I love hearing from readers, whether it’s via comments on specific posts or via email, and on Sunday, while in the middle of collecting information for the Feats of Strength results post, I got an email from someone trying to just get back into some healthy food & fitness habits.
After emailing her back with some very basic workout and food suggestions, I started thinking about what I would tell ANYONE just starting a new fitness or nutrition program.
I could go beyond these seven tips, but I think these are very smart, honest and useful starting points:
1. Do it for the right reasons.
How many times have you heard someone say she was going to start working out to get ready for her wedding? Or a vacation? Or so she’d look good for a reunion?
Or how about the girl who runs 3 miles to justify eating junk foods?
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that part of our reasons for training are to look a certain way; heck, by saying I’m into body building, I am pretty much admitting my focus on aesthetics upfront.
But aesthetics are not what will keep most people in the gym in the long run. In fact, any reason that doesn’t involve long term goals is probably not a motivator for life-long fitness.
If you are going to embark on a new fitness program, your reasons should be ones that will sustain your decision for some time to come. This might include:
- maintaining health and longevity;
- becoming stronger;
- gaining energy and endurance;
- strengthening bones to prevent osteoporosis;
- preventing or correcting medical conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol;
- preventing or correcting physical performance issues like posture problems, joint weaknesses, muscle imbalances or previous injuries;
- setting a good example for the rest of your family, including children;
- and finally, improving mood and ability to cope with stress.
Just like anything else, if you are doing it for superficial reasons, you’re likely to fail.
Embark on a new fitness program because you want the good stuff — the life-affirming and life-prolonging stuff — and I guarantee you’ll end up looking good anyway.
2. Keep a food journal.
This doesn’t have to be permanent, but for at least a while, I think any new fitness devotee needs to make herself aware of her own food intake.
The best way to do this is to write everything down:
- time of meal
- foods eaten
- amounts of food eaten
- additional thoughts if desired (i.e. mood, whether you were genuinely hungry, bored, etc.)
Not everyone needs to do what I do — nerdy spreadsheets tracking macros are not a good idea for everyone.
But a simple sheet of paper (or several) keeping track of food will give you a strong idea of exactly what you’re eating & how much of it you actually eat in a day.
It will give you insight into areas where you can improve your choices, add healthy veggies & fruits, cut quantities, etc. It will also help you figure out what works well for your body and your workouts once you begin a fitness program.
3. Measure your progress by comparing yourself to yourself.
It’s great to have fitness aspirations and role models to which you look for motivation. I have lots of them — and I look to them and their dedication for continued drive and focus when I sometimes fall short on my own.
But you should never, EVER determine your own success or failure by comparing your results to someone else.
The fact is that your body doesn’t understand the difference between the number of push ups you can do versus the number of push ups the girl next to you can do. All your body knows is how hard it has worked — it knows if you’re pushing it to its full capacity, and it knows when you’re being easy on it.
As long as you are always pushing your body as hard as you can, you will progress. You will change. Your body will get stronger and better and faster and smarter.
Your progress should be measured by that — by how far you’ve come — not by unrealistically comparing your ability or your body to another’s.
And if you have seen genuine progress, if you can genuinely do more, go faster or lift heavier, then you should consider yourself successful. Because you are.
4. Be consistent.
I was sort of a jack-of-all-trades when it came to music-related activities in high school. I played the flute, I dabbled in the oboe, and I sang in 2 choruses. I was in musicals and concert band. I lived it.
And then college came along, and I half-heartedly went to choral practices and let my flute collect dust.
Today, I sing the way everyone else does — loudly, in my car or in the shower — when no one else is listening. And it’s not because I’ve lost whatever miniscule innate talent I had as a kid.
It’s because I was inconsistent.
I didn’t practice. I let my fingers forget the flute scales. I let my voice lose its extended range.
In short, I didn’t keep it up.
The same goes for fitness and nutrition. One day of cardio will not change you. One day of healthy eating will not change you.
In fact, one week of training will not change you, and one full week of healthy food will not change you either.
Results — good ones, long term ones, the kind you can be proud of — take time.
Give yourself time. And honor your commitment by being consistent in those efforts.
5. Learn how to make 3-4 healthy meals that you genuinely love.
I am very annoyed by and tired of hearing people say that healthy food doesn’t “taste” good. If you made it, and it sucks, figure out how to make it better.
To be honest, it takes 2-3 weeks of consistency to grow accustomed to new tastes and new foods. See #4 above.
But aside from this, healthy doesn’t need to mean bland, nor does it need to mean boring and plain.
Buy a cookbook. Read an Eating Well magazine. Or Cooking Light. Google recipes.
Most importantly, COOK THINGS. Often.
And then, when you’ve found a few healthy things you enjoy making and eating, keep making them. Savor them. Look forward to them.
And then repeat daily.
6. The worst most stressful days are probably the best days to train.
Maybe this seems counterintuitive, but in my experience, the days when I am most stressed, most annoyed, or most frazzled are the best days to workout.
You won’t necessarily have the greatest workout on these days. If your head’s not there, you might lack the focus required for the best training session ever.
But the best way to fail at a goal is to let outside problems — things that have nothing to do with your fitness goals — get in the way of achieving what you want.
Annoying coworkers? Train anyway.
Boss in a tizzy? Train anyway.
Customers in your face? TRAIN ANYWAY.
Yes, there are genuinely stressful life events that might prevent getting in a scheduled workout. Sickness, injury, tragedy and emergencies happen to all of us.
But letting the occasional bad day get the best of your fitness plans starts you on a slippery slope of habitually missing workouts. And you’re bound to try to de-stress in other ways, some of which may be unhealthy.
Let the bad days be the reason to get it done, not the excuse to skip out.
7. Start today.
Are you waiting for January 1st? To make a resolution?
Are you waiting until AFTER someone’s party, birthday, dinner or luncheon?
People who wait are most likely to fail in the long run. What’s wrong with starting tomorrow? Is there something holding you back, something that you think will prevent your fresh start?
Then be honest: you don’t really want it.
Example: I intended to quit smoking for years.
For many years — probably for 8 of the ten years during which I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day — I really, in my head, wanted to quit.
But I didn’t.
When I truly wanted it, however, when I had truly decided that it was time to make that change, I quit that morning.
On Saturday, February 26, 2005, I woke up, went to Rite-Aid, bought some Nicorette, and haven’t smoked since.
I didn’t wait for an arbitrary date like New Year’s Day. I didn’t wait until AFTER the next big night out or the next big stressful week.
I wanted it, so I did it.
If you want it, start today.
So — can you add to this list? What would you tell someone just starting out?