Why Most People Struggle with Diet and Training Consistency

Long-term consistency and therefore success with training and diet doesn’t come from willpower. No, consistency happens while marching on a road paved with positive habits that align with your goals, lifestyle and values. But there’s a major factor that doesn’t get talked about enough. It negatively affects all of us, but especially those with type-a personality.

You want to shape your environment to work for you instead of against you. You want a solid base to stand on—come hell or high water. You want to be proactive and prepare for the obstacles that might arise instead of reacting to them as they happen. It can get very exhausting when you have to tackle dozens of decisions every day. Once you reach a decision-making exhaustion, your decisions start to work against you. Trust me, I’ve been there and seen a lot of others there too!

I am also quite certain that the majority of you know to the “t” what a healthy diet looks like. You most likely know how many calories and how much protein you should eat. You know that eating a piece of steak with some greens is better for you than dominating a Nutella cake injected with heroin peanut butter. But you still opt for the cake. Because, peanut butter.

You know lifting weights at least few times a week is good for you and that eating more vegetables is good for your well-being. But after the initial excitement of a new program or a habit change fades more of the outside stressors of your life start to play a bigger part. You run in to the same wall as so many times before, you stop showing up. Once again consistency becomes the issue.

I’ll give you the reason that is holding back 99% (#science) of you regarding fat loss, health, fitness, happiness and so forth. I swear, if folks would put as much effort into managing this one thing as they put into training, calorie tracking, reading about macro nutrients, and chasing the magic bullet (read: supplement), it is highly likely that I would never have to talk or write about how to deal with the issue of consistency. All the while you would be laughing and kicking your health and fitness goals like nobody’s business.

So, the one thing that makes your training routine and healthy habits consistency 10 times harder than it has to be:

Stress /strɛs/
a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.

Why is this such a big deal? Because humans make bad decisions when we are stressed. Eating is just one of the ways we deal with stress because we have no other coping mechanism in place. Or the coping mechanisms we do have in place are not necessarily the best, such as dancing with the king alcohol. Nothing wrong with enjoying a drink but don’t use it for stress release.

When you are stressed about work, and life in general, you are not fully present during your training. You are there physically, but your mind is somewhere else, and it shows. Weights feel heavier and your movement is not as supple. I know the time you can spare for training is limited. If very lucky, you can allocate three hours for it each week. And if your mind is not there with you, you are leaving some of the positive effects of training on the table. You think you are giving 100%, but you’re not. Even more so, the magic of training happens while resting and your body doesn’t recover properly under stress.

When your mind and body are under constant stress your hormonal balance looks like the final scene of Fight Club: chaotic. That’ll affect your body’s fat loss and muscle building capabilities. Even if you are making healthier food choices and training well, your body is struggling. Stress can also lead to infertility, breathing disorders, issues with the liver and nervous system, chronic pain [1], as well as psychological issues [2] and all those combined leads to a scientific term called shitstorm. But let’s focus on how to deal with stress instead of what it does to you.

It’s hard to live a life without stress in it, so what can you do about it? The most obvious answer is you have to learn to deal with stress better. Stress is the single biggest obstacle standing between where you are now and your healthy future self. I am sure most of your poor decisions and lack of results can be traced back to stress.

Our Western world is so materialistic and driven by tangible success (promotion at work –> more money –> new pair of leather pants) that we often ignore the well-being of our minds. We don’t take care of our precious headspace as well as we should. A calmer and clearer mind is important, yet it is an elusive and intangible feeling. It’s not something that you can hold onto and say, “Look at this!”. Well, you can, in a zombie movie. But I digress. You have to learn to feel it.

You need to achieve a more tranquil state of mind. Not by going to the gym and training the stress away. Strenuous physical activity, although magnificent for you and for your mind, is still a form of stress. You need to find calm by not doing. And the best way to deal with stress that I’ve come across so far is meditation.

You don’t have to turn into a Buddhist monk to get the benefits of meditation so don’t swap your new leather pants for a robe, just yet. You can meditate no matter what your beliefs (or clothes), whether you are a hardcore atheist, follower of a religion or something in between, or outside of that. There is a lot of scientific research supporting the benefits of meditation. So you’d be nuts to dismiss it as “new-age bullshit”. [3]

The most common objection I get when suggesting meditation to someone is: “but I can’t shut off my mind, I just can’t not think”. That, my friend, is a sign that you would benefit from meditation. You don’t have to go from never done meditation to full-on Zen mode, sitting still for an hour with an empty mind. As with everything in life, you’ll get better at it with practice. You are not seeking perfection, but rather focusing on finding short period of stillness each day.

Think of it this way: you seek my help with training as you want to go from zero to 10 pull ups by next summer. I am not going to expect you to do 10 pull ups the first time we meet. We hone in the technique, build strength and work at it over time. The fact that you can’t do a pull up is a sign that you need to practice it. Thinking “I can’t meditate because I can’t shut off my mind” or “my brain is too busy for meditation” is the same as saying “I am weak and can’t do a pull up; therefore, I should never train to get better at them.” Get it? It makes no sense. You practice because you want to get better at a certain task with a goal of the task improving your life or situation.

I meditate for 10 minutes each morning to start my day. Would it be better to do 20 minutes? Most likely. But 10 minutes is what works for my morning routine. I’ve been doing it for a while now, and more often than not, I catch myself thinking instead of being still. And that’s OK. The process of meditating calms me. I find that it’s only the last two minutes of the 10 minutes when I start to get into deeper breathing and mind magic and it’s the part that makes all the difference.

 

Simple Meditation for Absolute Beginners

Set a timer for one minute each morning, and just sit still in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Sit on your knees, butt, heels, elbows, head, using a chair, pillow, stool…honestly, whatever works. Breathe deeply through your nose, think 4 second inhale and 8 second exhale. Don’t try to not think but acknowledge each thought and let them pass. Once you’re comfortable with the time (might take few weeks. Or more. Or less), add another minute.

Keep in mind that it takes at least a few weeks to learn a new habit, so don’t get discouraged in the beginning. You have to stick with it. It’s a habit that you can build by following these guidelines.

I use Calm-app on my phone for the timer. You can use headphones and listen to background sounds as for some people, being still is easier with white noise. The app also has guided meditations to get you started. Another app that I’ve used is Headspace. I found its guided meditation for beginners helpful, and it’s free. [4] 

Another form of stress relief that I swear by is frequent long walks. It’s like meditation while moving. It’s easier to do if you can walk in areas that have peaceful stimuli, such as gardens, forests and such.

The bottom line is: if you are proactive about dealing with your stress, a lot of the other things you struggle with in relation to your health and fitness fall into place with less of an effort. It’s not always about adding new tricks, but dealing with those that hold you back.

And as I’ve said before, if your stress and anxiety are getting the best of you and you are having a hard time coping, reach out to a qualified professional. Not a homeopath or other “healer” who will tell you to eat herbs. Talk to someone who isn’t selling you anything other than expert advice. But for the rest of you, try meditation first.

[1] http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977/
[3] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886901001283, http://www.pnas.org/content/101/46/16369.full, http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/
[4] I don’t financially benefit in any way from recommending these apps. They work; that’s why I recommend them.


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