🦠 Coronavirus: managing your training and nutrition

I’m currently typing this email on my sanitised keyboard while sitting atop a throne of toilet roll in my secure fortress guarded by a three-headed dog called Fluffy. I’ve seen World War Z, I know how this ends.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, you already know the world is getting completely hammered by this Coronavirus and everyone’s life has been thrown into disarray.

I sent out a guide to my clients and members explaining how to manage their nutrition, training, lifestyle etc. a few days ago and I decided to send it out to everyone on my email list.

In this guide I’ll be covering:

  • Managing your nutrition
    • Adjusting the diet?
    • Your food environment
    • Dealing with stress/boredom eating
    • Food items to stock up on
    • Supplements?
  • Managing your training
    • How to adjust your training for bodyweight workouts
    • How to adjust your training for DB only workouts
    • Muscle/strength loss concerns
    • Equipment to buy
  • Lifestyle
    • Sleep
    • Routine
    • Stay connected
  • Resources

Before we get started: you should really subscribe to my weekly emails – it’s where I’m sending the majority of my new content and it’s the best way to stay up to date with everything Physiqonomics. You can subscribe here.


1. Managing your nutrition

The silver lining to all of this is most of you are self-isolating which means you’ll have more control over your diet than before.

A lot of you have asked if you should adjust your diet, here are my recommendations.

  • If you’re currently in a fat loss phase, this is going to be a great time to buckle down and focus on that. Though, this isn’t the time to diet aggressively. I’d recommend no more than a ~10% deficit. The more restrictive your diet, the more you risk missing out on important vitamins and minerals that will help maintain your immune system (more on this later).
  • If you’re currently trying to build muscle and only doing bodyweight workouts, I’d recommend reducing the surplus to no more than 100-200kcal above maintenance. It may even be worth dropping calories down to maintenance intake to prevent any excess fat gain.
  • If you’re still weight training because you have a home gym or strength training equipment at home, you can ignore this and continue as normal.

Your food environment

While you have more control over your diet, the fact you’re stuck at home means more opportunities to eat. So here’s some advice on managing that.

• Don’t buy foods you know you can’t control yourself around

This one is obvious and you’ve heard me mention it numerous times, but I’m going to say it again: don’t buy any foods you know you won’t be able to moderate.

If, for whatever reason, you have to keep high-calorie, hyper-palatable foods in the house, do this: Take them out of the packaging and keep them in an opaque jar and keep that jar out of sight. Food packaging plays a huge role in association and driving us to eat.

This is why we immediately recognise our favourite foods at the grocery store and why bright packaging catches our attention. By removing the trigger (packaging) you also remove the association, and this can help reduce chances of consumption.

Alternatively, put any tempting foods in the freezer. This way, if you want to eat them you’ll have to wait for them to thaw and this introduces a ‘pattern interrupt’, stopping you from acting on impulse. The thought of having to take them out of the freezer and then wait for them to thaw, more often than not, stops you from even bothering in the first place.

• Try this rule for snacks

If you find you’re constantly snacking, use this rule: every time you want to eat a snack it has to be either high-protein (e.g., Greek yoghurt or turkey slices) or a piece of fruit (or both).

This stops you from mindlessly reaching for snacks because you have to stop and think about what you’ll be eating to fit the criteria above.

Additionally, because you’ll be eating protein + fibre (from the fruit) and these foods are lower in calories, you’ll consume fewer calories while feeling satiated.

In one study, when participants consumed a high protein snack (Greek yoghurt) versus a high-fat snack (crackers) after lunch, they reported increased feelings of fullness and consumed 100 fewer calories at dinner. (1)


Dealing with stress/boredom eating

This is something a lot of you might be struggling with. Here are some things you can do to help.

1. Don’t keep high-calorie, tempting foods in the house

Instead, keep lower-calorie, ‘healthy’ foods in the house like fruit and vegetables (e.g., mini carrots). This way, if you want to eat something you have no choice but to eat the healthier stuff.

2. Don’t sit at home bored thinking about food

If you’re at home and you’re feeling a craving–get out of the house and go do an activity. For example, go for a long walk; do some ‘active recovery’ like foam rolling and stretching. Read a book. Learn a new skill or language.

The less time you spend bored, the more you reduce the chances of (over)eating.

2. Engage in something entertaining

If your country is currently in lockdown then you probably won’t be able to get out of the house. In this case, do things that keep you entertained that aren’t food-related.

Play board games (or video games) with your friends and family. Puzzles. Watch a new Netflix series or, as I’m planning to do, rewatch all the Marvel movies…then have an existential breakdown upon realising we’re all stuck in a shitty Marvel movie and there’s no super genius like Tony Stark to save us.

There’s an interesting study that found playing Tetris for as little as three minutes at a time weakened cravings for drugs, food and activities such as sex and sleeping by approximately one fifth. (2)

Now, I haven’t tried this, but it is interesting and makes sense. If you’re bored and the only way to entertain yourself is through food then you’re more likely to give in to the craving and raid the fridge. Alternatively, if you’re engaging in something entertaining that occupies your time and attention–you’re less likely to think about food.

3. Mindfulness

When I say mindfulness I mean stopping and thinking about why you’re craving a particular food. Are you ACTUALLY hungry right now or are you simply eating because there’s nothing else to do?

Chances are it’s the latter.

This isn’t easy, but stopping and really reflecting on why you’re feeling a certain way ‘interrupts’ the thought pattern of wanting to eat. And if you can interrupt the thought pattern, you can remind yourself to go do something else instead.


Food items to stock up on

Here are some unperishable food items you can look to stock up on. This is only worse case but seeing some people are treating this as a zombie apocalypse and raiding the stores it might be worth stocking up anyway.

⚠️Note: this doesn’t mean you go out and start buying everything on the damn shelves. Get enough for two weeks and when you run out, order more or go out and buy more food. By stockpiling a bunch of food you’re making it harder for others, especially the elderly. THINK OF GRANDMA, GODDAMIT.

  • Canned meats/fish ​
  • Canned beans, lentils, etc ​
  • Canned fruit ​
  • Canned soups (some are fairly high in protein. For example I did a Google search and found the Heinz Chicken and Vegetable Big Soup contained ~12g protein and only 200 calories per can) ​
  • Jerky (something like this) ​
  • Frozen fruits ​
  • Frozen vegetables ​
  • Nuts and seeds ​
  • Nut butters ​(all kinds)
  • Oats ​
  • Rice (rice and beans = high protein meal) ​
  • Protein powders (whey, casein, plant-based etc.) ​
  • Protein bars ​
  • Pasta ​
  • Popcorn (unsweetened/unsalted) ​
  • Rice cakes

And of course, you can always buy meat in bulk and freeze it. In fact, it’s a good idea to cook a few meals in bulk using simple ingredients (e.g., carb source like rice + protein source like chicken) and freezing these meals.


Supplements?

The number of bullshit posts I’ve seen on Instagram these last few weeks about magical foods, diets, and ‘natural health supplements’ to help boost your immune system and protect you against Coronavirus is too damn high!

To be clear: there is no food, diet, or supplement that will prevent you from catching the virus or treating the virus if you’ve caught it.

However, you can help ‘maintain’ your immune system. The International Society of Immunonutrition shared these guidelines:

The general advice is to eat a diverse and well-balanced diet rich in coloured fruit and vegetables (to increase the intake of antioxidant and associated nutrients) to support immune function.

Specific advice in relation to the elderly is to increase the intake of Vitamin E (134 mg – 800 mg/day), Zinc (30 mg – 220 mg/day), Vitamin C (200 mg – 2 g/day) and particularly for those people with low serum vitamin D status, Vitamin D (10 μg – 100 μg/day).

These nutrients have been shown to enhance T cell and B cell (antibody) immunity in human studies including in the elderly. There is no specific evidence these nutritional measures can help protect against, or even lessen the effects, of, COVID-19 infection.

However, it does make pragmatic sense to support nutritionally both normal health and the immune system (with doses unlikely to be harmful) before, during and after COVID-19 infection.

So, your nutrition shouldn’t really change from what you already should be doing: eating a diet that consists of whole, nutrient-rich foods with lots of fruits and vegetables and keeping the heavily processed foods to a minimum.

Of course, it may not be easy to get all of these nutrients from food (e.g., vitamin D) so you can supplement where needed.

Oh, and wash your damn hands and social distance as much as you can. These two things will do more to protect you than anything else.


2. Managing your training

While nutrition won’t be affected that much, training is where you’re going to struggle because most gyms will be closed.

Here’s how to adjust your training.

How to adjust your training for bodyweight workouts

If you don’t have a home gym or access to strength training equipment, then you’ll have to use your body weight as the resistance.

There are myriad ways you can program a bodyweight workout, but I like to use circuits as they increase the intensity of the workout.

For example, someone who’s fairly fit won’t benefit much from doing three sets of 12 reps of bodyweight squats with a 2-3 minute rest in between sets.

But pair bodyweight squats with two or three other exercises back-to-back and suddenly it’s a lot more challenging.

To help illustrate this, here’s a simple full-body workout using weights:

  • Back squats – 3 (sets) x 6 (reps)
  • BB bench press – 3 x 6
  • BB bent over row – 3 x 8
  • (A1) DB lateral raises – 3 x 12
  • (A2) Face pulls – 3 x 12
  • (B1) DB curls – 3 x 12
  • (B2) Tricep press down – 3 x 12

*A1/A2; B1/B2 = supersets (two exercises done back to back with no rest)

To turn this into a bodyweight workout, we can do something like this:

  • A1. Bodyweight (BW) squats or BW Bulgarian split squats if BW squats are too easy – 15 reps
  • A2. Push up – as many reps as you can
  • A3. Inverted rows (using towel or bed sheet) – 12-15
  • A4. Pike push up (to replace lateral raises) – as many reps as you can
  • A5. Chin up (or assisted chin up using band or chair) – 5-8 reps
  • A6. Close-grip push up – as many reps as you can

You’ll perform each exercise as a circuit: on completion of the prescribed reps you’ll move to the next workout in the sequence with no rest. Once you’ve finished the circuit, rest for 2-3 mins and repeat the entire circuit again for 2-5 rounds.


Want bodyweight workouts? I created a selection of bodyweight workouts for my clients and members. If you want me to send them to you, just pop your best email address in the form below to get them.


How to adjust your training for DB-only workouts

If you have DBs available then you can adjust your workouts very easily by replacing any BB movements with a DB alternative.

For example, instead of the BB bench press you can do DB floor press (or DB bench press if you have a bench).

Instead of BB back squats, you can do DB front squats or DB goblet squats.

One of the issues you may run into using DBs is the lack of weight. For example, I have a set of adjustable DBs at home but they only go up to 25kg (55lbs).

While this is fine for a lot of the accessory exercises, it isn’t enough weight for a lot of the compound movements like one-arm rows, goblet squats, shoulder press, or DB bench press.

So what I’ve been doing is performing tri-sets by picking:

  • One push (vertical or horizontal) exercise
  • One pull (vertical or horizontal) exercise
  • One quad-dominant exercise, and
  • One hamstring/glute-dominant exercise

And doing them in succession with no rest.

Here’s an example of a full-body workout using this method.

>> Circuit 1:

  • A1. DB floor press – 12-15 reps
  • A2. Pull up (or assisted pull up using bands or a chair) – 10-12 reps
  • A3. Goblet squats – 12-15 reps

Go through the entire circuit once and rest for 2-3 mins before repeating the circuit again for 2-4 rounds.

Once you’ve completed all the rounds, rest for 2-3 mins before moving onto circuit 2 below.

>> Circuit 2:

  • DB lateral raises – 15-20 reps
  • DB Romanian deadlift – 12-15 reps
  • Reverse crunch – 3 x 12-15 reps

Go through the entire circuit once and rest for 2-3 mins before repeating the circuit again for 2-4 rounds.

Then in the second workout, you’ll change the exercises slightly. If you performed a horizontal push exercise in the first workout, you’d perform a vertical push exercise in the second workout.

Example:

>> Circuit 1:

  • A1. DB shoulder press – 12-15 reps
  • A2. DB standing rows – 12-15 reps
  • A3. DB deadlifts – 12-15 reps

>> Circuit 2:

  • DB split squats – 10-12 reps per leg
  • Push up – as many reps as possible
  • DB frog pump – 3 x 12-15 reps

Then depending on how many times you train, you’ll just pick different exercises for each movement pattern at each workout.


Muscle and strength loss concerns

A lot of you have emailed me expressing concerns about losing muscle. However, you don’t have anything to worry about because you won’t lose muscle that quickly.

For instance, it can take about 2-6 weeks for actual muscle loss to occur when someone stops training completely (3, 4, 5, 6). But because you’ll still be training (even if it’s just bodyweight) and providing your body with a stimulus, your body won’t burn off your muscles.

Further, we know even higher reps can build muscle as long as the intensity is sufficient enough–i.e., how close you go to failure.

Schoenfeld et al., 2017 found sets as high as 40 reps (!) built muscle just as effectively as those sets done between 6-12 reps as long as they were taken to failure.

Two practical ways to implement this:

  • Bodyweight: do each exercise for as many reps as you can going to complete failure. If an exercise is too easy, increase the difficulty. For example, instead of bodyweight squats, you can do BW single-leg squats. Instead of normal push ups, you can do decline push ups.
  • DB-only: do as many reps as you can, while maintaining good form, stopping 1 rep from complete failure on compound movements (like shoulder press or DB front squats) and taking accessory movements (like bicep curls or lateral raises) to complete failure.

Other ways to increase the difficulty of an exercise:

  • Use a slower tempo: so instead of lifting the weight up and down as quickly as you can, try a 3-4 second eccentric (lowering portion of the exercise). If you’re doing bodyweight exercises, you can use the same rule. Push up as quickly as you can, then take 3-4 seconds to come back to the bottom of the exercise.
  • Reduce the rest times between sets (or circuits): by reducing the amount of time you rest between exercises you increase fatigue which increases how difficult an exercise feels. For example, doing 20 push ups and resting only 15 seconds is far more difficult than if you had rested for 2 mins between sets. This is why I like to use circuits when programming bodyweight training. 10 pull ups on their own may not be too difficult for a trained lifter, but 10 pull ups followed by 20 push ups and 15-20 rep bodyweight Bulgarian split squats is fairly difficult.

You will lose some strength if you’re only doing bodyweight or DB workouts but this can be regained very quickly once you get back to your normal routine and it’s not something you should stress about. Because, to be frank, there’s more important shit going on than your 1 rep max, Bob.

The good thing is, the volume needed to maintain muscle mass is far less than needed to build muscle mass. You can reduce training volume by up to 85% and still maintain your muscle. (I’ve discussed the studies in this article.)

As long as you’re training in some form and eating adequate protein (0.6-1g/lb) – you’ll be ok.


Equipment to buy

You obviously don’t have to buy any equipment if you don’t want to. But, seeing we might be in this situation for a while it’s probably worth considering.

Here are some suggestions if you do plan on picking up some equipment.

  • Resistance bands: these are fairly cheap and give you more options for the exercises you can perform.
  • Adjustable DBs: these can be pretty expensive but if you have the money, they’re a great way to continue strength training.
  • Pull up bar

3. Lifestyle

As important as staying healthy and fit is right now, it’s important to remember that ‘health’ extends beyond just eating some veggies and exercising. Here are some other things worth paying attention to.

Sleep

A lack of sleep can disrupt your immune system which is the last thing you want right now. And seeing that most people are now working from home, this is the perfect time to start creating healthy sleep habits.

Set a routine

If you’ve gone from working a 9-5 to now being home all day, you’re going to struggle without a routine.

So establish a routine and stick to it. If possible, try to keep your routine as close to normal as possible. Meaning:

  • Wake up at the same time you would if you were going to work.
  • Eat your meals at the same time.
  • Schedule your workout just like you would if you were at work.
  • Go to bed at the same time.
  • Etc.

In times like this where there’s so much uncertainty, having a regular routine will help give you some peace of mind and control at a time where everything else is so up in the air.

Keep connected with your loved ones, especially the elderly.

This is a weird time for all of us and even though most of us are self-isolating, thanks to technology we can keep in touch with friends and family to make sure everyone’s ok.

Make sure you’re reaching out to any elderly family members who may be living alone and are worried about all of this.

If you live on your own, reach out to friends and family – loneliness sucks and having people to talk to is super important. Do your best to stay connected so you’re not going through this by yourself.


Resources

  • This was a really good podcast with Michael Osterholm, an infectious-disease expert. You can also view a transcript of the interview here. ​

•••

We’re going to get through this because we always do.

One of the amazing things about humans is that we’re a bunch of resilient motherfuckers. Stuff like this has constantly happened throughout history, today it’s a virus, yesterday it was something else.

But we’re still here. And despite how uncertain things are right now, we will get through it because we always do.

Keep doing what you can to keep yourself, your family, and your community safe. Listen to the experts and follow their advice. Take the appropriate measures but don’t panic or freak out. In times like this, the best thing any of us can do is to remain as calm as possible.

–Aa