8 tips for a fitter, healthier 2018
You’ve set your fitness targets, bought all that healthy food you usually ghost past in the supermarket and upgraded your sports attire from last year’s mouldy old gear. You’re ready. But hang on, something feels familiar, doesn’t it? There’s a growing sense that you’ve been here before – right at the beginning of the year and full of enthusiasm for getting fit over the next 12 months and beyond. Let’s just pause for a second. See, if your fitness plans hit the skids shortly after making your New Year’s resolution in 2017, the last thing you want to do is fall into the same traps this time around. There are some things you need to know before you begin a whole new health and fitness regime, and thankfully we’re here to help. So before you even lace up your new training shoes, check out these tips and make 2018 the year you hit your goals. We believe in you.
Mistake 1: Trying too much, too soon
The problem: There you are, primed for the New You: six days a week in the gym, nothing but chicken and radishes in the fridge, legs-and-arms routine worked out in every detail. Whoah there, though – isn’t that, perhaps, a little bit much? A bit all or nothing? A bit, well, likely to crash and burn? Put it this way: what if, instead of trying to do everything at once, you did the bare minimum and built up from there?
The fix: Use what researchers call ‘micro-habits’ to build up to better lifestyle choices: behavioural change expert BJ Fogg, who popularised the phrase, suggests life-shifts as minimal as putting your trainers out in the morning (but not actually going anywhere) to ease yourself into a running regime. Too lazy? Spend a week or two just going to the gym, and doing a nice easy workout before you hit the shower – or, if you’re training at home, bashing out a handful of lunges and leaving it there. Once you’re in the habit, you can up the workload without every session feeling like punishment.
Mistake 2: Setting ridiculous goals
The problem: Oh, sure, you won’t fall victim to this one. You’ve read about SMART goals – that’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely, just in case you need the refresher – and so there’ll be none of this ‘six-pack by April!’ nonsense, just ‘Two kilos in an entirely reasonable timeframe, ta.’ Here’s the trouble: that’s still out of your control. If overwork, injury or your metabolism decides to get in the way, it’ll end in ignominy – and the resulting sadness-spiral won’t do anything for your progress.
The fix: Combine your ‘Outcome’ goals with ‘Process’ ones. “A process goal is one where you attach your aims to the actions you’ll take to achieve them,” says Precision Nutrition coach Jess Wolny. “For instance, if your outcome is to lose a kilo of bodyfat over the next month, attach that aim to behaviours that you can directly control yourself – for instance, going to the gym 12 times over the next 30 days, eating vegetables with every meal, or learning to cook one new healthy dish a week”. This way, your success or failure is under your control – and by building healthy habits, there’s every chance you’ll overshoot your aim.
Mistake 3: Relying on willpower
The problem: The trouble, until now, is that you just haven’t cared enough about getting in shape, correct? But now that you’re applying your steel-forged will to the problem, it’ll be… actually, let’s just stop this right here. The science of willpower is hotly debated right now – some researchers claim you have a strictly limited supply, others say that’s bunk – but what everyone agrees on is that a huge amount of your daily actions are based on habit, not resolve… and so trying to grit it out is doomed from the start.
The fix: Change your habits, not your brain. MIT researchers point out that there’s a simple neurological loop at the heart of every habit, in the form of a Cue, a Routine and a Reward. Identify all three, and you can change the ‘routine’ part for the better – so, for instance, if your default habit at 10pm (cue) is a trawl through Netflix (routine) that ends in a late night TV-binge, you might be looking for intellectual stimulation or relaxation (reward). Experiment with different rewards – an improving book, say, or a pre-bed stretch – and find one that scratches the itch without hindering your progress.
Mistake 4: Confusing "Instagrammable" with effective
The problem: Ohhh, it’s tempting. And sure, we’ve all been there: squats are fine, for a while, but then the sheen wears off, social media comes calling, and wouldn’t it be fun to just try balancing on a gym ball for a selfie? Of course, then the Likes come pinging in, the dopamine rush follows, and soon enough you’re spending half of every session posing like a trained seal for social validation.
The fix: Simple: no phone at the gym. A dedicated timer – gymboss.com sell the industry fave – is more portable anyway, and slightly more expendable if you accidentally drop a dumbbell on it. Too hardcore? At least switch to Airplane mode, so you aren’t tempted to check your feed between sets. Basically, anything you do to limit the distractions and focus on fitness will help. That selfie can wait until afterwards.
Mistake 5: Not learning to cook
The problem: Try as we might, we cannot live on takeaway alone, and that goes double if you’re trying to eat better. Fine, you can exist for a while on the same couple of meals – salmon smeared in harissa paste takes a surprisingly long time to get boring, as does zaatar and lemon soaked chicken fillets – but knowing how to make healthy stuff taste good is like having the cheat codes to turn off belly fat. It’s just easier.
The fix: “Forget doing complex recipes with dozens of ingredients, and learn how to make simple stuff taste good,” says Wolny. “Learn one simple way of making each protein source taste good – eggs, chicken, steak, prawns – and do the same for colourful vegetables, like bok choy, red cabbage, green beans and broccoli. Combine them with some sweet potatoes, brown rice or quinoa, and you’ve got dozens of simple meal combinations that you can eat every night.” FYI, cauliflower sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper and then oven-roasted for 20-25 minutes is almost as good as fries.
Mistake 6: Skipping the stuff you don't like
The problem: Everyone has things they’d rather not do in the gym: strength for some, cardio for others, and mobility work/stretching for almost everybody. The trouble is, all three components are a good idea for a high-functioning physique – cardio protects against heart disease and stops you huffing when you climb stairs, strength makes you physically capable and prevents everything from osteoporosis to Alzheimer’s, and stretching occasionally means you won’t pop a shoulder when you’re wrangling your carry-on into an overhead locker. You need all three.
The fix: It’s fine to concentrate on the area you like, but find ways to incorporate the others. “If you can’t stand distance running, do short ‘finishers’ for conditioning,” says strength coach James Adamson. “Try a ‘Tabata’ workout on a rowing machine – 20 seconds of sprinting, 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times.” If you like running but hate weights, toss in a handful of kettlebell swings, squats and overhead presses – 10 of each, starting at 12kg and going up as high as you can – to get them over with quickly. Need to stretch more? Grab a short routine from gmb.io and have at it.
Mistake 7: Not sleeping properly
The problem: Sleep is important. Like really, really important. Sure, you’re planning to do it when you’re dead, but before then you need regular 7-8 hours a night to support your efforts in the gym. Those people who claim to get by on four hours of sleep are either lying, genetically lucky or very tired all the time – and since the latest research on skill acquisition suggests that sleep can help to hardwire in new abilities, the evidence is that sleeping more will help with everything you do.
The fix: Quality is just as important as quantity: to keep sleep-hormone melatonin flowing, make sure there are no lights in your bedroom, taping over standby lights and investing in an alarm clock so you don’t have a blinking phone to worry about. And go to bed when you’re sleepy, not when you ‘should.’ “Feeling sleepy is where your eyes are drooping,” says Sleep Geek James Wilson. “That’s when you should hit the sack. If you go to bed but then toss and turn for half an hour, the stress hormone cortisol kicks in and messes with melatonin. If I don’t fall asleep in 30 minutes, I might get up, go and sit and read or listen to music and then go back to bed – worrying won’t help.
Mistake 8: Not working on the most important muscle
The problem: Okay, we’re being arch: not your glutes, which are actually a muscle, but, y’know, your brain, which is technically an organ made of several billion neurons and synapses. The point is, by neglecting mental wellbeing, you’re priming yourself for a meltdown further down the line, even if you do look amazing in a swimsuit.
The fix: You’ll get the most tranquility for your time with meditation, which is practiced by everyone from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jerry Seinfeld for a reason: it’s scientifically proven to reduce stress, improve cognitive function, and produce changes in grey matter density in areas of the brain related to learning, memory and emotional regulation. Dozens of apps will talk you through it. Alternatively, if you can’t carve time out of your schedule, try ‘tactical breathing,’ as it’s known by the US military – breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four, and finally breathe out for four. By deliberately slowing down each lungful of oxygen you’ll activate your parasympathetic nervous system and calm yourself down on command.