8 February 2019


by Ian McCarthy 0

With Christmas just past, and the New Year imminent, now is the time to work toward normalcy in your fitness program – and indeed, your life in general.

With Christmas just past, and the New Year imminent, now is the time to work toward normalcy in your fitness program – and indeed, your life in general.

Unsure where to start?

Here are my most fundamental recommendations:

Take Perfection Off The Table

Although humans have amazing reasoning faculties, we’re nonetheless prone to logical errors. One of the most common of these is dichotomous thinking (also known as all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking) – we tend to think that in the case of any given issue or question, there are only two choices, even when there might actually be three or more. In the context of fitness, this reasoning error makes it highly intuitive to aim for perfection in one’s diet and training, and anything less than this can easily be perceived as failure. On top of being unreasonable, this kind of thinking sets what is usually an impossibly high standard, with the clear practical implication being that when one ultimately fails to meet that standard, they may feel they’ve failed altogether, give up, and regress to their starting point.

As such, I think the best option is to seek out continuous incremental improvement, rather than trying to go from 0% to 100% overnight. This properly accounts for what most people can realistically do, and tends to build up adherence and motivation over time, as it allows for the frequent achievement of small day-to-day and week-to-week goals.

So how does one apply this to getting back on track after the holidays? I’ll discuss more specific techniques in the remainder of this article, but to put it very simply: the key is to only plan to do things you’ll actually do. Over time, as you implement small changes and they slowly become habits, you’ll be able to make additional changes and sustain them. The long term result? You end up where you want to be, without ever having forced yourself to fail by setting the bar too high.

Get Back on a Schedule

It may surprise you to see this point featured so prominently in a fitness article, but I think it’s a foundational issue which can easily undermine your fitness success if not addressed. Coming out of the holidays, your schedule is likely disturbed as a result of some combination of early flights, long drives, late nights, and sleeping in. Moving forward, you might find your schedule skewed earlier or later than desired, or simply highly inconsistent. On top of potentially having negative physiological effects on stress, exercise performance, and hunger, these unwanted changes in your schedule can make it harder to reliably eat and train as you desire. As such, as unusual of a recommendation as this might be, I suggest prioritizing the normalization of your schedule even more than the goal of returning to your usual healthy diet and exercise program.

Stop Making Obviously Stupid Nutrition Decisions
Remember what I argued in the first section of this article: the goal here should be slow, steady improvement, rather than an instantaneous and total reversal of every bad habit you may have developed over the holidays. In that vein, I think there’s an underappreciated and ironic benefit to you having stuffed yourself with cake for weeks: it makes it simpler and easier to improve your diet now. Although some of us will have little or no difficulty shifting back to their usual diet (and if you’re one of those people, I do recommend making that change immediately), others will find such a change too drastic. If you fall into the latter category, I think the best place to start is with your very worst diet decisions. For example, if you tend to be extreme in your approach to nutrition (in other words, your diet is either consistently excellent or very sloppy), and you’ve found yourself overeating desserts most days throughout the holiday season, it might be wise to cut out those foods altogether; that one change could easily result in a reduction of several hundred or more calories consumed per day – and after a few days of abstention, you’ll likely find yourself not even craving those foods. On the other hand, if you thrive when consuming a moderate quantity of ‘junk’ on a regular basis, doing nothing other than reducing your consumption of those foods may, again, yield a very substantial reduction in your energy intake. Ultimately, the goal here is to identify your most damaging nutrition-related behaviors (and thus those which will yield the greatest benefit if altered), and prioritize changing them before shifting your focus to smaller, more technical issues which may demand more sophisticated analysis and yield less benefit.

Just Get Back In The Gym

If you’re anything like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about how to do things optimally – both in the realm of fitness or and life in general. Assuming this mindset is combined with highly proactive behavior, it can lead to overwhelming success. However, if you’re in the position of having taken a significant period of time off from the gym to focus on friends and family (which, by the way, I find a perfectly respectable decision if it’s reflective of your priorities), now probably isn’t the time to try to get your training exactly right. Instead, I’ll echo a previous comment of mine and suggest that you start by aiming to do whatever training you will actually do. If this just means daily cardio sessions to begin with, awesome! If it means three weekly full-body lifting sessions, fantastic! And of course, if this means returning to your usual training in its entirety, that’s ideal – but you shouldn’t feel bad if you fall short of that to begin with. Instead, get back in the groove, make progress where you can, and in time you’ll be back at 100%.

Stop Being A Pussy And Just Do It

For the record, I wouldn’t usually think to, or feel comfortable, using this kind of language in an article. However, in discussing this topic with a friend, he immediately blurted out the above, and it struck me that such advice, despite its crudeness and extreme simplicity, actually speaks to an incredibly important point: regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, the primary determinant of your success will be the degree to which you’re willing to exert effort. In this particular context, you could attempt to implement all the techniques discussed in this piece (and, indeed, many additional, more specific techniques outside the scope of an article of this length), and still utterly fail if you’re unwilling to tolerate discomfort. To be sure, this is not to say that a strong work ethic will always override poor strategy, but it does mean that even the best strategy will be impotent to get you where you want to go if you fail to work hard enough.

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