So you’re doing all the right things: you’re eating well and you’re exercising regularly … but you’ve hit a plateau. You’ve reached the point where you can’t budge any more weight, but there is weight to be budged.
What to do?
Quick note: This is where I could tell you I have an Exercise and Sports Science degree, worked as a Health and Fitness instructor for three years and was a competitive athlete for 10 years. But none of those things really matter. What follows here is what I’ve learned from experimenting with my own body for many years and it’s not so much intended to be ‘how to’ advice as it is ‘Here’s what worked for me. If you’re a bit stuck and frustrated, it might work for you too’.
First things first
Are you really eating ‘well’? Because if there is one thing I know for sure, it’s this:
We can’t out-exercise bad nutrition.
As mentioned above, I was a triathlete for 10 years. And for pretty much that entire time, I carried 2kg more than was optimal for me. 2kg is not much in everyday life, but it’s a lot when you’re trying to get off a bike and run fast. My friends will tell you that I was forever trying to lose those ‘last 2kg’. This shouldn’t have been hard given I was training 15-20 hours a week, but what I thought was a healthy diet back then actually wasn’t.
A healthy diet is one where you:
- Eat real food,
- Not too much,
- Mostly plants.
I ticked none of those three boxes. I was eating mostly processed food, a huge amount of carbohydrates in the form of bread, cereal and pasta (ie. not a lot of veggies in there) … and far too much in general. (I was eating the same amount as my 6″6′ boyfriend who was playing State League basketball.)
I wish I knew then what I know about nutrition now.
These days this is what my exercise for a week looks like: two CrossFit sessions (45 mins) and five easy runs or walks of around 30-45 minutes. That might seem like a lot, but compared to what I used to do, it’s nothing. Five hours of training a week compared to 15.
Yet, these days, even after having two kids, my weight is 1kg less than it was for the bulk of my triathlon days.
What’s the main difference between now and my triathlon days?
- These days none of my food comes out of a packet.
- I don’t eat cereal any more because, other than oatmeal, every cereal on the market has added sugar (no, not even Weetbix).
- All of my meals involve mostly vegetables, a bit of protein, and healthy fats (nuts, avocado, olive/coconut oil, fatty fish). The fat and protein are essential for feeling full (if you don’t feel full … you keep eating).
- I get my carbohydrates from root vegetables (potato, sweet potato, pumpkin etc) and rice. (I’m not saying everyone should stop eating pasta and bread … but I personally find it much easier to control my weight when I’m not eating bread and pasta.)
What helped me changed my diet?
The I Quit Sugar (IQS) program was the main one. The program shouldn’t even be called I Quit Sugar. It should be called ‘I Quit Eating Processed Foods and Learned How to Make and Eat Real Food That’s Close to the Source’. IQS goes for eight weeks and does a few things:
- It gets you eating a whole lot more veggies.
- It hugely reduces the amount of sweetness you need food to have in order for it to taste ‘good’.
- It gets you back in the kitchen making your own food from scratch.
For the record, IQS isn’t about getting everyone to eat zero sugar. The program does remove all sugar (processed and natural) from your diet in a gradual fashion, but it then re-introduces things like fruit once your reliance on sugar is removed.
The other program that hugely helped me change my diet was Highway to Health (H2H) which was created by Kirsten and Match Murphy who run my CrossFit gym. Highway to Health borrows from Paleo, Whole 30 and IQS and it’s what got me off pasta and bread – two things that tend to make me feel heavy and bloated. H2H goes for 21 days and is less extreme than Whole 30 (which involves going cold turkey on everything: sugar, grains, dairy, legumes for a month). I do H2H whenever my diet has fallen apart a bit and I need to hit the reset button.
Thanks to what I’ve learned from IQS and H2H, these days I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I can/can’t eat or what I should/shouldn’t eat. If I want to eat a piece of cake – I eat it. If I want to eat bread, I eat it. It’s the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time I eat heaps of veggies, good fats and a good amount of protein (via eggs and meat). Which means I don’t spend a lot of time agonising about the less nutritious stuff I’m eating the other 20% of the time.
The key to success with things like IQS/Highway to Health/Whole 30/Paleo is to not approach them as ‘going on a diet’. The key is to approach them as educational programs for changing the way you eat for the rest of your life. If you’re going to do them as a diet then here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to lose the weight you want to … and then you’re going to put it straight back on when you return to your normal way of eating. #headdesk
Ok – so now that we have diet under control, it’s time to talk exercise.
When it comes to exercise, our bodies adapt to physical loads very quickly. That means if you’ve been walking for half an hour every day, continuing to do that will help you maintain weight, but it won’t help you lose weight. Particularly the ‘last 2kg’ kind of weight. You have to change things up.
- If you’ve been walking for 30 minutes every day, walk for 45-60 minutes. Or change the terrain – find a hill or some stairs and walk up and down those.
- If you’ve been walking for 60 minutes a day and your body can handle it, try running. You don’t have to suddenly go out and run for 30 minutes. Start dropping 1 minute runs into your daily walks. ie walk for 4 minutes, run for 1 minute. Repeat. As you get fitter, make the run intervals longer.
- If, like me, you’re a runner and you’ve been going for 30 minute jogs five times a week, either increase the distance, find some hills or include some higher intensity periods in there. ie jog for 4 minutes, sprint for 30 seconds. Repeat.
- If you’ve achieved all the weight loss you can with the amount of running/walking you’ve got time to do (for example I don’t have time to run 80km a week at the moment), then you need to include some strength training in there. The beauty of strength training is that it builds lean muscle which boosts your metabolism at rest. Everyone can quickly and easily get some simple strength training into their day with some tabata workouts.
What’s a tabata?
One ‘tabata’ is 8 x (20 secs hard, 10 secs easy). That’s four minutes of hard work. At the end of that four minutes you’ll be breathing nice and hard. The beauty of tabata is that you’re doing the exercises at your hard, not someone else’s. If you’ve not been doing much (or any) exercise, choose your tabata exercise carefully. (ie Don’t do a running tabata if you’ve not run in 20 years).
Sample tabata for beginners:
- Squat up and down on the spot for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds
- Pushups on your knees for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds
- Step ups on to a box/low wall/stairs for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds
- Sit ups for 20 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds.
- Repeat another three times.
Sample workout for someone who’s been doing regular exercise at least three times a week and is looking to change things up:
Go for a brisk 5 minute walk around the block, come back home, do the above tabata, then finish with another brisk 5 minute walk. That’s 14 minutes all up. As you get fitter you can do multiple tabatas, a longer warm up/cool down or you can go find yourself a CrossFit class.
Why I love CrossFit
- It’s made me stronger than I’ve ever been in my whole life.
- It’s a short, sharp, high intensity workout that’s done and dusted in 45 minutes so it’s great for time-poor people. (The main workout usually only goes for 12-20 minutes. The rest of the time is warm up + strength work.)
- Anyone of pretty much any fitness level can do it as the instructors adjust the prescribed workout to each person’s specific abilities and fitness and there is never any pressure to go beyond your own capabilities.
The main things I want you to take home from the above
- If you’ve got weight to shift and you can’t shift it, you need to change things up. If you continue to do the same thing you always have, you will get what you’ve already got.
- You can’t out-exercise poor diet.
- If your diet still contains processed foods … start with your diet before you look to exercise.
- We’re all experiments of one. What’s worked for me won’t necessarily work for you – try things out, keep the stuff that works, discard the stuff that doesn’t.
Ask them in the comments below. The above is something I started putting into an email for a mum from school before I realised I was writing so much I should just turn it into a blog post. I have so much more to say on this topic … but the above is a good start!