How To Avoid The January Exercise Trap

Because New Year's resolutions need to last longer than one month...

How To Combat The January Exercise Trap

by Georgie Okell |

Georgie is a personal trainer, fitness instructor and presenter

We do it every single year- waking up on January 2nd (January 1st was a false start, ok?) with a fresh resolve and a new trial month on Class Pass, ready to try all the things, lose all the Christmas pounds, and swap the dance floor for the weights area.

As a personal trainer, I see this exercise fervour go into overdrive during the first weeks of January. The park that was so sad and empty mid-December is suddenly an anthill of activity- runners in brand new lycra storming the paths, smartphone-clutching users of fitness apps cranking out burpees and mountain climbers on the muddy grass. Meanwhile, the 8am Sunday yoga class I normally go to is now waitlist only, and the Saturday afternoon boxing class I was teaching to eight people last month is currently bursting at its 42-capacity-seams.

And for the most part this is all brilliant- January is as good a time as any to start building new routines into our lives, and I love it when my classes are full. But so often a new routine doesn’t become a habit. It becomes a manic selfie-fuelled rampage through another Dry Jan before the lycra is relegated to the back of the wardrobe for another year and the only thing that stays the course is that monthly Direct Debit to the new gym you keep forgetting to cancel. A study has found that £37 million is wasted every year in this country on unused gym memberships.

So why does this keep happening? Is it inevitable? I think I have some answers. But first you have to ask yourself two questions: why are you doing it and, importantly, who are you doing it for?

As to the latter, if it’s for you- so that you can feel better, calmer, fitter, stronger and healthier no matter what anyone else thinks, then great. If that’s the case and you’re struggling to stay motivated, I find something that helped me no end when I first started working out properly was keeping a training diary, noting each day how far I ran, for how long, what weights I could lift, and how I felt. That was the crucial part for me. Did I feel better afterwards? Did I feel a sense of achievement? Was my often-miserable mind cheered a little? So often the answer was yes, but I would have forgotten that fact had I not written it down. Weeks later, looking back on clear, tangible progress both mentally and physically kept me going long after the gym started to empty out, until working out became an integral part of my life.

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Omega-3 fatty acids are essential minerals which reduce inflammation and are vital to brain functions such as mood and memory. Your body doesn't produce them naturally so you can only get them in you via food (like fish, nuts and seeds) or dietary supplements.

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In addition to bone health, Vitamin D can play a vital role in the areas of the brain that are linked to the development of depression and other mental health problems.

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SAMe is a molecule that the body naturally forms and is available as a dietary supplement. In addition to depression and anxiety, it can be used for many other conditions including heart disease, fibromyalgia, tendonitis and many more. It is also recommended for PMS. It works by making sure that chemicals in the body that play a role in pain, depression, liver disease, and other conditions, actually do their job.

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Like SAMe, 5-HTP is also a chemical (an essential amino acid) that the body makes naturally. It works by helping to raise the serotonin (the happy hormone) levels in the brain. 5-HTP has been known to have a positive effect on sleep, mood, anxiety, appetite, and pain.

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A study conducted on whether the Rhodiola Rosea (Roseroot) herb was effective for depression showed that it was almost as effective as the popular antidepressant, Sertraline (Zoloft), but with fewer side effects. The herb boasts strengthening the nervous system, fighting depression, enhancing the immune system and memory, elevating stamina, aiding in weight-loss and increasing sexual function.

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A lot of adults, especially women, suffer from iron deficiency, and guess what? Iron deficiency symptoms are pretty similar to depression symptoms, i.e. fatigue, irritability, and foggy brain. The recommended daily iron allowance in adults is roughly 8 to 18 mg daily (check with your doctor though because everyone's number is different).

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If you don't have enough folate, antidepressants may not work. Some docs prescribe folate along with antidepressants to treat depression and improve the effectiveness the medication. Most adults need at least 0.4mg daily, which you can though food including dark leafy greens, beans and citrus fruit, or as a supplement.

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Vitamin B-12 and other B vitamins can play a role in producing mood-affecting brain chemicals and low levels of these may be linked to depression. If you have a poor diet and the body can not absorb enough B vits, your mood can be severely affected. Getting a blood test will determine how much of the B goodness you have in your system, and whether you need to stock up. B vitamins are found in animal products like milk, fish, meat and eggs, so if you are a vegan, you should definitely be getting your B's from dietary supplements and vitamins.

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Zinc is crucial to our system as it activates our digestive enzymes breaking down food, and helps prevent food allergies, which can avert depression. It also helps our DNA to produce and repair proteins, control inflammation and boost our immune system.

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Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which you get through food such as bananas, tamarind, oats, sesame seeds, kiwi and watermelon. Once in the body, it converts to niacin, serotonin and melatonin. Most antidepressants work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain and Tryptophan helps to increase serotonin levels without the extreme side effects of meds.

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St John's Wort has been around for yonks and is one of the most popular natural methods used for dealing with stress, anxiety and depression. It's a plant with yellow flowers. There has been some scientific evidence that St. John's wort may be helpful in treating mild depression. It's been claimed that it works just like regular antidepressants in that it inhibits the reuptake of the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

If you’re doing it for someone who can’t, getting fit to run a charity race where the funds will benefit a person or a cause you really care about, this is also an excellent reason to work out, obviously, and will again sustain you long past that first HIIT class. Motivation from helping others will get you a long way in this game (if you’re so wired, definitely check out GoodGym, their philosophy is brilliant). Long-term goals like races and events can help motivate past January in other ways too, but I’ll get to that.

A survey conducted by YouGov found that (next to losing weight) improving fitness is the most popular New Year’s resolution. Four in ten people (41%) said they would be exercising more or improving their fitness and women were particularly more likely to have made these resolutions than men. If your motivation is in any way based on what other people think- to lose weight so people find you more attractive, to be seen at the trendiest studios, to increase your likes on social media, if any part of your new exercise routine is motivated by how you want other people to see you-I guarantee none of these motivations will work for more than a few weeks tops. Believe me, I’ve tried it.

So on to the why. If you’re doing it because you think ‘this exercise thing is getting a lot of airtime, there must be something in it for me’, you’re right. I cannot emphasize enough the benefits of exercise. I know I can be derisive of some of the things that come with the industry and this piece is no exception, but at its core, exercise is fundamentally important to our mental and physical wellbeing, it has changed my life, and I think everyone should be doing it, without exception, at least two or three times a week. No excuses.

If your ‘why’ is something more short term, though, inspired by four weeks of telling yourself you won’t drink and ‘Oh My God I’m bored what else is there to do apart from work out 18 days in a row?’, or ‘I’ll just quickly tone up and get buff and then get back to the rest of my life thankyouverymuch’, then that’s problematic. And here I just have to air a real bugbear of mine: I hate Dry January. I think it’s stupid. What happens is you replace one obsession with another for four and a bit weeks, creating a short term stand-off instead of a long-term manageable solution, and it doesn’t work.

Has Dry January ever impacted how much you drink the rest of the year? My guess is no, not really, at least not by March. But it is still sold as a good idea, and often fitness solutions are sold to us in the same way. ‘I lost two stone in just six weeks!’ the huge ad poster at the train station cries. Yes well done you, but how long until you put it all back on again and feel even worse, having poured all your money and energy into those six weeks?

The thing with fitness is, unfortunately, that it can go almost as quickly as it arrives, so maintenance is the key. If you lose the weight and stop training it will come back, if you stop working your newly defined muscles they will get weaker, if you stop that cardio you’ll soon find yourself out of breath running for the bus again. It’s annoying, but it is fact, so instead of going in hell for leather and inevitably burning out, make it a part your life. Find something you enjoy, choose classes you can stick to every week and make this a long term change rather than a quick fix.

If you’ve inadvertently found yourself entered into your first marathon/ triathlon/ Tough Mudder, this is GREAT NEWS, I promise. It might seem terrifying now, but a long term goal some 10-16 weeks in the future can do wonders for your relationship with exercise. A really good friend of mine, a skinny, tattooed, former chainsmoking hipster East London barber with little to no interest in exercise, let’s call him Ben (his name is Ben), agreed to do a charity cycle last year. At the time he didn’t even own a bike, but it was to raise money for something very close to his heart. So he got himself training a few months before the event itself, borrowing a mate’s bike at first and slowly building mileage and strength working on a specific training schedule towards a specific goal. Now, a year later, he is obsessed with cycling to an irritating degree (meant with love), and not only that- he is remarkably talented at it, setting Strava records all over London, putting in an obscene number of weekly miles just for fun and currently being courted by various racing teams. He found a sustainable, enjoyable activity that has consequently changed his entire life. That’s the dream.

I found the same thing with running. I was horrified at being accepted onto my first marathon, but it’s a training process that works. It’s specific, focused, and the sense of achievement on completing something that once seemed so outside of the realms of possibility is enough to spur you on to another, or at least to keep you in the gym. There’s a nice gradual build in the training that means you notice real progress week on week, in terms of pace, distance, and fitness, and by the end of it you are literally and metaphorically miles from where you started. It doesn’t have to just related to endurance sports. I got the same thing with my first white collar boxing match, in terms of steady progress and huge sense of achievement that kept me boxing. In fact the UWCB experience is one I would highly recommend to everyone.

Finding something you’re good at can be a great motivation to stick at it, which is why sites like Class Pass are great- try a bunch of different sessions and find something you genuinely want to persevere with. Keep it interesting though-my routine is similar week to week, but even when I’m training for a marathon that includes three or four runs, one or two yoga sessions and and a spin class in there as well as some strength training, and every now and again a bit of climbing, boxing or HIIT for fun. Things I like, things I need, things I need to get better at and things I love being good at. It’s a nice balance that leads to healthy habits.

That balance word, eh? It always comes back to balance. The thing is exercise is for life, not just for (sweating out) Christmas. So make it purposeful, make it trackable, and keep it enjoyable. Do that, and I’ll see you in class or pounding the pavement next month, and the one after, and the one after that.

Follow Georgie on Instagram @georgieokellpt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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