Whether it’s trying to firm up and get in shape or just losing weight to fit into holiday outfits, you want to see quick fitness results.
But how quickly can you honestly expect to see your dieting and exercising pay off? And, more importantly, how quickly is actually healthy?
The Downside of Fast Results
In a perfect world, weight loss or, more specifically, fat loss, would be instantaneous. But that’s not how the human body works. Instead, everything from your hormones to neurologic system and signals adapt to every little change in your diet and exercise routine.
And, when you change things too drastically, like when you cut your daily food intake from 2,500 to 1,200 calories per day or try to tackle an hour long boot camp class on day No. 1 of your gym membership, your body’s adaptations do more harm than good, says Grant Weeditz, a certified strength and conditioning specialist at Anatomy 1220 in Miami.
Your body perceives that food is in short supply, you’re starving and, in an effort to spare calories, it starts burning protein (aka muscles) for energy. “This will shut down the fat-burning metabolic processes of the body and start the downward spiral of metabolic damage,” Weeditz says. “The more you cut calories, the more you have to continually cut to see results. Avoid this situation like the plague.”
What’s more, this reduction in resting metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn just to live) means that fast weight loss generally doesn’t stick around for long and instead leads to rebound weight gain, explains Atlanta-based board-certified sports dietitian and registered dietitian Marie Spano.
Also, it’s important to remember that your muscles don’t get stronger or faster during your workouts. You get fitter in the hours and days in between your gym sessions as your muscles repair and adapt to any given workout, Weeditz says. If you work out for hours every day – especially if you were working out for zero hours last week – or train the same muscles during back-to-back days, you aren’t going to give your body the time to appropriately recover. The result: You aren’t going to see the fitness results you want. And there’s nothing more frustrating than working hard in the gym and not reaping the gains you expected.
The Right Rate of Fitness
While, generally, most people should not aim to lose more than 2 pounds per week in order to maintain lean muscle, people do vary in how fast they can safely lose weight, according to Weeditz.
Any visual or weight changes might not jibe with the full benefits going on in your body. “For an overweight individual seeking to lose a substantial amount of fat and gain muscle, eight weeks of training may only show a change in upper arm size,” Weeditz says. “However, local fat loss around the area may actually be significant, but muscle increase in the same area minimizes the visual size reduction.” Meanwhile, for someone who started an eight-week program with only 10 or 20 pounds of weight to lose, any muscle gain will likely show up as definition rather than bulk, since it is hidden under less fat issue. In the long term, since a pound of fat takes up much less space than a pound of muscle, people who gain substantial muscle while losing fat actually reduce their body size.
For that reason, it can be beneficial to gauge not only weight or even size, but also body-fat percentage in order to get a more realistic look at the changes occurring in your body.
Eating for Fitness Results
Your body needs fuel – as in food – to have enough energy to exercise and boost fitness, says Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist with a private practice in the Boston area and author of “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.”
Taking in 200 to 300 calories before a workout helps people perform better, she says, compared to exercising on empty.
If you’re getting up and running before work, have a banana or piece of toast with peanut butter first, Clark suggests, to get some gas in your tank. Also, hydrate with water or coffee – some type of fluid. Then, go for your run.
Eating breakfast before a morning workout actually makes the body burn more carbs during exercise than does fasting since the previous night’s dinner, according to a small study of male cyclists in the November 2018 issue of the American Journal of Physiology: Endocrinology and Metabolism.
If you’re looking for six-pack abs, first, be realistic about your genetic makeup and family history, Clark says. As far as eating, her advice is similar: “Fuel by day, eat a little less by night, go to the gym, build muscle and push yourself away from the dinner table.”
If losing weight is the result you’re seeking, Clark suggests following an active lifestyle and chipping away by dropping a half-pound a week or so. “You can do that without being miserable, without being denied or deprived,” she says. “It’s sustainable.”