It’s New Year’s Resolution time! I can tell a lot of people made them this year because I’ve been inundated with questions on how to actually stick to them this time. We all joke about how quickly we abandon New Year’s Resolutions, yet we make them year after year for a reason. It’s natural to want to improve yourself, and it’s also perfectly natural to stumble along the way and fall back into old habits.
To help everyone get off to a fast start, I wanted to give some simple tips to help you ease into your resolutions. Everyone wants fast results, but starting too quickly is more likely to lead to abandoning your resolutions than to success. These are some simple behaviors you can adopt that will set the base for new habits later. Just because something feels hard doesn’t mean it works better, and these tips will show you how easy making positive changes can be.
Don’t Eat After 7 PM
Intermittent fasting is one of the more popular fitness trends right now and for good reason. There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that intermittent fasting not only helps with weight loss, but can also improve your health and longevity and reduce your disease risk. Unfortunately, as with any good fitness trend, there is a lot of misinformation, bad advice, and ill-explained logic sprinkled throughout all the decent, scientifically-backed advice. This confusing mix of conflicting advice can make people’s first attempts with intermittent fasting much harder than it needs to be.
Should you do the 5:2 Method? The Warrior Diet? The 18:6 Method? My suggestion is start with none of them.
All these methods do work in their own way but some really test your willpower early. One of the big benefits of intermittent fasting is it reprograms a malfunctioning metabolism to better utilize stored fat for fuel. That’s also what can make it so challenging. If your body is used to a steady supply of carbohydrates for fuel (which is true of many Americans), it won’t switch to fat burning as easily and you’ll feel terrible and drained as you try to fast.
If you’re interested in intermittent fasting and the benefits it provides, try the simple step of not eating after 7 PM first. We were meant to eat and move during the day and sleep and regenerate at night. Eating at night has been shown to worsen the quality of your sleep, trigger overeating, and make you desire fatty junk foods that lead to weight gain. The act of eating at night is what causes you to eat so terribly at night (and into the next day). Even if it’s another snack after dinner, aim to cut yourself off at 7 PM and you’ll see your late-night appetite quickly go away as your body adapts to how it was designed to eat.
Don’t Give Your All
As a fitness company, we’re glad people resolve to exercise more each year, but we’re also acutely aware of how few of those people make it all the way to February. Getting fit extends your lifespan and improves the daily quality of your life, so there’s a reason why it’s at the top of most people’s New Year’s Resolutions. The problem is that most people want to catch up on all the exercise they skipped in one day. People start too fast, go too long, or work too hard and either burn out or get injured within a week.
People take the old adage of “no pain, no gain” a bit too literally. They think if a workout isn’t punishing then it isn’t working. There are a few problems with that:
- Going too hard right out the gate drastically increases your chance of injury.
- Giving your all at the gym means you’ll feel tired and miserable the rest of your day, so you’ll likely burn less calories total that day as you lie around exhausted.
- You’ll feel so sore the next day that you’ll move less the next day and it will also feel miserable.
- You’ll dread your workouts and rationalize excuses to avoid them.
The problem with taking a self-punishment approach to exercise is you will quickly realize “Oh wait, I don’t actually have to torture myself and I can just stop.”
My advice to anyone starting a new exercise routine is “Don’t give it your all, give it your half.” You should leave the gym, track, or road each time feeling like you could have gone twice as long. If you’re really eager to put in the hours to get into shape, give it your half and then do the other half later in the day. Or even better, give it your half every single day. Think of this comparison of 2 newcomers:
Newcomer 1 goes to the gym on Monday, hits it hard for an hour and then is so sore and exhausted that he can’t come back until Thursday. He tries to get in another hour but he’s still hurting, so he only does another tough 30 minutes. The idea of another workout that week sounds horrible, so that’s it for the week. Total time for the week: 90 minutes.
Newcomer 2 goes to the gym 20 minutes and leaves feeling refreshed. He actually feels good doing these 20-minute workouts that he does another 5 days that week. Total time for the week 120 minutes.
It’s why we have the term “farmer strength.” Farmers get incredibly strong slinging hay bails and performing all kinds of low-intensity lifts all day long. They don’t burn out their bodies in an hour and lie around recovering, but rather they maintain a consistent amount of lower-intensity training that results in impressive strength adaptations. This is also part of Russian strength training principles. They keep the intensity lower, vary the amount of reps frequently, and most importantly don’t give their all each workout (even when they feel they have more to give).
You can even apply this philosophy to HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts. There has been a lot of research on the benefits of short, intense exercise and the benefits are found in the work set, not in the recovery set. Too short of a rest break may make it feel harder, but it actually diminishes how hard you can work in subsequent sets, ultimately making it less effective. It’s OK to work hard for 30 seconds and then rest for 3 to 5 minutes during an HIIT cardio workout. One study found that 1 minute of intense activity improves aerobic endurance as much as 45 minutes of steady state training. The study actually broke that 1 minute down into 20 second sprint intervals on a bike interspersed with 2 minutes of low intensity cycling to recover. Other sources like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommend rest intervals of 4 to 4.5 minutes of low intensity training after an all-out intensity work set like 30 seconds of sprinting.
“Variety is the spice of life.” While a little variety in your day keeps things interesting, variety in your diet seems to just make you eat more. Whether looking at a single meal or an entire diet, it seems that people and animals consume far more when there are more options. We find novelty enjoyable so a lack of variety is also less taxing to your willpower. The last bite of something is never as satisfying as the first bite and eventually your body and brain will be satisfied and tell you that you’ve had enough. However, if you can switch to another food when you’re bored of the first one, you’ll end up eating more of both. The more options you add, the more you can eat of each before you grow tired of it all. The simplest way to control the majority of your daily calories is to eat the same breakfast and lunch each day and have a little variety in your dinners with friends and family. You don’t need to make it something you hate. Just eat a reasonable portion of a reasonably healthy meal and you’ll find it easier to cut back on your total calories.
Eat More Plants
Our understanding of how diet impacts your health truly exploded as we learned about the microbiome, the collection of trillions of good bacteria that inhabit your large intestines. When you feed these good bacteria healthy prebiotic fiber found in many fruit, vegetable, and dairy sources, they release metabolites that improve your health, reduce inflammation, and reinforce your immune system. These bacteria even manufacture important neurotransmitters that help stabilize your mood and feelings of well-being. One theory of why a high-fat, low fiber Western diet has triggered so many diseases like obesity, diabetes, cancer, and autoimmune diseases is because the lack of fiber killed off all the vital bacteria that keep us healthy. Before you even think about restricting your diet to lose weight, improve your health, etc, you should add some sort of whole plant to each meal. All the negative aspects of foods you hear about concerning red meat, salt, and saturated fat has more to do with the fact that the people that consume them aren’t eating them with any kind of fiber-rich vegetable. Simply adding fruits and vegetables back into the mix will reduce your calorie intake, improve your appetite control, and improve your health in ways you can’t imagine.
Start Small and Build
Try one or even all of these tips for a few weeks and then build from there. Build up the intensity of your workouts as you feel your energy levels improve and your body adapt to the new level of movement. Improve the quality of your diet as you build off of the plant-based part of your plate. You don’t need to be a vegetarian to be healthy. In fact, giving up all animal-based proteins makes it more challenging to meet your daily dietary needs. Don’t deprive yourself, just build up to a better quality plate and your normal appetite control mechanisms will start working properly once again. You don’t need to jump into a multi-day fast to lose weight. You’ll just test your willpower and make yourself feel miserable. But limiting night eating does lead to rapid improvements in your health and body composition. Eating at night interferes with the proper functioning of your appetite systems, so while it may feel a little harder the first few hours before bed, you’ll sleep through the toughest parts and quickly reprogram your chemistry so it’s working for you instead of against you.