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Four hours to fitness - a Q&A with Timothy Ferriss

Timothy Ferriss is a great believer in tracking numbers ? but not calories.

Timothy Ferriss thinks you're wasting your time. Whether it's at work or at the gym, you could be accomplishing your goals in way fewer hours than you think.

In 2007, the former founder of a sports nutrition supplement company challenged the wisdom of the typical work week and offered a tantalizing alternative in his bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Now, he's back with another seemingly impossible claim - this time promising to do to dieting and body optimization what he did to life at the office with a new book, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide To Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman.

The Globe and Mail talked to Mr. Ferriss about calories, photographing your food and why you should throw out the bathroom scale.

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You say in the book that people should "be skeptical, especially of sensationalist headlines." Does that include books that promise to make readers "superhuman"?

Absolutely. My job is to train intelligent self-experimenters. I completely encourage people to think for themselves, even when that means questioning some of the things in my book. I believe everything in the book works, based on the field testing and based on the science. But I'm sure I have some of the mechanisms wrong. I'm sure those will be corrected by some of my more attentive readers.

Why did you want to make this your follow-up book?

I have a very extended background related to sports and athletic performance. I ran a sports nutrition company for eight years. Prior to that I was All-American in wrestling and a national champion in kickboxing. So my interest in physical optimization predates all of the [interest in] productivity.

Why do so many people who try to lose weight fall off the wagon?

The place where most of these books fail, or most personal trainers fail, is they think it's about the how-to. They think people are out of shape, or they get Type 2 diabetes, because they don't know what to do. Sometimes that's true. But [more often than not]it's because people aren't set up properly with psychological gambits to failure-proof the process.

Like what?

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Like just using your iPhone to take photographs of your food before you eat it.

Does that work?

It works really well. At the simplest level, it's a pattern interrupted. It prevents you from eating without thinking. It's just that awareness that then modifies your behaviour.

You recommend that people on your diet binge once a week - they'll still lose weight. Is bingeing really a good idea?

Absolutely. I've been doing it for more than five years. It is hard to believe. Paradoxically, it improves body weight, hormone output and a number of other things that actually help accelerate fat loss over the long term.

That doesn't sound like it makes sense.

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There are two reasons that binge day works. The first is biochemical. Secondly, it ensures compliance for the other six days. Bingeing will happen whether you schedule it or not. If you don't schedule it, and then you get to Christmas and you feel the need to break from your diet, then people feel guilty and they use the fact that they broke the diet for one day to justify breaking the diet for a week.

You also claim that someone could lose 20 pounds in 30 days without exercise. How is that possible?

It is true. For anyone who has to lose more than 30 pounds, I actually recommend not starting to exercise at first. Diet will be responsible for at least 80 per cent of the fat loss. When people try to diet and exercise at the same time, they end up having larger meals to reward themselves for exercise and they end up also increasing their appetite and eating the wrong foods. They either plateau or gain weight, and then quit the diet and the exercise with the conclusion that neither works.

You are a huge proponent of tracking data and only really paying attention to things that can be measured. Do numbers provide a clarity and a motivation, or can they become a misguided obsession?

The answer is yes to both. The key is to track the few numbers that really matter.

Such as?

The only number I would consider almost mandatory for people who wish to lose fat, for example, is body fat composition.

What about jumping on the scale every few days?

The scale is not reliable as an indicator of progress. Almost inevitably, inches will come off before pounds, which indicates that you're losing fat and gaining some muscle.

You also recommend not tracking calories. Why's that?

Calories are like the scale. They're incomplete. Tracking something is better than nothing because of the awareness that it creates. So if tracking calories is the only thing you can do, then that's what you should track. But the reason that's incomplete is that the type of calories that you consume is more important than the number .

How much time are people going to have to put into making and recording all of these measurements? Are we really talking about the 44-hour body?

It's very quick, actually. One hour every three to six months should be all it takes. The rest of the time, let how you feel and how you look be your guide.

Are you still tracking all your numbers?

Once you get to a point where you're happy with how you look and how you're performing, you don't need to be compulsive about it. At this point, I can eyeball my body fat very easily.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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