Summer is in the air. And, with it, the perennial dash to lose weight, firm up and get in shape for summer, beach season … you know the drill.
But how quickly can you honestly expect to see your dieting and exercising pay off? And, more importantly, how quickly is actually healthy?
The Downside of Fast Results
In a perfect world, weight loss or, more specifically, fat loss, would be instantaneous. But that's not how the human body works. Instead, everything from your hormones to neurologic system and signals adapt to every little change in your diet and exercise routine.
And, when you change things too drastically, like when you cut your daily food intake from 2,500 to 1,200 calories per day or try to tackle an hour long boot camp class on day No. 1 of your gym membership, your body's adaptations do more harm than good.
Your body perceives that food is in short supply, you're starving and, in an effort to spare calories, it starts burning protein (aka muscles) for energy.
What's more, this reduction in resting metabolic rate (the number of calories you burn just to live) means that fast weight loss generally doesn't stick around for long and instead leads to rebound weight gain. The psychological effect of depriving yourself or over-exercising in the name of weight loss doesn't help you keep weight off over the long term either.
On the fitness and muscle side of things, diets that are too low in calories decrease your body's ability synthesize new, metabolically active muscle, largely nullifying your workout efforts. They also reduce your overall energy levels to make your workouts feel harder.
Also, it's important to remember that your muscles don't get stronger or faster during your workouts. You get fitter in the hours and days in between your gym sessions as your muscles repair and adapt to any given workout. If you work out for hours every day – especially if you were working out for zero hours last week – or train the same muscles during back-to-back days, you aren't going to give your body the time to appropriately recover. The result: You aren't going to see the fitness results you want. And there's nothing more frustrating than working hard in the gym and not reaping the gains you expected.
The Right Rate of Fitness
While, generally, most people should not aim to lose more than 2 pounds per week in order to maintain lean muscle, people do vary in how fast they can safely lose weight.
Follow these five steps for fast fitness results that are safe and effective – and last.
1. Increase your workout intensity and protein intake. Research published in 2016 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that a combination of high-intensity exercise and increased protein consumption allows people to lose more fat and build more muscle while cutting calories.
2. Eat to fuel your body. Calorie needs vary greatly between people and, while caloric deficits (burning more calories than you consume) lead to weight loss, too-great of deficits can lead to fat retention. Meanwhile, a caloric surplus (consuming more calories than you burn) is ideal for muscle building. So instead of getting hung up on calorie math, focus on food as fuel. Listening to your hunger cues and filling up on whole, minimally processed foods will help you consume more filling fiber, prevent excess insulin secretion and fat storage, and help you reach both your fat-loss and muscle-gain goals.
3. Prioritize strength training over traditional steady-state cardio. Strength workouts can increase your caloric burn, even at rest, for up to 72 hours after you leave the gym, according to research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. Plus, it builds metabolism-revving, performance-driving muscle.
4. Make time for recovery. Give yourself at least one full rest day per week and don't intensely train the same muscle group twice within a three-day period. Mix up your workouts and their intensity to allow your body to recover. It's normal to feel some soreness 24 to 48 hours after your workouts, especially in the beginning, but you shouldn't feel debilitated or like you cannot walk.
5. Switch things up after six to eight weeks. To keep your body constantly adapting and prevent plateaus, it's important to vary your workout every six to eight weeks. That could mean changing up your rep-set scheme, trying a new swim stroke or taking a spin class a couple times per week. Otherwise, your body could get so well-adapted to your workout of choice that it no longer sees the need to improve.