June 2014 Issue

Men’s Fitness — Tips for Male Clients on How to Get Fit When Time Is Tight
By David Yeager
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 16 No. 6 P. 38

Most men don’t spend much time thinking about their health. Unless their doctor tells them to get their blood pressure under control, lower their cholesterol, or drop a few pounds, they see no need for concern. In some cases, a doctor’s warning isn’t even enough to spur them to action. “Exercise? Maybe when I find the time,” you might have heard some male clients say. “Change my diet? Not unless it’s a matter of life and death.” Unfortunately, epidemiologic evidence shows that regular exercise and eating healthfully is a matter of life and death.

Heart disease and cancer account for nearly one-half of all male deaths in the United States.1 Obesity, a significant risk factor for heart disease, many cancers, and type 2 diabetes, among other ills, now affects one-third of American men.2-4 In addition to controlling weight, strengthening bones and muscles, improving mood, preventing falls, and lengthening life spans, regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of these diseases and others.5 So why don’t more men do it?

For most, time is not on their side. Work, family, and social responsibilities pile up, and diet and exercise often take a back seat. Ask any fitness trainer, though, and they’ll tell you that it’s less a matter of finding time than making time.

“It has to be intentional,” says Eric Paul Meredith, MS, RD, LDN, CPT, a fitness and nutrition consultant in Chicago. “People need to find some motivation to exercise, and they shouldn’t wait for the doctor to tell them to do it. Motivation is an important aspect of exercise; people make time for things that they want to do.”

You Can Lead a Horse to Water…
Because the body deteriorates with age, doing something to slow that process should be a no-brainer for clients, but many offer excuses for not exercising. Time generally is the most cited, but other common reasons include lack of know-how, support, and access to equipment. Meredith says all of these issues easily can be overcome.

Aside from working with a trainer at the local gym, he says there are plenty of ways men can learn how to get and stay fit. Many books, magazine articles, DVDs, and YouTube videos have flooded the booming fitness market in the past decade. If male clients want to know how to do a burpee, they can YouTube it and watch various trainers and fitness enthusiasts demonstrate their favorite variation. If they’re thinking about competing in a triathlon, they can find various training regimens that athletes and coaches have posted on the Web, Meredith says.

One way male clients can get and stay motivated is to find a gym buddy or two. Each gym buddy can hold the other accountable for working out. That type of positive social pressure can be a powerful force, he adds.

Lack of resources need not be a hurdle, either. Many gyms now offer discounted rates or very low monthly fees without requiring a multimonth commitment. For those who prefer to stay at home, exercise videos and body-weight exercises can be as effective as pumping iron or sweating it out on an elliptical machine. Meredith says that boxers and the military have been using body-weight training for years with great success. Throw in a set of dumbbells or some fitness bands, and there’s no reason a person can’t get a workout at home that’s every bit as effective as a gym workout, he explains.

The key for male clients, Meredith says, is to find an activity they like. If clients don’t like running, boxing, or calisthenics, they won’t stick with it for long. It’s also important for them to determine a baseline fitness level. Confidence is a significant component of exercise. If clients feel they can’t do what a trainer asks, they’ll soon begin to avoid exercise altogether, Meredith says.

Overcoming obstacles is only part of the equation, though. Most men need a reason to exercise. And while there are many reasons, having a measureable goal is the best way to ensure they keep doing it. Some may choose to exercise to compete in an athletic event (eg, Tough Mudders, 5K, triathlon, marathon), recover from an injury, shed belly fat, or simply lower cholesterol. Determining these motivating factors requires active listening, so the most effective trainers are more than just instructors but counselors as well.

“When I discuss goals with a client, he may initially say, ‘I want to improve my health,’ but this is not a goal that a male client will be motivated by,” says Demetrius J. Willis, MS, MBA, RD, LD, CPT, a program developer for the Lake County, Illinois, health department and a private fitness and nutrition consultant. “As we discuss the real issues and what brought him to the gym, then we can set specific goals regarding endurance, strength, lab test values, ability, or look. These are motivating topics and goals.”

Shorter the Better
Whether it’s a sign of the times or the realization that two-hour workouts are unnecessary for all but the most hardcore athletes, shorter workouts are becoming a growing trend. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise five days per week or 25 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise three days per week plus two days per week of moderate- to high-intensity muscle strengthening for overall cardiovascular health.6 Popular fitness franchises such as P90X and INSANITY even have developed shorter workouts, including P90X3 and Focus T25, for the time challenged.

The trainers interviewed for this article agree that one hour is the optimum amount of time for a workout, but that doesn’t mean people can’t benefit from shorter workouts. What people do with the time is what counts. Exercise results largely are determined by intensity.

“With 30 minutes, it’s not like you’re cutting your workout in half and you’re leaving the other half for another day,” Meredith says. “You’re basically taking all of the work you do—making sure you don’t do anything to injure yourself, of course—putting in the same number of reps, the same number of sets, but finding a way to condense it. Some people would think that would be harmful, but it’s actually helpful for you to take the same workout you’ve done in 45 minutes to an hour and put it into 30 minutes. To me, that’s probably as effective as, if not more effective than, working out for an hour.”

Some male clients may believe that strength and cardiovascular training are mutually exclusive, but condensed workouts that hit all of the major muscle groups can effectively accomplish both tasks. Exercises that use only body weight or a set of dumbbells can provide the necessary intensity, Meredith says.

Ask trainers what’s the best single exercise for working the entire body, and their answer likely will be burpees. For those clients who fondly (or not-so-fondly) remember squat thrusts from gym class, the burpee is the squat thrust’s muscular older brother. Although burpee variants are limited only by the imagination, the basic form is as follows: From a standing position, place the hands flat on the floor in front of the feet, throw the legs back to full extension, do a push-up, bring the knees back to the chest, stand up, jump, repeat. This exercise works nearly all of the major muscle groups in the body while providing a significant cardiovascular workout.

Planks are another effective exercise, according to the trainers interviewed here. In their simplest form, planks have two variations: high (full) and low (elbow). Picture a person in push-up position; this is the high plank position. Put the hands in front and weight on the elbows, and it becomes the low plank position.

Planks often are held for a period of time, with multiple repetitions in a set, but the plank position also can be used as a base for plank jacks, which basically is pushing the lower body off the ground with the legs and abdominal muscles, landing on the toes with feet apart, pushing off the ground again, and landing on the toes with feet together.

Planks are performed to build “core” strength, which is the term given to the muscle groups of the abdomen and lower back. From a high plank position, a person also can do mountain climbers. For this exercise, one knee, then the other, is brought to the chest in an up-and-down motion for a prescribed number of repetitions. This works not only the core muscles but also most of the muscles in the legs.

Other exercises that produce results are old-fashioned push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges. Exercises can be done in a circuit, one after the other, with minimal to no rest between them, or they can be done as supersets, essentially a circuit but with fewer exercises, no rest, and more sets.

Meredith says another useful training protocol is the Tabata Method. This method requires a person to work hard for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, then repeat for a prescribed number of rounds.

The good news is that not all of these exercises must be done during every workout. In fact, it’s better if they’re not; variation is an important part of an effective exercise program. Without regular variation, the body reaches a plateau, a point at which the rate of exercise-induced change begins to slow down.

“Almost anything works for a beginner or someone who’s been inactive for a while, but everybody plateaus eventually, so you want to avoid that by changing things up periodically,” says Jay Repko, ISSA-CPT, NSPA-CPT, a personal trainer who works with clients at multiple fitness centers in southeastern Pennsylvania. “I see so many people who come in at the same time on the same days of the week and do the same routine every time. And they never really change their appearance because your body is smart; it knows what to expect and it adjusts. If you want to stay with something that’s working, that’s fine, but at the first hint that you’re not seeing the changes you want or you’re feeling sluggish and sore, you need to change it up.”

Boredom is another reason clients need to include variation. A workout that seemed terrific at the outset can become stale after five or six weeks. New challenges are one way to keep the mind and body engaged, and this is an area where trainers can be especially helpful for men.

“In my experience, male clients do not see personal trainers for long periods of time,” Willis says. “Most of my male clients see me for motivation and education. They tend to be on a cycle of learning and getting motivation from the personal trainer for a few months then taking a break from the trainer by working out on their own. After six weeks or so, they come back. This is different from the experiences I’ve had with female clients, who are more often there for the long haul and build more of a relationship and a connection with their trainer.”

Chicken, Egg, or Protein Shake?
Even if male clients follow all of this exercise advice, it won’t guarantee that they’ll improve their heart health, look good on the beach, or be ready to compete on American Ninja Warrior. There’s a tendency to think that exercise alone leads to fitness, but that’s a false and potentially dangerous assumption. An extremely important and often overlooked component of overall health is diet, according to the trainers.

A man may be working out and looking good on the outside, but if he’s consuming lots of saturated fat, likely he’s increasing the amount of plaque in his arteries. In less drastic terms, it isn’t uncommon for a man to exercise faithfully and still not get the results he wants. “Lean and flat bellies are made in the kitchen, not in the gym,” Willis says.

“Many people sabotage their effort because they don’t get proper nutrition,” Repko says. “In my estimation, and that of most trainers, that’s 75% of the equation. You can go into the gym every day and work hard, whether it’s for 20 minutes or two hours, but if you’re not fueling your body properly, you’re spinning your wheels. What I’ve seen is that most people don’t have the discipline and don’t want to make changes in their diet. And I don’t necessarily mean a weight-loss diet; I’m talking about the right way to eat.”

To maintain an efficient metabolism, Repko says it’s best for male clients to eat five or six smaller meals per day spaced 2 1/2 to three hours apart. This keeps the body properly fueled without allowing it to think it’s fasting, which slows metabolism. He says most men also don’t drink enough water. Water should be consumed throughout the day and during workouts. For workouts that take less than an hour, sports drinks aren’t necessary, he adds.

It’s also a good idea for men to limit simple carbohydrates, especially highly processed foods, and focus more on carbohydrates that take longer to digest. Meredith says men can eat starchy vegetables such as corn, potatoes, and peas in moderation, but carrots, kale, and broccoli are better choices.

Protein is another essential component of a balanced diet, and lean protein is best. Men should choose lean cuts of meat and fish as well as vegetable protein. Although some fat also is necessary, most men eat more than the recommended 20% to 35% of total calories, and much of it is saturated fat. Meredith says a good way to monitor eating habits is to use the USDA’s SuperTracker program, which provides nutrition information on more than 8,000 foods and enables people to develop personalized nutrition and physical activity plans.

Willis says it’s ironic that most people will follow a workout plan but won’t have a nutritious food plan to match, adding that most last-minute meals are poorly balanced. To provide energy for workouts and allow proper recovery, men should eat small meals or snacks before and after a workout. Specifically, men should consume preworkout meals 30 to 60 minutes before a workout, and they should consist of simple carbs, complex carbs, and a little protein, the trainers say. The goal is to provide energy for the workout beforehand. However, if the meal is too big, it will draw blood from the muscles to the stomach and lead to stomach and muscle cramps. Good preworkout snacks for men include oatmeal with berries and cottage cheese, whole wheat toast with almond butter and a banana, Greek yogurt with berries, or a scrambled egg on a whole wheat tortilla or bread, Willis says. If the body isn’t fueled properly, it will use muscle as its energy source during the workout.

Postworkout meals and snacks are similar but should include a little more protein to repair the microtears that occur in the muscles during exercise, Willis says. Protein should be consumed within 30 to 60 minutes after a workout, he says, suggesting that men stay away from eating meat or drinking alcohol for at least a couple of hours after exercise. Instead, they should choose a fruit smoothie, protein shake, omelet with spinach and veggies, tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread, or a protein bar with no more than 11 g of sugar and 15 to 30 g of protein.

For those interested in using protein powders to supplement their nutrition regimen, Meredith says whey protein isolate (or soy protein isolate for vegans) is best for workout days. Male clients can purchase protein powders at most nutritional supplement stores. On nonworkout days, casein, which takes longer for the body to break down, is preferable.

Encouraging Change
If male clients feel overwhelmed about beginning an exercise regimen and eating more healthfully, dietitians can encourage them to make small incremental changes, which ultimately can make a big difference in their personal health down the road. Some men resist change, but if nutrition professionals can appeal to what matters most to them, they’ll be more likely to take the first steps toward positive lifestyle changes.

“Whether [a man] loves to exercise or not, he needs to do something—eat a little better and exercise a little bit—if [he] wants to see his grandkids or his great-grandkids or beyond and have a healthy, active retirement,” Repko says. “Face it, if he expects to live to 100, close to half of his life is retirement. If he wants to be able to travel and enjoy his life, he has to keep himself healthy.”

— David Yeager is a freelance writer and editor based in Royersford, Pennsylvania.


No Time to Exercise? Think Again.
With time at a premium, it can be tough for male clients to squeeze in a workout, but that doesn’t mean they should skip it, says southeastern, Pennsylvania-based personal trainer Jay Repko, ISSA-CPT, NSPA-CPT. He says that even if time is tight, there’s still room in a busy schedule to get the heart pumping and build muscle.

Here, Repko provides a 20-minute workout that consists of 10 exercises for 50 seconds each, followed by a 10-second rest; clients are to complete two rounds. If clients don’t know how to perform a particular exercise, suggest they visit YouTube.com to learn how to do it.

1. Three pushups/10 mountain climbers

2. Six squat jumps/six low squat pulses. At the bottom of a squat, keeping feet flat on the floor, raise and lower the hips in 2-inch pulses before returning to the upright position.

3. Long jump burpee. Burpees typically are done by jumping as high as possible after each repetition. For this variant, jump forward as far as possible. Do a 180˚ jump turn on landing and repeat in the opposite direction.

4. Low plank body saw. Get in low plank position (on elbows) and move forward and back, up on toes, taking your head out past your hands as far as possible. Keep elbows and toes in the same spot on the floor.

5. Cross-body single dumbbell row with oblique twist at the top of the lift—25 seconds each arm. Start with feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart and bend at the waist. Instead of a typical bent-over row, hold a dumbbell or kettlebell over the foot on the opposite side of the body. In other words, if the weight is in the right hand, hold it over the left foot. The motion is the same as a bent-over row, but when the arm reaches a position parallel with the floor, twist the hips in the direction of the pull.

6. Four lunge jumps. From a standard lunge position, jump in the air, moving the rear foot forward and the forward foot backward. Land in lunge position. Add four close-grip pushups.

7. Two dumbbell squats/bicep curl/shoulder press

8. Knee-to-elbow crunches

9. Five plank jacks/five half burpees. Planks jacks: From a low plank position, use the leg and abdominal muscles to push the toes off the ground and land on toes with feet apart. Push off again and land with feet together. Half burpees: From the high plank position, bring both knees to the chest then throw them back until the legs are at full extension. Repeat.

10. Bear crawl burpees. After the vertical jump, bear crawl (hands and feet on the ground, similar to the way a bear stands) forward for five yards and then backward to the starting position. Repeat.


1. Leading causes of death by age group, race/ethnicity males, United States, 2010. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. http://www.cdc.gov/men/lcod/2010/LCODrace_ethnicityMen2010.pdf.

2. Ogden CL, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Flegal KM. Prevalence of obesity among adults: United States, 2011-2012. NCHS Data Brief. 2013;(131):1-8.

3. What are the health risks of overweight and obesity? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/obe/risks.html. July 13, 2012.

4. Obesity and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute website. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/obesity. Reviewed January 3, 2012.

5. The benefits of physical activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health. Last updated February 16, 2011.

6. American Heart Association recommendations for physical activity in adults. American Heart Association website. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/PhysicalActivity/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp. Last reviewed March 22, 2013.