How are you doing with your New Year’s resolutions? We’ve just passed three months into the year and I’ve been reviewing progress against mine
A while back I wrote this article about the many ways that diet and exercise programs can fall apart. Being prepared doesn't always mean they can be avoided however! My goal in January (as it is at the start of most new years) was to kick-start a new, more committed, sustainable and consistent approach to my health going forwards.
As we're now into month three of the year it seems a good time review progress and pull out some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. One of the key learning points has been the importance of being accountable to others, and so publicly-sharing this update seems a logical way to proceed!
First and foremost, I’m pleased (and more than a little relieved) to report that I’m still firmly ‘on the horse’. I’ve managed over two months of consistent exercise and have stuck with my new way of eating (I’m not going to refer to it as a diet; more on why in a minute) for all that time. Aside from two weeks lost to illness (an infection and then a stomach bug) I’ve exercised a minimum of four times each week, and often more.
Acknowledging that it’s not always about the numbers and knowing that my body composition has altered visibly, it’s still useful to report progress like this. Regular weigh-ins on the same scales at the same intervals have revealed that:
- My overall weight has dropped from 202 pounds to 191 pounds
- My body fat percentage* has dropped from 16.4% to 13.9%
- My body fat mass has correspondingly dropped by just over 10 pounds
*My bathroom scales measure body fat percentage through use of bioelectronic impedance. I’m aware that this is considered sceptically in the fitness industry for its accuracy, but I use the numbers to indicate an overall trend. If nothing else, it keeps me interested and motivated!
Other effects that I’ve noted are a visible change to the look and feel of my body. I feel more toned, I’m on the last notch of my belt and clothes that were once tight, now feel baggy. At various unexpected places on my body (such as my arms and temples) there are veins visible that were presumably shrouded by fat previously. I can also see a suggestion of a six-pack emerging (well, four cans of it anyway).
And now onto what I’ve learned…
1) Healthy choices need to become the default
Willpower is a tricky subject. I believe that willpower is only required when you’ve not really decided and committed to a particular course of action. In the context of exercise, I’d be relying more upon willpower if I was internally in some doubt about whether I really wanted to pursue a more consistently healthy life.
I’ve found it surprisingly infrequent that I’ve had to call on willpower either to avoid or resist food choices that conflicted with my programme, or to overcome doubts and to attend the gym when I’d planned to do so. I don’t believe that this is a reflection of unusual determination on my part; instead I feel like I’ve committed to this as a new way of life, one that I know I need to and want to adopt in my life. I don’t question what I’m doing and why I’m doing it any more than I’d have such debates with myself about other aspects of my life that are baked in. I want it to be part of how I live.
2) A simple but sustainable diet
I was drawn to the Slow Carb Diet as a dietary framework for my efforts. Diets based on a low-carb regime have worked well for me in the past but after a bit of soul-searching, some personal experimentation and some well-meant brow-beating from the owner of one of the gyms I attend, I wanted to make the Slow-Carb regime a little more sustainable and less hard-core.
I’ve added carbs to my dietary intake on days when I’m exercising at the gym, usually in the form of sweet potato and occasionally porridge oats. These probably conflict with Slow Carb in the strictest sense, but it seems to work for me. I am shedding the fat, gaining muscle and don’t suffer the energy crashes that I did before I added the carbs in.
The other key principle is to ensure I maintain a caloric deficit (consuming less than I burn on a daily basis through tracking my calorie intake and output — see below for how I measure this).
I’m not here to sell you on my dietary regime, only to say that:
a) It seems to work for me
b) It feels sustainable for the long term
Both of these factors are equally important; I couldn’t commit to anything that didn’t tick both of these boxes. The other reason it works for me is because of…
3) Cheat Day!
I won’t bore you with the science behind this, since I don’t fully understand it. Maybe it’s psychological, or maybe there’s more to it than that. Either way, one day each week (usually Saturday) I eat whatever the hell I want, and as much of it as I like.
Seriously… 3 packets of Reeses Peanut Butter cups in one go? No problem. Beers with lunch? Yes please.
I don’t track my calorie intake on cheat day. Instead, through the week I keep a mental note of the things I would like on cheat day and then I go for it when Saturday comes. It limits the sense of deprivation without feeling like the one day when I can truly live… it’s just the day when I eat and drink the things I don’t consume the rest of the time.
Two interesting side effects have emerged from cheat day. First, when I was starting out I would go to bed on a Saturday night feeling thoroughly sick, as I’d overdone it. I’ve learned that permission to eat whatever I want and in whatever quantity becomes largely self-regulating since the wrong things in big quantities don’t make me feel good.
The other lesson is that by the end of cheat day I’m ready for another 6 days of restrained and healthy living again; the two styles of eating seem to balance each other out perfectly.
4) Tracking numbers helps
Aside from a weekly weigh-in (always on a Saturday morning before eating or drinking anything), I’ve found it really useful to track details and numbers using a Fit-Bit Charge 2 fitness tracker. Using this gadget combined with the app on my phone, tracks my heart-rate, steps, calories burned (throughout the day and during periods of exercise), as well as my sleep patterns (which I find fascinating).
I also log what I’ve eaten via the app and while I don’t weigh and measure things religiously (for that would be arduous and incompatible with my life) I’ve become pretty good at estimating (or slightly over-estimating) the quantities of food I eat.
I’m a reasonably big guy so I can seemingly rely on burning more than the average 2500 calories that a male gets through, just by being alive. I’ve steadily maintained a not-particularly-starvation-inducing 2000 calories per day on average and that seems to be producing results. If on a given day I train and eat 2500 then it doesn’t hamper progress.
5) Keep it simple
The single-most powerful lesson of the last 3-months has been the power of keeping things simple. It works well for me to limit the choices and the options open to me. That way, I don’t end up expending time, energy or thought on debating things endlessly, by introducing needless choice.
I don’t debate whether I feel like training on a day-by-day basis, but instead plan out my schedule for the week, which classes I’ll attend, which programmes I’ll do on a given day (if training alone) and then I execute. I tolerate no excuses from myself.
My weekly dietary intake has minimal variation, and I like it that way. The Slow Carb diet recommends a relatively small range of foods, and within the bounds of this (along with my own variations) I pretty much eat the same core meals week-in and out. Of course, when we eat out, or as guests of friends or family then I adapt, but it’s still possible to retain the same basic principles no matter where you are.
I’ve also tried to remove any variables from my life that would complicate or interfere with the lifestyle I’m pursuing and I’ve added things that help and encourage it. I have home exercise equipment set up and ready. My running shoes are permanently by the front door and ready to go.
It’s also helped that my wife is on the same journey as me too!
5) Maintain the interest
While variety is lacking in some aspects of my life (through the deliberate removal of variables), I’ve ensured that I keep myself motivated and interested through variation in what I do for exercise. I attend a variety of Les Mills HIIT classes (Body Attack, Body Combat, GRIT Cardio, Strength and Plyo) online via their app, as well as training with a Personal Trainer online too, in my living room or occasionally in the garden if the weather is good.
I’ve also rediscovered my love of cycling after a joyful (if painful) 98km bike ride last weekend that reintroduced me to hours spent in the saddle and rolling through the countryside.
Variety helps to maintain motivation and interest, as do the mini personal-challenges that I’ve set myself. I made the mistake of mentioning an ambition to do handstand push-ups and muscle-ups to my Personal Trainer. While I’m still a long way off these, it led to a session where she helped me to see how close (and how far!) I am from being able to do both. I’m certain that they’ll appear in forthcoming sessions and I hope in the next quarterly update (or the one after that!) to be able to report further progress.
When we think of New Years resolutions, many consider them with disdain as short-term hopes and dreams that will gradually fail over time. I have been as guilty as most of making big promises to myself and others, and then letting these slip.
My goal as I got back to healthier living this year was to adopt a practice that is sustainable, for life, not just a short or medium term hack to get to a particular point only to let it slip. I feel that the last 3 months have set solid foundations for just that. Let’s see what I can build on top of those foundations by the time July comes around!
p.s. 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 :-)