Feeling stressed out and out of shape?
Are you having trouble sticking to your nutritional plan?
This article is for you.
Stress is your body’s way of responding to demanding situations. Stress can be physiological, psychological or a mixture of the two.
A little stress in acute doses can be a good thing as it pushes you out of your comfort zone. Getting out of your comfort zone occasionally is a key driving factor in personal growth. A little stress in a challenging situation can give you that extra energy / focus known as an ‘adrenalin rush’. This adrenalin rush, when channelled properly, can lead to heightened physical and psychological performance.
Stress becomes a problem when it is chronic. Chronic exposure to stress demotivates, paralyzes and breaks you down. Stress can come from multiple sources such as: your job, your family commitments, your social commitments and your training commitments - to name a few. The cumulative total of all stressors in a person’s life is known as the ‘allostatic load’. The higher your total allostatic load is, the more drained you will become over a prolonged period of time. That is why it is important to create a balance between stress and recovery. Without stress you will never get better and without recovery you will burnout.
Everyone has a different “recovery zone”, whether it’s physical or psychological and it can depend on several factors such as age, life experience, personality type, stress resilience and allostatic load. If you want to improve the way you look, feel and perform; you must work to balance the competing demands in your life, in order to spend time in your recovery zone.
If you currently don’t spend much time in your recovery zone chances are you:
Struggle to find the time or energy to train.
Find it hard to make improvements in the gym.
Struggle with motivation.
Find it hard to concentrate.
Find it hard to sleep.
Find it hard to build muscle or drop body fat.
Based on my personal experience (the numerous mistakes I have made over the years) and coaching hundreds of people, I noticed the following common pitfalls. I am going to refer to these pitfalls as the ‘Seven Deadly Sins of Stress’.
The Seven Deadly Sins of Stress
Deadly Sin 1 – You have a complicated relationship with food
If we are being honest with ourselves, most of us have a good idea of how we need to eat to help us reach our health and fitness goals. For some reason it can be difficult to abandon old habits right away. Often these old habits creep in when we are emotional, rushing, ill-prepared during a social occasion when we feel peer pressured. For example; you plan to cook a healthy chicken stir-fry dinner when you get home but you have a stressful afternoon in work and you have to stay late. When you arrive home later than expected, you realise that you have forgotten to buy chicken. At this point you think to yourself “Screw it...I can’t be dealing with this now. I am going to order a takeaway and I will start again tomorrow”. Does this sound familiar?
The example above highlights the complicated relationship that we all have with food. The first step to changing this is becoming mindful of the choices we make everyday. Once you are conscious of the choices you are making and striving to notice and name the reasons we do what we do you are on the right track. The above example is based on a scenario that is based on my previous experiences. Now that I understand that I have a complicated relationship with food, I am able to stay mindful and make better decisions.Therefore, when I am now faced with the above scenario I take the following actions:
Let myself be annoyed for a second
Take a deep breath and say to myself “right what now?”
Look in the cupboards and freezer to find a chicken substitute that I can use to save the stir-fry or make an alternative healthy meal. If I find eggs- great, I can make a vegetable omelette or if I have frozen lean mince beef in the fridge I can make a beef stir-fry.
Enjoy my meal and be proud of myself because I made the right choice when faced with a difficult decision.
Deadly Sin 2 – You are using the ‘all or nothing approach’
Have you ever said any of the following?
I will start again on Monday
I will start in January
Work is crazy at the moment, I will start when things quieten down
I can’t eat healthy because I still want to enjoy my food
These sound like the statements of someone who is trying to be perfect. If it can’t be perfect, why bother at all?
The only problem with this approach is that things will never be perfect. We all live in the real world with numerous moving parts. If you take the all or nothing approach when something unexpected comes up and you can no longer be perfect you will become disillusioned or make excuses.
I have found it far more enjoyable and more productive to focus on progress, not perfection. Even one small change every two weeks will add up to huge changes in a few months or years. This approach is far more realistic and sustainable. My favourite thing about this approach is that it doesn’t give me any excuses…….I only have to be a tiny bit better than yesterday.
Deadly Sin 3 – You are focusing on the wrong things
Many people (including myself) will gravitate towards the most complex technique when learning a new skill. Saying things like “I don’t need that beginner stuff. I want to be really good at this so I need the advanced stuff” or “that sounds too easy, I need something harder”.
You want to start training in the gym regularly but you are so confused. One article says that you have to lift weights to lose body fat, another says you have to do cardio and another says you have to do a mixture of both. Similarly, you want to start eating better but again you are so confused. One article says that you have to eat lots of protein, another says that you have to be a vegetarian and another says you have to do intermittent fasting. You are confused, so you do nothing. This is called ‘paralysis by analysis’.
For example; if you are only eating two servings of vegetables per day and you want to improve the way you look feel and perform, don’t concern yourself with which vegetables have higher sugar contents. This would be comparable to wanting to teach quantum physics equations to children who haven’t yet learned long multiplication. This is madness. Instead, focus on eating three servings of vegetables per day. Once you have mastered this habit add another serving of vegetables.
Forget the small details until you have mastered the basics. Over time you need to create habits that move you towards your goal. I like to call this approach “taking care of the big rocks”, for more information on this see my previous blog.
Read: Taking care of the Big Rocks
Deadly Sin 4 – You are trying to change everything by yesterday
I think that we can all relate to this feeling. You set a goal and begin to work towards it and all of a sudden you become frustrated. Why can’t I do it yet? You see other people around you who are doing it and compare yourself to them. The only small detail that you are missing is that chances are they have been doing it for a lot longer than you.
You are so focused on the outcome (the goal) that you forget about the process (doing the work). If you look at any world class performer, chances are that they have committed to years of diligent practice in order to achieve that level of mastery. Malcom Gladwell describes this in his ’10,000 hour rule’.
Most people over estimate what they can achieve in a year and under estimate what they can achieve in a day. Instead of focusing on the small details or constantly thinking of your goal and becoming disillusioned when you haven’t achieved it yet, focus on simple habits, staying consistent and enjoying the process.
Deadly Sin 5 – You are busier than ever
If you are still reading this article, it is likely that you can relate to some of the topics covered or you might even see a little of yourself in one or two of the examples given. Chances are that as you have gotten older you have acquired new responsibilities (promotion in work, started a family, studying part time) and new interests (taken up golf, learning a new language). There are only 24 hours in a day and as these new responsibilities and interests accumulate they begin to take up more of your daily time and energy. Before you know it, you are finding it harder to find time to train or prepare healthy meals.
If you really want improve the way you look, feel and perform without giving up your other responsibilities and interests, you have to learn to prioritise and focus on the essentials. This could be booking an appointment in your diary to train three times per week for thirty minutes. This appointment is a top priority for you because you want to improve the way you look, feel and perform. Making this appointment as important as a meeting with your boss, a doctor’s appointment or a lunch break is vital. If you don’t make this appointment a priority, another one of your responsibilities or interests will find a way of sneaking in there. Before you know it, you haven’t been to the gym in two weeks because you have been too busy.
Deadly Sin 6 – You know what to do…but you just can’t seem to do it consistently
We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare. If you don’t know the story it involves a tortoise and hare. The tortoise challenges the hare to a race because he is tired of his bragging. Despite being considerably slower, the tortoise wins the race because he just keeps moving while the hare stops to take a nap half way through the race. “That’s just a fairy tale” I hear you say. Well the video link below of a scientific study (sort of) would beg to differ.
The training program or nutritional approach that is done consistently will always deliver better results than the one that you won’t stick to.
If you know what to do and are still struggling to do it consistently, chances are you are emulating the hare. You haven’t taken the time to build consistent habits that are second nature. We don’t need willpower to do things that we do automatically. For example; if you had to make a conscious effort to breathe, the chances are you might forget. As you can imagine, that wouldn’t end well! There is a reason certain essential functions in our body are performed automatically.
Deadly Sin 7 – You are trying to do it all on your own
Ultimately, we are all accountable for the choices we make daily and the consequences of these choices. That being said, it is easier to make the right choices if we can surround ourselves with people who want to see us succeed or can impart knowledge that helps us succeed. For example, if you are doing a max effort 1km row you might be able to set a personal best on your own but it would be a lot easier and enjoyable to have people doing it with you or cheering you on. The same principle applies when it comes to managing your stress levels. If you bottle everything up, the chances are that you may become over-whelmed. If you can share the way you are feeling with a friend, family member, training partner or coach you will be a in a far better frame of mind. For more information about the importance of surrounding yourself with a group of people who want to succeed see my previous blog.
Read: My Fat Loss Experiment
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Many thanks for reading guys and girls. If you have any nutrition, training or lifestyle questions please mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we would love to help in any way we can.
Ciaran is the Co-Founder of and Head of Strength and Conditioning at Fitter Faster Stronger Gyms. Ciaran holds an MSc. in Applied Sports Science and is a qualified personal trainer and certified Precision Nutrition Coach. If you would like to learn more about Ciaran's experience you can check out his profile here or follow him on social media here