Growing up, I was taught there are two aspects to physical fitness: regular exercise and a healthy diet.
I was fortunate to have parents who reinforced this learning at home. They ensured I was active in sports year-round and did a solid job promoting and modeling sound eating habits.
Upon graduating from high school and moving to college I discovered exercise and diet were suddenly optional. For the first time in my life, I had complete control over what I did with my time and what foods I ate. This freedom felt awesome! I replaced working out with going out and fruits and vegetables with General Tso's and Papa Johns.
The end result? I went from an in-shape, 180 pound high school senior to an out of shape, 220 pound college senior.
Immediately following college graduation I saw a few pictures of myself shirtless at the pool. I did a double-take upon seeing the prints (recall this was before everyone had digital cameras). I didn’t recognize myself! Embarrassed, I quickly put the photos aside.
Over the next several weeks I couldn’t shake the thought of those pool pictures. “Do I really look like that?” I couldn’t believe the unsightly change my body had undergone over the past four years.
Those pictures were a turning point in my life. Fed up with four years of unhealthy decisions, I committed to living a healthier life. This started with daily exercise. The combination of lifting weights, playing tennis, and long-distance running resulted in favorable outcomes. My body looked healthier and I felt better which led to increased self-confidence and motivation.
Dieting was a little slower to come around. While I was making gains with exercise, my progress eventually reached a plateau. Some of the stubborn college weight (especially in my mid-section) wouldn't go away. I realized while I was doing well with exercise, I was neglecting the second aspect of physical fitness - a healthy diet.
I started reading everything about healthy eating and asked advice from others who were familiar with nutrition and meal planning. Eventually I stumbled upon the idea of a calorie deficit which states it's impossible to lose weight if you eat more calories than you burn (more on this later).
Armed with this new information, I began a calorie deficit diet. Using the Harris-Benedict Formula, I calculated the number of calories burned each day. Once I knew this number, I kept track of my calories making sure not to go over my daily limit.
The progress was incredible. In a few short months the combination of daily workouts and a calorie deficit diet brought me all the way back to my high school weight of 180 pounds! Not only did I like the way I looked, my energy and self-confidence were at all-time highs.
Welcome back physical fitness - I hardly knew ya!
Endless research speaks to the positive correlation between physical fitness and job performance.
In terms of exercise and job performance, the Harvard Business Review reports, “Studies indicate that our mental firepower is directly linked to our physical regimen. And nowhere are the implications more relevant than to our performance at work. Cognitive benefits are as follows: Improved concentration, sharper memory, safer learning, prolonged mental stamina, Enhanced creativity, and Lower stress.”
As for the connection between a healthy diet and job performance, according to the Chartered Management Institute, “Eating well can have a profound effect on our productivity in the workplace. The advantages of eating well are increased energy and alertness, a healthy immune system which reduces absenteeism, improved sleep which leads to greater concentration, and improved mental health.”
Given the connection between physical fitness and job performance, why do so many educators neglect exercise and healthy dieting?
One word comes to mind: Stress
According to a recent Gallup Poll, 46% of teachers report experiencing "high, daily stress." Furthermore, according to the National Institute of Stress 40% of teachers indicate they have no time for leisure activity.
Without question, education is an incredibly challenging and demanding job. At the end of the school day we find ourselves mentally and physically drained. When we are exhausted, our will power goes away. And when will power is depleted we no longer feel like going to the gym or choosing the healthy dinner option.
I will always remember the extreme fatigue I felt while student teaching. Although two-a-day high school football practices were tough, this level of tired was on a whole new level. I couldn’t believe how exhausted I was come Friday evening. Whereas my friends were all going out, I chose to stay home and watch TV or sleep. Keep in mind I was 21 years old!
As if stress isn't enough, time is also an issue. When the school day ends, many educators have responsibilities beyond the classroom. Most teachers take work home to complete during the evening. Others have coaching or supervisory responsibilities throughout the week. Beyond work, many educators have kids and families to care for when returning home.
When educators say they are too exhausted or don't have the time for physical fitness, I get it.
But here's the deal: A life of inactivity and unhealthy diet choices will eventually catch up with you. Of all of the preventable factors causing premature mortality, lack of exercise and poor diet are the number one cause of death.
You can run but you can't hide. (Although running would be a good start...)
Many educators can't wait for retirement. They have a twinkle in their eye as they discuss all of the wonderful things they plan on doing in their free time. Spending time with grandchildren, traveling with spouses, and starting new hobbies are all common goals for life's encore.
However, the sad reality is many educators retire from the profession exhausted, broken down, and sick. While pouring their heart and soul into helping students, employees often ignore helping themselves.
In a selfless profession, self-care is often neglected.
Many schools realize this dilemma. As a result, district leaders are making efforts to teach their staff about work-life balance. Many districts have started employee wellness programs, while others have fostered partnerships with local gyms.
In our district we often remind staff members happy teachers equal happy kids. To promote this mindset, we offer special employee discounts at a community gym, provide staff wellbeing seminars, give away free vacation time to employees, and encourage employees to use personal time as "mental health" days.
I model a healthy lifestyle to our staff by making exercise and dieting a personal priority. As a building administrator and now a district superintendent I have always prioritized working out. Often I will go for runs outdoors, utilize the high school weight room, or workout at the local gym. By modeling that it's ok to take a break from work and take care of yourself, my hope is others feel empowered to take similar steps.
I am by no means an expert in physical fitness. There are plenty of others who spend their lives researching this topic. So please do not take what I have written in the following pages as gospel. However, after 15 years of studying, testing, and trying to understand exercise and dieting I am excited to have the opportunity to teach some principles I've learned.
The following pages contain several several key ideas about physical fitness. These summaries are my personal beliefs paired with research I've collected from four respected books on personal wellness. Those books are as follows:
Thinner This Year by Chris Crowley and Jennifer Sacheck
Not a Diet Book by James Smith
The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss
Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews
Keep in mind there are thousands of books on working out, dieting, and everything in-between. Selecting a fitness book at Barnes & Noble is like standing at Sherwin Williams trying to figure out what color to paint your living room - completely overwhelming. The reason I chose these books was not only because of their reputation, but also because their focus best matched my physical fitness goals.
Although these books do discuss some advanced concepts, I believe they house universal truths about fitness and dieting anyone can implement.
Similar to the rest of this book, I encourage you to pick and choose aspects that best fit your particular situation.
Use it or Lose It: Exercise is the single, greatest key to keeping your body from completely falling apart as you get older. Unfortunately, I have seen way too many people at midlife or older give up on exercise for a variety of reasons. The research indicates at about thirty-two, the default signal in your body flips over to decay. If we get older without doing remaining active our body will drop off exponentially. However, contrary to popular belief metabolism does not take a huge plunge as you get older. Research shows the average adult's metabolism slows by just 1 to 3 percent per decade. The reason for large dips in metabolism is muscle loss, not genetics. Therefore, if muscle is maintained as you age, metabolism will also be maintained.
Balanced, Healthy Diet: A balanced diet is one that gives your body the nutrients it needs to function correctly. To get the proper nutrition from your diet, you should consume the majority of your daily calories by eating the following: fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts, and legumes (such as beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, and peanuts). Without good nutrition, your body is more prone to disease, infection, fatigue, and poor performance. Eating a balanced diet can be difficult, but it is doable. Take it from me - I used to hate vegetables! Now I eat 3-4 servings every day.
Lifting Weights: Any type of physical activity is better than nothing. However, the very best way to lose weight (and look great) is to do whole-body strength exercises. Unfortunately there are thousands of weight lifting theories in terms of exercises, lifts, intensity, reps, rest time, and sets. Do not get overwhelmed! Simply choose a viable, research-based weight program and go with it. While there will never be agreement on best methods, there is agreement that lifting weights should be a part of everyone’s fitness journey. All four of these books speak to the benefits of strength training as a part of your exercise routine.
Calorie Deficit: Everywhere we look, there is a new fad diet introduced on television, in magazines, and on social media. Atkins, South Beach, Vegan, Keto, Paleo, Mediterranean - there are too many to choose from! Here is what you need to know: Every single controlled weight loss study conducted in the last 100 years has concluded if you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn, you'll lose weight. Looking for a place to start? The best formula to use is the aforementioned Harris-Benedict Formula. Simply calculate your target number, eat fewer calories than your number, and start exercising. I'm confident you will lose weight. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.
Calories Burned After Exercise: Not only do you burn calories while working out, there is substantial evidence showing calories will continue to burn at a higher rate after exercise. Furthermore, research indicates the calories burned after a great workout are often those stubborn fat calories that don't seem to go away. Talk about a win-win!
The Best Way to Measure Results: Now that we've established the importance of healthy eating and working out, how do we measure results? Most people would say a scale. However, scales can be maddening because weight fluctuates throughout the day. Another way to measure results is by taking body fat measurements. Similar to the scale, fat measurements are hard to accurately measure. Rather, I recommend taking pictures. Taking pictures throughout your journey is the best way to measure results. I know, taking a picture of yourself can seem weird at first. I will always remember the first time I took a "selfie" in 2013 - I felt so conceited! But eventually you'll get used to it. I would suggest creating a folder of progress photos on your phone. This will allow you to quickly swipe through pictures so you can see progress over time. I promise you will find motivation in seeing your results!
Eating the Same Meals Over and Over: There are hundreds of thousands of meal plans. Don’t get overwhelmed! My suggestion would be to zero-in on the meals that work for your diet and eat those same foods consistently. Not only will this take some of the guesswork out of dieting, you’ll be much less likely to accidentally overeat. If the thought of eating the same meal sends a shiver through your taste buds, you might be surprised how easy it is when you're eating foods you actually like. I often eat the same breakfast or lunch for years (!!) at a time. You won't get sick of them as quickly as you might think. Furthermore, if you look at your diet now, you'll probably find you're already eating a lot of the same foods regularly.
Cheat Meals: Eating healthy can often lead to mental issues around eating. Therefore, it is important we build in diet breaks and allow ourselves to eat our favorite foods. A cheat meal is when you allow yourself to eat many of those foods that are normally off limits. The good thing is you can eat almost anything once in a while and get away with it, especially if you’re exercising on a regular basis. What you cannot do is eat bad stuff all the time. My cheat meals are reserved for Saturday nights. In the hours leading up to my cheat meal, I think about all of my favorite foods I'm going consume. Some of my favorites are Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, Scotcheroos, and Casey's Pizza. Nothing is off limits! The cool thing about sticking to one cheat meal a week is if you stick to your exercise and calorie deficit program, any weight gained on Saturday evening will be gone in a few days!
Supplements: Experts are all over the place when it comes to supplements. First and foremost, the most important thing you can do is eat a well balanced diet. When you do this, the need for supplementation goes away. However, once healthy eating is established there are a couple ways fitness can be taken to the next level. The first is protein. A well-balanced diet usually produces enough protein to eliminate the need supplementation. However, protein powder is the most common way to get extra protein into your diet. Beyond protein, one supplement that compliments lifting weights is creatine. Creatine has regularly shown to increase strength, fat-free mass, and muscle shape. Many people shy away from creatine because they've heard it makes you bloated or dehydrated. These used to be problems, but have become relatively nonexistent today as processing methods have improved. Not sure what creatine to go with? Use powdered creatine monohydrate as it's the most medically accepted type.
Protein: Not only is protein proven to enhance muscle mass and strength, it is also proven to reduce appetite and hunger levels. One of the best things about protein is that around 30 percent of the calories consumed in protein are lost/broken down purely by digestion. It’s a great idea to have a protein snack within an hour after exercise. Some of the best foods for protein are chicken, pork, fish, beef, beans, yogurt, milk, cheese, nuts, and eggs. Of course, if you find it hard to eat these foods with regularity you can supplement with protein powder as described above.
Carbs: Carbs have gotten a bad wrap for the last several years. However, to eliminate them all together is not a good idea. Your friend or family member who lost tremendous weight with a low-carb diet didn't lose it because of the lower cabs; they lost it because they consumed fewer calories. The research on eating carbs before a workout is clear: it improves performance. Specifically, eating within 60 minutes of a workout will help you train harder and will also aid in post workout recovery and muscle growth. Some of the best foods for carbs are 100 percent whole grains like brown rice, wheat, oats, vegetables and fruit.
Meal Plan: I had some requests to provide my personal meal plan. This can be difficult as I tend to change my diet every six months or so. Instead of providing a specific meal plan, I will share some principles I follow for creating meal plans. Do you recall the (very old) SlimFast commercials that said, "A shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, and a sensible dinner?" There is a lot of truth to that statement. Although I don't actually have SlimFast shakes for my meals (I often create my own breakfast shake), I do try to eat very clean meals for breakfast and lunch. Meals could include any combination of eggs, yogurt, vegetables, cottage cheese, protein powder, turkey, tuna, rice, etc. as long as I keep my total to under 1200 calories. Since my daily maximum is 2400 calories, this leaves 1200 calories for dinner. I try not to eat junk food (and almost never go out to eat unless it's Subway), but do have flexibility with what I eat for dinner. While there is a lot more that goes into my eating habits, I always fall back on the concept of calories in versus calories out.
Similar to my post-college realization, I have talked to many individuals who encounter similar turning points in their physical health. I encourage you to stop ignoring these warning signs and instead make changes to your physical fitness habits.
Your future self will appreciate it!