My friend and talent agent, Doug Bailey, asked how I stay lean and fit. There are unfit lean people and fit people who are not lean. But I hope everyone who wants to be both lean and fit will find these tactics helpful.
First, let’s address what you don’t control: genetics and age. Your genes contribute about 20 percent to your body shape. So if you like your body shape, keep most of the credit. If you don’t like your body shape, keep most of the responsibility – and have hope.
Age means you have to work harder to achieve the same result. Each year past physical maturity – late teens to early 20s – our metabolism slows. Calories don’t burn as fast. Recovery from workouts takes longer, as does healing from injuries. You can call this unfair or you can sing Elton John’s “Circle of Life” and admit reality.
Now that we accept our genes and our mortality, let’s get lean and fit. Here are my tips, ranked more-or-less from general to specific.
- Make health a core value
Then recite this value to yourself in positive affirmations. (“I am lean and fit. I am healthy.”) If you find positive affirmations ridiculous, recall that Stuart Smalley’s creator was elected to the U.S. Senate, and the pastor of America’s largest church teaches positive affirmations as much as he does the Bible.
- Make food an ally
Consider food neither reward nor enemy. It’s tough to escape childhood without either misperception. I was a high school wrestler. For athletes who must build and maintain strength while shedding every ounce of fat for weekly weigh-ins, food can become an enemy (e.g., self-induced vomiting). Food is your ally in health, in fitness, in lean strength. More about food to come.
- Find workout buddies
Whether you work out at home or in a gym, work out with a friend. This will help hold you accountable to your workout schedule, and will increase motivation while you train.
- Toss It Up
Variety keeps you interested and focused in your workouts. It also helps you avoid injuries from repetitive stress.
In scheduling your workouts, allow your muscle groups at least one day of rest. (Exception: abs, which are built for endurance.) So if you want to exercise every day, don’t do full-body workouts. Focus on specific areas. Oh, and 7-8 hours of sleep each night will help your muscles recover and grow.
One of the workout DVD sets I enjoy is UFC Fit with Mike Dulce. Mike’s slogan is, “Stop working out and start training.” I like that, but it’s even better to stop working out and start playing. Ever played tag with your kids (or dog) in the back yard, or Marco Polo in the pool? Get ready to suck some wind.
- Drop “Cardio”
By “cardio,” I mean that steady pace jog / treadmill / elliptical / stationary bike routine for 20-40 minutes. Does it strengthen your heart? Yes, if you push hard enough. But it won’t build muscle mass, which you need to be lean, and it’s a poor way to build endurance. Instead….
- HIIT It
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the most effective way to build both endurance and lean muscle mass. You can do HIIT routines on a stationary bike, with dumbbells, with body weight calisthenics, with CrossFit. My favorite is sprinting.
- Go Arnold
You don’t have to be a body builder. But if you want to be lean and fit, you’re going to need to build muscle mass, which means weight training. This is especially important as you age, because muscle mass decreases with age. But be careful with weight training – it’s easy to injure yourself. If you don’t know what you’re doing, hire a trainer to get started.
- Down, Dog!
Yoga is essential to flexibility, body symmetry, and reducing injury. I recommend yoga at least 2-3 times per week. If you need to double-up a yoga session on a day you do weight training or HIIT, make one or the other a lighter workout.
- Fuel Your Inner Athlete
Protein is the building block of muscles. The usual dietary recommendation is one gram of protein per one kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds). So, a 175-pound person needs to eat about 80 grams of protein every day. But that’s not a calculation for people who are working their muscles hard. It’s actually a challenge for athletes to consume enough protein. So your protein sources matter. If your preferred protein is hamburger, you’re going to damage your cardiovascular system. Remember, health is our core value, so ixnay on eating pigs and cows. Abstaining from these high fat protein sources will help you stay lean. I’m a vegetarian, but I also eat fish, eggs, and goat cheese. Add lean chicken breasts to this list if you like. But to give yourself enough protein, you’re going to need to…
- Shake It Baby
Protein shakes come in a wide variety of product quality and cost. Here’s the skinny: avoid whey, sugar, chemical sweeteners and ingredients you can’t pronounce. What does this leave you with? Powders made from pea protein and/or brown rice protein, which use natural sweeteners such as stevia or monk fruit instead of sugar. These alternative, natural sweeteners won’t boost your blood sugar levels, which means they won’t lead to inflammation or cravings for more sweets. My preferred protein powder is MRM Veggie Elite (find it on Amazon). I mix it with a combo of almond milk and coconut milk.
- Kill Sugar
Just kill it, in all forms: white sugar, cane sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, fruit juices. And for the love of all things healthy and good, NEVER eat high fructose corn syrup, which is omnipresent in processed foods, breads, crackers, and cereals. If you find this radical, it is. You will have to scrutinize every label of every pre-made product you buy. You’ll also have to….
- Limit Restaurant Meals
To at most one per week. A restaurant’s job is to make you love its food, so you will come back and eat more. Restaurants add flavor using salt, sugar, and fat – all of which you want to limit or eliminate. Are there restaurants that are good for you? Absolutely. There’s True Food Kitchen, a chain located in hip cities such as Newport Beach, CA and Austin, TX. But even at healthful restaurants, you will need to….
- Avoid Alcohol
Alcohol is sugar, and it retards muscle growth. Some people argue persuasively that a glass of red wine with dinner is important for heart- and gut health, but if you’re exercising regularly, you don’t need that added help.
- Choose Carbs Wisely
Not all carbs are created equal. Avoid breads, cereals, and pastas. Limit fresh fruits to the equivalent of one apple per day. Instead, eat your vegetables. If you think vegetables don’t taste good, sauté them in olive oil instead of steaming or boiling them, which robs them of their flavor.
- Don’t Eat Three Square
If you’re training, you won’t want to go that long between meals anyway. Your blood sugar will crash. Instead, eat a healthful breakfast and dinner, then have a mid- late morning protein shake, and 1-2 small protein-based real food snacks in the afternoon. Examples of snacks are two handfuls of pistachio nuts, or apple slices dipped in hummus.You may also want a second protein shake a couple hours after dinner, but at least an hour before bedtime. Yes, that’s six meals or snacks a day – but if you’re training hard, you’ll need it. The object here is not to go hungry. It’s to eat the nutrition that will help make you lean and strong. Food is your ally.
- Check Your Thyroid
If you can’t remember the last time you got a blood test, get your thyroid level checked. TSH (for thyroid-specific hormone) is measured on an inverse scale: the higher your score, the lower your thyroid. Healthy people want a TSH reading in the 1.0 – 2.0 range. (Your doctor may say 1.0 – 5.0. Ignore him.) If your TSH level is above 2.0, get a prescription for synthetic thyroid – an inexpensive, easy-to-take generic drug. Despite it being the most prescribed drug in America, it’s also the most under-prescribed drug in America. In other words, many people have undiagnosed low thyroid. Symptoms of low thyroid include lethargy, feeling cold all the time, hair loss or dryness, brittle nails, constipation, dry skin, enlarged thyroid gland, high cholesterol, irritability, sexual dysfunction, slow heart rate, sluggishness, and weight gain. Those are all things we want to avoid.
- Be Safe
This list contains a fair number of cautions. Ultimately, you are the best expert about your body. Tune in to your body as it undergoes the transformation you desire. And be discerning about what advice you listen to (including mine). Don’t let a doctor, trainer, workout buddy, or jealous spouse discourage or divert you.
- Have Fun
A coach of mine likes to ask, “Is this a ‘get to’ or a ‘got to’?” Eating healthfully and working out daily should be a ‘get to.’ Tell yourself it’s fun, and it will be. Your mind is the most powerful organ or muscle in your body. So while you put your body through training, put your mind through training, too, by reading or watching personal development.
Remember, you got this!