Everything I learned about Exercise

You could choose to create all of your calorie gap through diet. But if you burn some calories through increased exercise, you don’t need to restrict your food intake so much. The TDEE calculation (see yesterday’s post) takes that into account.

Chances are that if you’re overweight you’re also unfit. I was. Very. So I thought I might as well try and improve my fitness at the same time. If nothing else, the improvement in mental health that comes from exercise seemed worth having.

Most people starting a weight loss campaign tend to assume that cardiovascular exercise (running, elliptical and cross-trainer machines at the gym) is the best exercise to do. What I discovered is that whilst it is a good way to improve your heart health and burn some calories, it does have some disadvantages. It tends to make you hungry and it’s possible that you’ll eat more to fill yourself up, thus negating the benefits of the exercise (and the prospect of running hard to stay still, weight wise). There is also a danger that your body will burn muscle, not fat. This gives rise to the phenomenon of ‘skinny fat’ where people have severely restricted calories, done lots of cardio and lost all their muscle. Don’t go there - it will be hard work to get your muscle back.

The alternative is to work on building strength. You might do traditional weight training or perhaps some bodyweight exercise. There are lots of other strength training approaches but they all follow this principle: putting your muscles under stress by making them do work forces the body to repair and grow those muscles. To do this takes energy so as well as the calories burned from actually exercising, your body will require calories to repair and grow. You can supplement strength training with some cardiovascular exercise, but you shouldn't be spending hours on a treadmill because every calorie you're expending isn't being used to rebuild your body.

When I started my amazing year as a gym newbie, I did quite a lot of cardio work. After a few weeks I hired a great personal trainer (PT). As well as working to assess and restore my mobility, he taught me strength training and from that point I really made good progress. Whilst I could have used weight machines at the gym, I'm glad he taught me compound movements like squats and deadlifts. These movements mimic the functional movements we make in everyday life so the benefits carry into your daily routine.

If I was starting again, I’d have jumped straight into strength training. As well as losing weight, you will get the satisfaction of becoming stronger. As you age, this is very important. And no, you won’t grow huge (unless you want to).

I see the money I spent on personal training as an insurance policy as much as an investment. I knew that if I learned how to work safely and efficiently I would lower my risk of injury. And I knew that if I got injured I’d probably give up. I didn't get injured. I didn't give up. And now I'm equipped to strength train for life.

You don’t have to hire a PT on your own. A number of PTs run group classes, which divides their hourly rate by 2 or 4. Sure, you won’t get quite as much personalised attention, but you will learn how to do things properly. And you can always have the occasional one to one session.

If you already know how to use weights, you could simply follow a programme from a book or an online forum but be sure to check your 'form' regularly.

Note that you don't necessarily need to join a gym. Some types of strength training (e.g. TRX) can be done at home. TRX looks deceptively simple, but whilst it won't be the same as lifting metal you will improve your strength significantly. Using apps like Trube you can find qualified and screened personal trainers who will come to your home, office or hotel.

I joined a gym and it turned out to be a good decision for me. As well as being very well appointed, it was directly on my way to and from work, and therefore difficult to avoid. If you have to go out of the way to get to the gym, you probably won't. If you're thinking of joining a gym, try several out before signing up for a contract and check that they are well equipped and convenient.

The same goes for PTs - try a few out and find one that's right for you. Make sure your PT really understands and buys in to your goal. If they're not asking you how you're progressing towards your goal, they're not interested in your outcome, so find another.

During the last 12 weeks of my amazing year I worked with an online PT, Olly Foster. He specialises in body transformation, having been a cover model for Men's Health magazine. Because I had learned how to lift weights safely and effectively, he was able to give me a customised eating and training plan, and he monitored progress very closely by having me send measurements and photos every 2 weeks. I had already made great progress but this was an ambitious way to finish the year. In September I weighed 77kg, with a body fat of about 17%. By mid December (week 12), I weighed just under 70kg with a body fat of just under 10%. Incredible. There are a number of PTs working in this space. Be sure to do your research and get references (don’t just rely on the testimonials on their web site).

 Needless to say, if you have any medical condition that might be affected by, or affect exercise then see your doctor first. If you're using a gym and/or a PT they will ask you to complete a health questionnaire as a safeguard. 

This probably doesn't mean you can't exercise (sorry!) but does mean you need to be careful.

To summarise: limit your cardio, find a form of strength training that works for you, get someone to show you how to do it safely, and work hard. The rewards will be considerable.