Category Archives: Habits

Low-Carb Blues

Angry cat in a sink

Carb cycling means eating different amounts of carbohydrate day to day — a common pattern is high-fat/low-carbs on rest days and high-carbs/low-fat on “training days.” Many people find it easier to eat fewer calories to support a fat-loss goal if they eat less carbohydrate, but tough workouts may feel too tough when they eat low carb all the time. The idea of carb cycling is to bunch up carbs close to the workouts for energy, but to otherwise eat a lower-carb food pattern. This eating pattern works well for some people — I’ve heard, “I love it because I always have a treat to look forward to.” That’s the key to sticking with the plan: having a pattern that supports your goals AND that you enjoy. Or at least don’t actively dislike.

In some ways, carb cycling mirrors how we already eat — it’s just planned out in advance. People often eat differently day to day, whether because they’re socializing here and there, celebrating with a special meal, attending an event, or just not getting to the grocery store. If you’re trying to eat fewer calories, it can be a struggle to accommodate social events or special-occasion meals in particular, and a carb-cycling approach can help by building in “eat more of this” days.

What Is Going on with That Cat?

This cat picture is a favorite of mine, and I have certainly had days like this, but I was a bit surprised to see this message added to it recently: “HOW I FEEL ON LOW-CARB DAY.” People have subtle to substantial differences in how they feel with different amounts of carbohydrate in their diets — for some people, there’s an adjustment period when cutting carbohydrate, and for others it just never feels good to go low. If that cat shows how you feel on “low-carb day,” then carb-cycling probably isn’t for you — after all, it would mean feeling this way around half the time. Changing your eating patterns can take time and require you to do some challenging work around your feelings and expectations about food, but being miserable is not sustainable.

You can also try a simpler form of “zig-zag food pattern,” varying your calories; eat the same basic proportions throughout the week, with more calories on more-active days and fewer on less-active days. This is a good way to practice associating eating more with being more active. Practicing that pattern can be a big help if disaster strikes and an injury knocks you off your routine, as well as accommodating different eating options during the normal run of things.

“OK, I’ll program zig-zag calories into my food tracker.” Unfortunately, few food trackers have this feature. A similar approach that is easier to do with a food tracker is eating carefully 6 days a week and having a “cheat day.” (I don’t love the “cheat” terminology, but that’s a common term for it. Why not “treat day,” “social day,” or “party day”?) Your food tracker may not support “treat day” (see how nice that looks?) gracefully, but it keeps the variation down to one day a week. Whatever pattern you choose, it needs to be something that that fits into your lifestyle, lets you do most things the way you like to do them, and supports your goals.

Here are some ideas for choosing a sustainable food pattern:
Where Do I Begin?
One Weird Trick?
Nine Simple Weight-Loss Tips
Does Active Logging Work?

Should I Join a Gym?

I heart this gym

This may seem like a newbie question, but it spans experience from “just starting” to “planning to compete.” Whether to join a gym is about psychology and interests more than exercise ability.

In favor of joining a gym:

  • The gym is a great choice for people who need a “third place” — a place to go where there is only one focus, and everyone else is exercising, too.
  • A gym membership can give you access to a variety of classes and to casual instruction in exercises new to you.
  • If you want to work with a personal trainer, this will generally (although not always) happen in a gym. (Gyms often have policies restricting outside trainers, so don’t expect to bring a trainer with you to whatever you gym you join.)
  • If you have a specific athletic goal, a gym membership is a good setting for focused training. Even if it’s an outdoor goal, a formal plan for strength training is a good idea, and gym equipment can keep you on track in bad weather.
  • A gym membership gives you access to large, expensive, and varied equipment.

Gyms are expensive, and if you aren’t looking for instruction, specialized equipment, or a place to pursue an athletic goal, they aren’t essential.

Here are some ways to stay active outside the gym:

  • Start walking! Especially if your exercise need is mainly for basic health, walking is a great activity.
  • Try a home exercise routine, like the 7-Minute Workout, as a way to start or end your day.
  • Connect home exercise to something you already enjoy, with an activity like the Romance Novel Reader Workout.
  • Add some spice to a mostly walking-oriented routine by adding in different outside activities during the year — like hiking and biking in the summer and some snowshoe trips in the winter, or dancing all year round. Get friends or family involved in different activities with you.
  • Outdoor athletes like runners, cyclists, and rowers can exercise outside and also have a small amount of equipment at home (like a training stand for a bike, an erg, or a few kettlebells) for consistent training.
  • Think about all the different ways to use your body, and how you might sprinkle them in your schedule to get more active.
  • Look for outdoor or community-based activities in parks and other facilities. Is there a skating rink near you?

Making a new commitment to exercise without a plan or place to go requires self-reliance. If you’re going it alone, consider joining a community of some kind to help you stay on track.

  • Join a website, like Fitocracy or MapMyFitness, to record workouts and connect with others.
  • Find a local sports league or activity group to meet with. Specialty outdoor activities often attract groups, and the Sierra Club has hiking events in many locations.

And remember: you can always shift your focus to another kind of activity if you wish!

See “Getting Comfortable with Gym Going” for a roundup of Starter Steps articles about the gym.

See “What’s Better — Indoor or Outdoor Exercise?” for a discussion of the advantages of both.

Image: I don’t belong to a regular gym, but occasionally my partner and I visit the Colosseum in Columbia, MD, where I took this photo. It has a lively community of devoted members, one of whom shared their love a few months ago.

Are You a Binge Eater?

cookie monster

Nia Shanks has a nice post about the skills and mindset that helped her emerge from a diet–binge cycle. She emphasizes getting away from the cues that appear in “lose weight fast” pitches — like rigid, unsustainable rules and a laser focus on fat loss — in favor of thinking about positive actions you can take, like healthful eating habits and improving your exercise ability.

This is neither rocket science nor brain surgery. It’s a personal, practical discussion of what amounts to brain science — ways to step back, adjust your goals, and discover an enjoyable, sustainable way to live (without giving up excellence).

What If I’m Not a Binge Eater?

Good! Don’t start. And take a look at this other post by Nia Shanks, “13 Ways Women Can Be MORE, Not Less.” Shanks focuses on women’s experiences in her training business, but, as with The Art of Manliness, these ideas cross gender lines. “Be More, Not Less” has good suggestions for anyone who’s having a tough time getting away from messages that make it hard to be kind to themselves.

Image from Shirt.Woot. I used this image in another blog entry, too — it’s too wonderful to use only once.

Tips for Better Sleep

Get Better Sleep

Good health is a chair with three legs: good nutrition, regular activity, and restful sleep. The more even the legs, the more stable we are. Most of us do much better at one or another of the three. Some people even sacrifice sleep to make sure they work out during the week, a pattern that can threaten health by making workouts more stressful, requiring more rest than they’re already not getting. Others struggle to “pay down sleep debt” on the weekends, getting stuck in a sort of boom-bust cycle where they never feel truly rested. As with nutrition and exercise, what best helps restful sleep is regular habits that are basically good, even if they are not perfect.

Art of Manliness offers this list of 22 suggestions for better sleep. You don’t have to be manly to use them — you don’t even have to be male. There are plenty of old standbys here, but there may be a few you haven’t seen. As with all such lists, don’t treat the whole thing as a homework assignment — skim down and look for a couple of easy ones to try. And start the week off right with a good Sunday night’s sleep.

Photo: my cat, who is a true master of sleeping.

Getting There

jitenshasw had a lot of weight to lose, and had always been heavy. In this post, she shares her process of discovery and success. No quick fixes here — just a willingness to ask herself tough questions and actively decide how she wanted to eat and move. She took time to be clear about how she could take care of herself, and vastly exceeded her original goal. It’s a terrific story of taking simple steps in the right direction — go read the whole thing. [Contains mature language.]

Should I Do a 30-day Challenge?

Pizza Challenge

There are lots of 30-day challenges floating around online, urging people to focus on their abs, “get a beach body,” or practice a skill like planking or bodyweight squats. Are they a good idea?

In favor of a 30-day challenge:
— Relatively brief, improving likelihood of success
— A decent chunk of time, promoting a sense of accomplishment
— Can be a good way to practice a new movement or skill
— Can be a good way to way to prepare for the next step in a progression
— If you do a new one each month, you can mix some structure and variety

Against a 30-day challenge:
— It’s tough to see much in the way of results in such a short time
— Can be a big oversell (30 days to a “beach body”? Really?), potentially leading to disappointment
— Can distract from more effective, longer programs
— The known end point is a psychological barrier to establishing a habit
— Can give a sense of failure if a work or personal crisis interrupts the program

A 30-day challenge can work well to:
— Give some structure when your main goal is general, like “do some regular exercise”
— Practice a new movement to improve your coordination or learn how it feels to activate specific muscles
— Help you give a new activity an honest try if you’re experimenting
— Parcel out skills development for a larger goal (like getting your first unassisted pull-up)

OK, what if I do have a personal or work crisis in the middle?

If you’re doing a 30-day challenge with a friend, that can be frustrating for both of you. If you’re doing it on your own, you have two main options:
— Make time for it, even if it’s at a lower level than that week calls for (you could repeat the previous week, for example)
— Take a break and pick up where you left off

A 30-day challenge often prescribes relatively basic movements, intended to give you a good foundation to build on, so you don’t have to be rigid in how you approach the schedule. If you are having trouble continuing with the challenge progression, it’s always OK to repeat a week — the purpose of this kind of activity is to help you develop. Have some fun with it!

Image: OK, you got me. I don’t love these 30-day challenges where you do more and more squats or seconds of planking or what-have-you. I do like pizza — although I could never make it through this program! And I do like focusing on something for a month, like practicing a multipstep movement at an easy weight for lots of reps, so I get smoothly coordinated with it. Or even just making a commitment to do a minimum amount of walking every day for a month to shake off a long winter indoors. No matter the details, I believe a 30-day challenge should be a fun project — never a frustrating chore.

A Year from Now You’ll Wish You’d Started Today


Maybe. One problem is that we sometimes don’t recognize the future self as “self” — consider the example of the young person who smokes even though they know the health risks. A stronger connection to our future self can help. That doesn’t necessarily mean “visualizing,” which can actually distract us from doing the day-to-day work that connects us to the future state — it means creating links to the future.

In Oettingen’s work expanding on visualization, that includes actually working out the likely obstacles as preparation to identify the immediate steps we need to take. When we know what we need to do, a calendar can help us plan it. In experiments at the University of Toronto, this link to the future has been strengthened by techniques as simple as giving the full range of dates to a deadline the same color on a calendar.

We are more likely to complete a task whose deadline is in the current month than in a future month, too — perhaps we should make single New Month resolutions throughout the year. This meshes neatly with the Tiny Habits approach and the staged environment-improvement approach of Slim By Design: both these systems ask you to choose small actions or a small number of the actions that look doable right now, and implement those before you move on to next steps.

In pretty much all these scenarios, success is more likely if you think concretely in terms of the steps that will link you to your goal. So go ahead and map out phase 1. A-year-from-now you might be a stranger, but you really can get a touch closer if you start today.

The Best Reason to Exercise: Health and Well-Being


Being obese is a risk factor for bad health outcomes, but it’s far too simple a story. Anyone, whatever their size, can improve their health with exercise. Exercising won’t necessarily cause weight loss, but anyone can improve their heart function, blood sugar, sleep quality, and bone density. Exercise even improves cognition and mood.

So why don’t we get that message? Partly it’s because exercise is oversold as a way to “control weight” — even in presentations that discuss its other benefits. If you are gaining weight, exercise can help you stop gaining — while making you healthier — but that message is also often downplayed in favor of claims of losses.

It’s no surprise — weight loss is a perennial favorite on lists of New Year’s resolutions, and an immense industry has grown up focusing on this very specific goal: simply making the number on the scale go down. Cleanses, wraps, any number of water-dumping tricks — countless fads spring up to exploit this wish, even though any losses are almost guaranteed to be followed by regaining the weight, and then some. The focus is so intense that people may not even be able to hear the message that “exercise improves health, no matter your size” without accusing the speaker of “promoting obesity.” That’s harmful nonsense — people’s insistence on shaming others over their weight makes things worse.

Anxiety about size and weight is common, even among people who look “the way they are supposed to,” and it kicks in early. In addition to causing needless suffering, it holds people back from getting even modest exercise by making them self-conscious. “In good enough shape to go to the gym” (most in sentences about how the speaker is not, and always as if the idea somehow makes sense) has over 8000 results on Google — even though actually going to the gym anyway is the best way to get there.

Life is too short to be afraid of your bathroom scale, and if you’re sedentary, it’s even shorter. Don’t put off living better — start now by moving more, sleeping better, and easing thoughtful nutrition changes into your life. Here are some suggestions if you are starting from scratch.

Mary The Trieu stretching before a workout. Photo by Annabel Clark for The Wall Street Journal

Why Athletes Love to Sleep — and So Should You

Why Athletes Love to Sleep

You can have a perfect eating pattern, a flawless exercise regimen, and still be unhappy, moody, and struggling with your performance if you’re sleeping too little. (See the whole infographic at Fatigue Science.)

And yet many of us make every excuse for not getting enough sleep. OK, so most of us are not Olympic athletes or on professional sports teams. We’re still putting our health (and our waistlines) at risk when we’re sleep-deprived.

Sleep is when:
— we recover from the exertions of the day
— our bodies repair and build up muscles we worked on in exercise
— our bodies maintain regulation of blood sugar
— our bodies regulate hormone levels, like testosterone
— we consolidate memories

People who get regular, restful sleep have better immune systems, a better energy level, better reaction times, better memory, fewer injuries, and often better mood. There’s every reason to get enough!

Having trouble winding down? WebMD has a nice list of tips that can help — swing through and pick off a couple to try.

It’s Never Just One Thing

Some say you can’t outrun your fork, or “weight loss happens in the kitchen.” You can outrun your fork — if you love running (or don’t tend to eat a lot), and as long as you don’t get injured (and knocked out of your routine). And you can definitely out-eat your exercise schedule, as many people do.

There’s no way around it. For long-term weight management and general health, you have to do both: eat mindfully and get regular exercise.

Image from The New Yorker