People come to us with all kinds of concerns about nutrition and exercise issues. Many of these concerns are valid, but as we covered in this post. -> 10 Fitness Things to NOT Worry About , some of the things people worry about aren’t as significant as they think.
However there’s a lot to be learned from the issues that people DON’T have concerns about, but which turn out to be quite important. These silent saboteurs can undermine a fitness effort and leave people frustrated, saying “I did everything right, but it didn’t work!”
Here are ten fitness things people don’t worry about, but should! Some are small and silly, others get to deeper problems which will significantly erode wellness over longer spans of time.
1. Thinking of restaurant food as a normal meal.
We field a lot of questions about which foods are good or bad, but rarely do we hear someone say
If you had breakfast at home, a packed lunch at the office, and then went out to eat for dinner, you’d probably think that you had three meals that day. But when you go to a restaurant, you’re usually eating something closer to two meals’ worth of caloric load.
There are a few reasons for this:
- People tend to eat larger portions at restaurants. Most will finish their plate, regardless of how well that portion matched their actual energetic needs. They want to get their money’s worth, and not offend the chef.
- People tend to go to restaurants with companions. This means lots of engrossing conversation, which is wonderful for human connection but which often means ignoring the body’s subtle cues that it’s full.
- Restaurants are happy to fill you up with cheap carbs, be it unlimited bread, chips and salsa, or extra generous servings of pasta or rice. People tend to graze on these items far past a healthy portion.
- A kitchen’s primary concern is to serve up tasty food that brings you back as a paying customer. Your health and wellness is not a priority. This means that they have no problem throwing an entire stick of butter in a meal, deep frying anything and everything, and going heavy on sauces, creams, and cheeses.
Of course there are restaurants where creating tasty, light food happens, and you should reward them with your patronage. But for most restaurants, sit down at the table with the mindset that you’re having a treat and need to reduce calories from other meals that day or bump up your exercise to compensate. And if you consistently eat out for one of your meals each day, know that any fitness attempts will be an uphill battle.
2. Not counting (or remembering) the caloric load of beverages.
If you ask someone what they ate today, they’ll be able to tell you what they had for their main meals and maybe a snack. But they’ll usually omit the things they drank, even though liquid calories count just the same solid calories.
If you had a latte in the morning, a fresh squeezed juice in the afternoon, and two beers in the evening, you’ll have “eaten” about 600 calories of energy in liquid form. But you don’t feel like you ate a 4th meal’s worth of food. Consistently drinking too many calories will undermine all your efforts to “eat better”. Drinking is eating!
The easiest solution for this is to stick with water, tea, or coffee almost all of the time, and reserve a caloric drink as a rare treat.
3. Thinking of good sleep as a “nice to have” part of life.
High quality deep sleep is the foundation of health. People will spend a lot of time and energy optimizing every little thing that goes into their waking hours, but completely neglect to do any work on the activity they spend 1/3rd of the day doing.
Sleep hygiene (having a good bedtime routine, avoiding bright lights and screens before sleep, sleeping in a cool room, etc…) is worth the effort it takes. Buying proper “sleep gear” (bedding, eye masks, blackout curtains) is also a good investment. If your sleep is right, all the other things in your life that you want to improve will have a much better chance of succeeding.
4. Thinking “zero days” are helpful breaks.
A zero-day is when a person does absolutely nothing towards their fitness goals. They eat poorly, and don’t do a bit of exercise. It’s easy to tell yourself these days are a good chance to take a break and recharge. You work hard, and don’t you deserve a break?
There’s nothing wrong with a rest day, but even on your rest day you should get something right, even if it’s just a walk around the neighborhood or a single healthy meal. The problem with true zero-days is that they sap your momentum. Your brain says “Oooh, that day where you did nothing felt pretty good. Let’s do that again.” Zero-days become zero-weeks and zero months.
5. Underestimating the caloric load of nuts, seeds, and worst of all, peanut-butter
We’ll often hear a person proudly talking about how they use nuts and/or seeds as a healthy snack. But nuts and seeds should be approached with caution.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these foods, but their energy-density is as high as it gets. Nuts and seeds are dense packets of fats and protein. After all, inside of them is all the material to grow an entire plant. But it’s very easy to eat too many of them, simply because their compactness doesn’t fill you up. You never hear someone say, “I’ll pass on dinner, I’m absolutely stuffed from that bowl of nuts.” And yet that bowl of nuts had the same caloric load as a cheeseburger.
The biggest problem of all is peanut butter or other nut-butters. By grinding and mixing the nuts with oil, all of the chewing is essentially done outside of the mouth, leading to an ultra-palatable food which is way too easy to overeat. Add in some sugar and it becomes a total loser when you’re trying to stay trim.
Nuts, seeds, and nut-butters need to be handled with care. If you’re not able to keep the portions very small (you can’t resist having a bit more) then you might be better just leaving them out of your food rotation.
6. Thinking of wine as a healthy drink.
Lots of people have a sense that too much beer and hard liquor is bad, but draw a special protective circle around wine. This is probably due to a wave of articles in the 90’s and 2000’s proclaiming red wine contains helpful antioxidants that reduce the chance of heart disease.
The bad news is that more recent studies have shown this claim is weak at best, and that any good effects from red wine are easily dwarfed by good nutrition and exercise. It seems that yes, if a person has a single serving of wine a day there will be neutral or very faint positive effects. The problem is that most people aren’t robots and tend to top up that single serving with a few more. It takes very little extra wine to completely eliminate any good effects with a high caloric load and all the very clear ill-effects of excess alcohol consumption.
And of course this also ties into the mistake of not counting liquid calories as “real” calories.
7. Overestimating the health value of cereal and oat breakfasts.
A lot of people will purchase a box of cereal or oats that makes bold claims on its packaging about how packed with nutrients it is, put some fresh fruit on top and think they’re eating a clean and healthy breakfast.
The truth is cereal and oatmeals are remarkably dense with calories. You’re taking an already rich food (the grains of various wheats), and dehydrating it, removing all water to create a compact nugget of pure starch. Like nuts and seeds (cereals are just processed seeds after all) it’s way too easy to overeat these types of foods. If you check the labels, you’ll see the serving sizes of these foods are tiny. Most people eat 2-4 times the serving size, which along with milk and fruit becomes a breakfast nearing 700 Calories. This heavy load will slow down attempts at fat loss, even while the person imagines that their breakfasts are pristine.
The way around this is to skip cereals and oats and eat vegetables at breakfast. They fill you up with a fraction of the caloric-load.
8. Blindly accepting that cheat days are useful.
A lot of nutrition plans advise that one meal a week (or one time period of the week) be a cheat meal, where you can eat whatever you want. This is supposed to relieve the pressure of always eating well and give you more willpower to stay on track. For most people, cheat days result in the opposite effect.
Your brain sends the message to have the french fries, cookie, or whatever its craving, but you resist. Each time you successfully resist the habit loop becomes weaker and will eventually be broken. After a month of not eating cookies you don’t suddenly wake up dying for a cookie.
A cheat day, however, interrupts this process and solidifies the habit loop. You resist for 6 days, but on the 7th day you have the treat, and BOOM, the habit loop is completed and becomes stronger than ever. The brain says “Ahh, that’s the stuff… don’t you ever deprive me like that again!”
Cheat days are no friend when you’re looking to get in shape. If you want to learn more we wrote an entire article on this topic: Why We Don't Do Cheat Days
9. Extrapolating current motivation and energy levels indefinitely into the future.
A lot of people hit a moment in their lives when they get really pumped up to change their physical condition. They might have a beach trip coming up. They might have seen a bad photo of themselves. Or they might have gotten a warning from their doctor. The reason could be anything, but the result is the same. They are 100% committed and ready to rock a fitness plan.
The problem is that people feel this deep drive and think that it will keep burning bright for the weeks and months it takes to get a significant change to body composition. Feeling this, they sign up for something too aggressive or time-consuming, and soon find that they’re in over their head. Strong, hot motivation will burn off within a few weeks. You can’t count on it to get you through months of intense diet and exercise.
A much better approach is to realize that your motivation will rise and fall over time, and getting on board a plan that is manageable even when you’re not feeling a super-strong motivational drive. Routines and habits that are sustainable will always beat overly aggressive efforts based on temporarily inflated motivation levels!
10. Trying to change only food and exercise.
Most people think something along the lines of, “I want to get in shape. I’ll just live my life exactly like I do now but swap in salads for some meals and go for a run every morning.” The only variables they think about are food and exercise.
This approach might get some minor weight loss, but it will never create a significant change to your physique. Your food and exercise are the inputs and outputs of the equation, but what determines those inputs and outputs is the whole constellation of daily events that you and your environment create.
For example, if you’re part of an office that goes out for a big night of eating and drinking every Friday, you might think that you’ll keep attending but just have soda water. This is an admirable goal, but you’ll find after a few excursions your defenses are weakened and you end up joining the party. If you’re serious about changing your fitness level, the smarter move would be to remove yourself from the Friday outings entirely. Yes this is painful. But if you’re serious about seeing change these are the kind of hard choices you have to make.
The same applies for exercise. You can’t just expect that you’re going to start exercising daily without creating an environment that fosters that change. This means scheduling exercise as a “can’t miss” activity, as unskippable as the other important appointment in your day. It means actively NOT doing other things with your time, and being ok with the sacrifice.
You don’t have to turn your life upside down to make room for nutrition and exercise, but you DO have to think carefully and move some pieces around. Don’t expect to get very far if the only thing you’re willing to change is food and exercise in isolation. Wellness is a lifestyle, not a different choice on a menu.
We hope this list has given you some perspective on the quiet things which can trip you up. For us at Kenzai, it would be a dream to spend less time talking about how carbs aren’t evil and more time talking about the more impactful issues found above.
If you put your energy into worrying about the right things you’ll see fast improvement with less effort. It doesn’t get better than that!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder