Diet vs. Exercise: Getting In Shape

Ah, New Year’s. Time to leap onto the resolution bandwagon and then quite likely fall right back off.

Yeah, human nature sucks.

Many people wake up on Jan. 1st with plans to quit smoking, quit drinking, start exercising, start eating healthy, and lose forty-eleven million pounds. A lot of them don’t last past noon; possibly because the brutal hangover prompts them to ingest mounds of grease and carbs.

So, what’s someone who is seeking personal improvement to do? The answer is: not much.

That doesn’t sound very inspiring, but allow me to elaborate. The answer is: not much, with a focus on continuous improvement. If you try to do a complete lifestyle overhaul in one day then it’s going to be such a shock that you’ll end up saying, “Screw it. Too hard. I quit.”

Beavis and Butthead were right when they said: “The more that things change, the more they suck.”

The quick and easy transformation is a myth. Most people can’t do the overnight 180 degree lifestyle change simply because it’s too much for the psyche to handle all at once. If you’re looking for a dramatic change in lifestyle, ask yourself one question. What is more important: quick results or long-term success?

When you add in the fact that quick results like dramatic weight loss only happen in rare cases the answer becomes even clearer. This is why I advocate the tortoise approach over the hare’s. When it comes to getting in shape, nothing is more important than achieving permanent lifestyle change. Nothing. Period. Double period.

The reason being that permanent lifestyle change is what allows you to achieve all the other goals you may have such as dropping fat, building muscle, lowering cholesterol, having more energy and making everyone at your high-school reunion totally jealous. I firmly believe that in the tenuous early stages of a fitness program your goals need to be focused around action rather than results. If you manage to exercise three times a week for several weeks, yet don’t drop a pound of weight, then this is still a major accomplishment. Once you’ve got regular exercise under your belt then you can start ramping things up to get the coveted ‘results’ you so desire.

Lifestyle change needs to be phased in over time or the shock will be too great and you’ll revert to your old ways. Many people believe — and I’m one of them — that dietary changes are the hardest part of getting in shape. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, if you can get to the point where you exercise for three hours a week, then you only needed to motivate yourself for those three hours. Diet, on the other hand, requires 24/7 motivation. Three days of being good on your diet can be undone in a moment of drunken gluttony. If you have serious weight loss goals, it requires dietary vigilance; and this is a skill that is not easily developed.

In addition, adding exercise into your life can be seen as pursuing something enjoyable. People who exercise regularly, month after month and year after year, actually like what they’re doing. They’ve developed a habit that they enjoy, so keeping it up is not much of a challenge. Conversely, many people enjoy pizza and beer; and chocolate, and chocolate-coated pizza dipped in beer; and cutting back on such things requires serious effort.

So, don’t make the effort … yet.

If your lifestyle is in need of major overhaul, then just start with exercise and forget about diet for a while (I’m sure that a whole slew of fitness gurus just screamed “blasphemy!”). While it’s true that an improved diet will enable putting more effort into exercise, it’s better to only start exercising and succeed than to try to change everything and fail.

Willpower is a trainable human resource and if you don’t exercise and have a lousy diet then that’s because your willpower for those things is wimpy. Therefore, you need to train up your “willpower muscles” for exercise and diet; and just focusing on exercise can be an important first step.

In a 2002 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Michelle Tucker and Marla Reicks determined that exercise was a potential “gateway” behavior to improving diet. Not only does regular exercise improve your health-specific willpower, but it makes you start to feel like an overall healthier person who can then crave healthier food.

So, this New Year, don’t try and change everything, just change one thing. Start with exercise, and start slow. Then gradually add more and more exercise at increasing intensity. When you feel like you’ve got that down then turn to gradual dietary changes. It may not get you the rapid results you desire, but the chances of success are dramatically higher, and by next New Year you’ll be a completely new person!

And if you’re wondering about my New Year’s resolution, it involves not swearing at other drivers so much, even if they are a bunch of idiots.

About Author:

James S. Fell is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a middle-aged family man with a desk job and not much free time, yet he’s able to keep in shape because he loves exercise and doesn’t mind eating healthy. He is the author of Body for Wife: The Family Guy’s Guide to Getting in Shape.