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Exploring Fitness Minimalism: Removing the Nonessential from Exercise & Nutrition

John Berardi | 06 Feb 2012

If you lived through the 90s, you probably enjoyed a sarcastic chuckle from that 7-minute abs skit in the movie There’s Something About Mary:

Jokes are one thing. It gets a lot more serious when you, as a fitness professional, see books and DVDs promising fast results in only 7 minutes a day. In fact, you probably get pretty mad when you see this stuff.

After all, that’s not how you built your body. And that’s not how it should work. Getting in shape takes sacrifice, discipline, nutritional fortitude, and hours of gym time, right? Seven minutes a day? A few days a week? One small nutrition habit to practice? That’s nonsense. It’s pandering to the weak and lazy. No way does anyone get in awesome shape doing that stuff.

At least, that’s how I used to think. (Maybe you did too?)

But, recently, I’ve been exploring an entirely new line of thought. I’ve been wondering if it would be possible to get in awesome shape with a minimalistic program, with a very small amount of exercise per week, and with as few nutritional changes as possible. What would a program like that look like? And how well could it work?

Enter Marsha, one of my clients.

Marsha’s works two jobs, runs a Girl Guides group (Girl Scouts for you non-Canadians), plays co-ed volleyball a few nights a week, and is planning a wedding. So she’s not lazy or unmotivated. She’s a hard-working, busy, social, fun woman. She just doesn’t have a lot of free time for exercise. The other priorities in her life are more important to her than hours of gym time.

Of course, despite her competing time demands, Marsha still wanted to lose some weight. That’s why we decided to make her program an experiment in fitness minimalism. I wondered if she could get in awesome shape with just a few minutes of exercise per week and only a few nutritional changes. So here’s what we came up with.

On the exercise side of things, this is what she did:

Monday – 6 minutes of sprint intervals on the treadmill
Tuesday – 10 minutes of bodyweight circuit training
Thursday – 6 minutes of sprint intervals on the treadmill
Friday – 10 minutes of bodyweight circuit training

[That’s right, only 32 minutes of exercise per week.]

Her dietary strategies were equally simple:

Weeks 1 and 2 – eat normally, however eat each meal slowly and eat about 4 total meals each day
Weeks 3 and 4 – with each meal, eat protein, legumes, and veggies (while avoiding white carbs)
Weeks 5 and 6 – one day per week, eat whatever you want
Weeks 7 and 8 – if still included, skip fruit and calorie-containing drinks

[No, I didn’t give her a diet to follow. I simply gave her a new habit to practice every two weeks, as outlined above.]

So, how did this minimalist strategy work? Fantastically.

In 16 weeks Marsha lost a whopping 20 pounds of body fat, dropping from 150 pounds to 130 pounds. All from just a few nutrition changes. And a mere 8½ hours of exercise over the course of 4 months.

Of course, I’ve used similar strategies with hundreds of others. And, if the training and nutrition is appropriately progressed, they get similar results. Sure, some need a little more exercise. Others do just fine with a little less. However, let’s not obsess over the details.

The real take-home message here is that maybe the fitness industry has been overwhelming clients with excessive exercise prescriptions and nutrition plans for years. Perhaps we’d all benefit from spending more time exploring what exactly is essential (and what’s not). And then focusing on stripping away the non-essential.

Sure, some clients may still love doing more exercise than is completely necessary for their goals. And that’s okay. However, for those who prefer to do less, why not give them the help and support they need? Why not do your own experiments in fitness minimalism?

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John Berardi

About the author: John Berardi

Dr. John Berardi has been recognized as one of the top exercise nutrition experts in the world. His work has been published in numerous textbooks, peer-reviewed academic journals, and in countless popular exercise and nutrition books and magazines.

Through his company, Precision Nutrition, Dr. Berardi has worked with over 60,000 clients in over 100 countries. These clients range from recreational exercisers all the way up to the athletic elite, including: The Cleveland Browns, The Toronto Maple Leafs, The Texas Longhorns, Canada’s Olympic Ski Teams, Canada’s Olympic Bobsleigh and Skeleton Racers, World Champion UFC Fighters, Canada’s Olympic Speed Skaters, and more.

Dr. Berardi has also created the highly acclaimed Precision Nutrition Certification program, a sport and exercise nutrition mentorship program designed exclusively for elite fitness professionals. To learn more, visit Dr. Berardi’s web site and take his free “Essentials of Nutrition Coaching” video course.

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