Karl Henry's four pillars of weight loss
Fitness expert and Irish Independent columnist Karl Henry has never bought into fads and gimmicks. Here, he outlines his four pillars of fitness that he says will work for everyone, and tells our reporter why weight loss is a long-term lifestyle change, and not a quick fix problem
Personal trainer Karl Henry encounters a certain type of new client in January. Invariably, they want Spartan diet plans, militant training programmes, and overnight results. In these situations, the first exercise is in common sense.
"January is all about quick-fix solutions and crazy diets that look almost too easy," he explains. "The reality is that, six months down the line, they don't last and people often put on even more weight. Real health and real results take time."
Karl and his father Pat have always advocated a sensible approach to weight loss. The Dublin fitness centre that they now co-own was set up by Pat in 1986 and, after 30 years in business, they know that fads and gimmicks simply don't deliver.
Trends come and go, adds Karl, but small, consistent lifestyle changes add up like compound interest in the long-run. "I'm not particularly interested in the high-end, high-performance stuff," he says. "The person on the couch - that's the person I want to help." Karl gets out of bed at 4.45am every morning, and he sees his first client at 6am. "Early mornings are a very productive period," he says. "By the time most people hit work at 9am or 10am, I've seen four or five clients and I've beaten the traffic." He also misses rush-hour traffic in the evenings as he tends to work until 7.30pm/8pm at night. It's a demanding weekday schedule, he admits, so he's vigilant about counterbalancing it at the weekend. "I made the decision not to work during the weekends about six years ago. In your 20s, work is everything and then in your 30s you begin to address your work-life balance a little bit."
Nowadays he prefers to spend his weekends in the outdoors with his wife Jean, who works as a GP, and their labradoodle, Sophie. "We're both very active, so we go mountain biking, hiking or running."
Fitness has changed hugely in the last 10 years, he believes. "Every year there is something new - but while it might look new, it's generally just packaged differently. Meanwhile, an element of fitness in Ireland has become hardcore and almost obsessive, which I'm not sure is good. And the people who actually need to get fit are frightened by it."
He points to the rise of Instagram #fitness and the new guard of fitness 'experts' that are emerging on social media. "Everyone is an expert these days," he says. "You just take your phone into the gym and take a picture with a filter that makes you look really good. You'll get the more egotistical ones who take a pop at what you do. I always respond and offer to meet them for coffee, but they never have the balls to meet me." This confidence in his work comes from education and experience. Karl gained his personal trainer diploma before he signed up for a degree in Sports Management in UCD. "After 12 years and somewhere in the region of 18,000 personal training sessions later, you gain confidence. You believe in your process."
At just 35, the personal trainer has added an impressive array of strings to his bow. He's a key member of RTÉ's Operation Transformation crack squad (the show is now in its 10th year), a fitness writer, and a radio regular. What he finds most rewarding, though, is the work he does one-on-one with clients. "This is going to sound very cheesy, but the proudest moments for me have been seeing a change in someone's confidence. I had four or five clients last year who came in and they couldn't look you in the eye. Now, six months later, they come in like they own the place. Their work is improving, their relationships are improving - all because they are happier in themselves.
"My approach is simple but effective, and I know that my four pillars of fitness can work for anyone."
* Read Karl's column every Tuesday in the Irish Independent. Operation Transformation airs on RTÉ One
PILLAR 1: Uncover the real reason you want to lose weight
The fact that it's January isn't reason enough to lose weight. Your reason needs to be deeper than that if you want to stay motivated.
If you watch Operation Transformation, you'll know that psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy does a Circle of Trust exercise at the beginning that is designed to find out why the participants want to lose weight, and why they applied. There is generally a deeply rooted psychological reason.
For instance, there might be a photograph that triggered it, or something a family member or a doctor said. You need that trigger too. Maybe you saw yourself in a photograph taken on Christmas Day and you didn't realise you were that heavy. Maybe you were out of breath while playing with the children on Christmas Eve.
It's like building a house - that's the key foundation. Whenever I meet a new client, the first session is free. We don't do any exercise. We just sit on the couch and chat for 30 to 40 minutes. I want to uncover the reason why they want to lose weight before they spend their money.
Remember, you can only find this reason for yourself. Sure, you can guide a loved one towards finding their trigger, but you can't force them. So today, before you embark on any new year health and fitness plans, take out a pen and paper and write out the real reasons why you want to lose weight.
PILLAR 2: Fail to plan, plan to fail
No matter how busy you are, you have to plan your weight-loss programme. This means planning your training sessions, your food shop and your gear.
Even the seemingly inconsequential stuff needs to be factored in. For example, if you don't have the appropriate rain gear and it starts raining, you're not going to leave the house. You need to turn what we call 'red zones' into healthier 'green zones'. Otherwise you'll just stick with your healthy routine for three to four weeks like everyone else does.
The company you keep can be a red zone too. If you surround yourself with people who sit in the pub all day on Saturday and Sunday, the chances are, you're going to do the same thing yourself. So you need to look beyond this and think towards changing your company by joining a club or gym.
You also have to plan to keep yourself away from temptation. Every Sunday, I sit down for an hour and map out my entire week. I slot in my training schedule, my shopping lists and everything else I want to achieve.
I also write down my goals at the beginning of the year. Writing down your goals means you're more likely to achieve them. It also means you can look back at these goals during the year and remind yourself what it is that you've set out to achieve - and why it is that you're getting out of bed at 6am every morning to train.
PILLAR 3: Weight loss is primarily about changing your diet
If you want to be healthy, you're going to have to change what you eat. Food is 60-70pc of weight loss. There are lots of crazy diets out there - and no doubt there will be a few more out this month - but they don't work in the long term.
Small diet changes, practiced consistently, are always better. I advise people to start their day with hot water and lemon - and perhaps some apple cider vinegar. It kick-starts the system, and it's great for skin, hair and digestion.
Other than that, I only recommend supplements and a good multivitamin if I think a person needs them. I certainly don't recommend protein shakes and bars. It's best to get protein from your daily diet instead.
I also advise my clients to swap white carbohydrates for brown. That's brown rice, brown pasta, brown bread and sweet potatoes. These slow-release carbohydrates keep you fuller for longer. Do your food shop once a week and buy products with a short shelf life that you have to prepare and cook yourself, and carve out time to batch-cook on a Sunday. Keep these dishes in single-portioned containers in the freezer. This way, you always know that there's healthy food on hand - no excuses.
Drink two to three litres of water a day - the easiest way to get your daily fluid intake is to fill up a big bottle in the morning and finish it before you go to bed. Avoid all fizzy drinks which generally have nine teaspoons of sugar in a 330ml can. Flavoured waters and cordials are full of sugar too. Try flavouring your own water with natural ingredients. Mint is the obvious one and cucumber is really yummy. If you have lots of fruit that's about to go off, try dicing it up and let it infuse with water in a jug.
I recommend that my clients enjoy one treat meal a week. Knowing that you have something to look forward to means you're less inclined to break the diet with a binge. If you're going for fast food, make sure it's the healthiest fast food available. Go for a thin-base artisan pizza over a thick doughy one, or an Angus beef burger and sweet potato fries.
Eating out can be a health 'red zone'. As a general rule, try to order protein and vegetables. Think fish and salad or chicken and vegetables. Put your fork and knife down between each mouthful and chew your food properly. If you're drinking alcohol, have a glass of water between every drink. Never leave the house hungry. Take the cinema, for example. If you go on an empty stomach, you'll be more likely to binge. I always get a peppermint tea in a coffee shop, water and a small popcorn if I feel like it.
Finally, instead of going to the nearest shop for your lunch during work, try walking to somewhere with healthier options. Turn your phone off so that you can practice some mindfulness and get some fresh air on the way. You'll come back feeling far more refreshed.
PILLAR 4: Move it to lose it
Energy creates energy. If you're tired all the time and you don't move, the reason you're tired is because you're not moving. Anyone can start to get fit, regardless of age or weight. You simply want to move more, and move more efficiently.
The key thing is that you work to your ability and you don't try to do too much too soon. Start off with walking - it's free and easy to do and you don't have to get out of breath. Or just incorporate a few simple lifestyle changes that increase your daily output of exercise. Get off the bus a stop earlier; stand when you're on the train; take the stairs as opposed to the lift in work.
The airport is fascinating to me. People jump on these massive travelators and just stand there when they could walk alongside it and get to their destination faster.
One of the biggest barriers to health, on a national level, is the perception of cost: people think fitness is expensive. The reality is that health is on your doorstep. Coillte do spectacular walking and hiking trails across Ireland. Just go onto the website, download the map and off you go. Parkruns, which take place in parks around the country, are free too.
Elsewhere, Operation Transformation has a free website with food plans, fitness plans, shopping lists and a weight tracker. Your movement programme should contain cardiovascular exercise, resistance training and some flexibility work. Cardiovascular is anything that gets you out of breath: walking, running, cycling - it doesn't really matter once you're working hard enough to get the benefits. You want to get to the point that you are just about able to hold a conversation.
Resistance training means exercise that uses any form of external resistance - dumbbells, body weight, water bottles - and it will deliver more benefits, bang for buck, than anything else. It produces HGH (Human Growth Hormone), which increases the metabolism and slows down ageing. Resistance training could be as simple as doing squats, press-ups, and tricep dips against a bench. All free and easy - no gym required.
Finally, flexibility work could be stretching, yoga, or Pilates. If you're doing lots of resistance work in the gym but no flexibility, the chances are you're going to pull something at some stage. Likewise, if your exercise routine is largely yoga or Pilates, try incorporating a 20-minute walk to the studio to get your cardio in. If you can get a mixture of these three forms of exercise in a couple of times a week, you'll be rocking your routine.
Make sure you measure something - your waistline, your resting heart rate, your weight - on a regular basis, ideally once a week. This will become your benchmark to track your progress. When you see progress, the chances are that you will stay fitter for longer.