Step up your walking workouts

Ok, so we all know that waking is the best workout routine ever (arguably of course 🙂 ). However what are we supposed to do once our bodies adapt to the exercise? What if we don’t get the same bang of the buck anymore?

The problem is that once you start losing weight, your muscles are getting easier workouts. Two things well happen: your body will burn less calories to walk with the same speed, and you are likely to lose some muscles in the process (because less strength is required to perform the same activity).

So, what can we do to bring the workout to the new level? Here are some ideas:

Increase the speed.

That would be the most straight forward action. You increase the insensitivity, requirement for oxygen, heart rate – your body will need to burn more calories

Turn your walking into a HIIT workout.

HIIT workouts are the magic fat loss pills – they don’t take a lot of time and target fat loss like no other exercise. Try walking really fast (I mean really fast) for half a minute or a minute and then get back to standard tempo for a minute and repeat the whole set few times. Or try altering short sprints with walking. Our maybe switch between walking and sets of high jumps or burpees. You get the idea.

Find some hills.

Similar to the previous one. Where it differs is the way you alternate the intensity – rather than changing the speed, you can change the difficulty of your workout by walking on an uneven terrain. My personal favourite are really steep hills that take 3-5 minutes to climb. Get up and down 5 times on one of those and you won’t ever need insanity workout classes again.

Walk with wrist weights.

Now that’s the one that often gets mentioned bit I personally don’t recommend. The idea is that body needs more energy to cope with extra weight and you do and workout while walking. You really should keep your weight training separately to walking sessions – you will not see any major gains by combining those two together because you can’t use sufficient weight while walking and you don’t perform a full range of arm movement while walking. What you will do is putting your shoulder joints under unnecessary stress which could lead to injury. If you want to improve the insensitivity of your walking session by adding extra weight or engaging your arms check the two options below:

Wear a weight west.

This method is much safer to wrist weights, as it will distribute the weight evenly across the whole body. You can easily add weight to get your muscles to work as hard as they had to while walking few months ago before you started losing weight. Word of caution: if you are obese I wouldn’t recommend adding all weight back to begin with. Wait until you drop down to overweight weight range (check your BMI) and start adding weight gradually. I got myself a XTR vest few months ago and it’s brilliant – you can adjust the weight from nil to 30kg and use it with any type of bodyweight exercises: Freeletics, Tabta, TRX, you name it.

Nordic walking.

My personal favourite. All you need is a pair of Nordic Poles (they are slightly different from your standard trekking poles) and some training, and you’ll be using 90% of your muscles while you walk (basically it’s a portable cross-trainer) and burning 20% – 50% (researchers can’t seem to agree on the precise number) more calories compared to standard walking. Pair it with few of the suggestions above (extra weight, interval training) and you’ll turn your walk into a fut burning power workout. Off you go! 🙂

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The only exercise you need to start losing body fat (a.k.a. “walk your fat off”)

​The magic formula, the ultimate weight loss secret, here it comes: stand straight, your abdominal muscles slightly contracted, arms loose. Now move your right arm slightly forward and simultaneously move your left leg forward. Land on the heel and move your body forward. Once your body catches with your extended leg, move your left arm and right leg forward. Repeat for 30 minutes few times a week.

Seriously, this is the only type of “exercise” I used to do for first 3 months of my weight loss journey. I don’t have much time in the evenings – I come home late, I spend few hours with my daughter before she goes to bed, and then spend about an hour working on my dissertation before I go to sleep. The only option for me is to wake up earlier (which means alarm clock set up for 4:15!). However half an hour spend on brisk walking before taking the shower gives me that extra boost in energy and clarity of mind in the morning. And hey, combined with careful diet I managed to loose over 20 pounds of weight in three the months. I have gradually started to incorporate more types of exercise into my programme since (some HIIT and resistance training) but walking is still an integral part of my weekly schedule.

It is commonly assumed that you need a total deficit of 3,500 kCal to loose a pound in weight (I have a bit of a problem with that figure, but I usually stick to it nevertheless as it is a rough approximation). Now let’s assume you are a male in your thirties and weigh 100kg (220 lbs). If you walk 7 km/h (4.5 mph) for half an hour you’ll burn 300 kCal. If you do that six days a week and manage to create a 300 kCal deficit daily for six days a week (which is very manageable) you are on a nice and easy road to your pound a week weight reduction.

Other than easy access to exercising and weight loss, walking comes with quite a number of impressive benefits: waking is one of the few features that really sets us aside from the rest of animal kingdom. We have evolved to walk. A massive proportion of our muscles are designed to either keep our posture erect or to move around on our feet. By engaging in walking you are using those muscles in they way they were meant to be used. It is also classified as a low impact exercise – it doesn’t put as much stress on your joints as running for instance, but it still increases the level of your cardiovascular fitness. As a matter of fact, according to the researchers from the European Society of Cardiology, 25 minute walk a day can increase your lifespan by 7 years and reduce the risk of heart attack. Other benefits include improved mood, metabolism, cognitive functions, reduction in cortisol levels and increased testosterone. It is also the perfect exercise on the rest days if you do any form of strength training – it will keep you fit, help you to loose weight, but will not impact your muscle recovery.

And yes, it is as easy as taking one step, and following it with another. However if you want to get a bit more techy about it, there is a book by Nina Barough called “Walking for fitness”. It has all sorts of information – walking benefits, the gear you may consider using, walking technique and walking plan (yes, can you imagine!) but most importantly it will provide you with a range of stretching exercises which is a must for anyone who is serious about it. Let’s be honest – a slow stroll may be nice and relaxing, but you really need to put a bit of an effort and get some speed if you want to see all the health and weight-loss benefits. Now you don’t want to get injured while walking because your friends will never stop laughing at you, so get some stretching and warming-up done before you leave the house and enjoy it!

I couldn’t have made it so far without this app…

OK, so this is the number 1 app in my arsenal, and I couldn’t have made it that far without it – MyFitnessPal. You can access it via a web page, or download the app for Android or iPhone .

What does it do? It’s basically a food tracker, but that description doesn’t do it much justice. It does what it says on the tin – it will keep track of the food you have consumed, give you total calories and break them down not only to carbs, protein and fat, but also to saturated and unsaturated fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals. You can input food by searching through a vast database, scanning bar-codes (awesome!) and creating your own recipes (you can also import them from your favourite food blogs but needs some manual intervention).

It will also track your weight and any custom measurements – what I also keep a track of is my waist and hips circumference, and body fat and muscle composition. It will calculate your intake daily targets based on your gender, weight, age and activity levels and adjust them to whether you want to loose, gain or maintain your weight. It will allow you to create custom targets for fat:carb:protein ratios and create custom targets for your vitamin and mineral intake.

It is also a part of Under Armour group and will sync with other apps and devices, so it can keep track of your fitness activities and adjust your daily goals accordingly. You can also add those activities in manually, so if you sweat 300 kCal on your cross-trainer in the gym, you can add that to your daily log (obviously take into the consideration the fact that the numbers those machines give you are not always accurate).

It also comes with big community support – it will give you an access to various fitness advice and get you in touch with other people trying to stay fit.

Why track calories? Well that’s a question that begs for a separate article, but the basic answer is – because it works! There are a number of diets that will tell you you don’t need to count your calories. Some of them work, but those are based on restricted food types or eating times, point systems, pre-planned meals etc. The simple truth is that if you don’t know what and how much you eat, you cannot take a control of your body weight. Some people are fortunate enough to be in sync with their bodies and eat exactly the type and quantities of food their bodies require, but those people are generally not reading diet and weight-loss blogs (so I assume you’re not one of them). Moreover, if you combine your diet with any serious exercise training programme, you really should know how much protein you consume every day at the very least.

I know that counting calories may sound like a massive hustle, but this little app makes it really easy. I probably don’t use it more than 2-3 minutes a day, and the results speak for themselves – it is a well invested time!

As IF… (Intermittent Fasting experiment)

There is a lot of hype on the web, as well as in the books and articles about the intermittent fasting. A vast array of benefits is usually quoted – improved blood results, increased fat burning rate, reduced muscle loss, etc.

For uninitiated – intermittent fasting requires you to fast for longer than usual periods of time (we all fast for set periods of time daily during the sleep – it is the breakfast meal that literally breaks the fast). There are several options available – fast on alternate days, fast for several days in a row, fast for most of the day and eat one meal only, and also the 16:8 diet, which requires you to fast for 16 hours and eat for 8.

It was the last the seemed most attractive to me and I decided to give it a go. It has been popularized on mass scale by David Zinczenko’s “8 hour diet” book, but as far as I can tell has been developed by Martin Berkhan who uses it to gain muscles without increasing his body fat. It is also popularised by James Stettler in his book “The Extreme Cuts Experiment – Intermittent Fasting Secrets to Build Muscle & Shred Fat – at the Same time”. The abbreviated version looks something like this: fast for 16 hours, eat for 8 (obvious), make your first meal after your workout the largest, if you train in the fasted period take 10g of BCAA prior to the workout, and further 10g every 2 hours until your feeding period begins.

My biggest concern was with training in the fasted period. I do my workouts around 4:30 in the morning and wasn’t planning on eating until noon. Thats a lot of time between the workout and meal time. No pre- and post-workout food… Martin’s website encouraged me to give it a try regardless – BCAA supposedly reverses the effect of the cortisol which is released during the workout and breaks down the muscles. When I first started the experiment I intended to try fasting only on my rest days, but the result of the first day was so encouraging that I decided to jump into deep water straight away.

During the 2 weeks of the experiment I managed to loose 3 pounds. mostly fat, only a fraction of muscles – if the scale can be trusted on that. It is a good result but not really different to what I would expect normally during my diet. There were some benefits – I’m not a great fan of eating first thing in the morning anyway and I felt really well in the morning. It wasn’t just the feeling of en empty stomach, but also clarity of mind, focus and concentration. I felt a mild hunger only on the first day, my body adapted to not eating in the morning quite naturally – like I mentioned, I’m not a great fan of eating first thing in the morning and it took me a long time to get used to eating early.

You will hear some people complaining about their emotional state on IF, especially during first 2 weeks. Personally, I didn’t observe any mood swings. If anything, I was probably a bit distant emotionally, and my dry sense of humour got even dryer – so much that even people who know me, an don’t take seriously my morbidly inappropriate comments were giving me blank stares occasionally…

But it wasn’t all great. There were a few issues that made me stop IF completely, and I probably won’t consider it again, at least not in the same form. The problems were as follows:

  • Force feeding – the guys on IF sing praises about the fact that they can eat BIG meals, which suits them fine. Well, I’m glad for you folks, but it doesn’t work for me. Even 40 pounds ago, when I was clearly eating much more than needed, my stomach couldn’t manage a huge meal at one go. You know, I discovered long time ago how easily you can blow your calorie budget if you eat crap. Well now I discovered how difficult it is to eat 1800-1900 kCal in 8 hours if you don’t eat crap, especially when you try to reach your 200g protein intake. Result: after a week constant stomach pain and eventually a constipation. That’s with loads of fibre and water in the diet. I was waking up in the morning with the feeling of having swallowed a stone for dinner a day before. Gone was that great feeling of empty stomach I had for the first week…
  • Family life – Saturday and Sunday morning is one of those rare occasions I get to spend time with my family and enjoy eat. Not being able to have a breakfast with them just ruined the moment.
  • BCAA on empty stomach. Honestly. Swallowing 10 large pills on empty stomach. At 4:30am. And then every 2 hours until noon. Especially with that stomach pain in the second week. No sir,  I think I’ll pass, thank you very much.
  • Most importantly – massive regression in my strength workout. Each consecutive workout I was getting weaker and weaker. In my final workout on IF I could only do 2 sets rather than 3, and even that’s with less reps than normally. Even if I could force myself to leave with the other 3 issues, this was a deal breaker.

Now I know there are a lot of people having great workouts and benefiting greatly from IF. Well you don’t know until you give it a try – i was attracted by the promise of minimizing muscle loss but it’s clearly not for me. One final thought – when I came off IF, my hunger spiked tremendously, and worse of all – I crave for high carb junk food. Not cool – I’ll have to get my body used again to eating sensible. I don’t regret giving it a go though – at least I know what is and what isn’t working for me.

 

Freeletics bodyweight

I have mentioned before that I’m using a handful of apps that are really useful. One of those is Freeletics. It started off as a high intensity bodyweight training app, but the company has grown since and now incorporates 4 independent (and when I say independent I mean you have to pay for each one of them, as the free versions are massively trimmed) apps: bodyweight, gym, running, and nutrition.

The app consists of series of workouts, which include bodyweight exercises such as burpees, sit ups, pull ups and push ups. The exercises have to be executed as quickly as possible without any pauses between exercises or series. Due to the fact that different parts of body are being exercised each time (usually) high insensitivity can be maintained throughout the whole series with increased heart rate at all times.

What is great about the app is that it adjusts the workouts to your progression. You get to rate each session based on insensitivity and difficulty, and once the exercises get easier to preform, the difficulty increases. You get to choose how many workouts you want to do a week, and wether you want to concentrate on strength, endurance, or mixture of both. If you suffered from any injuries, you can mark which groups of muscles to exclude from exercises, so that you can continue with your workouts.

The one major drawback is that the app didn’t take into consideration how much you weigh. When I first started using Freeletics I was simply too heavy to preform some exercises, as they put too much stress on my knees. Also, there is no option to exclude exercises with respect to individual joints, and excluding upper and lower legs excluded most of the exercises, even the ones that were safe for the knees.

Other than that, Freeletics is quite brilliant. Subscription is much cheaper than gym membership, workouts are not time consuming, and results are quickly visible. Obviously, you can achieve similar results if you get a HIIT book or DVD but I quite enjoy working with this app.

Ditch the Gym

Some people love gyms. Better, some people actually get fitter by going to a gym. And then there is a small proportion of them who actually stay fit for longer than a year after they joined the gym. But regardless on the outcome, they all share one thing in common: a melting bank account.

Don’t get me wrong. If you’re going to spend money on something, it’s better to spend it on fitness rather than booze, fast foods, premium on-demand TV, or console games. And there are some real benefits of having a membership – you get a personal trainer, equipment that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, or have room to store, you have multiple fitness classes, and you can socialise with other people and get motivated by them.

Personally though, the best thing that ever happened to me, was to cancel my gym membership. It was the fifth or fourth time I was a gym member and I was getting nowhere. I love swimming, but the hours when I could actually use the swimming pool (i.e. no swimming classes, outside of my 12 hrs  work+commute schedule) were scarce and it was always overcrowded. The weights section was always occupied by 300lbs blokes who claimed the territory as their own lair. And then there were dozens of treadmills and cross-trainers, which actually were available more often than not. However what is the purpose for paying someone for the benefit of running without actually moving anywhere? Not that I can run anyway, since I was not only overweight (ok, I was obese)  but also with mild form of knee arthritis, so running was a big no-no to me.

So I’ve remembered I bought some dumbbells 5 years ago that were gathering dust under the bed, got some walking shoes, and later on invested in good quality Nordic Walking poles. The equipment was worth probably 3 months of my gym membership, but 6 months later I’m still using it regularly and will continue to do so. My weekly schedule – 3 times a week some HIIT body weight exercise combined with a bit of weight lifting (the whole session, including warm up and stretching, takes me about 20-25 minutes), and 4 times a week at least half an hour brisk walk  in the morning – sometimes with poles, sometimes without. Since I’ve quit the gym I’ve lost over 40lbs in body weight. Half way through I bought a scale that calculates the body composition percentages, so I don’t know what my starting body fat% was, but in last 3.5 months it went down from 25% to 19%. The money I safe on the gym goes towards better quality food.

Now I’m not advocating that everyone should quit the gym straight away. Like I said – some people (ok – a lot of people) benefit from it. However if you are self-motivated there is a low cost alternative available, with the extra benefit of spending less time in the car driving to the gym and more time spent outdoors.

Eating back your exercise calories

So you’ve spend an hour in the gym sweating and burning 300 kCal and now you’re wondering whether it makes sense to eat those calories back or would that be a complete waste of time? Well the answer is, as in many other cases: it depends.

First of all what is the purpose of your exercise? If your trying to bulk up, or you’re training for fitness purposes only and trying to maintain weight, than you don’t want to be creating any unnecessary calorie deficits and can eat guilt free. The two things to bear in mind though (especially if you’re trying to maintain weight) is that the workout calories are often overestimated. So if your rowing machine or your smartphone app is telling you that you’ve burned 300 kCal, just assume it’s 10%-20% less to be on the safe side. Remember also that if you were sitting on a sofa rather than exercising, you’d still be burning calories during that time. So if your BMR is say 2400 kCal a day, than remove 100 kCal from that workout, because you’d have burned that anyway. In that case, it would be probably safe to assume you can eat 150 kCal extra after this workout without having to worry about weight gain.

But what if your goal is to lose weight? Well it depends then whether you want to plan your calorie deficit as a mixture of cutting down on food and exercise, or if you want to treat your exercises as a bonus to your plan. In the first instance please mind the notes above (make sure you adjust for the overestimate and deduct your BMR). Otherwise stick to your food plan and enjoy extra burned calories, but make sure you don’t create to big of a deficit, especially if you exercise multiple times a week – remember that the recommended weight loss target is 2-3 pounds a week.

Personally I always try to balance it – on one hand I’m trying not to eat more than half of my workout calories back, on the other I’m trying not to create more than 600-700 kCal deficit a day, so if I have an intensive day (i.e. mountain hiking for half a day) I will eat a lot to compensate for the burned calories.

Please also bear in in mind that how much you eat is only a part of the equation – what and when is equally important. I will expand on it soon. Till then!