If you’ve been in the fitness world for any time, you’ll notice that there’s a cycle that seems to grip dieters year-round. Thanks to marketing, the media, and the unsuspecting consumer, you’ll see people endlessly spin their wheels trying to change their body composition throughout the seasons.
Usually, the cycle goes something like this…
January 1st (“Cutting” season): “Time to get in shape – new year, new me!” Most individuals begin some form of dieting.
February 1st: “This is going to be my year, spring is right around the corner.”
March 1st: The weather starts to warm, and dieters begin dreaming of margaritas, ice cream, and cold beer.
April 1st: Swimsuits go on sale, snow starts melting, and willpower begins to fade.
May 1st: Weekends are spent by the pool, at the beach, or on the lake trying to get some semblance of a tan.
June 1st: Summer is in full swing, along with poor dietary choices and a more laid-back lifestyle. “Who diets on vacation anyway?”
July 1st: The creeping normalcy of the average American lifestyle starts to set in as the scale rises.
August 1st: As school begins, stress increases and complacency kicks into high gear.
September 1st: Summer is drawing to a close as fall kicks off. Long sleeves and pants begin to make their debut as the appeal of abs and aesthetics dies down.
October 1st (“Bulking” season): Cold weather arrives, and every weightlifter typically takes it upon themselves to eat as much as humanly possible, hoping to build a sizable amount of muscle mass in 3 short months.
November 1st: THANKSGIVING! The big eating continues as the scale continues to rise, and multiple layers are worn daily to combat the ever-falling temperatures.
December 1st: The allure of the holidays overrides almost all dietary principles. But hey, the year is almost over, so why worry about calories or dieting now?
And next year, you’ll repeat the same process all over again. Have you caught onto the trend yet?
You see this reflected everywhere – magazines, billboards, TV commercials, social media, news articles, and any other outlet that marketers use to sway your opinion.
The cycle may seem logical. I mean, you wear less clothing in the summer, so you might want to reduce body weight, improve your body composition, and “get in shape” to enjoy the weather. But it tends to be a slippery slope for many dieters who never get out of the endless “bulking” and “cutting” mindset.
Seasonal Influences on Body Composition
Despite what you hear, seasonal climate changes play a large role in what you eat and how much you move.
Most climate shifts provide new challenges, while also offering fresh opportunities. Consider the following:
- Vegetables are plentiful and heavily incorporated in recipes (+)
- Fruit tends to fall out of season (-)
- Higher prices
- Limited availability
- Holidays provide opportunities for social engagement but also include highly caloric food and liquid choices (+/-)
- Low temperatures keep most individuals indoors (-)
- More time spent watching TV
- Shorter days (-)
- Lower UV intensity of sunlight
- Less opportunity for vitamin D production
- Cold exposure tends to promote certain favorable metabolic changes (+)
- More clothing means less concern for calories and weight loss (+)
- More focus on “bulking”/building muscle to “stay warm” (+)
- Less emphasis on salads, fruits, and lean meats (-)
- More focus on soups, stews, chili, and other hot options (+)
- Surplus of fresh fruits and vegetables (+)
- Lower market price
- Higher availability
- BBQs provide opportunities for social engagement, while offering diet-friendly options like lean grilled meats and additional time outdoors (+)
- Heat lowers most people’s appetite, while also shifting their preferences to lighter and cooler options in the summer months (+)
- Outdoor activities are more enjoyable due to temperate climates (+)
- Heat exposure along with sweating promote markedly positive metabolic changes (+)
- Longer days (+)
- Higher UV intensity of sunlight
- More opportunity for vitamin D production
- More focus on aesthetics, swimsuits, vacations, cruises, and other outdoor activities (+/-)
- Hydration is heavily emphasized due to the heat (+)
Having said all that, we have to ask ourselves, how do we survive each season?
Marketing tells us that we need to lose weight in the summer, while packing on the pounds and enjoying the winter months. But, perhaps there’s a better way…
The Seasonal Guide to Fitness
Truth be told, the media lies about almost everything. Marketing is simply a decisive game of emotional manipulation.
But you can use this to your advantage, as I discuss in the article Pivoting Your Personal Training Business During a Pandemic. And, the sooner you realize that marketers don’t care about your health, body composition, or fitness, the sooner you’ll make progress.
I’m not interested in what’s flashy or trendy. Simplicity sells, but at the end of the day, humans are complex, and we will never solve a multifaceted problem with a singular solution.
This guide provides you with tools for every season. It’s a handbook, so to speak, that places the power back in your hands. If you understand where marketers are coming from, who they’re selling to, and what they’re selling, you’ve already won.
Here’s how to beat them at their own game…
LEAN & MEAN
What’s your goal? This first section is for those looking to cut a little fat or maintain their waistline through the sizzling summer months. For specific suggestions, read my post on swapping higher-calorie foods for lower-calorie ones.
- Lean & Light: Opt for lean cuts of meat, fresh fish, or poultry at any BBQ or social gathering.
- Check out menus before going to restaurants to make sure you aren’t caught off guard: Be prepared but not obsessed.
- Avoid appetizers: Pass on the free bread and other calorically empty appetizers that hit the table first.
- Veggies are always your friend: Don’t sweat it if they’re prepared with a little butter or oil. You’re more active in the summer, so it will likely even out. Just don’t go overboard.
- Wait 20 minutes before returning for seconds: This is how long it takes for various feedback mechanisms to trigger a sense of satiety and initiate specific hunger hormones within the brain (leptin and ghrelin), which tell you when you’re full.
- Choose smarter side options: A baked potato, steamed vegetables, extra meat, side salad, or fruit cup are all better options than French fries, onion rings, and garlic knots.
- Keywords to avoid when ordering out: “Buttered, battered, smothered, cream, or gravy-based sauces.”
- Keywords to look for when selecting menu items: “Baked, broiled, boiled, grilled, steamed, poached, and roasted.”
- Avoid high-calorie condiments: Mayo, sour cream, butter, salad dressings, syrup, and tartar sauce or ask that they be served on the side so that you can determine portion sizes.
- Eat away from distractions like the TV, computer, or reading, and put your fork down between bites: This helps you chew your food slowly, savor your meal, improve digestion, and regulate caloric intake.
- Choose more protein and/or vegetables when going back for seconds: These will give you the best “caloric bang for your buck” in terms of satiety.
- Choose natural, protein-rich, whole foods over pre-packaged, processed foods: Beef jerky, cottage cheese, fruit, Greek yogurt, mixed nuts, hard-boiled eggs, and homemade protein bars are much better options than chips, cookies, crackers, and cereal bars. Avoid them if possible because they are low in protein and fiber and offer little to no nutritional benefit.
- Get outside whenever possible: Vitamin D is a fat-soluble storage hormone that needs to be acquired during the summer. You cannot get the same physiological benefits from vitamin D supplements compared to sun exposure.
- Sleep more: Vacations and work schedules often allow for more time spent at home, so spend more of that time asleep. Your body composition, mental clarity, and overall productivity will thank you.
- Spend more time in nature: I’m not simply talking about training in nature. I mean taking daily walks in your neighborhood, hiking on trails, or the occasional afternoon run in the park. Research has shown the correlation between time in nature and reductions in circulating stress hormones.
- Weights > Cardio: Don’t spend your entire summer jogging around the neighborhood in the quest for your perfect body. Jogging will not build muscle nor massively shift your body composition. Spend your hard-earned time and money on weight training.
Two very large take-home points:
- If you diet without weight training, you WILL lose muscle. It is not a question of ‘IF,’ but ‘WHEN.’
- If you diet while depriving yourself of sleep, you will lose LESS weight, MORE muscle, and LESS fat compared to someone who takes the time to invest in their sleep and health.
Both these points are absolutely crucial to your success and simply non-negotiable. Please do not neglect them, or you will spend weeks, months, and perhaps years spinning your wheels on an endless cycle of yo-yo dieting.
MASS MOVES MASS
Regardless of the season, this next section is for those who want to add high-quality muscle mass. Whether you’re looking to go up a weight class, get ready for your next fight, or look better on stage, these tools can help you get there.
- Play the long game: Most natural trainees can only put on an average of 0.5-1lb of lean muscle mass weekly if they are untrained and new to weightlifting. If you have some experience under your belt, shoot for 0.5lb per week and don’t go overboard (2lbs/month).
- Caloric density is your friend: If you find your appetite limits your ability to put away enough calories, consider adding additional oil/pesto/grass-fed butter to cooked pasta or rice. This limits food volume while increasing caloric density.
- Liquid calories might be necessary: For most dieters, liquid calories are an unnecessary and undesired addition. However, when you’re pushing 4,000 calories, you might need freshly squeezed fruit juices to increase your calories. Provided it’s consumed with a full meal or while training, it’s likely a decent caloric option with a hit of micronutrients.
- Swap your mindset: Consider the side options like baked potatoes, veggies, and fruit, but think about how to ADD calories – cheese on the baked potato, butter on the vegetables, and peanut butter on the fruit. Now, you have the right mindset.
- Veggies are still your friend, but they aren’t priority #1: Your first priority is getting enough calories, so don’t force down vegetables while forgoing calories. But at the same time, don’t cut out veggies completely, which is a common mistake.
- Condiments are your friend: While high-fat, highly processed options, such as BBQ sauce and mayonnaise, likely aren’t the best choice, a little ketchup, hot sauce, honey mustard, or salsa helps make large meals go down a bit easier.
- Push volume: Track your training volume and seek to slowly increase by 10-15% weekly. More food means more energy, and more energy means more work, so take advantage of it.
- Sleep as much as physically possible: Sleep is literally a legal PED (performance-enhancing drug). There is no drug, supplement, or nootropic on the market that even comes close to rivaling its effects. If you’re willing depriving yourself of sleep while trying to build muscle, you are intentionally making this entire process exponentially more difficult. Read more about how sleep and melatonin are the elixirs of health.
- Take an entire week off from training completely 2-3 times per year: You won’t lose muscle, but you will gain a newfound appreciation for joints that don’t hurt, improved sleep, and more mental clarity. Ideally, these might occur over vacations when your body can get the much-needed rest it deserves, both physically and psychologically.
- Don’t neglect cardiovascular work: Most people get lost in the pursuit of more muscle and forget that the heart is a muscle. Your aerobic capacity determines your set-to-set and day-to-day recovery from training. If you want to train harder and longer without getting as sore, consider some low-level cardiovascular work weekly. It won’t “steal” your gains, and you’ll likely find your recovery improves.
Your Brain is on Fire…
Remember, at the end of the day, you control your body composition, not the media. Seasons change, and life goes on, but you must be ready for whatever life is going to throw at you.
While these tools are not foolproof nor is this an exhaustive guide, it will certainly provide you with a basic framework to move forward with whatever goal you desire, despite the temperature or weather.
This is your body, your season, and your choice.
Give it 100% and don’t look back – you’ll be glad you did.