After wrapping up my year of fitness tracking, I had an overwhelming feeling that it was time re-evaluate my goals and purpose. While I learned a lot during that journey, many of the habits and rules I had been living by are no longer effective or beneficial for moving forward.
For the last few weeks, I’ve felt fairly stagnant and directionless, like I’m going through the motions without a real reason for doing it. I don’t believe in hard work for the sake of hard work, and yet that’s what I feel like I’ve been doing with these grueling 5am workouts and obsessively diligent food tracking. Because of this, I’ve been more lax in some of my decisions, allowing foods or behaviors to “sneak in” that I haven’t allowed myself in a while, and since I don’t have a specific goal in mind anymore, I’m not even sure how to feel about it besides just… vaguely bad.
I keep coming back to the same questions: why am I doing this? What is my goal? Is there a purpose to all of this work, restriction, agonizing, and mental/physical energy I am exerting?
What do I need in order to be successful?
I want my decisions to be mindful/purposeful rather than mindless/reactionary.
Having a reason “why” I am making a decision, be it about exercise, diet, social activity, sleep, work, or anything else, makes it easier to steer my life around any future decisions that come along. Should I go out late with friends I haven’t seen in a while? Should I eat the indulgent food at the family party? Should I take on more work right now when I’m already busy? Should I leave the super-fun event early so I can get up early to work out?
I want some tools to make it easier to navigate the minefield of societal expectations regarding food and movement.
This obviously applies to “indulgence culture” with the constant temptation of #foodporn, sedentary bingewatching, frequent/heavy drinking, late nights, and otherwise treating your body like crap for temporary pleasure. But this also applies to “fitness culture” with a barrage of half-naked #fispiration imagery, pursuing perfection, pushing through the pain, and exhausting your mind and body in service to narrow beauty ideals now repackaged as “strong is the new skinny.”
The cultural dominance of the diet and fitness program
As part of this process, I’ve found myself once again considering whether I should take the plunge and try a diet or fitness program. I know that fitness programs have been around for forever (I myself have been a casual Beachbody user since 2006) and there is always a new “flavor-of-the-month” diet program (pun intended) every time I look. At this point, “health and fitness” businesses have saturated the mainstream. Pretty much everyone has heard of companies like Weight Watchers and Beachbody, which have grown into their own massive brands over the years and inspired many spinoff brands.
In my past, everyone I knew was talking about starting the Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet, or posting before and after photos from doing P90X. Nowadays, people are talking about the Keto Diet, the Paleo Diet, or the FODMAP Diet, and they’re doing programs like Insanity, BBG, or Couch to 5K.
Whole30 and 80 Day Obsession: just a little bit more?
Two programs that have come up over and over again among friends and colleagues are the Whole30 and 80 Day Obsession. Whole30 is a strict dietary reset that completely eliminates several potentially inflammatory food groups for 30 days in order to stop cravings, stabilize your gut and metabolism, and learn about how foods impact your body. 80 Day Obsession is an intense at-home workout program that combines 80 unique, ordered workouts of resistance training and high intensity cardio with a carefully timed eating plan in order to optimize your fitness level. The people I know who have found success with these programs deeply evangelize and recommend them as valuable tools in their arsenal. I know several people who have done them more than once.
These two programs stand out to me personally because, on the surface, they appear to closely align with habits and behaviors I already have. My dietary backbone for the past several years has been based on the Paleo/Primal mindset (low to zero daily consumption of grains, legumes, or dairy, with a focus on vegetables, animal proteins, and healthy fats) which are things people struggle with during Whole30. And for the past 2.5 years, I’ve been working out at a moderate to intense level at 45-75 minutes per day on average, which seems to align with the intensity and commitment of 80 Day Obsession.
And yet, every time I consider doing these programs, I feel a large internal resistance to the idea. For some reason, despite my existing commitment and discipline, I don’t seem to want to “go all the way” and take the plunge. In my mind, it’s like: sure, I already avoid the easy stuff like bread or pizza or pasta or ice cream, but what about my daily preworkout, or my V8 energy drink, or the dark chocolate, or grabbing a diet coke when I’m on the road and exhausted, or enjoying a vinaigrette on my salad, or having cocktails at a social event? And yeah, I get up and work out every day regardless of my other obligations, but I often change which workouts I do based on my energy level that morning, so what if the workout assigned to me that day doesn’t match my capabilities?
At first glance, it looks like I’m being absurd. Why does this seem that much harder than what I am already doing? Why can’t I just commit to a challenge like so many of my friends have? Don’t I have enough discipline to just do it for a set amount of time to prove something to myself?
To examine what is really going on, I need to look at the very definition of an exercise program itself.
What is a diet/exercise program?
In general, all of the diet and exercise programs I have seen have these elements in common:
- Specific: The program has a defined, detailed, universal set of rules that have already been set by an outside source. These rules are usually restrictive (such as an elimination diet) and regimented (such as an exercise calendar)
- Temporary: The program only lasts a specific amount of time, after which you’re supposed to move to a “maintenance” or “reintroduction” mode that (supposedly) lasts the rest of your life
- Absolute: During the program, you are expected to be 100% compliant with the rules for the entirety of the time specified, or else it’s not considered properly “completed” and your results may be compromised
- Measurable: The program promises some sort of objective outcome that can be quantified through measurement, visual appearance, or other vital statistics (pounds/inches change, strength increase, body composition change, gut health, blood health markers, etc)
I consider the Whole30 and 80 Day Obsession to fall within these definitions of a Diet Program (Whole30) and Diet And Exercise Program (80 Day Obsession). They contain a very explicit set of rules (allowed foods and ingredients on Whole30, and a specific workout calendar plus an eating plan on 80 Day Obsession) that you are meant to follow to the letter for a defined span of time in order to achieve a specific result.
What are the pros of a diet/exercise program?
- Consistency is the foundation of habit. Having a predefined set of rules to follow might make it easier to be consistent, which is useful if you are trying to start a new habit (like daily workouts, or meal preparation, or conscious eating).
- Constraint breeds creativity. If you are limited in the foods you are eating (for example), you have the opportunity to find or make new/different recipes rather than relying on your old, less healthy standards. “Compliant” meals might require different ingredients or cooking methods than you are used to, which can broaden your repertoire.
- Encouragement to keep going when it’s difficult. Sometimes having an external force makes it easier to say No to things you want that you are trying to avoid, like junk food or alcohol. This can be especially useful in social situations if your friends, family, or colleagues are the type to try to guilt you into participating – for some reason, people are more receptive to “I can’t, I’m on Whole30 right now” than “sorry, I just don’t want to.
- Less mental energy spent making decisions. You have a prebuilt blueprint right in front of you. Rather than trying to figure out your next meal or workout, you just do what the program says. For example, in 80 Day Obsession, there is literally a different workout for each day, so knowing what comes next is simple.
- Eliminating variables lets you learn more about what your body is doing. The Whole30 elimination diet approach is known for this, because (according to them) you’re supposed to become aware of your cravings, how food impacts your body, and how different foods make you feel.
- A sense of accomplishment when complete. Much like why people run marathons, compete in Tough Mudders, or take on any other challenge, it can feel good to prove to yourself that you can do something difficult.
What are the cons of a diet/exercise program?
- All or Nothing approach to health and fitness. What happens when your time, space, or energy doesn’t match what is required for the prescribed workout? What happens when the food available to you doesn’t match your prescribed diet? If you take an absolute approach, there is no accounting for flexibility or the realities of life. One circumstance that “breaks” the program can lead to a “screw it, I already fell off the wagon” mindset or giving up completely.
- Obsession and Orthorexia. Especially if you already tend towards obsessive or restrictive behavior, there is a very real danger of developing major anxiety around food or movement. You could even develop Orthorexia, which is an obsession with living a perfect “healthy” lifestyle, to the point where it causes you disproportionate stress and interferes with your life. This line can be hard to see until you’ve crossed it, since “obsession” is often touted as a feature of “hardcore” programs.
- Moralization of foods and actions. Food is food and movement is movement, but most diet and exercise philosophies bring up the concept of “good” and “bad” choices in both of these categories. While we know that different foods and activities have affects on our bodies, if we start assigning a moral value to the things we eat or the amount of movement we do, it is easy to start calling ourselves “good” or “bad” for eating/not eating or doing/not doing these things.
- More mental energy spent tracking your results and agonizing over metrics. Constantly thinking about the number on the scale, the number of calories eaten, measuring food, measuring body parts, tracking exercise time or steps, etc. eats up a lot of mental space that could be used for other, more productive things.
- Programs are designed for general use, not your specific needs. The programs are designed to appeal to the masses and be used by a broad spectrum of people. This makes them generally accessible, but it means that they may not work for you. If your body genuinely needs more carbs than the diet mandates, or if your knees can’t handle the deep squats or jumps in the workout, you’ll actually be doing more harm than good to fight against that for the purpose of “sticking to the plan.”
- The “success” or “failure” mindset. With a program, you either succeed by completing it, or you fail by not completing it. The problem here is that there is no in-between state. With the Whole30 specifically, “my lunch was fries and pizza!” and “my lunch had a salad dressing that was made with added sugar” are considered equal “failures” that break the program and require you to start over, though they are clearly very different decisions.
Dials vs. toggles: where programs like 80 Day Obsession and Whole30 don’t work
Thinking about health and fitness in absolute terms is like viewing our life as a series of toggle switches, which are either “On” and you’re doing everything perfectly, or they’re “Off” and you’re not doing anything at all. Most programs are built to function as a toggle: you are either doing the program, or you are not. Hypothetically, this is supposed to be a benefit, encouraging people to commit to a challenge rather than making a decision in the moment to “take the easy way out.” In some ways, this is true: if you can stick to 100% perfection, there is a tendency to not want to break the streak by messing up.
Unfortunately, the success/failure dichotomy of some programs often has the opposite effect when you’re in a less than ideal situation. In the example above, if your diet program considers “non-compliant salad dressing” to be just as much of a “fail” as “eat pizza and fries,” what is to stop you from choosing the second option? If your exercise program must be done daily in a specific order, or requires you to eat specific meals at specific times, what happens if you have to miss a day, or are in a situation where your meals don’t correspond with your schedule? Rigid rules and an “all-or-nothing” mentality de-incentivizes the ability to make incrementally beneficial choices that maximize what you can do in your current situation, when the “perfect” choice is not within reach.
The truth is, life is not a series of absolutes. Rather, every aspect of life exists on a spectrum, with multiple options available to you at any point. Precision Nutrition shared some great infographics that show how our diet, exercise, and wellness choices exist not as a toggle but as a dial, with different levels of effort corresponding to numbers on the wheel. When we’re actually talking about healthy eating, there are so many choices in between “Eating exclusively locally raised, organic, balanced meals at all times” and “YOLO Doritos and Mountain Dew!!” When we’re talking about exercising, there is a vast span of movement that exists between “Two hours of intense training daily” and “Never getting up from the couch.”
Fighting the resistance: the framework for “why”
My biggest resistance to taking on a program is because I don’t like to feel that I’m set up to fail. I already know I am capable of being disciplined and making difficult decisions in favor of goals that I want. I also know I have a tendency towards self-shaming behaviors and internalized guilt about not being “good enough” at what I’m doing. The last thing I need is a reason to feel bad because my decisions were only a 6 or a 7 on the dial on any given day, instead of an 8 or a 9 all of the time. I want my decisions to feel cohesive and like they’re all working together for a common purpose, but I want to be able to make decisions that accommodate all circumstances, including “less-than-perfect” behaviors on the diet or exercise scale that fill needs in other parts of my life – fun, joy, camaraderie, new experiences, local cuisines. I want to be able to live the “80/20 rule” without guilt. This is where I found the idea of a framework.
What is a diet/exercise framework?
In contrast to the rigidity of a program, a diet and exercise framework has the following attributes:
- Curated: Frameworks provide structure, but like the Pirate’s Code, they’re more like guidelines than actual rules. Also, frameworks are usually customized to the person following them, and often take a more holistic approach rather than targeting a single habit.
- Ongoing: Frameworks are meant to be the basis for a lifetime of decision making, rather than a temporary alteration of your behavior. This means they are designed to be agile, iterating and evolving as requirements change or new discoveries are made.
- Flexible: Frameworks are flexible enough to accommodate a variety of life circumstances, like special events, energy levels, time constraints, and physical/cognitive ability.
- Measurable: Frameworks are designed to produce positive outcomes, but not necessarily in a quantifiable sense. These outcomes are often more subjective – feeling better, having energy, reducing pain, and increasing quality of life
I consider examples like Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint, Steph Gaudreau’s Core 4, Chalene Johnson’s 131 Method, and the Full Spectrum from Krew Wellness to be more closely aligned with a Framework mentality. While they do contain a fairly specific set of rules, they all encourage an intuitive approach to adopting these rules, which involves a lot of personal research, listening to your own body, and adapting to what works best for your life. They also do not follow an “all or nothing” mentality. Instead, they present an “ideal situation” to strive for, multiple levels of “also good choices” around that, and implore you to embrace all purposeful choices fully and without guilt.
Which one is right for me?
It’s pretty clear that a flexible framework is the best choice for me personally. However, I think both programs and frameworks have a valid place in the health and wellness space, though they work for very different people. Here are my thoughts on where you might find success with one or the other:
Consider a Diet/Exercise Program if:
- You are brand new to learning about health and fitness and need some explicit guidance. Maybe you don’t know your Paleo from your Pescatarian, or you wouldn’t recognize interval training if it HIIT you in the face (haha, I’m so punny). If you have no idea where to begin or have never tried incorporating a purposeful diet or exercise routine into your life, it can be useful to go through a program or two in the beginning in order to get used to the process and learn something about nutrition, meal preparation, exercise types, or good form. Just do your research to find one that meshes with your lifestyle, goals, and current experience level (I wouldn’t recommend a Couch to 80 Day Obsession approach!)
- You really need extrinsic motivation in order to accomplish your goals. Some people are lost trying to chart their own course, or just function better with a “boss” to tell them what they need to do, and that’s fine! These programs will definitely provide that for you, especially if you find one where you resonate with the trainer, nutritionist, or wellness professional running the program.
- You are comfortable adapting or scaling back if you need to (without guilt). Programs are designed to push you out of your comfort zone, but remember that they were created for mass consumption, not specifically for you. This means that you need to be able to tackle the program in a way that is healthy. While trying new things will probably be uncomfortable, if a program is leaving you too sore, exhausted, hungry, or depleted to function in other areas of your life, it’s important to be able to modify what you are doing without feeling like you “failed.”
- You plan on being mindful and learning from the process. Programs are meant to be temporary, but that doesn’t mean you should just go through them fantasizing about when you can get back to your “real life.” They work best if, while you are participating, you observe both the good and bad elements, and then adapt the ones that make sense into your life moving forward. The purpose is lifelong progress, not just temporary torture.
Consider a Diet/Exercise Framework if:
- You already have a foundational knowledge and/or love to do your own research. If you can hold casual conversations about counting macros, have opinions on burpees, keep a backlog of health blogs in your reading queue, or already endeavor to “eat the rainbow” on the daily, you might be better off finding (or building!) a framework that expands upon your existing knowledge and lets you pursue the elements that are most engaging to you.
- You are very self-directed and self-motivated. Some people function better with the freedom to make their own choices (I suspect many freelancers out there resonate with this concept!) I personally succeed more when I am in charge of my own choices, and feel helpless when I’m stuck on someone else’s schedule or plan that doesn’t mesh with my energy or schedule that day.
- You have a tendency towards unhealthily obsessive behaviors or self-shame. The last thing you need if you have a history of restrictive, obsessive, or punitive behavior in relation to food/exercise is another controlling program which clenches that fist even tighter, or triggers past trauma that you are in recovery from. You don’t need that negativity – kindness and progress can still live hand in hand.
- You plan on being mindful and learning from the process. Surprise! No behavior change or course of action is of any use if you don’t plan on learning from your experience. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can keep evolving and adapting.
How have you found success? Where do you struggle? Have you found a program or framework to be helpful? I’d love to hear from you!