Many of us harbor a desire to be fitter, healthier, and a little less wobbly. However, for those of us who are not natural gym-bunnies, the world of health, fitness and fad diets can seem intimidating and impenetrable. Social media is awash with lululemon-clad ‘fitspos’ promoting well-lit smoothie bowls with unpronounceable and unaffordable ingredients, and the vast weight of conflicting information online can be overwhelming and off-putting. The gym can seem a frightening cavern of bewildering machinery and hulk-like men, with an overly complicated, guilt-inducing cancellation process. Then there’s the prospect of giving up the sweet treats we know and love. Ultimately, whatever Kate Moss might say, skinny can’t feel as good as ice cream tastes.
However, adopting a healthier lifestyle doesn’t have to mean giving up your favourite treats, or spending hours on end sweating away in the gym. It doesn’t have to be complicated, restrictive or expensive, and can even be enjoyable. These ten steps offer some accessible and sustainable ways to incorporate health and fitness into your life. Those looking for a quick fix will be disappointed to discover that they centre around hard work, consistency, and less junk food. However, in their emphasis on moderation and balance, they demonstrate that a healthy lifestyle need not be extreme or restrictive, and is perfectly compatible with the occasional donut.
1 Go back to basics
A quick google search on the topic of weight loss will reveal a minefield of conflicting information. An article glorifying the weight loss benefits of fats will be immediately contradicted by another warning against the calorific density of avocadoes; one piece highlighting the nutritional value of carbohydrates will be countered by five more demonising carbs as your waist-line’s worst enemy. One day coconut oil is all the rage, the next it’s ‘as unhealthy as beef fat’; one day the apple is your daily weapon against the doctor, the next it’s the sugary foe that’s making you fat. Trying to follow these elusive and ever-changing rules can do more harm than good, overcomplicating and detracting from the really very simple basic rules of nutrition and weight loss:
- Eat a balanced diet of protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, and minerals, prioritising lean protein and nutrient-rich foods over fatty, sugary and processed foods, but without cutting any food groups out.
- If weight loss is your goal, expend more energy than you’re taking in (i.e. be in a caloric deficit).
2 Skip the fad diets
We’ve all been there. Summer’s fast approaching, you’re not feeling as beach body ready as you’d hoped, and there’s a new juice cleanse promising to flatten your tummy and zap your bingo wings in five short weeks, just in time for your Ibiza break. Designed to engender fast, drastic weight loss, these diets are by nature extreme and restrictive, often cutting out major food groups and drastically reducing your calorie consumption. Of course, if you only eat carrot soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner for three weeks, you’re going to lose weight. But as soon as you start eating like a normal human being again, you’re going to put it all back on again, and then some. Calories are fuel. We need a good number of them, taken from a combination of all food groups, to survive. Starving your body of what it needs to function is about as far as you can get from healthy.
3 Find healthy food you love
Key to making a sustainable change to your diet is finding healthy food that you enjoy. Thanks to a recent explosion of the health food market, a salad is no longer synonymous with a bowl of lettuce, and restaurants and supermarkets are full of affordable and delicious alternatives to your old favourites. Be experimental and adventurous. The recipe books of the likes of Zanna Van Dijk, Alice Liveing, and The Food Medic are testament to the fact that healthy food doesn’t have to be boring, complicated, or expensive. Also, while there’s definitely something suspicious about healthy foods masquerading as deserts (if you’re going to eat cake, do it properly), there are currently some quite persuasive healthy sweet treats on the market. Oppo ice cream, for example, is surprisingly delicious, and comes in at about 40 calories a scoop.
4 Try out a fitness class
They may all have terrifyingly aggressive names like ‘hardcore bodypump’ and ‘fat attack’, and they may be full of intimidatingly-toned women in Sweaty Betty sports bras. However, once you get over this, fitness classes are a truly excellent introduction to exercise. Don’t be put off by how fit you think everyone else is compared to you. They’ve all been the one hiding at the back with the bright red face trying not to throw up. Five classes in, you won’t be that one anymore: someone else will be the red-faced newbie, and your body will be able to do things it couldn’t five weeks ago.
5 Find what works for you
There’s no one size fits all method where health and fitness is concerned. As with healthy eating, it’s important to find a form of exercise that you enjoy and can sustain long-term. If, like many other normal people, you don’t enjoy going to the gym: don’t. Join your local sports team, try out your local parkrun, cycle to work, get off the bus a few stops early and get some extra steps in. Your thing might be Badminton; it might be Boxing. It might even be Quidditch. Whatever it is, find it, enjoy it, and stop wasting your time and money on that gym membership you feel too guilty to cancel.
6 Eat mindfully
This may sound vague and a little nauseating, but it essentially means being aware of what and how much you are eating. It means listening to your body, avoiding mindless snacking, and eating your meals without distractions like your phone or the TV. It might mean counting calories or keeping a food diary. However, while these tools can be helpful in holding you accountable for what you eat and teaching you about the caloric density of foods, they may not be the right thing for you, particularly if you’re susceptible to an unhealthy relationship with food. Generally, food diaries and calorie counting are useful only as short-term exercises. Long-term, they can become obsessive, and frankly, there aren’t enough hours in the day to be spending any of them making mathematical calculations about your meals.
7 Set yourself up for success
Make this process as easy as possible by setting up your environment in ways that will help keep you on track. Bring healthy snacks out with you to avoid buying crisps and chocolate bars; if bingeing on digestives in the evening is your weakness, don’t keep them in the house. Of course, part of setting yourself up for success is allowing yourself treats when you want them, and making sure you’re eating enough throughout the day to keep you satisfied. A sustainable healthy lifestyle is one which avoids fad diets and allows for the occasional indulgence of foods that you love, will keep you full, and make you feel great.
8 Set yourself positive, realistic goals
If you’re addicted to sweet treats but want to cut down on refined sugar, don’t cut everything out at once. Start with your afternoon chocolate bar, and then a few weeks later try swapping that morning muffin for something more nutritious. The same applies to your fitness goals. It’s much more satisfying to be meeting targets frequently, and to be setting goals that you can actually meet than to be motivated by a distant, possibly unachievable goal. Boost your self-confidence by formulating positive aims. For example, instead of measuring your progress by your weight (which, after all, will not account for any muscle gains), aim to fit into that skirt you used to love, to lift a weight you couldn’t lift before, or to be able to hold a plank for double as long. In the same way, instead of aiming to cut out certain foods from your diet, aim to incorporate protein into every meal or to eat ten portions or fruit and veg a day.
9 Be patient
Any product or programme that promises drastic changes to your body in a short period of time is, most likely, not to be trusted. Becoming fitter and healthier takes hard work and consistency. Sadly, there’s no getting round this. However, while creating sustainable changes may take time, they will be more long-lasting and rewarding. Be patient, stick with it, and you will see results.
10 Being happy is more important than being skinny
Incorporating exercise and a healthy diet into your lifestyle can be so rewarding. However, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s so important to be happy with who you are foundationally, and to see your health and fitness goals as an extension of this, not as the sole measure of your worth. Ultimately, if you’re unhappy, being thinner isn’t going to make you happier. Restrictive fad diets and exercise imposed as a form of self-punishment certainly won’t. Exercise and healthy eating should be acts of self-care, and when treated as such, can be incredibly rewarding and enriching. However, some days call for takeaway pizzas and giant tubs of Ben and Jerry’s, and that’s fine.