Many people seem to be confused by the interplay of nutrition and exercise in the context of weight maintenance and fat loss. It’s really not that complicated, although it’s critical that you understand how one will affect the other…and how they do that is not unlike, say, driving a car with a manual transmission.

This analogy will be more effective if you already know how to drive a stick-shift, but even if you don’t, bear with me. Imagine you’re in the car: if you hold down the clutch pedal, even if you floor the gas, you’re not going to go anywhere. In essence, the clutch mediates the effect of the gas. Until you begin releasing the clutch, the gears won’t catch and the wheels won’t turn. Now, think of exercise output as being the gas pedal and nutritional intake as the clutch. You can train your butt off, but if you don’t watch your diet, you won’t make progress. That’s not to say that your exercise efforts will be for naught, but if your goal is to shed fat, it ain’t gonna happen. Your food intake will, in effect, mediate the fat-loss effects of your workout.

That’s why it’s commonly said that you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. And that’s why it’s also true that you should never fool yourself into thinking you can eat anything and everything you want just because you workout out on a given day. You can consume far more calories in a sitting than you can easily burn off during a training session, and as a result you’ll end up, pardon the pun, spinning your wheels.

So when someone tells me that they’re working out hard but it’s not making a difference in their fat stores, one of the first things I do is ask then to show me their food log. Don’t have a food log? Well, that’s the place to start. Because unless you’re paying attention to both the intake and output sides of the equation — manipulating both pedals to drive — you’re probably not going to get very far.

Since I’m rushing about trying to clean our condo in anticipation of visitors, I have only a minute to jump in here and leave a few words of wisdom. As I survey my workload, I’m reminded of a nice analogy for weight maintenance:

Maintaining your weight (or working towards a fitness goal) is a daily process. You can’t put it on the back burner for a week/month/year and expect to see consistent progress. It’s not unlike, say, keeping a clean house (gee, see how nicely this ties in?). If you tidy everything up one day but then go several weeks without sorting through papers, doing laundry or scrubbing food off the kitchen stove, and actually add to the problem by letting things lie where they drop, you’re going to build up quite a mess. You may get so accustomed to seeing the disarray that you’ll be able to ignore it until you’re told someone’s visiting in two days. That’s when you realize that the place is a complete pigsty, and as you panic and try to accomplish in two days what should have been done regularly over a few weeks, you cry out, “How did this happen???”

Ah, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that uttered by a hapless soul who woke up one morning 40 pounds heavier than they were months ago. And yet, I find myself in a similar situation…(okay, in all honesty, my place isn’t THAT bad. Please tell my mom if she asks).

The bottom line is: when it’s time to take care of business, just shut up and take care of business. When you’re at that ‘decision point’ where you choose between vacuuming or reading a magazine (no, really, it’s a scientific JOURNAL),  or between exercising or watching TV…the decision you make can have significant repercussions. Yes, it does matter if you skip today, because tomorrow’s excuse may seem even more valid. If you don’t work towards your goals on a daily basis, weeks from now you may find yourself staring at a big, fat mess.

Here’s round two of analogy overkill…

As a corollary to my previous post, here’s an analogy for establishing a novel behavior in that mass of neurons known as your brain.

Imagine you’re standing before an unmowed field. The grasses and whatnot are up to your neck. Getting through that tangled mess is going to be tough. So you set out and stomp through the grasses. They’re tall and spiky and you’re kicking up bugs. It takes effort, but you manage to get to the other end of the field eventually. Turn around and look at your work. You can vaguely see where you’ve been.

Return the next morning…and your path is gone. One day’s worth of pounding down grasses doesn’t last. You need to go back over it again. And again. And somehow manage to avoid the temptation of using that paved path that nearby.

Okay, I’m sure you get the point by now. What’ll it take to create lifestyle modifications? Consistency, effort, vigilance, awareness, time. Resist to urge to evaluate your success after a day or two. It’ll take a while to build a smooth path to your destination.

(And you DO have a destination, right?)

So many people made fitness resolutions for 2010…but why are they so hard to keep? I can offer many practical reasons (unrealistic goals, inadequate planning, etc.) but instead let me give you an analogy for what’s going on inside your head…

Let’s say you want to implement an exercise program, starting Monday. Assuming you’re very sedentary and want to start slowly, your resolution is to start walking for 20 minutes a day after work. But you already have another behavior that you engage in when you come home: grabbing a bag of chips and plopping in front of the TV. That second behavior is not healthy or beneficial, but you’ve nurtured it for a long time and it’s become a well-established pattern.

Think of that pattern as hardened ruts on a dirt road. When you get home, you put your brain on autopilot and it slips into those ruts. The body does its own thing, you don’t even have to think about it. As a matter of fact, as you’re unlocking the door to your house, your brain is being bombarded with all sorts of familiar cues. As a result, it knows that the chips and Wheel of Fortune are coming, and it starts preparing for them mentally and physiologically.

Now, you decided that you’d go walking instead, right? Changing that usual pattern of behavior is going to require some conscious, deliberate action on your part, because your body is expecting something less effortful. With steely resolve, you strap on your shoes — a completely novel behavior in this context — grab your iPod and head out the door. Once you’re outside, you’re in a different environment, listening to music, moving. It feels….good! In fact, it feels GREAT! You get home, tired and sweaty, but feeling like you accomplished something big. You have a healthy dinner prepared and you hydrate sufficiently. That was EASY.

There’s only one problem: Tomorrow.

Tuesday you miss lunch so by the time you’re on the way home, you’re starving, not to mention, stressed by the day and traffic. You walk through the front door, get hit by those familiar cues and WHAM! Your brain goes on autopilot…yeah, you should get your shoes, but faced with all this discomfort, you turn to that old well-established pattern.

Whaaa happened? You’re trying to fight a habit. That can be hard to do. Note, I said  hard, not impossible, but you’ve already got a pattern wired in your head that responds to all sorts of sensory and psychological cues. Engaging in that old pattern feels goooooood. Not as good as endorphins from exercise would feel, but that pattern isn’t established yet so it takes too much conscious effort. When push comes to shove, you prefer the path of least resistance.

Back to the ruts in the road analogy: on Monday, you drove over them and started creating a new path. On Tuesday, you slipped back into them because the new path was too bumpy and hard to manage. The old way was much smoother and less stressful for you.

Take home message: breaking an old pattern requires effort, awareness and planning. Don’t expect it to happen easily. It’s not a one day deal. It’s not even a one week deal. Popular wisdom tells us that it takes 21 days to establish a new behavior, but even that fails to address the fact that the behavior pattern you’re replacing may have a lot of history with you. Each time you follow the new pattern, you strengthen it. However, each time you go back to the old one, you make that one even stronger. Focus on both aspects of the process: being consistent with the new behavior, and avoiding falling back to the old one. If you keep cutting yourself slack on the old behavior, you’re going to make the change a lot harder.