If there's one thing I've learned in the months since I started what I'm calling The Lifestyle Project — where I have committed to adhere to the federal Physical Activity and Dietary Guidelines for a full year — it's that perfection is unachievable. When I started, I thought that perfection was required to follow the guidelines, but that's simply not the case. Achieving a balance over the long-term is what's important. There are days I eat too much fat, weeks (lots of them) when I eat too much sodium and days I simply can't drag myself to the gym.
Does that I mean I'm "failing" my mission? Of course not, though I sometimes allow myself to feel that way. The truth is that life happens — it can get overwhelming and sometimes you don't feel your best. These lapses, while something you should be mindful of and work to overcome, are tiny blips over the course of a lifetime.
The goal should be to minimize the number of obstacles in your life by anticipating them and working to eradicate them before they push you off track. Some obstacles simply can't be foreseen, so you must also be prepared to react in the best way possible when they arise. Here are some of the obstacles I've faced in recent months, along with some lessons learned.
Obstacle #1: Staying Active with Visitors or When on Vacation
Few things are quite as disruptive to lifestyle-change efforts as going on vacation or having visitors in your home. My wife and I have family in San Diego, Phoenix and all over New Jersey. This means that a few times each year we travel to visit family or host visitors at our home in North Carolina. When on vacation, we visit our old favorite restaurants, enjoy some home cooking and attend family cookouts. When hosting visitors, we want to show them around town and eat some local barbecue. I've learned some important strategies in recent months to help me better manage these events.
- Stay active. Sure, some of the joy of going on vacation lies in sleeping in or sitting beside the hotel pool with a drink or book in hand. Don't be afraid to take it easy, but balance that with some physical activity. If getting to the hotel gym is not your thing, go for a long walk after dinner each evening to enjoy the sites, swim some laps in the morning before the pool gets crowded or visit some local hiking trails. If you have visitors, let them know that you hope to maintain your usual workout routine. Go to the gym in the morning before the family is up and ready to head out for the day. Or if your visitors are up for it, plan activities with them that help incorporate your workout, like hiking, skiing or swimming.
- Plan your cheat meals. When it comes to eating, do your best to make wise choices as often as possible. Are you going out to an expensive dinner or eating at a casino buffet that night? Then make your breakfast and lunch as healthy and low-calorie as possible. If you're grilling dinner, make sure you cook some chicken, fish or veggies alongside the cheeseburgers and hot dogs. Keep fruit and other healthy snacks in your hotel room so that you're not running out to a vending machine every time you're hungry.
- Make small adjustments. It can be hard to ask someone else to accommodate your diet when you're visiting them, but it's possible to make some minor adjustments that can help keep you on track. This past summer, when I was at my in-laws and they were grilling steaks for everyone, I asked that they cook one for me without the high-sodium spice mix they were using. You'll probably find that most people are happy to help, and also to learn more about what you're doing.
Obstacle #2: Working Through Illness or Injury
Illness and injury can't be anticipated. The best you can do is live as healthy a lifestyle as possible, exercise within your limits and allow yourself a break when it's needed.
- Allow yourself to rest. I've been waging a lifelong battle against chronic neck pain and headaches, but it's a battle I've been winning more and more often as I sought treatment from my doctor and worked with my personal trainer to learn which movements to avoid. That said, there are still weeks when I have to skip a workout or two in order to avoid headaches. Early on in this project, I would try to push through in my quest to perform every workout on my calendar, but I've learned to allow myself days off without guilt when they're needed.
- Mix up your routine to stay motivated. An obstacle I hadn't really considered came when my wife sustained a rib injury that forced her to take a month off from going to the gym. Until her injury, I didn't realize how reliant I had become on the push she gave me to go to the gym on the days I was a bit less motivated. To overcome this obstacle, I made some minor adjustments to my workout to add some intensity and just shake things up. These changes kept me focused and motivated to keep working hard.
Obstacle #3: Don't be Derailed by Schedule Changes
This may seem like a minor issue, but there have been a few times when I was thrown off track by what seems like a subtle change in my schedule.
I work from home. During the school year, I set my alarm to make sure my son is getting ready and then to drive him to school. During the summer, we are an alarm clock-free home. This past summer, I realized that I was staying up later in the evenings and usually eating one additional snack later at night.
More recently, my son got his first job, working 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. a few nights a week. That means that my wife and I are free to go out to dinner or see an early movie a little more often.
Neither of these schedule shifts seems like a huge deal, as long as I make wise choices and plan ahead to have the calories available for a dinner out or some late-night snacking. The problem is, we become less and less likely to make healthy choices as the day wears on and we get tired. I had to either adjust my caloric intake earlier in the day to create room for the additional calories later on, or develop the discipline to stick to my plan despite the changes to my routine. I use a combination of those two strategies to stay the course as often as I can.
Obstacle #4: Dips in Motivation
A dip in motivation may be the toughest obstacle of all, as it's often impossible to anticipate, or even explain. There are two options when this happens, both of which are valid:
- Allow yourself to take a break. Sometimes you just need a psychological break, and it's important to give yourself permission to take it easy at times. That said, don't let these breaks linger too long or you risk the creation of a new negative habit. After a few days off, push yourself to get back at it.
- Push through. There are going to be times when your legs feel heavy, your muscles feel weak or you're just not in the mood to exercise — and that's fine! Instead of taking the day off entirely, do something of a lower intensity that keeps you moving. Don't feel like doing your usual high-intensity elliptical workout? Go for a walk or easy bike ride instead. If you just keep moving, no matter the pace, you will eventually reach your goal.
Tip of the Week
A vacation should be a break from the stressors in your life, not from the things that keep you happy, healthy and centered. There are elements of your daily routine that should be maintained while you're on vacation, even if they must be modified. A walk on the treadmill may become an after-dinner walk through a new city. If you're counting calories or fat intake, allow yourself a break but be mindful of what, when and how much you're eating.
There's no reason that vacation has to be a complete disruption to your lifestyle-change efforts. Plan ahead and try to find the right balance between taking a break and staying the course.