If you don’t know who Michelle Bridges is, here’s my dad’s summation: she runs the world. A few months ago, he’d never heard of her either.
I signed up for Michelle’s 12 week body transformation program (12WBT) I think when I was still pregnant, or very soon after Emma was born. They run three rounds a year (I think), each lasting 12 weeks. The first round for 2013 began in mid-February, when Emma was 5 months old. I thought that was a realistic time for a new mum to be starting a diet and exercise program.
I had two goals. First, lose the last 5 kilos of baby weight. Second, run the 10km Canberra fun run in April.
The program costs $200 upfront, or you can do weekly payments instead. For that, I got a weekly vegetarian nutrition plan and shopping list as well as an exercise plan designed to get me running 10km by the end of the program. You can choose from a number of different exercise programs, from beginner through to advanced with different goals (e.g. half marathon or strength training). You also get access to the website which includes forums, the whole recipe collection, calorie counters, exercise index, and various pep talk kind of videos from Michelle. The best thing about the forums was there were actually a number of ‘experts’ lurking around and you’d usually get a response from them as well as ideas from other folk. This was particularly useful for me when I would ask a question on the running forum and get responses from people starting out like me as well as the guy who’d designed the program who would answer questions and give suggestions.
The nutrition plan is based on 1200 calories a day. You’re given recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus snack suggestions and dessert on days when your calories are low enough. You even get a recipe for herbal tea, in case you’re not sure how that works. Saturday night is called a ‘treat’ meal, although you’re supposed to not eat any snacks during the day and stick to your calorie allowance, so I’m not sure that’s much of a ‘treat’. Because I was breastfeeding my allowance was 1700 calories, and the nutrition plan came with suggested additions to meals to help make up the extra. The plan is based on your exercise, so on strength or toning days it’s suggested you have a protein-based snack.
The exercise plan assumes you’ll work out 6 days a week, for about an hour. You’re given options to do it at the gym (either in a class or using machines), doing it at home (including online videos starring Michelle herself), or doing it outside (the whole running program assumed you’d be outdoors). On Saturdays it’s expected you’ll do a ‘super session’ – for example in my running program that was your long run of the week, in other programs it’s suggested you’ll do two gym classes. I like that the exercise plan covers everything. Cardio plus weight training plus core and flexibility – for that I usually did a body balance class. I think a lot of exercise plans ignore that part of fitness, when it’s so important.
So how did it go?
I followed the nutrition plan religiously the first week but discovered the same thing many others did, based on the forum chatter. It was expensive, and time consuming. You’d buy a whole tub of humus to use one tablespoon of it for Monday’s lunch, and then not again the rest of the week. You’d eat a different breakfast every day, when I know most of us either eat the same thing every day, or rotate between two or three favourites. So after the first week I mixed it up a bit. I went back to my usual cereal breakfast, chose a couple of lunch options and had those ingredients in the fridge, and generally followed the dinner plan. I ignored the snack suggestions completely, instead just eating my usual fruit and yoghurt and other bits and pieces depending on what I felt like. I stuck to the 1700 calories pretty closely for the first four weeks or so, and lost about 6 kilos. I only remember being really hungry once, which was a day I did sprints and didn’t eat properly or get enough calories the rest of the day to replace the fuel I’d used for such a hard workout.
I followed the exercise plan pretty religiously as well. My fun run was in week 9, and I ran the whole 10 km in a personal best time of 1 hour 2 minutes. It’s not earth shattering by any means but I was so proud of myself. I was lucky to have the support to my wonderful mother-in-law who babysits Emma several times a week which gave me lots of opportunities to go out for runs or go to the gym for my strength sessions or Body Balance. On my sprint days I’d take Emma down to the oval in her pram at nap time and she’d sleep in the shade while I ran in circles like a mad woman. I bought a jogging pram so I could take her on my long weekend runs too, when Toby couldn’t be with her (I don’t like to say ‘babysit’ since when he does it, it’s ‘parenting’). The strength sessions were based on improving your performance as a runner, something I never thought I’d be doing. A bit of upper body work (including these awful shoulder things to help your posture – for the first few weeks I needed massages from Toby afterwards to work out the kinks), plus legs and lots of glutes work, running drills (like box jumps and skipping), and self massage (which I never did because it felt stupid – I think I might go pay for one instead). On days when I didn’t have a babysitter I could easily do those workouts in the lounge room as they didn’t require any weight machines (since the program assumed you’d be outdoors). They also weren’t very time consuming – usually 30-45 minutes.
Now I’ve lost the weight, and finished the fun run, I’ve basically gone back to living like a normal person. This is the last week and all I’ve used the program for the last few weeks is for dinner suggestions, which is actually very handy. Next week I’ll have to go back to figuring it out myself like a sucker. I’ve saved all the exercise programs for the half marathon and strength training, and might follow one of them next, but for now I’m enjoying the flexibility of just doing whatever I feel like when the time comes. I’ve saved all the vegetarian recipes so I have them on hand. I think they are going to make some changes to the program for next round so a lot of the little quirks will be ironed out, for example there will be more calorie levels for the nutrition plan so it will be even better tailored.
In short, things I liked:
- having everything set out for me so I could follow it religiously if I wanted (but didn’t have to)
- extra calories (yay for breastfeeding) as well as an actual vegetarian plan, rather than having to come up with my own vegetarian options
- the focus on real, fresh food rather than relying on ‘diet’ food and the variety in the meals – I couldn’t believe the number of people on the forums who said things like “I’ve never even tried chick peas/eggplant/sushi/laksa but it turns out it’s yummy!” We eat pretty well so the nutrition plan wasn’t a massive shock, it was just good to get some new recipes and try some different things.
- similarly, the focus on exercise, and not the usual bare minimum ‘walk 20 minutes a day 3 days a week’ garbage, but real exercise that would actually help you become a fit and healthy person overall, no matter what your beginning point was, with better cardio fitness, strength and flexibility, as well as that all-important rest day.
Things I didn’t like:
- the focus on calories. While this is key for weight loss, I think some people lose track of the ‘real food’ message. For example, the kind of person who will drink a diet coke (zero calories) rather than eat some avocado (lots of calories), even though the avocado is real food that is good for you and the diet coke will rot your insides. Michelle tries to get this message across but at the end of the day you’re asking people to count their calories, not their real food intake, so it makes sense a lot of people focus on the numbers rather than what’s real.
- the inflexibility of the nutrition plan. Over time I imagine the website will get more sophisticated and user-friendly, and you’ll be able to do things like choose from a drop down menu how many people you want to cook for, and the recipe and shopping list will update accordingly. But for now, if you don’t want to follow the plan religiously but you do want to use it, it can take some time on the weekend to figure out what you’re going to cook the next week and what you’ll need to buy. This appeared particularly difficult for people just cooking for themselves, since most of the recipes serve two.
- sometimes the nutrition plan also looked like no one had actually eye balled it before it was sent out. I remember one day when breakfast was toast, lunch was a sandwich and dinner was bruschetta. Six pieces of bread in one day seemed a bit much, even for me who would live on bread if I would. That’s when you had to be flexible and mix things up a bit, but it would have been nice to think someone had looked at it first.
If you don’t have much time, but you do have some money, and you’d like someone to tell you what to do so you don’t have to think about it, I’d highly recommend 12wbt. I’m really glad I did it and it was totally worth it to reach my pretty basic goals, but especially to improve my running and really feel like it’s become a nice part of my life now. If you don’t have much money, and/or you don’t need someone telling you what to do, just eat 1200 calories a day and do some exercise and you’ll (almost certainly) lose weight 🙂