If the initial buzz of starting your 2022 New Year’s fitness resolution is already beginning to dim, you are not alone. As we return from the holidays and find ourselves swamped with work and family commitments, training sessions and the will to avoid junk food becomes tougher and tougher towards the end of January. Personal trainers often say that the most difficult part of starting your fitness journey is to simply begin it, but maintaining a consistent approach to physical activity and sound nutrition all-year-round has its own challenges too.
In addition to how we feel physically on any given day, there are also mental processes at play that threaten to take us off track, so M&F talked with Dr. Nate Zinsser, author of “The Confident Mind: A BattleTested Guide to Unshakable Performance” to find out how we really can go the distance.
Zinsser is the director of the West Point’s Influential-Psychology Program and has coached world-class athletes such as two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning. He also prepares the US military for leadership and mentally focussed action. To find out how you can apply his teachings, and continue to strive towards your goals all-year-round, follow this essential advice for keeping your fitness resolution.
Temporary slips are OK
Skipping gym sessions is one of the first signals that your New Year’s fitness resolution is about to go off track. First you skip one session, and then another, and pretty soon you quit, feeling like you haven’t achieved anything, but this is not the case. “Years ago, in my younger days, I was a very ambitious mountaineer,” says Zinsser. “I would start a climb and then end it due to the weather or other factors, such as my own lack of nerve. At first, I thought these retreats were all utter ‘failures’ and wanted to quit, but I soon learned as one veteran climber put it: ‘A thing well begun is never lost.’”
Whatever the excuse for canceling a training session, a climb, or any other activity, that temporary slip does not put you back to square one. “For anyone who slips a little with their gym sessions, that slip does not mean you’re back at your starting point, and you have every right to take pride in whatever progress you’ve earned so far,” says Zinsser. “You now know something about what it takes to get started and make progress, so use that knowledge to pick up close to where you left off and move ahead. What you have well begun is never lost!”
Defeat your self-sabotage
Making positive changes can often lead to self-sabotage. “The mechanism that jeopardizes the maintenance of any new behavior, is a force called homeostasis,” says Zinsser. “The word itself means ‘stable sameness’, and just as it applies to temperature, pressure and other physical systems, it also applies to psychophysical systems such as human beings. Our brains, bodies, and behaviors all have a built-in tendency to stay within certain narrow limits, snapping back whenever those limits are challenged. The bad news about homeostasis is that it works to keep things as they are, even if those things are not good for us and go against our stated intentions.”
Thankfully, with some mental application, self-sabotage can be defeated. “The good news about homeostasis is that you can use it to help you change, by looking at your homeostatic response as an indicator that you are moving off center and making progress,” says Zinsser. “That means you begin every new endeavor, like that new training regime you’ve taken on, by expecting some kind of a mental backlash as a result. You should predict and expect this all-too human resistance, and when you feel it coming on and you feel like you need to cheat, that’s when you should smile and say, ‘Hey, I’m changing, this is what I want!’ It means waking up in the morning feeling slow and stiff and sore, because you did a demanding physical workout the day before, but still ploughing on with the next workout because you appreciate that your body is simply responding and adjusting to get you in shape!”
Plateaus are inevitable
Dry spells and plateaus are inevitable with any long-term human progression. No one continues to improve at a steady rate over long periods of time. This reality, unfortunately, sends a lot of us home discouraged after a while, under the impression that we just don’t have what it takes to succeed. But that’s simply not true.
“Every minute of quality practice, every rep, drill, and session that is properly conducted, creates beneficial changes in your nervous system that ultimately, over time, brings about substantial improvements,” says Zinsser. “Each of these changes is small, but they add up, and once they reach a certain critical mass they result in that noticeable ‘aha!’ moment where you suddenly break though to another personal best. We don’t notice these improvements as we are practicing and studying, but the important fact, the important reality, is that they are happening all the time and while we may seem to be on the plateau, treading water and feeling like we are getting nowhere, this is not true. The building, the growing, the health development that we seek happens while we are on the plateau itself, not during the quick bursts of improvement. Trusting in that process, even though you may not get an immediate payoff workout by workout, is essential for anyone who’s serious about continuing with their development.”
It’s OK to feel confident with the new you
Avoiding self-sabotage and training through plateaus is going to make significant positive changes to the way you look and feel, and this is exactly why you started your fitness resolution in the first place, but a lack of confidence can cause many of us to feel like we aren’t fitting in, especially with friends and family that feel a touch of the green-eyed monster, making us feel like we might be too full of our fitter self.
“As I wrote in The Confident Mind, our society has a problematic, ambivalent relationship with confidence and confident people,” Zinsser says. “We all know confidence is important, but we also know that if you come across as more than just cautiously confident, you will most likely be labelled as arrogant or conceited, or both. As a result of this, many people decide that it’s better not to have too high an opinion of oneself, and so they tend to focus rather exclusively on their setbacks, imperfections and limitations, instead of on their improvements, progress, and small successes.”
The truth is that you can still be very confident on the inside, this is important for any kind of performance, and stay humble on the outside. Rest assured that building your internal confidence won’t make you any less polite, respectful or likable. But never allow yourself to feel bad and lose pride in your progress because others want to project their insecurities on to you.
Focus on the things you can control
We all waste precious energy focusing on, and complaining about, the things that we cannot change. “I call these uncontrollable factors in our lives ‘Gravity Forces,’” says Zinsser. “Because like the physical force of gravity that keeps us on the earth’s surface, we can’t do anything about them. No one wakes up in the morning, engages their core and leg muscles in order to stand up or lift a weight and then says, ‘Wow, this gravity thing is a bummer, I wish I didn’t have to deal with it!’ Everyone just accepts that gravity exists and devotes zero energy to complaining about it. Contrast that simple acceptance with the way you might complain about your genetics and in being too tall, too short, not enough fast twitch fibers, too much this, too little that, etc. All of that is simply wasted energy, just like complaining about gravity. So, why not focus instead on what you can control, like how wisely you can use your precious time in the gym?”