In my eight-plus years as the fitness director at Women's Health, I've had thousands of conversations about working out and eating well. They all go a li'l something like this: What do you think about this hot new diet? Is that buzzy boutique fitness class the next big thing? What secret set of rules do you follow? Everyone's looking for that one answer–the holy grail, the game changer. But my answer is always the same. For true change, you have to shift your mindset. (You can find all of my tips and advice in my new book, The Women's Health Fitness Fix)
Did I just catch eye rolls from you guys? I know, it sounds overly simplistic, but hear me out. In all these convos, what I've noticed is that our collective idea of being "fit and healthy" has become a caricature. Using me as an example, I get the sense I'm seen as some sort of Clark Kent turned Superman in the middle of the newsroom of the Daily Planet. And as someone who often has to make quick changes in and out of spandex, I can relate to Clark at times. But when I tell people that I don't work out every day (in fact, my "normal" is three or four times a week), they're shocked. When I tell people I don't count calories? Stunned. It's like I'm tarnishing this superhero perfection they had assumed being fit and healthy required.
Too many women fall into an all-or-nothing mindset with diet and exercise. When they're feeling motivated to see results, they flip the switch on and jack it up all the way–hitting the gym every single day, nixing every "bad" food in the book, logging every cal. Straight superhero-fit status. The problem? As I discuss in Fitness Fix, anyone can suffer through a brutal month of overtraining and calorie restriction and lose a few quick pounds, but research has continually proven that it's simply not sustainable long term, physically or mentally. Hit a single roadblock–like a week off from the gym or that pint of Haagen-Dazs you swore you would eat just a quarter of–and the wheels come off. That one slipup is perceived as a complete failure, and you flip the "being healthy" switch back off and give up. Whomp.
I'm here to tell you that your relationship with diet and exercise doesn't have to be so hot and cold. In fact, as mentioned in my book, people with a flexible approach to eating–say, one that allows for sweets and other perceived missteps–may have a better record of maintaining weight loss than dieters with a hard-line strategy. (A study in the International Journal of Obesity has my back on this.) What's more, research shows that consistent exercisers who see working out as a part of their lifestyle, rather than a way to change their appearance, have the most success keeping weight off.
Look, I've been an active person my entire life. I played tons of sports when I was young, Division I lacrosse in college, and I've achieved some bucket-list fitness goals as an adult. Being fit is a piece of who I am–a big piece, sure, but still just a piece. There's also the piece that loves champagne and Hershey's chocolate (and no, not the super-dark "healthy kind"). There's also the piece that can spend an entire afternoon watching a Law & Order marathon and sometimes skips the gym for a few extra hours of sleep. My approach–which rejects strict rules and passing fads in favor of balance and consistency–is the basis for my new book; it has kept me fit, motivated, and most important, able to enjoy every aspect of my life. No on-off switch, no unreasonable perfection.
Simple? You bet. But I promise that this is the biggest shift you can make for lasting results. It's the only "magic pill" I've ever found.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Women's Health. For more great advice, pick up a copy of the issue on newsstands now!
What Jen's wearing: Where Mountains Meet Dress, wheremountainsmeet.com.