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Diets Don't Work: Marginal gains

Our Diets Don't Work blog is by Ascot-based personal trainer Adam Atkinson. He offers health and fitness advice on our websites each month. Today, he looks at the chapters of weight loss...

Adam Atkinson

Adam Atkinson

Diets Don't Work: Five classic weight loss blunders

The term marginal gains became familiar during the 2012 Olympic games in London. As team GB demolished the world, head coach Dave Brailsford talked about marginal gains as being one of the keys to their success.

At the elite end of the spectrum, making athletes fitter, stronger and faster becomes increasingly difficult. The law of diminishing returns means that the better someone gets, the harder they have to train for smaller gains; until the point is reached where no matter how hard you train, you will only get a tiny bit better, if at all. So how can you improve? How can you improve so much that you beat every other team in the world. Marginal gains.

Instead of focusing on one seemingly obvious but difficult goal – like making an athlete fitter – marginal gains instead looks to make small improvements to many small areas of the sport. Although some of these areas and changes may seem inconsequential, added together they are the difference between bronze and gold.

At British cycling the athletes were taught how to wash their hands properly. This means less infections and colds; so more training time. They started wearing heated trousers before and between races to ensure their muscles were at optimum temperature to perform. They changed the shape of their helmets. They got slightly lighter wheels. Each small, marginal gain might only be tiny – 0.2% perhaps. But added together they equal much more. Enough to win. By applying this theory to health and weight loss, what may seem an impossible task can be made easy.

Physics dictates that to lose 2lbs a week, we need to eat 500 calories less than we need every day. That’s a lot - more than a whole meal.  But instead of just trying to eat a lot less, by making small changes to both input (food, drink) and output (metabolic rate, exercise) this large amount can be chipped away into achievable amounts.

Marginal gains will help you to burn more calories with less energy. Get a smart watch that counts your steps or tells you to get up from your office chair every hour. That’s 50 calories a day burned. Walk around the office when on the phone; that’s another 30 a day. Use a basket at the supermarket, not a trolley. And park further away. That’s another 50 calories a day. Do some short, challenging strength training. Even once a week will be enough to boost your metabolic rate by 25 calories a day. Do some very short, but intense intervals. A couple of these a week gets you 50 calories a day.

Already those small changes add up to 205 calories a day. Now you only have to eat 295 calories less per day to lose those 2lbs.

Applying the theory of marginal gains to food works too! Get some smaller plates and bowls. -50 calories a day. Drink more water, making you feel fuller; -50 calories a day. Include protein in every meal, making you feel fuller; -50 calories a day. Swap wine for prosecco in the evening. That’s another 50. Look at the menu before eating out so that you can make a slightly smarter choice; another 95 calories saved. 295 calories saved. Add in the extra calories burned, and that’s your 500.

So try to make small, achievable changes in lots of different areas to make a big change in your health and weight. Marginal gains will help you get your own gold medal.

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