Weight Loss Shortcuts – A Harsh Truth

Let me spoil the moment. There are none. I figured a rolling intro about what you can and can’t do would be unfair. At the end of the post the message would be the same—there are no short cuts to losing weight. Well, of course, there are; however, those would be dependent on what I mean by weight. An arm weighs a fair few pounds. A leg even more. That old saying, ‘an arm and a leg’—well, that would be a shortcut. Not very practical. Not very good at all.

So, to explain why there is no shortcut, you need to understand the basic facts. One pound of fat (a very small volume of blubber) contains approximately 3700kcal. Your mileage may vary on that amount depending where you read, but that’s closer to what I learned at University. One pound—3700kcal. Got that number logged in the jogger’s noggin’? Good, because, as Hudson says so eloquently in Aliens, ‘stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.’ Running a marathon—a 26 mile slog—will consume roughly 2700kcal for your average 11-12 stone (154-168lbs, or 70-76Kg) runner. That leaves spare change on that 3700kcal. Now imagine the feeling. You’ve completed the challenge you pestered all your friends about; and, pestered further for sponsorship to raise money for that puppy shelter. What do you do? You celebrate. A great meal, cake, lots of cake, and maybe some fizz, or beer, or wine (or all of them). In your moment of celebratory glory, you shovel 3000kcal of joy down your throat. And, let’s be honest—you deserve it. I mean, it’s madness, running on a road for 26 miles. Sheer madness. You need something to make it feel worth your while.

Given the marathon example for calorie burn, you see that one measly pound of fat supplies all the energy you need to run one event, with change to walk home afterwards. If you understand physiology, you’ll be shouting at me about energy debt (EPOC – excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) but I’ll get to that. In the meantime, consider the lard family. There are 14 pounds in a (UK) stone. Fourteen marathons+ of energy in one stone of bodyfat. Working in gyms for 25 years, I’m used to hearing the plea, ‘I need to lose a stone in four weeks’. One stone of that useless (it’s not actually, but let’s pretend it is) button-popping soft body armour contains about 52,000kcal. Let’s look at that. 52,000kcal in one stone. Four weeks = 28 days. Divide them. Go on. Be afraid. It amounts to a daily kcal count of 1850 (rounded, no pun intended). To lose one stone in four weeks, you need to dump 1850kcal per day. Yikes.

Can it be done? Yes, but it’s extreme. Without considering EPOC (I said I’d explain later), you’d need to run 19 marathons in four weeks to burn 52,000kcal. One stone, four weeks… 19 marathons. Go back and read the title of this post. It’s right there. So, you’re depressed, I get it. I’ve got a lockdown belly. Probably have an extra 7 pounds of blubber around my waist. I’ve got a bad leg so cardio’s out for me. I’ll need to watch my intake to work on that. Do some mind-numbingly boring resistance training. Maybe buy some heavy cans of beer. Lifting a heavy bag, laden with beer, is still resistance work. I’ll get it where I can find it. Leave me be.

Now, in truth, I wouldn’t recommend people try to aim so high as one stone in four weeks. Our industry tends to recommend 1-2 pounds per week. A more manageable 3700-7400kcal/week, or 530-1050kcal/day. How can you drop 530 kcal from your diet, every day? Want a picture to help?

Isn’t it fun learning how bad things are?

The easiest way to do this is to lower your intake AND start doing more activity. Altering your diet will bring faster results but long term you need to make sure you do it right. Dieting is a bad word. It’s very much like exercise in that respect. Neither of them is fun and I assure you, people who go on about either need to find a more pressing concern. If you want free advice—drop 250kcal from your daily intake, or in food friendly language, something as trivial as a few less biscuits a day. Look at the pictures above… they have meaning. You can Google other munchables, and there are plenty of websites that can match calories to foods.

What about activity? Yawn. Well, if you manage to drop 250kcal from not chowing down on that packet of crisps you definitely didn’t need, you can burn off 250kcal in about 30-40 minutes of moderate activity. And that’s over the whole day. You don’t need to rack those hours in at the gym. Four, ten-minute bouts would do. A brisk walk to buy your beer. A brisk walk back. Or, don’t buy that beer (heresy!!!). Housework, a spot of gardening, chores, or if you do have a fetish for Lycra and sweaty pavilions of pain; sure, go to the gym.

Simple choices make the most difference and you don’t need to brag to (or bore) your friends about your new gym routine. Just one piece of advice—don’t do things you would never normally do; you’ll probably fail. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Imagine Nike’s evil twin’s plan for marketing: Just Don’t Do It! Make it simple, make it achievable. Don’t commit to failure.

Now, I said I’d mention EPOC. Very basically, when you burst into a high energy mode, your body lags behind with the energy delivery system. Ever wonder why when you stop running, you pant for ages afterwards? Energy debt. So, when you perform a long duration, moderate to high intensity activity, your body keeps ticking at a higher rate long after you stop. EPOC: excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. The harder you push, the higher the debt. It’s the theory behind HIIT training. But HIIT classes only work if you actually train at a very high intensity. If you book two classes back to back—you’re doing it very wrong indeed. Go home instead and climb the stairs for 30 minutes, you’ll get a work-out and keep the Chihuahua company.

It’s good to remember that the above number: 500kcal/day deficit (less food, more activity) will drop ONE pound of fat per week. Double the effort to make it two pounds. That’s still seven weeks to lose a stone. You want to lose two stone? You need a long-term game plan. Or, at least, you need to commit to that change. Shortcuts are for losers. I mean it. You can’t treat your body as though it’s a trash bin and then hope to fix it because you need to slide into that dress, or wear that tuxedo. Does anyone actually wear a tuxedo?

The best way to avoid taking shortcuts, is to avoid getting into that position in the first place. There are no quick fixes if your goal is to lose some weight. The silver lining is that when you get there, you know you can do it, so you can do it again. Though, that’s not encouragement to go on a yo-yo binge & diet plan. And running twenty marathons a month is also a bad suggestion. Common sense, long term thinking and you’ll be good in no time, I mean, months from now.

I’m Glad I’m Not Eighteen

In 1992, an excellent year for heavy-metal, techno and alternative rock, I can’t recall being happy. Not really, not like I am now. Back then, I had two working legs, an awesome head of hair, and dressed like a plaid warrior straight out of Seattle (even though I came from a nowhere, wannabe town that served as a sleeping bag for a proper city with a real identity). I’m happy now. I lost that beautiful head of hair—a mane so lustrous I could defeat dragons and dandruff with it. I’m mostly bald, a head reminiscent of an awkward potato. Still, no more hair wax, no more follicle anxiety. I was fit as a fiddle. I could run forever, jump over houses, and climb mountains. I was immortal. Now, I’m quite sure I’m not. I have a leg-brace. I’ve had a hernia. Pretty sure I have another. I’m still happier inhabiting this shell of youth. You’re probably sad reading this (I know my mum is). Well buck up, bucko—I’m not sad. I grew old. I grew up, mostly.

Happy perspective time. I’m 46, going on 3000. I can still bench more than most eighteen-year-olds. I’m more agile on three limbs than most are on four. I could do a plank until gravity gave up—for the record, planks are useless. I imagine the plank was devised by a failed personal trainer with an undiagnosed psychosis and a hatred for people with back pain. If you love planking: stop it now. It’s pointless. It’s the exercise equivalent of belly button fluff. A comedy distraction at bedtime. It’s always grey-blue, why? So, I’m not bummed I lost my hair, my leg, my abdominal resilience. No, not at all. I’m over all that. It’s 2020, and I’m not eighteen. I couldn’t be happier.

Why? Because when I found fitness, social media wasn’t even born.

I have this blog as a means to an end. And mark my words, one day I will meet that end. That sounds terminal. Suppose I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Let me rephrase. One day, my awesomeness will work out for me. Yeah, that’s better. But social media—that’s a bum rush. If I was eighteen now, surrounded by Instagram, Facebook, Tik-Tok, and god knows what else there is to inflict trauma on a young mind, I’d never make it past twenty. And yeah, I know, a lot of people will come in screaming to defend the great value of social media. How it connects you. How it makes you feel relevant in a huge world. Yet at every new turn, it appears to be all-consuming in the lives of younger (and older) people. A digital zombification of reality. Social media isn’t your friend—it’s a brain-melting industry.

In my industry, one from which I feel more and more alienated, the perversion of social media culture has destroyed what it is to understand health and fitness. When I was fourteen years-old, something other than social media changed my life. One single man influenced me. He gave no speech. Promoted no product, at least, of which I was aware. Better yet—he was an adopted Canadian (I have a soft spot for that country). He was Ben Johnson. Before Lance Armstrong, he was the most famous drug cheat of all time. But before I knew that, he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. Problem was, I was a skinny white kid. I figured I could work on the muscles—in truth the skin colour meant nothing. He was simply my hero. To some extent, he still has to be. I was mesmerised by his build, his performance. How he destroyed Carl Lewis and the rest. Ben wasn’t clean, but then, that race is considered the dirtiest 100m in Olympic history. You can Google it; I’m wary of lawyers.

This is a difficult point to make. My hero is a cheat. But I know that. I know his performance wasn’t all natural. I mean, I sort of knew. There were rumours. His build, his crazed, bloodshot/yellow eyes. He was practically leaking dope all over the tracks. The reality is, Ben Johnson is responsible for me getting a weight bench. He’s why, thirty-two years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve progressed from a folding bench, to a smith, a power rack, and finally, a lever gym. The current set-up helps with a bad back and crumbling wrists. I’ve been benching since I was 16 years-old. I am permitted to fall apart.

I lifted weights because of a dream. And I educated myself with books. There was no internet in 1988. Not unless you were a spy, or a covert nuclear specialist. And I wasn’t. What was learned was scientific. What was practiced was proper technique. It was as it was meant to be. What we have now is different. I’ve seen it; heard it from gym members. I see them doing something ‘unusual’ and ask what’s up. It’s my job to guide people down the righteous path of technique. Oftentimes, I need to suggest something other than the weird thing they’re doing. I inject some humour, if that fails, I appeal to reason. But sometimes, at some point, they’ll flash up their phone and say they’re following Handsome Anger-Chuck. He’s an Insta dude, huge and rippled like a mars bar balloon. He’s also clearly, to my educated eye, on drugs. But the gym member doesn’t think so. They flash up another influencer, or some half-wit personal trainer, called Sheila Sugarcheeks. She’s just as bad as Handsome. Both, demented caricatures of what you could achieve using natural methods. I’m not impressed by Sheila. I say so. Another scroll and another nightmare from shadowy fitness hell is staring out from the screen. Not one of these people is real. They never got that shape from their anaemic routine (the secrets of which you can buy, obviously). They’re social media billboards, glossy myths of what you can never be. And the awful part is, no matter what I do, I cannot influence the gym member. They’re sucked into that social media vortex of scroll and believe. Look, here’s Handsome Anger-Chuck squatting a whale. Wonder at Sheila Sugarcheeks deadlifting in a bikini. No, god no. Please, save me.

But that’s the reality of fitness and social media today. Most people are too lazy to research anything. They fall into the rut of believing what that false prophet of fitness says. Never once do they question why their workouts don’t appear to work. Tragically, I’ve seen what happens when the easily influenced follow the influencer. I’ve had those drug discussions. And even when it never gets that far, that intense, I see the heartbreak of failure. The petite woman who questions why she can’t look just like Sheila (who happens to be a six-foot-tall Amazonian). The guy at fifty-five who also questions why he can’t look like Sheila. I suggest other routes for him. But you see the deal? They want to be what they can’t because these personalities promise a lie.

When I was young, Ben Johnson shattered some of my dreams. But I knew what I could do, how far I could go. My idol was broken but that was okay. It meant I knew what was realistic, how I’d never be like him. You don’t get that brutal honesty on social media. Not from those that promote themselves as impossible figurines of heavenly perfection. Nifty AI filters distort things even more, lighting tricks and devious angles push the limits of preening PR. Fitness is a maze of misinformation, marketing and media celebrity. The truth, the reality, is hard to find.

For the younger generation, social media is everywhere. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real thing. You need to follow Sheila, or Handsome, otherwise you’re a loo-hoo-ser. Peer pressure and the constant need to be seen to be perfect is poison. That’s if you follow social media personalities and hang on their words.  I don’t. I’m too old for fashion, too past it for social media gurus. I’m happy now. Looking back, I see I got the best years of fitness. Before social media turned healthy bodies into unhealthy profits. I was influenced long before that circus came to town; learned my truths from my hero cheat. This is for you. Thanks Ben.

I didn’t get fatter; the world got easier

I was born in 1974. I remember having to walk to the television to change channels. Thankfully, someone invented the remote control. It served to protect the carpet from unnecessary wear. People shouldn’t scuff flooring with trivial jaunts to the TV screen. Come to think of it, I remember three channels, before Channel 4 was launched. Those were dark days. Grim days, some might say. Long before Channel 5 brought us the awfulness of low IQ TV planning. This is the UK, by the way. If you’re not from here, you’re lucky, you may have missed our entertainment drought. It was brutal. Now we have channels for everything. We went from not enough to ‘please, no more.’

And that’s just TV automation—the remote control. I knew cars before power-steering was a commonplace thing. Nowadays, you can waste rubber by turning the wheel in a stationary car. Glides like a pony on ice; namely, without friction but at great cost to the tyre. Picture the pony, poor sod. A bad thing. But in the old days, before servo-assisted wizardry was implemented, good luck trying to turn the wheel in a stationary car. That was a work out. Even in motion, a manually yanked steering wheel was a wrestle. No gentle fingers on the rim, one hand on a thermos, the other steering with an effete pinkie. No, it was as though taming a malevolent python on speed. A thick, PVC-encased wheel (leather, if you were rich) that was determined to end your life. A car without power-steering was hell, at least, that ‘s how I recall it to be.

Before the internet, there was a period known as the dark ages. This was when truth was found in books. A time in life when to learn something new, you had to walk to a place they called a library, and speak with a strange creature known as the librarian. Usually half-woman, half-ghost, these ethereal beasts would stamp the sign of the book-demon into the jacket and send you on your way. Often, they would say, ‘Bring it back in two weeks, or your soul is mine.’ At least, I think they said that. Point being, if I needed to know how to plumb a cistern, my phone couldn’t help. Because back then… there were no phones. Well, they had phones, just not proper ones as we have today. Old phones were designed by the ancestors of exercise manufacturers. Digit Gyms, they were. Bleak memories: trying not to break a finger as you toiled and spun a wheel around a dial. It took about a thousand turns to contact anyone. Plus, the phone weighed as much as an encyclopaedia. Tough, manual work just to phone a friend. Just to say, you could fix their loo.

Right now, I’m using a mechanical keyboard, crumbs and dust littered under the caps. I remember using an actual mechanical typewriter. Only briefly mind, before I bought a word-processor for Uni work. Those old devices required TLC and patience. The keys themselves were more akin to lever-gyms. One mighty push was required to launch a letter embossed on a small iron block into a wall of paper. It was a satisfying sound, a pleasant sensation. But again, just as everything else back then, it took more effort than what is required from us today.

And that is the point of this random carnival of 80’s memorabilia. Let’s take the television remote as an example. To change channels required you to stand up from your chair, or sofa, or perhaps even roll out of bed. To stand from sitting is basically a squat. That right there is what annoying gym folks call exercise. Yup, exercise, a bad word to some. One half-rep of one bodyweight squat. Whoop! Now you pace one step or two, maybe five if you’re wealthy and have a large house. But then, if you’re rich, you might ask the butler to change channels. Imagine, a biomechanical human remote control. A sort of cybernetic stone age. I digress. So, you’ve dragged your ass to the TV, pressed the buttons. Now what? You reverse that motion. That means a controlled descent onto the cushion where your bum-print is still visible. That’s what we gym commandants call the ‘eccentric’ phase of the squat. Pre-remote (or sans butler), channel surfing required one squat. Change channels 10 times a day, 365 days a year—count it—that’s 3650 squats. Think about it. That’s over 70 sets of 50 squats. Make that a 3-set portion per day and that’s 23 squat sessions per year. You see where this is going?

But that’s nothing. Walking is the big game-changer. In the nineties, I walked to work. 30 mins there, 30 back. One hour. Five days per week. In calorie terms, that’s 250 kcal/day. Add a 48-week year, and we’ve got 60,000 kcals/year. Or 16 pounds of fat. Now, imagine driving to work. No more walkies for Mr Fit. Time is precious, so we decide to sit on our bums for twenty more minutes and drive instead. In one year, you’ll pile on one stone of weight, all things considered. And that’s just the walk to and from work. Cars are ubiquitous these days, it’s normal to own one. And when you do, you drive it—everywhere. Why else own one tonne of shiny steel? Personally, I view the car as a mini-karaoke bar on wheels, without the booze, of course… officer.

What am I saying? Clearly, the correlation is between driving and getting fat. It’s called a spare tyre for a reason. The diminished reliance on walking is fundamentally linked to our downfall in the battle against weight gain. Those gym fiends (yes fiends, as in monsters, not friends) will tell you to train your way to a better shape. But it’s not true. Why? Because what you’ll do is drive to the gym, return home, and sit on your backside, making the erroneous assumption 45 mins of gym twice a week will work. Nope. It doesn’t. I’ve seen it so many times.

We used to be slaves to a domain of manual effort. But technology came along and saved us. Emancipated from the hellish shackles of ‘a smidgeon of effort’, we embraced the late 20th century ideal of ‘everything at your fingertips’. If I think back, I recall accompanying my mother to do the grocery/food shop. She had one of those weird, ’granny’ bags—a tartan-esque suitcase on wheels. But that was replaced, eventually, by the mini-karaoke bar on wheels, and now, in the days of automated Armageddon, you can arrange for unseen hands in a warehouse to pack your weekly shop and even get someone to deliver it to your doorstep in a diesel belching van. Wait—you have the gall to complain your plums are bruised? Really?

The reduction of manual labour, the reliance on automation, the lure of convenience: all of these things have conspired to make life too easy. We’re told by slick marketing to over-consume (I know I do). But in reality, food doesn’t make you fat; energy imbalance does. And in a world of zero effort, where I don’t even have to touch my phone to get it to answer me, our odds aren’t great in the war against apathy. There is, of course, an easy answer. Get up, go for a walk. Lots of walks. Forrest Gump your life away. Give it a shot, just as soon as you’ve ordered your pizza through Alexa.