It’s a good idea to pause and take a 1,000-foot view of our daily habits once in a while—especially during times when pausing for anything is the last thing on our minds.
If you’re anything like me, you’re likely to fall into some bad habits when life gets busy. As women, it’s our innate nature to take care of everyone else, before ourselves, despite understanding that we need to be our best self before we can be that for others. This ensures that we can continue to be active and have the energy for all the things we want (and need) to do.
Today, I’m hitting that “pause” button for you. Let’s stop and take a look at some of the most common pitfalls of the busy, active woman.
1. Eating too little.
This one is at the top of my list, and with good reason. Many active women tend to worry about eating too much, or eating the “right” foods. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is estimated that the majority of us (about 75 percent of women) have thoughts about being lighter and improving our appearance, often skipping meals or over-exercising in an effort to achieve those outcomes.1
Many women, but especially active women, often don’t eat enough calories to meet their basic energy needs.2
When this becomes a habit, over time the body responds by becoming more energy-efficient and storing more of the calories consumed. If weight loss is a goal, the outcome of eating too little is often quite the opposite of what’s expected. According to scientists, we appear to respond more “favorably” than men when we lack necessary calories, crediting evolution and our role as caretakers for this phenomenon.
The upside is that our bodies are more resilient and can grow and develop more adeptly than men’s bodies, even without adequate calories. Basically, if we ever get stuck on a deserted island with no food around, we’re likely to survive longer than men would. The downside is that women who exercise regularly have been reported to remain at a stable weight, despite substantial energy deficits. Men, on the other hand, tend to lose weight.3
Also, according to a paper published in the journal Trends in Neuroscience, women have been reported to experience feelings of euphoria and energy under periods of caloric restriction.4 So, though you may feel “great,” and eating a little more might seem counterintuitive, I recommend that you fight the urge to eat less.
The old formula — energy expenditure > energy intake = weight loss — is not 100 percent true for women. It’s widely (and mistakenly) believed that if you increase the first part of the equation (energy expenditure) and decrease the latter (energy intake), then weight loss is inevitable. However, there’s one problem: estrogen plays a protective role preventing excessive loss of stored energy, resulting in a decreased metabolism. Yo-yo dieting or acute periods of under consuming calories also produce similar effects, and facilitate an environment of weight regain.5
There’s a fine line between consuming too few calories and risk slowing down your metabolism, and consuming too many calories and creating a haven for energy reserves (stored fat). Strive to eat enough every day, and refrain from eating less and/or exercising more (in extreme) as a weight or fat loss strategy. There is also a growing body of literature showing that eating more—at least enough to match your caloric needs—can actually result in weight and fat loss.6 (For more on this subject, check out this article by registered dietitian, Laura Schoenfeld.)
2. Not eating enough protein.
Despite the body’s heavy reliance on fats and carbohydrates for fuel, protein is essential. Protein consumption is often inadequate, particularly during periods of caloric restriction, resulting in muscle loss and a slower metabolism. If you exercise five days a week, your body requires more protein. As a woman who exercises—whether you’re doing endurance, resistance training, or both—you need protein in order to replace the amino acids used during a long run and to support muscle repair and growth after lifting weights.
Here’s one more thing to consider: the intensity of your workout determines the amount of protein you should consume.
The harder your workouts, the greater the body’s demand for protein.7 In general, active women should aim to consume 1.6 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day for women who strength train (slightly less for women doing endurance training).8For a 150-pound woman, that’s about 108 to 136 grams of protein per day. If you split that up throughout the day (which is recommended), that’s about three to four meals and/or snacks each day each containing about 27 to 34 grams of protein. Being conscious of adding enough protein to each meal and snack will be beneficial for body composition and recovery. (Note: Consuming more than two grams per kilogram of bodyweight does not offer any additional benefit. You can read more in this in-depth article all about protein, by GGS Advisory Board Member and registered dietitian, Dr. Cassandra Forsythe.)
3. Doing too much cardio.
For the longest time the most widely given advice, whether the goal is to lose fat or improve fitness, has been to do cardio. Lots of it. Heck, that’s why I initially became an endurance runner! Unless you love doing cardio, though, there are several more efficient ways to improve your health and your body composition. First, research from my lab—and a number of other labs—shows that high intensity interval training (HIIT) produces the most rapid fitness and body composition improvements.9,10 Specifically, you can see improvements in your fitness level in about one-third of the time it would take compared to typical moderate-intensity training. Even more astonishing is that HIIT stimulates fat loss and an increase in muscle; this is nearly impossible to accomplish with low-moderate intensity cardio.
Completing some intervals, even just once a week, is better for your overall fitness and body composition goals than doing hours of cardio. These intervals can vary in length and number, with the goal of putting in some killer work bouts. For example, if you try a common approach of 10 sets doing one minute of work and one minute of easy pace or rest, make sure that the one minute of work is performed at an intensity or pace that you could not sustain for one minute and ten seconds.
That said, while HIIT is definitely the most efficient way to see many benefits from cardio, moderate intensity cardio (a more parasympathetic nervous system-dominant activity) can aid in recovery and stress management, and improve sleep. So, while there are some very good reasons for doing some moderate intensity cardio, doing more cardio overall is often not the best strategy for achieving certain goals.
Speaking of recovery, give yourself a break! Fully embrace your rest days. Even if you don’t have time to exercise every day, your body will not change overnight. A lot of rebuilding, repairing, and refueling occurs while you’re resting. Rest days are vital for recovery and can help improve the quality of subsequent workouts.
4. Fasting before and/or after exercise.
Whether you’re worried about getting an upset stomach before your workout (and rightly so, as women are more susceptible to gastrointestinal distress), or you’re short on time, or you just want to maximize the calories burned, it’s easy to fall into the habit of training on an empty stomach.
Fasting before exercise is not recommended. Science shows that eating before your workout can actually help burn fat more efficiently than working out on an empty stomach.11 For women, this is important for both performance and body composition goals. We have endless energy stores from fat; maximizing use of fat for fuel can enhance training volume and the quality of your workout. More importantly, my lab found that a few calories of protein (about 90 calories), compared to an equivalent amount of carbs, can actually increase the total number of calories you burn during and after your workout, as well as increase the amount of fat you burn.12
So before you go train on an empty stomach, or before you grab that banana, think twice and grab a protein-packed snack instead, such as cottage cheese, hard boiled eggs, or a protein shake.
If you tend to run from your workout to the next thing on your to-do list without eating, you could end up experiencing more soreness and fatigue. Refueling within 30 minutes of exercise may help with recovery and soreness.13Women don’t use as much glycogen as men do, so foods that provide an even amount of protein and carbs (not just carbs) are better refueling options. Aim for a 1:1 or 2:1 carb to protein ratio for a post-workout snack. Greek yogurt is a good example of a food that has an even ratio ratio (14 grams of carbohydrates and 14 grams of protein).
5. Succumbing to the scale.
Who created the scale, anyway? It must have been a man (historical side note: it was a man, back in 1770.) Some old European scales have the inscription: “He who often weighs himself, knows himself well. He who knows himself well, lives well.” Well ‘he’ may have started this obsession with tracking body weight, but this habit may be more hurtful than helpful for most women.
On average, a woman’s weight fluctuates by about one to two pounds within a day—and periods of high stress as well as the menstrual cycle further contribute to that fluctuation.
No matter how much we remind ourselves that the scale doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s hard to resist. As active, athletic women it’s important to remember that muscle tissue is more dense than fat tissue, and it holds more water than fat. So, not only does muscle weigh more while taking up less space, it also leads to greater scale weight fluctuation. There’s also something to be said about just letting go, and letting your body find its comfortable place—and that comfortable place is likely to change for each of us as we move through different life stages.
6. Taking for granted our beautiful, powerful bodies.
This one isn’t just for busy, active women. It’s for every single one of us. We often have high expectations of ourselves, and strive to be ever better.
It’s important to stop and acknowledge how amazing you are. More importantly, stop and think of a few specific things for which you are grateful, physically and emotionally. Time flies, and the present can easily pass us by, while we sit around entertaining all the ways in which we wish our bodies were different than they are.
Take some time each day to be present, to soak up a moment, and celebrate your beautiful, powerful body.
Life can often feel like a crazy-busy adventure, and it’s important to be aware of our habits when our days are packed. As active women, we spend a lot of our time working toward our goals—lift heavier, feel stronger, run faster. Even during our busiest times, with shifting priorities, two of our most powerful weapons will always be confidence in our body’s abilities and consistency with our healthy habits.