If you’re looking to slim down your body with the aid of exercise—or “lean up,” as the fitness pros say (when you build lean muscle mass and improve your strength while reducing unwanted body fat)—our resident exercise guru, Tim Liu, C.S.C.S., says that you need to focus on a basic checklist.
“One, you need to eat at a calorie deficit with a healthy diet,” he says. “Two, you need to do both strength training and cardio exercises; three, when you’re not at the gym, you need to move around as much as possible and get in plenty of walks; and four, you need to get good sleep.”
But when it comes to leaning up, you may find that reaching your body goals are actually way easier than maintaining them, and the same tricks you used to get there may need to be modified. After all, permanent change is hard—and, as we’ve reported, it can take anywhere from 66 days to 254 days to make a new healthy habit automatic.
So if you’re looking to not only reach a targeted lean-body goal but also make it permanent, consider some of these important tips—straight from top fitness experts. And for more life-changing exercise advice, see here for the Secret Exercise Tricks for Keeping Your Weight Down for Good.
Too often we associate “exercise” as something that needs to be done in gleaming, state-of-the-art gyms, or something that needs to be done exclusively while you’re wearing technical performance wear and $250 shoes. Experts will tell you that this thinking is wrongheaded, and you’ll be missing out on all of the important exercise that’s waiting to be done right around you—at any time. After all, as some have observed, simply sitting on the floor more—and forcing your body to squat more—can have a major impact on your weight over time, your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness, and potentially your lifespan.
“Be creative in the way you move. It doesn’t have to be in a gym or structured environment,” advises Nicole Hopsecger, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, in a new article. “Just move more than you do now.”
As Steven Gundry, MD, a cardio thoracic surgeon and medical director at The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine, explained to us: “Exercise doesn’t have to be a 45 minute workout. You can do some ‘exercise snacking,’ or 10 minute sessions—or ‘snacks’—that are quick, easy forms of exercise that can be done anywhere, anytime. The goal is to move throughout the day with ‘bursts’ of vigorous movement that condition your metabolism, kick-start energy productions, help boost mental clarity, promote better sleep, and more.”
If you need a cue to move around, consider this tip from Karen Shopoff Roof, CPT, a personal trainer and health coach based in Austin, TX: “My favorite tip for sneaking more movement into the day is to find those little pockets of time you tend to waste by picking up your phone and mindlessly scrolling the internet and doing a little exercise. Maybe it’s five minutes you have to wait for your kid’s soccer practice to finish, or maybe it’s three minutes you’re waiting for colleagues to join a Zoom meeting—if you can learn to turn those dead minutes into active time, they add up!”
Also, to echo Tim Liu, you need to walk more to keep your weight down. If you polled most trainers and medical experts, they’d tell you that the single biggest misconception we all have is how we view walking. The truth is, walking isn’t just how we get from point A to B on foot—and it’s not a “lazy” way to exercise that’s wildly inferior to strength training or running for long distances. Not only will walking more boost your energy levels, help you sleep, reduce your risk of disease, and ultimately help you live a longer life, but it will also help you slim down and keep the lean body you’ve always wanted. And for more clever ways to work your muscles more every day, don’t miss The Secret Trick for Getting Fit Using Your Toothbrush.
If getting a lean body is your goal—which takes commitment, discipline, hard work, and a dedication to a healthy lifestyle—leading trainers and health experts will tell you that you need to be kind to yourself, and forgive yourself for any imperfections or missteps (which are inevitable—and entirely normal).
“Have empathy for yourself,” Harry Doré, a personal trainer at David Lloyd Clubs in the UK, recently explained to The Telegraph. “If you have a bad session that is disheartening, it’s about thinking in the long-term. You might have had a busier day so you might be a bit more fatigued, you might not have eaten enough. It’s not making excuses, but understanding that two steps forward, one step back, is still a step forward. You’ll always have minor setbacks but it’s just how you power through them.”
In the article for the Cleveland Clinic, Hopsecger agrees. “Losing weight is about so much more than what we eat. It’s often about how we feel about ourselves and what triggers us to make healthy or unhealthy choices,” she says.
According to the health experts at Harvard, cultivating more self-compassion is indeed a trainable skill, and one great way to practice more self-compassion is to speak directly with yourself and be honest about your feelings. “Think of a situation that caused you to feel pain (a breakup with a lover, a job loss, a poorly received presentation),” they advise. “Write a letter to yourself describing the situation, but without blaming anyone—including yourself. Use this exercise to nurture your feelings.”
Contrary to what you may believe, staying healthy over time is actually a group effort—if you want to maintain your new physique, you should seek out support from friends and loved ones around you. “I recommend group support, as it’s been found to provide long-term success,” advised Hopsecger. “Find support from peers through weight management groups and/or a workout buddy, or professional help from behavioral and life coaches, psychologists, exercise physiologists and personal trainers.”
Fact: Running and doing other forms of endurance cardio actually aren’t the best ways to burn fat, build muscle, and maintain a lean body. It’s actually resistance training. We recently polled countless trainers for their take on the best workout for getting and maintaining a lean body, and the answer was clear: You should try your hand at high-intensity interval training.
“High Intensity Interval Training combining cardio, strength and power exercises is the most efficient and effective way to train your body,” Alissa Tucker, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, Corrective Exercise Specialist, Certified Yoga Instructor, professional dancer, and AKT Master Trainer, told us. “It’s because of the Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), commonly referred to as the ‘after burn’ effect. The higher intensity the workout, the greater the after-burn effect. This is why HIIT training is so effective.”
Several studies tout the fat-melting benefits of HIIT. According to one meta-analysis of more than 786 studies on the subject published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Interval training and [moderate-intensity continuous training (MOD)] both reduce body fat percentage,” conclude the researchers. “Interval training provided 28.5% greater reductions in total absolute fat mass than MOD.” In other words, HIIT burns roughly 29% more body fat that moderate-intensity exercise, which includes brisk walking and jogging.
Remember: If you want to be healthy and live longer, do the exercises you love. But if you want strong muscles and less body fat, you need the right diet, and paired with resistance training at a reasonable yet difficult intensity. And for more ways to get fit and lean, check out The 15-Second Exercise Trick That Can Change Your Life.