New Year’s resolutions are running rampant right now as people are doing everything they can to hang on and not give up on the attempts to make positive changes. I admit that I have never been a big fan of making resolutions based on a time of year. Yes, it’s convenient to have an unforgettable date but the new year already has so many changes associated with it: new laws and government forms are in effect; you have to change the dates on a lot of items, not to mention every time you date a form “don’t forget 2017!” (we even had court calendaring clerk assign a trial date based on the wrong year: “um, that’s a Saturday, Your Honor!”) In my opinion, the new year already has enough baggage for you to deal without bringing your resolutions with it.
However, now that you’ve made them, there’s no reason not to try and keep them. It’s not the resolutions that I have problems with- it’s just the timing. Establishing healthy habits is always a good thing! Let me add one little caveat to that statement: provided the habit is healthy for you! In all the hustle to sell their new workout videos and diet programs, the health and fitness industry is not really very concerned about what’s best for you! I’m not going to sit here and say they’re just out to make a buck, but- yeah, that’s what I’m going to do! They are trying to sell you something and if it doesn’t work out for you, then you’re probably going to buy something else they are selling to see if that works for you, so the more things that don’t work for you, the more they are going to make from you.
I’m not selling you anything. I don’t even advertise for other companies on my blog (although WordPress might- I don’t have any control over that.) My concern is that you learn healthy habits that work for you, so you can be as healthy and happy and get the most out of your life. The key phrase is here “work for you” and I am emphasizing that ‘you’ because I don’t care what works for everyone else.
This issue actually began for me as a rant against a podcaster (whom I actually like very much) and another book I was reading about learning to sleep smarter. Both of them were talking about “prime sleep hours” and the “best wake-sleep rhythms” and so on. It was really annoying because they are trying to cram everyone into one little box and if you don’t fit, you’re just not trying hard enough and you’re hurting yourself. (Huge eye roll here!) It’s like when the FDA tries to tell everyone that they need to drink 8 ounces of milk each day or eat 11 servings of whole grains daily. HELLO! I think we all know by now that all those grains led to a huge epidemic of type 2 diabetes and obesity, and that some people are sensitive to lactose (especially if your ethnicity is not Northern European!)
This is where I get really annoying again and tell you that if you aren’t tracking your foods, energy, moods, and sleep, you really should, because that tells you what works for you and what doesn’t.
Those of you who’ve been reading me for a while may recall that I have a really jacked up sleep-wake cycle (‘circadian rhythm’ is the technical term). When I was in college on semester/ summer break, my sister and I would both turn into vampires. We would sleep most of the morning, wake up about noon or later and be up until around two in the morning and then go to sleep. It wasn’t because we had night jobs or night classes or had some kind of weird disease: this was normal for us. In fact, we did most of our grocery shopping around midnight at a 24 hour store. Even after we moved to separate locations to go to graduate school, we kept the same hours: we’d text each other around midnight or one a.m. and it wasn’t unusual to get back a response in a couple minutes, because, yep- we’re up! One of the reasons I got a kindle in fact is because I do most of my reading and book-browsing between 11:00 p.m. and two a.m. (Amazon will back me up!)
When I keep my normal hours, I am alert, rested and a little high energy in fact: I sleep when I get tired, wake up without the alarm and feel good during my ‘day.’ That’s how you are supposed to feel and it’s how you know you are getting enough rest. On the other hand, if I tried to force anyone else to keep my schedule, most people would feel really tired during my waking hours and would try to wake up probably about 6 or 7 a.m. (when I am normally getting my best sleep!) They would get very burnt out in a few days and probably be really irritable and groggy and drained. It’s because this is not their circadian rhythm; it’s mine.
That is how I feel most of the time when I try to match the rest of the world’s sleep-wake cycle. I have to wake up at a time when I am normally getting my ‘best’ sleep: between 4-6 a.m., be awake and alert when I am normally sleeping and then I’m supposed to go to sleep when I’m normally awake! I know that humans are not nocturnal creatures, but my sister and I are about as close to being nocturnal as humans can get! If any of you have ever had a night job, you know how uncomfortable and disorienting it can be to be awake when you’re normally sleeping and sleeping when you’re normally up and alert. It’s physically painful for me at times to wake up to an obnoxious alarm clock (they are all obnoxious!) and get ready for work. It’s a long and difficult transition for me to adjust to a ‘normal’ wake-sleep cycle and when I am off for an extended period of time, I revert right back to what’s normal for me.
The point of all this griping and grousing is that so many of us try to do something similar with diet, exercise, sleep and everything else in order to fit the rest of the world’s “healthy habits.” We try to eat 6-8 ounces of meat daily and drink 8 ounces of milk daily and get all those healthy whole grains and we feel horrible. Our digestive tract rebels and causes all kinds of pain and discomfort but we keep on trying. We hit the gym and walk the five miles or so three times a week and our knees, back and hips revolt until we can hardly stand up, let alone walk, and we keep trying.”What’s wrong with us?” Probably nothing! We’re that round peg not fitting into that cookie cutter square hole. The point of being an individual is that we are not like others. Some of us don’t digest meat very well and some of us are lactose intolerant and some of us are sensitive to grains. Just because we’re humans doesn’t mean we are all alike! It’s like the old syllogism logic teachers love: All poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles. Yes, they are all dogs, but yes, they are all different and the same truths apply to us. While we are all fundamentally the same, we are all actually very different. While this may seem like a real “duhhh” statement, how many times have you or someone you know tried the “one size fits all” approach? and how did that work out for you or them? There were a lot of times I tried the latest diet fad and most of the time, if it didn’t outright make me sick, I generally felt pretty horrible. I know when I tried Nutrisystem, yes, I lost weight and yes, I was hungry the entire time. I didn’t have a lot of energy either, but I kept with it because I was losing weight. Weight loss: yes; Energy level: low; Hunger: high; Learning new healthy habits: oh hell no! But because of that one yes, I stuck with it until I couldn’t stand their food anymore (besides being REALLY expensive!)
The same thing happened with me when I tried exercising. How can you hurt yourself walking on a treadmill? It was the bottom line recommendation from my gym and just about every website and blog I read: if you haven’t been exercising, start using the treadmill. So I did. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, and my knees were killing me. I pushed through, because I know there’s a difference between discomfort and pain and when you start a new activity, there is usually a little discomfort involved. When it didn’t go away and started to get worse, I went to my doctor and the treadmill was actually the worst thing I could do. I have arthritis in my knees (this is how I found out!) and even the low impact from the treadmill aggravated the condition (even now it still does, since I tried it again recently and even just 15 minutes was enough for me to feel it). My doctor told me to use a pool since I can exercise without aggravating my knees and the water has some good resistance to it as well. I can easily do an hour’s workout in the water and still not have painful knees.
I don’t want you to get the idea that everything needs to be personalized for you by some trainer or nutritionist or professional. If you can afford those, then yes, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, but even though most of us can’t afford that level of personal attention, it doesn’t mean that we are out of luck! When you start a new way of eating or new workout program, monitor how well it works for you. Yes, this will mean writing down when you eat, what you ate and how you felt afterwards. The same with the exercise and anything else you start doing differently. I like to use a paper journal but there are a lot of apps (like My Fitness Pal and Fitbit) which will allow you to track this and those two apps will talk to each other, so you can use them both to combine your info. Both of those will also sync with the My Health app on iPhones so you can have all your data in one place. The idea is that if there are some things about your new habits that work out for you, then you want to keep those but if there are things that don’t, then you can modify them. For example, I eat a low carb diet, but I know that if I consistently eat lower than 50 carbs a day, my energy level drops dramatically. I’m tired and irritable and usually have a bit of a headache. I try to keep my carbs between 50-100 (a big carb day for me is about 135). I generally feel pretty good in that range, and actually 135 was my old number (which is in the moderate range). I knew from experience that eating really low carb (less than 20 carbs daily) really made me feel awful (some people call it ‘keto flu’ or ‘carb withdrawal’) so as I ate less, I found a range that worked for me: I didn’t feel tired or irritable, was getting enough fiber and glucose to exercise without getting exhausted or voraciously hungry, and my mood and hunger/ satiety were still positive. By tracking all these things, I figured out what range is good for me.
This may sound like complex science experiment but it really isn’t. If you use an app like MFP or Fitbit, when you enter your meals, the app does all the work for you. You don’t even have to write it all down if you don’t want to. There’s a Notes section on MFP so at the end of the day (or during the day if you want) you can make notes like “really tired after lunch” or “lots of energy after breakfast” or whatever else you want to say about your mood, energy, digestion- whatever! The Nutrition portion of the app will tell you want your carbs, protein, fats and nutrients were for the day. I like to write it all down but that’s just me! It takes a couple minutes each day and at the end of a week, you have a lot of data collected. If you don’t notice any problems or changes, then boom! you’re all done! But if, like me, you do notice days when you feel really tired or really fat or really hungry, you can take a look at what you did that day, and the next time it happens and the next, until you can see that each of those days you did or ate XYZ- maybe that’s the problem? Make a change! Then note the results: I ate more than 50 carbs and felt better. I did a bigger cardio workout and I’m probably going to be really hungry tomorrow morning. Tracking lets you know what you need to change and what you need to keep, so over time, your eating plan and workout program, and even your sleep schedule if you want, is customized to give you the best results for you. You know yourself better than anyone, even before you start tracking. Tracking just clues you into the signals your body is sending you anyway- the difference is now you’re paying attention. It’s like taking that “one size fits all” dress or slacks and altering it to fit you perfectly! Tracking also helps you keep making progress because we all know that what works for us now will eventually stop working as our bodies and metabolisms change. This is why calorie counting methods keep dropping your calories the more weight you lose. Eventually, your body will get used to your exercise and your metabolism will get used to a certain number of macros. This is where many people get confused and frustrated and sometimes they will abandon their program and go in search of something different. They may not need ‘something different’- they just need to make an adjustment to what they are doing now! It’s like altering those slacks again! It keeps your plan personalized for you! You have changed, so shouldn’t your plan change also?
One more heads-up: peer pressure can be enormous, especially if people are telling you you’re doing it ‘wrong,’ or that their plan is much better. Maybe it is better- for them! Maybe the way you’re doing it works for you! The push to join the pack is extremely hard to resist. We see everyone else having great success or lots of enthusiasm with their programs and we not only feel the need to be like others, we also want to have the same success. It’s normal, but before we join the pack, we need to take stock of our current situation. Is our plan working for us, i.e. we are hitting our goals and we are happy with it? If not, then maybe it’s time to make a change to our plan before abandoning it altogether. If we do decide to try a new plan, we need to monitor ourselves to see if it works for us. If not, again, we can try personalizing it to fit us or we can try something new again. The point is that if we are not being patient and making the changes we need to our eating plans and workout programs, we are just going to keep bouncing from one to another. That’s not a good way to find success. One more personal example: when I started college, I took the required Study Skills class that said we should all study in a quiet isolated room with no distractions. The guidance counselor thought I was crazy when I told her I studied in the living room with the tv on or the cafeteria full of students with the campus radio going full blast. I knew from experience that the silence of the library was too distracting to me. A sneeze in a silent room is the same as bomb going off while a sneeze in a room full of noise is just a sneeze. My brain filters out a room full of noise as junk but one sound in silence is an alarm bell. I still study and read with the tv on. We are all all our own unique individuals and we should be proud of our differences! That’s what makes us strong! We need to focus on ourselves and less on what everyone else is doing and what everyone else says is “the best way to go.” What works for “everyone else” would be fine, if we were “everyone else.” Frankly, the world would be pretty boring if we were all everyone else and all dogs were poodles.