The Mental Game

 
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More, more, more, and more. We live in a world of more! More is better, harder is better, longer is better, etc. What’s left in the back seat is what seems to be an old age mantra of finding balance, whether in life or in the pursuit towards health and wellness. In the realm of more, it is important to highlight that fitness is not just about packing on the weights and clocking in more hours. Fitness is as much a mental game as it is physical. I believe the way to optimize the value of the journey towards a healthier self is to first outline a mental framework in which to operate from.

# 1 - The Give & Take Mentality.

The combination of life, humans, the world, the universe, and all else in it equals to a concoction of imperfection, but that’s what’s beautiful about my day to day. What I am sure of is that in my pursuit towards health and wellness, I can’t and never will be 100% perfect; nor am I trying or saying I am close to perfect. The only thing I hold myself responsible to is in being honest in my approach. How much am I willing to give and how much can I take?

The give and take mentality is like a pros and cons list for my journey towards health and wellness. This is where I outline (in my head-- but if writing down a list helps you, then go for it) the wins and compromises in my journey. For example, I know alcohol (as much as I wish I can)  is something that’s unrealistic for me to give up forever, but in contrast, something like sugary drinks is more realistic for me to give up forever. I almost never drink sodas (unless it’s the only drink available), I never add sugar to tea or coffee,  I never add sweetener to my morning smoothies and whenever I have a choice, I’ll go for the non-sugary mixer (like a vodka soda instead of a cranberry vodka). But, there are those out there, who will find giving up alcohol comes much more naturally. The point I am making here is, there’s no one solution fits all. It’s about being realistic with my choices because after all I still need to enjoy my life. What I keep asking myself is, what am I willing to give and how much can I take? There’s no point in going through life with an endless list of restrictions because that will drive anyone crazy.

# 2 -  Restrictions aren’t a way to live.

When we think of losing weight or getting fit a lot of people (I admit I was one of these people), gravitate towards rules and restrictions: “I have to cut sugar out completely,” “I have to work out at high intensities at least 5 days a week,” “I can only eat low sodium foods,” and let’s be honest the list goes on and on. If there are so many new rules to follow, then do I need to add, “remember to enjoy life,” as part of the guide to a better me? But, I hope to never get to a point where I need to be reminded to appreciate my life.

The bombardment of misleading messaging of more equals to better which is so prevalent in the diet and the fitness industries does leave a lot of confusion! The truth of the matter is, health and wellness is not about temporary unrealistic rules (that will only be kept for a couple months at best), rather health and wellness is about creating long-term parameters that will help steer life in a different direction forever. There’s a huge difference between saying, “I have to cut sugar out completely,” to “I will have less sugar by avoiding sugary drinks and sugary treats.” The difference is in the words and the specificity on how to frame the behavior.

Let’s dive into this a little more. “Cut out” versus “less” and “avoid” are similar, but very different words. The former is a strict command that leaves no room for error, while the latter two words allow for imperfection (i.e. allows us to be more human in our approach). It might seem like a small difference, but it completely changed how I responded to slip ups. Rather than feeling guilt and blaming myself for not sticking to my rule, I respond with a lot more understanding and an attitude that’s more forgiving like, “do better next time.” The unexpected reality was how once I alleviated the restrictive mentality, it was much easier to make better choices for myself.

What’s ironic about how my mind operated was that the more I had a hard no and restricted myself, the more I thought about it and the more chances I relapsed. But, when I shifted my thinking to a more forgiving space, it was much easier for me to follow the ‘rule’.

# 3 - Listen to your body

This might seem obvious, but working at a gym and also going through overtraining syndrome myself woke me up to how difficult it actually is to listen to my body. The prevalent culture in today’s fitness world encourages us to work harder than ever before, this is why the phrase “no days off” has become so popular; with over 4.5 million hashtags on Instagram. The truth of the matter is, rest days are so important to our fitness journey because at rest are when muscles grow and regenerate. Without rest, muscles will be fatigued and development will either be slowed or halted.

What I need to remember to do is to ask myself: how am I doing? If the answer is, I am tired because I didn’t get enough sleep or I am a lot sorer today than I usually am. That’s a good indication that it’s time to listen and take a step back. The integrity of this decision really lies in me and is there a point to cheating myself? What’s important is to be reflective and honest about how I feel and decide what is the appropriate level of activity for that day. Whether it’s to reduce the intensity of the workout, opt for a more low-impact exercise like yoga or pilates, or to actually take a day off and maybe even get a massage. There are plenty of appropriate ways to take it easy. Again, it’s about an individual choice, you’ll know what’s right!

# 4 - Health & wellness is a lifestyle choice.

The theme of all the above is health and wellness is in my hands. There’s no one that’s going to make the hard decisions for me. It’s about looking at my life and deciding what are the realistic changes to make. It’s about understanding that this is a long-term commitment versus a couple months before my beach getaway. There’s no one that’s really going to monitor how I choose to live. It’s about taking charge of my own health, wellness and destiny!

 

My 3 for 3 Rules & Principles for Fitness

 
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If you read my posts, there’s a recurring theme to the message I advocate for: health and wellness is a lifelong journey! Here are the rules (some slap in the face truths):

  1. There are no shortcuts.

  2. There are no quick fixes.

  3. The length, consistency, level of effort and commitment will likely match the result

Here are the key principles to understand:

Principle #1 - Reversibility

“The principle of reversibility pertains to the losses in function experienced after the cessation of a training program. Regardless of the gain in fitness achieved through a regular exercise program, those improvements will be reversed to pre-training levels…”

This is why when someone tells me, “Oh I used to do HIIT sessions 3 times a year ago” or “I used to run everyday a few years ago” becomes-- within the context of fitness level-- becomes insignificant. The good news is, our muscles do have muscle and motor memory, so people who have done some type of training or was an athlete in their younger days will generally fare better in terms of movement compared to a complete beginner, but in terms of fitness level, unfortunately (depending on how long you’ve stopped) you might be back to square one!

Principle #2 - Diminishing Returns

First and foremost it’s important to realize that fitness is a personal journey. From birth, we possess a unique genetic makeup which are factors to our fitness journey and potential. Furthermore, the combinations of these factors, like resting metabolic rate, muscle to fat ratio, and so much more are attributed to the individual. Here’s the truth: no two persons are the same. There’s no way two people can react in the same exact way to any exercise or nutrition program. There are common goods which are shared, but ultimately health and fitness is an individual journey, in which “performance outcomes among various exercises are highly individualistic.”

“The principle of diminishing returns suggests that the rate of fitness improvement diminishes over time as fitness approaches its ultimate genetic potential. The response to physical activity is not only associated with heredity but is also highly influenced by an individual’s current level of fitness,” because the capacity to improve also depends on the starting point. This means two things. One, what were gifted with at birth is a major component to the rest of our fitness journey. The reality is that there are just some of us who were born to be athletes and some of us who aren’t.

Secondly, although our genetic basis matters, training, in general, is proven to improve overall health for everyone. The only real reality to face here is that the more fit a person is the smaller the window of improvement is versus someone who’s starting from sedentary. In other words, the beauty is that no matter where you are, there’s always room for improvement! (Unfortunately, it just doesn’t mean we’ll all be the next Usain Bolt by committing to training).

Principle #3 - Specificity

First, of, it’s important to understand that in regards to the energy used during exercise, the body relies on three energy systems: phosphagen, anaerobic glycolysis, and aerobic glycolysis. For the current purpose, I will only go through the latter two very briefly. In simple terms, anaerobic means producing energy without the need of oxygen, while aerobic means requiring oxygen. The reason why this is important in regards to training programs equates to how the body uses energy through different training programs. “The principle of specificity explains the outcome of a given type of training program such that the exercise response is specific to the mode and intensity of training. In other words, only physiological systems emphasized during a training program will improve.”

Why does this matter to this discussion? The principle of specificity really emphasizes the three points above: there are no shortcuts, there are no quick fixes, the length, consistency, level of effort and commitment will likely match the result. If I want to train for endurance, I need to put in the work and hours that will help my endurance. If I want to train for strength, I need to commit to the right kind of training to achieve strength. If I want to work on getting bigger (i.e. aesthetically increasing the size of my muscles), I need to train in a specific manner to focus on muscle hypertrophy.

What I am trying to highlight is what the health and wellness journey really requires. There’s no such thing as minimal effort to produce optimum results. The real questions are on understanding what do I desire, what is my goal, what is realistic, and how much commitment am I willing to put in?

Source:

Bryant, Cedric X., and Daniel J. Green. ACE's Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals. American Council on Exercise, 2012.