Tag Archives: Women’s Fitness

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You started seeing them pop up a few weeks ago.  It was probably slow at first - maybe just one Facebook advertisment or one little post on Pinterest:

21Days2

Abs everywhereeee

But now that Memorial Day and the end of the school year are getting closer and closer, you're reminded that your body is just so not ready for the beach more often than Hallmark reminded you to buy a card for Mother's Day:

21Days

Oh look, more faceless abs!

But let's get real here for a moment.

Yeah, it's nice to think that you can look like that model in 21 days, and the juxtaposition of her abs next to "21 Days" is 100% to make you feel like that's what you'll get...even though both you and the advertiser know you know better.

Unfortunately, deep down, your emotional brain doesn't give a damn what your logical brain has to say on the matter.  It wants to be sexually appealing and comfortable NOW dammit!

But as you've read in my Bullshit Detector ebook, you know it's my mission to give you the information to better arm your logical brain.  So let's ask the only actually relevant question about 21 day weight loss challenges:

How much can you really change in 21 days?

Is 21 days enough time to make any actual visual change?  Can you look better in your swimsuit in a mere three weeks?

Anecdotes won't help us here.  When you're trying to logically judge whether you should believe in a certain idea or purchase a product, the last place you want to get your information is from the person promoting it.

Think of it this way, have you ever applied to a job, and they ask you the question "what's your biggest weakness?"  Your answer and your parent's or former employer's answers are probably quite a bit different:

  • You: My biggest weakness is that I'm a perfectionist. (Nice 'humble-brag' answer, good job!)
  • Your Mom: Her biggest weakness is that she takes 3 hours to do her hair in the morning and always makes us late.
  • Former Employer: Her biggest weakness is that it takes her 3 weeks to do a project that should only take 3 days.

My biggest weakness is that I'm a workaholic. No, I mean that I just care too much about customers...actually it's that I have a hard time maintaining a good work / life balance because I work sooo hard. Or umm...actually it's that I have mild OCD when it comes to expense reports and logging my hours. IT'S ALL OF THE ABOVE!!

See how the message sounds quite a bit different depending on the perspectives and motivations of the person telling it?  This is one of many reasons you can't just Google "21 Day Weight Loss Challenge Results" and expect to get an unbiased opinion.

Where can you get an unbiased opinion?  Glad you asked!

Scientific Studies!!

So let's run the gamut of ways you could try to change your physique in 21 days by looking at studies on various diet plans, starting with the most drastic:

Complete Fasts

What better way to understand how much you can actually change yourself in 21 days than at its most extreme - abstaining from all food for 3 weeks?

There aren't a ton of studies done on normal, healthy people fasting for extended periods of time...it's probably not always the easiest to squeak by the ethics committee.

But, you'll most certainly lose a ton of weight.  How much depends on what size you start out at, but it's going to be a combination of:

  • Water
  • Muscle Tissue
  • Fat
  • Lack of anything solid in your system (aka no poop. Yeah, it registers on the scale)

But if you're a healthy, ~120-130 pound,  21-25 year old female, you might lose about 17 pounds of a combination of the above substances. (1)

A few studies (2, 3) seem to indicate that you can expect about half of weight loss to be due to water.  (As well, you can reasonably expect to gain all the weight back later. (4) )

At the same time, you run the risk of significantly increasing your cortisol levels, becoming emotionally distraught, and fairly irritable...so you'll maybe look a little better in a bikini but you won't give a crap.  On top of that, can you imagine how miserable and bloated you'd feel after breaking your 3-week fast on some chili cheese fries?!

Could look hot on outside, but feel miserable inside.

(To be fair, this study only had 5 subjects and most of them did just fine emotionally during the 3-week fast.  However, they were basically secluded during the research and not given options to consume food.  If you increased the sample size and tempted them with food at every turn - like the real world does - what would the outcome have been?) 

Alternate-Day Fasting

So let's say you want to do something more "reasonable", like say, only fast for 1 day at a time rather than 3 weeks all at once.

This is accomplished by people who do a particular version of "alternate-day fasting" where the idea is that you won't eat for 1 day, then you'll get to feast the next.  Most people don't eat quite double the amount of food on the feast day, so weight loss occurs.

In one study, patients participating in alternate-day fasting for 3 weeks:

  • Lost about 2% of their original bodyweight. (5) (So, if you were 130 pounds, about 2.6 pounds)
  • About 1.1% of that was fat.  (1.4 pounds for our 130 pound example)
  • Around 0.9% was muscle and/or water. (1.2 pounds)

I know, I know after 17 pounds lost in complete fasting, 2.6 pounds sounds measly.  But keep in mind that you'll

  • Have more energy for exercise and life in general
  • Won't lose as much muscle
  • Are still in a completely reasonable and good realm of weight loss.

...Unfortunately, some participants were still hangry and irritable on their fasting days.  Go figure! So this does not appear to be a diet that could be maintained for a significant period of time by yourself.

So how about you eat a little something everyday, but cut your intake by half?  That's like the best of both worlds, right?

Low Calorie Diets

Usually these kinds of interventions (along with their sibling, the VERY Low Calorie Diet) are reserved for the super-obese who need to lose about 50 pounds of pressure off their heart and lungs now, and are in a hospital setting.  But you need to look hot in a bikini.  So that's like, comparable in urgency, right?

Well, in an old but very well-known and interesting study, a group of men were put on a diet that involved 1/2 of their daily calories needs, and were also expected to walk 22 miles each week.  (6)

One of the study participants - during the Starvation Cycle on the left and going through the Recovery Phase on the right.

This study is so well-known because of the harrowing pictures of the men after 6 months of this and their extreme emotional duress and depression during the process.  One man had to be eliminated from the experiment after just a few weeks for emotional instability.

Just how few calories were these men on to induce such dramatic weight loss and mental problems - surely something crazy like 600 per day, right?

It was ~1,600 calories per day.

To be fair, this "diet" extended over 6 months time, much longer than any 21 Day Weight Loss Challenge.  As well, the diet was mostly carbohydrates and basically no protein to prevent muscle wasting, described as:

...starvation diet reflecting that experienced in the war-torn areas of Europe, i.e., potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, dark bread, and macaroni.

Tasty.  Anyway, a summary of this experiment is:

  • Participants ate a little less than half of their maintenance calories for 6 months.
  • Diet was a high-carbohydrate, low-fat and low-protein diet.
  • Participants walked 22 miles per week.
  • Weight loss came out to an average of 1.5 pounds per week for 6 months.

...Doesn't this actually sound kinda familiar?

This diet sounds like an exaggeration of what many of us do to lose weight:

  • Eat a low-calorie, low-fat, high-carb diet.
  • Log in the miles via walking / running / cycling
  • Do so for an extended period of time - possibly indefinitely

I'm not trying to say that you're going to end up looking like the man in the above picture - health problems and mental issues and all - by following the above regimen.  If it was up to you, your body wouldn't let you get to that point assuming you didn't have an eating disorder.

What I am trying to say is if you ever beat yourself up about "falling off the wagon" after "being so good" for 5 days...think about that in a new light.  Your body doesn't like running 3 miles a day on 1,200 calories of Special K with skim milk for weeks on end.  For most of us, your body will overpower your mind.  That's probably for the best.

Hey, at least they're bucking the trend of this article and going for a 14-Day Challenge instead!

Summary: So what can you accomplish in 21 Days?

Complete Fast: ~17 pounds if you're a young, normal-weight female.  Half of this will likely be water.  The rest will be a combination of muscle tissue and fat, depending on your activity.

Alternate-Day Fasting: ~2% of your bodyweight for healthy, normal-weight people, half of it being fat.

Low Calorie Diets (~50% of daily needs): The men in the study started at ~150 pounds and lost on average 1.5 pounds per week over 6 months.

If you eat a similarly high-carb diet, you can probably expect this or a little bit more over 21 Days as weight loss is typically greater during the first few weeks.

If you eat a low-carb diet of similar calorie levels, you can expect to lose more due to losses in water weight.  Note that this won't affect your appearance much.

Overrall: In all studies, subjects gained back all, or close to all, their weight back afterwards.  Some even ended up heavier. Across the board were reports of irritability and distracting hunger, though this wasn't the case for all participants.

Moral

Look, I know the quick fix is always tempting, especially when you want to look good for a particular event.  Marketers PREY on that.  Just read Harper's Jumpstart to Skinny book (essentially a 21-Day Diet) - he repeats over and over how much you know you want to look hot for the beach / reunion / wedding!

And I'll be real with you: it's not that you're likely to kill yourself on these diets. (Though there is seriously a reason why all the participants on these diets, especially complete starvation, were under constant medical surveillance.) They're short-term, and the negative physiological consequences tend to go away after a couple days of re-feeding.  (Though the mental ones can last much longer, which is my main concern) You'll probably even lose a fair amount of fat, an amount that you might even notice.

But now it's time for you to be real with me and with yourself: will it really make you that much happier to lose at most around 5-8 pounds of fat?  Do you want to exchange 3 weeks of stress and misery for maybe 1 good day at the beach, only to have to repeat the cycle every year because you'll likely gain the weight back from the crash diet?

WorthIt

6 pound difference - 160 on the left, 154 on the right. Worth it? Only you can answer that question.  (Also not covering my face out of anonymity, it was because I was making embarrassing faces in both pictures!)

Why not make this year the one that you do something permanent about your weight-loss goals by making small changes that add up over 365 days instead of huge changes that crumble after 21 days and leave you right where you started?

Maybe you have an iron will and you'll be really strict during your 21-Day calorie restricted diet, be really strict after, and keep the results.  But if that was the case...wouldn't it be likely you'd be at a weight you're happy with already?

If you made it this far, thanks for staying with me.  Leave a comment below, or share this with your weight-loss-hopeful friends and family if you enjoyed it!

P.S. While researching this article I came across this book on fasting.  I only read Chapter 4 about fasting for medical interventions, but it looks like a good resource on the use of fasting for various reasons throughout human history!

P.P.S. I realize that many of the studies I posted are old, or I only used 1 study where it would be better to use at least 3.  Many of them have small sample sizes...unfortunately finding 3-week long starvation or semi-starvation studies on healthy, non-obese individuals was really, really tough.  So I worked with what I could find. 

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Summer abounds with month-long challenges: the 30 Day Squat Challenge, 30 Day Plank Challenge, 30 Day Body Transformation Challenge...it goes on.

This was the only picture I could find of a not half-naked butt.

Hell there's an entire website devoted to 30 Day Challenges.  I want to take a moment to talk about these challenges, and why they're so popular.

See if this sounds familiar:

What we WANT to happen after 30 days...

  • Day 1: I'm so excited to start this challenge!  It's a whole new way of life - but easy to do.  I'm going to look SO HOT in my shorts this summer.
  • Day 5: I'm pretty sore, so I know it's working.  I think my legs might be looking a little firmer!  It's hard work, but I've got this.
  • Day 15: Half way through!  I feel great, these squats are getting easier and easier.  They take a bit longer now, but it's no problem.  Man my legs look great.
  • Day 25: Finish line in sight!  In addition to doing a crap ton of squats everyday, I've been eating fresh veggies every meal and drinking a shitload of water out of my fancy water bottle.  It didn't even take any thought on my part.  I feel so light!  So pure.  Much healthy.
  • Day 30: Damn, my ass is fine.  I feel great.  It was tough, but this experience was truly rewarding and absolutely worth it.  Not to mention these results will last forever and I'm never going to have to squat again.

What ACTUALLY happens after 30 Days...

  • Day 1: I'm so excited to start this challenge!  It's a whole new way of life - but easy to do.  I'm going to look SO HOT in my shorts this summer.
  • Day 3: Holy fuck my thighs are sore.  I have to spend 5 minutes strategizing how to get on and off the toilet.  My coworkers spent all day asking why I was walking funny.  How embarrassing.
  • Day 4: I can't even do 5 squats like this.  Way too sore.  Good thing it's a rest day.
  • Day 5: Legs...so stiff...gonna have to take another day off.
  • Day 6: I dream of getting in and out of chairs without sounding like an angry boar.
  • Day 8: Okay.  Feeling better.  I got this.  So I guess I'll just have to pretend this is Day 5.  I'm feeling a little discouraged so I better look at some motivational quotes to get going:
Pinterest #5

"Fuck yeah! Let's do this!"

  • Day 12: Thankfully not feeling quite as sore, though getting in and out of chairs is still a bit difficult.  My main gripe is that I haven't seen ANY changes in my legs or butt...maybe they're a bit firmer?  I just can't tell.
  • Day 15: My knees hurt.
  • Day 17: Oh God my knees hurt.
  • Day 21: Had to take a day off and put some frozen peas on my knees.  Now I'm 4 days behind.  And I haven't seen any results.  Feeling discouraged.  Time for more motivational quotes:

"Ugh, how the hell does anyone actually look like that? Whatever, just keep going I guess..."

  • Day 22: Fuck this shit, I'm done.

And this is, for many people I know, how these challenges tend to go down.  But maybe not for those of you who start out a little less sedentary.  If you were exercising regularly before braving a challenge, you may complete the challenge just fine with little soreness involved.

And if you were proficient in squatting technique beforehand, maybe you'll never end up with aching knees.  Should you still do the challenge?

Reasons to do a 30 Day Squat Challenge:

  1. To build up some lower body muscular endurance
  2. Just for the hell of it

Yep, those are really about the only reasons I could think of.  Perhaps the best explanation as to why would be by explaining why you wouldn't want to do one.

Reasons NOT to do a 30 Day Squat Challenge:

  1. To "tone" your legs or butt
    As I went over in my muscle tone post, you'll be wanting to gain muscle and lose fat to achieve the "toned" look.  This workout accomplishes neither, really.  See point #3.
  2. To get stronger in the squat
    You'll get really good at doing over 200 squats in a row on this program, but you won't get really good at squatting heavier weight.
  3. To lose weight
    This may burn a few extra calories, but it isn't significant enough to make a big difference without diet changes as well. 

At the gym, we often joke when someone is doing 10+ barbell squats, that they're doing 'cardio squats' :

That's essentially how you can think of this program.

Here are some other reasons to pass up the next 30/60/90 Day Challenge your friends or coworkers start chatting about:

  • Not a well-balanced plan
    If you're doing a push-up challenge, do you ignore your legs?  If it's a butt challenge, do you ignore your upper body? Are you supposed to do these challenges on top of a regular workout routine?
  • Only one form of progression
    These challenges tend to only get harder in one way: by increasing reps.  While that's certainly one way of doing it, how do you keep improving?  Do you move all the way up to 1,000 reps a day?
  • Where do you go next?
    After you've completed the challenge, where do you go?  Do you move on to a push-up challenge and neglect your legs for a month?  Or do you go to another lower-body program that has you restart at 25 squats?
  • Not much is accomplished
    You're not building strength.  Not gaining muscle, not burning too many calories.  So in the end, what are you trying to accomplish?

I get the appeal of these kinds of challenges, I really do.  When you're not 100% sure what to do when it comes to fitness, having a solid plan written out by someone else is a huge relief.  It can even make working out more fun!  (I should know, I've paid someone to write my own personal workout program before, and I'm a trainer!)

As well, these challenges are stupid simple, don't usually require equipment (so they can be done alone at home), and promise you the world.  Plus, you'll get a real feeling of accomplishment after just 30 days.  Making real progress on your first pull-up or losing fat can leave you waiting a lot longer than that!

Moral

If they get you off the couch, challenges are fine!  If you're simply pushing yourself and keeping up with friends, they can be a ton of fun.

Just keep in mind they won't get you too much in the way of results.  For that, you'll need to eat at a caloric deficit and engage in some sort of strength-training program!

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Pinterest is the 3rd most popular social media site in the world.  In its own words, it is "a tool for collecting and organizing the things that inspire you."  In the US alone there are over 12 million users, the majority of which are women between the ages of 30-49, which also happens to be the demographic most likely to be on a diet and feel they need to lose weight.   

I figured it's been a little while since I've done a good post on what this blog was originally about - looking at how fitness is portrayed in various forms of media.  On that note, I thought I'd share a little glimpse into the world of fitness according to Pinterest users.  It's kind of like opening a pack of Starbursts and finding around 99% of them are the crappy pink ones:

Pinterest #1Pinterest #2Pinterest #3

These 3 pins give a pretty good sense of the fitness advice one would receive if you wandered into the "Health and Fitness" category on Pinterest.  Most of the posts can be boiled down to 3 categories:

1) Bloggers promoting themselves / others promoting bloggers (See pictures 1 & 3)

2) "Fitspo," aka pictures of lean girls with or without inspirational quotes

Pinterest #5Boxing while wearing lacey underwear - not exactly inevitable

3) Actually pretty decent recipes for the most part (I won't lie, I DO look at the recipes a lot.  Healthy General Tso's chicken has been my best find!)

Regarding pictures 1 & 3, it's not that these aren't exercises, there just isn't a rhyme or reason to any of them.  Why am I doing 525 jumping jacks in a week?  Why am I doing 5 kneeling push ups on Monday and then going straight to 5 regular push ups on Tuesday?  What am I even accomplishing here?  Burning calories?  Practicing movements?  Conditioning?  Anything?

Why am I doing bicep curls while in a plank?  Is my plank even any good if I'm holding it for like 5 minutes finishing that workout? (Probably not) Is it just for the challenge?  The novelty?  WHAT AM I EVEN DOING OH GOD MY LOWER BACK HURTS.

The thing is, this is basically every single post regarding workouts in the Health & Fitness category.  Here are some more choice quotes:

"The Butt Workout That Works - The Angels' trainer reveals the moves that help you feel confident in your undies. Victoria's Secret Workout: Butt Exercises With Trainer Justin Gelband"

"Detox by Twisting - Twisting poses feel great, relieve pain/tension in the spine, and promote detoxification in the body."

Pinterest #4I KNOW you know better than that. 

"Easy exercises to get rid of a muffin top... I do the standing ones whenever I am waiting in a changing room or am on break at work, at home, anywhere no one can see me lol They actually work :)"

"Tummy-Toning Yoga Poses: A strong core prevents back pain, improves your balance and posture, and hey — it looks pretty good in a bikini, too. Try out this yoga sequence to tone your midsection just in time for Summer."

"12 min?!?!? I'm all over this!!!! The Belly and Thighs Workout: Trim your waistline and shape beautiful legs and thighs in just 12 minutes."

I used to get angry when I read these pins.  "How can these women not know any better?"  I'd think to myself.   "How can that blogger pulling workouts out of their ass and giving them to thousands of women go to sleep at night?"  But once I calmed down and tried to remind myself to not be so fucking  judgmental, I saw the board as a valuable tool for reaching out to help.  Pinterest actually gives us a glimpse into the minds of the demographic that is most likely to spend their money on fitness and diet programs.  (Higher income, well-educated, middle-aged women)

Looking at the above pins, there is a lot to learn about what these women feel and desire:

1) Not to feel self-conscious while working out.  (" I do the standing ones... anywhere no one can see me")

2) Short, effective workouts to fit in their busy lives.

3) To feel comfortable and confident in their clothing - and their own skin.

How can I blame anyone for wanting workouts that fulfill these very basic, reasonable requests?  These 'pinners' aren't stupid, but they are perpetuating among themselves ideas that are not the most efficient ways to accomplish those goals.  Perhaps the bloggers promoting their workouts aren't promoting efficient ones, but they are ones that fulfill request #1 - able to be done alone in their own home without fear of judgement.

So what does this demographic believe is true in regards to exercise according to 99% of pins?

1) Running is the best way to lose weight / bodyfat

2) Strength training is done with light weights / many repetitions for toning and spot reduction.

What I personally conclude from this is that while I (and probably most of us who spend a lot of time in the fitness field) thought many of these myths had been disproved or at the very least challenged (ESPECIALLY the spot reduction myth), for the women who use Pinterest, they are still very real.

If you're a trainer you can see this everyday - explain that spot reduction is a myth, have your client nod in agreement.  Two weeks later they express concern at the lack of direct ab work - don't you remember they want to get rid of the pooch?

One of my first posts on my old blog was about the spot reduction myth - rest assured it's still as false as ever.  There are no specific 'thigh thinning' workouts just like you can't tone your tummy with core-focused yoga poses.  The only thing you can do to specifically reduce fat in an area is to reduce overall bodyfat through appropriate food intake and some sort of load-bearing exercise.

I know the above statement has been said a million times - maybe it still needs to be said MORE until it drowns out everything that promotes the contrary.

Which makes me wonder if I, and other like-minded fitness professionals / exercise enthusiasts, should have a heavier presence in this popular venue.  After all, it is one of the few pieces of BIG media that we can change directly RIGHT NOW.  There is no barrier to entry on what you pin and what category you can pin it to.

Could we change the thoughts of millions of women with more posts like this or this?  What about this one or this one?  Imagine a health and fitness board filled with informative, helpful, bullshit-dispelling posts like these.

I think it could be a powerful thing.

-------

After all that happy understanding mush, let's end this post with probably my least favorite pin that I've seen way too many times:

"1. Drink one glass of water every hour. It will make you feel full.
2. Drink ice cold water. Your body will burn calories just getting the water to a normal temperature to digest. Also it is great for your complexion. 
3. Drink 3 cups of green tea daily. It will help boost your metabolism, plus its anti-oxidants make your skin look great. 
4. Take vitamins daily. Do not take vitamins on an empty stomache, otherwise they have nothing to catalyze with. 
5. Eat ice when hungry. This will make your body think it had food without the calories. 
6. Eat spicy foods. They raise your metabolism. 
7. Take cold showers because your body will burn calories to heat you back up."

Sounds way too much like anorexia advice for my comfort levels.  I hope that if you read this you recognize it as OCD bullshit.