We like to think (and are often told) that we can have it all, especially when someone is trying to sell you something. A relaxed approach to diet and exercise is the dream and basically carry on as we always have done but somehow with different if not miraculous results.

 The fantasy is to be able to train instinctively, with no plan or specific time set aside. To eat without the hassle of making healthy choices or calorie counting. And as for the odd indulgence? Surely denying ourselves would only make the forbidden fruit all the more desirable. Better to control cravings by having a little nibble here and there.

This is popular advice in fitness circles, but tellingly rarely used in marriage counselling or for anyone in rehab. It is just wishful thinking to imagine we have much self control. 

‘The only thing I cannot resist is temptation’-Oscar Wilde

It is not because we are all too weak-willed and it’s not because we are bad people- We just place too much stock in character and underestimate the overwhelming impact of our environment.

Will power or won’t power

In Greek legend Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans) wanted to experience the song of the sirens and discover why so many sailors fatally succumbed to their singing. He knew better than to rely on self-restraint so instructed his crew to tie him to the mast of his ship and for his men to plug their ears with beeswax. 

When the sirens were in earshot Odysseus acted exactly as he predicted. He squirmed and begged to be released but the crew ignored his pleas. Conversely, they had a much easier time than our tethered hero. They were not more disciplined; they were just oblivious to the sound so not exposed to the temptation.

Transplanting this into the real world, I can sail the supermarket aisles untroubled by temptations so long as I am either bound by my shopping list or I navigate clear of the sections where you’d expect to find the ice cream, cookies, snacks and so on. I know that if any of these treats were to find their way into my cupboards or freezer there song would be impossible to ignore or if I could resist, deeply unpleasant. Why put myself through it?

Forget self-imposed rationing. At least until better habits are formed, total abstinence is far easier. Absence can make the heart grow fonder, but only briefly. Prolonged or sustained absence makes you forget. You’ll quickly stop missing the fat and sugar and if you are ever exposed again, you’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

Inconvenient conveniences 

How are athletes so consistent in their training? Dedication? A love of what they are doing?  It helps that sports people are usually pretty selfish and boring, they have a life but in the same way a pot plant is technically living. I would say it is often more down to habit. It just becomes part of what they do and who they are. The training may be arduous, but trying to break a habit is even harder.

Habits are often unconscious actions, such as mindlessly snacking, getting engrossed in the TV or your phone. Bad habits tend to need little or no effort to create – these things are often in easy reach, and close to hand.

Your habits probably say more about your surroundings than any natural tendencies. So change your environment to alter your habits. Hide away temptations, make them less accessible and you will be less inclined to want to do it. Leave the ice cream in the supermarket and the additional effort of getting some will protect you from momentary lapses in willpower.

Reversing this idea suggests that if bad habits are broken by making them inconvenient, then good habits could be created by making them the path of least resistance. You know, making sure healthy food is close to hand, your workout clothes are put out in advance, that sort of thing. 

This is also a trap. Beware making something so convenient that you take it for granted. I regularly hear about people who decide to work out at home – 50 press ups and sit ups every morning, a quick stretch after a bath, a half hour bodyweight circuit twice a week in the living room. That’s not asking much is it? Well, that’s the problem, it isn’t and it could always just be done after this or that. In the next stage, you ask why even do it today at all when it can just be put off until tomorrow?

In fact, this is probably more thought than most people give these empty promises and resolutions. A few weeks go by before you suddenly realise you’d completely forgot about it. The neater this thing was just going to slot into your normal day, the more inconspicuous it becomes and the greater the chance of it sliding into oblivion in a sea of other good intentions.

If you say you will just add a new improvement to your regular existence, it just means your are looking for something for nothing. Worse, if you plan to do it ‘when you have time’, you have implicitly acknowledged that task is not that important and not worth giving anything up over.

You cannot make changes if you expect everything to remain the same. You will need a new schedule to incorporate workouts and time to prepare meals. Bad habits will need to give way to good ones. Your lifestyle, outlook, where you hang out and who you hang out with are all likely to be affected. To think otherwise is naive.

When now comes later

Motivation is far too transient, particularly when choosing between our very real and present happiness for some medium to long term reward with no guarantee. 

Progress needs a lot more than one good day of eating, and you would not see any difference from just a single gym session. We all know it takes a bit more than that to get anywhere. On the other hand skipping a workout or letting your hair down with your diet for a day will also be unlikely to make any discernible difference either. It would be swings and roundabouts, but this playground is tilted. 

Those who need to make exercise new, fun, exciting and interesting usually quit as soon as the novelty wears off. Generally speaking, exercise can be quite tedious, effortful and not always convenient or immediately rewarding. All things easily felt right there and then. The ‘reward’, the change in body shape won’t come until much later (if at all).

The same could be said for dieting. You may feel hungry, unsatisfied or stifled. A good diet doesn’t have to be bland but there will certainly be restrictions (even if some will tell you otherwise). This is immediate, unlike the effects which again may or may not materialise.

So far not too pleasant. Unlike if we skip a workout, forget the workout and go out for the night. As already mentioned that one time will provide little progression and better yet do minimal harm. You get instant satisfaction and seem to get away with it. Well, if last time did no harm, why not next time? A very slippery slope! 

This is why motivation will only get you started. You can’t rely on it to keep you going. That is where habit comes into play.

Until habits are formed there really is no need to schedule in breaks, deloads and so on. It is usually only a matter of time before injury, illness, holiday, genuine lack of time or bouts of laziness strike. 

The same is true for diet – cheat meals shouldn’t be scheduled. All you are doing is turning the possibility of falling off of the wagon into a certainty. Worse still, you are reminding yourself of what you are missing and doubtless looking forward to it. There will be ample occasions to let your hair down without scheduling them in just for the sake of it! For more on cheat meals click here.

Planning to stop

When you decide to try some fitness challenge, lose a stone, detox for a month, do a 6 week workout plan you are not going to be building lasting habits. It’s easy to be enthusiastic when there is an imminent end in sight. Whether temporarily successful or not the end of the plan is a certainty

This is really just looking for a quick fix and regardless what you tell yourself, there is no real intention to continue for a minute longer than planned. 

Getting in shape or improving fitness is one thing, maintaining it is another. To be willing to continue to keep what you have means staying consistent and expecting to continue the process.

The most consistent people I know have long forgotten why they workout. They do not have goals, do not need encouragement and they do not expect attention or any recognition for what they do. If they turn down food, they do not explain about their diet, they just say ‘no thank you’. They ask very little from their training, except to be able to continue. Results are now all but inevitable. This is when it has become a habit and an enjoyable one at that.

Perception is everything

To summarise:

1. It is too difficult to avoid temptation;

2. Motivation doesn’t last;

3. Bad habits are tough to break;

4. Good habits take time to form;

5. No one wants to make the changes needed to create changes.

No wonder so many are disappointed with their exercise or diet experiences!

Many talk a good fight about how hard they are dieting and exercising, but they get nowhere. Others seem to eat whatever they want and working out appears to come naturally. A lot of time this comes down to how it all feels.

If you feel you are putting in a lot of effort, it will be hard to sustain. You will feel more entitled to ‘treats’ and there will be a greater burden of expectation to have something to show for it. Contrast this from someone who feels they have it fairly easy and is quite happy with their lot. Guess who will be most likely to stick to the plan?