I recently went back to the city law firm where I gave my first ever talk here on nutrition and training, almost ten years ago and while the faces are different the questions tend to remain the same.
The public now seem more confused than ever, and it isn’t just them – the over-sciencing of nutrition by those seeking to become gatekeepers of information on this topic is making the waters more muddied instead of less. Meanwhile, the obesity bandwagon marches on, with British women on target to be fatter than American men by 2030.
As with most things Occams Razor can be applied to 99% of nutritional and weight loss cases. Very rarely is their problem down to some kind of spurious ‘imbalance’ or a deficiency in some sort of magical amino acid. In fact, all too often it is their psychology that we need to consider ahead of their physiology in all but the more extreme clinical cases involving specific and diagnosed pathology.
Looking at the folks I’ve worked with here in the City for over a decade now I’ve come to a few fairly solid conclusions. These have been borne out by practical experience rather than studying the books, although I’m reasonably confident that current research into the psychology of behaviour change will back most, if not all of them up.
- Compliance is everything. Consider this first. The likelihood of someone’s ability to change their behaviour to your recommendations is directly related to their perceived ability to do it. If it all sounds too much like hard work then it isn’t likely to happen at all. Personality type is rarely ever considered, but for example, entrepreneurial and very creative people struggle with organised routines requiring high levels of self control, whereas a highly organised lawyer or trader may seek that exact approach.
- Where and how people eat is as important as what and why. The first two tell you a lot about the reasons behind the latter two. Changing diet is about changing habits, eating in front of the TV and social eating are two environments prone to overindulgence, irrespective of actual hunger. Look at where and how people eat first.
- Sleep and recovery drive the ability to train and eat well. Without good sleep both our food and training suffer. It builds reliance on sugar and stimulants, reduces work capacity, impairs how we feel and function, and generally makes us feel crap. It is the first and easiest way to break people down by depriving them of sleep. If sleep is poor then fix it first and if prone to long days travelling then build in strategies to help deal with it.
- Temptation is the hardest thing to avoid and all too often clients are faced with the temptation to drink and eat when if left to their own devices they probably wouldn’t. Try to build in some solid plans of action for when these scenarios come up “If we go for drinks I”ll keep to non-alcoholic till I’ve eaten” or “I’lll ask for a vegetable option instead of chips or pasta”. Keep away from the unhealthy choices, if there is cake in the office, keep it in the kitchen rather than next to your desk where you are more likely to succumb to a piece (and if you are breaking a diet, you’ll probably go right off the rails and have several).
- ‘Dieting’ requires almost constant conscious thought and willpower to maintain, only those with the highest motivation and strictest level of self control are likely to stick to them. Those who fail tend to gain back more weight than they started with. Instead look at simple habits that over the course of a longer period of time (think in terms of months and years rather than weeks) that can be more beneficial. For example, trying to just give up bread consumption can often be achieved and often can bring great results. Once ‘not eating’ something becomes a habit it is much easier to maintain.
- Use simple and easy methods of tracking weight and body. No need for complex measurement systems, regularly measure weight and waistline and you won’t go far wrong. Unless you are preparing for a competition – and even then, how you look will be more important than any numbers on a chart. For my clients in the city I am more interested in their blood lipids, resting heart rate, and blood pressure as a guide to their health.
- Seek out habits that bring happiness. Dieting is miserable, just ask any pre-comp figure athlete or bodybuilder. Instead look for habits that make you happy and your capacity for improving your food and lifestyle will raise too. Dancing, walking the dog, playing sport, or simply taking a stroll with a friend – they may not burn the same calories as an hour of interval training but they bring many other far more wider ranging benefits (and are a lot more fun too!).
- Give yourself a break, you don’t have to eat cake every day but you’re far more likely to stick to your habits if you know that in a couple of days you are out with friends and able to relax and enjoy a piece of cake with them then. This has been proven time and again to be a more effective strategy than total abstinence. It is naive of any trainer working with the population that I do to think that they will live saintly in your absence. They will more likely just hide this information from you, especially if it is received with condescension and a telling-off. Work with what you have got, find solutions WITH the clients that they feel confident and happy to try and over the longer-term you’ll see a progressive improvement in health, fitness, and happiness.
We’ve been working with these approaches for years now at The Foundry, and while we may not specialise in putting people on stage in their swimwear, we do know how to ensure that our clients go to their medicals and achieve results that would look good for people half their age. As with anything, there are universal truths about training and nutrition, but how you communicate these will often need to be measured and delivered differently.
There is no one right-way, though there are many wrong ways. As a trainer, I look for every little win and I am sure to do my best to highlight it and focus on it with the intention of creating a habit. I am also realistic about the lifestyles my clients lead and believe that the first stage to achieving better health is an honest appraisal of current health and a desire to want to improve that, without that well-intended advice is too often wasted.