So you’ve decided you want to “get fit” – great! How do you start though? What does “getting fit” actually mean, and how do you achieve it?
There are many aspects to fitness, and it gets complicated pretty quickly; this can be really overwhelming, especially for people new to fitness. We’re going to give you a quick “101” type breakdown of 3 important and popular aspects of fitness: strength/resistance training, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility. We’ll also guide you on diet, nutrition and how to get started.
Before we start, an important thing to keep in mind is that “Fit” is a lifestyle, not a destination.
Getting Started on Your Fitness Journey
Before you can start your fitness journey and lifestyle, you need to figure out what your goal is.
Whatever your goal is, keep in mind that there are no shortcuts, quick fixes, or miracle over-night transformations. Hollywood training montages and scam artists trying to make a quick buck selling you some bunk fitness equipment (“ab-fireblaster 8000!!! Get rock hard abs in 2 weeks!!!”) have warped our perception of what kind of time and work it takes to get into shape and realise training goals. Don’t let the time scale of how long something is going to take put you off though – time is going to pass regardless of what you do, so you may as well do some training. Imagine where you would be today if you had started a year ago – do next-year you a favour and start today. It’s never too late to start! Motivation for training has to come within, and it will take consistency, dedication, patience and discipline. Luckily, it can also teach you these things if you don’t currently have them. The other good news is that while it may seem overwhelming at first, it’s not as complex as it initially seems.
If you’d like to get serious about meeting your fitness goals, you may find Martin Berkhan’s article on “fuckarounditis” an interesting read, and rid yourself of fuckarounditis.
At the same time, realise that while you won’t see good results without consistency and structure in your diet and exercise, if that’s not your cup of tea, or you just want a more relaxed approach to fitness, doing any form of exercise and paying a little more attention to your diet and nutrition will still benefit you. Doing something is better than nothing! Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of good.
You can have a combination of goals – for example, to be strong as well as having cardiovascular endurance – but it will be difficult to truly excel in both areas simultaneously. If you’re just training for general fitness and wellbeing, as opposed to trying to be an all-round elite athlete, pursuing multiple goals is both possible and healthy. Here are some common goals and a quick summary of some ways they can be achieved (we’ll elaborate on some terms later):
- Muscle Gain – Eat at a surplus (sometimes called “bulking”). Make sure to get plenty of protein and sleep. Do resistance/strength training.
- Fat Loss – Eat at a non-radical deficit (sometimes called “cutting”). Fat loss is 80% diet, so fixing your diet is absolutely crucial to this goal. Make sure to get plenty of protein and sleep. Cardio (especially HIIT – it elevates calorie burning) and resistance training both burn calories and help with fat loss, but resistance training (heavy lifting in particular) will help to preserve muscle/minimise muscle loss.
- Cardiovascular Endurance – You need to get your heart rate up. High Intensity Interval Training is popular, though Low Intensity Steady State cardio seems best for cardiovascular fitness. The intensity should be between 60 and 85% of your age-maximum heart rate for LISS.
- Flexibility or Mobility – Do a stretching program, or get involved in an activity like Yoga. These are good for general flexibility.
Losing fat and gaining muscle is usually difficult to do at the same time – it’s generally recommended that you lose fat (while getting sufficient protein and resistance training to minimise muscle loss) before trying to gain muscle. Sometimes it’s an easy call on whether to bulk or cut – if you are very underweight or very overweight, the choice is usually clear. There is, however, a middle-ground known colloquially as “skinny fat” where it’s not as obvious. I personally recommend doing a “lean bulk” where you eat at a moderate surplus and engage in resistance training – excess fat can be cut down slowly later, though you should not have gained too much if you watched your dietary choices closely.
For health and aesthetic reasons, people generally want to fall between having low to medium fat, and medium to high muscle. You can have a look at the chart below to see where you may fall and help you define your goals (be aware that this should only be used as a very rough guide).
Click to expand:
Realisation of Goals
In order to gain muscle and strength, you’ll need to do resistance training. Wikipedia has a good article on it to help you get a grasp on resistance training’s basic principles. Make sure to read the terminology section so that you’ll be able to understand the training programs suggested.
The underlying idea behind strength training is to increase your strength by progressively overloading your muscles with more weight. Free-weight training with barbells is a very effective way of training strength, and is safe when practised responsibly and with good form.
The two most common goals people have when engaging in strength training is to 1) be strong and 2) to look good. The kind of strength program you do depends on your goals.
This Fitness Program Picker will help you to pick a program based on your goals. It is better to use a pre-made program while you’re a beginner instead of trying to make your own. Pay close attention to your form when learning how to do lifts (especially squats and deadlifts) – reading about and understanding how to perform the movements, watching videos of correct form, and getting someone who is knowledgeable about good form to check your form when lifting will help to make sure you’re doing the movements correctly and not injuring or endangering yourself. A good place to start reading about form is the Starting Strength Wiki. You can also film yourself in order to analyse your form and see what your form is like – what could be corrected, what is working, etc.
Resistance training is important to everyone, but we would like to specifically encourage women to take up resistance training (to be more specific, HEAVY lifting! Squatting with two 1.5kg dumbbels will not do anything. You don’t want to end up with ostropenia like Gwyneth Paltrow) in addition to cardiovascular exercise. Take a look at “Why Women Should Strength Train” to understand its various benefits. Not only will resistance training greatly benefit your health, it will also likely help you to achieve your aesthetic goals. There are fewer women strength training, either because they’re worried they will look too bulky (you won’t unless you specifically train for that goal for many years), or they may be intimidated to use the weight room in the gym. Don’t be intimidated – take up space and kick some ass!
Take a look at what your body is capable of!
Cardiovascular fitness is very important for general health & longevity and physical fitness – it is how efficiently your heart and lungs supply your muscles with oxygen-rich blood. Having a higher resting heart rate is associated with increased mortality in humans. The health-goal with cardiovascular endurance exercise is to decrease your resting heart rate, making your cardiovascular system more efficient. Although heart rate is affected by many things such as age and sex, a good heart rate to aim for is around 60 bpm.
This Fitness Program Picker will help you pick a cardio program or suggest exercises you can do. You generally want to do cardio 3 – 4 times a week for between 30 and 60 minutes, at 60 – 85% of your age-related heart rate maximum. You can also try HIIT training if you don’t like steady-state cardio. Always clear this with your doctor beforehand, especially if you have any heart-related issues.
Couch-to-5k is a good beginner’s running/cardio program.
Dance classes, such as Zumba, are also a good way to improve your cardiovascular fitness while also having fun.
This Fitness Program Picker will help you select a good stretching program, as well as introduce you to basic yoga poses.
If you’d like to practise yoga more seriously, you can check out these YouTube Channels and sites:
- Esther Ekhart – Vinyasa for Beginners
- Sunrise Yoga for Beginners
- Namaste Yoga Full Classes
It is often extremely helpful to attend a few local yoga classes – a good instructor will be able to assist you with your poses, and will give you the benefit of a session structured by a trained teacher, rather than making one up yourself.
Flexibility is important to everyone, but we would like to specifically encourage men to take up flexibility training, especially activities such as yoga. Women are over-represented in yoga classes, and men can sometimes feel intimidated, or that they don’t belong, or that they’re not “manly” for doing yoga. All of those are myths – yoga is incredibly beneficial, both physically and mentally, and can compliment your other work outs, such as running and weight lifting. It doesn’t have to be either or! Check out these two articles for more information on why men should do yoga:
Not convinced? Watch this video and tell me this guy isn’t strong or impressive:
Diet and Nutrition
When we say “diet”, we’re not referring to a crazy fad where you eat nothing but lettuce for a month – we’re referring to what you eat every day, and what your “food lifestyle” is like. Diet is an extremely important aspect to getting fit and realising your training goals, and also towards being healthy.
So what exactly is a “healthy diet”? There is A LOT of debate surrounding diet and nutrition, and there are a lot of different lifestyles you can follow – low fat, low carb, paelo, vegetarianism, veganism, DASH diet, If It Fits Your Macros, and so on. How on Earth do you choose between them all?
There is a saying that the best diet is the one you’ll stick to, and this is true to a certain extent. The problem is when the only diet you can stick to is one of cake and sugar water. Whatever diet you go with has to provide you with a balance of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) and macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat) to fit your body’s needs.
You should look into each of these diets mentioned and discuss them with your doctor if you are interested in making a dietary lifestyle change. To help you decide, here are two “meta” articles which take a more moderation-based review of the whole “diet” thing.
Diet can be as simple as this: eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Get enough protein. Try to get at least 25g of fibre each day. Eat less if you’re trying to lose fat, eat more if you’re trying to gain muscle. Protein and fibre will help keep you feeling “full”. Some “processed” or “junk” foods are too calorifically dense and nutrient-deficient to meet your calorie, micro and macronutrient goals to be eaten all the time, so they can be minimised. Drink plenty of water. Supplement only if you don’t get enough of a certain vitamin or mineral through your natural diet (B12 and veganism is a big one for example, and most people can benefit from supplementing vitamin D3. Whey protein powder can also help you meet your protein goals.).
When it comes to fat loss, many diets cause fat loss by creating a calorie deficit (What is a Calorie? A Calorie is a unit of energy – food has calories in it, which we burn and use for energy). For example – low fat diets cut down on fat consumption, lowering the overall amount of calories you eat. As long as you don’t overeat on your carbs and protein, this will create a calorie deficit, where your body is burning more calories than it consumes. When we don’t get enough calories from food, our body takes its energy mostly from its fat stores, creating fat loss. The same works for a low-carb diet – it causes you to eat fewer overall calories, which results in fat loss (although Ketosis can result in faster fat burning). Fat loss is as simple as “calories in, calories out”. As long as you’re burning more calories than you’re taking in, you will lose weight. Check out this science teacher who lost weight while eating nothing but McDonalds – he kept to the correct amount of calories and successfully lost weight. While it’s important to get enough nutrients, for fat loss, the amount of calories you’re eating matters more than their source (where the source of your calories comes into play is whether your food choices keep you full, or leave you hungry and wanting more, and whether you’re getting enough nutrients).
There are healthy and unhealthy ways to lost fat. Going on “crash diets” where you eat an extremely low amount of calories is not healthy for your body – it can cause malnutrition, make you feel weak, tired, and overall damage your body. Slow, sustained fat loss using a moderate calorie deficit will net you much healthier weight loss.
So how much are you supposed to eat? You can use online calculators to figure this out:
Keep in mind that these are only estimates, and there will be marginal differences between people.
The calculator will tell you your Basal Metabolic Rate (the amount of energy/calories you burn just by existing – keeping your organs functioning, thinking, breathing etc). This is the absolute minimum your body needs to keep you alive and functioning – you generally don’t want to eat fewer calories than your BMR unless a qualified doctor prescribes and monitors you for a specific reason. Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is your BMR + whatever energy you expend “doing work” – moving around, cooking, walking, jumping, and any exercise you do.
So if your TDEE is 1900, and you eat 1500 calories for a sustained period of time, you will lose weight. Similarly, if your TDEE is 1900 and you eat 2300 calories for a sustained period of time, you will gain weight. If you’re doing resistance training and consuming enough protein, a lot of that weight will be muscle, but you will gain a bit of fat as well. If you eat 1900 calories, your weight will stay the same, though your body may recomposition itself slightly if you are exercising, especially resistance training, where you may lose some fat and gain some muscle.
The most efficient way to realise your training or weight loss goals is to track your calories. You don’t necessarily have to do it forever – tracking for a few weeks may give you a good understanding about the calories in your food and allow you to make informed choices. Note that tracking calories can be detrimental to people who engage in obsessive behaviour, or who have struggled with eating disorders or other mental disorders such as OCD. You can read Evidence Magazine’s creator’s story about how his obsession and disordered eating affected him. It’s a good idea to remain reflective so as not to fall into disordered eating patterns.
If you want to track your calories, you can use a site like http://www.myfitnesspal.com/ to track them. The best way to track your calories is to weigh your food portions with a digital kitchen scale, then log them into something like myfitnesspal.
If you’d prefer meals of a specific calorie size be suggested to you, you could use http://www.eatthismuch.com/ – just punch in how many calories you want your meals to be, and it will suggest some for you!
You can also use a site like CalorieCount.about.com to look at the calorie values of different foods on the fly.