Everyone knows that losing fat, building muscle and improving overall health is achieved through a combination of a healthy diet and regular, effective exercise. These are the big steps. But, there are several small things you can do that can have a significant impact on how quickly, easily or comfortably you reach your fitness goals.
Making just a few small changes (or even just one) each week can have a dramatic effect on your program, without making you feel deprived and without you spending any extra time in the gym.
Here are some of the best small steps you can take on your way from Point A to Point B:
1. Get regular and adequate sleep.
The importance of sleep is grossly underestimated and it’s easy to justify sleeping too little when our schedules are so overwhelming.
However, sleeping less than seven hours per night or at erratic times (meaning, going to bed early some nights and pulling late nights on others) has a serious impact on both fat loss and muscle-building.
First, numerous studies have shown that sleeping fewer than seven hours per night or pulling an all-nighter here and there prompts an increase in blood cortisol levels and since cortisol is a fat storage hormone (and counters testosterone levels), it’s much more difficult to lose fat and/or build muscle on inadequate sleep. Inadequate sleep also disrupts the balance of leptin and ghrelin in your system. Leptin and ghrelin let you know when you’re full and when you’re hungry. Too little leptin and too much ghrelin will lead to overeating.
Second, muscle recovery and protein synthesis happen during deep sleep, which generally occurs after six hours of sleeping. If you’re only getting six or seven hours of sleep per night, much of your training is going to waste.
Aim for eight hours of sleep and try to go to bed within 1-2 hours of the same time every night.
2. Practice portion control.
No, you don’t have to measure and weigh every bite you put into your mouth. But when filling your plate, aim for half of what you think you want to eat and wait ten or fifteen minutes before you decide to take a second serving of anything other than veggies. When you do take a second helping of protein or grain, choose one at a time. Most people can cut a huge number of calories from their diets, without actually dieting, by using this simple step.
3. Cut out sodas and “energy drinks.”
They’re loaded with either sugar or artificial sweeteners, both of which can wreck your hormonal balance and your health. Sodas and energy drinks also add a huge number of invisible calories (those you don’t know you’re taking in) each week. A 12ounce can of Coke says it has 120 calories per serving, but did you know that Coke says there are 2 ½ servings per can?
If you have a serious soda/energy drink habit, try replacing just one soda per day with a bottled water or glass of iced green tea. Next week, replace one more and so on until you’ve kicked the habit altogether.
4. Make sure you’re getting enough protein, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
The fastest way to lose fat is to add more muscle and you should be doing at least some resistance training while you’re trying to shed fat. You also need to make sure that you’re not losing lean muscle to catabolism due to a calorie deficit.
A good range to shoot for is between .3 and 0.5g of protein per pound of body weight.
5. Eat at regular times and plan your meals accordingly.
You’ll be more likely to overeat and eat the wrong things if you wait until you’re starving. You also need to look at when you’re eating certain nutrients. Unless you’re working out at night, you need far fewer carbs (even healthy carbs from fruits and veggies) in the evening. Snacks and even dinner should be focused on proteins and healthy fats.
Take a look at your daily schedule and plan your meals accordingly. Take into account when you’re working out and what type of workout you’re doing, make sure you have healthy snacks with you to take care of the afternoon slump and so on.
6. Plan ahead for healthy meals at your fingertips.
Spending just a couple of hours on the weekend preparing and portioning healthy meals or even just the protein portion (like grilling ten chicken breasts at once) will save you hours and hours (as well as money and calories wasted at the drive-thru) later in the week.
It also takes no more time to cook double portions of whatever you’re preparing for dinner and freeze the extras for another time.
By doing this, you ensure that you have quick, healthy meals on your busiest nights and that you have a healthy lunch to take to work.
7. Get a little adventurous.
Make a point of trying one new recipe and one new ingredient each week. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut of chicken breast and broccoli, but this means you’re more likely to become bored and fall off your plan. It also means you won’t get a broad range of micronutrients.
Spend a couple of hours one weekend bookmarking some quick and easy new recipes for your favorite ingredients, then try one of them each week. Go through the produce section and try one new veggie or fruit each time you go. Adding kiwi, pomelo or cherimoya to your fruit bowl may be just what you need to keep things interesting and ensure a wide range of antioxidants every week.
Yes, you still need to focus on the big two: diet and exercise, but making just a few small, painless changes each week can make those big two much easier and much more effective.