Everything "Works" (But Nothing "Works" Forever)
CrossFit, running, Orange Theory, yoga, spin, paleo, intermittent fasting, keto, vegan, vegetarian, atkins, Les Mills, and the list goes on. Did I miss anything?
Maybe you have done one or more of these in the past. Maybe you saw results? Maybe you (or a friend) became convinced that because you (or they) saw immediate results that it was the best thing in the history of fitness and nutrition. Trust me, we have all been there at one point.
Here's the thing: when it comes to fitness and nutrition, "everything works, but nothing works forever."
Back in the days when we ran CrossFit Mokena we worked with hundreds of people who were just beginning CrossFit. In general, when someone tries CrossFit for the first time, many of them are picking up a barbell and following a strength training program for the first time. In the first several weeks to months there progress and weights rapidly improved in a linear progression. Each time they repeated a lift like the deadlift or squat, their numbers improved. After a course of several months of training they would begin to plateau and we would have to introduce a different type of training stimulus to continue seeing improvements.
When I went to basic training one of the first things the drill sergeants put into our heads was that the people who needed to lose weight would lose weight and the people who needed to gain weight and strength would gain weight and strength. It's just how the program is set up. After putting thousands of kids through basic training, the Army can pretty well predict what types of responses individuals will have to basic training. Sure enough, people like me who came in around 215 pounds quickly dropped to 200, and the underweight kids who came in ended up looking like they had just been training for the NFL combine. By the time basic training was over, regardless of what you looked like when you first arrived at Ft. Leonard-wood we all looked the same when we left. Each morning consisted of physical training followed by a full day's worth activity and three meals a day. Despite the fact that we ate three times each day, I found myself to be in a constant state of caloric restriction which is why I lost a considerable amount of weight. Many kids who went their had never really done anything physical prior to basic so they put muscle on as if they were training in a gym 3-4 hours a day. I went to basic weighing 215 pounds and years of training had given me a pretty high metabolic rate. Therefore, I needed to consume considerably more calories than most of the younger kids there.
So, when I left basic training it should have been easy to stay lean, right? Just continue working out in the morning and do my best to remain in a restricted caloric state, right? Wrong.
Everything "works," but nothing "works" forever. I put works in quotes because defining what works depends on individual goals. Someone who begins a training program to get stronger for the first time can follow a very simple program that prescribes 5 sets of 5 reps for months and continue to see results. Eventually though, they will begin to notice it getting more difficult to continually improve.
Someone looking to lose weight and get in better cardiovascular shape may toss on the running shoes in the spring and run one mile a day. During the first month or two, this person will likely lose weight and improve their ability to run one mile. But guess what, eventually these results will slow and they will also reach that point of "diminishing returns."
Another example is a person who visits the doctor and receives the news that their cholesterol, BP, blood sugar, etc is out of order (high, low, whatever). The doctor recommends the person go on a diet and the person finds dietary advice on the internet (paleo, vegan, keto, intermittent fasting, etc). Almost immediately, this person will see results related to weight loss and general health. Once again however, these results will only go so far before they also experience the point of diminishing returns.
Why does this happen?
Any time you make a substantial change to your current fitness and nutrition protocol (if you have one) your body goes through an initial adaptation period. During basic training, when I was in a perpetual caloric restriction my body acclimated by initially losing a great deal of weight, but eventually my metabolism slowed to deal with the stress of not getting enough calories. This is why, upon returning, I could no longer rely on staying in a restricted state and maintaining a high level of activity and hope to continue to see the same results. My body made the initial adaptations (which can happen quite rapidly) but eventually progress slowed because my body had adapted to the stress and had become resistant towards that stress.
Our fictitious person who started a strength training program saw results quickly because of the initial adaptations that occur when beginning a new program. Strength and endurance training is a stress which forces your body to adapt. After the initial adaptations occur, the same stimulus (stress) will cease to produce the same level of results.
Our fictitious person who started a new diet per their doctor's advice made a substantial shift in their nutrition which likely resulted in quick adaptations. For example, a week of limiting carbohydrates can often result in losing 5-10 pounds of water weight IN THE FIRST WEEK (especially if the person has only followed the Standard American Diet up until that point). However, continuing down the same path for 6 months to a year will once again lead to your body and physiology adapting to the new stimulus. A personal example of that was in 2016 when I was experimenting with the ketogenic diet. After one year of being strict on keto I noticed that the weight I had lost had come back. My body adapted to the lack of carbohydrates and calories.
Compare your body to the temperature setting on your household thermostat. Let's say you have your thermostat set for 70 degrees in the winter, but in the excitement of going to school one of the kids leaves the door open and the cold air gets in the house and knocks the temp down to 50 degrees. Eventually the thermostat will turn the heater on and attempt to bring the temperature of the house back to 70 degrees. Your body works much the same way. You have metabolic and homeostatic set points in your body. By applying a systematic stress to your body, you can alter that metabolic and homeostatic set point. For example, someone who just begins running can take a high resting heart rate and get it to come down closer to 60 beats per minute or lower. Without getting too deep into the science of these processes, just understand the concept that your physiology is constantly making adaptations to each stimulus. Eventually, your body creates a new set point. At this point you will likely need to adapt and alter the training or dietary protocol.
How do you get past this point?
It comes down to a three different things: 1) long term goals 2) metabolic flexibility and 3) variations in fitness protocols.
1) Long term goals. In the long run, what are you training for? If you only have goals that go to the end of summer (looking good at the beach) this will be a continual issue for you. A yo-yo effect if you will. Start to look down the road beyond the 5K you signed up for in August (or whenever). How strong or fast do you want to be at 70 years old? Ever think about what you want your "beach body" to look like in 30 years? Begin to think of fitness and health goals that extend beyond the immediate, and you will begin to make fitness and nutrition a lifestyle instead of an inconvenience.
2) Metabolic flexibility. I do well on a low carb diet. Very well,
in fact. However, 1-2 days a week I will eat between 200-300 grams of carbohydrates. If I do so well on a low carb diet, why would I introduce so many carbs a couple times a week? Because I know that metabolic flexibility is very important. Once again, your physiology will ultimately adapt to whatever stress you place on it. High intensity training on a low carb diet for long periods of time is a stress and the adaptations that the body makes are not always advantageous. I see this all the time. "Dr. Matt, I don't understand. I've been eating 1500 calories a day for 6 months. At first, I lost a lot of weight but now I'm gaining weight again." Once again, without dipping into the geeky science of what happened, your body adapted to the stress of calorie restriction by slowing your metabolic rate and now it is essentially storing calories to keep you from going into a chronically starved state. Yes, that is an oversimplification, but is a short version of what happens. The way to avoid this is by learning how to vary the nutrition. For example, someone on a ketogenic diet could follow a cyclical approach by adding carbohydrates 1-2 days a week.
3) Vary your approach to fitness. If you are training for a marathon, you need to run. If you are training for a powerlifting competition, you need to lift. Specific performance goals require specific training. Period. However, if your goal is fitness and overall health you need to train in multiple modalities. Vary your training between aerobic endurance, anaerobic endurance, and strength. Adopt a program that regularly varies the training stimulus to include cardio, strength, short sprints, etc. Yes, 1 hour of cardio each day every day will result in weight loss in the short term. 2 Years from now if you are following the same program you will cease to improve.
There are a lot of fads out there right now, but the interesting thing is that many of these "fads" have a great deal of applicability if they are integrated into a comprehensive lifestyle. There is no ONE BEST WAY. The best approach is a varied approach with the understanding that your body needs to be introduced to different dietary and training stimuli to continue to see results.