Hollywood trainers from The Biggest Loser share their strategies.
The pure mathematics of weight loss is simple—eat less, move more—but if knowing that were all it took, everyone would be in great shape. Los Angeles–based personal trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels have been helping to define the bodies of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Ellen DeGeneres, and Laura Dern, and they've also changed the lives of contestants on NBC's weight loss reality show, The Biggest Loser. Michaels is co-owner of Sky Sport and Spa. Here's what they know about diet and fitness success.
1. There's no one secret to being thin.
Losing weight and keeping it off, says Jillian Michaels, "requires a holistic approach that combines proper diet, good workouts, knowing why you overeat, and understanding how to push yourself toward change." The desire to change, she adds, really has to come from inside. "Sometimes you've got to have hit bottom, like realizing you can't play tag with your kids without getting out of breath," Jillian says. "If you're not ready for something new, no matter what you try, it's not going to work."
2. Don't blame your genes. Yes, everyone is built differently, and some of us gain weight more easily than others. But "to say, 'I can't make any improvement because I have fat genes' is b.s.," says Jillian. "It's not true, and it's disempowering. No matter what your genes are, you have the ability to make the right choices about eating and exercise."
3. Cut yourself some slack. The main thing is to make peace with your body before you try to change it, says Bob Harper. "Okay, you're overweight. But how great that you've decided to do something about it! Accepting where you are at the moment takes away the white-knuckle feeling that can sabotage you fast: 'I've got to lose weight! I've got to! Damn, I didn't lose any weight today. I've failed! Forget it, I won't even try anymore.'"
4. Study up. Before you lift a toe, do some legwork. "You can learn about nutrition and diets on Web sites like howstuffworks.com or through books like Nutrition for Dummies," says Bob. Preparation helps you train wisely, too. "You can't just jump into an exercise program without knowing what you're doing," says Jillian. "At best you'll waste your time; at worst you could get injured." Find a beginner class or trainer to teach you the nuts and bolts. Or use books, fitness magazines, and videos. "Crunch Fitness puts out some awesome books that show all the basics," she says, "including Beginner's Luck, by Brad Hamler, and Perfect Posture, by Scott G. Duke."
5. Keep an honest food journal. "It's essential," Jillian insists. "You need to track what you eat in detail. Not 'peanuts,' but how many peanuts. What time of day? And why are you eating just then? Writing it down makes you accountable and aware, and it helps you identify the mistakes you're making. Maybe your blood sugar is fluctuating through the day. Maybe you're skipping meals. Maybe you feel like you're not eating that much but, when you add it up, it comes to 2,500 calories a day."
Tip #6: Experiment to find your own diet6. Experiment to find your own diet. Some foods are obvious no-no's: trans fats, processed food, white sugar, and excessive alcohol. Beyond that, though, everyone's body is different, and just because a diet book is on the best-seller list doesn't mean its program will work for you. "Some people thrive on a strictly high-protein diet, while others do great with fruits, grains, and beans," says Jillian. "You've got to ask yourself questions: When I eat meat, do I feel sluggish or agitated? When I eat fruit, do I feel satiated? Sometimes it takes a lot of trial and error to find the right combination of foods. And as a trainer, I've learned that you also have to take human frailty into account. If you can't bear the idea of giving up bread, choose whole grain and try to eat it with some protein." The protein, she explains, will slow the breakdown of the bread so its carbs won't cause your blood sugar to spike and then—as so often happens—crash, making you hungry again for something starchy.
7. Don't ever starve yourself. Dieting means cutting calories, but less isn't always more. "One of the biggest misconceptions I've seen—including among the women I'm training on the show—is that the less you eat, the more weight you'll lose," says Jillian. "Maybe at first. But your body will think you're dying from lack of food, and your metabolism will adjust by slowing to a crawl." Most women should never eat less than 1,200 calories a day.
8. Outsmart your exercise excuses. A routine you'll actually stick to has to have elements that appeal to you. If you love being outdoors, try hiking or walking somewhere inspiring—a beach, a park, a historic neighborhood. You also need to assess what motivates you. If you get competitive and push yourself more when you're around others, join a gym, take a class, or play a sport like tennis or softball. If you're good at finding reasons to skip a session, make a commitment to do something with friends, so you can't back out without letting everyone down.
9. Don't forget the weights. The best fitness routine includes a combination of heart-rate-boosting exercise like jogging or stair-stepping and resistance training, which means either lifting weights or using gym equipment. Cardio burns the fat; resistance training creates shape and increases muscle mass—and the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism runs, even when you're resting.
10. Start with baby steps. Working out for 20 minutes a day isn't enough to get you buff, but "even that will start speeding up your metabolism," says Jillian. "Walk to a local restaurant during lunch hour, walk the dog, walk to the convenience store. The idea is to get moving."
Bob couldn't agree more. "Thinking, I can't get in shape because I don't have two hours a day to exercise is just another excuse for doing nothing," he says. "Start small, because small can only get bigger. Starting big means burning out, blowing out, getting hurt—another reason to stop."
Tip #11: Tough it out11. Tough it out. Accept that the early days of a fitness program may not be fun. "You've just got to push through," says Jillian. "Your body is an amazing machine. After two weeks, the walk that used to have you sucking wind won't even tire you. It took only that long for the women on The Biggest Loser to discover they could do exercises they initially found impossible. By the end of the first month, you'll see some pretty significant changes. That's when I get calls from my clients: 'Oh my God, I felt my hip bone!'"
12. Don't expect dramatic weight loss to continue. Depending on where you're starting from, "during the first two weeks of a new diet and fitness routine, you can drop as much as 15 pounds," says Bob. "After that, it tends to be one to two pounds a week. But everyone hits plateaus, which means that you can diet and exercise religiously for weeks without losing any weight at all. You just have to stay strong and ride it out. Life is all about ebbs and flows, and if you stick to your program, the weight will start coming back off."
13. Keep your body guessing. Constantly surprising your body will help you avoid those weight loss stalls and get you out of them if they do occur. "You want to keep your food intake fluctuating, so your body never quite adjusts," Jillian says. "With women trying to lose weight, I like to vary it by around 400 calories. One day they'll eat 1,700 calories, then drop to 1,300 for two days, then two at 1,500, and one at 1,700 again."
The same principle holds true for exercise. "At first doing the exact same thing over and over is fine," says Bob. "You'll see results, which will keep you motivated. Eventually, though, at around four weeks, you'll need to vary the routine or your body will get used to what it's doing. But the smallest change can make a huge difference. If you've been walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes, slow your pace by half and increase the incline. If you're riding a stationary bike on the manual setting, switch to a program that imitates climbing hills. At one point, the contestants on The Biggest Loser had been doing barbell curls for a few weeks. So I had them change to just holding the barbells for five minutes without letting them drop. They couldn't believe it—it was killing them!"
14. Visualize long-term change, not deprivation. "My clients, particularly those who have to lose a lot of weight, are often very angst-ridden when they start," says Bob. "They say, 'You're going to take away the food I love! You're going to make me do things I don't want to do, which is why nothing has ever worked for me!' I try to get them to relaaaax. This isn't about beating yourself down but lifting yourself up. It involves realizing why your eating has gotten out of control and starting to think about food differently. In fact, when my clients get close to their goal weights, I often give them one day a week to eat whatever they like—popcorn, M&M's. Losing weight and keeping it off means balance—not going without treats for the rest of your life."
15. Learn to hit the pause button. Part of changing your eating patterns requires altering your reflexes. "When you find yourself thinking, I'm going to get an ice cream cone because I've had such a bad day, just stop," Bob says. "Take a moment and ask yourself, Am I really hungry? Do I really want this? Why do I want it? The pause gets you thinking instead of simply acting on impulse."
If it turns out that what you're feeling is something other than hunger, Jillian adds, find a nonfood treat. "Instead of eating the ice cream, reward yourself with a manicure, massage, or bubble bath. Do something positive, healthy—something that makes you feel beautiful and is incompatible with breaking yourself down."
Tip #16: Just forget about your thighs16. Just forget about your thighs. Try viewing exercise as helping you increase what you're able to do, rather than fixing a "flawed" body part. "Whenever I start working with women, I hear complaints like 'My thighs are too big' or 'What can I do about my butt?'" says Bob. "Once you get someone moving, however, that can change to, 'Wow, I never knew how weak I was.' Being aware of a flaw can be good for getting you started, but it's more productive to think about being fit and healthy than about how you look."
When you become aware of how physically strong you can be, adds Jillian, "it translates into all other areas of your life."
14. Don't be afraid to take a break. "If your legs are feeling heavy and you're constantly sore, you've been overtraining," says Jillian. "Take some time out, up your calories by 10 percent, relax. Let your system recuperate." Otherwise you're at risk of hitting a plateau or burning out and giving up.
18. Consider calling in professional help. Personal trainers can be invaluable if you're a rank beginner, have hit the doldrums, or worry that you can't stay motivated on your own. Depending on where you live and how long the trainer has been in business, the cost can be as little as $25 an hour or as much as $300. Sometimes one or two sessions are all you need to get on track. When deciding on a trainer, look for certification by organizations like the International Sports Sciences Association, the National Endurance & Sports Trainers Association, the American Council on Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine, the American Fitness Training of Athletics, or the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. Ask the trainer about his or her background. "Is this an actor or someone with other aspirations? If so, move on," says Jillian. "Get references and call them. A trial session can tell you whether your individual needs and goals will be addressed or if you'll just be thrown into a one-size-fits-all routine. Finally, you have to ask yourself, Is this someone I like? Someone who'll inspire me? Someone I'll want to see at 6 in the morning? If you're thinking of joining a gym because it provides personal trainers, "ask for a free week of private training before you sign the contract," says Bob. And make sure that gym trainers, too, have the proper credentials.
19. Don't even think about those gimmicks. "Any gadget that promises you a rock-hard butt and firm abs in two minutes a day is a waste of money," says Bob. "Fitness doesn't happen overnight."
20. Keep your perspective. Don't count on getting the spectacular body of a movie star—unless, that is, you were blessed with a naturally great figure. And certainly don't blame yourself for not measuring up (or down, as the case may be). "Celebrities have private chefs; trainers like me working with them 24 hours a day, six days a week; and plastic surgeons to fix whatever problems are left," says Jillian. And then there's good lighting, airbrushing, and all sorts of photographic wizardry. "Hollywood," she adds, "is a very small piece of the world. It is not reality."