So you don’t necessarily want to get ACTION MOVIE RIPPED!, but you’d like to lose some weight and keep it off, feel better, get a little bit stronger and faster and run farther. In short, you want to get in shape but don’t want to commit to giving it 100 percent all the time—you don’t want to live like a caveman. Here are some tips.
There’s a lot of sense in the paleo diet, which is based on ideas about how our evolutionary ancestors ate. It’s high in protein, mostly from lean cuts of meat, and low in starches, processed carbohydrates, and sugar—officially, that means no grains (bread, rice, quinoa, or even corn), no legumes, no dairy, minimum starchy vegetables like potatoes, and only occasional fruit. You basically get what our hunter-gatherer forebears would have foraged or killed: meat (again, lean cuts—no bacon cheeseburgers), eggs, nuts and seeds, lots of vegetables (especially leafy green vegetables), and some fruits.
But paleo and its variations, like the Primal Blueprint and Zone diets, aren’t the perfect diets. For one thing, it’s difficult—any diet that cuts major food groups will work quickly but be hard to stick to.
“Anything you do to cut out a portion of what you eat, cut out some food groups, and impose discipline on your diet, will of course work in the short run,” says nutrition scientist Michael Zemel. “I don’t care if it’s a legit diet or a completely flaky diet—if you follow it, it’s going to work. The problem is that lifestyle replacements rarely work in the long run for anybody. Do you really think there’s anybody in the U.S. who doesn’t get that they could lose weight from eating less and exercising more? The reason they fail to do so is not related to lack of desire or lack of intelligence; it’s due to the fact that life gets in the way. So sure, people will try a diet that sounds good for a week, a month, sometimes even three or four months. But eventually they fall off the wagon.”
Besides that, the paleo exclusions are arbitrary, at least as far as nutrition is concerned. What did a bean ever do to anybody? Unless you have a specific allergy or gastrointestinal problem, there’s no reason to keep legumes and grains from your diet.
In general, eat whole foods, not processed ones. Cook at home and make eating out an occasional indulgence—a social event, not the basis of your diet. Lots of vegetables, lots of protein, some beans and grains, olive oil, some dairy, a little bit of fruit—that’s the foundation for lean muscle mass, good heart health, and cancer prevention. There’s no official formula, though. There’s no perfect diet.
“If you want to go back to this evolutionary conversation, our recent evolution is in a variety of different environments, with a variety of different foods available to us,” Zemel says. “We may be able to learn something from that. What we understand today is that several different dietary patterns can lead to better, more healthful outcomes, more extended health spans, meaning that your last years will not be years of pain and decline.”
If you want to live a long time, and maintain some vitality while doing it, you’re going to have to do some kind of aerobic work and some strength training. Get outside and wear sunscreen. Walk, a lot—at least 30 minutes a day, at a brisk but comfortable pace, three or four times a week. Or more. Or run. Running is really good for you, and the amount you need to do to stay healthy is much, much less than what you need to train for a marathon. Running isn’t bad for your knees, provides huge cardiovascular benefits, improves your mental and emotional health, and almost anybody can do it.
If you want to try barefoot or minimalist running, go slow—it should take months to build up to running three miles in minimalist shoes. Stay off asphalt as much as you can. For most people, minimalist running should be less than half of your total mileage. It’s not a zero-sum game—you can keep your traditional trainers for most days and save the minimalist shoes for trails and grass.
“We see folks, usually young guys, who get that minimalist-type shoe and go out and hammer the miles and they get hurt,” says Kevin Pack, owner of the Runner’s Market stores, who uses minimalist shoes for about a third of his own running. “You have to use a common-sense approach. We always recommend using quite a few weeks to transition into this minimalist shoe.”
For strength, body-weight exercises like push-ups, air squats, lunges, and pull-ups are great, and easy, and cheap. That’s enough to maintain muscle for most people, and you’ll gain endurance if you do a lot of reps. Dumbbells, barbells, and kettlebells will make stronger. Squats and deadlifts, performed correctly, are near-perfect exercises for that. (Forget the bench press unless you’re in high school—the only thing it helps you do is bench press.)
“The available data on strength training and building more lean mass, to a point, in terms of promoting cardiovascular health, is quite good,” Zemel says. “I don’t think very many people in the field would dispute it. I think where you would get the dispute is either/or. You don’t want to be stuck with that tyranny—either its strength training or its cardiovascular training. There’s no data that suggests you really ought to only do one, and, in fact, I let that be my own guideline. I run or cycle four or five days a week and I also strength train at least three times a week, sometimes four. I don’t think there’s enough evidence to suggest that one or the other will do it for me.”