It’s so easy to lose weight and get fit—at least according to the infomercials I see on television. My own experiences with prying off a few unneeded pounds have always been tough, but I’m obviously doing something wrong because these people tell me it’s a cinch.
First they show the “before” photo of a bloated, pasty fatso who looks like he just totaled his dream car by running over his dog with it. Then, within a staggeringly short time, he’s tanned, buff and beaming in the “after” photo, his thumb stretching the waistline of his old jeans to demonstrate how much thinner he is now—all thanks to the revolutionary new weight-loss/fitness system from fill-in-the-blank.
Really? It’s that easy?
To find out which of these systems actually work and which claims take a certain poetic license and which ones are outright scams, I contacted Charlotte Hilton Andersen, fitness blogger and author of a titled ”The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything.” In writing her book, which is very smart and very funny, she tried a new program every month and reported on each one’s challenges and advantages.
“The first thing I look for in a program is if I’m going to like doing it or not,” says Andersen. “Is it something I enjoy? If you already know that you don’t love it, you will never stick with that workout. My favorite one I’ve ever done is the circus workout. I enjoy gymnastics, and it just felt like fun. I looked forward to doing it. Right now I’m doing a martial arts workout, and I can tell you that as soon as I’m finished I’ll never do it again. I just don’t like it. But if you like fighting, then it could be fun for you.”
Price and presentation
Her next considerations are price and presentation. “My rule is that the quality of the workout is inversely proportional to how expensive it is and how much they hype it,” she says. “A lot of hype usually means that they spent their money on marketing rather than on perfecting the workout. My favorite example is P90X. It’s a really tough workout, but Tony Horton sells it on his personality. He’s charismatic and entertaining, but everything he does you can find somewhere else. It’s in dozens of other books and websites—an effective workout but not terribly original. You really don’t have to pay a high price to get the same workout and results.”
She then surfs fitness forums and other sites where people comment on their experiences with the diet or fitness program—sites that are, of course, not owned or supported by the company selling the diet or fitness program. She mentions CrossFit as an example of a program that was not backed by any promotion at all—a grassroots, word-of-mouth success. People liked it, they told other people, and now it’s very popular. And it’s free.
A couple of popular programs that she finds don’t live up to the advertising are The Firm and The Biggest Loser. “They’re really not that good,” Andersen says. “They’re a lot of hype. If you’ve never worked out at all you should see some results at first, but anything that gets you to move is going to do that. Unless it’s a sit-on-the-couch workout, it will do something.”
Andersen admits she’s been surprised a time or two by programs she had doubted at first. One that stands out for her is high-intensity, short-interval training. In regular 20-minute workouts she burned more fat and saw better results than if she ran a marathon. About the short-interval training she says, “It’s miserable, you want to throw up, but it’s over in 20 minutes, and I got better results from it than from the longer workouts. That really surprised me.”
Quick fix solution
As for diet plans, Andersen listens to the claim. If it sounds to good to be true, it is. “The majority of workouts will work, and the majority of diets won’t work, especially if they’re selling a pill or supplement with it,” she says. “Everybody looks for a quick fix, and so they’ll try to give you something that’s a quick fix. They say, ‘You’ll never be hungry.’ Yes you will. And it will be uncomfortable. That’s dieting.”
No matter what program you try, monitor your success, says Andersen, and figure out if it’s working for you. “You know your body the best. Trust yourself. If you’re not seeing results, don’t keep pushing through it. Try something else.”
So maybe my past fitness failures haven’t been completely my fault—or maybe my expectations for fast results were a bit overly optimistic. I’ve even tried a few exercise apps and exercises at my desk with mixed success. I don’t mind putting in the work, but I’ve probably been too eager to see that “after” dude beaming back at me in the mirror, wearing his “fat pants” that are way, way too big for him.