Dan John: Do It and Diet

My good friend, Amy, was telling me something that bothered me: her nutritionist stated flatly that exercise has almost nothing to do with FAT loss. I tried to counter that argument and realized:

I have been wrong. A long time.

It’s true: FAT loss happens in the kitchen. FAT loss happens when you shop, chop, slice and dice.

If you are a personal trainer and you convince all your clients to eat protein and veggies at every meal and drink only water for the next two or three years, you will become the most important name in the fitness industry. Your clients will have unparalleled success in body composition.

And, the exercise we insist upon doing might have little value.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine says it clearly:

“ . . . (M)embers of the public are drowned by an unhelpful message about maintaining a ‘healthy weight’ through calorie counting, and many still wrongly believe that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise. This false perception is rooted in the Food Industry’s Public Relations machinery, which uses tactics chillingly similar to those of big tobacco. The tobacco industry successfully stalled government intervention for 50 years starting from when the first links between smoking and lung cancer were published. This sabotage was achieved using a ‘corporate playbook’ of denial, doubt and confusing the public.

Coca Cola, who spent $3.3 billion on advertising in 2013, pushes a message that ‘all calories count’; they associate their products with sport, suggesting it is ok to consume their drinks as long as you exercise. However, science tells us this is misleading and wrong. It is where the calories come from that is crucial. Sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger.”

Even when you smash the evidence in my face, I still think exercise has a role. But, I have the same blinders everyone else has: I KNOW exercise is “good for you,” so it must help in FAT loss.

But, maybe it doesn’t.

Certainly, we have gone too far claiming exercise incinerates FAT “right off your body.” Now, of course, with various cryotherapy and cold treatments, we use extreme cold to melt fat off the body, so we seem to be going in two directions at once.

At workshops, I spend quality time walking people through a system of approaching training to help people make better choices and save the precious drops of self-discipline so we can focus on better food choices.

Then, about half way through the talk . . .

The hands go up. I know what the question is going to be; it’s always the same question. It’s about FAT loss.

But first, let’s rewind and pick up at the beginning of the talk. I use a system that I discuss in Now What?, my attempt to teach people the keys to successful performance.

That last word, “performance,” is the first of many issues. The key issue can be summed like this: Steno Symbols.

In Religious Studies, we use the term “steno” to explain a word, concept or phrase that has ONE meaning. It’s so common, so much a part of our lives, you might not even notice it. If you say someone is very “chair,” most of us will stop and say: “Pardon me . . . what?” We have all had the experience of hearing about Bob and suddenly become terribly worried, only to discover that the person was talking about another Bob . . . not the one you were thinking about originally.

Since Arnold, weightlifting has become bodybuilding. If you tell someone “I Olympic lift,” they will “make a muscle” with their right arm. That’s a Steno symbol.

So, when I talk about health, longevity, fitness and performance, most people have the preconceived notion that I am talking about this “Bob,” but, in truth, I am talking about another Bob. I’m an O lifter, but people hear “Mr. Universe.”

Health, and I use the definition from Phil Maffetone, is the optimal interplay of the organs. If you are disease-free and your blood profile numbers are lined up well, you are basically healthy.

And . . . that’s it. Health doesn’t mean six-pack abs or slamming over a seven-footer. It means your body is doing its thing . . . well.

Longevity is an issue of both quality and quantity. Most people focus on a number, like living to 100 years or more. The longer I see friends and family endure the ravages of life-ending illnesses, the more I realize that quality of life is far more important than the final number. As we often say in grief therapy, there is going to be something on your grave:

Your name followed by your birth year and the year of your death.

Let’s look at mine:

And, the key, of course, is that hyphen, the “–,” that tells the story of your life. Longevity is both quality and quantity.

Next, I discuss fitness. “Fit” comes from the Old Nordic word “to knit.” I believe strongly that a “fit person” is well knitted. Well knitted in:

Social life,
Mental health,
Financial status, and
Community and personal matters.

Fitness is simply the ability to do a task, as we learned from Darwin. If the task is sitting in a chair watching TV, many of us are fit.

Performers perform. The lights come on, your name is called and you perform. It can be a sport, a song, a dance or “fill in the blank.” Failure is public; success is passing. Tomorrow, someone better is going to be trying to get you knocked off the pedestal.

I have tools to help you. Shark Habits, “one bite and its gone,” deals with everything that comes along that is a binary decision:

Off/On . . . Yes/No . . . Choose . . . Check the Box. Then, move on.

I use Shark Habits in every aspect of life. These are my most basic:

16 of the exact same Polo shirt
Six pairs of Barbell jeans
Six pairs of Nike Frees
Open an email, answer it.
Open mail, deal with it.
Shopping list/menu
Household chores lists

I don’t spend ANY time thinking about what to wear. It’s a black polo and jeans day . . . every day. While others are sorting through the closet, Bruce the Shark, “Jaws,” showed up and gave me my outfit. I don’t use any brain space to make decisions.

For ongoing things that are important to me, I use Pirate Maps. This is Pat Flynn’s term for a simple idea: instead of a long, drawn out discourse, imagine a pirate map:

Go to St. John’s Island. Find the white coconut tree and walk five paces west. Dig down six feet. Find the buried treasure.


For most people, I give them this pirate map:

  1. Honor your sleep ritual. (Make coffee, supps)

Then Sleep!

  1. Fast and focus (Be grateful and drink coffee!)

Eliminate (To do list!)
Exercise: Fundamental Human Movement; Sport Training, Walking, Whatever.
Eat: Like an adult (Protein, Veggies, Water)

  1. Repeat 3 E
  2. Then, Three Ls:


My personal goal, to dance at my granddaughter’s wedding, involves this pirate map:

  1. Sleep ritual: Make coffee for the morning. Supplements. Make tomorrow’s To Do List (from Robb Wolf)
  2. Wake up and be grateful. (Pat Flynn)
  3. One Moment Meditation (App on iPhone)
  4. Daily work on Original Strength and Easy Strength (Tim Anderson); Ruck once a week (Mike Prevost); Hypertrophy and 30/30 as often as appropriate.
  5. Eat eight different veggies a day. (Josh Hillis)
  6. Live, Laugh, Love

People are always asking me about peaking, planning and programming. I can’t explain it well enough, so here:

I rarely see programs finished, peaks peaked or plans followed. So, I just stick to pirate maps and let the day-to-day success bring me to where I need to be for my goal.

As I often repeat to my audiences, I use Jim Gaffigan’s Mexican Food solution for programming:

“Mexican food’s great, but it’s essentially all the same ingredients, so there’s a way you’d have to deal with all these stupid questions. “What is nachos?” “…Nachos? It’s tortilla with cheese, meat, and vegetables.” “Oh, well then what is a burrito?” “Tortilla with cheese, meat, and vegetables.” “Well then what is a tostada?” “Tortilla with cheese, meat, and vegetables.” “Well then what i-” “Look, it’s all the same s–! Why don’t you say a Spanish word and I’ll bring you something.”

For you, YES, VERY special program, just for YOU: Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat, Loaded Carry and Something Else!

Yes: Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat, Loaded Carry and Something Else!

Well, of course: Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat, Loaded Carry and Something Else!

Oddly, this is true in so much of life. I argue that the Four Fs—Finance, Fitness, Food and Relationships (crude joke alert!)—all come down to the same “truths:”

Little and often over the long haul
Focus on quality
Foundations first
Master the basics

I use these tools in training for performance. Basically, it works like this:

  1. We focus on performance . . . achieving the goal under the spotlight.
  2. Shark Habits empty the brain pan of “stuff.”
  3. Pirate Maps, for most athletes are about five items . . . at MOST.
  4. Programs . . . well, they are the path to ONE MOMENT!!! (Saturday, June 7, 9 am, Seattle)
  5. Principles are the focus . . . the one who masters the principles wins.

Principles comes from the root “to take first.” In my world, it is very simple. As a throws coach, “Throw far” is the principle. Whatever works, works. We focus on repetitions, we focus on arousal control and we strive for perfect technique and a lot of strength.

For American football, John Heisman taught us “block, tackle and fall on the ball.” It really hasn’t changed since he wrote that in 1931.

This is why it is so easy to have my job, to be a strength coach. Basically, these are the principles:

  1. Standards (Simply, are they up to standard?)
  2. Gaps (Are you doing push, pull, hinge, squat, loaded carry and sixth movement?)

“Everything Else” comes from the actual sport work.

And, then the hands go up . . .“Um, what about FAT loss???

We all knew this was coming!

FAT loss is number one . . . with most people, most conversations. It is the background buzz of this millennium so far.

Actually, that’s not true. Most people only talk about weight loss. That’s why I use “all caps” talking about FAT loss. I tell people all the time when they ask me about weight loss: let me cut off your leg.

You WILL lose weight!!!

If you want to make money in the fitness industry, make FAT loss claims. Sell FAT loss. FAT loss is a mine of pure gold. Chocolate-covered gold.

I repeat this story often. Art De Vany was giving a workshop and, of course, a hand went up: how do you get rid of FAT?

Art De Vany: “Don’t get FAT in the first place!”

Fat accumulation is due to too many food choices, too many carbs, too many calories, and a business industry and body designed to want to eat more . . . and more . . . when food is available.

FAT loss happens in the kitchen.

FAT loss is not burpees, lunges or “go for the burn.”

De Vany was right. And, the audience wanted to kill him.

Recently, I was at a conference in Norway and the nutritionists trotted out study after study that ruined the day(s). The research is, at best, disheartening. The obesity crisis is just beginning to show the cost in both human life (and lifestyle) and the soaring financial issues.

So, how do we get rid of FAT? There are three ways of looking at it.

First, the “FAT loss happens in the kitchen” position. It is usually stated as: “95% of fat loss is nutritional.” This is what my friend, Amy, learned and I actually have a hard time defending exercise . . . which is what I will be doing in just a moment.

Let me add one thing and this is the truth: “It’s not what you eat, it’s what you ATE.”

Second, let’s just call this “Our experience:” some kind of caloric restriction and inefficient exercise. I agree with most modern nutritionists here: all diets work. Wait, check that: adherence to all diets works. Next, when it comes to exercise, not being able to float, glide or roll is the key. To get exercise to “burn fat” is to find those things that are not easy, not smooth. Be as inefficient as possible.

Third, contact my friend, Josh Hillis. Here is what he taught me:

  1. Food journal
  2. Lifting weights up to a standard

Listen: It’s habits. It’s always habits. I call them shark habits and pirate maps and everyone thinks I am joking. I am telling you, and this might hurt, your habits got you FAT.

Mastering a food journal shows you “It’s not what you eat, it’s what you ATE.”

Lifting weights up to a standard (a certain weight or goal) requires repetition.

Everything in life is habits. Knowing the root of the word “habit” might help: It was originally the clothes you wear. I wear a black polo and blue jeans EVERY day. That habit, wearing my habit, makes it easier to follow my other habits.

I make it a habit to try to make puns in everything I say or write.

When it comes to eating, I always want to answer first: “Seriously?”

I stand by four words: Eat like an adult!

There, that’s enough. For details, eat the following: veggies and lean protein. Drink water. Train in a fasted state sometimes. “Stay hungry” after meals sometimes.

That’s about it!

So, I came up with a way to help people understand the role of exercise and nutrition:

Do It! and Diet

For health, the “Do It” list is quite short: see your doctor annually, your eye doctor annually and your dentist two to three times a year. I also donate blood and get a “mini-physical” every time I volunteer. Diet? Eat like an adult.

Yup. That’s it.

For longevity, the “Do It” list swells a bit. The research—see Bill Guillford’s amazing book, Spring Chicken, for details—it isn’t unbearable:

Do 100 minutes of exercise a week
Do fast . . . on occasion.
Do wear seat belts and helmets
Do learn to fall and recover
Let me add one “Don’t” for the Do It: Don’t TRY to be stupid!

Diet seems to be a factor in longevity, but it comes down to veggies again. Eat like an adult. Now, yes, it is true that coffee and red wine might be helpful for longevity, as well as the prescription drug, Metformin, but your DNA and life-long habits of good choices are probably more important.

For fitness, be careful of decision fatigue. If you have a task you need to do, find the quickest, most efficient path toward the completion of the task. I would ask someone who has done it for feedback and advice. Don’t try a million things, stick to the foundations, the basics. For diet, stick to eating like an adult. Stick to it.

For performance, focus on the principles, literally, “prin” comes from the root for first and “ciple” is from the same root as capture. Principles allow you to “take first.” Find the keys to your task and repeat them, repeat them, repeat them.

Diet, by the way, simply doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t matter. If it does, like physique contests and the like, you better have this dialed in. Sorry . . . it is that simple.

So, yes, Amy’s nutritional coach is right. Put your hands down because “No,” I don’t have an exercise solution for FAT loss. At best, five percent of FAT loss success will come from the gym, pool or track.

For the FAT loss client, there are two truths:

  • It’s not what you are going to eat, it’s what you ate.
  • FAT loss happens in the kitchen.

Except that this is NOT true. As little as TWO weeks with less exercise (not none) changed people’s system to pre-diabetic conditions. The New York Times recently reported this about a fascinating short-term study:

The subjects were healthy adults who normally walked about 10,000 steps a day. For two weeks they had to limit their steps to 2,000, then return to their regular 10,000 routine.

“The results proved to be consistent if worrisome. The volunteers almost all had developed what the scientists called “metabolic derangements” during their two weeks of being still. Their blood sugar levels had risen, insulin sensitivity declined, cholesterol profiles become less healthy, and they had lost a little muscle mass in their legs while gaining fat around their abdomens.”

“Thankfully, most of these derangements were reversed once the men and women became active again.”

“But for unknown reasons, a few of the volunteers did not return to quite the same level of exercise they had engaged in before. They now completed fewer minutes of vigorous activity each week than previously and had some slight but lasting symptoms of insulin resistance, even after two weeks of moving normally.”

 Folks, “metabolic derangements” might be the best phrase ever. This is why exercise should NOT be shunted to the back alleys of FAT loss. Exercise does so much more than just “burn calories.”

A follow-up study with only participants over 65 years proved even more frightening:

“Like the adults in the other study, these older volunteers quickly developed worse blood sugar control during their two weeks of barely moving. Insulin resistance climbed. Some developed changes in muscle tissue indicating that they might soon begin to lose muscle mass, and a few had to be removed from the study because they had edged into full-blown Type 2 diabetes after becoming inactive.”

I’m not sure it can be clearer: The role of exercise in FAT loss is to save us from metabolic derangements. Exercise is a key to keeping the body’s systems from descending into disease.

So, YES! Yes, exercise plays a MIGHTY role in FAT loss.

If you can remember these two pillars:

Don’t get FAT in the first place.
It’s not what you eat, it is what you ATE.

And, like many of us, if you do “wake up FAT one day,” follow this sane advice:

Find a way of eating you can stick to for the rest of your life. All diets work; adherence is the key. Find a way of eating that fits your life, your habits, and your world view.

Exercise, as simple as daily walking, is going to keep you from metabolic derangements. I’m not sure there are enough exclamation points to highlight this point.

So, put your hands down, stand up and walk out the door. Find a café 5,000 steps away and order a veggie omelet with a side salad. Depending on the time of day, have coffee or red wine. Enjoy the meal and walk home.


Exercise HAS a role in FAT loss.

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