Getting in shape is never easy, but it certainly doesn’t help if you work fifty hours a week. I should know- I work fifty hours a week helping people who work fifty hours a week (in tech, no less) get into shape.
It’s not easy- but it’s certainly not impossible either. If you want to have a flat belly, toned muscles, and the stamina to run a 10k, there are two ways you can get there.
First, you can radically change your lifestyle, all at once. Start going to the gym five or six times a week, go on a strict ketogenic diet, and always be in bed by midnight.
Second, you can hack your current lifestyle. You can make small but highly effective changes to your current diet, exercise routine, and sleep habits. If you know what you’re doing, small adjustments can generate disproportionate results- and you only need to make two or three at a time. You can change your lifestyle so gradually, you barely even notice it- until one day, you look in the mirror and you see your abs.
Here are twenty of the most bang for your buck lifestyle changes I’ve used with clients who work long hours.
- Drink a glass of water before each meal. This has been demonstrated to reduce caloric intake in both obese and lean individuals.
- Fill up on vegetables. Follow the “crowding out” principle- eat a lot of fibrous, low-calorie vegetables to crowd the more calorically dense foods out of your diet. Eat vegetables with every meal, and eat them first.
- Cook food at home, and save leftovers. If you don’t have the time or the motivation to cook every day, schedule food prep twice a week, cooking 4-6 servings of healthy food each time.
- Sleep in complete darkness. Exposure to light while you’re sleeping reduces melatonin secretion. It also decreases secretion of growth hormone- a hormone which, contrary to its name, actually does at least as much to burn fat as to build muscle.
- Start darkening your environment 2-3 hours before you go to bed. Exposure to light up to eight hours before bed suppresses melatonin production. You don’t need to turn off all the lights eight hours before bedtime- I’ll show you a few ways to hack your way around that- but
- Perform short bodyweight workouts several times a day. Do a few minutes of bodyweight movements like squats, pushups, and planks shortly after waking up. Then do it agin 2-3 more times throughout the day. This is far more convenient than going to the gym, and can be nearly as effective- at least early on, before you’ve built a lot of muscle.
- Work out in the late afternoon or early evening. Studies have shown that training later in the day- between 4 and 8 PM- leads to significantly greater mass and strength gains than training in the morning.
- If a food isn’t on your diet, don’t keep it in your home. It’s much easier and more effective to avoid temptation than to try to resist it.
- Make friends who are into fitness. Start hanging out with people you know who are in good shape. If that’s not an option, take a group exercise class and start getting to know some of the other people in the class.
- Live with healthy roommates. One of the strongest predictors of how healthy you’ll be is how healthy the people you live with are.
- Start viewing willpower as an infinite resource. The popular belief that willpower is a limited resource has now been debunked. Willpower tends to work the way you expect it to- if you view it as inexhaustible, it tends to be so.
- Start telling yourself that you want to engage in healthy behaviors, not just that you need to. People who want to diet and exercise are more successful than people who think that they have to diet and exercise. This is because people who want to be healthy are less attracted to goal-disrupting temptations like churros or skipping workouts to play video games. Ummm…speaking for experience here.
- Keep your gym bag packed and ready to go. Keep it where it will be readily accessible when it’s time to go to the gym- next to the front door at home, next to your desk at work, or in the trunk of your car. This reduces the amount of psychological “friction” involved in going to the gym.
- Keep your kitchen clean at all times. Clean it immediately after each time you cook. This works on the same principle as keeping your gym bag handy- a clean kitchen makes it easier to get started cooking.
- Get a few pieces of home exercise gear, and keep them in sight and ready to use. I personally recommend adjustable dumbbells, compact resistance bands, and a pull-up bar. Check your doorway before ordering the pull-up bar though, as it require’s a the doorway to have a sizable and sturdy “lip” projecting from the top. If money is tight, the resistance bands are the most bang for your buck of the three.
- Practice intermittent fasting. Skip breakfast and extend your fast to 16+ hours 2-3 days a week, or fast for 36 hours once or twice a month. Contrary to what some fasting advocates may say, this doesn’t work any hormonal magic on your body- what it does is down-regulate your appetite. That, and makes your body more resistant to cancer.
- Eat only when you’re hungry for healthy food. If you’re hungry for pizza but couldn’t eat a salad, you’re not truly hungry. You’re just having a food craving.
- End each workout with something fun. According to peak-end theory, you’ll be more motivated to work out if you end each workout with a relaxing activity. Perform a cool-down exercise you enjoy, play a sport, relax in the sauna, or just spend a few minutes reading a magazine at the gym before you leave. Make the gym a fun place.
- Occasionally do something much harder than you’d normally do. Fast for three days straight a couple times a year. Perform a two-hour workout once a month. Run a marathon. The point of these occasional bouts of hyper-intensity is not that they get you into shape, but that they re-calibrate your idea about what hard work really is.
- When life gets tough, dial back your effort, but don’t stop. Never stop dieting, and never stop working out, no matter how busy you get. Change your mental model from an on-off switch to an intensity dial- if you get too busy to keep doing what you’ve been doing, dial the intensity back from an eight to a six.
Habits like these help you to transform working out from something you force yourself to do, to something you just do, and even something you look forward to. They make it easy to eat nutritious, satiating food 80% of the time- so that you can eat whatever you want the other 20% of the time, guilt-free.
These twenty habits, by themselves, are all many people need to solve their fitness problems and start reaching their goals. And yet, they’re only a fraction of what I teach my clients to apply to their own lives. If you want to get into the best shape of your life- and enjoy the process- that’s something I can help you do in my online fitness coaching program.