Its that time of year where everyone makes their New Years Resolutions to lose weight and tone up. Again. History proves that this stuff rarely works. So instead of attacking the “problem” with every once of will power you possess and then falling off the bandwagon by February, lets look at a different approach.

Late last year a few of us from my fitness and MMA classes participated in “Tough Mudder” when the Sydney event moved down here to Wingello in the Southern Highlands. For those who don’t know, its a run with obstacles. There’s lots of mud – either you are climbing over mud, through mud, jumping into mud or end up in the mud. Yep – there is mud.

Apparently its based on military obstacle courses and the MC at the start of the race promised me it would be the toughest event I would ever do. In fact the sales pitch said the same. I think the Tough Mudder crew has never watched UFC.

I reckon they have never checked out what military training is really like either. Or at least they never watched “Commando School” currently showing on SBS 2 because their obstacle courses look way tougher to me. In fact I would say it’s a bit like comparing kindergarten to HSC. “Commando School” has plenty of mud though so maybe that’s what the Tough Mudder people are referring to.

The Tough Mudder event started with a bang with everyone off and (you guessed it) racing. And race we all did ……. for about the first 1 and a half obstacles. Then pretty much everyone walked. My fitness and MMA group ran all the way. And we were really, really rare. In fact our estimate was that 80% of people walked (Jesse Mauger reckons I am being too kind with that estimate!).

So what we have is a fitness event that people train hard for (I am guessing) and whilst they finish it, they don’t actually do it the way it was intended. Maybe a few probably even convince themselves that they are ready for the British Marines now.

But here is the thing. Does an event like this actually make you any better? I argue – no. Since when did such simple (and worthwhile) goals such as “I would like to feel better” or “can you help me with this spare tyre around my middle” require a military campaign anyway?

Why have Crazy Fitness Challenge workouts replaced reasonable workouts? And by “reasonable”, I mean the kind of workouts that you can do week in, week out for the rest of your life.

I have argued for a long time now that if you have a well designed program, you will get good results simply from turning up. Really its true, most of the success comes from just turning up! Sure you need to be prepared to put in a little effort but I have found that if you can get yourself to class and just warm up a little, the effort seems to follow. Hopefully you noticed that I referred to well planned workout – that’s a workout adjusted to meet specific fitness goals.

Let’s be clear on this point – treadmills and cross trainers do NOT constitute well designed programs. Trainers who put you on a treadmill, followed by a bike and then a cross trainer are being lazy at best. (I will make an exception for older populations who are completely de-conditioned to start with). This is especially true if your goal is fat loss – can we finally just agree that we have spent long enough trying all this “cardio” training seeing very little return on all the effort AND no it does not compensate for that extra cookie!

In fact when I look back at my workout history, the over whelming majority consisted of “just turning up”. A 10 minute warm up to get myself into it – then putting in a decent effort. In fact after a particularly bad performance, Saskia has heard me say (unfortunately on many, many occasions), “I get points for turning up today – nothing else”. And that’s ok. Some days are like that. Most of the time we don’t knock the ball out of the park. Ask me about my workout stats though and you will never hear about my average performance – just my best. I suspect you are the same. In fact I know you are because I hear all the time about what a legend you used to be on the footy field despite the fact that you are now fifty and haven’t been near a football in 20 years! That’s ok, we all do it.

Now there is a point to all this rambling. Myself and the crew that did the “Tough Mudder” event just turned up on a regular basis and put in the time, the reps and the sets over the past few years. The result was that the supposedly toughest event on earth wasn’t really “Tough Mudder” but rather kind of “Easy Mudder” for us. Don’t get me wrong, I have never run anything near 21kms and after 15kms it really hurt but the fact is I could, and I was able to back up the next day for an MMA sparring session and wasn’t at all sore that following week. The other guys all experienced the same thing.

The thing that surprised us the most was that we were passing people we personally knew who had started earlier on the day than us AND had specifically trained for the event. Makes you wonder about the quality of their training programs.

Or did they just set the bar too high to start with? It was really obvious that the majority of people didn’t have the base line fitness for an event like this. In other words they were using a crazy fitness challenge as their motivation to train. And it didn’t work for them. I can guarantee that a large portion of these people would have been so sore from this event that they wouldn’t be able to train properly for weeks afterwards and would simply stop completely until they get motivated for the next crazy fitness challenge. Or they gave themselves a little pat on the back for getting across the finish line, no matter how dubious the actual method. A vicious cycle of no results in either case.

Really think about that. Training and participating in Tough Mudder was a total waste of time for (at least) 80% of people from a fitness capacity point of view.

Then there is the “reasonable diet” thing where we make small tweaks and improvements over time vs the all out celebrity weight loss challenge. I am simply not interested in someone’s weight loss results over 90 days – I would rather look over a time frame of a year or two and see if they managed to make it stick. Everyone who says to me, “I am going on (fill in the blank) diet” are no closer to their goals a year later. I have patients and friends who have been on this roller coaster for years. If they had of used a slow and steady habit based approach over the same period of time, they would look awesome by now using a fraction of the will power.

We could put this into a simple matrix to demonstrate what I am talking about.

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Now lets be clear on this – most people don’t even make it on to this matrix! So well done if you are at least having a crack at it!

Hopefully you can see the problem already – most people try to go for box number 4. Particularly right now when New Years Resolutions tend to be in the wild, crazy this time I will do it and I want it RIGHT NOW frame of mind. Maybe we should call box number 4, box number “crazy”. Because it is crazy. People actually think that is what we need to do all the time to sustain really good results.

This means 2 things happen:
1) They convince themselves that is exactly what they are going to do from now on….. (despite the fact that even the “best” don’t do this)
2) Think “well if that’s what it takes, why even bother?”

The second statement is actually smarter than the first! No-one and I mean no-one keeps this intensity up all the time. Hugh Jackman is not in “Wolverine from X-Men” type shape all the time. He just lights it up when an up coming role requires it. In fact if you read any of his interviews he makes this abundantly clear, making no secret of how unpleasant the process is and that he only does it because its his job.

Another example of this type of extreme conditioning is when we have fighters in MMA competitions – hard, hard exercise routines coupled with even stricter diets to make the weight class. This puts fighters under tremendous physical and emotional pressure. Typically fighters blow it all completely about 15 minutes after the bout. Shoveling all manner of food and drink down their throats!

So here is the thing – that level of commitment is short term only. Its best kept for weddings or high school reunions when you want to show that Tiffany bitch that she can’t call you a fat cow anymore. Trust me – Tiffany has likely blown out more than you anyway, remembers how many people she picked on and won’t even turn up….. (don’t worry, there is no-one named Tiffany on this mailing list, I know, I checked).

So spend most of your time in Box 1 – the reasonable diet/ reasonable workout category. Simply because we can actually stay here long term and it’s what we do over the long term that gets results. Just to make sure you didn’t miss it:

Box 1 is the most important – because it’s where we can stay over the long term that gets the results.

I have spent time in each of these boxes over time. But without a doubt I spend more than 80% of my time in box number 1. The thing is though, its all that time spent in box number 1 that allows me to move into any of the other boxes at any time and get the results from that box quickly. And because I know where my baseline “reasonable” is, I don’t get as overwhelmed by the short-term demands of the “crazy” stuff.

The aim is to keep base line capacity high enough that you can take on the adaptive changes from the other boxes with minimum time and fuss. This is a GOOD thing because, like I said, we can’t spend much time in these other boxes.

I have NEVER seen a single person keep up the level of training or dietary restrictions for more than 3 months in any box other than box number 1.

Think I am exaggerating? Check out this blog posts and info-graphic from Precision Nutrition. It’s a very, very accurate representation of what is required to get to and stay at each level of body fat and fitness level. I’ve never seen anyone who can go from the habits of totally out of shape to “rock star” body in one jump. Its true what they say about the progressions, they get progressively harder. A 6-pack is not only hard to get, it takes years of practice to be able to instinctively know how to get it when ever you want. You will also note that when body fat gets very low – say fitness models on photo shoot day – this is actually NOT healthy to maintain!

So the results from the “crazy” boxes are always transitory at best. And bear in mind that I have trained with and treated world-class athletes. They are paid to do this as a full time job – and even they don’t keep it up. So are you really telling me this is how you are going to change things up in just 3 months and keep it going? Forgive me when I start chuckling.

On top of that – boxes 2,3 and especially 4 actually increase the stress on the body. That’s right – stress hormones almost always increase in these boxes. This means that you need to compensate by sleeping more, not less. And how are you doing with that minimum 8 hours a night? Personally – I suck.

If Saskia and I had kids – this would be MORE important not less. Having spent time in and knowing what it takes to perform in each box, I think with that extra crying, crapping and drooling distraction, Box 1 would be pretty much it.

Box number 1 is a GREAT place to be. Really it’s just wonderfully fantastic. You will feel better than you could possibly imagine. It’s achievable, maintainable and actually keeps stress hormones down. Your blood results will keep your GP happy too.

Even better news is that if you stay in box 1 for long enough, that glass of wine/stubby of beer, that piece of chocolate or cookie, that slice of bread – you won’t even really feel like them anymore. Better yet, your body can deal with it in small quantities so that it doesn’t end up on your hips or tummy but honestly, you won’t even think about eating it anymore. I know you won’t believe this so we will follow up with a separate article describing why another time.

However most people don’t stay in box number 1 long enough to get what they want precisely because they think they will get there faster using approaches from the other boxes!!

Indeed you may well get results from Px90, Michelle Bridges or even Body For Life (an oldie but a goodie) but its going to be short term only.

I think managing Box 1 – 80% of the time, getting it 80% right and managing this for a few decades will trump those Tough Mudder events and batshit crazy celebrity diets every time. And here is the ironic bit, spend lots of time in box number 1 and you will be the only one who can get anything out of those short forays into boxes 2, 3 and (heaven forbid) 4 anyway!

This is because our level of “reasonableness” actually expands over time. “Reasonable” right now might be to change 3 out of 7 breakfasts away from sugary breakfast cereals. Later on “reasonable” will be only having the sugary breakfast cereal once or twice a year when you are on holidays. A “reasonable” workout for you might be to do a sets of body weight squats for 10 minutes whereas for my fitness group, reasonable might be putting someone the same body weight on their shoulders and doing the same number of squats over the same 10 minute period. It’s all relative but “reasonable” will expand over time.

And trust me – that’s magic!