Rarely does any health and fitness journey follow a straight line. Usually by the third week of January, good habits started in the high-motivation, high-energy early days of the new year begin to falter.
There are many reasons for this: going back to work or study, having a disruption to routine and forgetting why we wanted to change in the first place. Add in a pandemic – where we may be cycling in and out of lockdown, or our workplaces may be trying to bring us back after a long absence – and it becomes even harder to bed down a routine.
This week I’ve travelled interstate, had a weekend away with friends and started a new work project that – at least for the next few months – will be very time-consuming.
It’s only week three of 2021 and already my schedule is throwing up challenges. These are mostly to do with diet. My plans were to start recording what I ate in the Vision Fitness app and transitioning from a grab-and-go, high-fat, high-carb diet to something “cleaner” and less fatty. This did not happen. I got too busy to record my food in the app, although I did try to make better choices when I was eating out.
This led me to the question: how to stay on track when you get busy?
The mindset: find the why
Kate James, a life coach and author of Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life, says the thing to keep in mind this week is that “it’s all about balance”.
Getting a bit wobbly or questioning our health kick “is really typical for this time of year, three weeks in”, she says. “We think if we are achieving our goals, it might look a certain way; you are exercising every day, not drinking, only eating healthy food, but life gets in the way. It’s not going to be a straight trajectory.”
James advises that we “be kind to ourselves” and not beat ourselves up if we falter.
“It’s very easy to throw the whole thing out – say if you haven’t done exercise every day. A lot of people have an all-or-nothing mentality and say: oh well, I might as well go back to my old habits.”
I have my first in-person session with Vision Fitness Bondi Junction, where personal trainer Tania Drahonchuk spends an hour with me doing a thorough health questionnaire, weighing me and attaching me to a machine called a BioScan, which measured my body function age (hint, it’s older than my real age), muscle mass (OK, actually) and body fat percentage (needs work).
The session dug deep into motivation. Why do I want to get fit? What would be my reason for committing to regular exercise? And if I was committed to regular exercise, would I also commit to changing my diet?
“I’m committed!” I say to Tania after being freaked out by the BioScan. With a few keystrokes she books me in to four classes for next week.
“Four?!” But Tania is not giving me an out. I look at my diary and realise it is possible to do this – I just need to make exercise a priority.
On the floor of the gym I get chatting to a client, Rob, who lost more than 18kg last year. He attributes this to tracking his food on the Vision Fitness app, regular exercise and personal motivation.
He said his routine wasn’t always perfect – his mother got sick, there was a pandemic, he had to do a lot of exercise from home – but he achieved his goal. “I used to walk past McDonalds and just drop in for a burger – and now I haven’t had any fast food for a year. I wouldn’t touch the stuff!”
Dr Kate Gregorevic, a geriatrician and internal medicine physician, and author of the book Staying Alive, says: “We all start strong making the positive changes, but finding the ‘why’ is the key to motivation.”
For Rob, the motivation was improving his golf game. For some of Gregorevic’s clients, who are seniors, it’s “going up stairs, riding their bikes, basically maintaining independence for as long as possible”.
The fix: schedule – and be flexible
By week three we have had enough time with healthy new habits to “look at what was working – and what wasn’t working”, says James. “It might be that being rigid about something doesn’t work. So if you really want takeaway food on a Friday night, add in a longer walk on Saturday.”
In my situation, where travel was upending my healthy eating plans, James says to use a technique called “creating possibility”.
“If you have a negative thought, such as ‘I’m going to be at an Airbnb so I can’t eat healthily’, think about creating possibility. What could you do? It could be easy to throw together a salad and buy some smoked salmon instead of getting Uber Eats. We just have to create the possibility in our minds.”
It is dawning on me that the success – or otherwise – of a new habit is as a result of goal-setting, prioritising and scheduling, but also having a contingency plan or back-up when life gets in the way.
As well as “finding the why”, you also need to find the time.
“I’m a big fan of scheduling,” Gregorevic says. “It’s got to fit in with your life. Sometimes you may only do a 20-minute workout – compound movements like deadlifts and squats – and that will be enough.”
Gregorevic sits down once a week and schedules her exercise. “I have a busy life and it can feel like you don’t have time,” she says. “But I can schedule in two strength sessions a week of 30 to 40 minutes – sometimes with a trainer and sometimes by myself – and I do two other sessions of high intensity interval training.”
The action: I buy a diary and commit to spending 20 minutes each weekend to scheduling exercise for the coming week.