A friend introduced an interesting thought to me the other day. He said: “Think about a word not existing. If a word does not exist, you cannot “feel” what that word defines, because we give words or names to emotions in order to acknowledge them. What if there was no word for anger? Depression? Fear? Would you be able to be angry or depressed or experience fear?”
You could start a very interesting philosophical argument on that, but before I go too psycho on you, let’s take this to a fitness context. Arguments about semantics always get me a little crazy. Words are powerful because we place meaning behind them. If I asked you define the word “fit,” what would you think of? Those thoughts are your definition and interpretation associated with that word.
When you aim to get fit, you are aiming for what you define as “fit.” That’s where goals come from. “I want to look like this” or “I want to be able to do that.” We, as a society, are screwing ourselves over with the mainstream definitions of what “weight loss” and “being fit” means and looks like. Weight loss is touted as a great achievement and the epitome of success in “being fit.” Just look on the cover of People, Woman’s Day, Women’s Health, or Shape. We see testimonials about weight loss success outlining the numbers of lbs and inches lost.
This seems to be the height of fitness success; “I lost a lot of weight.” Why is that kind of flawed? Weight, as a word, means (Google definition): “A body’s relative mass or the quantity of matter contained by it, giving rise to a downward force; the heaviness of a person or thing.” In acknowledgement of everyone’s quest for a better body, success in being fit has become primarily defined as the number on the scale. Does that number reflect the true definition of weight loss? You could argue yes. Why? Because it determines our total mass for that time, place, and condition. But our total weight is dependent on so many factors, some of which can change from moment to moment. Like whether we just went pee. What we really want to be asking is “Does it reflect fat loss?” and “Am I looking the way I want, and either maintaining that or continuing to make progress?”
Hold up. Isn’t weight loss the same as fat loss? No. It is not. And in not making that distinction lies one of the big secrets behind America’s success is being able to create a market for just about every fad under the sun promising “weight loss.” We are all on a mission for weight loss, but we have not defined it properly, and most of us are still fat, unfit and getting more so. We chase the number, fashion our diet plans to reflect a number and then fall short of looking the way we want to look and feel. People often look perplexed when I tell them that weight loss is easy. “Oh (as an offended looks settles on their face) but I have been struggling for years. I am always trying to lose weight, and I just keep gaining it back. What do you mean it’s easy?”
Weight loss at its simplest is just being able to affect the energy equation in some way. Expending more energy than you put in. And ladies and gentlemen, you can do that in ever so many ways. You can’t even put a number on the ways you can affect weight loss.
Think of every diet you’ve ever heard of. Think of every marketing line you have ever heard of. Think of every low fat, low sugar, low calorie, low carb, metabolism-blasting tagline out there that relies on this flawed definition of weight loss to sell their products; that its all in the number on a scale.
Think of how often you have sex, exercise, stand up, sleep, walk, go to the bathroom, or get mad. All those activities affect the energy equation along with all the other things you try to do to make the scale go down.
This is why we all have to concede the fact that certain trainers or methods we don’t agree with DO get results. Because weight loss on its own is easy: Here, eat this and this and exercise 3x a week and you are done.
The problem we face as fitness professionals helping our clients is that the importance placed on how that number goes down is much less than just making the number go down.
We’ve been “brain-washed” into expecting rapid changes in our bodies, magic results and one-size-fits-all-fix-its. To your average fat-loss hopeful, who is overly focused on society’s current weight loss “definition,” a number going down is a number doing down, who the f cares how? I want results NOW! It must mean I am getting fit right?
Success in reaching our goal “look” (naked hotness) is highly dependent on how well we can manipulate the variables within our control to achieve permanent weight loss, but of the right kind; fat loss. And once achieving that success, keeping that success. If you are fat, you want to lose fat. If you are less fat, you still want to lose the fat that’s left and maybe get bigger muscles or more definition. If you have stubborn fat, you are still trying to lose that. And then we have the skinny, squishy ones…who still want to lose fat.
What most popular methods rely on is the fact that if you just affect the energy equation (usually with low calories and lots of exercise), you will lose weight. Well, yes you will. But then what? What you lost was not just fat, you lost muscle too. There is no way to directly control what KIND of weight is lost on a general scale (we are talking about the bigger picture here, not the specifics of water manipulations, carb manipulations etc that competitors may implement when appropriate, and which have a greater impact on specificity).
What we want is to create the most favorable environment for fat loss, and an unfavorable environment for muscle loss. Because keeping our muscle, and we all have some even if you can’t see it, is very important to fat loss success, and metabolic health. Muscle is denser than fat. It takes up less room, for the same amount of weight. Muscle is more expensive metabolically to “stay alive.”
Simplified, this means that muscle “eats more calories.” Every organ and function in the body requires energy from calories. Muscle uses more energy than fat to stay around. These benefits increase the more muscle you have.
What else keeps muscle around? Resistance aka strength training. Even if you are significantly obese, strength training while working on fat loss is a very important part of the equation. Creating positive changes in your muscles through increasing their strength (which does not correspond to them changing in size much necessarily) helps you keep that muscle while in a calorie deficit. So does a diet high in protein. Remembering those facts, will help you diet more successfully and track progress even if the number on the scale is not constantly going down.
The problem with focusing on strictly weight loss by whatever method possible, means that you may be negatively affecting your ability to maintain that loss further down the road because of the stress of muscle loss, low calories, excessive exercise or a combination of all.
The body is all about give and take.
On the one hand, it will respond quickly in the short-term when you shock it, and then resent you later and throw a fit. Kind of like a bad marriage. You want to keep it just happy enough and challenged enough to change, without sending it into spirals of bitterness and risk it shutting down altogether to where getting a response is as successful as humping a log.
Weight loss as a number on a scale is a part of measuring success, make no mistake. But how that number goes down is of more importance for long term success, not just that the scale is moving.
Scale weight may not change significantly even when your body does, especially if you have less than 10 lbs or so “to lose,” or are smaller and softer with no significant muscle mass. Your definition of weight loss will define how that weight is lost, and whether it is truly fat loss.
Don’t pigeon-hole your hopes of progress to what the scale reflects. Changing definitions is not just a lofty mental concept that hangs out on the edges of your mind, to make you feel smart as you read about it. It is the steel girders that support your skyscraper.
Your definitions are your actions. It will directly impact what you do every day. It will literally affect how you cook your meals, how you look at yourself in the mirror, how you decide if something is working, how well you manage stress. It will determine if you continue in a frustrated cycle, or are finally able to grasp and implement the principles.
Change your definition of weight loss and how you measure the progress your body is making, and you will get your results. Don’t get solely tied down to a number that does not truly reflect what it is supposed to.