"Oh, you must be so busy right now!" people say to me from November through January. "The holidays," their eyes bulge, "everybody wants to work off all those extra calories!"
Cue my eyes rolling as far back in my head as they will go.
It's true – as a personal trainer, I am busy this time of year. But it's actually my least favorite season, because I watch my clients suffer so many setbacks due to self criticism. They're not really falling off the proverbial fitness wagon, but they assume they will. And they torture themselves for it.
Our cultural narrative says that this is the time of year when we become worthless slobs who stuff our faces with high calorie food and slump on our couches in front of the TV. As such, we think of these delicious holiday meals as treacherous sinfests for which we must atone by pushing it extra hard at the gym. But it's cold and our couches are comfy, so maybe we don't make it to the gym as often as we mean to. So basically: fail, fail, fail, and more fail.
When we think of food and other aspects of our lifestyle as inherently bad, exercise becomes a form of punishment for enjoying those bad things. This mentality is most pronounced around the holidays, but it's there all the time. I hear it constantly when people talk about "working off" their food, or "making up" for daring to eat dessert.
It might not seem like a big deal to say or think that occasionally, but every time you do, you're reinforcing the idea that exercise is something you do to make up for eating. That makes working out feel like a chore at best, and a tool for self harm at worst. Calories in, calories out may be the foundation of weight loss or maintenance, but that doesn't mean it should consume your thinking.
In fact, the anxiety resulting from self-criticism causes people to fall behind on their fitness goals more than anything else. That's because having a negative attitude toward exercise makes you far less likely to do it.
I've met many clients who have resigned themselves to thinking that they're doomed never to enjoy working out. But there are concrete steps you can take to change your attitude toward exercise. It will require work (sorry, I'm a buzzkill who doesn't believe in quick fixes), but it's easier than you might think. Ahead are some strategies to help you learn to love a good sweat, during the holidays and beyond.
Put down the holiday weight gain myth
The commonly cited statistic that the average American gains five to ten pounds over the holiday season is (like most statistics, har har) a myth. Participants in a study from the National Institutes of Health gained, on average, one pound during the holidays. This weight gain was so insignificant that the researchers concluded it was probably attributable to the slow and steady weight gain most people experience over the course of their adulthood.
Why? As the scientists' conclusion suggests, weight maintenance is a long game. Eating a big meal, or even several big meals over a short period of time, doesn't make that much of a difference in the long run. Will you gain weight if you eat like it's Thanksgiving every day? Sure, we all know this. But you don't need to "make up" for eating a big meal every now and then. If you've ever weighed yourself after the holidays and felt you've gained weight, you were probably bloated. Alcohol and sodium will do that to you. As long as you don't carry your holiday eating habits over to your everyday, you're unlikely to see a change in your weight.
Put your brain into it
There's a whole lot of media buzz about "mindfulness" right now. Much of that information is vague and sounds like it came from a self help book, but there is concrete evidence that mindfulness techniques can help with your fitness routine. Scientists from Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that subjects who reported being more mindful during exercise enjoyed it more. That satisfaction is habit-forming: people who report feelings of happiness during exercise are much more likely to stick with it. On the other hand, people whose bodily appearance is their primary motivation for working out report lower levels of enjoyment and are therefore more likely to quit.
So what does mindfulness mean in this context? According to those Dutch scientists, simply being present in your body while you're working out helps. Focus on the movements and how they feel. Pay attention to the things you normally wouldn't – your breathing, the speed at which you're moving, where and how physical impulses start in your body, and how your muscles feel when they contract and relax. If this sounds silly, I can assure you it really does work. Dancers do this a lot (maybe even too much), and I think it's one of the reasons we love moving. Plus, the extra mental attention has the added benefit of helping you become more coordinated and efficient.
Set goals that have nothing to do with the scale
Goal setting is a powerful motivational tool, and in the fitness industry, the go-to goals typically have to do with weight. In my experience, this is a very effective approach for some people. But for others, it hurts more than it helps. Obsessing over the number on your scale can easily lead you into negative, self-critical thinking.
So, even if your goal is weight loss, find other things to focus on. These can be big or small – the only rule is that you have to be realistic about your goals and how long it will take to reach them. Want to run a 5K? Awesome. Yes. DO. YOU. But don't expect to do it next week if you're not already a runner.
Master the push-up. Train for a race or event. Get a heart monitor and track your endurance. Challenge yourself to do exercises you already know while standing on one foot or on a balance pad. Learn to use a new piece of equipment. Pick up heavier weights (safely!). If you're struggling to get to the gym at all, make that your goal: decide which days you're going to work out, write them in your calendar, tell someone who will hold you accountable, and celebrate with them when you're successful.
Do it for the high
The runner's high is real, and it's not just for runners. Working out makes you feel good. Next time you have a great workout, take time afterward to notice how good you feel. Commit it to memory. Save it, and go back to that memory when you're struggling to find motivation.
Don't feel good after a trip to the gym? A bit of tiredness is to be expected (and is a good thing), but if you're feeling completely wiped out and miserable every time you finish a workout, consult a professional. You could have an underlying medical condition that's making you feel bad. You could also be pushing it too hard too fast. Difficult is good, but not at the expense of your health and safety.
Make it new
There are always going to be some days when you aren't thrilled about making exercise happen. But if going to the gym feels like an absolute chore every single time, find something different to do. Gyms aren't the only place to exercise. Try a new fitness class or activity: rock climbing, kayaking, biking, hiking, swimming, even a stroll through the park. Doing something physical that doesn't feel like your typical workout can jumpstart your routine. Find something active to do every week that doesn't involve the gym, even if it's simply taking a long walk on the weekend.
Like company? Working out with a buddy makes you more accountable, helps you reach your goals, and has even been shown to improve performance.
Tell yourself you're a freaking boss
Here's some more silly-sounding stuff that is actually true: positive self talk (i.e. telling yourself you're killin' it) makes you more motivated, improves athletic performance, helps when recovering from injury, and increases exercise adherence. Struggling to get to the gym? Don't hate on yourself. Tell yourself that you are fabulous and wonderful and you'll go to the gym because you're a powerful person like that. Having a tough time during the workout? Tell yourself you're a queen and you can do the damn thing. Try it. It's fun. You'll get a little glimpse of how Beyonce feels all the time. What are you? That's right, you're flawless.