You're probably reading this because you are wondering what a financial planner knows about fitness, and why in the world you should listen to him. You may be surprised to find that I actually know quite a bit, and it comes from experience. Be ready, this is a long one, but I promise you'll be glad you read it. I am not claiming to be an "internet fitness guru", doctor, physical therapist, nutritionist, or professional athlete; I wrote this to simply share my personal experiences and to teach you about the realities of improving your physical health, not just your financial health. No matter if you're in your 20's, 50's, or haven't exercised in 15 years, this article will help you understand what it takes to make a real difference. The health and fitness industry has grown so vast that there is virtually unlimited access to information, and it leads most people confused. Rather than add to the confusion, I hope to educate you on some basic concepts that will help you determine what works for you and what doesn't.
Why listen to me? I speak primarily from my personal experiences; Training for several natural fitness competitions (I no longer do them for a multitude of reasons unrelated to health), my current lifestyle, and a passion for research and learning. In a past life I was an athlete and a certified personal trainer, however... that does not mean I am or was an "expert" in anything (I say this in the most self-deprecating way). Although, it does show that I at least have a very basic knowledge of general health, anatomy, and training as well. I ask you to be objective when reading further, and hopefully you can take away a nugget or two that will help you improve your fitness and your wallet!
Your Diet vs. A Diet
When most people decide they want to start losing weight or lose a few pounds for a specific date (i.e. wedding, vacation), they tend to completely flip their normal eating habits on their head. How so? They go on "a diet". How many new diets have you heard of in your lifetime? Pre-packaged meals, points, shakes, paleo, blood-type, low carb, no carb, no fat, blah blah blah. Do you ever wonder why none of these diets ever stuck with you or anyone you know? It's because they ask you to go to an extreme by cutting out large food groups you've eaten your whole life and go cold turkey. All of the different "diets" out there act as if they are the magic bullet to losing weight. The truth is, there is no magic bullet. If there was a magic bullet diet it would be the only one around because everyone would be doing it.
How about the "juice cleanse" where you do nothing but drink sugary juices to flush out all the "bad stuff"? What exactly is being cleansed, and how? What is being flushed out that was stuck in your body making you unhealthy? Obviously when you start to really think about it, none of that makes any sense, nor does it help you lose weight properly. Let's do the no carb diet because carbs are bad for you right? WRONG! That couldn't be further from the truth. The point is going on "a diet" is a temporary fix, it does you no good if you can't stick to it and therefore won't change your life either.
The key to effectively lose weight is to make adjustments to "your diet". Your diet is all of the food/liquids you currently eat and drink. By just adjusting "your diet", you can begin to see significant changes. Not to mention, it won't deteriorate your mental health either. Imagine starting "a diet" that required you to completely eliminate all carbohydrates. You wake up everyday eating deli meat, leaves and almonds. I used to call that eating "pine nuts and tree bark". Sounds crazy right? That's because it is. You won't be very productive in your day-to-day activities when all you can think about is food; then you fold one day and eat three pizzas, a pint of ice cream, and go out for drinks after. Some diet eh? By now you should understand that going on "a diet" doesn't work. Let me teach you how you can adjust "your diet" to get the results you want.
How Weight Loss Really Works, In a Nutshell...
Losing weight properly and effectively is theoretically quite simple: Expend more energy than you consume. In other words, "use more calories than you consume". It really is that simple, but before you start eating one small meal a day please hear me out. Let me start by breaking down the different ways your body expends energy (uses calories) each-and-every day:
By Physically Doing Nothing: That's right, if you were to lie awake on the couch doing absolutely nothing your body would still be burning calories. Your body needs energy just to merely keep you alive. This is widely known as your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR and it's different for everyone.
Moving Around: Every little thing you do day-in and day-out burns calories (i.e. walking, standing, fidgeting, typing). This is technically known as Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT and is basically all of your movements other than exercise.
Exercise: This is of course the most obvious way to intentionally burn calories. When it comes to burning calories specifically, there is no magic exercise. However you would have to do a lot more walking to burn the same amount of calories as you would playing basketball, or sprinting for instance. My personal favorite is resistance training! Do what you enjoy.
Food: There is such thing as the Thermic Effect of Food or TEF which refers to the fact that it actually takes energy to get energy out of the food you eat. Protein has a higher TEF than most other foods (however please don't change your diet to protein-only).
After you take all of these factors into consideration, you come up with a ballpark amount of total energy/calories you expend in a day. From there you simply track how many calories you consume on your average day, and assess the difference. This is of-course different for everyone. Some people move around more than others, some have very active jobs, some people exercise and some don't, you get my point.
Don't worry, I don't expect you to understand the TEF of everything you consume or calculate your daily NEAT. The good news is, science has come a long way and there are formulas you can use to ballpark the total of the combined factors above, you just have to be honest with yourself. I wont break these down completely because that would go beyond the scope of this article, but here's how to do it in a nutshell:
Start by searching the internet for a BMR calculator that will take into consideration your height, weight, age, and gender. Plug in the appropriate numbers for you and it will spit out an estimated number of calories your body burns per day "laying down starring at the ceiling".
For the next part of the formula, you need to determine the amount of activity you do in a day (there are many different formulas out there). This is where you need to be brutally honest with yourself! This would include all daily movement and exercise if any. A popular and widely used formula is the Harris-Benedict Formula.
From there you will get a multiplier to apply to your BMR. Simply do the math and you will get an approximation of the total calories you burn per day. Therefore this is also the amount of calories you would need to consume per day in order to maintain your current weight! You would be consuming the same amount of energy that you expend, leaving you at a net zero. This number is your maintenance caloric intake.
NOTE: When it comes to calculating, don't worry too much about the TEF mentioned previously. I wanted to mention it earlier because it does play a role in weight loss but is complex and virtually impossible to account for on a calorie-by-calorie basis.
How to Apply What You've Learned to Start Burning Fat
Now that you understand that weight loss is simply a matter of energy in vs. energy out, let's piece this all together. You now have a baseline number to work with in terms of calorie consumption. Start by tracking the number of calories you ACTUALLY eat in a day. There are various phone apps nowadays to help you do this easily. Once you have done that for a week or so, you will realize where you stand in reality compared to the maintenance number you calculated. If you ate that maintenance number of calories on average, you should maintain your current weight. If you are actually eating more than that amount, you theoretically should be gaining weight. Eat less than the maintenance amount, and you should lose weight.
It takes roughly 3,500 calories to burn a single pound of fat. So theoretically, if you wanted to burn about a pound of fat a week (which is a healthy rate), you would need to be in a 500 calorie deficit per day (3,500 cal / 7 days). Notice how I said deficit and not "eat 500 less calories per day". If we apply the knowledge we learned previously, we know that we can either consume less, or use/burn more calories in order to achieve an overall caloric deficit. In other words, using my example you can eat 500 calories less per day, exercise and burn 500 calories more per day, or some combination of both! The key here is not to go to the extreme and eat far less than usual while also starting to exercise extensively.
These are tools in your toolbox, start by doing one thing at a time, then start to combine them in any way you want. You do not want to lose weight too fast. Trying to drop twenty pounds for your vacation to the islands in two months is not healthy and you will most likely gain more weight afterwards. Eventually your fat loss will plateau because your metabolism will adjust. This is crucial because if you go too crazy too fast, then you will have nowhere to go in order to continue dropping those unwanted pounds. If at the start you cut your caloric intake in half and started doing two hours of cardio a day, and weight loss stops...are you now going to eat nothing and do three hours of cardio? See my point?
Let me quickly explain the last key pieces to this weight loss puzzle, macronutrients. The main macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fats (alcohol can also be added although not typically seen as a nutrient, depends who you are talking to). These are the main nutrients that we as humans get our energy from (calories).
Remember this: One gram of protein is 4 calories, one gram of carbohydrates is 4 calories, one gram of fat is 9 calories, and one gram of alcohol is 7 calories.
If you were to look at a nutrition label you will see the number of total calories at the top. Below that you will see a breakdown of the protein, fat, and carbohydrate content along with other things. If you take the grams of protein, cabs, and fat in that particular food and multiply them respectively by their values above, you will get that total calorie number.
Protein is arguably the most important of the three for weight loss purposes because it helps build muscle and has the highest TEF. However, protein still has calories. My point being that if your maintenance calories were 2,500 calories per day and you ate 3,000 calories from pure protein, theoretically you WILL gain weight (that is also not healthy). Carbohydrates are important for all sorts of bodily functions, they are not your enemy. Fats are also crucial to help regulate healthy hormone levels.
Determining how many calories need to come from each macronutrient is an art. There is no black and white answer. As a rule of thumb I suggest you get about a gram of protein per pound in lean body mass. Then, let the rest of your available calories come from carbs and fats in whatever percentages you desire. Eat the way you like to eat. If you try to eliminate a macronutrient in its entirety you will also likely be missing out on essential micronutrients which includes vitamins and minerals.
The Bottom Line
Whether you are a diabetic, vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, allergic to gluten, vegan, or a gluttonous garbage can like me, you can find ways to make it work based on these principles. There are slightly more intricacies to this whole weight loss thing, but with the information I've given you so far you should be able to make a dramatic difference in your life. Yes it is a little daunting at first, but once you have the basics down it is actually fairly easy to get started on your fat loss journey.
My main goal of this article was to show you that you don't need to jump on the latest fad diet or buy tons of supplements, waist bands, and phony pills. Don't get me wrong, certain types of supplementation is good, but it isn't necessary. Supplements are meant to supplement an already healthy diet, they aren't the end-all-be-all. Try to save that money and put it towards your child's future or your retirement instead!
These are the same principles I used to get prepared for natural fitness competitions in the past (absolutely no drugs, fat-loss pills, or steroids). I adjusted my diet over a four month period to look my best for just one day. Guess what? Everyday leading up to it I was able to eat like a normal person and had foods like: pizza, burgers, pasta, bread, and yes diet soda (it doesn't make you fat). How? by understanding portion control, knowing my boundaries, and yes I work out a decent amount. No I don't walk around looking like that everyday because that actually isn't very healthy. However I have been able to maintain a very healthy body weight and lifestyle ever since. Turn your diet into something you love and enjoy, and know that the only diet that works is the one you can stick to for the long haul.
Cameron Valadez is a CFP® Practitioner located in Riverside, CA.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, and CFP® in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements.