If there is one underlying rule I live by and coach my clients on, it is matching caloric intake to activity level.
This means if you “move less” you must “eat less” or you should EXPECT to gain bodyfat over time. Maybe not over night or after a few months, but definitely over years. This is science and no one can beat science 🙂
In the reverse, if “move more” you must “eat more” to back up your activity so you can have better quality workouts and more importantly…gain muscle. Moving more and eating less will work in the short term (and some people need this to get jump-started), but in the end you can’t gain muscle without sufficient calories. And gaining muscle is you key to sustaining any fat loss you see in the short term. But, matching up caloric intake to activity level (and your body composition) is challenging, takes patience and takes TIME. This takes time people. You should expect to constantly be adapting your caloric intake depending on the type of activity level your life is currently dictating. If your life is consumed currently with 5 kids at home, a career and only 2 workouts per week, then eating less is probably your best bet. But, if you are an empty nester finally, have time to exercise 6 times per week, you can probably and should be eating some more calories than your previous self when the kids consumed your life.
What about age Ryan? I’m not 27 anymore and my metabolism just isn’t what it used to be. Life sucks because I can’t enjoy the food or drinks that I used to. What do you think?
Well, age definitely does a play a role in your metabolism! You got that right. It would be nice to be 18 again! But what I would urge you to do is to take a step back and seriously look at your activity level as you aged. The reason I say this is because if age was the ONLY reason your metabolism sucks and you have gained weight in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s then EVERYONE would be over weight after their 20s. What plays a MUCH bigger role in weight gain over years, is simply that people are less active as they age because “life” takes over or injuries happen or you just lose interest in exercise for whatever reason. If you average less than 10,000 steps, hell less than 15,000 steps per day and don’t participate in resistance training (or at least some sore of manual labor job or hobby) I would bet you have gained un-wanted weight over the years.
But, I have numerous examples of clients and family who have lost weight (I am talking bodyfat %) in their 50s and 60s. Age did not hold them back! Age was not an excuse! Yes, it won’t be as easy to lose weight in your 50s as in your 20s. But, it is still possible! My dad is a prime example. He is down over 30lbs in three years in his early 60s. He is as lean and strong as I can ever remember him being. Age was not an excuse. He never misses workouts (6 a week) and is obsessed with his steps per day (15,000-20,000). He also tracks his food so he can enjoy drinks on the weekend. His ACTIVITY LEVEL and NUTRITIONAL DISCIPLINE is allowing him to see results instead of making age an excuse that he can’t lose weight. By being so active he can still enjoy his weekends and not gain weight back. Don’t we all want this?
Move more 🙂
But, lets put age aside and talk about eating for performance OR eating for fat loss. These can go hand in hand to some degree, but too often people try to overlap them and this can end poorly.
Ya see, a lot times we set cool fitness goals like running a half or being able being able deadlift a certain amount of weight while ALSO having a goal of looking our best and leanest. These two things can happen together, but often this is not realistic. This is because eating for “performance” takes more calories but looking lean takes less calories. That just doesn’t make logical sense, yet people continue to go after both goals simultaneously. Can you train for performance and looking better at the same time?
The answer is, you really can’t in the short term. But, it is possible to look better and perform better in the LONGTERM! It just takes more time and patience than most people think. If you are very new to exercise or very new to tracking calories and hitting a proper calorie range for your age, body fat % and activity level, then you can improve performance (ie: run longer or faster or get stronger) while getting leaner. But, this doesn’t last forever. I usually start to see clients lose workout quality after 3-4 months of being in a calorie deficit to lose weight. If they want to continue gaining muscle and improving their performance it is time to increase calories for a time. Eventually to improve your performance for your fitness goals you must eat more food to have more fuel. Trying to run a half marathon on a low carb diet ain’t going to work for most people 🙂 This is when things get tricky. As you eat more to have better performance you might gain “a little” body fat. Are you OK with this? Are you setting fitness goals to perform better or are you setting fitness goals to look better? There is a big difference….
**For example..me. I could be leaner than I am. I could drop another 3-4% bodyfat in a matter of 4 weeks with very strict nutrition. I have done this. I know what it takes. It was not fun. I would rather eat a little more food, have more carbs, have better workouts and keep the muscle I currently have. I would rather have better PERFORMANCE than look my leanest possible.
There has to be somewhat of a trade off. But, this doesn’t mean you can’t get leaner (lose bodyfat and gain muscle) over time while improving your performance while running, biking, lifting etc. If you want to get leaner and PERFORM better it takes a dedication to your nutrition and being willing to change things up over time. This is a concept I have talked about before called “calorie cycling.” This means also cycling through different goals. Maybe trying to look leaner for summer and then ramping up your lifting in the fall and winter by setting strength goals.
Going back to the first sentence of this post….”match your caloric intake to your activity level.” This means as you are trying to lose weight your activity level should be LOWER than when your goal is improving performance for a race or specific lifting goal. Losing weight (again I am talking about body fat here) needs dedication on nutrition and gaining muscle, NOT cardio. But, improving your performance for a race like a half marathon obviously requires more cardio AND eating more calories. Again, it is hard (and kind of counter intuitive) to set a goal of getting super lean WHILE also running fast or lifting heavy. I recommend setting one goal OR the other and going all in on it that way you can properly set up your caloric intake. Here is an example of how to set up your goals and calories for a calendar year (this is what pro athletes do to stay lean in the off season but also PERFORM better during the season):
September-January: focus on gaining strength and muscle WITHOUT a main focus on looking super lean (maintain your current weight but if you gain a little, not the end of the world) = moderate calories if a beginner and higher calories if you have been lifting for a few years and are pretty lean
February- focus on getting lean (drop 5-15lbs) for a vacation in March by lifting and dialing in nutrition = lowest calories of the year (notice this is one month)
March-April – start training for a half marathon in September = moderate calories as running volume is still low (don’t want to gain weight)
May-August -main focus is again on performance (this time on running, not strength) = high calories because you are running 20-40 miles per week AKA you are moving more so you eat more and you need the energy to complete your long runs
September – start over on your yearly cycle and each chip away at your goals of looking leaner (gain muscle in the winter, improve fitness level in the spring and summer)
This is just ONE example of how to set up your workouts and nutrition on a very basic level. I cycle through different goals like this as it keeps my fitness life interesting and I can chip away at getting leaner and gaining a little muscle each year, while also not improving my running times. If you have been consistently exercising for years, don’t expect to see HUGE changes in your body or performance by making only small changes in your routine. Instead, focus on one area of your fitness at a time (like strength OR running) and keep the other areas “good enough” to get by until you switch your focus back again.
Often times people tell me they have performance goals but their underlying motivation is simply looking better. Nothing wrong with that! But, fitness is really fun when you can have BOTH 🙂 Be patient, and chip away, it is possible with time.