More than 40 percent of Americans have gained weight in the past two years, with the average weight gain for men equaling 37 pounds, according to a 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association. Blame the pandemic. With the increase of booze consumption, decrease in sleep, and piled on stress — so much stress — many of us gained a bit of weight. For those of us who have let a bit become quite a bit, a noticeable amount, a spare tire, or a double digit increase, it’s time to face the facts: Your life may be on the line. Forget about halcyon dreams of beach bodies, you need to worry about your heart.
Too much weight gain is strongly correlated with higher troponin levels in the blood — basically, little pieces of your heart muscle floating around, telling us that damage is being done. Meaning? A six-foot, 225-pound man is 32 percent more likely to develop heart failure than a 6-foot, 188-pound, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. No wonder the No. 1 killer of men in the U.S. is heart disease. As such, weight gain, especially for men, is the No. 1 thing health-seekers will want to nip in the bud.
This leads us to some good news: Your pandemic weight gain is different than long-term weight gain. The weight you’ve gained during the past 18 months or so is more a consequence of circumstances than lifelong habits or metabolic shifts. With the right moves, it will come off faster — and is more likely to stay off. You just need a little discipline in diet, effort in exercise, and to prioritize mind over matter. Let’s do this.
Weight loss starts with diet. Period, end of story (sorry, fitness nuts!). This means we need to focus on what we eat — and when we eat it. Intermittent fasting might sound crazy, but don’t get too caught up in the extremes of the trend. Fasting is something we all do — and studies show it can be used for good. One study of guys with pre-diabetes found that those who moved their dinner an hour earlier, so they ate all their meals in a six-hour window, had lower blood pressure, better insulin sensitivity, and decreased inflammation in their bodies (and yes, they lost weight). So look to space out your dinner-to-breakfast time and you should see benefits. Sometimes, it’s not about changing what you eat, but when you eat it.
Re-Start Your Workouts With a 60% Effort.
Skipping a workout now and then is no big deal. But if the kid got sick or your partner is traveling or work is overwhelming or the pandemic is pandemic-ing again, you might have missed more than you were planning. That’s going to happen. But when you do get back into it, don’t pick up where you left off or you’ll get injured, says Shaun Jenkins, senior trainer manager at Tone House in New York City. “Scale back to a week in your program that would have been 60 to 65 percent max,” he says. “If you got up to 100 pounds on a certain machine, swipe back to where you were doing at 60 pounds and use that as your benchmark to restart.”
Make (a Little) Time for Cardio.
If weight loss is your No. 1 goal, cardio has to be in the mix. Strength training is key for overall fitness, but it’s the minutes spent with your heart rate elevated at 85 percent max or more that really matter. These 15-minute HIIT sessions can get you there.
Between Diet and Exercise, Choose Diet.
Reminder: A diet high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat will undermine a good workout routine any day of the week. This is often a pitfall of anyone who increases their workout intensity or time — only to undo it by feeding increased need for calories with, say, fries, burgers, and shakes. And while there are no shortcuts to weight loss, cutting calories is probably necessary. In a review of the activity patterns of more than 1,700 people, scientists found that the energy expenditure from exercise was significantly less than people anticipated, making it harder to drop weight by exercise.
But Don’t Go Extreme.
When you drastically cut the number of calories you eat in a day, your body flips out and says, OK, I’m going to drastically cut the number of calories I burn in a day, too. That’s because it views this sudden drop in energy as a sign there’s a famine on the horizon, and it goes into a mega-energy-saving pattern so it won’t run out of fuel. (Picture your smartphone in battery-saving mode.) The better way: Aim to consume 300 to 500 fewer calories each day than usual and burn 300 to 500 more, for a reasonable two pounds of weight loss a week. Slow and steady wins this race.
Work Five Major Muscles at Once.
Fact: You can’t lose your gut without also changing your diet, but moves that target all five of your core muscles (that’s your rectus abdominis, erector spinae, transverse abdominis, obliques, and multifidi) will improve midsection tone — and give you better posture to boot. Start with the following three moves — and add to it with more here.
- Dead Bug
What it works: Transverse abdominis and multifidi muscles
How to do it: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet raised off the floor at 90 degrees. Raise both arms directly above your head. Press your lower back into the floor and extend your right leg until it is straight and your right foot hovers just above the floor; at the same time, reach your left arm straight back behind your head until your left hand almost touches the floor. Exhale and bring both arm and leg back to the starting position. Switch sides and repeat for one rep. Do two sets of 10 reps.
- Reverse Hike
What it works: Rectus abdominis and erector spinae
How to do it: Lie flat on the floor. Hike your legs over your head and curl your lower back off the floor. Keep reaching with your legs until your toes touch the floor behind your head. Start a timer and take 60 seconds to uncurl your body back to the prone position in one slow and steady move, keeping legs straight.
- Kettlebell Figure 8
What it works: Pecs, traps, and obliques
How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Hold a medium-weight kettlebell with both hands in front of you. Engage your core muscles and begin to swing the kettlebell in front of you in the shape of a figure 8, keeping your arms straight and allowing your torso to twist as you go. Make 10 big figure 8s, then reverse direction for another 10.
Eat the Clock.
It’s fairly obvious what foods you should avoid — salt, sugar, saturated fat, y’all — but what about portions? To figure these out, picture your dinner plate like the face of a clock. From 12 to 3 o’clock should be your protein (chicken, fish, beans, or red meat); 3 to 6 o’clock is where the rice, potatoes, and pasta go. The other half of your plate (say, 6 to 12 o’clock) should be filled with fruits and veggies: salad, broccoli, green beans, an apple, you get the picture.
Tending to your mind is critical to keeping your stress in check, and stress contributes to your expanding waistline in more ways than one. For starters, stress causes your body to release the hormone cortisol. “Cortisol increases appetite, and if this is chronic, it will affect your microbiota and change your body into craving more sugar-rich food,” says Su-Nui Escobar, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Set aside 10 to 20 minutes each night (or morning) to simply sit and breathe.
Control the Stress You Can Control.
Cortisol plays a role in regulating your metabolism, meaning the more of it pumping through your body, the slower your body uses food for fuel. “Increased cortisol levels make it very difficult for the body to lose weight and promote belly fat,” says Michael Robinson, a naturopathic physician and certified nutrition specialist. Robinson suggests keeping a journal where you can do a brain dump every night before bed — writing down the stuff stressing you out and things on tomorrow’s to-do list, so you can sleep a little better (give or take a crying baby).
Make Yours a Superset.
Want to get more bang for your buck at the gym? “Superset workouts are for people who don’t want to sit around at the gym all day,” says Jenkins. “I’m a big proponent of getting the work done — and that’s one of the points of supersets.” Pair one set of exercises with moves that working opposing muscle groups for best results.
Yep, those yellow slivers of sweetness can play a key role in your weight loss journey. Namely, they boost energy levels during exercise just as well as a sports drink, according to recent research. Why does that matter? Because low energy is the No. 1 reason people quit on hard workouts, and hard workouts are essential for shedding unwanted pounds. So eat your bananas.
Use WFH to Your Advantage.
While all the stats suggest that working from home is contributing to the rising numbers on the scale, you can turn it into a major fitness perk, says Damien Joyner, an ACE-certified personal trainer in San Diego. “The only commute when you’re working out at home is getting out of bed and walking to the room where you want to exercise,” he says. Moreover, “you have music that you enjoy, as well as a shower and bathroom steps away from your workout.” In other words, no effing excuses. Get after it.
Do a Wallstand Pushup.
This variation on the traditional move has you parking your feet high up a wall and doing pushups at an incline. The reason you should: Just 11 minutes of bodyweight exercise, three times a week for six weeks, can significantly improve your cardiovascular fitness, according to a study in the International Journal of Exercise Science. Try these other bodyweight moves, too.
Upgrade Your Crunch.
To successfully change your eating habits, don’t just skip the chips — swap them for crunchy fresh carrots and cucumbers instead. The No. 1 mistake resolution-makers make is avoiding their bad habit rather than replacing it with another behavior, research shows.
Devote 20 Minutes a Day to Your Cause.
“With the right moves,” says Jayson Lee, a personal trainer in New York City, “you can burn more calories in 20 minutes than a lot of guys do in a full hour at the gym.” What might those moves be? Box jumps, burpees, mountain climbers, and more. Hard, yes. But quick, too.
No, stretching will not directly cause you to lose weight. But a tight body from hunkering down in front of your computer all day is a body prime for injury when you do go to exercise — and an injured body is one that won’t burn calories the way you need in order to shed the spare tire. By that logic, you should try these moves, including the cobra pose, borrowed from yoga, to keep your muscles and ligaments limber.
These 10 CrossFit-inspired workouts are super-short, extra-hard, and you can do them at home with no fancy equipment. Moves like mountain climbers, wall-sits, and squat jumps will torch calories while building major muscle.
Drop and Squat.
Functional fitness is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down — and why would it, given how easily it incinerates calories while reinforcing movements that help you get through your day? Two that get the job done: push-ups and weighted squats. No dumbbells at home? “Performing squats while holding a full gallon of water at sternum height can be a good option,” says Joyner. (To make it harder, hold a gallon jug in each hand, bend elbows, and keep hands at chest height throughout the move.)
Get the Kids Involved.
A family that sweats together, stays together. If pandemic idleness has crept into your kids’ lives, too, get them involved in your next sweat session. “A funny thing with my kids — and all kids — is that they’re always watching,” says Rich Froning Jr., winner of multiple CrossFit Games championships. “They see me work out and want to try it, too. If I do a handstand walk or push-up, they try to do handstands or push-ups. My daughter hops on the rowing machine and the pull-up bar. Just by observing me, they understand the importance of it.”
Snack on Almonds.
Nuts are a great snack, especially in place of sugar and carb-heavy bars. So if you’re looking for a snack, reach for nuts. Conveniently, that amount also provides 50 percent of your recommended daily allotment of the mineral magnesium, which plays a key role in stabilizing your energy via blood sugar levels while supporting your metabolism, making it easier to lose weight without the (literal) highs and lows of dieting. Just aim for one handful a day, or roughly an ounce — like all nuts, almonds are calorie-dense and you want to give your stomach a moment to register it’s full.