How to get back on track with your healthy habits when life happens

You work hard to cultivate healthy habits to help you live your best life. But what happens when life itself gets in the way? It’s a frustrating but all too common scenario.

Often it looks something like this: You’re on a roll, making good decisions. You’ve cut back on foods and behaviors that don’t feel good for your body. And you’ve found an exercise routine that works for you.

And then … it’s vacation. Or a kid’s sports tournament weekend. Or you get sick or injured.

Maybe all the traveling has you eating out constantly, and it’s difficult to keep up your good eating habits. Or you miss a series of workouts. Or you wind up staying up too late several nights in a row.

It’s easy to feel demoralized, like it’s a personal failing. But in the ebb and flow of life and schedules, everyone gets off track from time to time.

Some people may be able to step right back into their routine.

But for the rest of us? It can be more difficult. Often because our own ideas and judgments about ourselves are in the way.

Here are some strategies that can help.

Recognize All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking is a common cognitive distortion or error in thinking. It often shows up like treating yourself as a failure for not living up to an expectation of yourself.

People who practice all-or-nothing thinking are always “grading” themselves. Anything less than an “A+” becomes a moral failing. And what’s even worse, they often link it to other situations in their life.

All-or-nothing thinking looks like saying:

  • “I didn’t exercise for a week because I never stick with anything.”
  • “I ate a bunch of fast food, even though I’m not supposed to, because I have no willpower.”
  • “I started staying up late and watching my iPad in my bed again because I’m terrible at prioritizing sleep.”

The first step is to recognize if you’re falling into this thinking. If you are, here are some things to keep in mind as you think about how to get back on track.

  • Focus on what you did well. Mentally or on paper, list out your accomplishments. It’s normal to think about the challenges, too. But think about challenges with a frame of how you overcame them.
  • Embrace the “and.” You value your exercise routine, and on days you don’t feel up to it, you may need to scale back. You try to avoid fried foods and you enjoy eating them in moderation sometimes.
  • Give yourself the grace to start again. Celebrate the fact that you want to start again, instead of bemoaning the fact that you have to. It’s a subtle difference, but it matters.

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text the word STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Click here to view the privacy and terms.

Revisit and Renew Your Motivation

If you’re having a hard time restarting, take a moment to think about your original motivation for starting. This doesn’t have to be a numbers outcome you were trying for (like a weight loss or blood pressure goal). It could be the underlying reason for that number, like wanting to be around for grandkids or reducing stress and anxiety.

Think about how you felt when you tapped into that motivation. Was it strong enough? If so, can you reconnect with it?

If it wasn’t strong enough, or if it was too numbers-focused, is there a better motivation for you?

Sometimes we fall away from good routines and habits because commitments or circumstances derail us. But other times, it’s because the motivation wasn’t strong enough to begin with. Think about if your issue was motivational or circumstantial.

This matters because the right motivation can carry through many circumstantial ups and downs.

Tap Into the Best Parts of Beginner’s Mind

If you’re re-starting, you’re not a beginner. You may even feel like you’re an expert — or at least an expert on your body.

But expertise comes with expectations and pre-judgments. By contrast, when you approach an activity as a beginner, you have fewer preconceived ideas. You tend to have a more open mind and see experiences with fresh eyes.

You don’t have to be a true beginner to adopt this mindset. It’s especially helpful when you’re getting back into the swing of things. It can help you both physically and mentally.

Having a beginner’s mindset when re-starting a practice or healthy routine helps with:

  • Procrastination: Instead of focusing on how hard you think a run, walk, ride, or swim will be, approach it from the standpoint of curiosity. Notice the details of what the activity feels like. Make it your goal to pay attention, rather than trudge through it.
  • Frustration: When you think like a beginner, you’re less likely to feel frustrated or disappointed from not living up to “standards.”
  • Overdoing it: Let go of your metrics and previous personal bests. You’re not chasing the past. You’re exploring the present.

How to Prevent Injuries When Restarting an Exercise Program

Once you get yourself mentally in the right place to restart, what is the best way to proceed physically? If you’ve been on a long break from exercise, it’s especially important to ease back in. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Give yourself extra long warmups: Before you jump right in, make sure to warm up your muscles to get the blood flowing. For example, if you’re doing high-intensity interval training, take 10 minutes to raise your heart rate slowly.
  • Cool down after your workout: The same applies to your cool down — let your heart rate drop slowly. Move at a slower pace for five to 10 minutes to cool down.
  • Stretch, but don’t stretch cold: Stretching helps your muscles stay flexible. But only stretch after you have warmed up, or after you have exercised.
  • Invest in new equipment: Before restarting, take inventory. Do you need new running or walking shoes? Do you have the right gear or clothing to exercise safely?

Remember that it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before you start a new exercise program. A sports medicine physician can be especially helpful. Learn more about sports medicine at UPMC.

Psychology Today. How to Break the Painful Habit of All or Nothing Thinking. Link.

Zen Habits. Approaching Life with Beginner's Mind. Link.

About Sports Medicine

An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.