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How to Eat When You’re NOT Working Out

When I set out to do something healthy every day from Thanksgiving to New Years - or "40 Days Of Fitness" as I called it – I'd hoped to create a watershed moment for myself. I wanted to go back to being the athlete I was, and not the over-scheduled chair-dweller that I've been for much of the past year. I longed to regain the activity level I enjoyed during my 20's, where lunchtime runs and long weekend bike rides were routine.

But along the way I discovered something.

My life has changed. Today I'm a husband, new homeowner, over-booked worker, and soon-to-be dad. The sort of free time that allowed me to spend three hours cycling on a Saturday just isn't there anymore.

So if there was an overarching lesson from the past month or so, it was this: Until my life changes again and I can get those active hours back, I need to do more with less when it comes to fitness. And when it comes to eating, get by on less.

Thankfully, I learned two things that helped me do that: How to eat when you're not working out, and how to work out anywhere.

I'll start with eating. To be honest, food wasn't something I put an overwhelming amount of thought into when I was running 25 or more miles in a week. Runners have a saying that states, "If the fire is hot enough, it'll burn anything." Translation: When you're this active, you can eat whatever you want.

But for most of us working desk jobs, our digestive ovens don't hit the broiler-high temps that marathoners reach. We've got slow cookers - good if you're trying to make a Southern BBQ, bad if you're trying to torch off excess calories before they turn your body composition into pure marshmallow.

While I'd increased my running since finishing a half-marathon at the beginning of December, my average weekly mileage still hovered in the single digits. Worse, sometimes when I did get out for a run, it'd be my only prolonged exercise session of the week. At that (low) activity level, I had to change the way I ate.

For example: I used to fuel up on plenty of carbohydrates, since they fuel your muscles when you run. But as I learned from Nate Miyaki, an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, LIVESTRONG.com writer and author of Intermittent Feast: An Evolutionary & Scientific Approach to Weight Loss, "since muscle glycogen is really only used during exercise, the sedentary person does not need to worry about refilling those reserves. They really only need to eat enough carbs to support liver glycogen stores, which regulate your blood sugar levels and the functioning of your central nervous system (CNS) and brain."

Your muscles can store between 300 and 600 grams of glycogen, Miyaki said. But your liver? That holds only about 80-110g, according to Miyaki. So if you're not working out regularly and vigorously expending the energy from your muscles, that second (smaller) range represents all of the carbs you need to take in during the day. Eat some non-starchy vegetables and a few pieces of whole fruit and you've got it covered.

Miyaki also told me that, even though I was exercising less, it was still possible for me to burn body fat. "While glucose is the primary fuel for your brain and CNS, fatty acids are the primary fuel for the body at rest," Miyaki said. "As long as you're in a calorie deficit, some of those fatty acids will come from body fat stores."

If your body operates on 2,300 calories a day, it will burn body fat if you give it only 2,000. Even if you're not doing anything in the gym or on the roads to torch that tissue.

So while on some days my healthy choice was to do something (run, lift, be the least-flexible guy in a yoga class) most of the time my victory of the day was in something I did not do.  I did not immediately eat the fresh-baked cookies Mom gave my wife and I when we moved into our new home. (I had one, and after a couple of days put the rest in the freezer, where they still reside.) At a holiday party, I did not dive maw-first into the pile of s'mores that were stacked perfectly next to a chocolate fountain. On a night out with friends, I had a beer -but not nine.

In between holiday get-togethers, family obligations, and travel, the workouts I was able to get in usually happened in less-than-ideal conditions: on a limited time schedule, at a gym I wasn't familiar with, or inside a hotel room where there was no equipment at all. But if there's one thing I've learned from LIVESTRONG.com contributors like Martin Rooney and BJ Gaddour and the metabolic circuit workouts they've created for this site, it's that there's always a way to exercise.

So if I had a spare 20 minutes, I'd crank out a cycle of Gaddour's Bedroom Workout, which requires only a towel. Or between e-mails and other desk work, I'd take quick breaks to rifle off as many of Rooney's modified push-ups as I could do in a minute. I wasn't able to devote the kind of time to fitness that I used to, but I did make a point to wedge in a workout wherever I could.

Even a minute is better than nothing.

Throughout the #40DaysOfFitness, I drew inspiration from readers who posted their workouts and tips to Twitter under that hashtag. I was impressed by guys like Brian Tolman, who's kick-started his weight loss plan with some ridiculously brutal boxing and stair workouts. I took notes when reading the healthy diet tips people like Jess Everhard shared, which included making an egg white omelette with yolks leftover from holiday pie-making.  And admired the commitment of Bruce Gudmundson, who's managed to get in runs on seemingly every day during the holidays, including set of 400-meter repeats on Christmas Day. I'd like to thank them -and everyone who shared their experiences over the past few weeks.

Now it's almost time to say goodbye to the "40 Days," and to 2012 as a whole, and begin setting new goals. What should we set out to accomplish next? What is your fitness resolution for 2013?

How can LIVESTRONG.com help you accomplish it? Let us know in the comments below.

Let's make 2013 our strongest year ever. Keep up the great work out there.

Brian D. Sabin is a writer and editor for LIVESTRONG.com. Follow him on Twitter and Google+

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