So, you’ve decided to get back in shape. This is going to be your year. This is when you swap that six-pack of beer for six-pack abs. There’s just one small obstacle: it’s been a while since you worked up a sweat and you’re on the wrong side of that ‘physical peak’ curve. – or perhaps, you’re working out for the first time altogether If that’s the case, have no fear. Know that you can and will likely get back into shape in time. But you should also know, it probably won’t be easy – especially with the wrong approach.
Before we dive into the expert-approved dos of getting into shape, here’s a quick breakdown of the don’ts
This should be easy. After all, you’ve been consistently somewhat imperfect in all areas of your life for years. Still, the reason this tip is worth mentioning is because people often aim for flawlessness when starting a health kick and that’s neither smart nor necessary.
“You don’t need to eat ‘perfectly’ 100 percent of the time to succeed,” says Krista Scott-Dixon. “In fact, most people do best in both the short term and the long term when eating well 80 to 90 percent of the time: 80 percent works for more modest goals; and 90 percent for achieving more challenging goals. Remember, the ‘all or nothing’ approach rarely gets you all – it usually gets you nothing.”
This same logic applies to training. “Your training plan needs to be realistic,” says Joe Warner, founder of New Body Plan. “If you aim to go to the gym [or workout at home] six times a week and you only manage that for a week before it becomes impractical, you’ll feel like you’ve failed when, in reality, you set yourself up for failure.”
So what is the ideal number of training sessions per week when you’re trying to get in shape? “For someone new to the gym or getting back into it after being fairly sedentary, I would recommend three sessions a week and see how the body feels for a fourth,” says W10 coach Aran Quinn. “The focus should be on whole-body training sessions instead of the old bodybuilder upper body/lower body split. Give yourself a day in between each workout to allow for recovery – particularly if it has been a while since you trained with intensity.”
Now you know that three or four sweat sessions a week and a flexible approach to food are what you need to succeed, the next step is to work out what you’re actually going to tackle in your sessions, and to do that, you need to set a goal. “The key to setting an effective goal is to focus on the processes and not to be fixated on the outcome,” says Quinn.
He notes that focusing on a few process goals and nailing them is more effective than simply looking at the outcome. “For example, if your goal is to lose weight over a period of time, you could have the process goal of eating in a calorie deficit (consuming fewer calories than you burn). If your overall goal is to add some muscle, your process goal could be to complete three or four resistance training sessions a week. If you can consistently hit these process goals, you will make great strides towards a positive outcome.”
Having a fitness tracker or smartwatch to monitor your progress can make this goal-setting process more rewarding. In addition to setting up reminders to get moving, you can keep tabs on how your workouts or calorie intake are going over time.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the key to training success lies in knocking out heroic heavy lifts and that nutrition progress comes down to calculating the perfect macronutrient combination. In reality, it’s about showing up at the gym and not overindulging at home. “Consistency might not sound sexy, but in both research and real life it’s what ultimately helps people control their calorie intake and manage hunger comfortably,” says Scott-Dixon.
By ‘comfortably’ Scott-Dixon means creating the least amount of tension between your body composition goals (your health and fitness) and the lifestyle you desire (your happiness). “What never works is having two competing desires, like the guy who wants to have a six-pack but still drink six beers every night. Those two desires actively compete against one another, and that’s what creates frustration and unhappiness because you’re pursuing an impossible outcome.”
By now you should be starting to realize that the secret to getting back in shape is about gliding, rather than grinding, through the process. By setting yourself a sustainable challenge you can make the journey even smoother by racking up some easy wins. “One of the most important aspects of getting back in shape is getting into the habit of getting back in shape,” says Ventura.
You do this by ticking off lots of small wins. This will not only help you build momentum but it will give you a mood boost, too, since you’ll feel good about what you’re doing and accomplishing. “For example, having a large glass of water soon after waking up will help to rehydrate your body, make you think clearer and feel better. And it’s super-easy,” shares Ventura.
“Other low-effort habits that help stack the odds of success in your favor could be getting your workout gear ready the night before a training session or tracking your workouts in a training diary. The more you do the small, easy stuff, the easier it is to do the bigger, more challenging elements of getting back in shape.”
“People who apply themselves to a structured plan make progress and people who don’t, well, they don’t make progress,” says Warner. It’s the kind of insight that has been staring you in the face but it almost seems so obvious that it can’t be true.
Warner recommends following a plan created for you by a fitness expert or trainer. This way you “don’t need to worry about what you’re doing next so you can focus your effort and energy on executing the workout” and you also avoid going back to your favorite exercises, putting comfort over progress.
You might find a trainer or fitness expert at a local gym or through your network who can help you create a custom plan, but you can also take advantage of apps that provide personal training.
The less entrenched your fitness habits are, the more vulnerable they are to outside influence. If you’ve been training your chest and back on Friday evenings at the Powerhouse Gym for five years straight without missing a session, there’s a good chance that you’ll be there at the end of the week. However, if you are a couple of weeks into a new fitness program, after a two-year hiatus, and you skip your workout when your buddy invites you out for a beer on a Friday night, you might lose the flow and soon drop that fitness Friday routine.
“When you’re trying to establish a new fitness routine it makes sense to anticipate the temptations you’ll encounter so you can create a plan for how you’ll handle them,” says Warner. He recommends telling others in advance if you’ve penciled in a training session for a particular day so you feel supported and less pressured to cancel your workout. You could even get friends or family in on the training plan so you don’t miss out on the social interaction.
We’ve already established that perfection is impossible, which takes a bit of pressure off your better-body efforts, but the psychological tactics don’t end there. A common mistake people make when trying to get back in shape is giving themselves a hard time when they slip up. “Beating yourself up is a waste of time and emotional energy,” says Ventura.
“So you had a bowl of ice cream when you didn’t intend to? So what? The important thing is not how much you punish yourself for falling short of your expectations, it’s how you respond to that slip-up that matters. You can’t turn the clock back but you can influence what’s ahead of you. If you’re busy telling yourself that you failed again and that this is typical and that you haven’t got what it takes to eat well, that’s self-sabotage.” He adds that you owe it to yourself to focus your mental energy on doing a great job in the next step of your plan and move on emotionally from past slipups.
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