Mid January is upon us. The winter doldrums are here. Many of us made New Years resolutions two weeks ago and it’s starting to get tough. The exercise program that we started is too demanding to keep up. The weather is not conducive to outdoor exercise. Schools are canceled due to the weather - leaving our schedules in disarray and our gym time interrupted. Cold and flu season is here. High fat/high calorie foods provide the comfort that we seek when daylight is short, days are cold and we are trapped at home. Football is on – what better excuse for wings, chips, and beer?
Sounds like a pretty big list of potential obstacles, doesn’t it? Well it is. Our success at sticking to the plan is determined by how well we manage many of the factors above. We often set ourselves up for failure when making resolutions because we expect that on January 1st we will be able to give unlimited time and resources to exercise and diet. Additionally we believe that we can change habits, patterns, fitness level, body composition, and so on overnight.
Many of us will come out of the gate too hard and crash and burn. I see this every year as a gym owner/coach. New people come in and sign up for the biggest, most expensive training packages hoping to go from total inactivity to five days a week of grueling exercise. Most of those same people put themselves on a very restrictive starvation diet at exactly the same time. The result? By the end of January, these folks are back at the McDonald's drive through and then sheepishly call asking for a refund on their gym membership, or they just disappear quietly never to be heard from again.
We know that we didn't put on 50lbs of excess weight overnight, or from being the high school quarterback to severely deconditioned overnight. These things took time and they take time to reverse.
The following is a short list of tips from my many years of experience and observation to help stick to your resolutions and make real, long term sustainable changes.
Instead of planning to exercise 5 days per week, start off with 2 days per week in the month of January, and then increase to 3 days per week in the month of February. Slowly over time you can add more training volume as your body adapts to the exercise and the changes to your schedule. It helps to think of exercise as medicine. If the medicine is new to your body it is likely that a small dosage will yield the desired effect. As your body adapts, you will require a higher dose. If initial dosage is too high you will “overdose”, resulting in extreme soreness, disinterest in continuing, and ultimately cessation of the plan altogether. Remember this phrase - “More is not better, better is better.”
Many of us came off the “holiday eating season” and have been consuming hundreds of extra calories many days that likely started around Halloween and stretched through New Year’s Eve. We have trained ourselves to eat more. The trick to long term fat loss and lean muscle retention is to eat slightly less than we need for maintenance. This will produce a steady rate of change and keep our metabolisms fired up. Why would anyone choose to eat 1,000 calories per day when we could optimize fat loss at 1,800 calories?
Instead of starving, clean up your diet by making healthy selections and starting off with two weeks of weight maintenance. Slowly from there you can ratchet down the calories little by little each week over several weeks until in a groove that optimizes performance and fat loss goals. Determining maintenance calories is one of the most important tools for optimal results. This requires diligent tracking.
If you are a healthy active individual, steer clear of all diets that are less than 1,200 calories per day. Very low calorie diets will backfire by wrecking your metabolism, causing loss of muscle tissue, result in low energy levels that inhibit your ability to exercise, and make you an all around grumpy and miserable person. If you can’t sustain it, it’s not worth it.
For some of us the caloric deficit required to elicit fat loss is as simple as cutting out soda, processed junk food and choosing to eat at home more often than eating out. If you need more help than this or don’t know where to begin try one of the free online apps such as MyFitnessPal. There are tons of great resources out there if you do your homework. I always recommend Weight Watchers, as I believe it to be one of the best programs out there – it teaches behavior modification skills and has a high level of accountability, and my favorite - it encourages exercise. If followed correctly it works 100% of the time.
(Shameless plug here – you can always hire me for individualized nutritional consultation services, just sayin…)
If you started in January, choose a goal that extends no later than late March. Most of us do not have the attention span for much longer than that. College runs in semesters, books in chapters, TV programs in episodes. These are all examples of how we process information in small chunks. This will also allow us to re-evaluate our direction periodically and not wander off course. The goal can be anything that you wish but the point it to have a tangible and measurable goal. Goals such as “lose weight” or “get in shape” are too vague. We need to be able to quantify it for it to have meaning and to serve as continued motivation. Here are a few examples of reasonable goals for the first quarter of 2015:
With the exception of #4 (the confidence goal), all of these goals have metrics and can be tracked. Once you reach the goal, pat yourself on the back and move on to the next one. Slow and steady you will get there. When I work with adolescents on weight loss I often compare the stair stepping of goals to levels on a video game. You must complete the first one before moving on to the next one but if you get lazy in between or take time off –you will struggle at the next level. Also, each level get’s harder but you will be prepared for it when it arrives.
every meal and every workout is a chance for a fresh start. Do your best and expect some slipups. Slipping is okay once in a while as long as you get right back on the plan. If you adhere to the plan 80% of the time, you will be pretty astounded at the results that you achieve. If you eat a donut for breakfast- make a better choice at lunch rather than decide that the day is ruined and continue down a destructive path. Let the guilt go. Focus energy on putting systems in place to avoid the same pitfall again.
Write down your goals for the first quarter of 2015 and put it somewhere that it will be a constant reminder. Also, share those goals with at least one important person in your life.
The reason why group programs work so well is the support and accountability of others. Start by making your friends and loved ones aware of your goals and how you plan to achieve them. Ask that they be respectful of your wishes to improve yourself and not sabotage your efforts. Tell them to get on you if you start slipping. Recognize that when you make significant life changes that there will be people that are upset by this. Focus instead on the people that are willing to help.
Consider getting a training partner or joining a group exercise class that takes attendance. Hire a professional trainer if you can afford one – it is a worthwhile investment.
Consider joining an online or real life community where you get to share your progress and discuss your struggles. Pick one that suits your personality – they run the gamut from being “friends” on MyFitnessPal to weekly Weight Watchers meetings to online forums of all kinds where we log our workouts and discuss topics with other like-minded people. Bodybuilding.com’s Community Link is one example of a strong, supportive, online community.
Take these tips and re-focus. Results are achieved through consistency. There are no secrets to faster results. No short cuts if you want lasting changes. Chip away one day at a time, stay focused on the goal, and give it your best.