It has begun. With the ringing in of the New Year has come a cavalcade of propaganda, products, and peddlers all focused on convincing you to change your life. Starting with changing your body. Gym ads on billboards, two-for-one specials on personal trainers, the latest workout gear on sale, and diet books greeting you as you walk into the bookstore.
Wait a minute? What happened? Weren’t we just trimming our hearths and stuffing stockings with candy? Eating a giant ham and finishing it off with decadent pies and desserts? We’ve just spent the last six weeks making room for our favorite foods, treats, and indulgences. And we’re already clearing the fridge of ham leftovers to make room for kale. Heaven help us.
I watch this bipolar swing within our culture at the end of every year. And I am continually bemused. A newcomer to our planet would certainly be perplexed by the extremes displayed this time of year. Yet we all assume it’s perfectly normal. And unfortunately, we get caught up in the madness.
What is this madness?
This time of year is represented by a lack of balance. On one hand, we have the self-indulgent holidays: more food, more partying, more buying, more consumerism, more of everything. And then, as if in
response to the excess characterized by the holidays, we swing into the New Year, which is full of restriction, rigidness, resolutions, restraint, and rigor. And along with this shift comes a healthy dose of guilt that if you somehow aren’t pulling your shi$% together, you are undisciplined, unmotivated, and just plain lazy.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the new year is a great time to take stock of our lives, our values, and our direction for the coming year. I’m all for that, and we’ve got some excellent blog posts devoted to the most effective ways to set and actually achieve your goals. However, when it comes to the new year and our resolutions, I am opposed to the lack of balance. People get extreme; whether it’s the extreme exercise regimen, the extreme diets, or the extreme beliefs that herald in the new year.
Let’s start with the extreme beliefs. Many of us fall into the trap of believing that if we just have the right resolution or program, we can become wildly happy. We believe the hype coming from the book jackets of self-help gurus. We believe that all we have to do is follow this program, or drink that protein smoothie to find the lives of our dreams.
It doesn’t work that way folks. We know this. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And yet so many of us still fall for it. The thing is, we want the marketing to be true. We want to feel better about ourselves. We want to be happier. There is nothing wrong with that—that in fact is the root of meaningful change. The problem comes when we accept extreme messages and take on extreme beliefs in the hopes that the messages will lead us to happiness. You and I both know that they won’t.
What happens instead is that the resolutions will inevitably be broken (they always are), the workout equipment becomes a clothes hanger, and the kale rots before our eyes. As we toss the kale, we also toss a bit of our self-efficacy in the trash. As we break resolutions (that weren’t reasonable in the first place), we take on a vague sense of ineffectiveness that chips away at self-esteem and self-efficacy. We also fall prey to guilt and embarrassment when others ask us how our resolutions are going and we can only respond by shrugging and changing the subject.
What makes us think we can change everything about what makes us who we are in a matter of four to six weeks? This is not possible, and yet we fall into this trap every year when we set new year’s resolutions. If you didn’t get the memo, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Change is hard. It is difficult, it is stubborn. We resist change in just about every form, and so if you are considering making a meaningful change in your life, plan on a longer timeline than a few weeks.
As in years. Gulp. Yep, you read that correctly. If you recognize a need to make meaningful changes in your life, then by all means do it. I am a great believer in the power of change. But, be realistic. Focus on small, daily acts that move you in the direction of your desired change. Focus on making your life fuller and more abundant, rather than just eliminating things. Be accountable to yourself and to someone you can trust. Someone that can provide encouragement without the guilt.
Avoiding marketers prey
There is a reason that none of the billboards or talking heads or book jackets are talking about years. It’s fairly depressing to hear that change takes that long. Plus, the marketers need you to buy their book now! Get the gym membership now! Act fast while supplies last! They prey on your insecurities to get you to buy their products today. The purchase gives you a boost of confidence and a plan—albeit an unrealistic one—and it gives them a few more bucks to line their pockets.
Don’t fall prey to the slick marketing and extreme beliefs that come with this time of year. Be a critical consumer. Put away the magazines and the phone and check in with yourself about yourself. Is there change that could help you live a healthier, happier life? If so, great. Begin reading up on the topic and consult a credentialed professional. Avoid quick fixes and empty promises, be critical of anyone advocating extreme behaviors, and catch yourself if you find yourself being pulled by the siren’s song of a “happier, healthier you in as little as six weeks!”.
Extreme exercise is a hallmark of the new year. Gyms do brisk business in January, with numbers often sliding back to normal by mid-February. Many individuals resolve to “get in shape” in the new year, and yet fail to define what this means. Ironic to me is the fact that many desire to get into shape for their health (great reason), and yet engage in extreme behaviors that actually undermine health. Long exercise sessions, rigid expectations, inadequate fueling, and little recovery not only lead to quick burnout, but also heighten the risk of injury.
Instead of pushing the red line, take a more moderate approach. Set reasonable goals that actually fit with your lifestyle. A resolution to hit the gym at 4 am won’t work if you’re a night owl. Be flexible in your approach. Shoot for variable structure rather than a rigid regimen that may be impossible to follow, leaving you feeling worse about yourself.
Don’t feel compelled to do what everyone else is doing. Hate running? Don’t do it. There are so many great fitness options out there, that there’s no reason to do something you don’t enjoy. Experiment. Try out a few classes, invite a friend to join you. Make it a social outing where you’re getting the sweat and friend benefits together.
Be creative. There’s no rule that says exercise must take place in a gym or on a machine. I’m talking joyful movement. Move your body! Maybe you have a dance off with your kids. Perhaps you speed clean the basement. Exercise doesn’t have to be labeled exercise to be beneficial.
Assess your goals. Be cautious about adopting someone else’s goals as your own. Are you cleared to exercise? Is weight loss an appropriate goal? Perhaps a goal to build muscle mass would be a better goal. Focusing on strength gains and cardiovascular improvement move you closer to health goals, while making you less susceptible to the obsessiveness that can come from focusing on the number on the scale.
Listen to your body. If you’ve had enough, stop. To leave a class early does not equal a lack of moral fiber. Do what works for you without apology. Don’t push past pain, despite what the t-shirts claim. Fuel appropriately. Are you getting enough to eat? Are you drinking water throughout (and after)? Is it even reasonable for you to be exercising? Sometimes the most important goals are those related to rest, rejuvenation, and recovery.
Extreme diets go hand-in-hand with extreme exercise. During January, how many of your colleagues are on a diet? How many new diets are out there? How many diet competitions have you been invited to participate in? The dieting industry is a $60 billion industry. It’s big money and it doesn’t matter that the diets don’t work.
What we know from the extensive research on diets and weight loss is that while individuals can certainly lose weight on diets, the changes are not sustainable and they wreak havoc on the body. The metabolism slows in response to restricted calories, so when an individual begins less restrictive eating as is necessary, there is typically rebound weight gain. But, because of the metabolic changes, the body tends to overshoot, and individuals on average regain not only all of the lost weight but an additional 10% on top of that. In a very real way, we are dieting our way to higher and higher weights.
I’ll save the rest of my diet tirade for another post, but for now just know that any dietary changes you make must be sustainable. If you are considering a diet that sounds painful, restrictive, and just plain miserable, how likely are you to sustain that diet over your lifetime? Dietary changes must be balanced. Is your diet so restrictive that you can’t enjoy your favorite foods? If so, you are setting yourself up for failure.
Don’t “go on a diet.” Balance your eating instead. Rather than focusing on eliminating foods, which is what most diets advocate, focus on adding balanced foods to your menu. Shoot for a goal of increasing your intake of fruits and veggies. Increase your water intake. Increase your fiber intake. Do what you can to hit your micronutrients. Focus on a balance of the macronutrients. A moderate approach ensures sustainability for the long term and creates changes consistent with health and well-being.
This year, resist the madness of new year’s resolutions promising a new you. Instead take some time to reflect on your life, your values, your desires, and your needs. Embrace a balanced approach that respects your body and fuels your soul.