It’s the New Year and you’re looking forward to working hard in the gym to transform yourself into a new you. Great! I applaud you on your renewed vigor to getting in the best shape of your life, but before you go hop on the treadmill and crank it up to 10 miles per hour I need to temper your enthusiasm with a few words of caution to ensure you safely reach your goal and sustain it.
I’ve been in the gym for more than a few “New Year’s” rushes only to see this rush fade before March 1st. Rather than just tell you this happens, I want to tell you WHY it happens… from a physiological standpoint. I’ll examine three factors; two exercise-related and one dietary-related to provide you a little insight, hopefully preventing you from falling victim to some of these pitfalls.
Factor 1 – Overuse Injury: One of the most common reasons your New Year’s Resolution can be stopped dead in tracks is injury. Now, I’m not talking about the severe injury you are running off to your doctor for right away. I’m referring the gradual ache or pain that builds up to something that is a little more debilitating. This is referred to as a chronic overuse injury and usually when it is exercise-related occurs in the shoulder, lower back, or knee (although it can certainly occur elsewhere). Chronic overuse injuries are caused by a few different factors, however the most prevalent is a dramatic increase in the volume and intensity of exercise (which is a hallmark of New Year’s Resolution exercise programs). Typically, in the case of volume/intensity induced chronic overuse injuries muscle and tendons are placed under a significant amount of stress they are not used to accommodating. The muscles just get sore (see factor 2, below), but they eventually recover because they receive direct blood supply. The tendons, however, take a little longer to recover and as a result cannot keep up with repetitive training stress. Inflammation ensues, pain mounts, and in a pretty short period of time your exercise program is stopped dead in its tracks.
Factor 2 – Extreme Soreness: Piggy-backing on the same mechanisms that cause factor 1, it’s important to understand the role soreness plays in derailing an exercise program early on. Soreness is a fairly poorly understood concept physiologically, however as a scientific community, we universally agree novel (new or different) exercise causes soreness. The more novel the exercise is, the more intensely it is performed, the greater the soreness. Here’s the rub when it comes to New Year’s Resolution-based exercise programs. They are intense and novel by their very nature. Think about it, you’re motivated, fired up, and intensely focused on reaching your goals. You go in the gym and kill it on the treadmill, the weights, or in your exercise class, and then you can’t move for 4 days. Now during that four days you might start questioning if it’s all worth it, even if you don’t you’re not moving, which is bad if you’re looking to lose body fat. Now let’s just say this cycle plays out 2 or 3 times in the month of January. Between the lack of motivation you’ll encounter from not being able to move and the lack of fat loss you’ll experience because you’re not moving (see this article on NEAT for more on this concept- http://www.appliedfitsolutions.com/articles/neat-new-research-on-fat-loss) your initial doubts about this whole thing being worth it will persist. These doubts eventually spiral into certainties and you guessed it… your New Year’s Resolution ends right there.
Factor 3 – Crash Dieting: Most people inherently realize diet needs to be a component of their New Year’s Resolution, particularly if fat loss or toning is part of the goal (which it is for most people). The problem is people overshoot the mark. If eating fewer calories is good, eating even fewer is better. If eating protein is good, eating even more protein is better. This extremist view might be simple, but it’s not sustainable, nor healthy. First and foremost dietary change is a psychological process, this isn’t physiological. This deals with your eating patterns, habits, and attitudes. In short, these take time to change. In fact, psychological change takes far longer to occur than physiological change. Allowing the pendulum to swing to too great of an extreme on a dietary level will only lead to failure, because instead of gradual and progressive behavioral change, you end up following strict rules (not your rules, someone else’s rules) and that never works out. Very quickly you end up very hungry, very bored with what you’re eating, and very ready to go back to your old (poor) habits. Left with no other alternative, you do go back to those old habits because it’s the only thing you truly know. Not only does this not end up being sustainable, it also results in acute and chronic damage to metabolism through a mechanism we call Adaptive Thermogenesis (AT). AT results in metabolic rate being acutely lowered following a period of significant and dramatic caloric restriction. This cause’s rapid weight regain (typically more than what is lost) following a return to your former eating habits.
Fear not, however, all of this isn’t doom and gloom. There are certainly people that are successful at transforming their body and their mind. How do they do it, you ask? They are slow, they are progressive, and they are methodical with their diet and exercise. They start slowly with exercise, gradually increasing their frequency (days/week) and volume (work done during one workout) first, and then their intensity (how hard they go). They start with modest dietary changes (cutting out some junk food or empty calories), and progressively eat a little less every week. This combination of slow and progressive change allows the body to “keep up” mechanically (reducing soreness and risk of injury), metabolically (reducing hunger and negative impact to metabolism), and behaviorally (allowing for true behavioral change).
Be slow, be progressive, and be gradual with your program and your goals. I know you want it now, but consider the issues you are overcoming have built up over years of bad behaviors (poor eating, lack of exercise, etc.). They will take some time to address, but hey – that’s ok, you’re worth it!