If you’ve ever let a shopping cart lapse because you couldn’t bear the two-week delivery wait, you’ll know the feeling of dodging fitness to skip the results’ lead time. While it doesn’t make sense logically, this quirk can ably explain why many of us fail to set new year health and fitness resolutions. We want it now or not at all. Pair this with the fact that it takes an estimated three months to form a new habit and that change in the pre-automatic stage is hard work, and you can see why people take the path of least resistance to a Tim Tam and cup of tea.
Yet staging your fitness efforts to ensure you receive regular feedback in the form of body changes (academic lingo: augmented feedback) can override the fear of delayed results. According to fitness ambassador Scott Gooding, 12 weeks is a realistic timeframe for change you can see and feel.
“Ultimately, 12 weeks is just long enough for positive physiological and visual changes to occur and for people to see results from their hard work,” he says. That’s why it’s worth resisting temptation to buy a quick fitness or diet fix.
Exercise physiologist and dietitian Gabrielle Maston says that while there is no such thing as a quick fix, change starts as soon as you decide.
“Definitely this can happen overnight; when some one finally decides to do something, the change is instantaneous,” Maston says. “After a few days of healthy eating, people feel better, coupled with the body tiredness from working out that promotes good sleep.”
“As a rule, the time it took to gain the weight will take at least that long to get it off,” says accredited practising sports dietitian Eliza Freney. Yet 12 weeks can make a good dent in body fat. “Healthy weight loss does not exceed one kg a week. Any greater than two kg a week and you are putting your body under undue strain as well as risking dehydration,” Freney says. When scouring the web for programs to blast you into beach shape (their words, not ours), look for programs that combine caloric reduction with sound nutrition and exercise. “If it’s a diet plan without exercise, a lot of the weight will be both fat and muscle mass, which will lower your metabolism and reduce overall muscle tone. This is not a good way to lose weight,” Maston says. Cookbook author and trainer Luke Hines says neither component can be underestimated. “It’s no use working really hard in the gym or on the beach if you don’t back it up in the kitchen,” he says.
Proximity to a six-pack depends on body fat percentage. “A six-pack is a difficult one, as it requires our body fat to be around five to seven per cent for us to get that ripped,” Hines says. This percentage is far below the healthy 20 to 30 per cent for women and unsustainable long term – even for fitness competitors. “I advise people not to focus on a six-pack, as everyone’s body is different and will respond at different rates.” That is, you might get there in four weeks or you might never arrive. Fitness ambassador Scott Gooding endorses incorporating moves that move the body towards a chick-pack – think HIIT and heavy weights to reduce body fat and planks and core work for abs – but he is equally cautious about using it as an anchor. “Achieving a six-pack in 12 weeks is unrealistic unless you are close to one in the first place,” he says. “A six-pack is the result of having low body fat percentage and significant muscle mass in the abdominals.”
“The early adaptations are concerned with your nervous system and not gains in size – they come much later,” Gooding says. “By adding resistance training to your program you can dramatically increase the results.”
If it’s been a while between gym sessions, expect to have lost your guns of steel. “Detraining causes muscle loss, which is accompanied by losses in muscle strength,” says exercise physiologist Angela Jenkins. On the other hand, losses during a brief break such as Christmas and that Noosa vay-cay should be minimal according to exercise physiologist Adam Westphal. “Effects on strength training are very limited in the first two weeks. Very little stimulation is required to maintain strength,” Westphal says. To increase strength efficiently, Jenkins advises focusing on large muscle groups and functional exercises. “One to two whole body strength sessions will maintain strength,” Westphal says. Push-ups, squats, lunges and planks can be adjusted to suit your fitness level and can be taken anywhere. If you’re kicking off, practise bench push-ups, chair squats, mini lunges and bench planks. If you’re already washing your sports bra three times a week, try decline push-ups, squat jumps, lunge jumps and a traditional full plank.
Improving flexibility is the easiest, most democratic fitness goal. “Flexibility can be increased from day one because every little step counts. The more you persist, the better you will become,” Hines says. Flexibility exercises are often convenient to practise and can be done in front of the television without requiring you to work up a sweat. “One of the most important things to remember when stretching is to breath,” Gooding says. “It sounds simple but I see a number of people stretching and holding their breath, which means that the muscles are not getting the oxygen they need to generate a good stretch.” Increasing your flexibility is also not dependent on diet, so if you’re really struggling to lay off the Tim Tams, you can at least revel in the fact that your yoga class is about to get way easier!
Whether you grin and bear the gym three times a week or haven’t done a squat since 2006, forming a new, healthier relationship with fitness demands psychological change. Restructuring relations with fitness may require a change in daily habits and transforming your attitude to exercise before you can nail a fitness goal – think attending to sleeping patterns and that Diet Coke habit. “Habitual and other psychological changes may continue to come about, such as management of nutritional choices in social situations, and overall energy levels may increase as well as quality of sleep improve,” says Freney.
According to Maston, some research shows that exercise can improve mild depression comparably – or better – than medication. Improvement can often be seen within just a few weeks, she says. “For those with just the mild case of sadness or loneliness, exercise improves mood straight after a workout due to its endorphin release. Even without depressive symptoms, it leaves you on a high automatically,” Maston says.