The best piece of advice I received when I was completing my doctorate was from friend and colleague Erica. Like many people, I was working full time and studying at the same time. While allowances within my job were made for me to carry out the research, there were times when the demands of the teaching superseded any ideas of blocking out time for the PhD. Erica advised me to spend an hour each day working on my it, non-negotiatable. Obviously there were days and weeks that would be devoted to focus solely on the thesis, but even on the days where I couldn’t imagine there would be time to complete anything useful, I spent an hour on it. Though I am a person who works much better to a (looming) deadline, following that piece of advice was the best thing I could have done. On the days that I thought I was just opening up my computer, flicking through some statistical analysis information and perhaps running two or three statistical tests, I took comfort in the fact that spending the hour in that time meant it was one less hour I had to spend at the end of the road. However short or unproductive it could have felt, it was more productive that not doing it. This consistent practice got me to the end of the PhD journey in relatively one piece.
The power of consistency. Winter is a good time to reflect on the ability of this to keep you on track with your health-related goals. Remember how awesome you were? Getting outdoors for a run, making salad as a staple for dinner, and incorporating seasonal summer fruit into your diet becomes second nature when the weather is warm. Come June and the start of winter, it is this time of year where the snooze button on the alarm is utilised more, the running shoes are left in the cupboard and the gym carpark starts to thin out. Motivation tends to diminish along with the sunlight hours and even the most dedicated among us start to waver in the face of the cooler temperatures and shorter days. The number of missed training sessions can start to accumulate without realising it and suddenly, instead of hitting the gym 5 days a week, the number of sessions barely add up to 5 in a fortnight. More often than not, when exercise goes out the window, our motivation to eat well also tends to slide. Again – part of this is habit. When we are in the routine of going for a run or swim, we tend to also have to be a bit more organised around our meals. Yes, exercising does make us busier but, equally, when in a routine, it’s often easier to have a set plan in place when it comes to deciding what to eat. Many people get home from work, pack their bag for the next day (if training away from home) and then prepare breakfast and lunch. It’s routine. If the gym falls by the wayside, then there is no need to pack a bag, therefore things tend to get more relaxed around organising meals. In addition, our priorities around food tend to change. If you’re an athlete and are training for an event, the focus is on fuelling properly for the training sessions. In the off-season, there is less perceived need to be concerned about diet, and poorer choices around food tend to creep in, particularly if diet has only really been used as a tool in training and not in ‘life’.
If your mood, sleep, health and overall well being weren’t affected by these blips in training and eating habits, then it wouldn’t matter. You’d make it through winter and dust off the running shoes to go for a jog come September, no worse off than you were in May. However more often than not these are what are affected the most. Perhaps (like me) you notice a slight shift in the aforementioned due to winter anyway (heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder?) This is only exacerbated when the very habits that help support emotional and physical well being fall by the wayside. In addition, often in this instance people start to fall further down the rabbit-hole rather than lift themselves out of it – a cycle of events perpetuated because we feel bad. We can turn to food in an effort to feel better, knowing full well that it will only make us feel worse.
So let’s not even go there. Let’s stop this cascade of events from ever eventuating. Even if you’ve been hitting snooze on your alarm clock or have grabbed a dirty muffin from the café near your work a few more times than usual over the last couple of weeks, all is not lost. At all. You are still awesome. Here are my top tips to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and charge into the cooler months knowing you’ve got it covered.
- Re-evaluate your goals around healthy living – this will help you reprioritise where necessary. Setting short goals (month by month) makes them far more salient. Even day by day goals (exercise, prepare lunch, feel awesome) can help refocus when you find yourself going astray.
- Stop hitting snooze. Well that’s a no brainer, isn’t it? Getting out for your morning training session isn’t going to kill you. Put the alarm clock at the other end of the room so you have no choice but to get up to switch it off.
- No-one regretted a session they ever completed, but plenty of people regret the one they missed. Of course, if you do miss one – don’t dwell on it. Make sure you don’t do the same the next day. If you’re someone who usually gets up and goes in the morning but would rather not go out in the dark, perhaps shift the time that you exercise to lunchtime. Or, if you have the flexibility in your job, go to work earlier to clear emails (and miss the traffic), then go out when it’s beginning to get light. You can do a lot in ¾ of an hour and would be back at your desk ready to go by 8.30am. There are options. Use them.
- Look at your exercise routine. If you’re in the habit of getting up and going for an hour run every single day, then perhaps it’s time to rejig that so you start doing training to mix it up and keep it fresh. Shorter, sharper sessions not only take up less time, they are far more effective for cardiovascular and muscular health, but also can provide a big boost of endorphins in far less time. Too many people I talk to think that if they don’t have an hour to train, then it’s just not worth it. The smarter people I know spend 25 minutes and are those that are physically in the best shape. Yes, this isn’t going to suit you if you are training for a marathon – those long runs have to happen. But not every day and in fact, you’d probably benefit more from the aforementioned sessions.
- Get to bed earlier. It’s too easy to feel warm and cosy rugged up by the fire or on the couch, and how often is the TV left on later than necessary because we feel too comfortable to move and get to bed. If this is you, make a deal with yourself to use the time between the last couple of ad breaks in the programme you DO want to watch to organise yourself. Brush your teeth, sort your work gear, and clear the dishwasher – whatever. Do what you need to do so once the show is over you are done.
- On #5: set an alarm. We set one for the morning – so why not set one at night. It takes discipline to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and an alarm will signify that it’s time to turn in for the evening.
- People always equate ‘comfort’ foods as being stodgy puddings, potatoes and chocolate. Sure they might make you feel awesome when you (over)eat them at the time, but there’s seldom anything awesome about how you feel the next morning. Stay consistent in your healthy eating habits by keeping them fresh. Investigate new winter dishes that will provide the same level of comfort and warmth in winter but without the associated carb-coma that inevitably follows. Soups, slow cooker meals, cauliflower-based dishes (aka the AMAZINGLY versatile vegetable), butternut, swede or pumpkin based dishes can all take the place of stodgier items that can weigh you down at dinner time. I’ve plenty of ideas in the recipe section or (more up to date) my facebook page.
- Keep eating salad but make it a winter one. Who said salad always had to be lettuce, cucumber, tomato and a $4.99 avocado, thanks very much. Mix it up with a different one every week (coleslaw, roast vegetable, silver beet as a base), throw some seeds, a different home-made dressing etc.
- Investigate taking a vitamin D supplement. We need vitamin D to synthesis hormones in the body responsible for thyroid and overall energy (among other things). Many people in New Zealand are vitamin D deficient as the sun doesn’t hit the earth in the right position to deliver the UVA rays we need to synthesis it. Doctors often find it unnecessary to test for vitamin D levels (expensive compared to other tests) so if you’re someone who wants it checked, then ask them for it. They may well suggest just taking a vit D3 supplement.
- Have you heard of the 100 Happy Days project? Or of a gratitude journal? What about the 30 days of dancing challenge? These are just some of the wellbeing projects you can put some energy into which, when you carry them out, will make you feel better. I’ve completed the 100 Happy Days challenge, posting a photo every day of something (anything!) that made me feel happy that day. Most of the time, it was relatively easy. But some days it wasn’t and I really struggled (I’m a largely positive person too!) However I liked the focus on being happy – so much so that now I’m on a 100 foam roller day challenge (strange, no-one has joined me…) and the 30 dancing days challenge. These require no additional explanation – the name says it all. If you start any of these (or your own challenge) now, winter will fly by.
- Get out into the sunlight during the day. Nothing is as refreshing as time outside where you can get rejuvenated by the elements, be it rain, wind or sun.
- Hug someone. There’s nothing nicer.
Note: these aren’t all food and exercise related – in fact, if we support our emotional well being, it can drive the maintenance of physical health behaviours. And vice versa. The key is to do them today. Then wash, rinse and repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Consistency is arguably the key to good health, as long as those habits serve the purpose. Keep on being awesome.