Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.
How long have you been tiptoeing around the idea of getting fit and healthy?
How many times have you been put off by the amount of contradictory information available on the internet?
How many times have you felt your knowledge was inadequate for you to make progress, so you never got started?
You aren’t alone. Countless people may not have easy access to a personal trainer or an online coach, so they postpone their fitness journey indefinitely because they feel like they lack the knowledge and confidence to do it properly.
I’m not going to lie. This article isn’t a substitute for a personal trainer’s expertise. No random piece of writing on the internet is, regardless of what the title might tell you.
Nevertheless, I’m going to do my best to offer you a couple of tips to get you started on the path of building healthier habits around training and nutrition.
How to Start: Nutrition
1. Keep a food diary
Most of the time, when we stand paralysed on the edge of a new experience, what’s holding us back is the fear of the unknown.
We don’t know what to do, so we’re scared to mess up.
And, if you don’t know what to do to improve your diet, it may be because you don’t actually know what you’re eating.
Sure, you know what you buy at the grocery store and cook for your meals, but can you remember when you had a certain food, how much it was, and how you cooked it? Can you remember that for all of your meals? Probably not.
That’s why a food diary is going to make the biggest impact on your nutritional habits.
It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. If you don’t want to work out your calories and macronutrients using a food tracking app, that’s fine. Keep it simple.
Get a basic notebook, divide each page into Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Snacks, then log everything you eat.
If you don’t want to weigh everything, that’s also fine. Use your hand, fingers, and bottles or glasses to estimate portion sizes, such as “a palm-sized serving of chicken breast”, “a glass of milk”, and so on.
Be meticulous with your logging, then review the diary at the end of the week.
The two aspects of your diet that have the greatest influence on your body composition are quantity and quality.
Quantity is more straightforward, and you can figure it out by simply going through the diary.
If the goal is to lose fat, what could you eat less of next week? If the goal is to put on muscle, what could you eat more of next week? If you want to maintain your weight, could you plan the following week so you can have similar meals to the week before?
Quality is a more nuanced component of nutrition and will require your own effort to expand your current knowledge.
Fortunately, if you want to educate yourself on good food choices, there is a host of reliable websites you can look at, such as:
When you’re trying to change the quality of your food, you will have different options depending on your goal.
For fat loss, you may want to incorporate foods that are low in calories and high in fibre and micronutrients, such as chicken breast, potatoes, and vegetables.
For muscle gain, you are less at risk of developing nutrient deficiencies, as you will be eating more calories than you need to maintain your current weight. However, this is no excuse to go on a “dirty bulk” and eat fast food 24/7.
Among other functions, vitamins play a vital role in the metabolic pathways that extract energy from food, whereas minerals regulate your bodily fluids and are involved in the reactions that allow you to perform efficient movements.
In other words, your diet is as important on your weight gain journey as it is in a fat loss phase.
Lastly, be careful with the amount of changes you make every week. If you try too many new habits at once, you might overwhelm yourself. As a result, adherence will suffer, which can set you back for days or weeks.
Instead, make one or two small, simple changes every week, and you will see consistent results.
Which change should you implement first? Why not…
2. Add protein
Most of the time, when someone comes to me for fat loss, their questions are a variation of, “How do I eat less?”
I believe that a healthier way to diet should centre around eating more, not less. So my first piece of advice to them is:
Add low-fat protein foods to all of your meals and snacks.
I had a nutrition client who took huge steps forward with their food quality, but still struggled with overeating at dinner. Reviewing their food diary, I discovered all they were eating for lunch was a bowl of pasta topped with tomato sauce. After that, they would spend an entire afternoon at work without snacks. No wonder they needed a huge dinner after that!
After I advised them to incorporate a source of protein into their lunch, such as chicken breast or canned tuna, they had more energy in the afternoon and found it much easier to have a normal-size dinner without feeling like they were starving at the end of the day.
So, if you don’t know where to start with your nutrition, always start with protein.
1. Decide how many times per week you want to train… then start with less
Yes, you read that correctly.
I’m advising you notto go all in right away.
You may have time for the gym four days a week, but can you sustain it physically and mentally?
If you haven’t exercised in a long time or if you’ve never done it before, period, your body may not be accustomed to that level of exertion all at once. Even if the physical fatigue is manageable, the mental fatigue might not be.
Your main goal on the first week is to gain confidence, so you need to set yourself up for success with an achievable goal. If you make the goal too difficult, the effort will leave you tired, grumpy, and not at all looking forward to repeating the experience, even if you did do it in the end.
But, if you think you could do four sessions and start out with two or three, the ease of your success will put you in the right mental position to be a little more ambitious next time. You could then do three workouts in your second or third week, then work up to four by the end of the first month.
Acing a string of smaller goals will feel a lot more motivating than struggling to achieve one big goal by the skin of your teeth.
Lastly, don’t worry about not exercising “enough”.
When you don’t have a lot of experience or you haven’t trained in a while, anything more than what you were doing before (which won’t be very much if you fall under either category) will provide results. Enjoy your fast progress while it lasts!
2. Do something you already know you like
I can’t stress this point enough.
Don’t choose something you saw in a magazine because you think, “it sounds hard and awful, therefore it must be good” (hint: it probably won’t be).
Don’t choose something your friend is doing, but you have no experience with.
Pick something you know and actually like, or something you don’t know so well, but maybe there’s a class that you can join.
Remember, you’re trying to build a habit. It will be easier to stay consistent if you have confidence in what you’re doing.
If you’ve never touched a barbell before, the Legs Smasher Training Programby Squatty McSquat might not be the best choice. You may survive, but you won’t be back in the gym any time soon.
When I decided I wanted to lift, I had only ever used dumbbells before, so I stuck to dumbbells and home workouts for the first couple of months, until I moved to a city where I had the opportunity to get a gym membership.
You might think, “well, that’s not much,” but it’s part of what helped me be able to squat and deadlift more than my bodyweight for reps.
What’s most important when you start is to keep going. What you do doesn’t matter too much as long as you enjoy it and it is based on basic exercise principles (I would recommend asking a trainer for advice on the latter).
Once going to the gym becomes second nature, then it’s time to focus on more “fitness-y” goals.
In Future Episodes:
Full-body and bro splits: What’s all that about? More on these programming variables next week!
Do you have any tips to start a fitness journey the right way?
An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
Want to work with me? Check out my services!