Controlling body weight and composition is a huge topic when it comes to the health of the general public and also an important responsibility for athletes. Technology, the food industry, and even the health industry itself, have progressively pushed people into an unhealthy lifestyle that produces an unfit body. In order to compensate, people have come up with a lot of methods for losing weight and allegedly being healthy. Some methods are bizarre, some are miserable, and some are downright unhealthy. While a healthy lifestyle does require some effort and discipline, it should not be crazy, extreme, insane, or miserable. A lot of people try very hard to have a healthy body. Effort and discipline are often not the issue. The problem is that people are completely misinformed on what a healthy lifestyle actually is. The goal of this article is to present a path to a lean body that is both healthy and enjoyable.

The big picture of weight management is extremely simple. Calories in vs calories out. If you burn more calories than you consume, you lose weight. Most people understand this. Controlling how many calories you consume is simple. It may not be easy, but it is simple. Less food eaten equals fewer calories consumed. Also healthier food eaten tends to equal fewer calories consumed. No mystery there. People tend to think that controlling how many calories the body burns is also simple. More exercise equals more calories burnt. That’s as far as it goes, right? This is one of the huge problems. Many people believe exercise is the only thing that affects how many calories they burn. Look up a metabolism calculator that supposedly tells you how many calories you burn in a day. It will ask for age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. Of those things, which can a person control? Activity level is the only one. It seems that eating little and working out a lot is the only way to lose weight. Thus we have millions of people doing tons of cardio and starving themselves in order to try to be healthy. There is something terribly wrong with this picture.

There are some important things to understand about the human body. First, your body is always burning calories. Always. Every cell requires energy to stay alive and perform its particular function, so every second from conception in your mother’s womb to the moment you take your last breath your body burns calories. Second, your body regulates its own metabolism. It can drastically increase and decrease the rate at which it uses energy. Your body does not know your age, gender, height, weight, and activity level. It does not follow a formula to determine how many calories it should burn. It simply responds to stimuli and follows instincts. You can force the body to burn calories with exercise, but exercise is just one factor. You do not have conscious control of your metabolism, just like you do not have conscious control of your heart rate. It is important to understand that your body, even with the same height, weight, etc. is capable of a wide range of metabolic rates. To drive home that point, consider this story. In the fall of 2009 I went through a serious tonsil infection. My tonsils were so swollen that they were overlapping in my throat. As you can imagine I had a hard time eating or drinking anything. For six days I consumed barely any calories, maybe 100-200 per day. In those 6 days I lost 15 pounds. My body was accustomed to a high metabolism, and it burned itself away because it had no fuel. I ended up getting on some antibiotics and was able to eat again for about a week. But the infection regained strength, and my tonsils swelled again. I spent 4 days not eating. But this time I lost almost no weight. A similar scenario occurred the third time the infection made me sick. After the first stretch of not eating, my body was able to lower its metabolism so drastically that I lost almost no weight despite 4 days of no food. My metabolic rate had to have been down to only several hundred calories per day. For years I have been maintaining weight while eating and burning at least 5000 calories per day. That is a wide range of metabolic rates. So when we are talking about the body regulating its metabolism, understand this is no small effect. You, at your current height, weight, and activity level, are capable of having a low or a high metabolism.

As we cover these facts, we can dispel some of the misguided thinking on weight management. For example, the whole concept of eating and then having to exercise to burn off the calories is foolish. The body burns calories constantly. Exercise is not required to use energy. If you exercise enough to burn off every calorie you eat, you will kill yourself. Not figuratively. Literally. You will cease to live. Also, people are way too worried about how many calories they burn during workouts. Let’s say you’re a workout fanatic and you exercise for 2 hours every day. That still leaves another 22 hours. Which is a bigger factor in metabolism? 2 hours or 22? The number of calories burnt during workouts is insignificant. What is far more important is the rate the body burns calories during the other 95% of the day. Personally, I estimate that a maximum of 10% of my energy expenditure occurs during physical activity. What about diet? Forcing yourself to go hungry is not the way to go. The body can just lower its metabolism to match your intake. This is why just cutting a bunch of calories often does not produce the lean body that people want. Going hungry forces the body into what I call “survival mode” where it lowers metabolism and does what is necessary to stay alive with inadequate caloric intake. Part of survival mode is increasing fat storage. So when people starve themselves to lose weight, they maintain some of their fat and instead burn away muscle, which means they may end up skinny, but they do not end up lean. On top of that, lowering metabolism is unhealthy, because it means the body is doing less work to keep its organs and structures healthy and functioning properly. Want injuries? Want sickness? Want to feel terrible? Stop eating. The widespread approach to weight loss is eating as little as you can stand and doing as much cardio as you can tolerate. This approach produces bodies that may or may not be thin, are not especially lean, do not look good, do not feel good, and are downright unhealthy.

So what is the effective and healthy path to a lean body? Rather than trying to consume very few calories, the goal should be to possess a high metabolism. This has several advantages, because it allows you to eat! A high metabolism provides a lot of room to work with when it comes to creating a caloric deficit to lose weight. With a high metabolism you can eat a lot and still be lean. You can even eat some unhealthy food and still be lean. A high metabolism allows for a lot of freedom in nutritional intake. This makes life a heck of a lot more enjoyable and much less stressful. Not to say that you do not have to watch what you eat at all, but which is easier to stick to? A 4,000-calorie diet or a 1,500-calorie diet? Getting lean is far easier to do with a high metabolism. On top of that, having a high metabolism is healthy. It indicates that the body is doing a lot of work on itself. Repairing muscle, strengthening tendons and ligaments, hardening bone, renewing organ tissue, fighting disease, all these processes require energy. The body completes these processes more effectively and thoroughly if it has sufficient energy from food to use, as opposed to being stuck in survival mode all the time. A high metabolism enables greater health and a much better shot at a low body fat percentage. Specifically for athletes, a high metabolism is an absolute necessity. Playing, practicing, and training for a sport puts a lot of stress on the body. You had better hope that your body is responding to that stress with a lot of maintenance work. Otherwise you are breaking your body down without building it back up. That’s a recipe for disaster, not to mention poor athletic performance. The body of an athlete needs to burn a lot of calories, meaning it also needs to consume a lot of calories. Athletes gotta eat!

How do you get a high metabolism? We may not have conscious control of energy expenditure, but just like we can easily provoke drastic increase in heart rate, we can also cause our metabolic rate to increase. The human body is an overwhelmingly complex organism, and I will not even attempt to cover all the things that influence metabolism. I just want to talk about the two biggest factors under our control, exercise and diet. The goal is to provide consistent stress that provokes a large physiological response by the body while keeping the body in a state in which it is willing to burn a lot of energy.

For exercise, the most effective characteristics are higher intensity and the use of a lot of muscles. Those two factors stimulate a larger physiological response. The term intensity refers to the level of effort required as well as the amount of muscle tension involved. Heavy strength training is the most intense physical activity because it uses maximum effort to generate maximum muscle tension. There is no better stimulant of metabolism than heavy squats and deadlifts, full body strength training. Other examples of intense full body exercise are olympic lifting, med ball throws, jumps, and sprints. Anything that involves maximal force production is intense. This type of activity puts the greatest physical and physiological stress on the body and thus requires the most recovery. The recovery process is where a lot of energy gets used. High intensity exercise also stimulates the most muscle growth. Muscle mass is a huge contributor to metabolism even when it is not being used. (This is why men tend to have a lot easier time getting and staying lean.) So high intensity exercise not only raises metabolism by requiring a large recovery effort, but by building muscle it creates a permanent boost in metabolism that lasts even if you do not work out. Conveniently, that same musculature that raises metabolism is also what makes people attractive. That’s true for men and women. Ladies, nice legs and a butt do not come from starving yourself and riding the stationary bike. Try getting well acquainted with a squat rack instead. To top it all off, these fantastic benefits of high intensity exercise can be achieved without spending a lot of time working out. A good three hours per week of full body strength training does wonders for metabolism and the development of attractive musculature for both men and women.

Unfortunately low intensity exercise, cardio as it is often called, has long been the most popular tool in weight loss. This is supposedly justified scientifically by the fact that low intensity exercise utilizes fat to provide a larger portion of the necessary energy. People want to burn fat, so they do exercise that burns fat. The fault in this reasoning is that once again we do not have as much control over our bodies as we would like. The body can take carbs and protein and store them as fat. Fat being burned during a workout does not matter, because any of the macronutrients can be stored as fat anyway. In fact, because cardio relies on fat as a fuel source, it actually encourages the body to store fat. Long duration, low intensity activity trains the body to be efficient, which includes storing an efficient fuel source. Efficiency is great in a survival situation with limited food. But when trying to develop a lean body, efficiency is bad. Efficiency means the body burns fewer calories. On the other hand, high intensity exercise trains the body to be proficient and store a proficient fuel source, carbohydrates. Proficiency means the body burns a lot of energy in order to perform a task really well. Good performance. Burning a lot of energy. Sounds good, right? High intensity exercise is best for increasing metabolism and limiting fat storage, which makes it the best type of activity for developing a lean body. This does not mean every little bit of cardio is bad, but the body will be more lean if it is primarily adapted to high intensity exercise.

She didn't get that body on an elliptical!

She didn’t get that body on an elliptical!

Among people who want to get fit, there are some very common activities which really do not cut it when it comes to intensity. First, let’s be clear. Any exercise is better than no exercise, especially for general health. However, some exercise is pretty worthless for trying to gain a lean body. Worst of them all is using the elliptical. All the misunderstanding on weight loss is embodied in the elliptical machine. It’s so easy that people can “work out” comfortably for hours without stopping. Working out for a long time is the key to weight loss, right? And starving yourself, right? Wrong! Elliptical work is as close to a waste of time as exercise can get. It does not matter how hard you try to go. The machine moves itself. You cannot get any intensity from an elliptical. Those machines suck. I would say they should all be sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but then we would probably end up with out of shape fish. So I’ll just say they should all be smashed to pieces. Moving on. Biking. The intensity is up to the biker. Biking faster or on a stationary bike turning up the resistance makes it more beneficial. Sitting there cycling your legs against air resistance for an hour is as worthless as the elliptical. Walking. Not intense enough, but faster is better. Running. The intensity is up to the runner. Running hard for 15 minutes is more intense and more beneficial than trotting along for an hour. Are runners usually in good shape? Yeah, the competitive ones that run hard. Even at high school level, female cross country runners run 5Ks at under 6:00-mile pace. That is not easy exercise. That definitely has a decent level of intensity to it. But the “runners” you see trudging down the sidewalk at 4 miles per hour tend to not be in great shape. Again I just want to be clear. I am not saying that any exercise is bad for your health. But I am saying that a lot of the exercise people do is not at all effective for achieving the goal of a lean body.

Now let’s talk nutrition. Developing a lean body is not a matter of just exercise or just diet, both must be addressed. Developing attractive musculature requires some high intensity exercise. However when it comes to just managing weight, nutrition is arguably the more influential factor, because it determines how many calories are consumed and also has significant influence on how many are burned. Recall that the body adjusts metabolism in response to intake. We want the body to maintain a high metabolism because doing so is healthy and makes getting lean much easier. The body is not willing to burn a lot of energy if it is not given a lot of energy. You cannot consistently burn 5,000 calories a day while eating 2,000. The body will not do that. It violates survival instincts. The first dietary principle to follow is simply eating sufficiently. Do not starve yourself. Do not have a snack and call it a meal. Do not choose your food based on what has fewer calories. Calories are not bad. Your body needs food. Plain and simple. You gotta eat! The second principle to follow is eating frequently. The body adjusts metabolic rate constantly. To keep it willing to burn a lot of calories throughout the day, it has to be fed throughout the day. It is important to always eat breakfast. It is important to eat several times throughout the day. It is important to be adequately fueled through any activity and to refuel immediately afterwards. It is important to eat before bed! That’s right. I said it. The alleged cardinal sin of weight loss, eating before bed, is actually a good thing to do. (For more explanation of the frequent eating principle, read my Nutrition Timing article.) Following these two principles, along with a good exercise program will result in a high metabolism. This will account for some lack of perfection in terms of what you eat. A high metabolism can compensate for some pizza, cookies, etc. On the other hand, if you turn your body into an efficiency machine, there is no hope. Too many people get this idea in their heads that calories are bad. Any way they can find to avoid them is considered a positive. If they can make it from dinner to bed without eating, it’s a victory. If they can skip breakfast even better. They consider anything with fat in it “bad for you.” They always choose the diet or lite option. Any deviation from the low-calorie strategy has to be compensated for with a workout. They starve their body in hopes that it will burn fat, but instead it just becomes more and more efficient. It gets better at not burning calories. It burns muscle for energy, maintains fat stores for survival, and craves junk food because it is in desperate need of calories. This is a hopeless approach to developing a lean body. The more extreme it gets, the more unlikely success becomes and the more unhealthy the body gets. One more time. You gotta eat!

jump science nutrition
Now let’s talk about what to eat. The only completely healthy foods are those that come directly from plants. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds,  beans, etc. That’s it. Plant foods contain every last component of good nutrition you can ask for. All other foods have at least a small flaw. A lot of people believe in animal products like milk, eggs, and meat. That’s largely because people grew up on these foods, and also largely because the bodybuilding and fitness worlds have an obsession with protein. Truth is your body needs way less protein than the amount recommended by supplement companies. If humans could eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds exclusively, we could all eat as much as we want and be lean and healthy. Unfortunately that is nearly impossible in today’s world. We are no longer walking around in a paradise of produce where we can pick delicious fruit and nuts off trees and eat them all day long. Food is now an industry rather than a free supply. So you’re probably going to have to eat some things besides plant foods in order to get enough calories. The goal is to get as much as you can from plant sources. Then fill in the rest with food that is at least on the healthier side of things. That’s where milk, eggs, fish, chicken, and meat come in. Avoid fast food, fried food, alcohol, sweets, etc.

So we have four nutritional principles to follow.
1. Eat sufficiently
2. Eat frequently
3. Eat a lot of plant foods
4. Avoid unhealthy foods
I firmly believe that a person who follows those principles and consistently exercises at a high intensity will develop a lean body over time. If you wish to achieve some more aggressive weight loss, still follow those guidelines, but just eat a little less. If you want to gain weight, eat more. Either way following those principles is the healthy way to do it.

A couple notes for athletes who need to lose weight or lose fat. First, if you play your sport and train for your sport, you have the exercise part of the equation covered. The solution is not to add more exercise. Nutrition is the area where you need to concentrate your effort. Second, it is hard to predict what immediate effect weight loss will have on athleticism. In the long run, getting lean is beneficial because you want the mass on your body to contribute to your health and athleticism. Excess fat does not do that. It just weighs you down. However, aggressive weight loss often brings with it loss of strength. Your strength relative to your body weight is what really matters, and that may go up, go down, or stay the same when you lose weight. Getting lean is still a good step to take, but doing it quickly may or may not positively affect athleticism right away. The approach I recommend is to establish a healthy lifestyle and get lean over time. That allows you to focus on getting stronger and not really worry about where your weight ends up. For example, let’s say a male athlete weighs 80 kilos and has 20% body fat. He could try to lose fat and get down to 10% body fat at 72 kilos. Or he could focus on building strength, feed himself better, and end up at 10% body fat at 82 kilos. The second option is likely going to leave him with higher relative strength and certainly with a higher metabolism.

Back to the healthy lifestyle. It’s really just about living a natural life. First, exercise is natural. The human body was made to move. Exercise has a long long list of health benefits, not because it’s some fantastic method someone discovered, but because the body was designed to move. The problem is that the world today does not require people to move much at all. It encourages laziness. Most people’s days are full of sedentary activity. Kids have to sit in school all day, do homework, read, and study. When they reach adulthood and finish school, they’re finally qualified to sit at work all day. There is not much time to commit to exercise for most people, so you have to make that little bit of time count. That is why high intensity exercise is so important. An entire day of inactivity is not compensated for by an hour of cardio. Not even close. On the other hand, an hour of deadlifting is plenty of physical stress for your body to handle. Second, good nutrition is nothing more than natural nutrition. Eat when you are hungry. Eat food that the earth provides. It’s really simple. Live a natural life, and you’ll have a healthy body. Notice that there are no bizarre tricks or “insane fat-burning secrets” here. And this is not some extreme test of will. The lifestyle I’m advocating is actually quite enjoyable. You don’t have to go hungry, work out for hours every day, count calories, eat special food that’s delivered in the mail, eliminate fat, cut carbs, take fat-burning pills, sprinkle magic powder on every plate, or add up your food points. Instead you wake up and all day long eat food that makes your body feel good. The human body wants to be healthy. We do not have to come up with wacky ways to manipulate it into doing so. Just live the natural life.

I am not the only one preaching this stuff. Here are some links to good info from other exercise and health professionals.
Yogurt Is Not A Meal
How To Train: Female Edition
The Lean And Lovely Recipe from Eat, Lift, and Be Happy
The Youtube Channel of the author of Eat, Lift, and Be Happy (note what type of exercise she does)