It’s that time of year again, where most of us assess where we fell short in the last year and resolve to improve on theses shortcomings in the coming months. I, personally, have a big list of New Year’s Resolutions including making a bigger emphasis on rest and recovery, fine tuning my diet, learning more about rock climbing, logging more gym hours and becoming a stronger uphill runner. Its an optimistic time. A time to set goals and plan for a great year. Your resolutions might be similar. For many this will include new training programs, new gym memberships and diets.
Over the years I have seen gyms get packed out on January 2nd and an influx of social posts about losing weight, starting a new fad diet and getting in shape – only to also witness near empty gyms and a silence of “getting in shape” posting. In the past, I have made resolutions to increase running volume and ended up on the couch in 2 weeks. Why do we have such a hard time sticking to health and fitness goals? I will go over a few tips from my own experience and shed some light on the often overlooked reasons why most goals to get in better shape fail.
The Initial Overload
“This year I’m joining a gym to get fit and feel confident in my body.”
“Starting January 1st, I am starting Whole 30 to lose some extra lbs and have a higher quality of life.”
“After the Holidays, I am going to stop snacking on sugary treats.”
Whether the goal is big or small, most people have a great sense of where they need improvement and have a ton of enthusiasm about setting goals. This is great for motivation, but also has a darker side. Our overzealous approach to our goals, often leads us to overloading ourselves with new activities and/or restrictions. One of the main reasons people stop going to the gym a month after they join, is because they go from 0 to 100 right out of the gate. The same goes with dietary goals.
Let’s look at some examples of setting fitness and diet goals. If I notice that I have successfully sat in a chair without exercise for 10 months, my goal might be to workout 5 days a week. This, in theory sounds great, and is a good goal to have, but going from sedentary to working out 5 days a week, will likely lead to a quick burnout and will derail your efforts to achieve your goal. Diet changes tend to lean in the opposite direction, doing less, but usually restrict too much, too soon. If my goal is to go from eating Oreos and Doritos everyday to eating celery and quinoa, and I completely cut out the snack foods on day one, I’m going to be itching for refined sugars/ wheat before the month is through.
Assessing where you are now and planning for where you want to be is key to achieving any goal.
Your body is a reflection of your habits – how you move and how you eat. Changing these habits takes time, but if you transition right, you will have lasting change. If you want to achieve your goal, you need to change your habits. Habits don’t change over night, as much as we want them to in this age of instant gratification. I have gone from not exercising to religiously going to the gym and running ultra marathons. My diet has changed from the standard American diet to raw vegan to a conscientious omnivore. In all of these transitions, I have both failed and succeeded. When I failed, it was because I overloaded myself too soon. When I succeeded it was because I consciously assessed where I was starting from and built upon that foundation accordingly.
If you want to successfully achieve your goals, you must start with identifying where you are starting from. If it’s your first time (or first time in a long time) joining a gym or starting a running routine, 5 days a week of a full workout plan may be too much too soon. My best advice is to start small. You can always add more to your load. I know that going to the gym and bench pressing 25 lbs next to some hulk, who is pressing twice his body weight, may make you momentarily feel unworthy of even stepping into the gym; or running only one mile, might make you feel like your goal of running a marathon in September seem like a pipe dream.
The beauty of starting small though, is that you allow your body to adjust to the increased weekly load. This will not only allow you to keep progressing, but will also steer you away from over-training and burning out – which will keep you going until your goal becomes a new habit. Then you will have lasting change, instead of a short burst of extreme change. If you really want the 5 day workout block, make the workouts short and light at first and increase according to how you feel after rest days. If you want to have more intensity, start with only a few days a week to give yourself enough time to recover in between.
If you are starting a new diet, remember that it is a transition. You likely have eaten the way you are now eating for quite some time. Just as adding more physical activity takes time for your body to adjust, changing the food you convert into fuel, cells, and tissue will require some time for your body to adjust to, as well. Most people don’t realize that it takes around 90 days or so for your body to fully take any change seriously. Its ok if you need to slowly transition from your current diet to a new one. In fact, temporary diets almost always end up in a relapse into old eating habits and gaining more weight. Again, you need to focus on changing your habits, to change your body in a positive way.
Here is an example of a simple dietary change (but you can apply this way of thinking to any level of diet change you are trying to make): You find that you have gained some extra weight and you want to cut out eating a bag of honey BBQ potato chips every day. Now, I’m sure that most of you who just read that are salivating at the thought of those chips right now. That shows how deeply ingrained foods high in carbs, fats and sugars can get into our brains. A good approach then, would likely be to wean yourself off, by maybe only having half a bag of chips each day and to lessen that amount weekly until you no longer crave them. Instead of trying to quit cold-turkey, you might want to try adding in something from your new diet, to fill the void left by that missing half-bag of chips. Refined sugars, grains and fats have scientifically been proven to be addictive, so easing off them might be the best strategy. Within a few months, you can successfully reprogram what your stomach craves for sustenance, by allowing it to transition and learn your new diet.
Complications can arise if your nutrition and fitness goals clash. My personal dietary goals include limiting processed carbs and sugars. However, I have found that, as a distance runner, limiting carbs and sugars is nearly impossible. Still, there are ways to adjust the quality and type of carbs and sugars I ingest. Timing is also important, as taking in carbs and sugar while running will have a different effect on your body. Everyone is different and trains differently, so you will have to test what works best for you. I find that whole food carbs like fruit, sweet potatoes, oats and wild rice are great substitutes for super-processed carbs. If you like bars, Thunderbird Bar makes some great alternatives to the usual options. On runs I typically eat Honey Stinger gels, which are made from honey, a pure complex sugar. You have to be realistic about your goals and not be afraid to adjust them to fit your priorities and current state, and not just copy someone else’s plan.
Write It Down
Putting words on paper brings them from abstract thought to physical existence. If you want to stick to your goals, write them down. This can be done with any variety of methods. From scraps of paper to iPhone apps like Evernote, there are so many ways to get your goals out onto something that you can refer to in low times. For some people, having a list on your phone to check in on is enough. For others, myself included, there may be more of a need to have the list somewhere that can be seen without effort. I write lists of goals on post its and stick them in my work area, to constantly remind myself of what I am going for. When in times of doubt, or days you feel unmotivated, it helps tremendously to look at your goal(s) written out, to remind yourself that you care enough to write it all down.
Don’t Stress Over It
Self-discipline is a major key to success in anything. This doesn’t mean you have to be overbearing on yourself, though. If you slip-up, recognize that you hit a bump in the road, remind yourself why you are doing this in the first place, and don’t get stressed out. The more you stress, the more it makes achieving your goal feel like it’s harder than it should be. If you allow yourself to have the occasional “cheat meal” or an extra rest day, or even an occasional pass on a day where you just don’t feel like working out, you will prevent associating negative thought patterns with your goals. You still need to make sure you stick to the plan, but be kind to yourself when you don’t. Goals are supposed to be there to improve your quality of life, not add to the stress!
I hope you all have a successful 2017 and achieve more than you ever thought possible!