Unless you’re “naturally thin” (if any such people truly exist), getting and staying fit has to be one of the most difficult components of your life. Yes, fitness is a “component” – a fundamental part of your well-being. Unfortunately, unlike breathing, fitness isn’t automatic – you have to do something about it – namely, get up, exercise, eat right, sleep – and then get up and do it all over again, every day. If that isn’t enough, you even have to decide what each of these activities means for you: What is eating right and how much should I eat? What kind of exercise should I get and how much is enough? Ugh.
It’s enough to cause you to throw up your hands and walk away . . . but don’t – there is one fundamental fitness concept that supersedes all others: the calorie (or kilocalorie, to be technical). In the case of your diet, a calorie is simply a measure of energy in a particular food item. To maintain your weight, your body needs a certain number of calories per day, even if you perform no physical activity whatsoever. This number – your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – is essentially the number of calories you could eat without gaining weight if you sat on the couch all day watching t.v.
Once you know your BMR, managing your weight becomes a fairly simple (elementary school-level) math problem: if you consume more calories than the sum of the calories you burn while being at rest (your BMR) plus those burned by any exercise that you get, you will gain weight. Conversely, if you take in fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. Ridiculously simple. So, why do we all struggle such much with our weight? Determining the elements of the equation requires work: you have to count your calories.
That’s indeed bad news, however, it’s not nearly as bad as the news you will get when you start counting, particularly if you are significantly overweight. In my experience and from what I’ve learned from helping others, it is likely that you are consuming more calories – often two to three to four or more times as many – than what your BMR says you need. What’s most disheartening is that, if you’re reading this post, you’re probably trying hard to watch what you eat (maybe even following the latest fad diet), and you’re probably exercising with some regularity and intensity, but you’re still struggling.
What’s wrong? Well, you probably underestimate (if you have a clue at all) how many calories are actually in the foods and drinks that you consume, you probably overestimate how many calories you burn from exercise and, most importantly, you probably don’t know how many calories you actually need. If, however, you commit to counting your calories, you will figure these things out rather quickly, and likely be very disheartened with what you learn.
Consider that government-mandated food labels are based upon a 2,000 calorie per day diet, a generic substitute for your actual BMR. Then consider that a “healthy” grilled chicken salad at your favorite sit-down casual restaurant likely packs a walloping 800-1000 calories, or half of your daily allowance, without counting bread, drinks, etc. Then consider that, at a “vigorous” pace on your gym’s elliptical machine, you’re likely burning no more than 12 calories per minute (so 30 minutes = 360 calories burned). When you factor in all of the other calories you consume in a day and the fact that you’re not likely to get that much exercise every day, it’s hard to make the numbers work. The inescapable conclusion is that you must actively manage the caloric equation.
So, where do you go from here?
- Figure out your BMR. There are a number of calculators available free on-line to help you determine your BMR. Depending upon your level of activity; hit one, take 30 seconds, enter the stats, get the number.
- Start tracking. Measure out your portions (use a kitchen scale and measuring cups & spoons) and start counting with the first calorie you consume. You could use an old-school, manual food diary, but the good news is that, in counting calories, today’s technology is your friend. Again, there are plenty of free calorie counting websites online and mobile apps for your smartphone that are incredibly easy to use. I couldn’t live without mine. (P.S. the app will likely perform step #1 for you in a matter of seconds during set-up).
- Manage your diet thereafter with the degree of importance it deserves (your life literally depends on it). Track everything, track honestly and track every day. Why cheat? – you’re only hurting yourself.
Finally, and most importantly, learn to view your diet as a discipline – something you practice every day. You will never master (i.e., be able to quit) weight management and there will be plenty of days when you blow it completely. However, the great thing about the calorie counter is that, each night at midnight, it resets to zero. If you fall down, get up, dust yourself off, and get right back to it. If you do the math, and keep doing the math, you will succeed. It’s that simple.
Thanks as always for reading. Take care.