Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to change your body shape

Greg and me after Fight Gone Bad, in our matching shirts!

Ten on Tuesday

10 Things in Your Refrigerator Right Now
(It's a Paleo fridge, no surprise there!)
  1. Grass-fed meat
  2. Eggs
  3. Butter, to cook the eggs and meat
  4. Bacon, to go with the eggs
  5. Carrots, because I have bunnies, after all!
  6. Lettuce, 3 kinds because I eat a lot of salad
  7. Peppers, 5 kinds because I love peppers
  8. Hot sauce, see #7
  9. Swiss chard and parsnips, gotta get adventuresome with the veggies
  10. Grapefruit juice
No WOD yet today, morning class was canceled and I'm thinking I'll go in the evening instead.

I'm feeling like this is the week for some nutrition-related posts. Yesterday was about post-workout nutrition. Today is about body shape. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? (Do you have a Traffic lyric in your head now???)

How to change your body shape

If you watch TV or read any popular media, you will be bombarded with one of two messages: 1) you can't change your body shape because it's completely determined by factors beyond your control or 2) it's easy to change your body shape if only you eat in moderation and spend some time on the stairclimber (substitute in your favorite boring workout for stairclimber if you like). Of course, if you look around you, very few people are actually happy with their body shape, even fewer are able to change it for one they like better. So that must mean that Message 1 is right (it's impossible) or Message 2 is right (everyone is just too lazy to control themselves).

Of course, there's a third possibility, that neither Message 1 nor Message 2 is correct. That it's not beyond your control, but that eating the same old foods in moderation and putting in time with mindless exercise is NOT the path to change. In my experience, there are a couple parts to the puzzle. But let me first share my experience.

From about third grade on, I was always a little bit overweight. And I oscillated between Message 1 and Message 2, thinking that this was just genetics and I had to learn to love myself as is, and thinking that I simply lacked the willpower to just eat right and be skinny like (fill-in-the-blank skinny girl at school, cue overwhelming jealously and frustration). I did manage to lose 10 pounds my sophomore year in college, but it was kind of a mystery how that happened, and it came back, plus more. And slowly it crept up, so that at one point I was over 150 pounds at only 5'6". This doesn't sound bad, and it's not dangerously obese, but the thing that bothered me the most was my shape. I was the typical pear-shape, narrow shoulders, wide hips and big thighs, and towards the high point there, getting bigger around the middle too.

Things started changing when I started CrossFit. But the biggest change came when I switched to eating Paleo. Now my hips are narrower, my shoulders broader, my waistline trim, and my legs lean and muscular. Here's a before and after:

Every day I'm around people that I KNOW want to make a change, but they try and try and nothing seems to work. And I still see a lot of folks who struggle with changing their body shape even as they're coming in to CrossFit regularly and trying to eat right. But I think the devil is in the details. Are you just eating "pretty well", or are you going whole hog with Paleo? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you pushing your boundaries? If you really want to change your body shape, here's what I think you have to do, in order of importance.

Four steps to change your body shape:
  1. Eat strict paleo. This is hands-down the most important part. This means no cheat days, no cheat meals, just frickin' buckle down and do it. Grain-free, legume-free, dairy-free, and watch for hidden sugar. If you need a treat, you don't get a candy bar, you get a piece of bacon. Embrace the Paleo! You might not think that handful of chips or that sandwich will be your undoing, but if you're not seeing changes, guess what - it IS your undoing.
  2. Tune your nutrition. Once you're fully on board with Paleo foods and you're not falling off the wagon, it's time to tune your ratios. Some people function better on more or fewer carbs, but if you're trying to lean out, lower carb is almost always better. Just start replacing fruit with vegetables, and watch out for the siren song of various "Paleo" sweeteners, like agave or honey. Doesn't mean you have to avoid them entirely, but be careful of how much you're getting. I used to have a paleo banana muffin every morning, but it was loaded with fructose from the bananas and a generous amount of agave, and when I cut that out, I leaned out more. Fat is also something to play with. It's tempting to up and up and up the fat, but at some point, that means that your body doesn't need to draw on its own fat stores, and it won't anymore. And make sure you're getting PLENTY of protein. It's nearly impossible to get too much protein, it fills you up, and you can use it to build muscle.
  3. Get enough rest. Shorting yourself on sleep (or restorative breaks from exercise) chronically elevates your cortisol, which programs your body to store fat, especially belly fat. The simplest thing anyone can do to trim down is figure out a way to get more sleep.
  4. Learn new skills, and do plenty of what you're bad at. Yes, it took me till bullet point 4 to get to exercise, and I'm not even telling you how much to exercise! Exercise won't do a whole lot to change your body shape, and it won't do much at all if you aren't taking care of items 1-3. But if there's one thing to think about with exercise, it's SKILL. Don't worry about specific muscle groups or time spent, worry about what you can do. Learn to do pull-ups, get a good solid overheat squat, practice balance with a handstand, learn to jump higher and run faster, learn those Olympic lifts. If you only ever do what you're already good at, why would your body change? Learning new skills and improving at weaknesses forces your muscles to work in new ways. Learning to balance in a handstand or to pull yourself up trains your core better than any number of sit-ups. Learning to shrug in an Olympic lift will train your shoulders and back. Pushing those muscles to do something new and demanding will make them stronger and will make them look better.
Okay, that's the end of my rant. I'm not judging anyone for not doing these things, I'm just sharing these insights because I wish I had learned this stuff a long time ago. Maybe I can help someone have an epiphany that will give them the rockin' body they've always dreamed of. It's totally possible, it's not even that hard. Just takes a little perseverance.

More FGB

I'll end with a couple more photos Greg sent me. I like this one cause I'm in midair and you can see Brian in his PETA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals) shirt.

And I really liked this one too. Sonja's doing a beautiful push press, and Alastair and I are hanging out up there on the boxes. The photo is deceptively tranquil - doesn't convey the enormous energy that is in the room for this big group workout.


Anonymous said...

Thanks - this post was of the totally awesome kick-in-the-pants variety. Also solidly in the inspirational category. I think I'm pretty strong in the #4, but need to work on #3 and while I get #1&2, I really need to get a little stricter about it and dial it in. I have been dragging my heels about cutting out the dairy and succumbing to the siren song of honey and agave way too much lately (pumpkin bars anyone??), but what you say I know to be true.

You look amazing and are such an inspiration to me - I don't think I've ever told you that explicitly and it's time I did so. So glad we are working out together (well, from time to time anyway and at least we are at the same box!)

Amber said...

I think one of the best things about this isn't your shape, it's the tone of your skin and how happy you look.

Amy said...

Aw, thanks Julie. You inspire me with your awesome progress and your always-positive attitude. I have a lot to learn from you.

And thanks to you too, Amber. Good health has a glow, doesn't it?

Monica said...


Wow! Fantastic before and after pics. (I met you last week at FCF.) Someday I hope to have before and after pics like that!

Bravo on the strict paleo. I've been eating paleo for two years, but I do find that carb creep can happen.

Monica said...

By the way... you won't realize how certain foods affect you unless they're cut out. I have found dairy, even very small amounts, to be incredibly constipating, and I never knew that before.

rosanne said...

Doc, you continue to amaze me with some of your daily blogs. Great info you provide. Thank you so much. Never realized that you once looked the way you did 2 years ago. I am constantly looking at you and admire how all your hard work in the gym and in the kitchen, has paid off in spades!