Now that 2015 has arrived, the vows of “I’m going to start exercising” will soon echo around the globe. Sound familiar? Most will fail miserably, as they are unknowingly behind the 8-ball. The result: empty wallets, excessive guilt, and expanding waistlines.
Why do we decide to get in shape during the holiday season anyway? Three reasons: Santa brings us treadmills, the New Year gives us a fresh start, and everybody is talking about health. The real problem is one of timing. This time of year, we are all exhausted and distracted. With holiday travel, meddlesome relatives, defective gifts, and bowl games, there is just too much to going on. Throw in some gigantic holiday dinners, a surplus of desserts and frequent alcohol consumption, and you’ve got the toughest time of the year to attempt a lifestyle change.
Making exercise a habit is tough work. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 75 percent of the nation doesn’t get enough physical activity, and 20 percent get none at all. However, the main problem is not laziness. The majority of us make serious attempts to get in shape, but we keep failing time after time. These failures result in guilt, self-doubt, and apathy towards exercise. Even worse, we end up missing out on a wealth of health benefits because we simply couldn’t stick to a routine.
Becoming a couch potato goes far beyond laziness. Several complex factors combine to determine who will get fit, and who will crash on the couch with a tube of Pringles. By educating yourself about the nuts and bolts of exercise behavior, you can avoid the following pitfalls that plague holiday fitness efforts.
Pitfall #1: Inadequate Preparation
Like building a house, developing a new lifestyle requires a detailed blueprint. This step is critical, yet is commonly skipped. A realistic exercise schedule must be set, attainable goals should be developed, and an exercise partner may need to be recruited. Additionally, back up plans need to be developed for unexpected events. Weather issues, fatigue, work or family crises, and injury can all disrupt our exercise routines. Without solid preparation for dealing with the “what ifs”, your exercise efforts will be derailed, usually permanently.
Instead of preparing, most over-enthusiastically jump right into exercise itself. Things are great for a week and then something pops up. You have to work late, you get a cold, or your back is sore. What do you do? You say, “I’ll take a day or two off, then I’ll start again.” At that point, you are officially toast. You were not prepared to deal with these issues. Something will come up every single week, no matter how well you plan. Therefore, instead of hitting the gym immediately, go to your desk first. Start by making a realistic and flexible exercise schedule that fits your life. Then set goals that are habit-based, not performance based. How much you can run or lift at this point is irrelevant. Instead, aim to exercise a few days a week without skipping any sessions. Finally, develop a plan to deal with illness, fatigue, injury, and work or family issues. Being able to adapt to the unexpected is essential to long-term exercise success.
Pitfall #2: Too much, too fast
Even with excellent preparation and a solid plan, you can still fail. When motivation is high during the holidays, we tend to place unrealistic demands on ourselves. We get pumped up and excited, we exercise hard for a few days, and then “ouch!” Ever take 15-minutes to get from your bed to the shower in the morning? We’ve all been there. A profanity-laden limp to the shower, while repeatedly muttering “what the *%^$!?* was I thinking.”
Injury is the most cited reason for quitting an exercise program. You can’t be inactive for months or years and then jump into an active lifestyle. It is a shock to the system and your body will not respond kindly. Thankfully, we now know that the “no pain, no gain” philosophy of exercise is nonsense. Soreness, stiffness and fatigue are normal when people start exercising, but will go away as your body adjusts. To achieve health benefits from exercise, one needs to exercise regularly, but not at full throttle.
The key to your success rests on whether you can develop exercise as a habit. Since the health benefits of exercise take several months, avoiding injury is a top priority. If you haven’t exercised in a long time, consult with your physician, start slow, and gradually ease up to a level that is challenging, but not overwhelming. If you push it too hard too early, your chances of quitting are very high.
Pitfall #3: Unrealistic Expectations
Another common reason for quitting exercise is disappointment. For many, the benefits of exercise just don’t come fast enough. We immediately want the chiseled abs and trim waist that was promised to us in the magazine and infomercial. When the physical metamorphosis doesn’t happen right away, frustration and disappointment set in hard. People end up quitting because they feel that they are wasting their time. Unfortunately, most of these people are actually on track to get the results they want, they just don’t understand that changes take time.
Several mistakes during the holiday season lead to these unrealistic expectations. First, commercials and advertisements fool us into thinking that our physical appearance will change rapidly, which is false. A change in one’s physique and body weight takes many months, not weeks. We forget that the fitness industry’s top priority is making a profit, not trimming your waistline. Second, we put too much emphasis on physical appearance. Exercise provides many important benefits that are invisible, like lower blood pressure, healthy cholesterol levels, increased energy and improved mood. Most importantly, the very best health benefit of exercise are not buns of steel, it is longevity. Dozens of scientific studies show that people who exercise regularly live longer. Finally, we often make too many health promises to ourselves during the holidays. Many want to get in shape, eat better, and quit smoking this time of year. Taking on multiple lifestyle changes simultaneously is a recipe for disaster, as it places too much pressure on you.
What can be done to keep expectations realistic? First, ignore the beautiful people in fitness commercials and disregard their promises of quick success. Healthy living is a marathon, not a sprint. Next, educate yourself about the health benefits of exercise and when you can expect results. Understand that physical changes take time and consistency. Finally, generate realistic and attainable goals that are consistent with your current fitness level. Aiming for your ideal weight or fitness level too soon may set you up for huge disappointments.
With the New Year right around the corner, it will be very tempting to commit to a lifestyle change. However, New Year’s resolutions that involve exercise consistently fail because they are untimely and unreasonable. People don’t prepare, they don’t ease into their new lifestyle, and they don’t have sensible expectations. Mix that in with the usual holiday distractions, and the chances of success are remote. If you want to start exercising this holiday season, remember the three P’s: preparation, patience, and practicality. With this strategic approach, that Christmas treadmill won’t be dusty in mid-February and you’ll be on the way to improved health.