At the center of any fitness effort is a person who’s not happy with their current experience of their body. They might be sick of feeling fat deposits jiggle when they move. They might have seen a photo of themselves that clashes with their expectation of how they should look. They might be looking to perform better on the playing field, in the boardroom, or even in bed. And let’s not forget those naturally lean people who might be looking to put weight and muscle on a body they know could be stronger.
The fitness industry will bombard this dissatisfied person with options. There are complicated diets to choose from, workouts of varying intensity and gear requirements, and all manner of motivation strategies. And each approach will tell you, “Those other guys say do X, but we’re here to tell you the truth — do Y instead!” This creates a lot of frustration for the person. They’re just looking for some forward progress, but it seems so easy to choose the “wrong” fitness option, wasting time and energy.
Over the years of working with people to get real change in their bodies, I’ve seen that there’s a hierarchy of wellness interventions. Some things make a big difference, others don’t matter so much.
If you or someone you know wants to change, here’s the correct “order of operations” to follow.
Belief that change is possible > Cleaning up your diet > Quality sleep > Light daily cardio > Light workouts > Real nutrition > More intense cardio > More intense workouts.
Doing things in this order gets the best results.
Belief that change is possible: The mind is the first body part you need to work on. If a person is really in a rut, they’ve bought into the story that they’re a victim of their circumstances, destined to be unfit by their situation, their disposition, or their genetics. The first order of business is to shake free from the grip of these thoughts. There are many things in life which we have little to no control over — the actions of corporations and governments, pandemics rolling over the land, or how other people in our lives behave. But your own body is an area which you DO have significant control. You decide what you eat and how you exercise, and you get immediate biofeedback. If you make different choices you will feel different and start to change. It’s not a question of hope or belief but the hard facts of physics and biochemistry! Once you believe that change is not only possible but inevitable, change becomes possible (and inevitable!).
Cleaning up Your Diet: Now that you’re onboard with change being possible, the next most important step is getting their diet cleaned up. The reason this is so high on the list is due to the overwhelming power of modern processed food. In just a few bites of processed food, a person can consume the equivalent energy of an entire meal. This not only adds body fat, it means the body must devote huge energy resources to digesting and distributing this energy. Before a person works on anything else, they’ve got to get these items out of their diet. A good place to start is cutting out any food that has more than 10 grams of sugar per serving, any beverage besides water, tea, and coffee, and anything fried. For now, the person doesn’t need to worry about nutrition, they just need to “stop the bleeding” that comes from junk food and drinks.
Quality Sleep: Good sleep is the engine that drives body change. Once a person knows they can change and has stopped eating the worst of the worst food, the next thing to do is make steps to improve length and quality of sleep. The low hanging fruit here is basic sleep hygiene. Avoid stimulants in the afternoon and evening, curtail screen usage in the hours before bedtime, have an evening ritual that prepares you for sleep, and don’t use your bed for anything besides sleep or sex. Even with good sleep hygiene you’ll have bad nights of sleep. But you’ll have fewer and farther in between. Without good sleep, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle for any type of mental or physical change. So you’ve got to work on it first!
Light Daily Cardio: With mindset, cleaned up diet, and sleep working better, you can now finally think about exercise. But it’s not about killer workouts that leave you in a puddle of sweat on the floor. Before you get to that stage, you have to get into a daily habit of 30 minutes of light, breezy cardiovascular exercise. This is best accomplished by brisk walking. It’s almost ridiculous how effective a half hour walk around the neighborhood is for basic human health. ALL the numbers improve, and you don’t even need to break a sweat. Circulation, V02 max, hormonal balance, and mood all get better from a simple daily brisk walk. But if walking isn’t your thing, any light exercise works. The key is light and daily. Think of the daily cardio as hygiene, not exercise. You don’t brush your teeth 3 times a week, and you shouldn’t do your light cardio three times a week either. It’s a part of each and every day.
Light Workouts: Once your daily movement is dialed in, you can finally have some productive results from muscle building exercise. This is best started with simple bodyweight movements. Before you think about using machines or lifting weights you need to gain proficiency in supporting your own body. A simple recipe of squats, lunges, push-ups, dips, crunches, and planks will do wonders for the human body. No gear, facilities, or expense is needed to get some great results. Best of all, you’ll find your changes come quickly because your sleep, food, and cardio are all creating a tailwind for fast progress.
Real Nutrition: Now that your body is getting in gear, you’re going to need more nutritional care than simply not eating junk. This is when it’s productive to start thinking about macronutrients, how much carbohydrate, protein, and dietary fat you need each day. There are many different schools of thought on this, but a good starting place is to divide your plate with ¼ carbs, ¼ protein, and ½ vegetables or fruit. That simple balance gets you most of the way towards sterling nutrition.
More Intense Cardio: Once you’ve picked all the low hanging fruit from daily cardio and light workouts, your heart, lungs and muscles will be ready for more taxing outings. Your walk might shift up to a jog, or you can start layering in tougher exercise like stair-climbing or rowing. The higher your heart rate goes, the more your body will step up its game and deliver. Ramping up smoothly is important here. If you go too hard out of the gate you’ll quickly burnout as the body rejects being put through the wringer. A good rule of thumb is that you should always feel like you’re ending your cardio tired but with some gas in the tank.
More Intense Workouts: Your higher level cardio will already be using muscles strongly, and the last step is to add in focused, challenging muscle stimulation. This could be more advanced bodyweight movements, or the transition to weight training such as kettlebells or full barbell workouts. This type of work is only productive when nutrition, sleep, and base level cardio are all working in tandem with it. These stronger workouts will add the impressive visual muscle tone that so many people are after, but without the foundation of health that comes before it.
If you want your body to change, this is the order to do things in. The irony is that so many people do things completely backwards. They take on crushing high level workouts from day 1, and are puzzled why their body seems to barely change despite all their effort. Or they dive right into a complicated, overly restrictive diet, and flame out after a few weeks because the body isn’t in a place to use that nutrition for anything useful. What a waste of time and energy!
You can’t correctly solve a math problem by doing operations in the wrong order. You can’t understand a novel by skipping to random out-of-order chapters. You can’t build a house by building the roof first and laying the foundation last. Why would your body be any different!? Get your order of operations right and you’ll see big changes come quickly and consistently.
It all starts with believing that change is possible. And by doing things in the right order, it absolutely is!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder