As talked about in great detail in my recent and uncomfortably revealing blog posts Owning It: How Finally Being True To Myself Helped My Workouts And Nutrition Evolve For The Better, and also Owning It Part 2: Addressing The Cause, I spent well over a decade struggling to live my life authentically, and embracing and accepting the real me. As a result of my internal turmoil, I used my workouts and nutrition as a means to control this large part of my life that I felt completely powerless over, and I developed some unhealthy, ineffective, and mentally and physically exhausting patterns that lasted from my late teens to late 20’s. If you have yet to read these posts, they provide an important background to this article. Here are the links to both:
Regardless of your reason, when you have spent years using exercise and nutrition to control your life, instead of to enhance it, it is unrealistic to expect that a shift to a healthy, enjoyable, and sustainable lifestyle will occur overnight. It will take a lot of mental and physical work on your part, including changing your overall mindset, developing self love and acceptance, seeking support, educating yourself, a lot of trial and error, and repetition, but the results will be well worth it. While everybody is different and has different struggles, these mental and physical approaches worked wonders for me.
**To be VERY clear, this is what worked for me. While I think I am offering some very sound advice, figure out what works best for YOU.
Stop Using Exercise As A Punishment. Be Appreciative Of Your Ability To Be Physically Active
Working out is an incredible tool that should enhance all parts of your life, including your physical and mental well-being. Work out because you love your body and want to feel good, not to punish yourself for what you ate, how you look, or to control part of your life that you feel powerless over. Exercise is a reward and a privilege, not a punishment. Many people would give absolutely anything to be able to be physically active, and perhaps due to an injury, illness, or other circumstance(s), they are not able to work out or be physically active. It took struggling with my 5+ years of undiagnosed rib issues to really gain perspective, and to realize how I had been wasting this precious gift. When I was in constant discomfort, I wanted nothing more than to feel normal again, meaning experiencing no chronic symptoms, and I wanted to feel like an athlete again. When I had to stop playing soccer and was not able to work out properly, I no longer felt like an athlete. Because I had always identified as an athlete for pretty much my entire life, this was incredibly devastating to me, and it helped jumpstart a change in my overall mindset. I really began to appreciate using workouts as a means to enhance my overall quality of life, including my physical and mental health, rather than to control my appearance, or my inability to live my life authentically. The more I consciously used exercise to enhance my life, rather than to control it, the more effective and stress relieving it became, versus being extremely ineffective and stress inducing.
Choose Performance Over Aesthetic-Related Goals
When it comes to your workouts, shift your focus away from what your body looks like, and from what a bullshit number on a scale says, to the amazing feats your body is capable of, and how great your body can and should feel. Prior to my rib issues, I absolutely used to take my health for granted. I consciously shifted my focus away from aesthetic goals (mainly what the scale told me and what perceived physical ''flaws’’ of mine I wanted to fix), and started to set some performance related goals. Because at this time my body was still so screwed up, I really focused on my rehab (even though this was useless as I was just working on fixing many symptoms from an underlying cause that had yet to be determined, and I knew so much less than what I know now). In the initial stages, I did not set any strength-related goals, and rather gauged my progress on how much better my symptoms were feeling. Even though I wasn’t better, I was making notable progress, and this was incredibly motivating, and was also a huge relief.
As my body continued to feel better, I started to incorporate some proper strength training into my program. At this time, my focus was on making my entire body stronger, and able to move better. I focused on the 6 fundamental movements, and also core stability. While I still had a lot of limitations and found this incredibly discouraging, I really focused on what my body was capable of doing, versus what my limitations were. This gave me the drive to keep on going. Once I had established a base level of strength, and controlled mobility, and at this point I was finally symptom free for the first time in over well 5 years, I started to set some more serious performance oriented goals, and started to track my numbers on most of my exercises. My rapid progress was incredibly empowering, and what I noticed was as I focused on getting fitter and stronger, I became more and more will be satisfied with my appearance, and I stopped fixating on it.
Opt For Conditioning Over Calories Burned
During my tumultuous late teens to mid 20’s, I would often do mind numbingly boring steady cardio, and would aim to burn about 650 calories per session. If I achieved this goal I would feel some warped sense of validation, and if I didn’t, I would feel like a failure. This mindset and routine was incredibly mentally and physically draining, and my results were terrible, including my overall fitness level and body composition. I knew that I had to put an immediate stop to this routine once and for all so I made some drastic changes to my routine.
As I mentioned, I wanted nothing more than to feel like an athlete again, and I wanted to be highly conditioned like one. Instead of doing my usual 5-6 days per week of 40-45 minutes of steady cardio, where my sole focus was on burning 650 or more calories, I opted to do 15-30 minutes of interval training 3-4 days per week. I consciously made the decision to stop aiming to burn a set number of calories, and instead tracked how fast my heart rate would drop one and two minutes post exercise. Because in the initial stages my body was still messed up and would not have been able to tolerate the impact of sprinting, I did these intervals on the elliptical, and the spin bike. Once I had prepared my body for the rigorous nature of sprinting, I started to sprint on the soccer field, and on the Curve treadmill, and this was the best feeling ever. Watching my overall fitness level improve was incredibly motivating and empowering, it gave me a dramatic mental boost, and it allowed me to feel somewhat athletic again.
Break Up With Your Scale, Or At Least Don't Use It As Your Sole Indicator Of Progress
When someone has an unhealthy relationship with exercise and is using it to control another part of their life, using a scale, especially every day, can be a very bad idea. I used to have a scale in my bathroom, and would weigh myself at least once a day. If the number was down, I would feel better about myself, and if it was elevated, I would feel lousy, and would aim to be more rigid with my eating and exercise. So many people fall into this trap. I decided to get rid of my scale and threw it in the garbage, and it made a tremendous difference to my overall mindset. Now I rarely weigh myself, and when I do, it’s to see if I have gained weight in the form of muscle, and this makes me feel great as my focus is on making myself more, not less. In fact, I'm at close to my highest weight ever, and I couldn't be more pleased as I feel strong, fit, healthy, confident, and happy.
I’ve said this countless times, the scale is not the best way to track your progress. In fact, it's nowhere close. For one, it gives you an arbitrary number that can fluctuate dramatically on a daily (or even hourly) basis. It does not tell you anything about your overall body composition, nor does it tell you whether you are becoming fitter and stronger. Most important of all, it does not determine your value as a human being, and your self worth should not be determined by a number.
Do Workouts You Enjoy
This is pretty self-explanatory, but find activities/workouts that you enjoy. Your workouts should not make you feel miserable, bored, or in pain (bad soreness, not normal muscle soreness). One example that stands out to me is jogging. Many people jog because they think they need to, and because they think it is how they will lose body fat. Running, particularly on pavement, is incredibly hard on the body, and probably causes more injuries than most other exercises and sports, largely because most people do not have the necessary levels of strength, stability or mobility to run safely and effectively. If you enjoy running, absolutely keep doing it, but if you hate it, find something else that agrees with you both physically and mentally.
As my body continued to get stronger and healthier, I started to do more intense workouts and exercises that I really enjoyed. I started to focus on compound lifts with the barbell, challenging unilateral exercises and with a decent amount of weight, a lot of core stability exercises, and I started to incorporate many fun but extremely tough calisthenics exercises into my overall plan. I am a huge believer that you should look forward to your workouts, and that they should be fun. The more physically capable I became, the more I enjoyed my workouts. It was a vicious cycle, but in a positive way. All of my workouts felt like ''play,’’ and about 99% of the time, I was excited to work out. It remains that way to this day. Pushing myself, doing everything properly, and having fun is my motto!
Take ''Safe'' Risks
The final step I took towards feeling like an athlete again was committing to play soccer. I decided to do so after it was finally determined that all of my issues over the years had been caused by severely misaligned ribs that resulted from the car accident I had been in years before, and after about a solid year's worth of strength training and mobility work, my body finally felt close to 100%. Because I had been under so much physical, financial, and emotional stress over the past five years, the thought of playing again was incredibly scary, and I second guessed myself countless times. I had become accustomed to jumping to negative conclusions and assuming that the worst case scenario would occur, because when I was going through all of my body issues this was usually the case. I'd had one false hope after another, and had been shattered time and time again. Would my body be able to handle it, would I get hurt, and would I be able to play the way I wanted to? After about a year of talking myself out of it, I jumped and decided to play, and it was the best thing I had done for myself in a long time. Even though I hadn't played in 3 years, my body felt great, I was pretty satisfied with my play, and I was reunited with teammates I had known for years, and also some great new teammates/coaches. Winning nationals last year and qualifying for them again this September, feeling healthy and strong, and just having so much fun playing has reinforced what a blessing it is to be able to work out and play sports. I can honestly say that I no longer spend any time focusing on or thinking about my aesthetics, or controlling any part of my life. I just want to compete, have fun, feel strong/fit/healthy, and be totally authentic in all parts of my life.
Start Focusing On What You Like About Your Body.
There are so many better things to concern yourself with than obsessing over having the ''perfect’’ body. For the record, most of the so-called ''perfect’’ bodies you see are heavily airbrushed or photoshopped, or are covered in obscene amounts of fake tanning lotion and oil. Your overall health and happiness should take great precedence over what your body looks like, and generally, when you are healthy and happy, you will have a positive body image.
It is a known fact that people are overly harsh when it comes to their own body, and pick at flaws that they probably wouldn't even bat an eyelash at if they saw them in someone else. I used to be incredibly critical of my upper body and stomach as they are the areas where I tend to gain any body fat. Changing my internal dialogue was incredibly paramount in helping me improve my overall mindset. Over the years when I was struggling with my authenticity, I would often catch myself thinking, or telling myself what I did not like about my body, and what I needed to do in the gym or kitchen to ''fix'' the ''problem'' areas. I had a very negative mindset and was incredibly unkind to myself. I would have been absolutely horrified if I had ever heard another person thinking the same thoughts about their body, or using the same internal dialogue that I had been using on a daily basis and for years.
While it did take 5+ years of my health-related struggles to really gain a sense of perspective, and to really appreciate simply feeling good, I learned to start focusing on what I liked about my body, and stopped caring so much about everything else. I began to love and respect how physically capable my body was becoming, and how much healthier/symptom-free I was feeling. As I continued to get stronger and healthier, I began to appreciate the muscle I was gaining, and loved how much my strength, athleticism, and overall fitness levels were improving. I no longer cared what anyone thought about my body, and this was as liberating and empowering as ever. Over the years, I have learned that I will never be able to please everybody, and the most important thing is to please myself. This applies to all aspects of my life, not just my appearance.
Stop Thinking Of Food As Good or Bad
The food you eat should be used to enhance your life, not to control it, or to punish yourself for the way you look, or because you had an unhealthy meal. Throughout my struggles, I always focused on the foods I thought I shouldn't have. I thought in terms of black and white, and labelled foods as ''good'' and ''bad.'' I was totally rigid and would deprive myself, until I could no longer take it and would binge on total crap. This made me feel tremendously guilty, and magnified my struggles even more. If you can relate to this, one key factor that allowed me to turn my lifestyle around for the better, was rather than fixating on ''forbidden’’ foods I should not eat, I started to focus on consuming foods that gave me energy and made me feel good, helped me achieve my goals, and tasted good. Food is meant to be enjoyed, and I had lost sight of that. In fact, I dropped this list of forbidden foods altogether. If I felt like eating something that used to be on this forbidden list, I would. I aimed to follow an 80/20 rule, and still do. I made a huge internal list of foods that met this criteria. As I continued to formulate this list, it gave me an incredible number of options, and allowed me to form a healthy sense of control, instead of feeling a very overwhelming lack of control.
Learn To Eyeball Your Food. Stop Counting Calories, Weighing/Measuring Your Food
If you are somebody who has a healthy body image and relationship with food and are trying to lose body fat, or possibly gain muscle, I am an advocate of counting calories and weighing/measuring your food, at least in the initial stages until you have learned how to eyeball your food. However, if you are somebody who has been engaging in unhealthy eating habits, and using food as a means of control, I don't think that counting calories, and weighing/measuring your food is a good idea at all. When eating is a stressful experience for somebody, regardless of the reason, counting calories, and weighing/measuring food is an additional stressor that should likely be avoided as it can promote even more obsessive thoughts and the need for complete and irrational control. In my own life, rather than doing a complete 180 and mindlessly eating out of control, I educated myself and learned appropriate serving sizes for most foods, I learned what foods made me feel good and helped me meet my goals, and I made sure to read food labels so I knew roughly what was I was consuming. Speaking from experience, the more I was just able to enjoy eating without thinking about it too much, and the less I felt the need for absolute control and rigidity, the healthier and less restrictive my eating habits became, and my newly established healthy lifestyle became pretty automatic.
Ditch Your Cheat Meals
I am not a fan of cheat meals whatsoever as they imply that you are being bad, and this mentality can promote a dysfunctional relationship with food. I find that when people have cheat meals programmed into their overall plan, they are incredibly rigid and deprive themselves throughout the week, and can’t stop fixating on their next cheat meal, and foods that are ''bad'' and ''forbidden.’’ Unfortunately, I see this all the time on social media, and have worked with numerous clients over the years who have had this mindset. It is incredibly frustrating as I know how it feels. I now know how ridiculous I must have sounded, and I certainly know how awful it felt to have endless cravings and obsessions about food, and zero mental and physical energy. This all or nothing mentality is not conducive to living a healthy lifestyle and having a positive relationship with food, nor is it fun for other people to be around.
Once I started living my healthier lifestyle, I began to incorporate some of my favourite, and higher calorie foods in to my overall plan, and on a daily basis. For example, chocolate and sour keys are two of my vices, and when I was using food as a means of control, I would not allow myself to eat these at any time, at least until I gave into my cravings and binged. Rather than depriving myself until I said ''fuck it’’ and ate several chocolate bars and a huge amount of sour keys in one sitting, I began to have smaller amounts of these foods and on a daily basis. As a result, all of my cravings stopped and I no longer had any irrational thoughts about food. In addition to this, my body composition dramatically improved, and without putting any thought into it. Rather than struggling through peaks and valleys of perfection and chaos, my eating became very consistent and effortless.
Prepare Food In Advance
One thing I did that made a tremendous difference in helping me to establish a healthier lifestyle, nutritionally speaking, was I started to prepare a lot of my food in advance. Since I had most of my food ready when I needed it, it gave me a healthy sense of control, it took all of the overthinking and uncertainty out of the equation, and it allowed me to enjoy living and socializing much more.
Learn Many New Healthy And Delicious Recipes
This will take some work and education on your part, but do your research and learn new recipes for meals, snacks, and drinks that follow all of the criteria that I mentioned above (or whatever criteria fits YOUR needs). The more healthy, delicious, convenient, and energy boosting recipes you have at your disposal, the easier it will be to follow a lifestyle that is healthy, enjoyable, sustainable, and automatic. Once you get into a healthy and enjoyable routine, it will become a vicious cycle of positivity, and will be hard to break. The key is to get the ball rolling.
In closing, now that I have provided you with some key steps to help you improve your unhealthy exercise and eating habits and to change your overall mindset, it is a great time to take charge of your life in a healthy way, and get started. Like I said, the results will not occur overnight, and it will take a lot of work on your part to undo habits that have been etched in your mind and routine for a long time. Exercise and nutrition, when applied in a healthy way, will greatly enhance all facets of your life. While I definitely misused them for years and paid a great mental and physical toll, once I broke out of my extremely unhealthy habits, I discovered that exercise and food are the cheapest and most effective mood altering/life enhancing drugs out there, and I couldn't be happier. As the saying goes, it's better late than never.