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Monday, 30 August 2010

Specific Exercise Recommendations

I've just started the next phase of my journey - building lean muscle, so I figured now would be a good time to explain a little more detail about the sort of exercises one should be doing. In a previous post, I outlined that no matter what your goal (e.g. losing fat, building muscle), you should be doing heavy resistance exercises. It's the diet that determines the outcome - eat lots and you will build muscle, eat less and you will burn fat. Remember to use the scales on a weekly basis and set your calories accordingly - aim for 1/2 lb per week gain for muscle or 1 lb per week loss for fat.
As a beginner (and I include myself in this category), you want to have a few heavy movements because you need to develop overall strength before you move on to specific body parts. This is another mistake that I made - looking at the people who already have the body type you are trying to achieve and copying what they currently do. The guys who are already big and lean will most likely be working on specific muscle groups and doing many different exercises. This is the opposite of what you want to do when starting out. The big guys built their mass and strength from doing big, heavy exercises like squats, bench press and dead lifts. Once they built the neuronal and muscular tissue from these demanding compound exercises, they can move on to work on specific muscle groups and do smaller isolation work like bicep curls, calf work, forearm work etc.

You can see some guidelines for whether you are a beginner or advanced lifter here:

(Figures are in pounds and are for 1 Rep). Alternatively, you can use the following as a rough guide for when you are strong enough to move on to isolation work:

Squat = 2 x bodyweight
Deadlift = 2.5 x bodyweight
Benchpress = 1.5 x bodyweight
Chinups = 1.5 x bodyweight (i.e. weighted chins)

Until you reach those kind of numbers, you will be far better served by making the compound lifts the foundation of your workout. Thus, I'm a big believer in somethin akin to "Starting Strength", a program developed by a power lifter by the name of Mark Rippetoe. You can find the details in the "Health Links" to the right. There are many similar variations of this program, but the general approach is the same: Squat, Dead lift, Bench press, Standing Press, Bent-Over Row form the foundations. Once these are making good progress, you can add a couple of accessory exercises like chin ups and dips.

There is NO isolation work, such as bicep curls or triceps extensions. These small exercises will not help anyone except advanced lifters. You want to be in the gym no more than every other day for about 1 hour each time. During each session, you will typically do three core exercises, for example Squat, Bench press and Dead lift. Each set will consist of two warm up sets of 10 reps, with low weight (25% max, then 50% max). Then three working sets of 5 reps. Rest for 3 minutes between sets. Keep a log of the weight and try to increase it every session in small increments.

I strongly recommend free weights for everyone as they stimulate the nervous system and accessory muscle groups so much better, but if your gym is such that you feel uncomfortable in the free weight area, then try to use the machines that simulate these core exercises until you are comfortable enough to use free weights.

As for aerobic exercise - I've outlined my thoughts on this in a previous post, but I have found that thinking of aerobic exercise as a workout for the heart and lungs instead of a "fat burner" or "calorie burner" is much more accurate. It's good for you, but don't expect it to be very rewarding if your primary goal is fat loss. The primary driver of fat loss (through caloric deficit) is the diet. It's so much easier to eat 500 calories per day less than it is to burn an extra 500 calories per day through exercise. We all know how slowly the calories tick up on the treadmill if you put it in calorie mode...

I finally got lean when I realised it was my diet that was the key and achieved a fairly low level of body fat without the torture of an hour on the running machine every day.

Lastly, a word about "toning" and another myth of the diet world - you do not get "toned" by doing high reps and "big" from doing low reps. You get "toned" by stressing your muscle with low reps and losing fat through lower calories. You get big by stressing your muscles with low reps and feeding them with high calories. In both cases, you want plenty of protein.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Money and Happiness

Ah yes, this old chestnut. I'd like to talk about a couple of things I have learned about how money has influenced my happiness. Firstly, and importantly, I've found that it's not money itself that has led to me being happier lately, but the understanding of how it works and knowing that I have it under control. Money is simply a game or a tool and understanding it and having a good picture of what's coming into my account each month. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you complete the budget exercise and the Net Worth exercise to get a clear idea of where your money is going.

This brings me to the second money-related idea of happiness. I'm a lot happier since I moved to a cheaper neighbourhood. The book that kicked this idea into my head was The Black Swan, (see my suggested reading link on the right). Amongst many other things, it discussed the human condition of never being satisfied with what you have and always looking to those who have more than you. Thus, people tend to move into areas that are just a little more expensive than they can afford and have difficulty avoiding the envy of the Jones's bigger car / house / garden next door. Rather than try to control my envy of others, I just accept that it's part of who I am as a human and have used another money rule to help me move somewhere where I am (probably) better off than those in my immediate area.

I really don't want this to come across as some sort of snobbery. That's the flipside of the human condition - tending to look at those with less as stupid / unworthy / lazy. But that's not what I mean and certainly not what I feel.

Anyway, back to another money rule that has helped me - spend no more than 25% of your monthly income on rent / mortgage payments. I used to spend close to 33% of my income on rent. I lived in one of the "trendy" areas of my city - you know the type, lots of cafes, bars, clubs and boutique shops. Sure, it was convenient and lively, especially as I had just moved here. But I couldn't help but feel that I was a lot worse off than those around me - the women driving the 4x4s, the men driving the Porshes. The funny thing is that I'm really not a materialistic person (I know, I'm sure most people say that!). I have very few belongings now and no longer look forward to spending money on some "thing" I've been looking forward to. Ever since I moved to a cheaper area, as well as having a little more disposable income, I feel fortunate. I'm not driving a nicer car or living in a bigger house than those around me, but I'm appreciating the things I do have - simple things like hot water, a cosy bed, lots of food in the freezer / fridge.

Pay a quick visit to - it can really put things into perspective. And I think that's what money and happiness is for me - knowing that I'm really fortunate in the grand scheme of things and knowing that I have it under control.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Falling off the waggon...

I'm a little late in posting because last week my folks came over to where I live and we went out to explore some of the countryside. We also ate out every evening, which in a round-about way brings me to today's post: Falling off the (diet) waggon.

We ate out every night and it's good to take a break from eating healthy / going to the gym regularly. I didn't feel the slightest bit guilty about having a starter, two mains and two desserts every night*  for a couple of reasons:

1) In the same way as losing fat and building muscle take time, it also takes more than one week of eating rich food to really make a difference to your waistline. Sure, I've put on a couple of pounds and I look a little softer, but I know that in the long run, it's nothing.

2) Taking a total break from "dieting" is good for you, both psychologically and physiologically. If you're losing body fat, you're on a caloric deficit. You're probably on this deficit for a long time (see previous point as well as previous posts) so you might be running low on glycogen. Eating rich food, typically carbs, will replenish your glycogen stores and "reset" your body into thinking that food is plentiful. As long as you go back to the caloric deficit, you will carry on losing weight, possibly getting over any plateaus that may have occurred (fat loss is generally not a linear process - some weeks there'll be no change on the scales, other weeks a big change). Psychologically, taking a break is also good for obvious reasons.

Anyway, the important points are that taking a break once in a while is to be encouraged. Don't feel guilty about eating out once in a while, or even "pigging out" for a week but more importantly, get right back on with "dieting" afterwards.

Remember that in the same was as it taking several weeks of gradual fat loss to show in the mirror, the same is true of overeating - one meal or one day will not make a difference. But we all know too well that it's easier to gain weight than it is to lose it, so if you fall off the waggon, don't sweat it and just get back on.

*(I think I've already mentioned that I don't eat during the day simply for convenience, so my evening meals are big anyway).

Photo in this post courtesy of BenSpark:

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Another Money Rule...

Further to my post about a suggestion about how much to spend on a car, I'd like to introduce another guideline if you want to become richer / financially independent etc.

We're all familiar with the expressions about the rich getting richer, but why is this? Primarily, it's because the rich (assuming they worked their way there rather than simply inheriting / winning it) know that money can make more money. This is the "secret" to money and understanding it as a tool.

I introduced the idea of assets and liabilities in a previous post. Remember than an asset is something that earns you money, like a savings account, and a liability is something that costs you money, like a loan or credit card.

If you truly want to get richer, you will want to have at least 75% of your Net Worth in assets.

Importantly, they must be assets that pay you money, not things like "stuff" or a car. Perhaps most importantly of all, and very much misunderstood by many, is that a house does not count as an asset in this way if you need that house to live in. Think about it. The only time you can benefit from the value stored in your home (remembering also that the bank probably owns the majority of it!) is when you sell it. But this leaves you with the issue of needing somewhere to live... The whole time you are actually living in your home, it is merely a savings account that you are gradually building up, but you cannot withdraw money from it (unless you sell it back to the bank in schemes such as equity release, or borrow more money from the bank using your home as security for the loan). In addition, the house costs you money to maintain.

So what should the 75% consist of? Things that pay you to own them - cash, shares, bonds, property (assuming you don't need to live in it!), pensions, businesses etc.

Let's take a look at how the average UK family's wealth is allocated (source:ONS as usual):

Ouch. Looks like most people assume that their house is the best investment. Sure, assuming they sell it when they retire and downsize to a bungalow, this will release some cash. Alternatively, they can sell it back to the bank in the aforementioned equity-release schemes. But what about their next of kin? Who wants the banks to benefit from a lifetime of paying off the mortgage?

The pension and savings are far too low to sustain any more than an average retirement. i.e. holiday once per year, that sort of thing. I sure don't want something like that. I want to travel the world, continue to learn, help others, perhaps in developing countries. £15k per year and a 3 bed bungalow doesn't sound like much fun...

Sunday, 15 August 2010

My (health) journey so far...

I've been learning about nutrition and exercise for seven months now and I'm also nearing the end of my "cut", having set myself a target of 10% bodyfat before "bulking".

I figured it would also be worthwhile putting my money where my mouth is and demonstrating what an average person can achieve within a certain time frame, essentially going from knowing nothing about proper food and exercise and being a little soft around the midsection:

Here's me in April 2008. I pretty much looked like this my entire adult life. I'm guessing ~ 25% body fat. Admittedly, I've never been fat, but I was always a little soft. It seemed that no matter what I did (I was doing some weights casually, some running from time to time, eating what I thought was healthy), I could not change my body from this.

This is me now (August 2010). I'm guessing about 11.5% body fat. Granted, it hasn't taken over two years to reach this stage - it's more like one year because I started losing fat in late 2009 when I changed my diet.

Bear the following in mind - this is not a dramatic transformation (I've simply shed some fat and got stronger) and it has taken 12 months of learning, going to the gym 3 - 4 hours a week and eating right (although it's also important to point out here that it does not need to be perfect! Remember not to worry about every last detail).

Could I have done it more quickly? Sure!

If I had known from the very beginning exactly what I needed to do, I think I could have done this in six months.

But I didn't. I started out like most people - overwhelmed with the misinformation and not knowing which things would be most effective. This is why I want to try to show others what works and what doesn't work. I am deeply cynical of the "diet" industry - I believe they prey on the lack of people's knowledge in order to make a profit. As I've tried to emphasise before, all you need to get the body you want is time (it takes longer than you think and you need to be patient), good food (think vegetables and lean protein sources) and either a gym membership or your own set of weights at home (e.g. kettlebells, dumbbells, barbell, squat rack, bench etc.).

Since the purpose of this blog is simply to give my advice / experience, it's worth pointing out that the three most important sources of information on nutrition and exercise for me have been the three top links in the Health section to the right: Martin Berkhan's LeanGains Blog, Lyle McDonald's Body Recomposition website and Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength wiki. These three people have been instrumental in my learning and I want to thank them for sharing their knowledge. (I don't know them personally, I simply found them via their websites).

Saturday, 14 August 2010


If there's one thing that people often spend too much money on (despite realising that it's a horribly depreciating "asset"), it's a car.

Today I'll introduce a rule of thumb to suggest how much car your finances indicate you can afford.

From a previous post, you should have an idea of your Net Worth. The figure I use for car spending is 2.5% of that (simply divide your Net Worth by 40). For many people (including me!), this is a very low figure and can be hard to achieve. I have broken it a little because I have only just started out and hence have a fairly modest Net Worth. [UPDATE Sept 2017 - OK, I've broken this rule a little more because I'm young, have no children and no debt, so I'm living a little! More importantly though, I'm still following the investment rule described in another post, mostly by having very little "stuff".]

Interestingly, the "average" UK household also appears to use this rule, albeit accidentally. (They break many others though as we will see in later posts!). According to the ONS, in 2008, the average UK household Net Worth was £204,000, of which £5000 was a car (or cars). Hey presto, the 2.5% Rule. I must admit, I was expecting more, but the data I could find from the DfT also supports this figure, stating that the average age of cars registered in the UK is increasing and currently stands at 7 years old.

The figures for the average UK household are quite interesting and we'll be going through them in a later post to see what they are doing right and also wrong. So far, they are doing well by not spending too much on a car.

The other thought I had while sitting in traffic on my way back from work the other day was this: People seem to want to spend as little time as possible inside something they often want to spend as much money on as possible...

Friday, 13 August 2010

Simple things...

One of the biggest reasons I failed to lose body fat previously was by making things too complicated.
I think this is another of the difficulties in dieting - one tends to look at what the already lean / slim people are currently doing, rather than what they used to do.

As bodyfat goes down / muscle mass goes up, the complexity of the exercise / diet increases by necessity. 

But for a beginner or overweight person, almost anything they do is going to be better than what they are currently doing (assuming they are just getting started).

With this in mind, I think the most important thing to start with is this:
Change your way of thinking such that high calorie foods that may have been a staple in your diet (potatoes, pasta, bread, rice as well as the usual suspects like chocolate, sweets and cakes) become treats. The vast majority of the diet should be vegetables (the colourful, generally above-ground variety) and berries. Meat is a contentious issue that we'll get into later, but for now, keep it lean if you eat it (chicken breast, fish, turkey, lean beef etc.) As a vegetarian myself, I have no problems meeting my protein requirements using readily available alternatives such as Quorn, soya (both milk and "meat-free" products), cheese, eggs, whey protein, cottage cheese etc. If you're a vegan, please post some comments on how you meet your protein needs (remembering from previous posts that we want to hit ~1g per pound of body weight).

In practical terms, this means changing a typical meal such that the amount of potatoes are gradually reduced and the amount of meat and vegetables increased. Doing this over the course of a few weeks will be easy and you may find that it leads to automatic weight loss.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

How much to save?

Seeing as I recently posted what the average UK household savings ratio is (about 7% currently, which is the long-term average), I figured this would be a good time to introduce the first of a series of "Money Rules".

I must also give credit where credit is due - I did not come up with these Rules myself - I must thank Adrian over at (I'm not sure if he came up with these himself, but that's where I found them). I first came across his blog just over a year ago and have digested many of his hints and tips and have become better at managing my finances and richer as a result.

Here are the Rules / thoughts I have found extremely useful when Saving:

1) Only save if the interest you can earn is greater than the interest you currently pay on any debts. e.g. if you have a Credit Card at 20% APR, pay that off first. It's vital to get rid of any debts (excluding mortgage or UK student loan) before starting to save.

2) Think of saving as "paying yourself" and make this a priority above other things like rent, mortgage, bills etc.

3) The more money you earn, the greater % you should save. Here are my suggestions (figures are before tax):

  • <£20,000 pa = 15% of your take-home pay
  • £20,000 - £30,000 = 20%
  • £30,000 - £100,000 = 25%
  • £100,000 - £200,000 = 30%
  • £200,000 - £300,000 = 35%
  • £300,000+ = 40%

As you can see, this is much higher than the UK average of 7%...

4) Add the savings figure / amount you choose in your monthly budget.

5) Any money left over after all your bills and savings are taken care of can be spent guilt-free!

This last point is important - money is for spending, but it's vital that you are able to balance the ability to save without developing guilt when spending. On the flip-side, it's vital that you get out of any "addiction" to spending and realise that, if you want to get richer / escape the rat-race / retire early you need to rein in the spending and force yourself to "pay yourself first".

I used to save only if I had some specific object in mind - a TV for example. The key idea here is that you are saving not for something but someone - you. You are saving so that your future self can stop working / travel the world / give to charity / live your dream / retire early / "beat the system" or whatever your motivation is.

As for the details such as what sort of savings vehicles to use (cash, property, pension etc.), I will explain my thoughts on this in a later post. For the moment, just starting to save the suggested amounts into your current account or a savings account is the most important thing.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

It's Your Body

Changing your body for whatever reason should be fun. It should be an ongoing process of learning and one that everybody ought to be interested in. We are deeply connected to our bodies and they are the most amazing tool we can hope to own. If our bodies are healthy, we can get on with enjoying life (think of the old saying "at least you have your health").

I didn't succeed in my fitness / health goals until I turned them into a game / project / learning opportunity. I suspect that this is true for anyone - make it fun in whatever way suits you. Realise it's going to be an ongoing experience that could last many months or years. Once you eliminate the idea of it being a temporary "diet", you can relax and enjoy the journey.

For me as a science and technology nerd, the body presents the most complex of chemistry sets with which to experiment with and learn about. The problem is that it's a delayed-reaction kind of experiment - you need to keep the conditions the same for many weeks before you can see their effect. I used to have unrealistic expectations about how fast these results would begin to show - like many people, I was inexperienced and wanted to believe the adverts about people losing several kilos of fat in a matter of weeks, while simultaneously getting stronger and more defined.

Realise that anyone can achieve the body they want. I do not believe that we are all so very different that "what works for one person might not work for another". Everyone obeys the same laws of physics as everyone else (calories in - calories out = weight change) and whilst it's true that different people have slightly different insulin sensitivities, for example, I don't believe that this is enough to warrant a totally different dietary approach.

The equation remains the same in all cases:

Calories + Protein + Resistance Training + Time = Success

Monitor body weight weekly and adjust calories as necessary for your goals.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

More on House Prices...

I found some more interesting data this morning courtesy of the ONS: The UK's Household Savings Ratio.

This is an indication of what proportion of people's monthly income they are saving. I thought it would be an eye-opener to plot it against house prices to see if there is any correlation. Now, the thing to bear in mind when doing this is to be cautious not to apply a causal link. House prices could have an effect on consumer saving, or consumer saving could have an effect on house prices. The data won't tell us which it is, simply that there may be a relationship between the two.

Once again, the blue and purple lines are data from Nationwide and Halifax respectively. The teal line (is that teal?) is the % of salary being saved by the average UK household. I know it's bad practice to do graphs without units, but it looks nicer that way and the actual figures aren't important - we're just looking at the relationship between the two.

In general, it appears that house prices and household savings are inversely correlated.

Once again, I will leave you to make your own mind up about what that means for house prices given that the average UK household has recently started increasing their savings ratio back to average levels...

Thursday, 5 August 2010


One of the somewhat counter-intuitive things I've learned in the past few months is related to exercise.

The commonly held belief that to get lean you should do lots of aerobic exercise and lift lighter weights for more reps is, for the most part, a myth.

I'll put forward a couple of suggestions, depending on your goals, and then explain more about them:

To get lean - lift heavy weights.
To get big - lift heavy weights.

Think about this for a second - when (if) you go to the gym, you tend to see the same overweight people slogging away on the treadmills and elliptical machines and the same buff guys in the free weights area. I'll explain why:

1 pound of fat contains approximately 3500 calories. Therefore, to lose 1 lb per week, you need to have a daily deficit of 500 calories. Typically, a person of average fitness will burn about 5 calories per minute during exercise, say running. Therefore, assuming their diet stays the same, they need to be running for almost two hours every single day of the week to lose that 1 lb of fat. Ouch. Take your typical gym-goer. They do, say 45 minutes on the treadmill three times a week. They will burn about 700 calories a week from this, leading to a fat loss of 1/5 lb. In all likelihood, they'll be exhausted from that 45 minutes and perhaps reward themselves with a slightly larger dinner. It could quite easily be an extra 250 calories, immediately undoing that 45 minutes of work.

My point is two-fold:

1) Exercise burns very few calories. Our bodies are just too damned efficient.
2) It is much easier to achieve a 500 calorie daily deficit by eating less than it is from doing more exercise. Therefore, the diet (see previous entries on calories and protein) is the key.

I'm not saying that (aerobic) exercise is bad. It isn't - it's great for cardiovascular health and just for feeling good. But it's not necessary for fat loss. That comes from the calorie deficit from eating less.

Lifting weights on the other hand is extremely beneficial for changing the body. Most people want to be slimmer, some want to be bigger and more muscular. In both cases, muscle definition is important. What determines whether you get slimmer / leaner or bigger / more muscular is not the weights you lift, but the food you eat. Adding a little more detail to the previous suggestion then gives:

To get lean - lift heavy weights, eat plenty of protein, eat less calories.
To get big - lift heavy weights, eat plenty of protein, eat more calories.

If the calories are not there, your body simply won't build muscle. It will burn fat. By all means, do some running, rowing, elliptical, whatever - it's good for you - but don't expect it to do much for fat loss.

I'll go into more detail into the sort of exercises to do in a future post, but for the moment, I strongly suggest switching to weights in the gym, even if they are machines. Lift as heavy as you can for no more than 10 reps and 3 - 5 sets. Do this 3 - 4 times per week for no more than an hour each session.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Dreaded Budget...

One of the best things you can do to manage your money better is to put together a monthly budget. On the flip side, one of the biggest financial mistakes you can make (and I used to be this way) is live paycheck-to-paycheck with no real idea where the money is going. In the past, I would get paid and think "Great, I now have money to buy that thing I've had my eye on" and I'd suddenly be back to zero in my bank account, then some unexpected expenses would easily drag me into my overdraft.

Since I made a budget, I now have a good idea of how much spare money I have each month to spend on whatever I like. This means no guilt about spending the spare cash (this is after all, the whole point of money!) and a good feeling about saving (more on how much to spend and how much to save in a later post).

In the same way as adding up your Net Worth, it's important to add up all your expenses. These two exercises will be critical in applying the "Rules of Money" in a future post.

Here are some examples of my expenses (from roughly highest to lowest cost):

  • Rent/Mortgage
  • Food
  • Insurance (I combine house, car and breakdown insurance into one monthly figure)
  • Donation to Charity
  • Petrol
  • Electricity
  • Gas
  • Phone/Internet
  • Subscriptions (magazines, gym membership etc.)

Other costs may include:

  • Loan repayments
  • Credit Card repayments
  • Store card repayments
  • Road Tax
  • Health Insurance

For annual payments, I like to break them down as if I was paying them each month. I'm sure there's lots of things I've missed off this list, but my outgoings are fairly straightforward, partly as I don't have any debts.

Don't include any non-essentials like clothes (I'm assuming you already have a functional set of clothes and that any more are "luxuries" or for the latest fashion!), DVDs, books, TVs, gadgets etc. We will work out later how much spare cash we have to spend on these things.

Some things, like food, you will need to estimate or go through past statements to work out. Being a geek, I use only one card for my shopping so I can download the statements into a spreadsheet and extract all the spends in supermarkets to get an accurate idea of my monthly spend. If it helps you get a starting figure, for the past 12 months, I spent an average of £200 a month on supermarkets. This includes things like toiletries and the occasional DVD, but excludes things like petrol. I'm a single guy who eats good quality food that's high in protein, so there's lots of (relatively) expensive things like organic soy milk, low fat cheese and vegetarian frozen "meats" like Quorn and loads of frozen vegetables, but not much in the way of "luxury" foods like the various supermarket "Extra Special" range.

Once you have a list of all your expenses, like the previous exercise it's time to add them up. I like to have a spreadsheet with a column for "In" and a column for "Out". The "In" column in my case is simply the monthly salary I receive in my bank each month from my one job, but you should include any other sources of income.

Hopefully, but not necessarily, your "In" column will total more than your "Out" column...

Lastly, another important aspect of this exercise is to be honest with yourself. It's easy to pretend that you only spend £200 a month on food, when in reality it may be £300 or more. It's pointless to do a budget if it isn't going to be at least reasonably accurate (the odd £1 here and there won't matter, but the odd £100 or £1000 will).

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Food Choices and Caloric Density

Whilst it is true that the most important factors in changing your physique are calories, protein and time, the type of food you choose to eat are important for two reasons:

1) It's pretty crappy eating bland food. Food is one of the joys in life.
2) Sticking to a particular way of eating requires willpower - hunger and cravings will weaken your resolve.

Take two different diets (Let's pretend for the sake of argument that they contain the same number of calories and the same amount of protein): Diet 1 is icecream, chocolate and pizza; Diet 2 is vegetables and lean meat / vegetarian alternatives.

It doesn't take a genius to realise that the food in Diet 2 is going to be a LOT more filling than the food in Diet 1 - i.e. it's going to take a lot of vegetables before the calorie limit of the day is reached, but only, say, half a pizza.

One of the things I've come to realise on my food / nutrition / body recomposition journey is that the foods we have available to us are extremely calorie dense, but because they are now so abundant, we treat them as the norm. Things like potatoes, pasta, rice, cereals are assumed to be "healthy" or "normal" because we grow up with them all around us. The problem is, our biology developed during a time before agriculture. We were hunter-gatherers and, biologically speaking, still are. Foods like starchy carbohydrates would have been a minor part of our diet - a rare treat. The opposite is now true. The bulk of most people's meals are carbohydrates. Please do not misinterprate my message here - I am not saying that carbohydrates are bad. What I am saying is that the food we take for granted is extremely rich and calorie dense. It doesn't fill you up that much, but provides a lot of calories. It's no wonder people struggle to keep their weight down. It's just assumed, and of course some companies like cereal manufacturers are only too happy to further this myth, that cereals and pasta etc. are somehow healthy choices.

I truly believe that if we are to overcome the "obesity epidemic", we need to realise that the modern diet is not normal relative to our bodies. We place far too much emphasis on the starches and far too little on vegetables and protein. The ideal diet is one that consists almost entirely of as many different vegetables as possible, with generous servings of fish, chicken, turkey (or vegetarian alternatives). Foods like rice, potatoes and pasta should be viewed as minor components or treats and used sparingly. Dairy is an excellent food for providing both calcium (especially important for women) and protein, but care should be used with many products, such as cheese and butter. It's all too easy for them to be high in fat. Skimmed milk and cottage cheese are ideal in this respect, since they contain all of the protein and calcium but very little fat (again, I don't wish for this to be interpreted as "fat is bad", simply that fat is extremely calorie dense and should therefore be treated with caution).

This has turned into more of a rant that I had intended (I may come back and clean it up later), but this idea of caloric density was something of a eureka moment for me. When combined with the fact that, as a species, we are very adaptable/impressionable/programmable and tend to assume that whatever environment is presented to us when becoming adults is the norm, food choices like cereals are assumed to be ideal.

Practical advice from all of this? Check the food labels and choose foods that have as few calories per 100g as possible. e.g. Berries were one of my recent "finds". I simply assumed they would be calorie-dense. I now regularly help myself to piles of frozen raspberries / blueberries. With only ~30 calories per 100g, you can happily pig out on 500g of them at a time! They go great with cottage cheese or low fat yoghurt. I also feel I must thank Martin Berkhan of LeanGains (check the links to the right) for this tip.

Further disclaimer - this post is mainly intended for people who wish to lose fat. Of course for those who wish to gain muscle, excess calories are required and food choices should be changed (i.e. caloric density of foods would be increased when trying to gain weight).

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Net Worth - Part 2

OK, so assuming you have a list of all the things you own and all your savings accounts etc. it's time to tally them up.

This will introduce an important distinction between two classes of "stuff": Assets and Liabilities. The definition is simple - an Asset is anything that earns money and a Liability is anything that costs money.

In its simplest form, an asset is money in a savings account earning some interest. One of the most obvious forms of liability is a loan or credit card debt.

A more complex example is a car. This is an assest because it's worth something, but it's also a liability because it loses value each year. The same is true of "stuff" (TVs, furniture etc.)

The most disputed is probably that of a house, but we'll leave that for a later post. For the moment, it counts as an asset.

1) Total up the assets - savings, pension, value of your home, stuff you own etc.

2) Total up the liabilities - loans (don't count a UK student loan remember), credit cards, outstanding mortgage remaining

3) Assets - Liabilities = Net Worth

Friday, 30 July 2010


In a way, time is what this blog is really about. We all want more time to do the things we enjoy. By becoming and staying healthy, you increase the amount of time you have available, both through life expectancy and through reduced periods of illness. By becoming better informed about your finances, you can perhaps pay off your debts / mortgage sooner and even retire earlier. Therefore a little time spent learning about health and finances, in my eyes, is worthwhile.

This brings me on to another health and diet-related post: Time is another reason I had previously failed on my mission to lose weight / change my body. This is also something the supplement-promoting companies know all too well. People expect to be able to "go on a diet", for example trying really hard to eat weird and wonderful things, for a short period of time, lose lots of weight and then go back to eating what they ate before. This tends to lead to weight loss but weight gain once they return to their "normal" diet.

Successful fat loss (or muscle gain) is the result of a small amount of effort over a long period of time, not a large effort over the course of a few weeks.

You know those adverts you sometimes see on the internet? Get ripped in 4 weeks!; Mum loses 3st in 3 weeks with this one simple tip!; Secret to a flat belly - follow this one weird rule!. They are all playing up to our hopes that there is one simple thing, one miracle pill that will enable us to lose fat / gain muscle as fast as possible.

Want to know the real secret to fat loss / muscle gain? Time.

When you stop thinking about the end goal and start enjoying the journey, it becomes a lot easier. Fat loss / muscle gain is the byproduct of the food you eat and the exercise you do, not the goal. It takes a little effort each day (for example, a conscious effort to eat more vegetables, more protein and less sugar) over a long time (weeks, months, years) rather than a lot of effort (for example, restricting food choices to rice cakes and cabbage soup or other diet fads) over a short time (days, weeks).

Patience is absolutely critical. The results will come, but you need to give them time. A realistic length of time for significant changes in either fat loss or muscle gain is six months. A realistic time frame for changes to be noticed in the mirror is eight weeks.

In a future post, I'll summarise the key points for fat loss / muscle gain I have found through research and experience, but I've introduced the main three so far - Calories, Protein and Time.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Money Game

If you want to "win" at the money game, you need to know the rules and you need to know the layout of the board. (I'll introduce the rules in a later post). Having a clear picture of your current finances is important for two reasons - it helps make decisions about what to spend money on and, more importantly, provides peace of mind that you have taken the first step towards getting things under control. There are two steps involved in seeing the "state of play" and I'll introduce the first here - your Net Worth.

I'm sure most people have heard the term net worth before. I had previously assumed it only applied to millionaires and such, but it's an invaluable figure for everyone to know. For some people, their net worth is going to be negative (more debt than savings / assets), for others it's going to be about zero (some debt and some savings) and for others it will be a positive number of some sort. Remember that no matter what it turns out to be for you, it's just a number.

Get a pen and paper (or spreadsheet or whatever works for you) and start to make a list of all of the following that you have:

Credit cards
Savings Accounts / ISAs
Pensions / SIPPs / Company Pension
Store Cards
Shares / Funds
Loans (don't count a Student Loan if you are in the UK - it's not a normal loan)
Stuff you own (only include the more expensive stuff)

Now you need to do some research into how much money each of these items is right now - e.g. log in to your accounts online or dig out the latest statements. For the house, try to be as honest as you can about its present value and the same for the car (don't use the purchase price in either case). For the expensive "stuff" you own, like TVs, furniture, jewellery etc. use their second-hand value too - either try to be honest with yourself or use Ebay to get an idea of how much they would sell for.

Don't start to add up the total figures from these things yet - I'll explain how to do that in another post. For now, just make the list and get the numbers.

Depending on how active you are with your finances, this could be a fairly simple exercise or it could be a big fat pain. Try to make it as fun as possible, knowing that this is an important step in working towards improving your life. This is, after all, what this blog is about. Speaking from personal experience, I'm a lot happier since I improved my finances and my health. Not because money makes me happy (it doesn't, it's just a tool), but because understanding money and knowing you have it under control allows you to relax and get on with the things that are important to you.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

You are what you eat...

If calories are the number one priority when trying to change your body (whether gaining muscle or losing fat), then protein is next in line.

If you think about it, it makes sense: 1) Muscle is predominantly protein. 2) A lean body is mostly muscle, therefore a diet that is based around protein is necessary to achieve a body that is lean.

The suggested starting point for protein intake is 1g per pound of body weight. Now, this will be a little high for people who are significantly overweight and a little low for people who are especially lean, but it's a good ballpark figure.

Lean protein sources and vegetables should form the major component in the diet. For example, chicken breast, fish, lean beef, egg whites and low fat dairy.

I myself am vegetarian so I use alternatives like Quorn and supermarket's own-brand vegetarian "meat".

You can make significant improvements in body composition simply by exchanging or reducing the "normal" components of a meal, such as pasta, potatoes and rice, and increasing the helping of vegetables and lean meat (or vegetarian alternative).

Finally, I think it's worthwhile pointing out that changing the diet should be 1) gradual and 2) permanent. Don't think that you can "diet" for a few months and then go back to whatever you were eating before. After all, you are what you eat...

(I'll be posting some thoughts on time and effort required in a future post)

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Change the way you think about money...

For me, one of the most important factors in my ongoing financial journey has been changing the way I think about money.

I used to live paycheck to paycheck, and apart from a company pension (which was obligatory at my place of work, so there wasn't any choice on my part whether to join or not) I had no savings and no desire/discipline to put money aside. That changed when I started thinking more about my life and what I wanted from it.

Without getting too philosophical about it, you only get one chance in life (depending on which spritual ideals you subscribe to). Think about how you want your life to be. Do you want to travel? See the world? Spend time with family and friends? Retire to a place in the sun? Party and live the life of luxury? Drive sports cars? Help others by giving your time and/or money?

No matter what it is you want from life, money is merely a tool; an enabling factor, and like any tool, you need to learn how to use it. Stop thinking of money as a thing and start thinking of it as just a number. When I "let go" of money in this way and concentrated on thinking about what was important to me in life, it enabled me to make better financial decisions using the goals of travel, helping others, learning and seeing the world as motivating ideals.

Now, for me personally, I enjoy games. I also enjoy numbers, so I turned money into a game. I'm sure we're all pretty pissed with the banks and financial institutions right now, so perhaps use these negative feelings as motivating you towards winning the "game". For example, I use a cashback credit card for all my purchases and always pay it off every month. The bank pays me to use their card. Now, I realise that the amount of money is very small, but it's an example of trying to win the "game".

I'll give some more tips in future posts, but for now, start thinking about what it is you want from life and try to think of money as nothing more than a tool or a number in an account (even if that number is negative right now).

It's just a number.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Weekly weigh-ins

In conjunction with counting calories, it's vital that you measure your bodyweight (and ideally body fat) on a weekly basis to determine if the calories you are eating are correct for your goals.

For example, I'm currently "cutting" (i.e. trying to lose body fat while keeping lean tissue - muscle etc.) and because I'm 113 lb, I'm eating around 10x that per day. I had my weekly weigh-in this morning and the scales show no change from last week.

There are two important points to take from this:

1) I need to reduce the calories slightly for next week.
2) I mustn't get discouraged by the lack of "progress".

Changing your body is a long process. There are no miracles, despite the numerous "Mum loses 4 stone in 3 weeks using this one weird secret" adverts on the internet and such. Those are the ones designed to take the pounds from your wallet instead... Realistically, you are looking at 6 months of effort, more likely 12 months for significant changes. This can sound arduous, but adherence to the diet needn't be 100%. If you diet strictly (counting the calories) 5 days a week, then a couple of days a week (ideally only one) are not going to impede progress. As long as you don't go crazy on those one or two days...

So, next week I'll reduce my calories slightly (about 10%) and see how I get on. I've been doing this for since the start of February and have almost achieved the levels of leanness I'd like (think Brad Pitt in Fight Club and other such cliches). This is the first time in my adult life where I haven't had a spare tyre around my waist and I have calories, protein, exercise and patience to thank. More on these fundamentals in a future post...

Friday, 23 July 2010

House Price Graph

As promised, here is the graph showing house prices (blue and purple lines, corrected for inflation) from 1975 and the population aged between 40 and 42 inclusive (grey line).

Click for a clearer version (opens in new tab).

Source data for prices is Halifax and Nationwide. Population is from ONS.

It's also interesting to note that the average age of a first time buyer is now 38...

Thursday, 22 July 2010

House Prices

Everyone in the UK seems obsessed with house prices. so I figure it makes a good first financial post.

I found a factor affecting house prices that almost everyone overlooks, especially in the media: Population, or rather, the population contributing to the housing market.

I've often seen comments like "the population is always increasing" and "people always need houses". Hence, the conclusion is that house prices always increase.

However, think for a moment about who is buying the houses. I think it's safe to assume that it's not, for the most part, anyone under the age of 18. I think it's also safe to say that anyone older than retirement age will typically be selling / downsizing / emmigrating. That leaves people in the 18 - 65 bracket. I think it's also safe to assume that those who contribute the most to the housing market, in terms of both volume and value, are those in the middle of this age range: those who have worked their way up to a decent salary; the ones who are perhaps considering buying a second home as an investment.

Enter a paper written in 2005 by a member of the US Fed:


I don't pretend to understand the maths in this paper but if you read the beginning of the paper and scroll to the last few pages, you will see that, using simply the population of working age as an input, the price of houses in the US, Japan and the UK has been pretty accurately modelled.

Bear in mind that this paper was written in 2005, before the "Credit Crisis".

What does this mean for the UK's house prices? Check this out:

Interactive Population Pyramid

Moving this to 2010 shows a distinct bulge centred around the 45 year olds. Moving forwards in time, this means that the population of middle age (and let's assume major contributors to the UK's housing market) is falling.

Add this to the heady mixture of VAT increases, wage freezes, public spending cuts and I can only see one way for house prices to head for the next few years.

I'll post a graph later showing the uncanny correlation between the middle-aged UK population and house prices...


Had the most awesome pudding last night. Here's the recipe:

125g cottage cheese
25g peanut butter (I prefer the crunchy stuff)
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon Splenda
handful of frozen blueberries (you can pretty much put as many of these in as you like)

Works out to about 300 calories and 20g of protein.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Calories - the cornerstone of dieting

UPDATE 20th Sept 2017 - I've since changed my thinking on this, and although the 1st law holds, the human body treats calories from different sources differently. You'll see this evolution in later posts, where I concentrate more on lowering calories from carbohydrates, as these have a more significant impact on things like hunger and fat storage. I'll leave the rest of the post as-is.

If there's one reason why people, including myself, have failed on their dieting goals then it's calories. Or rather, not counting them.

For those of you with a scientific leaning, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed and this of course applies to the human body. Previously, I had wondered why I seemed to be doing everything right - eating the right foods, cutting down on sugar and fat, getting plenty of exercise - but not getting slimmer / more muscular / whatever. It turned out that I was missing the most important point - to get bigger I needed more calories and to get slimmer, I needed less calories.

It sounds obvious and it is.

So why was I and so many other people failing to achieve the goals they set for themselves? As it turns out, we had no idea how many calories we needed or how many calories we were getting.

I'll make no claims that counting calories is easy or convenient. It's not. There are ways you can make it easier and I'll cover them in a future post. For now, simply realise that if you count calories you are guaranteed to achieve your goal.

To get you started, you need to know how many calories to eat. An excellent estimate is to take your bodyweight in pounds (There are 2.2 pounds in a kg and 14 pounds in a stone) and multiply by 12 if you wish to lose weight and multiply by 16 if you wish to gain weight. This gives you a starting point for daily calorie intake.

Simply weigh yourself once per week (ideally at the same time of day) and if you have lost about 1 lb after one week, then the calories are about right (assuming you want to lose weight). If you haven't lost any weight, reduce the calories by 10% and repeat for another week. Repeat this process, aiming for about a 1 lb per week loss, adjusting the calories down on a weekly basis as required (as your weight drops, so will your calorie requirement).

If you wish to gain weight (let's assume that you want to gain muscle, not fat - gaining fat is easy!) - repeat the above step but aim to gain 1/2 lb per week. Any more than this and it's likely to be the wrong sort of gain.

In both cases, exercise is extremely important, but details on that too will be in a future post.