The wagon isn't just "on" or "off"

I hear it all the time from clients, members, and friends:

"I totally fell off the wagon this weekend. I went out to eat and had a margarita, and just couldn't resist having dessert! So, I just kind of threw in the towel over the weekend. But it's Monday, and I'm back on track today!"

These analogies paint a healthy lifestyle as a black and white affair — you're either on track or off; you're either working out hard and eating right, or you're eating Mac N' Cheetos and washing it down with an ice cream shake. 

This kind of thinking really just functions as an excuse generator: if you tell yourself that one missed workout or unhealthy meal means you're "off track", you've given yourself an excuse to indulge even more and throw yourself off track even more. Then, you spend the next week compensating for your indulgence and trying to absolve yourself of your self-imposed guilt. The next weekend, the cycle repeats. Months later, you wonder why you haven't achieved your fitness goals.

We have to change the way we think about a "healthy lifestyle". It's not a black and white, on or off kind of thing. There's a lot of gray area — you can have a lousy workout (or even miss one or two), you can indulge in dessert or even have... wait for it... a whole extra cheat meal... and you're not "off the wagon". You just wobbled a bit. There is absolutely no reason why you can't just pick up and keep going. So you ate some dessert or had an unhealthy meal — who cares?! Fitness is not about following a rigid, immutable set of harsh, restrictive rules; rather, it's about consistency over days, weeks, months, and years. 

If you indulge in an unhealthy meal on Friday night, you haven't "blown the weekend". You blew one meal. You can start eating right again with your next snack. You haven't blown the weekend until you gave yourself the excuse to do so and went through with it. 

I'm a strong advocate of steering my clients away from what I call the guilt-response cycle of eating. It goes like this:

  • Motivated healthy eating
  • Reluctant healthy eating
  • Craving junk food
  • Eating junk food
  • Feeling guilty for "falling off the wagon"
  • Using this perceived "failure" as justification for further indulgence
  • Rebounding from the guilt with renewed motivation
  • Motivated healthy eating

It's not hard to break the cycle — you just have to quit beating yourself up because your diet isn't perfect. Even elite athletes don't eat healthily all the time. They eat healthily most of the time. If you can accept that your diet will never be perfect and recognize that you and you alone have the ability to choose what you eat, you can stop perceiving any break of your diet as a "failure". It's not! Fitness is a long game won with tenacity and consistency. It's only when you convince yourself that a small mistake defines your journey that you've truly lost your way.