By Michael Krueger
If you honestly appraise your current fitness regimen, you will see that you could be doing better. In fact, you will find that with a little more effort or a positive change here or there you could make some substantial progress. So what is the issue? What’s holding you back?
Habits are what allow us to go through life without thinking too hard about what we are doing. We get up, take the same route to work, eat the same foods, do the same exercises, and go to bed, all without thinking about whether or not all of these habitual behaviors are of benefit to us.
Habits aren’t all bad. They keep us from having to make mundane, repetitive decisions over and over. Some of them are quite useful, like always putting your car keys in the same place. It saves you from having to search for them every time you need them. Most habits became habits because they served a useful purpose, but if you don’t occasionally review them you may not realize that they have outlived their usefulness. Sometimes old habits cause you to become mentally lazy and become a deterrent to your progress.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I am a creature of habit, almost to the point of being obsessive compulsive. Some people might disagree with the “almost” part of that description. The one thing I have learned over the years is that having even positive habits are fine so long as I don’t allow them to exist beyond their useful life. Health and fitness habits fall into that same arena; even “good” habits need to occasionally be reevaluated.
Exercise Schedule Habits
Having a schedule is one of the best ways to maintain consistency in your workouts. Exercising at the same time each day will enable you to evaluate your progress without the variables involved with day and time changes. It also helps to keep events from sneaking up and derailing your workout. The downside of this consistency shows itself when something does happen to disrupt your schedule. Suddenly you are forced to deal with a totally different situation, and you’re not happy about it. Perhaps you train in a public gym, and now there are different people there, using “your” bench or squat rack when you want to use it. It can be a very uncomfortable situation.
For some people, it is so uncomfortable that if they can’t work out at the same time with the same equipment they simply don’t work out. This is where a good habit goes bad.
I am a morning runner, but occasionally I force myself to run in the afternoon or even at night. I have been doing this for years and I “almost” enjoy the disruption/distraction that this time shift brings. It’s the same with the day of the week I lift weights. Sometimes I move it a day ahead for no reason other than to break the cycle. I don’t believe that my body cares one way or the other, but my head certainly does benefit.
By occasionally making a random change on your own terms, it will make the unscheduled disruptions easier to deal with.
Exercise Process Habits
Most people either stick with a very specific way of exercising or else they are totally freeform. I understand the value of both, though for my personal fitness program I prefer holding a very tight rein. I have a good understanding of what works for me, and a change must address a very specific issue to make it into the mix.
When it comes to clients, I do mix it up more than I do for myself. High reps, low reps, different set counts, new exercises, and other variables are used in part to prevent boredom and in part to experiment to find what works best. People new to exercise might not know how an exercise is supposed to feel, so they might not give adequate feedback. By trying different exercises, or even just a variant of something they are already doing, it gives them something to compare to. I make sure to explain these changes in advance so they understand why we are making a change.
If you are your own trainer, you need to review your log and assess the results with regard to your goals. Do this on a regular basis, but not day to day. If you do this comparison, too often you get so close to it you can’t see the big picture. A couple of poor workouts aren’t reason enough to make immediate changes. When you do make a change, always give it enough time for a fair evaluation; I recommend an eight-week trial. The exception is if an exercise causes pain, then drop it immediately.
If you run outdoors, change your route. It you run in the street or on a track, try trail running. If you always run with a watch, leave it home occasionally. Running intuitively can be a nice change of pace, literally. The tyranny of the watch can become oppressive and the freedom to move at the pace you feel like moving can be a wonderful respite. Just be aware that if you have always gone out with a watch, GPS, and heart rate monitor, you may feel more than a little naked and self-conscious the first time. If this is the case, believe me, it was definitely time for a change and, in the long run, it will you do a world of good.
These are very difficult to change. We eat what we like whether or not it is the best thing for us. Many habits are set in childhood. Most people experience the first big changes in their diets when they are out on their own for the first time and are required to shop and cook for themselves. If your childhood experience was within a family that always consumed healthy, home-cooked meals, you may rebel and eat fast food and buy junk. If you always had fatty fried food, you may shift to “health foods” and drive your family and friends crazy with your new strict dietary code.
Most of us moderate over time and end up somewhere in the middle, establishing our own habits, both good and bad. Soon we have favorite restaurants and comfort foods that we fall back on whenever times get tough or if we just don’t feel like thinking about it. We narrow our choices and limit our diets without realizing it. We don’t eat only good quality foods, nor do we only eat garbage, but the variety starts to get smaller and smaller.
Experimenting with ethnic foods is an excellent way to expand your dietary choices. If you like to cook, check out the Internet or cookbooks for new and interesting meals. There is a whole world beyond what you are used to, and the only reason you aren’t trying it is habit. That doesn’t mean you must abandon your favorites; just mix it up, and you may discover some new favorites as well.
Food preferences can be a hard habit to change, but with a little effort you may find that improved nutrition and a stimulated palette are just a meal away.
Sleep patterns are the hardest habits of all to change–in part, because we tend to fit sleep in wherever we can rather than thinking of it as an integral part of a fit and healthy life. A healthy habit with regard to sleep is the one exception to the rule about shaking up your way of doing things. There is no possible benefit to messing with a good sleep pattern. Going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day is the only “mindless” consistency that will pay off with huge benefits.
Now, sleep pattern disruptions are one of the biggest health risks to firefighters. Obviously, you don’t have the luxury of sleeping undisturbed for eight hours every night. Sleep pattern disruptions and shift work have been linked to everything from depression and diabetes to cardiovascular disease. In your profession, this is something you have no choice but to deal with.
This sleep issue can be mitigated in many different ways, depending on the individual. Maintaining a regular sleep pattern whenever possible can help, but it won’t solve the problem since you can’t store up sleep. In this case, it is important to have every other aspect of your fitness life in order. Getting adequate nutrition and exercise, limiting alcohol and caffeine, and not using any tobacco products will help. Learning to relax through meditation and yoga has been shown to keep both mind and body on a more even keel. You will need to find the combination of things that help you to function best.
Understanding why you do the things you do and making changes when needed are the secrets to a successful fitness program. Learning when to stay the course and when to make a change is a habit that makes for a healthy, happy, and interesting life.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected].