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Finding What Works for You (Trial and Error in Fitness Pursuits II)

On the last post, I promised to provide you with some guidance on how you can beat the motivation drought that inevitably arises on your fitness journey. Please see them below, and read on knowing that no one solution works for everyone (hence the phrase, ‘trial and error’)

Planning—your best friend in any goal you have is planning. The benefits of planning ahead will show themselves on those days when you feel like you just don’t care.

Example? I knew I needed to eat more homemade and healthier meals for the sake of my heath and my wallet; however, I could not seem to find the motivation to prepare meals in advance. An added obstacle was my unpredictable schedule in which no single day was exactly the same. However, after observing my weekly hour allotment and where/ how I spent my time, I discovered that if I were to consistently go to sleep earlier and wake up earlier, I could simultaneously prepare breakfast and a simple lunch and snacks for the day.

I understand that this method simply will not fit the lifestyles of some readers. Maybe your schedule is more hectic, maybe your job requires more late hours and waking up earlier will only make things worse. I am not suggesting you use the method above. I am asking that you take a look at your week and determine where you could potentially carve out time to devote to whatever it is you are trying to accomplish.

I  believe that most people who say they “don’t have time” would be surprised by how much time they could find in their week if they objectively looked at how they spend their time. A lot of people kill hours in a single week watching T.V. without even realizing it. Some people (particularly students like me), spend hours “studying” in semi-productive sessions. I can’t tell you how many days I passed so-called studying, not realizing that I could have been far more productive by planning pre-allotted blocks of time dedicated to focused studying. This method is particularly effective because the illusion/ comfort of having “all day” to study has been stripped from your mind.

But I digress. The point here is that planning and giving yourself deadlines works wonders. If I said I would turn off Netflix at 10 p.m. to go to sleep, that is what I did. And I quickly learned that by keeping these small promises to myself, I reaped immediate benefits (more stamina throughout the day, better mood, more focus). I also discovered that I work and focus far better in the morning than in the afternoon or evening, so now I do most of my important studying/ work in the early hours.

For your own journey, simply consider one small change you can implement tomorrow morning, and see if you can follow through for the week. See if you feel it’s making you more productive in achieving your particular goal. If you feel that it’s working, keep that small promise to yourself and let it become a part of your routine. If you feel you can add other small changes, continue to do so. We quit things and give up when we feel that it is too overwhelming or that we are incapable of bringing a specific result to fruition. Approaching change in small doses gives you small victories that all add up to the same sense of satisfaction in the end. Keeping these small promises also makes following through so much easier.

Convenience (making missteps harder to justify)—A related but separate aspect of planning that may sound somewhat counter-intuitive is convenience. Making things convenient for yourself will also make follow-through easier to accomplish.

For some reason, people feel the need to prove how capable they are by making things far more difficult than they need to be. Pushing through hard times is one thing, Cultivating difficulty to prove a false sense of strength to your ego is another. I’d rather lead a simple and effective lifestyle than a complicated ineffective one.

Example? As a part of my PT Certification course, I got access to the university gym. However, it was a 30 minute bike ride from my house. Now, some people may think that that’s not so bad; however, that distance from my house made it all too easy to justify skipping a workout. “Oh, I don’t want to stop by the gym on the way home from work, only to have to bike half an hour to get home afterwards”. “I don’t want to get up and out of bed and go all the way to the gym, I’ve worked hard this week”. You may agree with me or find my excuses lame, but the point is that I made these excuses because I created a situation that was inconvenient and “out of the way,” making it much easier to convince myself it wasn’t worth it in times of low motivation.

I identified this problem and asked myself how I could eradicate this excuse and came up with a plan. If I gym searched or found some sort of fitness studio closer to my house, it may encourage me to go more often, or make me feel less justified in skipping a workout. It worked. I found a place that was literally on the route back from work and school and was only about 7-10 minutes via bike from my doorstep. Hard to talk yourself out of that. Especially when your dishing out the extra money for the membership. The frequency of my excuses and skipping workouts plummeted—all because I decided to keep things convenient.

NEAT—NEAT or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenisis, is just a fancy way of saying the calories/ energy you burn doing smaller less strenuous activities throughout the day—things you would not consider to contribute in any significant way to weight-loss. NEAT activities contribute to your overall daily energy expenditure (think of activities from toe tapping and fidgeting to working at a standing desk during a segment of your work shift or taking those ‘10,000 steps a day’). Many times when people have hit a plateau in their weight-loss, they discover that actively increasing their NEAT activity could help bust them through it.

Example? When I first started my fitness journey I was incredibly enthusiastic. I was exercising 5-6 days per week and seeing great improvements in my mood and energy levels. However, as I continued this high level of activity on restricted calories, I found myself taking the elevator more, feeling lethargic and spending more free time in bed. I did none of this consciously, I just felt a dip in energy levels and responded accordingly. Now, a good tip for anyone in a plateau who feels this story is familiar, I would advise adding about 250-350 calories into your daily diet and seeing if that improves your energy levels and if your plateau breaks. If not, you may need to try a different approach (to be discussed in a future post).

If you are on a weight-loss journey and find yourself in a plateau that’s eating away at your motivation, you may consider consciously reintegrating more NEAT activities into your life as well (make yourself take the stairs, walk to the corner store instead of driving, consciously fidget, etc.).

Sharing (blog/vlog/ fitness community)—I have found that those who share their experiences with others in whatever format they deem most natural/ comfortable enables them to feel more driven in completing whatever it is they have shared.

Example? I am generally a very private person and the idea of sharing my fitness journey with others makes me uncomfortable. So while, I had been wanting to write a blog for years on my journey, it never felt ‘right’ to me. However, I did find an online community on Facebook and Tumblr that still shared encouraging and motivating posts that helped me through my own journey, pushing me through those times of low motivation. When I knew that going for a workout would require more energy than I felt like expending, I would open one of those apps and get a dose of motivation to yank me out of my rut.

Experiment—The most frustrating part of this entire approach to weight-loss and lifestyle change is the constant sense of failure you may feel once you determine that a specific meal plan or eating pattern does not suit you. I’ve tried Atkins, extremely low calorie (bordering on unhealthy obsession), veganism, macronutrient counting, calorie counting, intermittent fasting, and out-of-control-I-don’t-give-a-crapism (more of a response to dieting rather than an actual diet). While it is not as extensive as others who have been in the dieting cycle, I feel the experience is broad enough to lend one crucial insight:

No one way is the right way. All of these approaches work—you lose weight. Why? Because they put you in some sort of deficit and lead you to make changes in your eating habits, usually healthier ones. Your body responds and it is the same response every time. You take in less energy than your body needs to function, you lose more stored energy to make up for it (weight-loss). It is a quite simple concept that is pushed on you in different packaging throughout the year, usually costing you more money when you could do it on your own with the right education about basic nutrition and human physiology.

Simply put, experiment but don’t take these dieting fads too seriously and don’t look upon them as the answer to your woes. Especially diets that put things in black and white terms (e.g. ‘bad foods’ vs. ‘good foods’). The body does not distinguish a “good” calorie from a “bad” one, per se. However, someone who lives off of fast and poorly-sourced foods will eventually see negative consequences in their bodies. It is important to make clear that despite this ultimate reaction of the body in being overly exposed to nutrient poor foods, it is not the innate characteristic of the food that does the damage. It is the extent to which you consume them and the type of lifestyle you lead. The body needs nutrients. Nutrients are how our cells are able to function, cells in their multitude of functions keep us alive and repair our bodies daily. If you continually consume nutrient-poor foods while leading a sedentary lifestyle and not taking care of your overall health, how else do you expect the body to react? You are forcing it to run on inefficient fuel.

Consider the athletes you may have known in high school or college; did you notice that many of them eat absolute crap? Yet somehow they were not overweight or even unfit. They even appeared to be able to adequately perform in their sport. How the hell did that happen? Firstly, understand that athletes by definition are very active individuals that burn many more calories in their daily activities than the average person. And because the body does not distinguish a junk food calorie from a whole food calorie, their bodies are able to burn all crap calories as fuel in their workouts. There is still, however, the question of how a nutrient-poor diet will affect their overall performance and long-term health (especially when they are no longer playing their sport). Many of them are still at risk for the development of diseases that come with a poor diet—such as heart disease. And the ones that are able to avoid those illnesses through the execution of intense exercises have the genetic disposition to do so [“Poor Diets and Great Athletes”]. We are not all so lucky.

All of that was a long way of making one very simple point: nutrition, dieting, and weight-loss are complicated, which is why experimenting is a necessary part of the weight-loss process. A friend may tell you that counting calories worked wonders for them, you try it and find it time-consuming and anxiety-inducing. Should you stick to it or find another method that fits your personality and lifestyle?

I argue that anything that holds your attention the longest, anything that is sustainable for you, is a good idea as long as you are feeding your body adequate amounts of nutrient-rich foods and seeing results. Occasionally consuming junk foods will not put all of your lost weight back on; it is about controlling your intake and ensuring that you consume food that actually feeds your body and allows it to do its job–keep you alive and as healthy as possible.

Understand that failure is a part of the process– If you choose to look at it as failure, that is. Constantly seeking out the alternative is an exhausting cycle but I would like you to keep this one very important concept in mind: The ultimate goal, beyond mere weight-loss, is a healthier happier lifestyle in which food obsession is minimal or non-existent. The key here is consistency. You must engage the change long enough to see if it is practical but be willing to let go if it is not a good fit.

I knew I wanted to lose weight, but I what I wanted even more than that was freedom from the worrying and the obsession. I wanted to be like those people who didn’t really think about food until they were hungry, at which point they ate until they were no longer hungry. So simple. Yet for someone who was raised in a household in which food played a very emotional role in our lives, it was difficult to escape that coping mechanism. How does someone who has always relied upon food as a crutch for all emotions, even positive ones uncover new ways of dealing with interruptions and uncomfortable emotions? How does one “lose” that taste for junk food that was a big part of his or her household?

These are difficult questions to answer and depend largely on what particular set of obstacles are in your way. You may not be an emotional/ binge eater like me. Maybe eating normally comes naturally to you but you struggle around exercise, maybe you are trapped in a weight-loss plateau. Everyone has their cross to bear and it is a valid struggle because it concerns you and you want a way out.

Final Thoughts—In all of this I want to remind you of one very important and key factor in your journey towards change—be kind to yourself while being realistic as well.

What  does this mean? There may be a time when you’ve had a hard day at work and you feel you really deserve that giant meal or that giant piece of cake or to skip that workout. In those moments I want you to ask yourself a fair question. Where is the ¼ or ½ way point to this extreme, so that I’ll still feel like I accomplished something while not screwing over my goals? Go back to my story about convenience when I would skip a workout because I felt I earned it after working hard all week. What if I had decided to go for a walk? Or a bike ride? I would have still got some activity in, but would have still felt like I got to rest.

Remember, in times of exhaustion or high emotion we can justify anything. If you scale back what your tired mind is telling you to do, you will begin to feel a sense of strength and control that may toughen your resolve on your journey. And as always, find your way through the tumultuous journey of trial and error.

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Trial and Error in Fitness Pursuits

When I was 23 years old I weighed 263 pounds (119.5 kg). It was the heaviest I had ever been in my life; however, I was never a thin child or young woman. My eating habits were such in my household growing up that by the time I was 19, I had my gallbladder removed due to gallstones (fatty build-up). My diet consisted of whatever my emotions told me I needed in the moment, usually from some sort of take-out. I was, without a doubt, a very emotional eater, and to a degree, an undiagnosed binge eater as well. Over time I developed rituals that are very much in line with the behavior of binge eaters or many people who have disordered eating. I ate in secret or in isolation, I craved very specific foods in a particular order (i.e. a Chinese plate combo, with a bag of potato chips, sour straw candies, a chocolate bar, and something to drink—usually an Arizona tea). And most importantly, these foods had to be consumed under specific conditions: in my comfort zone (usually my dorm room/ bedroom), while watching a show (usually on Netflix). Usually it was dark; the blinds were closed. And I completely faded into a blissful, shameful, comforting, guilt-laden experience. This was something I did regularly, the only change being the main entree that day.

Clearly I was dealing with issues, which will be discussed in a later post. However, I share this experience with you so that you can understand exactly how much I sympathize with being unable to defeat poor eating habits. My eating ritual had (and to a degree today, still have) a very firm grip on me and how I cope with stress, boredom and difficult emotions. It is my default. I don’t think that part of me will ever disappear completely.

Since the age of 23, when I decided to lose the weight and change my habits, it has been an upward battle of trial and error. A series of short-lived successes and complete failures are what I have to show for my experiences with weight loss. I made some very big changes that have enabled me to keep some of the weight off (I am currently around 205-210 pounds. In the past few years, I have fluctuated between 195-220 pounds never quite able to move beyond my lowest weight (a short-lived 184 pounds).

I would wager that if  you’re reading this you’re dealing with or know someone who is dealing with this struggle of the dieter’s cycle as well: thinking something sounds interesting, giving it a try “starting Monday,” and depending on the plan itself, you either barely last a week or you get along fine for a few months before those old nasty habits slowly creep back in and began to dominate your behaviors once again.

You’re also probably thinking that it’s all you—you’re the failure that couldn’t hack the sacrifices necessary to meet your goals. Well to a certain degree that’s true; you couldn’t hack it. Who can? Diets are not meant to be long-term solutions. They are short-cuts (sometimes ineffective ones) that give short-term weight loss, without a well thought-out exit plan, that is. Long-term weight loss is the result of small sustainable changes implemented over time that 1) enable the individual (you) to feel more in control, capable and relaxed in his/ her eating habits, and 2) allow the body to adjust to the changes being made without shocking it to such an extent that you inflict metabolic damage (mostly in extreme cases, i.e. contestants on The Biggest Loser).

Our biggest challenge is the desire of so many people to achieve a quick fix—lose the 20 or 30 pounds for the wedding/ vacation. Or, “I have a wave of motivation now. I don’t know how long I can maintain it. So let’s lose this weight as quickly as I can!”. Well, I have some very liberating frustrating beautiful terrifying news for you.

Relying on the feeling of motivation alone will likely lead to failure or stagnation in the long-term.

This may seem counter-intuitive; however, motivation is so fluid and unreliable, you cannot depend upon it to get you through those times when you literally have no motivation to push through. I’ve been stuck in a mindset where no matter how badly I wanted that dream physique, I just could not bring myself to care that week what I ate, how much I ate or if I exercised. Motivation, like will-power can fluctuate within a single day. You cannot expect to consistently run on a tank that suddenly flashes from full to empty mid-journey.

That’s what we’re up against. That’s reality.

“Well, Crystalkay,” (you might be asking), “if I don’t utilize motivation, which is the only source of fuel I have, how can I achieve my goals?”

That is the billion dollar question and honey, I don’t have a good answer because the answer is it depends.

It depends on your food preferences, your exercise/ activity preferences, your lifestyle, the level of stress in your life/ occupation, your personality, your self-discipline (or lack thereof), your goals, and ironically, your motivation. I don’t mean the fleeting motivation that convinces you to head to the gym after a long day’s work. I mean the factor that drove you to initially seek out a change in lifestyle in the first place.

Trial and error. I’m executing it as we speak. And if you want long-term health and fitness, you’re going to have to do it too.

To read more on how to even get started with the concept of trial and error in fitness and health, stay tuned as my next post will address some tips on other fuel that may help you in your fitness journey as well as useful tips that could help give your moody motivation a boost.

Stay inspired. Don’t give up. Adjust. Adapt.

Love, Crystalkay