We’ve all heard that healthy eating and getting exercise can be beneficial for reducing stress and anxiety, as well as supporting overall emotional well-being. Yet, as anyone who has ever set a New Year’s resolution can attest to, keeping up a diet and exercise routine year-round is harder than it seems. In fact, studies show that most people who diet regain their weight in the long run. Additional studies suggest that drastic diet and exercise measures do more harm than good for overall health.
Having previously dieted for many years, and, now, working with others as a weight-neutral body-positive personal trainer and coach, I’ve seen that not meeting a particular weight loss or exercise goal often leads to feelings of shame, guilt, and failure. These negative emotions cause more stress and anxiety, which ironically has the opposite effect of the goal’s intention.
So, why is it so hard to follow through?
Many of us were taught from a young age (either by family or by society) that the way to make change is by gritting our teeth and exerting our willpower.
Yet, psychologists who study behavior change show that the concept of willpower only takes us so far. Willpower can help us achieve important things in the short term, like waking up early to go to work after a bad night of sleep or getting in an assignment on a tight deadline. Eventually, we get exhausted exerting so much self-control to do something we’d rather not be doing, and we can’t sustain it in the long run. With regards to habit change, we’re often working to fight against habits that have been deeply ingrained for years, if not our entire lifetimes. So, it makes sense that fighting against these ingrained habits would feel like a losing battle.
If you are someone who struggles with maintaining diet and exercise habits, this is not your fault. The good news is: We don’t have to fight ourselves in order to make change. In fact, sustainable change comes when we aren’t wrestling with our willpower.
How can we develop and sustain positive habits without punishing ourselves? Here are a few ideas based on my experience as a coach.
1. Take should out of the equation.
We are surrounded by so many messages about what we “should” be doing for our health and well-being. One day, we hear about the benefits of aerobic exercise; the next, we hear that strength training is actually better for us. We’re sold on the benefits of low-fat diets, only to have this information debunked years later. How are we supposed to stay on top of this ever-changing information overload?
I encourage you to forget what you think you should do, even if it’s for just one, brief moment. Instead, take a moment to reflect inwardly and identify what is important to you. Ask yourself: Do I want this for myself, or does someone else want it for me? When I think about taking on this goal, does it fill me with: misery and dread? Joy and excitement? Determination? Fear or nervousness? What do I want more of in my life?
2. Pick one small, achievable thing to work on.
Ok, great, so you have a goal that you feel excited about and motivated to get started on. If you’re anything like me, you have a strong temptation to set the bar really high on your new goal only to be disappointed or to give up entirely when things don’t go as planned. I recommend letting go of perfectionism and lowering the bar. Start with one incredibly small thing that you know you can do. Maybe it’s exercising for five minutes a day or practicing mindfulness during a meal once a week. Make it specific, and make it something you are likely to succeed in and feel good about. Once you are successful, you’re likely to want to build on this success.
3. Hold it as an experiment.
Say you’ve taken on a goal, and you can’t seem to get yourself do it. This is a perfect time to reevaluate and see if that goal is right for you. Perhaps you’ve committed yourself to exercising seven days a week, and it’s just not working. Would taking on two days work for you? Do you really not want to exercise at all? Do you only like to exercise with other people? If you take it all as an experiment, there is more room to try on different things and figure out what actually works for you and your own individual needs. Sometimes, it takes a few tries to figure it out. If your goal is derived from what you truly want and desire, you will be more motivated to follow through.
4. Befriend your resistance.
We often receive the message that we’re failures or we’re lazy if we can’t stick to our goals. In reality, our resistance to making a change is often teaching us something. Try asking yourself: What is good about taking on this goal? What is good about not doing it?
Facing a fear is a common reason why we don’t tackle new things. It’s scary to try to develop a new habit or let go of an old one; it’s scary to step outside the comfort zone. For people who are working on changing their relationship to food, being able to sit mindfully with a meal and really feel the sensations of the food going into their body, can be really new, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. If you notice your resistance to something is coming from a place of fear, can you take a step that’s slightly outside your comfort zone, but not unbearable?
If you’re experiencing resistance because the goal just isn’t benefiting you that much, know that you can always reevaluate and change your goal. It’s your wellness goal, after all.
5. Celebrate your success.
We tend to be our own harshest critics. What if, instead, we could celebrate all of the small and awesome things that we’re already doing? This could include simple things like waking up early to walk the dog, eating breakfast, getting the kids ready for school, connecting with an old friend, smiling at somebody as we walk down the street. When you achieve a goal, take some time and congratulate yourself, even if it’s for something that seems small.
With regards to body image, many of us spend a lot of time feeling dissatisfied with and critical of our bodies. At the same time, our bodies already support us in so many ways. We breathe and take in air, which allows our body to carry out all of the many functions that get us through the day. We have the ability to move around from place to place, which looks different for different people. We have the ability to communicate with loved ones, to show support, to express emotion. What’s one small thing that you appreciate about your body today?
If you’re looking for individualized support in setting goals from a place of kindness, whether it’s around body image, stress, anxiety, or mood, a Lantern coach can help motivate you in choosing the goals that are right for you.
Rachel Marcus has been a body-positive personal trainer and running coach for the past four years. She views emotional well-being as a cornerstone of overall physical health. She is delighted to be part of Lantern’s Coaching Team. When she is not coaching, you can find her enjoying nature, trying new recipes, or relaxing with her cat by her side.