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What We Can Learn From the Fittest People

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I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be healthy lately—specifically during my hip replacement recovery. We’re all on a lifelong journey to finding our happiest and healthiest self, but as we ebb and flow through life’s natural stages, what it means to be happy and healthy changes. For example, 25 years ago I thought I was healthy if I looked good—if my body looked a certain way and the number on the scale was agreeable to me at that time. Now, being healthy means I feel good, which to me is having sustained energy, minimal pain, and being able to do the things I enjoy—dancing, travelling, hiking, cooking and baking.

While true health is unique to every individual, the steps we all must follow to get there are fairly similar. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there that can prevent us from finding our healthiest selves and live the type of life we desire. There always seems to be the fad of the moment, or the latest bandwagon that everyone wants to jump on to get fit. These traps promise quick results which aren’t sustainable and never last.

Having worked in the health and fitness industry for 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with elite athletes and dancers. And while you may not be training for an Ironman or dancing with the New York City Ballet, we can all learn from those who keep their bodies in superior physical condition.

So…here are six things that high-caliber athletes NEVER do:

1. Restrict Their Diets

Severely restricting your calories will do much more harm than good. Not only will it lead to muscle loss, but it can also slow down your metabolism if done for a long period. Athletes and “fitnessy people” pack their plates full of healthy foods and calories their body needs to build muscle and help them look, feel, and perform their best. Food is fuel to help your body grow into its strongest self and nourishes your body as it heals from injury and illness.

2. Fear Weight Lifting

Those who are healthy and fit know how important weight lifting is to transform your body and physique. Combined with fueling your body properly, weight lifting can help you build muscle and get leaner and stronger.  You can restrict your calories, lose fat, and be “skinny,” but your body will still look soft and flabby because you will have no shape. Weight training also helps prevent bone density loss. Many women fear lifting weights because they don’t want to look “bulky,” so they stick to yoga, Pilates, and cardi0-dance style classes like Nia and Zumba.  Adding some weight training will help you become a more well-rounded practitioner of those activities, making you stronger and more powerful.

3. Ignore Their Bodies

Your body is smart. Your body will actually send you signals when it needs more food and when it doesn’t. If you’ve been in the habit of counting calories or restricting your food, then you might not even know what those cues are. But the more you practice fueling consistently, the better able you will be to understand your body’s signals. Listen to your body’s natural biofeedback. Cravings, headaches, sleep quality, mood, and energy level are all signals that will help you understand your body—if only you will notice and listen.

4. Count Calories, Points, or Macros

Always counting and tracking is neither sustainable nor practical. You don’t need to know exactly how many calories you ate in a day in order to stay healthy and fit. You don’t need to log every bite into MyFitnessPal. This leads to food obsession and can give you a false sense of security about your health—why listen to your body when you can just track everything so the numbers add up?  Sure, if you’re trying to lose weight you need to be in a calorie deficit, but most people overestimate the number of calories they burn in a workout and underestimate the calories consumed in a meal. Plus, the math just isn’t that simple to begin with—a strict “calories in, calories out” formula doesn’t consider our hormonal response to food and exercise, your Basel Metabolic Rate (BMR), or your Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT).

The same is true for macros and points. Any system that has you constantly weighing, measuring, counting, and recording is a system that is not sustainable. It takes the joy out of eating. It’s also a “system” that can be manipulated.  Ice cream every day?  Sure, as long as it fits your macros.  McDonald’s for breakfast every day?  As long as it fits into your calorie plan.  Pizza three times a week?  It’s all good as long as I stay within my point allowance.  Sure, the numbers might line up, but you’re not getting the best nutrition and are probably sabotaging other aspects of your health, like blood sugar and cholesterol.

If you focus on eating healthy foods like lean protein and non-starchy vegetables and controlling portion sizes you won’t need to know exactly how many calories, points, or macros you consumed to stay healthy and fit.

5. Eat Mostly Junk Food

The world’s fittest people don’t eat fast food for every meal. Why? Because it’s not going to provide them the energy their bodies need to perform optimally. Plus, it’s highly processed and filled with salt and sugar that could easily derail anyone’s fitness progress.

Even if you can eat all the junk food you want and still look fit on the outside, your body isn’t performing optimally on the inside. Sure, the world’s fittest athletes indulge in sweets, a rich meal, or a glass of wine on occasion (and you should too), but they still make sure the bulk of their diet is packed with fresh fruits and vegetables, protein, minimally processed foods, and high nutrient and high fiber complex carbs—all the nutrients they need to keep their fittest selves.

6.  Feel Like They Must “Earn” Their Food

This is a trap I used to fall into.  If I wanted pizza, a piece of cake, or a margarita I had to “earn” it by killing myself at the gym or taking extra classes. While nutrition and exercise are both important components of a healthy lifestyle, you can’t out-exercise a diet that is continually filled with food high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt.

On the psychological side, feeling like you must “earn” your food is pretty much just a shame technique used in the fitness industry to guilt people into joining gyms and attending more classes.  Sadly, when I was a young group fitness instructor I did it.  “Earn your weekend!” or “Come to my class and work off your pizza!” I’d say.  I remember posters at the gym that said “It takes 2 hours on the treadmill to burn off one Starbuck’s Frappuccino.”  No.  Just no.  Exercise is not punishment for eating and you don’t have to earn your food.  You do not have to earn the right to eat Thanksgiving dinner or have a scoop of ice cream.

We eat food to fuel our bodies but it also gives us pleasure on many levels.  Obviously, we want to eat foods that taste good, but the smell, texture, temperature, and visual appeal of the food is all part of our experience of eating.  Food is an important part of our culture and the way we share and connect with others. On the flip side, exercise is something you need to do to make your body fit and strong so you can walk your dog, travel, dance, garden, get up and down off the floor with ease when you’re playing with your kids or grandkids, and simply just live the type of life you want to live.

As a wellness professional, my social media feeds and junk email folder are filled with advertisements for special diets, products, and workouts that promise a quick fix for getting fit.  While it may be tempting to try the apple cider vinegar gummies, the latest restrictive diet, or the 7-minute workout, they will likely be ineffective because they’re not sustainable and will end in failure and frustration. Instead, learn from the world’s fittest people, and follow their approach. Eat healthy, workout regularly, lift weights, listen to your body, and don’t go to any extremes. Then, you’ll be on your way to your fittest, healthiest self in no time.

HI, I'M CANDACE!

I am a science-based wellness coach with over 30 years of experience specializing in helping people 40+ reduce pain using corrective exercise therapy, get stronger through smart fitness programs, and increase energy and vitality through sustainable nutrition.

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