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The Simple Fitness Rules

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Health and fitness are usually made to seem too complex.

If you read a lot of fitness magazines and blogs (as I often do), you’re told a confusing variety of complex advice. It makes your head spin.

You’re told that eggs, butter and meat are bad for you. Then another crowd will tell you those same things are actually good. Then you’ll hear running is good for you, and the bodybuilding and primal crowds will scoff at longer-distance running. You’ll hear that lifting weights is the best way to get into shape, and others will laugh at that. You’ll hear a million variations of the best workouts, of when to time your nutrition, of how to periodize your workouts, of how to measure fitness, of what supplements you need to take … ad naseum.

It’s enough to make you want to give up.

Fortunately, fitness doesn’t have to be that complex.

In fact, you can boil it down to two simple rules:

  1. Get your body moving on a regular basis; and
  2. Eat a moderate amount of real, whole foods (with occasional indulgences).

I believe if you stuck to those two rules, and stuck with them for awhile, you’d get fit. Doing one but not the other will result in an improvement in health for many people (not all), but it would be an incomplete health. Do both most days of the week and you’re on your way to health and fitness.

But what about specific macronutrient ratios (fancy way of saying the breakdown of protein, carbs and fats)? What about meal frequency and timing? What about workout frequency, splits, timing, reps, and more? You could add all these types of rules and many more, but the truth is, all the complexities are usually a way of masking some simple truths: if you want to lose fat or weight, you have to have a calorie deficit, and if you want to build muscle, you’ve got to use exercise to get stronger. The other stuff is mostly guesswork, and while these complicated programs probably work, they usually work because they promote one or more of the principles in this post, not because of their complexities.

The two rules above are all you need … however, most of us need a little more detail, so here’s a more complete set of simple fitness rules. As always, remember that 1) I’m not an expert — this is just stuff that’s worked for me; 2) this is for healthy adults — people with health problems should seek the advice of professionals.

1. Get moving. Try to do some kind of physical activity most days of the week (4 or more days if possible). If you have an aversion to exercise, don’t think of it as exercise. Just think of it as a way to get your body moving in some fun way. It can be dance, yardwork, hiking, a nature walk, a swim, basketball, rugby, cycling, even housework if you do it vigorously enough. And it doesn’t have to be the same thing each day. I recommend, just for the sake of simplicity, that you do find a regular time slot you could do your daily activity, most days of the week. I prefer mornings but others enjoy lunchtime or after work.

2. Enjoy yourself. Whatever activity you choose, it has to be fun. If you don’t like it, move on to something else. Focus on the fun part, not the hard part. Or learn, as I have, to enjoy the hard stuff! Again, make it fun, or you won’t keep it up for very long. To make sure it’s not too hard, start easy. Focus on just getting moving and enjoying the activity. Start small, and build up with baby steps.

3. Slowly add intensity. Once you’ve been doing an activity for a little while, and you’re in decent shape, it’s good to add some intensity. But slowly — if you add intensity too quickly you’ll risk injury or burnout. So let’s say you’ve been doing some walking for a couple months — you should be ready to add a little jogging or fast-paced walking, in small little intervals. If you’ve been running, try some faster-paced intervals (take it easy at first) or hill workouts. If you’ve been strength training, be sure to add weights (safely) or decrease rest time or add more reps or sets. If you’re playing a sport, really speed things up, or focus on explosive movements. Intensity is a great way to get yourself in shape and have an effective workout in only 20-30 minutes. Here’s a great way to do bodyweight exercises with intensity: do a circuit of bodyweight exercises (such as pushups, pullups, squats, burpees, Hindu pushups, lunges or others) and do as many circuits as you can in 10 or 15 minutes. Next workout, see if you can do more circuits. It’s great!

4. Minimal equipment. There are a million different exercise gadgets out there, from ab machines to elliptical trainers to a whole slew of weight machines at the gym. My rule is: keep it simple. You can do amazing things with bodyweight exercises — in fact, if you are a relative beginner, you should start with bodyweight exercises for at least 6 months before progressing to weights. You don’t need cardio machines — just go outside and walk, run, bike, do hills, climb stairs, sprint. Even if you do weights, a barbell or dumbbells are all you need — stay away from the machines that work your body at angles it’s not meant to use (although cable machines aren’t bad). Even better, get outside and do sprints, pushups, jump over things, pick up big rocks and throw them, do pullups from a tree, climb up rocks, swim, do a crabwalk or monkeywalk, take a sledgehammer or pick and slam it into the ground, flip tractor tires, and generally get a great workout with very little equipment.

5. Just a few exercises. Bodybuilding routines will have you doing 3-4 different exercises per body part. That’s too complicated for most people. Keep it simple in the weight room: squats, deadlifts, presses, chinups or pullups, rows. You can do a lot with just those lifts. Of course, you’ll want to mix it up eventually with some variations, but no need for 10 different ab exercises or things that focus on your rear deltoids or use swiss balls. If you’re doing bodyweight exercises, I love things like pushups, burpees, squats, lunges, pullups, dips, planks. Pick a few and do some circuits with little rest.

6. Eat real foods. One of the most important rules on this list, because if you don’t eat right (most of the time), it doesn’t matter how much exercise you do — you’ll get fat and unhealthy. Aim for real, whole foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. That means stay away from processed, refined, fatty, sugary foods. Veggies, fruits, lean meats, dairy, nuts, beans, whole grains, eggs, seeds. Prepare them yourself if possible — convenience foods often have added ingredients, as well as extra salt, fat, sugar and preservatives. If you follow this diet — with the plant foods making the bulk of the diet — it’s hard to go wrong.

7. Eat less. Most people eat too much, and eventually it shows up as fat. To lose that fat, we need to eat less — it’s really that simple. Of course, if you eat the real foods mentioned above, you’ll probably consume fewer calories, but even so, it’s smart to reduce how much you eat overall, at least until you reach a healthy level of body fat (and even then, you shouldn’t let it all go). One way to do that is by eating slowly and mindfully until you’re just satiated (not stuffed). Another way is to eat smaller meals and watch the portions. A third way, which I’ve been experimenting with lately, is intermittent fasting (see Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat ebook for a great explanation of the science behind fasting). However you do it, be sure to consume the real food in moderate amounts, and reduce your calorie intake if you’re looking to lose fat.

8. Give it time. This is what gets many people — they expect to see results immediately, within the first month or so, because the magazines they read make it seem so instantaneous. But real fitness rarely happens this way — it’s a process and a lifestyle change. I started out in really bad shape, really overweight, and all I did in the beginning was to quit smoking and start running. A year later, I ran a marathon and was a vegetarian — but I was still kinda fat. A year after that, I was still exercising regularly, and had made a lot of progress, but I still had a ways to go. Now, 3.5 years later, I’m in great shape — slimmer and more muscular and much healthier — but I still have a little stubborn belly fat I’m working on. I’ll get there, but I have accepted the fact that it takes time. You didn’t gain the fat overnight, and you won’t lose it that way either. Learn to enjoy the process, enjoy the activities, enjoy the healthy, real food, and you’ll get healthy and fit almost as an afterthought to this new, amazing lifestyle.



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