There comes a time in every young person’s life when they are dealt the devastating truth that magic just doesn’t exist.
The lucky ones were sat down by their parents, mournful eyes transfixed on the old people who had hoodwinked them for a decade, and told: “Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are, in fact, us.”
The unlucky ones, like me, find out at school. Other children, wise to the world, mockingly shame them for believing the lies told by parents. My youngest child told me that money is not the same as when I was young, and he therefore expected a decent return on his teeth.
Dear reader, the time has come to tell you the truth about fat loss tricks. While not quite like the big fat man in red, it’s also a let-down. Let’s start with how it’s different — almost everything you read about fat loss will work to some degree. But not on its own. And certainly not over the long term.
Popular media is full of it. No doubt, you will have read: “Try this four-minute workout to blast the fat” or “Twenty minutes a day is all it takes to shed the pounds” or “Miracle supplement sheds the extra kilos” or “Cut out this one thing and drop two dress sizes”, or any variation of these.
I live with a trainer who trains people every day whose goal is almost always to “lose fat”. Second, I developed an obsession with fitness and strength while editing the sports pages at Business Day. I left, and after signing up to do a fitness and nutrition diploma to start training people — which was a waste of time and lost my interest within a month — I went and worked at a fitness publishing house where I met incredible international athletes, coaches and sports scientists. I’ve been surrounded by what works and what doesn’t work for more than a decade. Then, there’s the small matter of my own journey.
Over the space of about six months in 2011, I shed all excess fat, sported defined muscles, could run for hours, and felt like a million dollars. It equated to roughly 6kg weight loss. I wouldn’t be lying if I wrote any of these: “Carb cycling works to lose fat” or “High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT) helps blast the fat” or “Strength training is crucial for sustained fat loss” or “20 minutes every second day shaped my abs” or “Hill sprints and interval runs dissolve love handles”. It depends on what I wanted to sell to you, or whether I wanted to push a new idea, or at the very least, write something that sounds sexy — or attracts the clicks.
Here’s the truth: on Monday, Wednesday, Friday I did 20 minutes mobility followed by 40 minutes strength training focusing on big, functional compound movements. Tuesday and Thursday I did 20 minutes HIIT made up of a variety of metabolic conditioning protocols, including sprints and Tabata. Saturday mornings I did 40 minutes metabolic conditioning that resembled CrossFit type activities — think flipping tyres, hitting them with hammers, box jumps and pull-ups, followed by a 20-minute, controlled run. I did that for four months, and in the final two, I added 20 minutes of high-tempo walking or low-tempo running on Monday to Friday in the evenings.
I measured every meal I ate during the week and followed a very carefully planned carb-cycling protocol that included high-carb days, medium-carb days and low-carb days. I drank very little alcohol and cut out most sugar.
That’s how I went from sporting love handles and a swollen face to being lean, ripped and fit. After those six months, I left the personal trainer as it had become too expensive, and trained by myself, and bar a few hiccups along the way that coincided with stressful life changes, have never returned to the shape I was in prior to that “transformation”.
What’s the moral of the story? There’s no magic. It requires hard work, and losing fat sustainably requires all or most of the following to be in place: eat properly (it does not have to be carb cycling); cut out sugar; go easy on the alcohol; exercise a minimum of five days a week; do a variety of activities and don’t forget weight or strength training.
If you don’t like what you’re reading or it seems like too much in a world where none of us has patience, try this little thought experiment. Remember the looting? That was four months ago. Think about how fast that time has passed. Imagine you started exercising and eating properly then — you would be a different person already. Imagine starting during level 5 lockdown, you’d have changed your life forever by now. Time passes in the blink of an eye — a commitment will see your transformation happen in the blink of an eye.
Yes, Tabata works, but only if you eat properly and do enough of the other exercises. Yes, HIIT works, but only if you eat properly and cover your bases with steady-state cardio and strength training. Yes, some fat burners appear to work, but they won’t if you eat poorly, as you’ll just rebound and upset a whole lot of things inside your body. Yes, starving yourself will work — but only until you start eating again.
That’s a dose of reality. Rather than being disappointed, find activities that you enjoy doing and it will be a wonderful, exciting journey.