Be someone who refuses to have off days with movement. A person who engages in some form of intentional physical activity each day. Regardless of how insignificant that activity might seem.
Sure, it’s pleasant when life goes to plan and we can engage in a full training session or go for a 60 minute walk. But alas, there are days when despite all our brilliant plans it’s impossible to even contemplate spending 30 minutes training, walking or playing.
Sometimes these days turn into a week. It’s tempting to lift the arms up and surrender to life’s distractions. But there’s an alternative.
On those frantic days, what’s the smallest action you can take to keep the momentum going? What little effort would build on the identity you’ve set for yourself?
It could be a single push up, a brief pause in a deep squat or a downward dog. Whatever. It can seem insignificant. But it can have a tremendous impact on how you see yourself and the future actions you take.
Our best chance for getting kids active and curious about movement starts with us, adults. Our actions shape how they will view physical activity. And they’ll likely carry a part of that view with them for the rest of their life.
We can lead by example by being positive role models. By being physically active ourselves, and enjoying it without grinding our teeth, we show.
And by using positive terms when talking about our own training, moving or playing, we tell. We don’t do it because we have to. But because we find enjoyment in it.
So, if the idea of training in a gym makes you want to dive headfirst into an axe, choose something else.
Most of us would do just fine getting a seven and a half, an eight at most, out of ten. No, that doesn’t put us on top of the class. And no, we probably won’t win competitions where we’re judged by our performance or how we look in our underwear. But do we really care? Because seven and a half gets us where we want to go.
Seven and a half gets us the strength to enjoy the activities we love, the health for longevity, and the body that we can feel confident in. And long term we’ll do better than trying to be a straight-a student.
Most of us don’t have the time, energy, and let’s be honest, the enthusiasm to get the perfect marks in health and fitness. Not 52 weeks a year. Accepting only 10 or nothing will remove the flexibility we need from a sustainable approach to health and fitness.
Because despite our best efforts, life will kick in. And when we cannot get a ten, it eats into our motivation. It can make us feel like a failure when we can’t give health and fitness our full effort. Leading us to a cyclical all-or-nothing approach.
But once we aim for a seven and a half, we’ll give ourselves the permission to not be perfect. We accept that good enough is, well, good enough.
Often the afternoon sweet cravings are nothing more than hunger carried over from the first half of the day. The solution could be as simple as eating bigger meals for breakfast and lunch.
For breakfast, vegemite or peanut butter on toast just won’t cut it. As delicious as they are, neither will keep you full. Instead, more calories are in order. Most of us do well with around 400-500 calories. Including at least a palm size (or two) of protein and some fruit/berries or veg. Or both. Whatever.
As for lunch, that light salad isn’t enough for a human who wants to rage all afternoon. Instead, try having a full grown up meal with some carbs and fat in the mix. 600-800 calories sounds about right. Including at least a fist size or two of protein and a minimum of two fist sizes (or 1/3 – 2/3 of the plate) of vegetables.
But dammit, sometimes it’s just nice to have a cookie. And that’s cool, too.
Few years back I had the (almost) irresistible opportunity to get the latest Apple Watch for free. There were a lot of us, kind of like the right place at the right time sort of moment. Anyhow, all I had to do was to show up for training for an hour and the watch was mine.
I said no thanks. I didn’t have an iPhone, so it was a kind of pointless. Well, now I have the phone. And I would still say no thank you to the watch. But my beef is not with the Apple Watch or any other specific brand. Rather, it’s with most of the fitness trackers on the market.
The modern world has messed us up
We already have a disconnection with our bodies. We struggle listening to how our bodies are doing, how they’re feeling and how the last night’s cabbage casserole sits in our gut. Often we don’t know when we’ve had enough to eat. Let alone to drink.
We ignore the aches and pains by masking symptoms with medication, tequila and YouTube binges. Or we train through pain hoping that whatever made us ache will cure it. Sometimes it will, sometimes it can’t.
Having a fitness tracker on the wrist will only increase this void
Instead of asking ourselves if I feel like training today and waiting for an honest answer, we look at our fitness tracker to tell us how we feel based on whatever data it might have on us.
Instead of tuning in to our body to see if we should do a high-intensity kettlebell session or just go for a walk, we look at our watch. Instead of introspecting whether we’ve been active enough today, we look at our watch to see if we reached ten thousand steps.
Instead of listening to ourselves on our run and keeping the pace that feels moderate, we become fixated on the heart rate on the screen. We’re swapping a rejuvenating outdoor moment with more screen time.
So the fitness trackers adding to the disconnection with our bodies is the first issue. Ironically, the other beef I have with just smartwatches is the intensified connection we end up having with everything and everyone, but ourselves.
Smartwatches make us slaves
Both to technology and to other people’s agendas. However well meaning they might be. We’re always available for interruption. Notifications, phone calls, calendar alerts. The variety of apps for watches is ever expanding. And so there is always something to look up.
Something to check when we are overcome with the slightest feeling of frustration or boredom. Instead of allowing ourselves time and space to zone in with our mind and body, we scroll, tap and yell at our watch.
Yes, there’s ‘do not disturb’
There are all kinds of apps that block our access to apps and other functions we want to limit. But even when installed, most of us will get around them. We’re like teenagers evading our parental control settings. Except that we’re both the parent and the teenager.
Here’s an outstanding example
I asked my wife to set a password on my phone to block me from using the internet after 7pm. But I found a way to use the browser in a recipe app instead. The problem wasn’t the device itself. It was the fact that it was always next to me.
This didn’t change until I left my phone in another room, so getting online wasn’t as easy as picking up the phone. I know I wouldn’t have the self-control to not check my watch if it’s on my wrist. Hence I ain’t getting one.
Fitness trackers and smartwatches aren’t all bad
They might motivate an otherwise inactive person to complete their daily steps.
Seeing concrete numbers on the screen could act as a wake up call for some. If you constantly see visual reminders of how poor your sleep is, you might be more inclined to do something about it.
The big shifts in heart rate variability, temperature, breathing (do they tell that?) might give us clues how we’re about to come down with an illness before we feel a thing. Making us pull back on training and prioritising sleep and recovery to counteract whatever virus we’re fighting.
Now, a heart rate monitor on its own might be worth it
We can make our interval training super specific. Instead of going for time, we can go until we hit a specific heart rate. Then recover until we come down to a specific heart rate before going again. It’s hard to get a more specific conditioning session than that. And the numbers don’t lie. It’s hard to coast through a session. Something we all do now and then.
Then there’s the chance to keep your heart rate at a specific range throughout the cardio session instead of guessing if you’re there. However, as I mentioned earlier, I think this again pulls us away from “How do I feel? Am I going too fast, too slow, or is this just right for me today?”
An accurate heart rate monitor often requires a chest strap, so they’re usually only on you when training. Meaning that instead of adding more distraction to our days, we can leave the monitor in the drawer until we train next time.
But perhaps even a heart rate monitor is still an overkill for a general fitness trainee who wants to lose a bit of fat, get strong and live a long, active life. Unless you dig numbers. I tried using one about a decade ago, but got a little out of it.
For now, I’m just fine without one.
How Stress Affects Fat Loss (and How to Not Let It)
You probably have all the nutrition related information you could ever need to lose fat. You already know that to lose fat you should eat less of that and more of this.
Often the question is not what to do to lose fat, but how to stick to doing what you already know you should do. And it’s often the underlying (or overpowering) and unmanaged stress that makes following healthy eating habits a challenge.
Stress pushes hormones on to a rollercoaster
When stress gets a stranglehold, the hunger hormone ghrelin goes up. Now, while ghrelin goes up and hunger kicks in, the satiety hormone leptin goes down. Yikes.
While ghrelin and leptin are having a ball on a rollercoaster, your hunger and fullness signals are all over the place. Just eating more fibre won’t solve your stress hunger.
And as the stress falsifies your hunger signals, it will also cause your body to push its metabolism down. So you end up eating more while alsoburning fewer calories. Not great for fat loss.
Throw some stress related sleeping issues in the mix
Ever been stressed up to your eyeballs and struggled to fall asleep? Or you’ve gotten to sleep alright, but woken up feeling like you’ve barely closed an eyelid? Me too. Stress and restful sleep get along just about as well as the Gallagher brothers.
When you’re not getting a good night’s rest, you’re more likely to feel tired, impulsive, and hazy. Which can then cause you to make poor food choices.
Now, combine elevated food cravings, lack of satiety, poor decision making and lower metabolism, and we are getting an idea of why stress management needs to be a part of any fat loss plan.
But that’s not quite the worst of it yet
With the lack of sleep comes increased self-doubt. And as we are wired to find eating comforting (probably because of some pre-historic lizard brain thing), it’s common to turn to it to “manage” emotions instead of dealing with whatever is really the source of our stress. Hence why emotional eating is such a common problem.
The habit loop’s role in stress eating
Like any habit, stress eating follows a craving event that sets off the whole cascade of a habit loop1. Let’s (over) simplify and use working at home as an example.
Cue You are working at your desk, trying to make the deadline of whatever you’re working on. (Come on, I don’t know the ins and outs of your professional life. Make something up. Ok fine, you’re trying to solve a math question. Happy? I’m sorry it’s come to this. I didn’t want it to be math either. But here we are, so let’s move along.)
Craving or a sense that something is missing You get stuck with a challenging task and feel an unstoppable urge to relieve the tension immediately. (I told you, this math thing was bound to be a stress inducing choice.)
Response You walk to the kitchen, rummage through the pantry, find an old Easter egg and eat it. (I already picked math earlier, so it doesn’t really matter which holiday treat I put in here. This is all just ridiculous now.)
Reward You feel brief pleasure for satisfying your craving. Eating something becomes associated with getting stuck in a challenging math task.
How to stop stress eating
Reduce stress eating by managing and limiting your stress sources
Tolerance to stress is highly individual. Some are more resilient to it and can tolerate multiple taps filling the stress bucket at the same time. While others get easily overwhelmed by less. You’ll likely know where you stand in this universal stress tolerance scale.
Here are just some common sources of stress:
Parenthood troubles, or just parenthood. It’s great to be a parent. But it’s also relentless.
Toxic relationships (dicks whose company makes you feel yuck)
Excessive screen time
Too many coffees and beers and potato chips and reality television shows
Noise and pollution. (Not the AC/DC song)
Your neighbours, in case they are dicks too
What gets often neglected is that stress from the things that we think are good for us also live in the same bucket:
Type-A mentality (like when you can’t let other people win in the escalators)
It’s irrelevant whether we think the source of stress as bad. It all fills the same bucket. Having too many of these taps of stress open at once can make our stress bucket overflow.
What’s more important than trying to find stress releasing activities is to limit how many stress taps we have open at once.
Once some taps are taken care of, it’s helpful to implement a few stress reducing activities as well.
Side-Show Box about severe emotional eating For anyone in that situation, getting help is step number one. The reasons behind uncontrollable emotional eating often go deeper than just everyday worries.
When we can’t handle our stress, or struggle with anxiety and depression from financial troubles, relationship problems, childhood traumas, or the like, it’s important to understand those issues and work through them with an appropriately qualified mental health professional.
Regardless of your current resilience to stress, there are ways to improve by incorporating some of these into your life:
Meditation, mindfulness or slow breathing exercises
Art (drawing, painting, sculpting, carving a laughing donkey out of marmor)
Spending time in the nature
Keeping a gratitude diary and noticing beauty in everyday moments
Helping others and expecting nothing in return
Hot sauna, warm bath, long shower
Before you starting changing them habit loops
I left this one last since working on a habit loop on its own rarely brings on a sustainable change. Hence it sits at the top of the pyramid, cherry on top, sort of thing.
Think of it this way: working on negative eating habits without addressing the source of stress is like trying to renovate that second bathroom with a pack Hello Kitty bandaids. Whereas addressing the source of stress first is like starting the renovation with a sledgehammer to remove the mouldy tiles.
But don’t discard Hello Kitty bandaids altogether. No room for hate in here. Focusing on the habit loop can bring crucial awareness to our everyday eating habits.
Keep a stress eating diary and brainstorm a good vibes menu
After a week, you’ll likely start seeing patterns in your stress eating. You can then change your responses to your triggers by creating a list of actions other than eating, aka good vibes menu:
Take few deep breaths
Stand up for a quick stretch
Drink a glass of water
Chew a piece of dental gum (debatable, but works for some. Ehm, me)
Listen to a song you like
Balance a pencil on your nose
Juggle while balancing a pencil on your nose
For good habits to last, they need to be enjoyable
Resisting temptation is about as rewarding as using a toothpick to open a safe box. It quickly depletes your willpower. Use instant gratification to your advantage by choosing your responses to cravings from actions that bring you immediate pleasure. If you love music, but hate stretching (me too), choose accordingly.
Sticking with these responses is easier if you can rid your cupboards of foods that you’ll likely crave when the trigger happens. Tricky for anyone who doesn’t live on their own. Unless you have an unchallenged authority on what gets eaten in your house.
Be kind to yourself and show self-compassion
Changing stress eating is hard. No one is going to nail it 100% of the time, and we all slip. Instead of beating yourself up for it, try to be kind to yourself and find the bright spots in what you’re doing.
It’s helpful to keep asking yourself these two questions each time you’ve dealt with a trigger. Regardless of whether you fell for food or used an alternative from the good vibes menu.
What went well?
What did I learn?
Then build on it. One by one.
Most of us have all the information we could ever need for fat loss. It’s often the unmanaged stress that makes following every other healthy eating habit a challenge.
When we let stress get a stranglehold, the hunger hormone ghrelin goes up and satiety hormone leptin goes down. As the stress elevates our food cravings and hunger with false signals, it will also push our metabolism down.
Stress also affects our sleep. As we’re not getting a good night’s rest, we are more likely to feel tired, impulsive, and hazy. All of which can then make us more prone to making poor food choices. With the lack of sleep comes increased self-doubt. And it’s common to turn to eating to manage our emotions instead of dealing with whatever is really stressing us.
All the stress fills the same bucket. The first thing to do is to reduce the sources of stress we have at once. While also including relaxing activities into our days.
We can then keep a stress eating diary to figure out triggers for cravings. Then, we can slowly move away from food related responses by having a good vibes menu of things that bring us pleasure.
The first domino falls. Maybe you swore to quit sugar (nooooo), carbs (say it isn’t so) or coconut ice cream (I can’t even). And now the initial burning motivation and excitement have worn off.
This attempt at a diet is becoming yet another prematurely ended diet in the mausoleum of failed diets. You might find yourself in despair. Questioning how you could better stick to a diet plan.
It requires a change of perspective
What if you would move away from trying to stick to a strict diet? By committing to a non-diet-diet. By resisting the urge to follow the template that everyone else does: setting on fire all that is delicious before the ultimate willpower stretching, and eventually breaking, attempt at an intense body transformation based on deprivation.
No. You can succeed by embracing the opposite. By being reasonable. Let the others focus on what they can achieve in a month or two. Only to fail yet again. You can play the long game. Focus on what results you can achieve in a year. And to keep them for another twenty years.
Commit to showing up for foundational changes
Give your willpower a break and ban nothing. You can eat whatever you want, within reasonable quantities of course. And sometimes less so. Because occasionally there are days when it’s impossible to choose between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. So you’ll end up having both.
And reasonable isn’t just easier on willpower. It’s also better for your health. A recent study from The University of Helsinki1 suggests that people (even those with normal weight) with a history of failed diet attempts (“I gotta get heaps shredded for Barcelona”) have a higher chance of developing type II diabetes compared to the non-diet folks.
We also know that failed dieting may also lead to repeated weight loss attempts and therefore weight cycling. It’s a vicious cycle once it gets going.
Implementing small changes that eventually topple over
What if you’d commit to making changes that almost feel too easy? Like you’re cheating the gods of diet (Atkins?) by making up your own rules that require only a little willpower.
Changes that are small enough not to even valid a social media update. Because they don’t sound diehard. Because they’re not. In the world of diets, being reasonable and focusing on small changes is lame and boring. Unless of course you like sustainable, long-lasting results.
But a reasonable diet isn’t all pretty butterflies made of sparkling fairy floss
Following simple, reasonable eating habits requires resilience. If you choose to follow “I will duct tape my mouth shut for a month so please text if you want to communicate” – diet you can just muster through hell for a month. It won’t be easy. But most of us can deal with that sort of tribulation for 30 days.
Reasonable approach in contrast requires persistence, even blind faith. It’s about repeating unsexy habits for a long time. It’s trusting the process that eventually there will be progress. Perhaps without seeing initial results for weeks.
Maybe you’ll end up stacking small habits on top of another for a while with no noticeable physical changes. Until one day that old friend compliments how you now somehow look better in the wind.
Being reasonable requires stubborn resistance to boredom
Trying to eat slowly until 80% full is not as arousing and concrete as damning sugar, eliminating biscuits that look like the 80s sitcom star Alf, or literally working out a donut on a rower. Eventually things get boring.
The challenge of boredom seven folds if you’re still starting out and haven’t seen substantial results from your efforts. Your mind naturally questions if the methods deserve your attention.
But instead of quitting when the boredom kicks in, you’ll double down on what you started. You re-focus on the small daily actions over the fluctuating excitement and motivation rollercoaster.
Because the internet is trying to convince you to stop being reasonable
Your news feed is filled with the excitement of new, more intense, fast diets. The ones that promise excellent results in only a few funny weeks. But you can counteract them by acknowledging what’s happening in your head:
While being stuck at doing the challenging work of your current diet, you are seeing the possibility of a different diet. Something that perhaps sounds better than what you are currently doing. The comparison in your head is far from fair.
You are comparing the hard parts of the current diet to the upsides and promises of something new. The new thing will always look better. Because you are not in it right now doing the work.
Notice when this is happening, and it makes it easier to refocus on what you are currently doing. And to keep showing up.
The thing that makes a reasonable diet so powerful for a sustainable fat loss
It requires frequent self-reflection. You need to keep looking back at what you did, why you did it, and what were the results based on those decisions.
Then there are the continuous adjustments that go with it. You have guidelines, not strict templates to follow. It’s not plug and play. It’s reflect-plug-adjust-play-reflect-plug-adjust-play repeat, repeat, repeat. You learn as you go.
This need for self-reflection stops some from sticking with a reasonable diet for long enough to see results. Especially in the beginning, when it’s all new and you are still trying to figure things out. But sticking with it really pays off.
Bringing it all together
The beauty of learning reasonable eating habits is that nothing is completely off limits. Being reasonable has it’s challenges, but it doesn’t require an intense amount of willpower. Especially when compared to the more strict duck tape diets.
It’s about learning mindful eating, performing frequent self-reflection, and discovering what foods work the best, foryou. Then building your eating habits around them.
It’s not about being perfect. But about doing it well enough to get the results you want. And then keeping them for life.
Even if it takes longer than the typical 30 days that the internet wants you to believe.