Features and Explainers

The beginner’s checklist for summer

Written by Vern Yap

The seasons are changing, and the weather is getting warmer (or is it? It can be hard to tell with Melbourne). However, it’s not yet time to emerge from our winter cocoons; there is still plenty of time to get started on that summer body, and here are some general guidelines for us to follow:


1) Do not crash diet

The reason why people crash diet is because people have an expectation that a diet comes with suffering: we have a visceral need to feel that something has changed.

But biologically, a crash diet puts your body in crisis mode: if you go from sushi at lunch and pasta at dinner to a handful of nuts and a photo of a rotisserie chicken, your body is going to think you are starving. This pushes your metabolism way down so your body can conserve energy, and there is evidence to show that your metabolism does not recover to its previous level even if you start eating normally again.

This means your body burns less calories doing activities, and you will simply have less energy to do anything. The drastically decreased calorie intake will also wreak havoc on your hormone levels. Ghrelin is a hormone that increases appetite, and when the body starts producing more of it as an automatic response, you will want to eat everything. This will drive you insane.

Instead, try to start weighing your portions before you cook them. Look at how much you normally prepare, then perhaps cut out 50-100g of carbs every two weeks. Do it slowly, and give your body time to get used to a slightly lower caloric intake.


2) Start now: this takes time

Begin training now, start introducing tiny changes to your diet starting this week. The weather is still cold now, so all of us are in our jackets and sweaters. Many people wait too long, until summer proper starts, and then they panic and try to get a beach-ready body in four weeks. Unless you are a seasoned athlete, or have several years of workout experience, this tactic will not cut it for you. Have realistic expectations, think of this as a long-term project that you must begin on now.


A photo of this reporter preparing for summer, over several years. (Vern Yap)

If everyone could get summer-ready in a few weeks, we would all have beach bodies. In real life, everyone has schedules to work around, commitments and responsibilities that you must attend to before you can devote time to exercise. Have the patience to slowly work a new habit into your existing lifestyle, and remember that this is not a quick fix.


3) Manage your social life

An aspect of life that does not occur to most people on a diet is their social life. Do you have that one friend who likes to go drinking every weekend? Or that one friend who enjoys food challenges? Respectfully limit the time you spend around them, or it is easy to waver in your discipline.

We all like to think that we can resist peer pressure, but the truth is that we are largely social creatures. Many cultures around the world also use eating as a bonding activity, and combined with pressure from your friends, many of us would cave in.

Make sure your friends understand and respect the goals that you have set for yourself. The people around you can bring you up or drag you down, but it is up to you to filter them.

However, do exercise good judgment. If it is cake at your son’s birthday party, or high tea with your mum on Mother’s Day, go for it. Some things are more important.


4) Weights plus cardio, please

As a personal trainer, I have encountered clients with a strange aversion to weights: “I don’t want to put on too much muscle”. That is like saying “I don’t want to start working because I might end up in the top 1% tax bracket”.

Building muscle is hard, burning fat is easy, and it will only get easier as your body puts on more muscle. This is because one pound (0.45kg) of fat burns two calories a day, while one pound of muscle burns six calories a day, at rest.

Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is how many calories your body burns just by being alive. Your muscles account for 20-25% of this, so the best way to bring up your overall BMR would be to increase your muscle mass. If your body can burn more calories in a resting state, imagine how much it would burn when you combine that with exercise.

Putting on muscle also makes the weighing scale irrelevant. Muscle is far denser than fat, so you might weigh the same as before, but you will be slimmer and more compact. Two people of the same weight, but with different compositions of muscle and fat will look very dissimilar. No one brings weighing scales to the beach, so stop fussing over what the scale tells you, and go by visual judgment.


5) What kind of cardio?

Funnily enough, this is last because it is the least important item on this list. The main obstacle most of us face is psychological: drastic, unsustainable changes to lifestyle, peer pressure, or just plain old excuses.

The type of exercise does not matter too much as long as you are exercising, but if you have read till this point, you might as well get some specifics. Cardio can be roughly divided into three categories:
– Low-intensity steady-state (LISS): cycling marathons, runs over 5km, long-distance anything
– High-Intensity interval-training (HIIT): sprints, fights, circuit classes
– Combined: rugby/football, badminton, hiking

Both HIIT and LISS improve your body’s VO2 max, which is how efficiently your organs use oxygen during exercise, as well as your body’s aerobic ability to return to normal after exercise.

The key difference here would be that HIIT, if done well, delivers the same returns as a longer LISS cardio session in a much shorter time, so if you have a busy schedule, consider it strongly.

Also, drag your friends into it: a burden shared is a burden lessened. You are far less likely to notice that you have been exercising for two hours if you are playing a footie match with your friends.

And there it is: a simple (but not easy) guide to getting ready for summer. What are you waiting for? Get to it.

About the author

Vern Yap