While diet and other lifestyle factors play a huge part in our well-being and appearance, there’s no question that smart, strategic exercise can help us achieve optimal health, shape our bodies and most importantly, make us feel good.
By choosing the right activities, we have the power to strategically boost our hormones and influence our physiology, enjoy functional benefits beyond aesthetics, relieve stress, empower ourselves physically and mentally and have fun (working out should be enjoyable and rewarding – never a chore!). Based on these principles, the exercise you’ll find on this blog will be broken into the following categories: lifting, sprinting and leisure.
If you truly want to change the shape of your body and boost your short and long-term health, you must make heavy lifting a priority. This means using primarily compound exercises (military presses, bench presses, bent over rows, pull ups, dips, squats, deadlifts, etc. and all their variations) and performing sets between 1-10 reps with a challenging weight (i.e. the last rep should bring you to failure).
Lifting heavy weights is known to yield the following benefits:
- Increases production of human growth hormone (akin to the fountain of youth)
- Increases lean mass, improving body composition (muscle:fat ratio) and metabolism
- Encourages fat loss
- Increases sex drive and sexual performance (thanks to a boost in testosterone)
- Increases bone density
- Improves sleep patterns (and improved sleep means less cortisol, more human growth hormone, etc.)
A word to the ladies: do NOT shy away from lifting weights because you think you’ll “get bulky”! This common fear is completely unfounded; females simply don’t have the hormonal profile to build muscle at the same rate as males, and building muscle isn’t even that easy for most men. To achieve lean, shapely curves and feminine definition, you need to challenge yourself and give your body a reason to change—so throw away the pink dumbbells and start lifting heavy!
To avoid overtraining and keep stress in check, be sure to allow yourself adequate recovery between heavy lifting sessions and try to keep them within an hour, two to three times per week.
Sprinting might be one of the most effective – not to mention efficient – activities you can incorporate to your fitness regime. With sprints, you can get a full-body, fat-torching workout in 15-20 minutes or less. My favourite way to incorporate sprints is through high intensity interval training, or HIIT. This means < 20 seconds of ALL OUT effort (something is chasing you!) followed by as much recovery as you need to be able to push yourself to 100% effort again. If you’re doing it right – literally pushing yourself to the brink – you shouldn’t be able to exceed a 20 minute workout. Sprints and HIIT can include running (outdoors – better yet, uphill – are awesome), but the recumbent bike (one of my favourites) or even series of big, compound movements like burpees can be used in intervals to switch it up.
Some of the benefits of sprinting include:
- Improved fat metabolism (as a result of improved conservation of sugar and glycogen in your muscles)
- Optimized body fat ratios (sprints are an amazing way to break through a plateau)
- Increased muscle fibre strength (i.e. your sprint sessions will help your lifting)
- Increased aerobic capacity (work ability)
- Increases in muscle mitochondria (the main energy production center in muscle)
- Improved insulin sensitivity
- Increased production of human growth hormone (similar to lifting)
Sprints are also incredibly mood boosting and have been shown to have hunger-blunting properties, as well. To protect yourself from the stress of overtraining, it’s best to alternate sprinting and lifting days (rather than double up on the same day) and incorporate sprints two to three times per week. Here are some outdoor and indoor sprint workout ideas to get you started!
Slower-paced, restorative and leisurely movement is the most underrated and often-neglected part of any fitness program, but potentially the most critical in achieving optimal health. It can also be the key to bursting through fat loss plateaus for its ability to regulate stress hormones (which counter fat burning) and by encouraging the use of fat as fuel (rather than glycogen).
Activities like slow-paced walking—particularly in nature settings—should be incorporated as much as possible on a daily basis. Yoga, foam rolling and other restorative activities are also great. Our modern, largely sedentary lifestyles contradict the way our bodies are designed; humans are designed to be moving almost constantly at a slow pace during our waking hours, with short bouts of high intensity activity (like the lifting and sprints detailed above) peppered in.
Regular leisure walks are linked to the following benefits:
- Increases production of fat-burning and fat-transporting enzymes
- Reduced cortisol (stress hormone) production
- Improved immunity
- Increased capillary network (blood vessels that supply the muscle cells with fuel and oxygen)
- Increased muscle mitochondria
- Increased feelings of well-being
Slow-paced, leisure activity should be non-negotiable and be enjoyed daily for no less than half an hour.
But what about “Cardio”?
You don’t need hours of cardio drudgery to achieve sustained fat loss and health; in fact, there’s mounting evidence to suggest that you shouldn’t.
From a physiological standpoint, spending endless hours on the elliptical or pounding the pavement in an attempt to burn calories, lose weight and/or get fit can be hugely counterproductive to achieving these goals. For any cardio queens (even kings) that may be reading, I would strongly encourage you to read the article Running Into Trouble by John Kiefer for more in-depth, expert insight on the topic.
The trouble with traditional cardio is that its rationale is largely based on the “calories in vs. calories out” model, which completely ignores the hormonal and physiological effects of exercise—two things that are far more powerful in determining fat loss and muscle gain. To summarize, chronic conventional, long-duration cardio:
- results in muscle catabolism (i.e. your body breaks down your own muscle to feed itself)
- decreases efficient fat burning
- is disruptive to thyroid hormones and thus metabolism
- increases production of the stress hormone, cortisol (and cortisol + insulin = belly fat)
- increases systemic inflammation and oxidative damage
- increases hunger and cravings, particularly for carbohydrates and sugar
In addition to an unfavourable metabolic climate and potentially impaired health, the aesthetic result is often less than desirable – either increasing fat or encouraging a “skinny-fat” result.
But before your toss your running sneakers, bear in mind that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a good old fashioned run in fresh air if it makes you happy and makes your body feel good. I’m simply pointing out that endless hours of forced, boring cardio drudgery isn’t the solution. After all, if you’re taking the time to exercise, it might as well be as effective at accomplishing your goals as it is enjoyable. Thus, if your goal is to lose fat and change your shape, you’re be better off working with your body to do it—lift more, sprint more, walk more and relax more.
A well-written article I love that further explores our bodies’ response to different types of training is detailed in JillFit’s 11 Reasons You SHOULD Do (the Right Kind of) Cardio.
Ultimately, my point is that exercise should never feel like punishment or paying penance—it’s an opportunity to connect with yourself physically and feel empowered, strong and GOOD in your own body. And not only will taking this approach to fitness and exercise make you happier and more likely to stick with it, but your body will show it.