying to be perfect. This experience was a big part of the reason I decided to do @miloeducation and become a trainer myself. We’ve all heard that you can love your body and want to change it at the same time, but how to actually get yourself into that headspace? Unclear. But every time I work with a client, that’s my number one goal for them: Love your body and all the cool stuff it can do first; the rest will come. #transformation
I was okay with my body, and I loved working out. But I felt like I should be leaner for how much work I was putting in at the gym. Because of my job as a writer and editor in the health and fitness industry, I knew a lot about various diets and exercise protocols that were *supposed* to help me get the body I wanted, but for some reason, I couldn't make it happen.
On the right, 20 months later, my mindset, eating habits, and workout schedule are completely different. I still work as a writer and editor, but I'm now also a certified personal trainer. I finally have the body I wanted, and the best part? I'm confident that I can maintain it.
That said, it took a lot of work to get where I am now. Here's what I learned over those 20 months, plus how I actually changed my body after years of trying and failing.
This is probably what people least want to hear, but it's also the truest. I truly thought there was some simple secret to getting my best body ever that I was missing out on.
I tried going dairy-free. I got hard-core into CrossFit. I did dance cardio every day for three months. I considered doing Whole30. I tried well-researched supplements like fish oil, creatine, and magnesium.
There's nothing wrong with any of these things. They all probably made me healthier and maybe even fitter. But the aesthetic results I wanted? They just weren't happening.
That's because I was missing out on the big picture. Making one big change isn't enough.
There was no single thing that helped me change my body. Instead, it was the combination of many small diet, fitness, and lifestyle changes I made.
In my "before" picture, I was working out five to six times per week. What I didn't realize was that for my body and goals, this was totally unnecessary and might have actually been making it harder for me to make progress. (Related: How to Work Out Less and Get Better Results)
Working out so frequently made me feel like I was burning tons of calories (overestimating how many calories you burn through exercise is a common phenomenon), and then I'd end up overeating thanks to the appetite I'd worked up. While this isn't the case for everyone, anecdotally, many people find that cardio workouts increase hunger, which can make it harder to stick to nutrition goals—and that was definitely my experience.
Plus, working out very intensely without enough rest can lead to overtraining, which can make it harder to lose weight. Looking back, I have a sneaking suspicion that the fatigue and difficulty losing weight I was experiencing a couple of years ago was due in part to overtraining.
Now, I work out a maximum of three to four days per week. Allowing myself to take plenty of rest in between workouts means I work harder during the time I do spend in the gym. (Related: I Started Exercising Less and Now I'm Fitter Than Ever)
I also started to enjoy my workouts more when hitting the gym didn't feel like a daily chore that needed to be completed. Instead, it became a chance to try to increase the weights I was using each session. That was key because progressive overload can help you see results much faster.
HIIT is a well-researched method of exercise. The benefits are plenty. It's time-efficient, burns loads of calories, and provides a serious endorphin boost.
But you know what else is really well-researched? Strength training. About a year and a half ago, I started working with a new trainer. I explained to her I was lifting heavy about two days a week and ALSO doing HIIT about four days a week.
Her advice shocked me: Less HIIT, more weightlifting. Her rationale was simple: It's just not necessary. (Related: 11 Major Health and Fitness Benefits of Lifting Weights)
If my goal was to reshape my body and lose weight, lifting weights was the most efficient route. Why? When you're eating in a caloric deficit, lifting weights helps you retain (and sometimes even build) muscle mass while losing fat. (This is also known as body recomposition.)
Why would you want to gain muscle when you're trying to lose weight? Not only does gaining muscle mass help you burn more calories at rest, but it also gives your body shape and definition. In the end, that's what many women are really after—whether they know it or not—not just losing fat, but replacing it with shapely muscle.
So, my coach encouraged me to continue doing HIIT one or two times per week if I enjoyed it, but after a few months, I realized that I actually didn't like it that much. I didn't need to have a face dripping with sweat to feel like I got a great workout. Instead, milestones like getting my first chin-up (and eventually going on to bang out sets of five), my first 200-pound trap bar deadlift, and my first double bodyweight hip thrust became way more satisfying.
Plus, I was getting a pretty intense heart rate boost from lifting heavy weights. In between sets, my heart rate would come back down, and then I'd start the next set and spike it again. I realized I was basically doing HIIT anyway, so I said goodbye to burpees and squat jumps and have never looked back.
For years, I avoided the difficult, research-backed truth that exercise alone was not going to get me where I wanted to be. I figured, if I'm CrossFitting five times a week, I can eat whatever I want, right? Erm, wrong
In order to lose weight, you need to be in a caloric deficit. In other words, eating less than you're burning. While those intense HIIT workouts were burning plenty of calories, I was loading them right back up (and then some) with those four glasses of wine, cheese boards, and late-night pizza orders. Once I started tracking my meals and controlling my calorie intake (I used macros, but there are plenty of other ways to control calorie intake), I started seeing the results I was after. (Related: Your Complete Guide to the "IIFYM" or Macro Diet)
Now, there was a reason I resisted changing my diet. I like eating—a lot. And I still do.
Overeating had never really been a problem for me until I got my first full-time job after college. I knew I was incredibly lucky to be employed in my dream industry, but I was working very long days and was extremely stressed due to a high-pressure environment and the knowledge that if I failed at my job, there were hundreds of other qualified candidates who would gladly take my place.
At the end of the workday, all I wanted to do was treat myself. And most often, that came in the form of food. Within a year of graduating from college, I'd packed on a solid 10 pounds. Over the next six or seven years, I'd added another 15 to my frame. Of course, some of that was muscle from my long-standing exercise habit, but I knew some of it was body fat, too.
Transitioning to dialing in my nutrition was not easy. It became very clear that I was using food for more than just nourishment and enjoyment. I was using it to soothe deep-down, uncomfortable feelings. And once I stopped overeating? I had to find other ways of dealing with them.
Exercise is a great outlet, but I also talked to friends and family on the phone, made more time for self-care, and hugged my dog a lot. I also learned how to cook tons of healthy meals, which can be surprisingly therapeutic. Spending time with my food helped me feel more connected to it, while also helping me be more aware of my food intake.
Just because I was cooking healthy doesn't mean I never ate anything fun. Cutting your favorite foods out of your diet will only make you miserable and crave them even more—at least, that was my experience. (The damage and inefficiency of the restrict/binge/restrict/binge eating cycle is also well-documented by research.) Instead, I learned how to eat them in moderation. I know, easier said than done. (Related: Why You Should Give Up Restrictive Dieting Once and for All)
I used to get SO annoyed when I'd see super-fit influencers sharing the unhealthy treats they were eating/drinking. I couldn't help thinking, sure, they can eat that because they were blessed with amazing genes, but if I ate that, I'd never be able to look like they do.
But I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes, everyone has different genes. Some people can eat whatever they like and still maintain their abs. But the majority of fit people who eat pizza, french fries, and nachos every now and then? They're enjoying them in moderation.
What does that mean? Instead of eating the whole thing, they're having however many bites it takes for them to feel satisfied, and then stopping. And they're probably filling up the rest of their day with whole, nutrient-dense foods.
But here's the bottom line: Life is too short to stop baking if you love it or to avoid wine night with your friends. Learning how to have just one cookie at a time, a few pieces of cheese, or two glasses of wine was a game-changer for me.
Let's be real: No 12-week challenge is going to transform your body for the long haul. Sustainable progress takes time. Creating new habits takes time.
This is especially true if you have 15 pounds or less to lose. You probably can't just cut out soda or alcohol and miraculously lose the extra weight you're carrying. The less body fat you have, the harder it becomes to shed it.
That means if you go balls-to-the-wall with your diet and workout routine for three months, yes, you'll see some changes and lose some weight, but you're probably going to be disappointed that you haven't reached your goal in this short amount of time. You might also be disappointed when you gain the weight back because you've returned to your old eating habits.
So how can you make sustainable progress?
This might be a controversial point of view, but I think putting visual changes and progress on the backburner is a highly effective way to enable yourself to actually reach your goals.
By working on my relationship with food through cooking, constantly chasing PRs and movements that had been too hard for me before (hello, plyo push-ups), I took the focus off of weight loss. Yes, I wanted to progress, but I wasn't thinking about my weight (or how I looked) on a daily basis. This also allowed me to lose weight in a sustainable way, slowly losing fat and building muscle, rather than quickly dropping 15 pounds of both.
If you've ever been on a diet, you're familiar with the "I've f*cked up" feeling. You know, that thing that happens when you meant to say "no" to the cupcakes at work and then ended up eating five. This leads to the "f*ck it" mentality, where you figure you already messed up your diet, so you might as well go ham for the rest of the week and start fresh again on Monday.
I used to do this all the time. Starting my "healthy" diet, messing up, starting, and stopping again. What I didn't realize was that I was doing this because I valued perfection too highly. If I couldn't follow my diet perfectly, then what was the point?
In reality, perfection is simply not required. And pressuring yourself to be perfect? It inevitably leads to self-sabotage. By facing diet trip-ups and skipped workouts with self-compassion, I was able to accept myself as not perfect—just doing my best. In doing so, the f*ck it mentality no longer had a place in my brain.
If I had an unplanned cupcake, NBD. It was simply back to my regularly scheduled programming afterward. One cupcake won't ruin your progress. Requiring yourself to be perfect? That will.
You can see in my before picture that I felt awkward taking it. My hips are shifted to the side, and my posture is tentative. But I am *so glad* I have this picture because it illustrates how far I've come both physically and emotionally. On the right, my body looks different, but I'm also standing firm, tall, and confident. (Related: The Best Transformations from 2018 Prove That Weight Loss Isn't Everything)
It's hard to observe changes in your own body over time, and many changes are not reflected on the scale or via girth measurements. It took me 20 months to lose 17 pounds. My progress was slow and sustainable. But if I had been going by scale weight alone, I definitely would have been discouraged.
Photos aren't the be-all and end-all of progress, but as you can see, they can be a very useful tool.
It's easy to think that looking a certain way or seeing a certain number on the scale will change how you feel about yourself. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Back in April 2017, I probably would have given anything to body-morph into what my body looks like today. But these days, I still notice my own flaws. (Related: Why Losing Weight Won't Magically Make You Happy)
If you're not totally happy with your body, it can be difficult to find something you love about it. But I found that focusing on things my body could do was the fastest route to loving what I already had. And that's what enabled me to keep going.
If all else failed, I tried to focus on feeling grateful that I had a healthy body that allowed me to wake up every day, do a tough work out a few times a week, and still get through all my daily tasks without any trouble at all. I reminded myself that for many, this isn't the case.
I'm not saying I have self-esteem and body image completely figured out. I still see photos of myself and think, hmm, that's not a good angle for me. I still occasionally catch myself wishing this part was leaner or that part was fuller. In other words, self-love will probably always be a work in progress for me, and that's okay.
My biggest takeaway? Find something about your body to love, and the rest will come with patience and time.
This article originally appeared on Shape.com