How to Get Slim, Stay Slim & Look Good Cruising Towards 40

How to Get Slim, Stay Slim & Look Good Cruising Towards 40

This post is everything I know (today) about losing weight, keeping it off, looking and feeling toned and dealing with the difficulties of achieving all that at an age where we have no time and an increasingly uncooperative metabolism.

It’s not easy cruising towards 40, working hard, trying to stay active and keep the pounds from gaining traction (all this extra disposable income is worth what if you can’t eat like a king?) whilst juggling family commitments, gym memberships you use for 2 months of the year and about a million reasons to become portly and struggle to get more than 6 hours of unbroken sleep a night. It really isn’t easy. Time is against us all and the less time we have, the slower our metabolisms seem to get. This is how I do my best to circumvent what would otherwise be inevitable if I didn’t plan ahead a little bit.

Time to read properly: 15mins

Initially I planned this as a series of posts that would cover the various topics but as it grew I felt that it was probably more useful in one place so I’m afraid it’s a bit of a monster… Scan it at your leisure to get to the bits that might interest you or sit back, crank out the green tea and enjoy…

Here’s what we’ll be covering:

  • Rules of the (slow carb) road

    • Tim’s rules – this stuff works

    • My adaptations – this stuff works for me

    • Planning ahead – be prepared and it’s easy, honestly.

  • 4 weeks of 5:2 Fasting Diet – Just a little bit to establish a new relationship with hunger and accelerate weight loss.

  • Acceptance & Avoidance (dealing with willpower) and staying on track

  • Meaningful exercise

    • Swimming – Even if you can’t

    • Kettlebells – They are awesome, anybody can do it, fact.

    • Cycling – No more excuses.

    • Minimum Effective Dose (Can it be done in 7 minutes?)

    • Yoga – Hey bad back and unhelpful hips, goodbye!

  • Meaningful rest – getting enough sleep

  • Measuring results (A mirror and a tape measure, that’s it)

Rules of the Road: The Slow Carb Principle

I’d read stuff by Tim Ferris before, his 4 Hour Work Week still inspires many of the decisions I make in my daily work life and his 4 Hour Body came out at a time when I was keen to shed a few pounds and see what hacks I could glean from his self experimentation.

Slow carb appealed to me for all sorts of reasons, not least because it incorporates a ‘cheat day’ but also because its easy to build it into your life without dull calorie counting or will power sapping sacrifices. I haven’t planned his to be a retread of the science and thinking behind the slow carb diet, I’ll leave that to Tim and the plethora of googleable resources out there but here’s a quick overview based on what I use and what works for me. This is an adapted version of the diet that I’ve found gives me the results I’m after but adheres to the most important principles of Tim’s plan.

1. Don’t eat refined carbs.

Tim describes this as anything that is or can be white and is all our current favourites, bread, rice, pasta, spuds, cereals and so on. Whole grain included. Cut the lot out. I didn’t find this particularly awful given that I didn’t go crazy with this stuff before. Prior to the slow carb diet I was already a keen paleolithic dieter so was used to pre-farm foods. It also includes beer, sorry. But not red wine, yay!

2. Avoid sugary anything

Including fruit and especially fruit juice (and don’t even look at fizzy drinks unless they’re diet drinks, although there’s a strong argument for avoiding artificial sweeteners too…).

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that you should be avoiding the cakes and biscuits and sweets and all that dirty snackage. This is a toughy and as a dad with two boys I know how hard it is when you’re perusing a pantry full of junky snacks meant for lunch box treats and weekend bribes (check out my lock box solution). Fruit might seem like a strange one but common sense rules, it’s full of sugar. Yes it’s also full of vitamins and fibre and general goodness, but so is veg, only without the fattening sugar, and in far higher doses of the healthy bits. We don’t actually need fruit, fruit needs us. I don’t know what that means. Avoid nuts and seeds too. They are stunningly nutritious but also calorically dense, you can add them back into your diet after your initial weight loss phase.

3. No dairy, Mary

Sorry kids, no milk, no ice cream, no cheese. But there are alternatives. Not soy milk though, just too much estrogen flavoured dangers involved with that stuff. My advice, unsweetened almond milk; delicious.

4. Cheat day. Proper binge. For real.

No kidding, this is a real thing and everything! One day a week (Sunday works for me) go nuts, get your carb cravings sorted, have some chocolate, drink beer, eat crisps and mars bars and freshly baked bread. Until you feel sick. And then be amazed at how you feel like a slug on Monday as you struggle through what can only be described as some kind of carb hangover. And then marvel at how you continue to lose weight….

So what can you have?

This is actually the awesome part, the list is almost endless, not at all driving you of feels full or enjoying lovely food that doesn’t take an age to prepare or cost the earth to get into your pantry.

This isn’t a no, or even low carb diet but is a high protein diet. This means that you can replace your spuds, rice, pasta etc with as much veg as you like (I’ve totally fooled my kids with my cauliflower ‘mash’ on top of a shepherd’s pie, it’s amazing) and plenty of legumes; I use lentils, black beans, kidney beans and black eye beans simply because they’re my faves. Think Mexican food but without the tortillas (avocados are fine). Chillies are indispensable in my world.

Try to stick to lean white skinless meat like chicken and turkey or leaner cuts of red meat like grass fed beef, venison, goat (less saturated fat than chicken breast – probably the healthiest meat in the world), kangaroo. Yes kangaroo. Try to avoid processed meats; sausages and bacon and all that jazz (a bit is cool but if you see sodium nitrite on the packet, just say no Zammo).

I have lots of recipes under my belt now now like my chilli chicken, cowboy stew and various one pot wonders that can feed the family for a week, don’t cost much and are dead easy to throw together (I’ll throw some recipes up on here at some point).

I snack on jerky for the most part. You can buy it in most supermarkets now but we make our own turkey naga jerky in a dehydrator at home these days, beautiful.

Here’s a cool infographic you can use as a cheat sheet…

My Tiny Adaptations

Now I’m not saying that this is the way to go, only that a few small amendments work for me. They might work for you, they may not, you don’t know until you try, experiment on yourself!

I don’t muck with the no carbs rule. If you want to shed a few pounds, they’ve got to go for 6 days of the week.

However, I do treat myself to a couple of squares of dark (85%) chocolate some evenings, maybe with a glass of red or two (actually allowed in the real slow carb diet). There are a few rules I don’t adhere to that Tim is quite firm on. He suggests eating at least 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of getting up. For me that’s a hassle, particularly when there’s school runs and dog walks and whatever chaos might be unfolding in that first half hour of the day to worry about that. If I’m missing something, then so be it.

I’m a sucker for protein shakes and my everyday breakfast is simply my favourite meal of the day, even though it clearly doesn’t adhere to Tim’s rules. But I’m an 80/20 guy and if I reckon 80% of my results come from 20% of my strategies anyway so I like to mash things up a bit. Although the slow carb diet is certainly the most effective and sustainable weight loss strategy I’ve come across, my personal strategy is focused on more than just shedding pounds, but on healthy outcomes, preventative maintenance, staying fit and strong and refusing to grow old gracefully (ageing is a disease that robs people of pleasure and dignity and doesn’t deserve any respect as far as I’m concerned) so my hybrid approach may not achieve as much as quickly but I’ve found it’s not far off and explores health and nutrition too.

I have to share this recipe, it’s the cornerstone of my dietary activities and sets me on the right path every day

One of these puppies and I’m good until lunchtime.

Planning Ahead

Making sure you are ready for the week is a crucial part of being successful with this (or any) diet. Winging it from day to day just leaves you wide open to poor food choices, cravings and those all too familiar “I don’t have time right now so I’ll just have this cereal bar and get something healthy later” moments that lead directly to diabetes (they don’t, I’m being dramatic but you know what I mean, it’s not a sustainable attitude).

Have the following:

A weeks worth of pre organised breakfasts (this is where my shake excels – I always know what I’m having because it’s always the same, even on cheat days). It might be shakes for you, it might an omelette or a couple of boiled eggs and an avocado, whatever it is, know in advance and get stuff in ready.

A weeks worth of lunches and dinners planned. This may sound easier said than done but if you don’t plan ahead then you really will make some ropey choices in the week. Don’t give yourself time to think, be prepared and already know on Sunday what you’re having the following Friday. I often make 4 days worth of chicken chilli or cowboy stew in my slow cooker and have it for lunch and tea every day. I can mix it up with different veg, add more beans or lentils to bulk it out, serve it on rice or with mash for the kids, it’s really no hassle and very delicious. Imagine that, cook once, eat for 4 days straight!

I always keep a stock of 3 bean soups, packets of ready made chilli con carnes, that sort of thing  in the pantry so I’ve always got a plan B, and these things are amazingly quick to prepare too. I try to eat fresh to avoid the excess salt and sugars that can be in these things but my OCD means I actually quite enjoy standing in the supermarket aisles comparing ingredient labels and making the best choices.

Another secret weapon is my steamer. Instead of getting out my unwieldy 3 tier beast just to steam a few bits of tenderstem broccoli, I whip out my small microwave steamer, plenty of room for 1 or 2 servings in 4 minutes. Sweet.

4 Weeks on The 5:2 Fasting Diet…

Fasting diets have been around for a while. They first came to my attention in my early post stroke days when I was gobbling up anything to do with longevity and life extension. Ray Kurzweil in his Fantastic Voyage

highlighted the benefits of caloric restriction as a life extension therapy. Mice (and so maybe people) who restrict their calories, live longer. They also lose weight, quickly. Now there are all sorts of danger with this, most of them we won’t go into here, and it’s quite an extreme lifestyle choice for an as yet unproven strategy.

However, it was Dr. Michael Mosely’s excellent piece for the BBC’s Horizon show that really opened me up to the possibilities of using 5:2 not only as an effective weight management tool but also as a way to improve many of the blood markers highly correlated with good/poor (depending on which way they point) health.

I’d urge you to put some time aside to watch it (Available here on Vimeo)  as it will explain the benefits of the diet far more efficiently than I ever could. But for those of you who want a quick overview of what it is and what it can do for you:

How do You do The 5:2 Diet?

It’s pretty straightforward to be honest and I imagine that’s why it’s so easy (I find) to stick to for a decent period of time. The essentials are eating badly normally (yep, that means pizzas, ice cream, biscuits) for 5 days of the week and then restricting your caloric intake on the other 2 days. Men are restricted to 600 calories on those days, women to 500 calories.

For me, the most important benefits of this way of eating are the life extension properties, the lowering of LDL and triglacide levels and especially the lowering of growth hormone IGF1 (highly correlated with increasing propensity for cancer – we touch on that here in my look at the alleged dangers of high protein diets).

Now, my typical modus operandi is to explore a diet or strategy, research the benefits and potential dangers and then try it out and measure results. I can confirm it’s not hard to lose weight on this diet and if you have a sprinkling of OCD about your personality type as I do then you’ll enjoy the challenge of coming up with interesting ways to fill your 600 calories (hint – there’s an app for that..).

What did I get out of it?

Well, aside from the potential for better bloods, a weight loss boost when I need it I found that one of the biggest benefits was the new relationship I developed with my sense of hunger. I learned that hunger pangs are a lot like the pangs you get when you give up smoking (or anything else). The need hits you, meanders through your body a while and then dissipates. I didn’t find that hunger comes and keeps on coming until it’s unbearable, but instead was enough to alert me to that lack of recent food followed by a break in the alerts to let me get on with the other tasks of the day, much like nature intended I imagine. From other people I often hear “But I just don’t think I could deal with the hunger”. It turns out that’s a fear based on a perception of what hunger really is and how it actually works.

Incorporating the 5:2 into everything else.

It can become a bit unwieldy, or ‘lifestyle unfriendly’ trying to shoehorn every diet, training session and life extension therapy into your life, especially when you need to work, bring up your children, speak to your spouse occasionally etc. So I don’t believe in trying to do everything. This is where the MEDM (Minimum Effective Dose Mentality) comes into it’s own, try to find the best bits of everything that work for you, then find out the least you need to do to get effective results, check they don’t clash or negate each other and plan ahead. Not as hard as it sounds. All the effort is up front, putting the plan together – execution then becomes child’s play.

If I’m 5:2ing then I like to incorporate it into my Slow Carb way of eating. So I’m already set up and planned for slow carbing – it’s already happening, so all I need to do then is add 2 days of 5:2 into that plan. A slow carb / 5:2 week might look like this:

  • Monday – Slow carb & work out

  • Tuesday – Fast & rest

  • Wednesday – Slow Carb & work out

  • Thursday – Fast & rest

  • Friday – Slow carb and work out

  • Saturday – Slow carb & rest

  • Sunday – Cheat, feast and whatever the heck I feel like!

With 5:2 I’m particularly interested in whether the IGF1 lowering abilities of the diet can be achieved with less fasting. Can I reduce levels with 1 fasting day per month for example. Some proper testing needed there and I’ll keep you posted on results as they come in (once I’ve found somebody nearby who can perform these tests for me at a sensible price…).

Acceptance & Avoidance (dealing with willpower) and staying on track

I’m particularly interested in the science of human motivation. I dig the way we unconsciously move about our day getting little buzzes from performing tasks or making decisions that fire up our pleasure centres, but why do our motivation levels become so difficult to rely on when it comes to looking after our bodies? It seems we need little convincing to have another drink/smoke/bar of chocolate. But when it comes to the things that actually help us to grow stronger, fitter, faster and healthier we suddenly get such a lack of motivation – why is that? There are people far more qualified than I to answer that, none more so than Alex Lickerman, an MD who specialises in this sort of thing and who’s post here on how best to counter motivational issues is extremely effective and highly recommended. This guy will help you stay on track.

What Alex suggests is rather than dealing with willpower head on, simply fighting the urge to eat that doughnut, you need to either avoid the situation altogether (hide the food, don’t buy the food, don’t be anywhere near the food etc) or have a pre planned avoidance strategy ready to roll when the urges strike. He recommends emotionally engaging problem solving is the way forwards. So, next time you’re wandering through the kitchen and a muffin starts looking at you from it’s plate on the side, immediately walk away whilst thinking about that hot guy/girl in accounts you’ve had your eye on… (and next time, don’t buy muffins).

The Lock Box

I have an avoidance strategy that works for me: My problem with not having naughty foods in the house is that I have 2 hungry sons. Now, I make sure they eat healthily and I’m trying to guide them toward making healthy decisions as they grow up but we live in the real world too and in the real world boys sometimes need crisps and chocolates and salty snacks, it’s just a fact for lots of us. So for lots of us, there are naughty snacks in the house ALL the time. And I work from home dudes…

To deal with this I went to my local hardware store and bought a simple wooden box and a lock & key. The box lives in the pantry and all the crap lives in the box. If I go to the trouble of getting the key, unlocking the box and getting the crap out of the box then I feel like a right moron. So I really, honestly don’t do it. Unavoidable bad food in the house? Get a lock box – it works.

Meaningful exercise

There are so many ways to spend the calories you take in (for weight loss) and so many ways to be active, build strength, increase stamina and tone your body into something subjectively more ‘attractive’. But to my mind activity is best performed with intention and goals. Let me explain.

A gym membership? A home gym? A personal trainer? A bunch of Youtube tutorials and a track suit? Where on Earth do you begin? I’d say (and no, it’s not a magic bullet and it needs some forethought) that the best approach is to identify your goals and then identify the most fun and cost efficient way of getting there.

For me, my goals were/are:

  • To bomb proof my insides against the ravages of age and the diseases that tend to occur when a sedentary lifestyle and an unhealthy diet meet.

  • To keep up with my kids, be able to play (big adventures, watersports, football etc) with them and set a good example with the choices I make about my body.

  • To future proof myself against injury, disease and not being around to wind up my future grandchildren.

  • To look good doing it, not sacrifice precious time, still eat the things I enjoy and no dull training.

So what do I do about that?

I’ll admit, I’ve recently (the last 6 months) joined a gym. I don’t believe it’s a necessity for being fit and healthy and it certainly isn’t cheap but they have an outdoor pool! In the UK for heaven’s sake! (And that’s what I miss the most about my time spent living in Oz…) – That sold me on that one. But I digress, I don’t need it, I enjoy it and it keeps me on track. But the activities I perform there could be done pretty much anywhere.

My weekly ‘workout sessions’ (as opposed to general ‘meaningful’ activity) are as simple as:

  • Monday – 20 minutes gym – 20 minutes pool

  • Tuesday – Rest

  • Wednesday – 20 minutes gym – 20 minutes pool

  • Thursday – Rest

  • Friday – 20 minutes gym – 20 minutes pool

  • Saturday – Rest

  • Sunday – Rest

Let me just quantify ‘Rest’ here. In this context it just means no organised exercise time. It does not mean sedentary time. I walk my dog twice a day (usually), I cycle to work (when it’s sunny) and I try to walk/cycle, not drive, play football with my kids and generally not sit in front of the TV. It makes such a huge difference. If I don’t do much, I don’t feel like doing much, if I’m active, I’m happier, more energetic and enjoy everything else a whole lot more. Really a lot.

But as you can see, it’s not a lot of time. Certainly not compared to the return I get out of it. You don’t need to spend 5 hours a day in the gym, unless you’re training for your role in the Wolverine reboot.

Swimming – Even if you can’t

I love swimming, always have. It’s non load bearing on the old joints (unlike that jolty running malarky), bombproofs my back (when I’m not swimming, I get back problems, when I’m swimming, I don’t. Fact). If you’re terrified of water, stay in your depth and walk through it; anything you do in water is generally good for you and meaningful. Although I’d strongly recommend learning to swim properly, the return on investment is huge. It’s not the biggest burner of calories compared to running or kettlebelling but the toning, stretching and injury proofing is awesome and the general feel good vibe you get from swimming is second to none (of the activities you can do in your lunch break).

Kettlebells – They are awesome, anybody can do it, fact.

I love my kettlebells. It’s a home gym in one type thing. Cheap, effective and burns calories like nothing else on Earth! You can’t go wrong if you’re just doing a kettlebell swing properly, maybe 50-75 reps, 3 times a week. Just that and nothing else, seriously, it’s a whole of body movement that tones, burns calories, builds strength up top and in the legs and as a nice little bonus you get a tight butt too! Here’s how to do it right…

Cycling – No more excuses.

I have to admit I’m a bit of a fair weather cyclist, but when the summer vibe is upon me then I cycle everywhere. To work, the gym, shopping, everywhere that doesn’t require bringing something big and unwieldy home again. Find your nearest canal, riverside paths, parks, golf courses – you don’t have to get yourself bashed, bullied and polluted by selfish drivers, there are plenty of off road opportunities for everyone. Even your local council (UK dudes) will most probably be happy to send you maps of all your local cycling routes (or you’ll find them as PDFs on your local council website) and I know the US is well catered for this too.

For me, a good hybrid bike (good for a bit of off road and still quick enough on tarmac – I use a Specialized Hybrid), a good helmet (better helmet hair than splattered brain cheese), a bike lock (bastards) and slime filled inner tubes (ask your local bike experts, these are inner tubes that repair themselves to a significant degree – useful if you live in Thornville) are all you need for a top biking experience.

Minimum Effective Dose (Can it be done in 7 minutes?)

The 7 minute exercise apps that seem to be all over the app store suggest there’s a popularity in quick fixes; getting stuff done in as little time as possible. I’m all for that and 7 minutes of exercise is better than 0 seconds of exercise, but it’s not quite enough for me to get the full benefits of meaningful exercise. There’s a lot to be said for the therapeutic value of getting outside or down to the gym or setting some time aside in your living room for some time out style workout. It’s your time, it’s switch off time and I’m not sure 7 minutes is enough.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of Tim Ferris’s MED (Minimum Effective Dose) philosophy which is simply getting to your objective by the most efficient route; doing the least you need to do to get the maximum benefits. It’s a great idea and one that I incorporate into so much that I do, from my working life to my workouts. Listen to Tim talk about it here.  I refer to it more as a MEDM (Minimum Effective Dose Mentality) which means being aware of your goals in different areas of your life and thinking about how you can use MED to reach those goals. An accumulation of little shortcuts that genuinely work can make a huge impact on your free time and your motivation levels.

Yoga – Hey bad back and unhelpful hips, goodbye!

I’m pretty new to all this yoga malarky, but it’s definitely yoga that I’m into, not the pilates, or the yogalates or any other combination. Whilst each discipline has its own merits and will work for specific goals, for me yoga is the one that seems most likely to help with 3 core areas that I’m interested in using it for: Flexibility, balance & cognitive health.

I’m very much a DIYer when it comes to yoga. DVDs, apps and a yoga mat on my living room floor is as far as I’ve got but there’s not doubt that there’s huge value to be had. So much so that I’m about to join a yoga class at my local gym (and I’m sooooo not a class person) which should be very interesting. I’ll do a separate post about that experience and whether it helps on my quest to ‘win yoga’. No, I don’t know what that means either…

Meaningful rest – getting enough sleep

This is important. Very important. So important that it deserves it’s own post rather than a footnote in here, and it’ll be getting one really soon because it’s a big topic for me right now and an area I really struggle with. I know this for sure, science aside, if I get meaningful rest (7-8hrs unbroken sleep – with just one wee break) then I’m good for the day. The more consecutive nights like that I get, the better I am. At everything. It supports EVERYTHING, from my cognitive health and ability to do my job properly, to my ability to exercise, to my personal relationships. If I don’t get that, I’m not so good. And if those bad night accumulate, so does the negative effect.

I’m experimenting with afternoon power naps (no more than 20 minutes to avoid falling into deep sleep phase and risking sleep inertia – that’s the hard to shake groggy feeling you get when you nap for too long) as a way to negate bad nights and improve my afternoons without resorting to caffeine.

I strongly recommend doing everything you can to get high quality, regular rest. The difference can be life changing. I’ll be writing a post on this soon looking at the science and various ways we can improve the quality of our sleep.

Measuring results

With all my activities, there’s always a goal, a target. I’m not always targeting weight loss (although after certain holidays, that objective raises it’s cheeky head), for me my goals are often simple (like I explained a bit further up this post) but how do I measure how I’m getting on? When I’m fit for purpose, I’m happy, that’s it.

Weight, body shape, tone? Look in a mirror. Happy? Then it’s working.

Stamina & fitness? Keeping up with the kids? Then I’m happy. It’s working.

When I’m surfing can I paddle out well or am I getting tired easily (should I be swimming more/harder?)? Is my shoulder popping out all over the place (I’m blessed with hypermobile joints and have to work on strengthening my rotator cuffs to keep them from dislocating all the while)? Does my back ache after mowing the lawn (am I working well in yoga?)? Am I stressed? Am I lacking in energy? And so on and so forth. Of course you can spend hundreds of dollar pounds sitting in pods that tell you exact body fat ratio and you can pinch your waist with calipers or jump on your scales and you’ll get a great idea of the progress you’re making (believe me, my OCD side get’s that) but I find that if I focus my measures in the real world and determine if I’m fit for purpose then I’m much more motivated and far more pleased with the results. A number can represent progress and that’s fine but being better at something you enjoy can make a real difference to your life so for me, they are the questions worth asking.

Alright, we’re done! That’s the nutshell approach to my general health and fitness strategy. Remember, it works for me. It may not be right for you but if what you’re doing now is taking too much of your time, no fun or not having the desired effects then why not explore some of these things for yourself?

I’d love to hear any of your thoughts or experiences within anything I’ve covered in this post so feel free to drop a comment below.

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photo credit: lucidtech via photopin cc