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Conor Heffernan: Tried and Tested Weight Loss Methods

The fitness industry is a notorious fickle thing. From Instagram influencers to nationally syndicated doctors, we, as consumers, are treated to a vast array of conflicting information about what to do with our bodies. Some weeks, its low carb, others its all vegetables. This week I was told by two friends, one a dietician and the other a trained doctor that eggs were problematic. Earlier in the year they told me to eat them with impunity.

Thankfully I have an ace in the hole, an antidote to the madness which is our modern information ecosystem. Studying the history of health and fitness trends over the past several years has taught me two valuable lessons. First that my fiancé has indulged my vocation for far too long and second that what works tends to stick around. So with that in mind, today’s short article looks at tried and tested means of losing weight. These ‘old school’ methods were promoted by the bodybuilders of the early twentieth century.

These men and women exercised at a time when steroids had not yet infiltrated the fitness industry, when tweeting was something only birds did and when people listened to their bodies when making lifestyle changes. Their advice rarely featured detoxes, special teas or bizarre exercises. It was based on observable, experienced behaviours that worked. So with that in mind, here are some of the pearls of wisdom people have been using for over a century to lose weight, maintain an enviable physique or just feel healthy.

Eat Real Food

This is a fairly basic idea but it’s an effective one none the less.

Notice something deceptively simple about this advice. I didn’t tell you how to eat but rather what to do. One hundred years ago famous bodybuilder Eugen Sandow told his fans to eat meat, vegetables and starches in moderation, to avoid sugary foods and to drink plenty of water. Wrestler and weightlifter George Hackenschmidt recommended plenty of vegetables with some fish or meat. The tennis player and callisthenics enthusiastic Eustace Miles preached a vegetarian diet while the American bodybuilder Bernarr MacFadden promoted everything from veganism to fruit only.

What they all agreed on was that people should eat real food. Food that was fresh and food, which if left unattended, would rot. They stressed the importance of avoiding heavily sugared or processed foods and of listening to your body. So really this point should be eat real food, which makes you feel good. This was a simple point that is often lost on others.

Friends of mine feel great on a vegan diet and horrible on a ketogenic meal plan. Others have gravitated towards vegetarian and, more recently, carnivore diets. I’m in the middle dabbling with meats, vegetables and carbohydrates. Rather than worrying about what meal plan to choose from we should stress eating fresh foods which we know react well with our bodies.

Breath

You read that correctly. I said breath.

Returning to our nineteenth century forbearers, deep breathing was seen as an integral part of any health regimen. Some, like the Danish fitness enthusiast J.P. Mueller, even produced entire workout manuals concerned with deep breathing.

The simplicity of this is not to be overlooked. As attested by these entrepreneurs, deep breathing did two things to the human body. First, it helped individual trainees to relax. We might call this ‘mindfulness before it became cool.’ By helping individuals to relax it allowed for better digestion, less stress and a generally calmer demeanour.

For modern trainees the advice to breathe deeply, and by that it was meant to breathe into the stomach, still retains much of its modern relevance. Nowadays we can attend classes or spiritual settings in a variety of mediums. A friend of mine recently confessed the pressure they feel to meditate every morning before work because they know how important it is. Relaxing, it seems, can be a stressful business.

This is where breathing deeply comes into play. You can do it anywhere, without any special equipment or classes and it can help you relax. In turn, it can reduce your stress levels, help you digest your food better and, you may even smile when stuck in traffic.

Move Every Day

One hundred years ago individuals did not class themselves as bodybuilders, yogis, weightlifters, runners etc., but rather as ‘physical culturists’. This wonderful term was applied to anyone seeking to exercise their body through some form of movement.

Physical culture, as a term, came to be applied to a vast remit of physical activities including, but not limited to, weightlifting, swimming, walking, drill, gymnastics, golf, soccer and much, much more. Even those seeking to make a living from selling physical culture books, supplements and courses agreed on one thing, the body was built to move.

Thus, exercise courses from the early 1900s encouraged individuals to include some movement they enjoyed each day. In 2019, the same advice remains true. Rather than go to a spin class you despise, why not go on a twenty-minute walk in nature. Or if walking isn’t your thing, lift weights in the nearest gym. Choose something you can do on a regular basis, which challenges your body and have at it.

For those shackled to a desk all day, start small. Move around the office every hour on the hour. Make sure you have a five-minute break during lunch to walk around. Start small, start sustainably and start enjoying your exercise.

Only Supplement When Necessary

For modern men and women this seems like blasphemy. When I started training in the gym a decade ago, protein powders were the only things we could get our hands now. Now individuals can choose supplements ranging from creatine, protein, pre-workout, intra-workout, weight loss, weight gain and a host of other nostrums.

Some, admittedly, are very worthwhile. Do we need them, however, is another matter. Late last year I spent some time researching the health supplements of the early 1900s. While this too was a business, many of those promoting these supplements stressed their use only when necessary. Likewise popular trainers during the 1960s and 1970s promoted supplements only when nutritional deficiencies were evident.

Vince Gironda, a mid-twentieth century bodybuilding coach, was famed for the heavy supplement stacks he promoted among his clients. Stories exist of Vince’s clients shovelling down desiccated liver by the handful or indulging themselves with decadent protein powders at each meal. What is often lost in these stories is that Vince, and many like him, only promoted supplements as a substitute or last resort. The first port of call was always the diet itself.

We all wish for a magical pill or powder which will increase our weight loss or help us look better naked. The sad truth is that, barring any illegal substances, such things are mere fantasies. The less glamorous, but decidedly more truthful reality is that health and weight loss is dependent on good nutrition, patience and daily movement. Despite what advertisers tell you, that pill should be a last resort.

Putting it all together

The fitness industry, as we know it, is a relatively new phenomenon. It dates really to the late nineteenth century when individuals began displaying a much greater interest in the body beautiful. Since that time innumerable workouts and diets have come and gone. What’s remained has been what’s effective.

So for those seeking to lose weight, be healthy and maintain that health the advice passed down through the ages is simple, but effective.

Eat real food

Breathe deeply

Move

Only supplement when necessary

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