Sequel to the blog post published on Dec, 13.
Over the last two months, I’ve barely trained because science is on my side. I know I can go through periods of decreased activity without losing muscle or gaining weight. I still make sure I move myself often and despite not having done any calisthenics or weight lifting workouts in the last few weeks, I’ve been walking to and from my clients who live and in the neighbourhood and running as many errands on foot as possible.
For someone who has consistently trained for years, any break from the gym is now deliberate and serves me well in the long term. I feel good, confident and relaxed. But it wasn’t always this way and I know this is an issue a few of my friends and colleagues have also battled with. Believe it or not, but in the past I have cried due to missed workouts and restricted my caloric intake for fear of gaining weight. For someone so blasé about training now, it almost sounds unfathomable?
Let me tell you a story.
Back when I used to teach Les Mills full time (2010-2014), I would do an average of 16 classes a week, consisting of 11 BodyCombat classes, 4 BodyPump and 1 Body Conditioning that was my own freestyle class. I was stick thin with a visible sixpack and my bodyfat was so low that I basically had no bum or boobs. It didn’t bother me at the time because I felt great. I could eat anything I wanted and it wouldn’t “stick”. Sometimes I would eat 100g of cashews without blinking, I consumed a lot of salmon and pasta, lots of high calorie foods just to keep my energy levels up. The truth is that I still wasn’t eating enough calories to keep my energy levels up and ended up very tired a lot of the time and my joints were hurting. I had no idea how much energy I was burning daily, but it was probably between 3000-4000kcal. I remember a test was done on the health of my skin when I was 26 and it came back as 36+. My collagen levels were very low, my face looked gaunt and my skin almost drained of colour. Although I am rushing ahead of my story, I would like to add I am 33 now and my skin is so much healthier than it was then.
Now, when one constantly does this much exercise and suddenly finds themselves in a different environment (ie going on holiday), it can cause a lot of concern and even panic. I call it lack-of-exercise induced anxiety. Because you are used to a certain amount of exercise and a certain diet, the balance is thrown when suddenly your expenditure drops. You don’t know how to adjust because you’ve never kept track of how many calories you burned or consumed. This can create two problems:
- Whatever amount of energy you’re used to consuming on a daily basis becomes the “norm” for you and in the absence of energy expenditure, the only reasonable step to take seems to be to eat less, even if you weren’t eating enough in the first place. This is why tracking one’s calories every now and again can be hugely useful as it will give you a better idea of the energy consumption on your more and less active days. This issue is very common in “cardio bunnies” as I remember they used to be jokingly called, but unfortunately comes with a fair amount of anxiety that can only be subdued with daily exercise sessions. These individuals mainly focus on areas that they think could use a drop in bodyfat. Food intake is often restricted to less than should actually be consumed;
- Now, the opposite: perhaps you were consuming sufficient calories for the amount of energy burned through exercise. However, upon reducing or stopping physical activity, your appetite didn’t automatically adjust. This happens when food intake hasn’t been intuitive but ‘forced’ or almost gluttonous. Depending on how long one’s eating habits have been in place, it will take at least a few weeks of gradual small changes to even begin to change the amount of food one is used to eating. *This issue haunts athletes who have been in sports that are highly taxing on one’s body: rugby, powerlifting, footballers, Olympic athletes, endurance athletes, pro bodybuilding, etc. These individuals focus on looking bigger and being stronger. Food intake has usually been on the excessive side and any energy left over would normally have been worked off in the gym. In the absence of exercise, this can lead to weight gain and depression.
Now, while I was still a group exercise instructor, I was very much the cardio bunny I described earlier. Going on holidays, I would eat a very healthy diet but looking back, it was far too restrictive, especially for someone who is on holiday and would perhaps like to enjoy local cuisine more. During half terms, I would take Silver to kids’ clubs daily so I could have a quick 1 hour workout in the gym. It didn’t even occur to me to take a break for a week or two and I wouldn’t have lasted more than 2 days without exercise.
From 2014 when I injured my knee, I had to give up most classes. It was tough because I had been blessed with classes in some very prestigious places (one of my absolute favourites was the gym in the Vault of the Bank of England). I guess my ego didn’t want to let go of the status this gave me. Also, my heart health and cardiovascular fitness were at their best but my body was broken so I had no choice. Coincidentally, this was my second year in PT (I’ve been a PT for 6 years at this stage) and I was putting a lot more focus on my gym weights sessions. So far, my gym workouts had been sabotaged by the classes I taught and vice versa. If I taught a class in the morning, my body would be achy for my own gym session later. When I trained before, I would struggle in class. So, losing my classes had a huge silver lining: by dropping excessive CV and reducing my general energy expenditure, I was finally able to start performing better in the gym. I was lifting heavier and getting stronger almost weekly and, much to my surprise, I didn’t gain weight or bodyfat. I was gaining lean muscle and getting more defined by the day. My skin was improving, my posterior started to take shape and you can say I got my curves back. So, how did that happen?
Fact: when you have been in a highly restrictive state for so long, you will go into anabolic state when you start training less and eating more (of the healthy stuff, of course – don’t abuse your body’s suddenly increased metabolism by feeding it fast food). With progressive overload and nutritious food, our body can transform in a matter of months, boosting your confidence and the way you see yourself in the mirror.
But, that’s not all. After I had stopped the unnecessary cardio and got into bodybuilding, I was still training every day, sometimes twice a day just for the fun of it. And when you have found your passion in something, why would you take a break from it, correct? I was still taking Silver to kids clubs during half terms just so I wouldn’t have to miss a gym session. Since Silver enjoyed the clubs, I didn’t see anything wrong with it because we both enjoyed getting out of the house. However, in the last two years I have “calmed down” a lot. In June 2017 something suddenly ‘clicked’ when I was on holiday in the Maldives. It was my second or third day there and I had gone to the gym (which wasn’t very big, I feel I should add), I completely lost interest about 10 minutes into my session. Outside the gym was utter paradise that is thousands of miles from home, so rare and beautiful, a place where I likely wouldn’t be able to return in a hurry and I was in the gym? What was I thinking? Just because I didn’t want to miss a day of training and was scared to lose muscle, I was willing to give up precious hours on this gorgeous island? No, thank you. I grabbed my towel and water bottle and left the gym, changed into my bikinis and headed to my lounger to soak up the sun and relax to the max. I had finally come to my senses and realised that being away in a remote location with so many exotic experiences and foods must be enjoyed with no regrets and that “normal service” can resume when I’m back. And, guess what? Miraculously, I didn’t gain tons of weight nor did I lose muscle.
Now, let’s be realistic. Noone is going to reduce their energy expenditure to a minimum overnight, especially even if the thought of it gives you shivers down your spine. It has to be done gradually, paying attention to every change in your body and mindset (or lack of) that happens on the way. I have often discussed this with friends and clients and the best approach is “one at a time”. If you’re used to training daily then start by reducing the amount of exercise you do by leaving out one session for rest. Then, adjust your food intake for that day. You can omit energy dense foods for something as equally satiating but perhaps lower in calories or higher in protein. Don’t forget to include green vegetables. The overall goal here is to feel virtuous rather than anxious about your choices. You control your food intake, your food doesn’t control you.
Carry on adjusting the frequency of your training or the intensity of your sessions until you reach a ‘sweet spot’ that allows you to maintain an optimal body composition with reasonable food intake. Allow yourself to become hungry before you eat and remember to savour the food. Drink water when needed, especially when training as it will boost your performance. Most importantly, take it one day at a time and celebrate every small victory on the way.
Have a great weekend!