Early in 2017, I issued myself a challenge: to live according to the rules outlined in the federal Dietary Guidelines and Physical Activity Guidelines for a full year. I was in desperate need of a lifestyle change, having reached a weight of 245 pounds on my 5’8” frame. I’ve always been a big guy, but I’d let my weight creep higher and higher over the years, and my body and quality of life had suffered the consequences.
A year later, my health, fitness, appearance and performance have all improved, and I’m feeling great about continuing my new lifestyle moving forward. Looking back over the past year, I see plenty of ups and downs and lots of lessons learned. Here are eight key lessons I’d like to share:
1. Before getting started, take the time to examine your current habits.
Knowing where you stand reveals exactly what changes you need to make to hit your daily goals. Before starting what I call The Lifestyle Project, I examined my eating and exercise habits. I was surprised to learn that I was eating 36 more grams of fat than I should have been on a daily basis, which equates to 324 calories of extra fat each day. Knowing what to change about your lifestyle is an important first step.
2. Find partners who will hold you accountable.
My 16-year-old son is a master of tough love. When I’m headed to the kitchen for an extra snack, he can stop me in my tracks with an eye roll and a “Really?!” My wife was supportive in a different way, helping me research recipes and encouraging me to go to the gym on mornings I was dragging a bit. Both types of support were essential at different times.
3. Small changes add up quickly, so be mindful each time you eat a meal or snack.
A lot of people, myself included, tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to eating well. A day or even a meal doesn’t have to be perfect to be a step in the right direction. So maybe you can’t resist a particular high-fat meal one day. Can you eat a smaller portion or substitute a healthier side dish? Remember, the overall objective is to achieve a long-term balance in your diet by re-learning how to eat well and establishing new habits.
4. Have daily and weekly goals.
Perhaps the thing that surprised me most over the past year is how valuable I found it to have short-term goals and a concrete plan. This allowed me to focus on the process rather than progress. A lofty long-term goal can be motivating, but it’s not going to motivate you day in and day out. Instead, wake up with a plan each day—a calorie limit, a macronutrient goal or a scheduled trip to the gym. That way, you can have a sense of accomplishment each day, or a new opportunity to hit goals the day after a slip-up.
5. Treat a vacation as a break from stress, not as a break from the things that keep you healthy, happy and centered.
There are elements of your daily routine that should be maintained on vacation, even if they must be modified. You’re not likely to sustain your typical eating habits or exercise routine, but doing so as much as possible will allow you to maintain the gains you’ve made and lead to a smoother transition back to normal when you get home.
6. Find activities you enjoy.
This takes the focus off the number of minutes you spend at the gym or on the treadmill at home. Instead of moving for a set duration in an effort to reach your goals, find something you enjoy and do it as often as you can. The less physical activity feels like a chore added on to your daily schedule, the more likely you are to stick to your plan. And, when boredom strikes, don’t be afraid to change things up. Try a new fitness class or participate in a new sport or outdoor pursuit.
7. Try not to focus on your "failures."
When it comes to making a comprehensive lifestyle change, slip-ups are inevitable. Keep them in perspective and take a moment to consider where and why you had a brief lapse, and then take that lesson forward with you. Remember, you will have a new set of goals to focus on the next day.
8. Focus on progress, not perfection.
No matter what set of rules you establish for yourself, don’t expect perfection. I know what an ideal day of eating looks like for me, but that doesn’t mean I achieve it every day, or even most days. I also know how much exercise I need, but there are still days when I simply can’t drag myself to the gym after work. I’ve had to learn that some days are going to be better than others and to just do my best to get myself back on track at the next opportunity and keep moving forward.
Lifestyle change is about making the best choice you can as often as you can. If you do that, results will follow. So many people—and I’m certainly not immune to this—tend to beat themselves up for the slightest slip-up, saying things like, “I shouldn’t have had that third slice of pizza. I’m never going to lose any weight,” or “I should have lifted weights today like I planned. I guess I’ll just get started again next week.” A momentary lapse doesn’t have to lead to a relapse to your prior behaviors, so cut yourself some slack. Remember, we’re talking about true lifestyle change, and that lasts a lifetime.
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