Editor’s Note: This post was updated on November 26, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on May 26, 2016.
It’s natural to look for simple tricks or “hacks” that will help you achieve the body you always wanted with minimal effort. It’s normal to want results instantly without having to put in hours, weeks, even months. If you spend any amount of time on the internet looking for tips or tricks to losing weight or gaining muscle, you’ll find that there’s A TON of it online. But how reliable is that advice?
After a while, you’ll also find that most of it is complete baloney. The advice you’ll find ranges anywhere from cutting out entire nutrient sources which is unsustainable (either carbs or fat, depending on who you ask) to the downright weird (smell your food to trick your brain into thinking you ate it).
Below, are 5 trustworthy fitness hacks/tricks/tips or whatever you want to call them that are actually supported by scientific research, come from reliable resources, and are perfect for any age. You may actually be surprised how these tips are more common sense than out of the box “hacks”. You should treat that as a good sign.
#1: The easy way to cut calories: sleep like you’re supposed to
Most people are busy and view sleep as a luxury. Whether you’re a college student pulling an all-nighter to finish up a paper or a working professional juggling the responsibilities of career, family, and personal improvement, every extra minute you can stay up seems like a better use of your time. It’s the mentality of, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. With that, adequate sleep becomes less of a priority as we age.
However, a lack of sleep can disrupt your endocrine system and your body’s two major hunger regulators – ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and leptin (the “fullness” hormone). These hormone levels get thrown out of balance, with your body producing more ghrelin.
Translation: your body’s hormones are telling you that you’re “hungrier” than you would normally be. If you want to reduce your appetite, go to bed earlier. This is just one of the many ways sleep and body composition is linked.
#2 The easy way to grow your muscles: get that all-important Stage 3 sleep
Not only does sleep have a positive impact on weight loss, sleep also is critical for growing and developing the muscle that you’re working hard to develop.
Many people are familiar with REM sleep – that’s the sleep stage in which dreams occur. That’s probably the only sleep stage that people know about, they often incorrectly associate REM sleep as the “important” or “restful” stage of sleep. What they’re actually thinking of, especially as it relates to muscle growth and recovery, is Stage 3 sleep, also known a short wave sleep (SWS).
In addition to testosterone, another very critical hormone related to muscle growth is growth hormone (GH). It’s needed to help repair and develop muscles after they’ve been exhausted from strength training. 70% of growth hormone is released during Stage 3 sleep, so if you’re not getting enough sleep you may not be getting your full nightly dose of growth hormone, which can sabotage your efforts in the gym.
The bottom line? Prioritize your sleep, increase your growth hormone levels, and enjoy a increase in strength and recovery.
#3: You should work out in the afternoon
Some people like to work out in the mornings because that’s when they can fit it in. Some people like to work out in the afternoon because that’s when they feel the best. But if we’re looking at an “optimal time,” when your body is at its most receptive to increasing muscle, when should you work out?
Recent research appears to come down pretty strongly on the side of the afternoon camp, for some biologically-sound reasons.
Muscle building is encouraged by the presence of testosterone, one of the hormones that trigger anabolic growth. Although testosterone does peak in the morning, seeming to favor morning workout proponents, optimal testosterone levels actually occur in the afternoon, when the ratio of cortisol (the muscle-depleting hormone) to testosterone is at its lowest. You want high testosterone levels and low cortisol levels to promote muscle gain.
Secondly, your body temperature tends to peak in the afternoon, which has been linked with increased strength in a number of studies, including this one published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning.
In fact, the results of this study were so conclusively in support of the relationship between strength/body temperature/afternoon that the researchers suggested that coaches find strategies to raise body temperature to offset the lower temperatures typically experienced in the morning.
#4: Don’t want to cut an insane amount of calories? Don’t want to spend 2 hours a day at the gym? You Don’t Have To.
It’s pretty tempting to go extreme when you’re trying to lose weight. For example, it’s known that fat contains a lot of calories (9 per gram) so when it comes time to diet you think, “I gotta lose 10 pounds before going on vacation – I’m going for huge caloric deficit until I hit on my goal.” Others feel that in order to achieve any results, they have to commit their lives to the gym.
Confounding all this are people on the internet, some who promise you can lose weight without exercising, and some who promise you can lose weight without dieting or any caloric restrictions. What are you supposed to believe?
Well, if you want to lose weight/body fat, you need to make lifestyle changes. Fortunately, you can find a balance of caloric restriction and exercise that’s right for you. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter whether you just diet or diet and exercise together— when it comes to fat loss the most important factor is to create an energy deficit (use more energy than you take in).
If you want to learn how calculate how much energy your body naturally burns and use that information to lose fat without having to resort to skipping meals, read “How to use BMR to Hack your diet”.
#5: You Can Fight Off Age-Related Weight Gain With Muscle
There’s a perception that as you age, you automatically get fatter. No matter what you do, no matter how good you once were, once you reach a certain age you are fated to gain fat.
That’s only true if you let it happen. What actually happens is that as you age, you tend to become less active and more sedentary. Your activity rate declines, along with the number of calories burned in a day. If your diet remains the same and your activity rate declines, you’ll gain body fat. If you were previously in good shape (a former athlete, etc.) and you no longer exercise regularly, your muscle mass will reduce, further decreasing the amount of calories your body burns each day.
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 23 or 84– your body will respond to resistance training (weight lifting, etc.) by increasing muscle mass. You don’t lose the ability to gain muscle with age.
This is significant for you because increased muscle will cause your body to need more calories just to maintain this additional muscle, meaning, if your diet remains consistent, you will have an easier time maintaining and even potentially losing body fat, thanks to your muscles.
If It’s Not Backed Up By Research, Be Wary
Your time is arguably the most important resource you have, and how you spend your time is one of the most important decisions you make each day. An extra hour spent at the gym could instead be spent preparing healthy meals or getting more sleep .
Make sure that any fitness hack you follow is backed up by research and that the advice is given freely, without any direct gain. Always check to make sure the advice comes from from a reliable source. And remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.