During my time in the Peace Corps I lived in a remote valley nestled in the High Atlas mountains. Like most of the world, the kids there were crazy about soccer, and I’d try to play with them when I had a chance. But there was a problem. Flat ground was at a premium, and was all used up by subsistence agriculture. When next season’s food literally depends on good yield from your crops, there’s no desire to set aside useful space for a park or soccer pitch. And so the kids had to find small plots of dusty, empty ground to play soccer. These impromptu fields were marked off with stones for the corners and goals, and were never flat.
Tanzanian kids playing on a makeshift soccer pitch.
We all know the expression “a level playing field” but you’ve probably never had a chance to play a full game of soccer on a tilted field. At first it doesn’t seem like a big deal. When you’re the downhill team you have to run just a little bit harder and kick a little bit higher. But after a few minutes you start to see the difference. You’re running out of energy while the uphill team seems just fine. They get to the ball sooner, kick it further, and even when you don’t get beat on the play, you’re dealing with the ball rolling back towards your goal all the time. It all adds up and is pretty demoralizing.
Of course the kids mitigated this by switching sides halfway through the game (how they determined halftime was a mystery to me), but that visceral experience of the tilted playing field has stuck with me through the years. It’s the perfect analogy to explain what’s working for and against you when you take on different approaches to getting in shape.
Let’s lay out the playing field.
Imagine you want to lose 10 pounds of body fat. To mobilize that much mass of fat, you’ll need to take about 35000 units of energy (Calories) that are currently stored in fat cells and get it out of your body and into the environment.
There are various ways you could tackle this problem.
For our purposes let’s talk about 5 methods which are currently popular.
If you were debating between these choices, it’s easy to see how the first four are attractive. Intermittent fasting and keto seem relatively straightforward, and getting results in 2 months seems like a reasonably fast time to reach the goal. Doing a lot of exercise is also appealing. You could keep eating how you like, and just carve out an hour a day and you’ll be where you want to be in 2 months, and a lot more physically fit too! And if you just got disciplined and did both the daily exercise and fasting or keto, you could be done in a month! What’s not to like?
This is where the concept of the tilted playing field is a useful analogy.
Let’s say you choose to go on a ketogenic diet for 2 months. The idea is that you reduce your carbohydrate intake to such a low level that your body switches from burning sugars to burning ketones, a kind of fatty acid produced by the liver. To do this diet properly you need to steer clear of dairy, grain-based foods (bread, rice, pasta), starchy plant-based foods like potatoes and beans, and nearly all fruit.
You wake up on Day 1 excited and ready to start your new eating style. Bacon, avocado, and eggs for breakfast! This is great! Why didn’t you do this years ago? Lunch rolls around and you have some cabbage wrapped tacos. Not quite as satisfying as a real tortilla, but it’s all good. Dinner comes and you have chicken and broccoli while the rest of the family has lasagna. Day after day passes like this. No to anything sweet, including your favorite fruit, no to fresh bread from the bakery, no sushi from your favorite spot, no to the cheese plate at a party.
It turns out you actually really like fruit, bread, pasta, rice, dairy, and all the things that are now forbidden to you on your keto diet. You don’t know it, but by taking on this approach you’ve signed up to play the game on a tilted playing field. At first you can hang in and keep up, but gravity doesn’t get tired, it will be waiting every day for you, making you work just that bit harder to stay on your plan. It starts to wear you out. After a week you decide it would be ok to just have one small bite of ice-cream. And then one small piece of a baguette, and then one order from the sushi restaurant. Step by step the tilted playing field starts scoring points on you, and in a few days you are officially out of ketosis and far from hitting your 2 month schedule.
This doesn’t even get into the reduced energy, fatigue, bad breath, and other side-effects that come from a keto diet during the “adjustment period" (which can last weeks for some people).
You’ll find that any weight-loss choice you make which has you strongly deviating from your usual patterns will put you on a tilted playing field.
The intermittent-faster might find it’s easy enough to skip breakfast, but that in response to strong hunger they overeat at lunch, creating an energy crash that leaves them useless at work and home in the afternoon. It’s a tilted playing field that wears you out day by day.
The person who tries to do an hour a day of jogging will quickly run into the reality that continuous daily cardio exercise stresses the joints and puts the body into a state of chronic fatigue, as well as creating devilishly strong cravings for high energy foods which obliterate Caloric gains made by the jogging. You’re putting up a good fight but the field is tilted against you!
And pity the person who tries to combine a strict new diet regime with lots of extra cardio. This is like trying to play soccer at a 45° angle. The body will absolutely reject this and in a week you’ll either be injured or so burnt out that you don’t have the will to continue.
Playing a good game of soccer is hard enough. For most people adding a tilt to the field by opting for a diet or exercise plan that doesn’t fit their natural rhythms and preferences dooms the effort. This is why you see so few people succeeding with fad diets and intense exercise plans, even when their goal is just a “short” 30 or 60 days away.
This leaves us with option 5; portion control and gentle exercise. You don’t cut out any major food groups that are a part of your life. You can have some toast in the morning, or sushi for lunch, and even some ice cream after dinner with the kids. Instead of blacklisting whole columns of the nutritional spectrum, you’re eating normally, just in smaller portions. This removes the tilt from the playing field.
The same goes for exercise. When you shift away from extreme, difficult exercise and back to the natural exercises of human life (walking, mild jogging, swimming, and sports) you find that you’re not so beat up that you’re taking on fatigue, injury, and burnout. Someone who takes a 30 minute walk around the neighborhood can truly make that a DAILY activity, even for 90 days straight. Over time, you burn through more of those 35,000 calories with light, daily exercise that sticks. And you have a good time doing it.
This is why when we design Kenzai programs we always aim to eat relatively normally, and ease into exercise, focusing on light, DAILY activity that doesn’t wear you out. This levels the playing field and makes the game winnable. At first, many of our trainees are surprised how easy their programs are. They can’t believe they can eat carbs (and so many!). They ask for tougher workouts. They want to go harder and faster for more dramatic results. We talk them down from that ledge and play the long game. In just a few weeks they’re making better progress than they ever have trying more intense approaches. For the first time in their lives, they're playing on flat ground, and it feels amazing!
As you think about reducing body fat, keep the tilted playing field analogy in mind. Trust us that a game that has you constantly running uphill will always get the best of you. Even if you tough it out though the first half and hit your target day or weight, you’re still playing uphill in the second half when you need to make your new diet and exercise into a sustainable lifestyle. Backsliding is inevitable and you slowly lose all the hard won gains you made. It’s exhausting.
Keep it steady, keep it level, and start scoring some goals!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder