It’s that time again – the beginning of a new year when we tend to think of ways in which to improve ourselves and our lives. We have renewed vigor to accomplish things that we just weren’t quite able to the year before. For many this includes the desire to get fit, become more fit and/or lose weight. We make New Year’s Resolutions to get more exercise and eat better, starting in January.
As a gym rat/fitness professional, I see this all the time. Every January, well-intentioned people arrive at the gym, ready to feel different and look different when they leave. But by mid-February the majority stop coming, looking and feeling the same (at best), or, at worst, more discouraged than ever. What can folks do to make sure the change they want actually happens?
SMART people set goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-frame specific. The statement “I want to eat better and get more exercise” is way too vague! How do you know when you are eating better? What does that actually mean and how do you actually do it? More exercise – how much is enough? What types of exercise should you be doing? This vagueness leads to frustration and defeat. Re-framing your resolutions using the SMART acronym will take away the vagueness and bring focus and results. But before we can get SMART we must first do some data gathering and fact finding.
Buy a notebook or download an app that tracks food and/or activity. Then:
1. Do a 3-day diet recall. Write down or record everything you eat or drink (really, everything, including alcohol) and the approximate quantities.
2. At the end of three days, look at your food list. Count up the number of fruits and vegetables. Highlight the “snack” foods – chips, pretzels, cookies, candy, soda, etc. See how many protein sources you had. How many cups of water did you drink? How much cereal, bread and pasta did you consume?
1. In the same notebook, do a 3-day activity recall. How often did you walk anywhere (you can include to the car and back)? Did you exercise? For how long? Did you clean your house, sweep the sidewalk, wash the car? How many flights of steps did you climb?
2. Record the number of minutes you spent in the car or on public transportation.
3. How many minutes did you spend watching TV or streaming content on a portable device?
4. Now that you know how much time you spend in physical activity and much time you spend being inactive, try to swap some media-viewing for physical activity.
The next step is to gather factual information about what constitutes good nutrition and appropriate amounts and types of exercise. Unfortunately this is easier said than done. We are bombarded by “eat this, not that” soundbites that seem to change daily. And as for exercise, which protocol is best? Is cardio in or out? Is Crossfit crazy or legit? There are many different answers to our many questions, but here’s my answers to two of them:
What to eat. Low carb, no carb, Paleo, vegetarian, low-fat? Truth be told, all of these diets have some similar components. They encourage consumption of minimally processed foods, lots of vegetables and fruits, lean proteins and healthy fats.1 If you try to keep your diet mostly composed of these things, it’s easy to know what to eat and what not to eat. Work on these changes first, then work on portion control.
- What to ask yourself. Do you know how to read a food label? If not, this link will help. Do you know how to cook nutritious foods in a way that makes you enjoy eating them? Download healthy recipes from websites like Cooking Light, or if you want to try some grain-free meals, try Nom Nom Paleo. Or ask friends for their favorites. Do you know where to get it inexpensively? Check when your supermarket has sales on produce and meats.
How to exercise. Cardio or weights? Crossfit, yoga or Pilates? Basic recommendations are to accumulate 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise/physical activity over the course of the week, or 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. 2 How you do this is up to you. You should have a mix of activities to hit all of the components of fitness (some cardio, some strength training and some flexibility training). The best exercise program is the one you’ll actually do.
- What to ask yourself. Do I have a gym nearby and can I afford it? Do I have equipment at home or if I buy some will I really use it? Can I find a safe place where I can walk or run outside? There are tons of free exercise programs online and youtube has virtually every type of exercise routine available.
Now that we have some data about our habits and an idea of what our diet and physical activity levels should be, let’s take the “I want to eat better and get more exercise” resolutions and SMARTen them up.
Trying to tackle all nutrition and exercise deficiencies all at once backfires. Taking things a chunk at a time, sticking with it, and adding on as time goes by is a better way to make sure changes become new habits.
If your 3-day diet recall highlighted an appalling lack of fruit and vegetable intake, you may want to start there. Goal setting example:
Specific – if you only ate two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, plan to add one or two more (pick a number!) each day (or on days when you know you have time to prepare it and eat it).
Measureable – you can measure your consumption by keeping a log or a calendar. Put a tick mark on the calendar to represent each serving. At the end of the week you can see how you did – which days did you struggle on and why?
Attainable – vowing to eat only organic food may not be attainable if you are on a budget or don’t live near a Whole Foods. Conventional fruits and veggies are just fine.
Realistic – it is probably not realistic to go from a bacon-loving carnivore to a vegan in a day. Simply adding one or two servings of fruits and veggies is more realistic than going from two to 10. And if you have days that are more challenging than others, cut yourself some slack. You may not be able to get all of your servings in every day. Try to committ to three to four days a week at first.
Timeframe specific – keep this goal for a week, two weeks, a month. Then reevaluate – how did you do? Do you need to readjust your goals? Was it too hard or too easy to achieve? Then set a new goal.
Specific – if you choose to join a gym, pick two or three days a week to go and put the time on your calendar. Come armed with a plan, such as a class to take (great way to meet people!) or your exercise program app. Don’t be afraid to ask gym staff or another patron for assistance on machines or free weights if you are unsure. Everyone is there for the same reason and you have just as much right to the bench press and the squat rack as anyone else.
Measurable – put a “star” on your calendar when you’ve gone to the gym. Your goal is to get into the habit of going. You can add intensity and variety as the weeks go on.
Attainable – if you only have 30 minutes of free time, don’t program an hour’s worth of exercises!
Realistic – don’t leave the gym the first day and wonder why you can’t see your abs. Physical change takes a lot of time. Don’t rush. What you will notice, within the first week or so, is how much better you feel.
Timeframe specific – once again, tell yourself you will go twice a week for a month. Then reevaluate – did it really take away time from the things you had to do (work, family)? Did you enjoy the type of exercise you were doing? Were you working as hard as you could? Set new goals for the next month.
The biggest thing to remember is that change takes time. Habits, good and bad, develop over time. Sure, for some people a 60-day challenge to cut sugar and carbs can result in weight loss and better habits but not if you can’t wait until day 61 comes so you can go back to poor eating.
So in this last week of 2015, start thinking ahead to your SMART goals for 2016. Do your research and evaluate your current habits. Make a plan you can handle. Take pleasure in your successes, but if you have to skip a few workouts, or eat too many cookies/chips/wine, don’t dwell on it. Start fresh the next day!
Happy New Year!
References (not in APA format. Shame on me, I know.):
1 – http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/science-compared-every-diet-and-the-winner-is-real-food/284595/
2 – http://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/adults.aspx