You Can't Outwork Your Diet. So Now What?

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A competitor gets ready to perform a bench press.
A competitor gets ready to perform a bench press at the power lifting competition at Aviano Air Base, Italy, Aug. 19, 2021. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Noah Sudolcan)

If you're past your teen years, it's time to face the facts: You can no longer outwork your diet. Gone are the days that you could eat anything you wanted with no limit and still not gain weight.

You might've had to face the problem of being a "hard gainer" when you were young, but time eventually flips that problem upside down to make you a "hard loser." As hard as it was to gain weight in our teens, it is equally hard to lose it years later. That means all you really learned to do during those formative years was overeat with no consequences.

Even as you progressed into your late 20s and early 30s, you probably learned that you can't outwork a bad diet. Add another decade or two, and you've discovered that you either must be active all day with some sort of manual labor profession, or you must fine-tune your diet and exercise to still be competitive in the battle of the bulge. Without that, a sedentary lifestyle and eating like you used to when you were highly active is a recipe for continuous weight gain each year.

How does weight gain and maintenance look over your decades? Here's a review.

Weight gain in your 20s. After high school, many people drop the amount of time they're active thanks to less time playing sports or training. While being young with high metabolism is helpful, even that has a hard time battling the "freshman 15." Add COVID-19 to the equation, and weight gain is much easier, even for the younger generations.

If your job requires fitness testing and physical activity, you may be good in your early 20s with that addition to your life. But in a few years, even the physical activity at work will not be enough.

How do you combat it? The lifestyle change for this group is to stop eating like you are highly active and to find time in your day to exercise like you used to or get out and walk more, bike, take fitness classes in the gym or participate in intramural and pick-up sports. Doing something to stay active is key.

Weight gain in your 30s. If you are carrying your "hard gainer" eating habits into your fourth decade, you will see it start to catch up with you slowly. The weight gain might be maybe five pounds a year on average, but by 40, you could be 50-plus pounds heavier and not even have seen it coming.

For most Americans, life gets much less active as we work harder on careers and family and do less physical activity. Eating is always on the go and usually not made up of the best choices.

The best lifestyle change in your 30s is to make a better schedule and take more time focusing on better eating habits and food choices for you and your family. And you may have to squeeze in physical activity early in the morning before work and family commitments take over your day.

Weight gain in your 40s. The 40s is typically the decade when most Americans realize they need to start focusing on not just the unwanted added weight, but also on their longer-term health and wellness. The lifestyle change needed for this decade is focusing on eating better and less, moving more and avoiding injury by training smarter.

In your 40s, medical screening blood work is starting to catch up to you, and most of the issues it finds are managed with moving more and eating better. If you have a healthy diet, portion control is likely an issue even with average to above-average fitness levels. Even for highly active people, outworking your diet through fitness alone is not very likely, and working out even more to try to outwork your diet will lead to more aches and pains.

However, learning that 80% is the new 100% is going to save you from unnecessary injury that can keep you from training normally. Avoiding injury that will prevent you from training and working is key during this decade, as many of the previous decade's injuries reassert themselves into your day as nagging aches and pains.

Weight gain in your 50s and beyond. If you did not listen to your body and doctor in your 40s, you will in your 50s but in a much harsher way. Medical issues get real now as friends start to have heart attacks, strokes and battle cancer with more frequency. Many of these later-in-life illnesses are caused by what we did not do in our 40s and early 50s.

But with a few lifestyle changes that require discipline, you can turn things around and make life so much easier on yourself by simply being lighter on your feet. Those changes include cleaning up your diet and food portions while adding age-appropriate training to your schedule as well as getting enough sleep and recovery time.

I did not carry this article into the 60s and beyond as I am personally not there yet, but my plan is to stay active, eating smaller but healthier portions, and focusing on flexibility, joint mobility and non-impact cardio activity while maintaining strength for overall durability and ease of movement. Staying lighter is also an important goal that makes the focus above much easier as well.

In a nutshell, try the following going forward: Focus on smaller portions and avoid junk food; eat fruits and vegetables, good fats and lean proteins that are high in the nutrients you need for energy and recovery; and drink more water. It will take a new level of discipline as the old habits of eating like we were highly active 20-year-olds is a tough one to break, even if you are still highly active well after 40 and 50 years old.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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