Brad is a university lecturer with a master’s degree in Kinesiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He has competed as a drug-free bodybuilder, is a cancer survivor, and a 21 year veteran of the Air National Guard. Brad has been a Primer contributor since 2011.
Getting in better shape seems to be an ongoing roller coaster for so many of us. We start the new year off with a bang, complete with a new diet, new workout, and a new commitment. But then predictably fall off the wagon and wind up back at our old habits like a childhood security blanket.
We’ll continue this process of restarting and failing over and over again. It’s a sick game we play with no winners.
You know what to do
This all or nothing mentality is a tricky one. On one hand it’s a powerful and absolute tactic designed to overhaul not only our lifestyle and habits, but also attempts to shift our attitude and bolster our motivation for a major change.
The fact of the matter is that we already possess the foundational knowledge to be successful. We all know some of the basics of eating right, which foods are toxic to our goals, and the necessity and benefits of exercise and leading an active lifestyle.
So, this massive overhaul we subject ourselves to over and over again may seem like overkill. Smaller changes of our existing habits will have greater and longer lasting benefits for change, and not to mention be easier to implement.
Think of it this way: one doesn’t begin running with the goal of a marathon by running 26.2 miles the first day. We take our existing ability and slowly build on it over time.
Again, we know what to do, we just need a plan to get there without turning our world upside down.
How to develop better habits
Any type of behavior change is a product of cultivating effective daily habits. Focusing on the day-to-day practice of a new habit is a far more potent strategy than aiming for some abstract, ill-defined goal.
Yes, we need goals, but the best bet is to set our goal and then work on the daily process of how we’ll actually get there.
And it is a daily process.
A 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology concluded it may take from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit. Don’t freak out yet, it went on to conclude that the average amount of time for a behavior to become automatic was 66 days .
Now, reflecting back on some of the “bad” habits you’ve ingrained into your brain over the years makes 66 days feel like a drop in the bucket of time. It also becomes painfully apparent that reaching your goals isn’t about designing the big, audacious plan, turning over a new leaf, or changing who you are. It’s more about focusing on daily practices which will have a compounding versus an overnight transformation.
Let’s start with what we eat. How can we eat better without the fanfare of going from potato chips to tofu? The trick is to start small. Start with something that is easy and nearly unnoticeable such as cutting out soft drinks three times per week or changing only one meal per day into a healthier option.
For example, you may either skip breakfast or eat a sugar-laden meal first thing in the morning. Now you can decide to start your day off with a healthy breakfast complete with protein, complex carbs, and fiber. It may be something like oatmeal mixed with fruit and a cup of Greek yogurt.
Again, this is nothing monumental: Just one small change to enact over a month or two until it becomes your new, automatic behavior. Changing that one small thing will eventually lead to another and another having a very powerful and compound influence on your mental discipline. In turn, you’ll build real momentum to change another behavior.
This act is much like building strength. It’s a slow but highly effective process which will help cultivate other strengths along the way.
Now let’s take a look at a few eating behaviors we can realistically change without trying to reinvent the wheel.
Remember, only attempt putting one to three of these into practice at one time as to not get too overwhelmed:
Losing body fat
- Drink more water: Place a half-gallon container of water in your refrigerator and plan to empty it by the end of the day.
- Plan your meals: This will reduce snacking throughout the day.
- Cook ahead: This will prevent you from grabbing fast food on the go.
- Eat slower: Taking your time eating will enable your brain to receive the message that your stomach is full so you’ll overeat less.
- Look forward: If you’re on a calorie reduced eating plan, having a cheat meal for the weekend will allow you something to look forward to and strengthen your adherence.
- Stay aware: Be conscious of what you’re eating and how it tastes. Being present with your food will give you more control of what you eat.
- Ditch the scarcity mentality: We often subconsciously believe that a food we desire is in short supply therefore we must eat it now. Remember that we live in a time where food is plentiful.
- Plan your meals: As with losing fat, building muscle will require quality calories unlike fast food. Prep your meals and never be without.
- Focus on protein: As the building block of building muscle, protein is also vital for keeping you satiated.
- Get complex: Focus on complex carbohydrates as your main source of energy. This will keep your blood sugar leveled as well.
- Avoid fasting: Even though many iterations of fasting diets are trendy at the moment, they aren’t as effective at building muscle.
- Break up your meals: Taking in more calories can be tough. Break your meals into smaller, more frequent portions.
- Reduce alcohol: If you indulge, start reducing your consumption gradually.
- Grow slowly: Don’t rush the muscle-building process. Have patience.
- Place your gym clothes and shoes next to your bed at night to make it easier to go first thing in the morning.
- If you have a hard time getting to the gym, reduce the expectation of what happens when you get there. Allow yourself to only have to do one set. On days you’re feeling unmotivated or busy, this will make it less likely that you skip altogether. The great thing is, usually, once you get yourself there you never stop at one set.
Is this you? You see a trendy workout program online and jump on it only to see another one a month later and are tempted to try it? This is called program hopping. We see shiny things and keep shifting our attention resulting in little or no results. We then conclude that we just aren’t cut out for this fitness stuff and quit.
Or maybe you’re the type who works out and is stuck in a continuous plateau, ever to desire more fat loss or more muscle gain.
For those who program hop the solution is to pick one sound program and stick with it for at least three months. Those who are standing still will need to adopt the fact that something will need to change in order to progress.
Both groups, however, will be best to practice small changes versus overhauling their programs.
Just as with diet, it’s the small shifts compounded over time that will have the most effect.
Training to get leaner or build muscle isn’t rocket science. Placing energy and resistance demands on the body will spur it to change accordingly by burning body fat and building muscle tissue, respectively.
Let’s look at a few things we can do on a daily level to spur these changes.
- Go for a walk: High intensity cardio is great, but start smaller and plan to walk for 15 minutes per day for three days per week.
- Lift weights: If losing fat is the goal, be sure to throw in a short weight training session twice per week.
- Talking pace: When performing cardio, you should still be able to hold a conversation.
- Try something new: If you’ve been doing the same type of cardio and need a change, try something you’ve never done before, eg., swimming.
- Sports count: Cardio doesn’t have to be long, boring bouts on the treadmill. A game of basketball counts too.
- Stand and walk more: Take the stairs, configure your work area into a standing desk, set a timer to get up and walk every hour.
- Limit screen time: When we look at our devices we tend to sit for long periods and lose track of time. Make a plan to limit and schedule screen time each day.
- Do the basics: Simplify and focus on the big, compound lifts and cut out all the unnecessary fluff.
- Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it: If you’ve been on a program for less than four weeks, keep going and give it a thorough try.
- Commit: If you’re new to lifting, start with two full body weight training sessions per week for 30 minutes each.
- Keep a journal: Record your exercises, sets, reps, and weight used for motivation and progress.
- Ask for help: Hire a trainer or get a lifting partner for extra motivation, accountability, and education.
- Progress: Aim to add more reps and/or more weight to one exercise per week.
- Stay the course: No matter how slow your process is, stay in your world and inch forward to develop and solidify those new habits.and behaviors.
Eating better and working out harder is a marathon not a sprint. Building those behaviors will take time and require you to take the small steps forward in order to progress. If you want those new and improved habits to stick then you’ll need to play the long game. Think of where you’ll be in a year from now if you didn’t.