We all suffer occasional lapses in our commitment to healthy diet and exercise. It happens — we’re humans, not robots.
The times when I’ve strayed from the path seem to come seasonally (it’s harder to remain committed to maintaining the beach body in the depths of winter). The arrival of the holiday season is challenging too, when tasty treats are plentiful and hard to resist. Times of stress and other emotional upset also have potential to knock me off track.
My most recent failure came during the course of a three week summer road trip with the family around the UK. Overseas vacations were out of the question, but with paid time-off from work to be used up, we decided instead to visit with friends and family around the country and to spend some time camping on the Cornish coast in the far south of England.
One of the best things about Coronavirus lockdown for my wife and I was that we’d firmly established an exercise and healthy eating regimen in our lives — one that had lasted way longer than any before it.
We set off for our trip with the best of intentions, and packed exercise gear, running shoes and even a set of dumbbells, resolute that we’d fit in workouts wherever we were.
It was apparent though, that within a week or so of being away from home, exercise exercise had fallen by the wayside and our dietary restraint had all-but disappeared.
Since returning home, aside from the harsh reality of starting work again I’ve felt a pressure (and a real desire) to get back on the healthy path. Here are the main things I’ve taken away as lessons from the experience.
1 — Get Started
It’s tempting to get bogged down in regret that you’ve set back progress through your own choices. A health and fitness regime can fail for many reasons and it’s doubly disappointing when you know that it has happened through your own making. It’s equally tempting to procrastinate over taking action to get back on track.
The only way around these pitfalls is quite simply to get started, and to do it now.
It may not be pleasant and it most likely won’t feel easy the first time you head out for a run, pick up the barbell or foresake dessert. You’ve likely spent days or weeks letting yourself off from the numerous tough choices that combine to create a healthy lifestyle.
It won’t feel easy no matter when you eventually begin, so it’s best to get it over with quickly. Rip off the band-aid. Jump in at the deep end. Do it now.
The sooner you get started and take the first workout or choose the healthy meal over the decadent option, the better you’ll feel. Once you’ve started, you’ve overcome the first hurdle to getting back to where you were before, and beyond.
2 — Don’t Be Surprised (or Demoralized) by the loss of form or fitness
During three weeks away, I managed to run twice, did a HIIT workout and took numerous long walks. We also did a fair amount of body-boarding in the Cornish surf. We relaxed but it was still an active holiday.
I was still surprised and disappointed by how much my fitness had slipped in a relatively short period of time once I came to exercise again.
I found I was running more slowly and felt worn-out more quickly. Weights that I’d previously lifted comfortably for multiple reps seemed too much to handle.
The lesson? Form and fitness are lost in a short space of time, but just as I had built these up before, so I will again now that I’m back on the path.
After a couple of weeks back on the programme it’s gradually coming back. I’m reminded that progress is slow and steady but that strength and endurance build in proportion to the efforts put in.
It now also feels instinctive, preferable even to eat healthily again. While I may enjoy certain foods in the moment, it’s good to be free of the accompanying digestive discomfort and lethargy now that I’m avoiding them again.
3 — Win Every Play
My notional vacation playbook is that I won’t deny myself or my family anything (within reason) — our family time away is our chance to relax and enjoy ourselves fully, a reward for the efforts we’ve each put in during normal life at work or school. Following many months of restricted living (in every sense) during lockdown, it seemed all the more important to ensure we enjoyed ourselves.
In practice, this meant that I enjoyed regular indulgent fried breakfasts, beers with lunch and dinner when the mood took me, and the enthusiastic and frequent consumption of bread — something that I routinely avoid. Bread is my kryptonite.
These indulgent micro-habits and choices quickly became routine. In addition to getting back to working out regularly, these have required a little attention and effort to correct since being back in the real world.
It may have seemed tempting to commit to switching them all overnight, but that was perhaps over-optimistic and destined to fail.
Instead, I’ve gone back to first principles and am trying to ‘win every play’; making more good choices than bad ones and allowing the effect of these to compound upon each other.
Instead of aiming for a month of no alcohol —I’m restricting booze to weekends and even then, only when a social occasion warrants it.
Rather than avoiding all desserts and sweet treats, these are limited to a weekly cheat day. Better still, I’m consciously choosing whether I really need these when they’re available, and hopefully arriving at the smart choice without feeling denied or restricted.
When we make the right choices often enough, sooner or later they’ll become instinctive and intuitive. That was where I was at pre-vacation and it’s where I’m aiming to get back to, once choice and one play at a time.
4 — Start Small and Start Slow
It seemed intuitive to get back into things as quickly and as vigorously as possible, particularly in terms of exercise. I’ve made the mistake in the past when embarking on new programs and diets, and it usually ends in injury or burnout.
Inexplicably I made a similar mistake during week one after vacation — I trained daily for the first six days (a mix of running, weight training and notably, no stretching). The result was both that I felt more demoralized than ever at the loss of strength. By day 7 I also needed a weekend off to recover to the point where I felt fit to train again.
This is NOT the way to do it.
I recommend starting small and starting slow — instead of a full hour workout, consider a half hour with liberal warmup and stretching before and after. If you’d normally run for time, consider a leisurely jog. If you’d usually jog, take a few long walks and build up.
Depending on how long you’ve lapsed for, it may seem excessive to go back to basics — maybe you don’t need to start like a complete novice if you’ve had a couple of weeks away? In my experience (as a 44 year old man in decent fitness) the body quickly adapts to taking it easy and needs a bit of time to ramp up to full activity too!
It seems far more sensible ramp up gradually so that you can maintain the fitness and motivation to train for the long-term rather than burning out or putting yourself out of action through injury?
5 — Remember that it’s a Journey for Life
The old adage “use it or lose it” has never seemed so true.
Taking three weeks off has reminded me that just as gains can be made and maintained with ease provided you commit to a lifestyle, they are easily lost when you stop.
Enduring health and fitness isn’t attained through weeks or months of effort only then to be enjoyed without maintenance. Gains can consistently be made over time, but require consistent effort to maintain too. That shouldn’t be seen as a chore, but rather as a feature or fact.
Life is such that very few of us can rely on being able to do the same things all the time without disruption.
Pleasurable events and activities will naturally interfere with our diet and exercise from time-to-time — vacations are a good thing!
Similarly, we are all susceptible to illness and injury and such things need to be respected if we’re to remain healthy — to train through illness is only likely to prolong it.
The important thing is that when we’re able to get back on the path to health and fitness, that we do so rather than becoming bogged-down in regret or procrastination for the lost time and progress.
Get started, do so in a slow and measured way, and seek to make more positive and healthy choices than negative ones when you do so.
Enduring health and fitness will undoubtedly follow as you build the positive habits back up!