Did you ever have the experience of knowing something, without reading the answer or having it told to you? One of these strong intuitive experiences came to me while I was interviewing a woman named Tori who had taken off 115 pounds over 18 months. As the host of the MyThinLifestyle radio show, I regularly invited guests who had lost 100 pounds or more to tell all about getting skinny. Tori was a smart, articulate, upbeat woman in her late 30s who was inspired to take off another 40 pounds before her wedding later in the year.
Tori explained that her eating regime was the basic low-fat, low-calorie, semi-starvation diet that almost everyone buys into. As for physical activity, “I walk an hour a day,” she said, “and during the week I go to the gym and either take a class or work out on the machines for another hour.” This was the moment in our conversation that I started thinking Tori wouldn’t be able to keep up with such high intensity effort. Of course, I kept my opinion to myself. After all, who am I to rain on Tori’s parade or to offer help that isn’t asked for?
Predictably, the minute Tori got the guy to marry her, her weight started creeping back up and the last I heard, it’s been on an upward spiral ever since with no signs of stopping. So many of us can relate to Tori’s story because her experience with weight loss is so common. It’s exasperating to finally get the weight off and then not be able to keep it off. Why does this happen? The secret no one else will tell you is that high intensity weight loss practices have a boomerang effect, meaning that the weight you take off always comes back to you, and then some. High intensity, which is forcing yourself to push too hard for too long, is an unnatural condition that cannot be sustained.
Intensity works for humans the same way that fertilizer works for plants. You need intensity to get a result, and you need fertilizer to make a plant grow. But intensity and fertilizer are both tricky because too little and too much produce a contrary result, the result you don’t want. So, for example, if you don’t give your plants any fertilizer, they won’t grow. The plants get spindly, they don’t bloom, and they die. Likewise, if you don’t put enough intensity into your weight loss effort, nothing much is going to happen and your interest dies out.
On the other hand, when you give your plants too much fertilizer, they don’t grow very well either. The plants burn, grow too fast, and die. Likewise, when you put too much intensity into your weight loss efforts, you risk burning out and burning up. Who can live with a low-fat/low-calorie diet forever? Who really has the time to exercise two hours a day? See what I mean? Getting a moderate amount of fertilizer is important, and so is getting a moderate amount of intensity.
However, very few people really buy into the concept that too much effort, too much intensity can work against you. After all, we live in America, where effort is revered and rewarded. If you work hard, you’ll improve your life. And if you work the hardest, you’ll win a prize. This is really and truly what we think, and TV shows like Biggest Loser glamorize and reward high intensity weight loss performance. It’s inspiring to see everyday people make amazing physical transformations. The downside is that such shows reinforce the lie that you have to suffer and kill yourself to lose weight or change your body.
More restrained but consistent effort also yields a pleasing result, but it doesn’t make for such dramatic TV. The truth is you don’t have to train like an Olympian or starve yourself like a Hollywood starlet to feel good about yourself or to have a body that makes you happy when you look in the mirror. Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist and philosopher, once said, “The less effort, the faster and stronger you’ll be.” Note that Lee didn’t say no effort is required. He said less effort is required, which means straining and pushing works against you. The Japanese have a word for this negative, contrary energy. They call it “faido,” and this is what you’re trying to pre-empt and avoid.
A smart way to get a handle on high intensity is to use it intermittently instead of every day, all the time. The scientific term for this technique is interval training, and it’s how athletes and serious fitness enthusiasts get big results from short bursts of hard work. It’s also how they keep themselves interested and going for decades. An interval is a planned period of high intensity which gets alternated between periods of moderate intensity. Interval training gives you the best of both worlds, so to speak: faster, more sustainable results without burning out or having to constantly kill yourself. How good is that?
Here are some examples of how to plan for and switch between different periods of intensity.
- Three weeks of moderate intensity to one week of high intensity.
- Two weeks of moderate intensity to one week of high intensity.
- Four days of moderate intensity to two days of high intensity.
- Any variation of moderate to high and back to moderate that works for you.
Keep in mind the shorter the break between moderate intensity and high intensity, the harder it gets. You can also approach switches in intensity more informally, moving from one level to another as life permits or as you’re moved to action by inspiration.
The basic idea is to establish a range of effort for yourself. High intensity is around 85% to 100% effort. Moderate intensity is around 65% to 80% effort. An easy, practical way to determine your level of effort is to imagine you’re working on scale of 1 to 10 and to assign a number value for the effort you think you’re expending. So a “7” is about 70% effort. A “9” is 90% effort, and so on. Your baseline moderate level of effort should be around 6/7 and your high intensity effort should be around 8/9.
Or said another way, you have to figure out the least you’ll do for yourself and the most you’ll do for yourself. There’s only one rule. Your moderate level of effort expended has to be greater than what you would do if you gave in and did nothing. It doesn’t, however, have to be hard, complicated or expensive. My moderate effort, for example, is to eliminate caloric sweeteners from my food supply and to engage in 30 consecutive minutes of physical activity six days a week. If I do these two relatively simple things, I’m happy with myself. My high intensity effort is to set more food boundaries and to work physically harder and/or longer.
Many people set conventional food effort targets around calories, fat grams, or carbohydrate grams, and you can go this route if you like. However, here are some different, more helpful ways to consider implementing an eating regime.
- Establish and maintain a normal eating pattern, which is three meals per day and one or two planned snacks.
- Limit starch consumption (bread, potatoes, corn and flour products) to four servings per week.
- Limit sweets or junk food consumption to one day a week.
- Eat at least one pound of vegetables each day, six days a week.
Here are some ideas for moderate physical activity goals.
- Set a minimum daily activity time goal for yourself. Any activity will do. Start with at least 10 consecutive minutes and work up from there.
- Buy a pedometer and set a daily step or mileage goal for yourself. It’s easier to take extra steps throughout the day because then you don’t have to set aside a specific time for physical activity.
- Take three exercise or dance classes per week.
- Engage in a vigorous sport three times a week.
Above all else, your most important goal is to keep making your moderate daily effort, however you define it, no matter what. Day in and day out you do the easy, moderate work. This work is a tangible demonstration that you care for yourself, and it’s exactly the same as brushing your teeth or taking a shower. Self-care is the same as self-love. Children that are cared for are children that are loved. Houses that get cared for are houses that are loved. Love always heals on some level, and it always leaves you feeling good about yourself.
Physical perfection doesn’t matter. The good feeling is what you’re after, and a consistent, moderate level of effort on self is a potent, powerful, lasting way to get it.