Extremism is alive and well and living in the health & fitness world. It seems we are either eating “clean” or “dirty,” a couch potato or a full-on HIIT enthusiast, having a “cheat” weekend or gearing up for a fitness challenge. Where’s the balance? Where’s the middle ground between doing nothing and going full speed? If we want to have lasting success in reaching our health goals, balance and moderation will have to come along for the ride. If we are willing to work for it, moderation just might be the perfect sweet spot for creating healthy habits that grow with us over time, creating wellness at any age or stage of our lives.
The Lure of the 30-Day Challenge
Maybe we don’t like the middle because somehow it’s not “on” enough. It doesn’t shock us into a high enough state of motivation. If you’re doing a workout challenge, you’ve committed to it. You’ve got the month-long plan front-of-mind, and you are in the “zone” and ready to do whatever it takes to get things done. You also know it’s temporary. The end is as much a part of the workout as the beginning.
You’ll struggle through it somehow because you know there’s an end in sight. The problem is, somewhere between week one and whatever week you stop the challenge (probably sometime before the month is over), not only does your motivation fizzle out, but you start telling yourself that getting fit is impossible. You generalize the lack of success in that extreme experience to any future attempts you might take to get fit.
Moderation Isn’t Cool (Unless Stated as a Simple Sound Bite)
Have you ever wondered why there are so many quotes about moderation on social media these days? Browse around Instagram, and you’ll find daily reminders that offer up short tidbits of wisdom that speak to taking a balanced, moderate approach when it comes to health.
- Food is an important part of a balanced diet. (Fran Lebowitz)
- Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health. (Julia Child)
- Everything that exceeds the bounds of moderation has an unstable foundation. (Seneca the Younger)
The trouble is, everyone’s liking those posts and talking the talk, but nobody seems to be walking the walk. We aren’t following the advice because while the short quips about moderation are engaging, the day-to-day workings of a moderate lifestyle aren’t cool. It’s rather dull to think about waking up every day and putting in the effort to eat healthy foods and exercise. That simple equation can get stale if we don’t reenergize our efforts from time to time.
But if extreme, short-term approaches don’t work over the long haul, and the everydayness of moderation is boring and hard to sustain, what should we do? We need to understand how to operationalize moderation. Also, moderation has to be elevated in our minds and respected to push us to put in the daily work required to do things like eat nutrient-dense foods to lower our cholesterol or use progressive overload in our workouts to build strength in our upper body.
Moderation is Hard to Define (So, Build a Structure for It)
What is moderate eating? Eating two slices of pizza instead of the whole pie might be moderate eating for someone. Taking a 30-minute walk three times per week might be a moderate amount of exercise for one person while doing 30-minute sessions on the rower five times per week is moderate for another. There’s a bit of a definition problem here because our abilities and perspectives on moderation vary. The rigid rules of a diet plan or fitness challenge take out all the guesswork, but they also aren’t as workable for us if they fall too far outside our definition of moderation.
It is precisely because moderation is personal that applying it also has to be personal. We have to use tools to set parameters around our moderation. We can look to general health guidelines to help. For example, the Centers for Disease Control produces sensible, defined guidelines for exercise. Their exercise prescription is 150 minutes every week (or 30-minutes a day, five days a week). They even offer guidelines and definitions for “moderate-intensity” vs. “vigorous-intensity” workouts.
To start a structured healthy eating or weight loss plan, you can find well-defined plans and resources like a Whole-Foods diet, Weight Watchers, structured Paleo/Keto plans. There are also resources and communities to help if you want to get away from diets and follow an intuitive eating lifestyle. Following some accepted and rational eating/exercise guide makes more sense than jumping from one extreme plan to another. If the plan has been around for a while (and tested by a large group of people), it could be a good way to put some structure in place as you develop new healthy habits.
Moderation and Healthy Habits Go Hand in Hand
When it comes to sticking to a moderate plan, most of the work falls on you to plan, define and develop new healthy habits. I created a Health & Fitness Habits Toolkit with resources to get you started, in part because I saw a need for tools that help people develop action plans for implementing healthy habits.
Following an action plan for new habits like increasing the number of salads you eat in a week or starting a walking program gives you structure and detailed instructions to promote success. The plans walk you through how to set a goal, what initial actions to take to create a habit-forming routine, how to deal with what I call “push back” (the obstacles that can develop over time and weaken your resolve) and ways to incorporate the habit into your lifestyle.
Think Mindset + Habits, Not Motivation
So, we know that extremes don’t work to create lasting health and fitness. A fit lifestyle is a long game; while that might not be sexy, it’s the everydayness of healthy eating and exercise habits that will likely set us up to see progress (as we move from momentary fits of motivation to ingrained habits). Finding balance requires a mindset adjustment and a willingness to see the glass as half full (especially if you’ve veered off your exercise or eating plan and feel vulnerable to negative self-talk).
Find Balance (and Develop Moderation) in Your Health and Fitness Routines
In addition to having a workable plan in place, here are 5 general principles that will help you build balance and moderation into any health and fitness routine you choose:
1. Think in terms of months and years, not weeks. Wrap your head around the idea that changes in your health and fitness take time. Transitioning from a high-fat, processed diet to a whole-foods one, for example, requires shopping, meal prep and lifestyle changes that will require consistent effort to reach goals such as weight loss or lower cholesterol levels. I like to think of it this way: the longer it takes to reach my health or fitness goal, the more chance I have of making it a lasting habit and sticking to it long enough to enjoy the fruits of my labor.
2. Don’t play the “I’ve blown it” game. Telling yourself that you’ve blown it because you went off your eating/workout plan is the epitome of the extremist mindset. That self-shaming is a perfect breeding ground for negative self-talk. It threatens healthy eating and fitness by reducing the positive mental (and physical) energy you’ll need to reach your goals. You ate that piece of cake or extra cocktail, so what? The world hasn’t ended! You have an opportunity to eat on-plan food at the next meal. Even if you missed today’s workout, the sun will still come up tomorrow—do it then. Don’t let one deviation turn into a mental downward spiral that gets you permanently off track.
3. Use the 80/20 rule. The corollary to tip number #2 about not giving up when you think you’ve blown it is to build some less-nutritious foods into your plan from the beginning. When you eat nutrient-dense foods 80 percent of the time and less-nutritious food 20 percent of the time, you build in moderation and balance from the start. Another balanced approach to the 80/20 rule is 80 percent healthy eating and 20 percent exercising.
4. Be mindful of all indicators of success. The scale, calories burned or pounds lifted are not the only measures of success. Are your clothes looser? Is your posture better? Can you walk up a flight of stairs without feeling like you’ll pass out? Have you eaten more on-plan meals than not this week? I know it can be frustrating not to “see” the progress on the scale or through some other “acceptable” measure, but that’s just it. We need to adjust our “acceptable” standards. Isn’t more energy, a better sex life, or feelings of accomplishment as valuable as a number on a scale? Ditch the narrow, tunnel vision about what success looks like and step out into the light. Recognize your achievements as a way of seeing the all-encompassing nature of your health and fitness behaviors.
5. Get in touch with your feelings and be aware of positive, but non-visible changes. Reflect on how eating well and consistent exercise makes you feel, not just how it makes you look. We can become so conditioned to think about losing weight, burning calories, lifting x amount of weight that we lose sight of non-visible milestones of self-care: weekly healthy meal prep, balanced cardio and weight workouts, improvements in mood, sleep quality and overall wellness. That feeling of wellness is vital in helping you maintain your healthy eating and workout routines. Take time during the day to acknowledge your feelings and the positive changes you are making. I like to journal every Saturday morning about the prior week, and I think about my progress as part of a nightly routine of gratitude.
Moderation and a balanced healthy lifestyle are found between the extremes of fad diets, rigid fitness challenges and other one-off health plans. If you genuinely want to transform your health, you’ll have to cultivate moderation, apply it to your eating and exercise plans and stick to it over time to get results. If you’re willing to do that, I think you’ll find the rewards of balance offer peace of mind, wellness and self-confidence. Your moderate efforts can transform your life (but it won’t happen overnight). If you can live with that, a balanced life can be yours!
Get moderation on repeat!
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