At 44-years of age, I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two in my life. I’ve had a few different jobs, succeeding in some and failing in others. I’ve made some good investments and I’ve wasted a lot of money. I’ve thrived in some of my creative ventures and others have tanked.
Like many, I’ve also seen my weight and my fitness-levels yo-yo over the years as I’ve followed various diet and exercise regimes and then abandoned them after a few weeks or months.
As such, I think I’ve got a fair amount of insight into what works and what doesn’t. I’m average enough that many of my lessons will apply to others too.
I’m not blessed with an unusually quick or slow metabolism, nor do I possess a genetic bias towards superhuman endurance or physical resilience. I get fat, bored, tired and injured just like everyone else.
At just over 6 feet tall I’ve weighed as much as 250 pounds, and as little as 180 in adult life. Over the years I’ve been occasionally fit and active, and at other times, lethargic and lazy.
With all that said, I’m nearing the end of month number nine of what is likely my most consistent period of healthy living in my life. I’m at all-time peak levels of fitness and weigh 200 pounds. I don’t want to put a curse on it, but I think I might just have cracked it.
What I want to share here are some of the biggest slip-ups that I’ve made over the years as I’ve followed (and failed) diet and exercise programs in the past.
Forewarned is forearmed and I hope that through sharing these lessons, you might avoid similar mistakes.
In no particular order then, here are the pitfalls to avoid:
1 - Not listening to your coach or not following the program
If you invest your time and money in a plan, whether that’s membership at a gym or with a weight-loss group, a diet plan, a recipe book or in coaching with a personal trainer, why would you not then follow the advice?
Maybe we think we know best, or we believe that a few corners-cut, exercises missed, or ingredients left-out or substituted, won’t make a difference. These things DO make a difference.
Why would you commit to a program and then not follow it to the letter?
I’ve got a mental block about eating carbohydrates after a particularly effective loss of 40 pounds on the Atkins Diet back in around 2005. I’ve had numerous Personal Trainers tell me that I need to eat carbs to achieve my goals and yet only this week I’ve had to be reminded of this fact. AGAIN.
2 - Eating more than you should as you think you’ve earned the extra calories
If you’re trying to lose weight or alter body composition, you may be monitoring the calories you eat and tracking the calories you burn. You may think you’ve earned an extra ‘cheat meal’, a second portion or an indulgent treat as you’ve been working out super-hard.
Generally, we will over-estimate how many calories we’ve burned and under-estimate how many calories we’ve eaten. If you’re giving extra-effort to your workouts and are following your diet plan to the letter, let your reward be quicker progress towards your goals, not a donut as a special treat for your efforts.
3 - Doing too much, too soon and getting injured, bored or demoralised
Many are the times when I’ve kick-started a new exercise plan with a daily workout for two weeks straight. I’ve started out on new diets figuring that I’ll eat even less than the program suggests, thinking that I’ll get better results a lot quicker. Such gung-ho endeavours generally lead to the same place; either I’m burned out within the first month through exhaustion or injury, or I’m feeling so deprived and malnourished that another day on the diet seems too much to bear.
My current regime has worked for me for so long as it’s designed to be sustainable and enduring, hopefully for life. I’m not trying to shock my body and achieve overnight results, but rather to build healthy habits for life in my eating and my exercise. It’s because I’ve eased into it and gradually built up to the levels of training that I’m at now, that I’m still doing it, and haven’t been side-lined by injury or lost the will to carry on.
4 - Being impatient for results or looking in the wrong place for gains and improvements
In a few instances over the years I’ve gradually lost interest in programs as I felt like I wasn’t seeing the benefits. We all need the occasional boost to spur us on when times are tough, but often my measure of progress has been strictly confined to the numbers on the bathroom scales. If my weight wasn’t going down, then the program simply wasn’t working.
Progress can be exhibited in many ways, through inches lost around our waist and at other key points, in body-fat and body-water percentages and muscle-mass. All of these could fluctuate without overall body weight changing. Then there are other measures that could signify progress; levels of fitness and endurance may improve, but more fundamentally we may just feel less breathless and not quite as sweaty after climbing a few stairs; those too would signify real progress. Look beyond the number on the scales.
5 - Losing momentum or self-belief too quickly
Most regimes that aren’t based on starvation, use of bizarre or even dangerous drugs or bespoke diet products masquerading as real food, will demand time and consistency for their effects to show.
Too often in the past I’ve started out strong and with good intentions, but lost the faith in myself or the plan I was following, long before the results had started to show or the good habits had become embedded in my life. The result was usually that I ended up back where I started. Momentum takes time to build; once you’ve got going, it’s imperative that you stick with it and allow the results to come.
6 - Letting one or two slip-ups trigger an avalanche
We all have bad days when, in spite of our best intentions we make a poor choice. We may accept the cake that’s offered to us, or we may be persuaded to skip a workout and instead go for drinks with friends. The danger is that one slip-up is followed by another and another, each justifying the next one. Before we know it, we’re back where we began, having fallen off the horse entirely.
We will occasionally lose our resolve, or it may be practically or logistically impossible to stick to the regime for a day or two. What’s crucial when it happens is to accept it, and then move on, getting back with the program as soon as possible.
7 - Too much experimentation with diet and exercise supplements
There’s a baffling range of products that can be bought online or in sports-supplement stores, which promise to speed our weight-loss, supercharge our workouts and enhance our body composition via fat-burning and muscle-growth. Many of these may be effective when used appropriately by professional body-builders and athletes, but most of them are likely to be excessive, bordering on useless for the average person.
I’ve experimented with a few over the years (including BCAA’s, Leucine, ZMA and Creatine) and have also spent a small fortune on protein supplements. Of all of them, a decent protein powder is probably the only one that has had some benefit for me. It’s about the only one that an average person might consider using, and then mostly if it’s treated as a super-food or food-supplement rather than something that can make up for poor diet or inconsistent exercise.
It’s not a miracle cure!
The same principle holds for sugary sports-drinks that promise exceptional rehydration or an energy boost. Most of us don’t need such drinks; water is fine! If you consume these, you’re likely only to increase your caloric intake and slow your overall progress as a result.
8 - Losing out on sleep for exercise or not recognising the role sleep plays in health
I’ve heard a few trainers refer to sleep as one of the most significant contributors to improving our health and losing weight. Sleep aids recovery from exercise and it’s also essential for ensuring our metabolism is balanced; maybe you’ve experienced the heightened hunger that follows a poor night of sleep when our body seeks to make up for the lack of energy by craving more food.
I’ve fallen foul of this before, kidding myself that getting up extra early for a bonus workout before breakfast was worth the lost sleep. I’ve then wondered why my results were disappointing and why I was lacking in energy for a workout later in the day. Sleep is essential to many aspects of life, as well as for fitness and weight-control. Ignore it at your peril!
9 - Stagnating or sticking with one exercise or not progressively overloading or changing your routine
I’ve occasionally managed to commit to a program for a number of months, only to find that results plateaued. This was usually because I’d become too habitual in doing the same exercises at the same intensity, workout after workout without ever changing things up.
The body needs to be ‘shocked’ now and again, and even if we’re doing the same selection of exercises over the course of a week or a month, we should be looking to progressively increase the weights we’re lifting, the number of repetitions that we do, and the distance and speed that we’re running.
Progressively overloading our exercise means gradually pushing our body to get faster, more powerful and stronger. If your exercise starts to feel easier, that’s great as you’re probably accustomed to it. The bad news is that it should never feel easier, the weights should just get heavier.
10 - Developing mental-blocks towards particular exercises
Everyone, myself included seems to have the exercises they love, and the ones they hate. My wife hates burpees. She’d rather walk barefoot across broken glass than do a set of ten of them. I used to have a mental block about running, having persuaded myself that my knees were unsuited to it.
When we build up such mental-blocks, we establish barriers in our minds that will gradually get bigger and bigger as we add more exercises to the list that we can’t do or don’t enjoy. Eventually we’ve dissuaded ourselves from setting foot in the gym at all.
The things we most want to avoid are those that we probably most need to do. If you are dreading a particular exercise that’s part of your regime, you may as well accept that it’s there for a reason and get on with doing it. Far better to prove to yourself that there’s nothing to fear, or at least that you can do it in spite of hating it than to start developing hang-ups about it.
You’re the boss of your mind, not the other way around.
Diet and exercise regimes are hard. We start out on them with the best of intentions but like all things that are worth doing, there are always obstacles we have to overcome and pitfalls to avoid if we’re to succeed. Tackle them head on, don’t go around them.
I urge you to keep these pitfalls in mind as you commit to your program. Ignore them at your peril!
I’m not a dietician, a personal trainer or a doctor. I’m just a guy trying to live a healthier life. If you’re interested in doing the same, go for it; just don’t take anything I’ve shared above as advice or suggestion — seek out professional guidance as I have.