That bathroom scale can be brutal, especially in the beginning of January, right after you’ve thrown caution to the wind and eaten every holiday goodie offered to you out of consideration for your coworkers’ or family members’ feelings. Funny how eating too much and moving too little correlate in such a predictable pattern with such a predictable outcome … feeling fat?
‘Fat’ is a much-vilified term to describe the lumpy, bumpy, misshapen look you may perceive as your true self in the mirror; however, every human body needs fat to facilitate basic physiological functions and in fact every cell membrane is composed of an outer lipid (aka fat) layer to facilitate appropriate fluid exchange. Focusing on eliminating body fat is therefore an inefficient goal for those of you who wish to improve health, move better, and yes, look better in and out of your clothes because it places full blame on merely one variable in the equation that amounts to that number you see on the scale.
While you may have put on some body fat over the holidays, you have also been slowly losing muscle girth over the years beyond puberty when hormones and increasing responsibilities coincide to make it that much harder to maintain the activity level you once enjoyed in your youth. You may also consume more ‘adult’ drinks such as alcohol and caffeinated beverages, which further skews your body composition because these fluids often take the place of good old-fashioned water in your overall daily fluid consumption and can thus lead to dehydration. Dehydration may result in a lighter number on the scale but considering that water is a major component of blood, you are going to be feeling mighty sluggish and unwell in your ‘thinner’ state.
So here’s the plan: use a triumvirate approach to improving body composition, which includes not only reducing body fat but also increasing muscle mass and water intake. These three variables together work together as a team to provide the form and function of the human body and must be equally addressed in your quest to attain optimal health. To do this, take the general guidelines for cardiovascular exercise, resistance exercises and daily water intake and adapt them to what makes sense to you in your life right now. Here are the numbers you’ll need to work with:
Weekly cardiovascular exercise: 30 minutes of moderate exercise such as cycling, walking, running or using the elliptical, 3-5 times a week. Going to the gym is not essential; however, if the dark days and chilly temperatures of winter prevent you from getting out for your daily walk or bike ride, the light and warmth of a gym may be just what you need to get yourself moving.
Weekly resistance exercise: Take ownership of a full-body strength-training routine for each major muscle group, 2-3 days a week on non-consecutive days. See a fitness professional for assistance in putting together a comprehensive routine if you are unsure how to start or re-start your resistance training program, or follow these guidelines: pick 8-10 exercises, starting with largest muscle groups and working your way down to smaller muscle groups. Use low-to-no weight and only commit yourself to one set of each exercise so that you don’t set yourself up for failure. Remember that the idea is to first establish the habit of performing resistance exercise on a regular basis and you are not basing success on how much weight you can push, pull or lift. A sample routine might include squats, lunges, lat pulldown, machine chest press, seated row, dumbbell chest fly, lateral raise, posterior delt fly machine, cable bicep curl and cable tricep pushdown, in that order. Stand up straight and tall and breathe evenly while performing these exercises one time through, moving from one exercise to the next without pause. When you become proficient at this initial routine you will not only feel proud of yourself, you will feel as if you are ready to take on new and exciting challenges.
Daily water consumption: Drink at least 8 cups of fluid per day, a cup or two more or less depending on your gender, height, weight and activity level. This number takes into consideration other beverages, but if you drink caffeinated beverages you’ll need to increase your water intake because caffeine is a diuretic. Generally if you drink enough fluid so that you rarely feel thirsty and produce 5 or more cups of light yellow urine a day you’re on the right track.
Take a look at an athlete like Ashton Eaton, Adrian Peterson or Lolo Jones and you’ll see balanced body composition at its finest. The number on the scale for these individuals matters little as long as they are performing at an elite level; body fat, muscle mass and fluid levels in perfect synchronicity can be measured to a certain degree in numbers, but it’s also in the look and feel of performance. Pick a day in the near future, as soon as possible, and work towards your own balanced body composition through regular cardio exercise, resistance exercise, and adequate water intake. By widening your view of what that number on the scale means you allow yourself the possibility to look and feel like your own unique version of optimal health and vitality.