How do you forge a successful lifestyle transformation? Our guest writer, David Sciola (New York City-based Fashion model, and fitness and nutrition writer), shares his four lifestyle truths. He discovered them over more than 15 years of a relentless pursuit of optimal fitness and nutrition.
At 13 years old, I was unhappy with my body. My pre-pubescent years of soy milk, McDonald’s and Kit Kats had left me with ‘puppy fat’ and little man boobs. With a new-found level of competitiveness (and therefore physical motivation) at High School, I decided I’d had enough of being a chubby kid. I took matters into my own hands, or more correctly, onto my own hands. My (re)solution was push ups.
Every night I did two sets to failure of push ups, in secret, in my bedroom. At the start I could barely do five in a row. But I persisted and the gains came quickly. I formed a habit.
Twelve months later, I was doing two sets of 80 push ups every night. My body had transformed, no doubt thanks in part to rocketing testosterone and better nutrition. At the same time, I completely gave up refined sugar.
My body composition improved dramatically, my moobs turned to pecs. As my posture improved, girls started paying attention to me. My confidence grew.
What was the win?
Improving your physicality and appearance is great, sure, but this was not the biggest win from my obsessive push up routine. The thing that made this experience transformative was the fact that I had formed a new habit. This simple habit – push ups every night – was the catalyst for me to forge a better, healthier lifestyle.
I can appreciate now in that a simple act of willpower and discipline as a 13 year old boy became a rather profound life event. In just 12 months I had undergone a personal paradigm shift – a new self-identity: from chubby kid to ripped guy.
I’ve never looked back since.
Here are my four truths, discovered over the past 15 years of my relentless pursuit of optimal fitness and nutrition.
Warning: Some of these truths are controversial, in the sense that they stray from conventional wisdom. But conventional wisdom is often wrong; I think it’s about time the world of fitness and nutrition was proved to be round. People are still stuck thinking it’s flat!
Truth 1: The only way to truly succeed is to forge a lifestyle that is sustainable, enjoyable and effortless.
Your end goal is a healthy lifestyle – and the self identity that goes along with that. For example, I am lean, strong and take pride in my appearance. I like exercise and enjoy eating healthy. Depending on your starting point this may take years, or a lifetime, to achieve.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about it. It is self-fulfilling given that you focus on the means.
The means are your healthy habits.
You need to form healthy habits in the easiest, most achievable way possible. Why? Because humans have an extremely limited amount of will-power. It’s certainly not enough to force yourself to eat healthy and exercise regularly if this is not already part of your daily habits and therefore lifestyle.
So the only way to forge your new, healthy lifestyle is to form a habit.
To form a habit, just do it – and keep doing it
Setting goals can work for some people, sometimes. If you really want something that works every time for everyone then there is only one path. And Nike had it right all along: Just do it.
Do some exercise or movement. Do it regularly. Keep doing it. It doesn’t matter what “it” is. It could be push ups, it could be Olympic weight-lifting, it could be yoga.
Find something you like doing and can stick to and then just freakin’ do it. Do it for the long term. As long as you are getting some gains from it, however small, then you simply cannot go wrong if you stick with it.
When you form a positive habit, it can influence the rest of your life. Pick up a few more of these healthy habits and before you know it you’ll have a healthy lifestyle. When you have a healthy lifestyle you are set. You “did it”.
Your fitness and health goals will become self-fulfilling so long as you can maintain those good habits.
What to do
If you hate running on a treadmill, don’t run on a treadmill. If you hate eating kale, don’t eat kale. Find something – anything – that works for you. So long as it moves you towards your end goal, keep doing it.
Try it in the next three months! Aim to discover three new resistance exercises that you enjoy more than the ones you are currently doing. (Try goblet squats, kettle bell swings or wall balls). Or try my push up routine every night.
Truth 2: Setting lofty goals is not necessary and makes failure almost certain.
A New Year’s resolution to go to the gym for one hour, four times a week is flat out foolish. Similarly, a goal to lose 10 kg in three months is just as futile.
It’s futile because you’ve just placed a massive, steep, rocky, slippery mountain of darkness in front of you. When you realise how bloody impossible it is to scale that thing, not only will you feel guilt and remorse, you won’t even bother attempting it.
You’re far better off lowering your expectations and focusing on smaller, achievable goals that will facilitate long term gains.
What to do
Instead of a big mountain, think of your fitness as a cute, little piggy bank. Every time you do some movement or exercise, however small, think of it as though you’re putting a few coins in the piggy bank. Just keep contributing when you can: Sometimes more, sometimes less. Before you know it, your little piggy bank will be full. Bonus, you may not be so much of a pork chop anymore!
Set up a real ‘fitness’ piggy bank. Throw in 50c for walking the dog. $1 for a fitness class. $2 for a sprint workout. When it’s full, spend the money on some personal training sessions or massage. This is also a great way of motivating kids!
Truth 3: Sleep and nutrition are more important than exercise when it comes to body composition.
You can smash the gym every day, but if you’re eating sausage rolls, drinking Coke and only sleeping five hours a night, you are going to look, feel and perform like crap.
There are no two ways about it: Eating dirty and still looking good is only possible for teenagers, professional athletes and a couple of genetic freaks of nature. Even they are not necessarily healthy humans.
Think long term. Bad habits will catch up to you. Good habits will keep you ahead of the aging game.
Exercise, particularly resistance training and high intensity or ‘burst’ training such as intervals or sprints, is absolutely crucial when it comes to building lean muscle mass and thus transforming your physique and health. Then there are the insulin sensitising, stress management, dietary and even social benefits that can arise from regular exercise.
However, as great as exercise is, your efforts in the gym will be fairly useless if you don’t also focus on your nutrition and sleep.
What to do
Cut out processed foods including refined carbohydrates (particularly wheat and sugar), and industrial seed oils (such as corn, sunflower, canola and margarine). Eat fewer carbohydrates from grains and legumes. Focus on getting your main source of fuel from healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocado, pastured eggs, grass-fed beef and butter, and wild-caught fish. Try to sleep at least seven hours a night, preferably eight.
Read my blog to discover why this way of eating works and how to start.
Truth 4: Eat less, exercise more does not work.
Less than five per cent of people who try to lose weight by restricting calories and/or increasing exercise succeed. That’s right: 95% of people who try to use the conventional wisdom of “calories in, calories out” to lose weight, fail. I told you we have limited will-power!
A quick diversion: The Calorie Myth
Additionally, the calorie myth is complete rubbish and needs to be shattered to pieces. It is flawed in every way. We were far better off, less neurotic, leaner and healthier prior to the 1970s when the calorie was discovered and first entered the fitness and dieting language. Regulating your energy intake and expenditure long-term is as ridiculous an idea as trying to consciously regulate your breathing, blinking or toileting.
The human body is infinitely more complicated than a bomb calorimeter – you can’t measure energy in and out. You also can’t equate that to fat gain or loss. The body precisely regulates energy expenditure. If you deprive yourself of fuel, not only will you not lose weight, you simply won’t function properly. You will slow down like a bear in hibernation.
If the calorie hypothesis were true, let’s do some maths. Given that I’ve been eating 3,000-4,000 calories a day for the past three years, then I should be… close to 457 kg right now! But I’m not. I’m 83 kg, as usual.
You need to eat enough quality, real foods to sustain a healthy metabolism. For many of you, particularly women who already exercise, you may need to be eating a lot more than you currently are to get lean. You heard me, you may need to eat more to lose weight. Quality is the key here though. If I ate 4,000 calories of pizza every day I probably would be 457 kg!
The true path to great body composition is by optimising your hormones. You do this by good nutrition, smart exercise, sufficient sleep, stress management and several other lifestyle factors.
Hormonal harmony leads to healthy metabolic function, which leads to healthy body composition. Get these ducks lined up and you can eat until you’re satisfied, train minimally, look good naked and never worry about calories ever again.
What to do
Eat healthy, nutrient-dense food until you are satisfied. Then, harness that energy to fuel your short, intense workouts.
Try it out
Flip your mindset: Do workouts that you find fun (e.g. boot camp/rock climbing/frisbee/yoga) and treat them as a reward for eating healthy food. Get rid of your old attitude of treating food as a reward for gruelling, mind-numbing exercise that you dreaded (e.g. 40 minutes on the elliptical or treadmill).
Your Top Take-away from this
My best piece of advice is: Make your end goal a healthy lifestyle that is sustainable, enjoyable and effortless. Don’t let perfect get in the way of ‘good’ or ‘better’. Find your ‘it’, just do it – and keep doing it.
Don’t let any lofty goals, setbacks, distractions, or excuses get in the way. It’s not the ‘it’ that matters, it’s the doing.
“Form a habit, forge a lifestyle.” – The Paleo Model.
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