January, and the Resolutioners will be signing up at gyms all over the country. Some will even show up for a few weeks, although it sometimes seems like resolutions were made to be broken.
Last year, I talked about BJ Fogg’s model for changing habits with small steps and lots of freedom to revise. I still talk up Fogg’s approach every chance I get, especially when I see a lot of “fitspo” floating around. These “Go hard or go home” messages make it seem like there is only one way to be active, and some of it is downright harmful.
Nope. Pain is an important signal from your body that something may be out of alignment, overused, or injured. As you become more active, pay attention to the soreness that indicates working at a new level (and can be relieved with some light activity, like stretching or walking), and sharp pains or tender spots that can indicate a problem that requires rest or treatment.
On Tumblr, fit-fabstroid has been posting revisions of fitspo imagery, and her edits are spot on.
Here are a few things I’ve had the pleasure of telling people when they are anxious about being able to make healthy changes to their food or exercise patterns:
1. Great journeys begin with a few steps. Don’t try to do everything all at once. If you need to make major changes both to the way you eat and how much exercise you get, choose 1 small thing from each column (like “I will drink 1 can less of soda every day” and “I will take the stairs when I get to work in the morning”). Spend a week or two settling into your new habits, and then think about adding to them. And if they aren’t working out the way you hoped, it’s OK to replace them with alternatives that point to the same goals. Just keep moving in the right direction.
2. Some stranger’s 2 cents probably isn’t worth even that. Joining a gym in January as part of your New Year’s Resolutions? You may get approached by a stranger telling you you’re doing something wrong, or just making an unpleasant remark about newbies. Maybe you are – there’s no harm in asking a staff member to go over how to use a machine or take a look at your form, and there are lots of variations out there for different training goals and physical limitations. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who think they know a lot more than they do, and are willing to make strangers feel bad. Be open to the possibility that you can use some instructions, but don’t take some random’s word for exactly what that means.
3. Don’t get too focused on scale weight. The number of pounds (or kilograms) you weigh is a convenient measure that is cheap and simple, but it only tells part of the story. Your weight fluctuates a lot over the course of a single day – if you’re drinking enough fluids, that’s 4 lb of intake right there – so don’t get hung up on differences of a couple of pounds. There are lots of other non-scale victories in health and fitness: measurements, better blood sugar control, being able to do more (or do the same things faster) without getting winded. And of course, if you are doing strength training, you can lose a clothing size and stay at the same weight – or even gain a little at the same time.
4. Feel like you can’t even do the basics? You can work up to it. A military-style perfect push-up demands good core strength and body awareness to maintain good form, especially for lots of repetitions. And there are lots of “progressions” – modifications of difficult moves to help you get there – for almost any movement that’s challenging, from push-ups and pull-ups to yoga poses. Take a look at the right-hand column at Start Bodyweight for examples.
5. Try to identify things you can really enjoy. Hate running? Don’t run! There are plenty of alternatives, including walking, biking, swimming, rowing, jumping rope, yoga, video exercise programs, joining a sports team, martial arts, and old-school calisthenics, like sit-ups and push-ups. If you’ve been sedentary for a long time, almost any activity will give you benefits, as long as you are consistent.
6. There’s no law that says you have to have an explicit, long-term plan. You can start by taking the stairs more often, parking in the furthest spot in the lot, or adding a couple of short walks during your work day. Like more structure? Take a class, and see how it feels – maybe even try one new class a month for a while. This could be yoga or spinning or getting some friends together for an introduction to rock climbing. Another option is spending a session or two with a trainer at a gym. Just be honest about your goals (“I want to be able to open ANY JAR IN THE CUPBOARD” is a perfectly fine goal, as is “I just want a good start, and to find something I can stick with”), and feel free to tell the trainer to throttle back if you’re having a bad time. Exercise should be something you want to do, and you don’t have to feel sore for days to get a benefit.
7. Give yourself the gift of rest. It’s easy to get overcommitted, and for many of us that means not enough sleep on a regular basis. Eating better and exercising more are great, but sleep is just as important. Consider trying a sleep tracker to get some real information about how well (or not) you’re sleeping, or at least getting your eyes away from computer and TV screens well before bedtime (the light from the displays can make it harder to wind down).
Exercise, healthful food, and adequate sleep should make our lives nicer. A better energy level, a better ability to move around our environment, often smoother moods – there are many day-to-day benefits of having healthy, sustainable patterns of eating, activity, and rest. If you’re making resolutions about food and exercise this year, let yourself focus on making life better – find activities you look forward to, more nutritious foods you enjoy, and explore little changes that are easy enough to do that you don’t even have to think twice about them.
Here is a nice list of short observations to help form perspective around health and fitness goals.