It’s quickly approaching that time of year again — the 2 weeks or so where gyms are inundated, diet books fly off the shelves, and Americans once again resolve to better ourselves in the New Year. According to a Time Magazine article this week, the most common resolution will be weight loss and improved fitness. Year after year we fall into the same pattern; some of us succeed in lasting lifestyle changes, but the vast majority will quickly fall back into old habits. What can we do to break the cycle?
Last year at this time, I was still in graduate school and despite the fact that I was devoting myself to the scientific study of sports medicine, I was not practicing healthy lifestyle habits. I wasn’t making time for exercise and my eating was frankly atrocious. I had gained some weight and lost a tremendous amount of fitness, and I felt terrible. I had to change.
Today, I’ve lost 45 pounds and 6 inches off my waist from one year ago. I’m keeping up on very fast group bike rides and I’m running better than I ever have in my life. These changes haven’t happened overnight, but they have been consistent and lasting; I’d like to share some of my success with you in hopes that you can find it helpful in your lifestyle as well.
- Accountability. I’ve always done better when I had to be accountable to someone other than myself, whether it’s a dietitian looking at my food intake logs, a personal trainer giving me instructions on exactly what exercise to do, or a coach’s training plan. I knew that while I was taking an overload of graduate classes and working 2 jobs, the most important factor was going to be adherence to a healthy, calorie-negative diet. I used an app called My Fitness Pal to keep careful records of overall caloric intake as well as the breakdown in macronutrient percentages (carbs, fat, protein). The app certainly has its limitations, but it’s free, the mobile interface is user-friendly, and the food library is very complete. Having a bold number on a page really helped me to focus and think about selecting foods that would meet my nutrition goals, instead of eating without thought of effect.
- Food as Fuel; Exercise as a Privilege. This one was all about mindset for me. I had often fallen into the trap of punishing myself for eating badly with a really hard workout; completely unconsciously, I had begun to regard exercise as a one more onerous responsibility instead of a stress-busting, fun, healthy activity. I started planning my food intake around the workout I wanted to do that day, and I tried to make them as fun as possible. Going to the gym with my significant other was great incentive, with the added bonus that we tend to push one another to work harder. Mountain biking with my dog is one of my favorite things — I get a really fun ride with my best friend, and I got the dog good and tired so she wouldn’t bug me (as much) when I really needed to buckle down to work and study. I always felt better after a workout, and thinking of it in terms of an enjoyable activity instead of a means to offset other unhealthy choices removed a huge mental obstacle.
- Flatten the Playing Field. One of the classes I took last spring was a Health Policy class in the Department of Public Health. The professor explained public health initiatives through the metaphor of the myth of Sisyphus, the ancient Greek king who was condemned to roll a boulder up a steep hill only to watch it roll back down for eternity. With any health challenge we face, the steepness of the hill is determined by the factors that make success more difficult. As an example, consider quitting smoking. The factors that make it more difficult might include pressure from peers who are also smokers, life stress that is alleviated by smoking, fear of weight gain after quitting, physiological addiction to cigarettes, and even lack of insurance coverage for cessation treatments. Removing or reducing those factors makes the slope less steep — getting on a new insurance plan, joining a group to provide social support for quitting, taking up leisure activities that promote health and reduce stress. Furthermore, one can factor in advantages to quitting — reduced cost of insurance, improved health, eliminating potential harm to friends and family, and so on — that raise the bottom of the slope, leveling it out even more. Suddenly, pushing the boulder uphill isn’t daunting. The same was true for me with weight management — I needed to make good choices easier, and unhealthy choices less desirable. I committed to not buying any food that was inconsistent with my health goals to remove the temptation of having it in the house, and I cleaned out my cupboards and donated the offending food products I already had to a food bank. I started trading out sports massage services for personal training with a gym and scheduled my workouts during gaps between classes to make it as easy as possible to stick to my schedule. I even bought some particularly cool-looking running shoes; don’t underestimate the power of adding some fun to a workout! Making the right choices easier helped that boulder keep on rolling without much added effort on my part.
- Make SMART goals. SMART is an acronym used in athletic training and physical therapy rehabilitation; it stands for Specific, Measure, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented. I found these criteria really helpful in goal-setting for healthy lifestyle choices too. Vague goals (“I want to lose weight”) are hard to conceptualize and rarely succeed. Instead, I reviewed a lot of health literature and talked to experts to determine an appropriate and attainable specific weight goal for myself. I keep track of a lot of measurements to track my progress, including weight, hip, waist, and neck circumference, resting heart rate, and sleep patterns. My gym also has a station that takes more medically-oriented measurements, so I track blood pressure and body fat percentage using that equipment. Those measurements help me assess progress and adjust my practices to keep on track; I don’t think that keeping track of measurements to that degree of detail is right for everyone, but I’m a numbers-oriented person and it’s been really helpful for me. “Assignable” refers more to a rehab setting where a patient works with a variety of people, but I use that criteria to assign myself fitness tasks each week (for instance, this week’s job is a long bike ride on Tuesday). Realistic goals are crucial to success, so I shoot for a pound of weight loss per week. This makes it much easier to stay on track and such gradual progress is much more likely to be lasting progress. I make my goals time-oriented by setting fitness benchmarks, such as entering races or events and just having dates where I want to have achieved specific aims (usually these are regular doctor check-ups; I like showing off how to my doc how well I’m doing!).
- Be Realistic about Setbacks and Successes. I would be a big liar if I didn’t admit to falling off the wagon now and then. Sometimes it has been out of my control — I recently had to take a 10-day hiatus from exercise after a medical procedure — but most of the time I can point the finger to none other than yours truly. Too often, setbacks have snowball effects that result in a catastrophic tumble; we see this all the time with crash dieters whose resolve wavers and they end up gaining back even more weight than they lost. Willpower is not an inexhaustible commodity, so it’s important to identify potential pitfalls and offset their impact. For most people, getting it right 90% of the time is enough to see progress. For me, that means about 1 meal per week that’s less than stellar. I don’t go overboard, but I also try not to have such hard and fast food rules that a taste of forbidden cookie will send me spiraling in an out-of-control tailspin. Take it one day at at time; one bad meal isn’t going to demolish all your results, but neither is one good one sufficient for success — it’s all about consistency. Instead of totally cutting out an unhealthy habit, reduce it a little with an alternative; I can’t live without chocolate, so I started buying small quantities of extremely high quality dark chocolate and keeping it in the freezer, so it required a lot of work to break a little piece off, let it thaw, and savor it, instead of demolishing a whole candy bar. Little steps in the right direction are more powerful than trying to make giant leaps that may backfire into setbacks.
- Surround Yourself With Experts. Every big organization, school, or corporate entity has a board of directors to provide the best decision-making insight to the leadership. Establish your own personal board of directors to inform your lifestyle decision-making; I got this advice from a very wise high school principal, and it has proved to be an extraordinary tool for all kinds of big choices. In my journey to better health and fitness, I have sought out the company of experts with specific knowledge to fill in the gaps of the big picture. I had a bit of trial and error in assembling my board of directors — one mistake I made was wanting to get better at running, so I asked a well-meaning runner friend where I should start. “It’s easy!” she exclaimed. “Come out on a run with me and I’ll show you!” And thus ensued a horrible experience of being dragged around a totally inappropriate course at way too fast of a pace until I felt like I would never be able to take a full breath or keep food down again; it was really defeating and would have been very easy to give up right then and there. But instead I consulted a running coach who helped me to streamline my form for greater stride efficiency and ease. Similarly, I asked my friend Tommy Rodgers, a dietitian and local cycling legend, for some nutrition tips that helped me come away with a much better understanding of fueling my body. I also started getting regular massage therapy, which proved to be a huge boon — it helps me recover from hard activity much faster to optimize my training, and it’s a wonderful calorie-free reward for good lifestyle choices. Here’s a plug for my employer: at E3: Elite Human Performance, we have all of these services under one roof; it’s a superb resource no matter where you are in your fitness journey.
- Budget for Expenses. Healthy eating habits and exercise do incur some unique financial expenses, but look at it this way — have you priced type 2 diabetes recently? How about treatment for the dozens of cancers that have been directly linked to excessive body fat, or cardiopulmonary diseases? A little extra expense and careful spending now can add years to your life; it’s impossible to put a price on that. Fitness and healthy lifestyle don’t have to be all Whole Foods and exorbitant gym memberships; you can accomplish strength training at home with equipment you already have, join a free running club where all you need is a decent pair of shoes, and buying fresh produce instead of pre-packaged options can actually save a lot while optimizing nutrition. Investing in a training plan from a coach and other fitness-related services in the short term can help you build lasting habits, and you will reap benefits in physical health, self-confidence, and healthy habits for life. You don’t have to think of these commitments as long-term and continuous, but it’s great to try a variety of things and see what works best. I have been most successful with picking competitive events in which I want to participate and getting training plans built around the event schedule to keep myself on track. It incurs financial burdens, but the benefits of deeply enjoyable activities, friendships I have built through sports participation, and how great I feel when I’m eating and training well is more than worth the expense.
I want to wish you the best of luck on your New Year’s resolutions, whatever they may be. Remember too that any type of change is about the process, not the end point of the journey. Making that process deliberate, minimizing the obstacles in your way, and enjoying the voyage of reaching toward your goals will help you succeed. I’m well on my way to health for life, and I keep being surprised by unforeseen benefits I encounter. Keep your mind open to new possibilities along the journey; a year ago, I never could have guessed there was a runner inside me waiting to be let out!
What are you resolving to do this year? Tell me about it in the comments!