How to start a fitness or diet challenge and stick to it

Australian Institute of Fitness coach Ellyn Johnson shares her tips to make sure your diet challenge is right for you.

We have all likely done a diet or fitness challenge at some point, or know someone who has. The reality is that they take a lot of effort, discipline, and focus, as well as diet and lifestyle change.

And for most us, this can be pretty darn hard! For some ‘challenge’ participants, this means skipping out on social activities, drastically changing routines and giving up favourite tasty treats. But are fitness and diet challenges right for everyone? And are they really worth it?

Here are five questions to ask yourself before starting a diet or fitness challenge.

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What is my WHY?

Whether it’s for an aesthetic or performance goal, there is always a reason behind someone’s decision to begin a diet or fitness challenge. It might be to look smokin’ hot for a wedding or summer holiday; it could be to rebuild confidence after having kids or to be more active with your little ones. It might just be to feel more positive about your body and self, in general.

Asking these questions may even lead you to find that a fitness or diet challenge isn’t ultimately aligned with your wants and needs after all!

However, if your ‘why’ does match up with achieving your goals – understanding your motivations will be key. Throughout the challenge, when you’re on your 476th burpee or craving that Cadbury Caramilk you’ve wanted for six weeks straight, remember ‘why’ you started and let it be the reason you keep going.

What are my expectations?

“I expect to lose my tummy, get a thigh gap, eat nothing but lettuce, exercise three times a day and drop four dress sizes… in four weeks.” It doesn’t take a genius to realise these are likely unrealistic goals.

Setting yourself up for success starts with a well-defined, achievable goal, as well as realistic expectations about what can be achieved within the challenge’s window of time.

If you’ve gained 10 kgs over the past 12 months, it’s probably not that realistic to expect that you’re going to lose this same amount of weight within a 12-week challenge. You might begin by aiming to lose 3 kgs initially and – if you end up losing more weight than that – even better!

Now, not everybody has a background in Personal Training and Nutrition, so if you’re genuinely unsure of what a realistic goal is, make use of any staff or support resources relating to your challenge and seek some help mapping out goals.

What are my biggest barriers?

Consider your journey up until this point; the point where you’ve decided to complete a diet or fitness challenge. Ask yourself what’s stopped you from doing this earlier? Why have your previous diet and exercise routines failed you before?

By asking yourself these questions and answering them honestly and without self-judgement, you’ll be better positioned to identify your barriers to success.

Is it that you’re an emotional eater? Do you suffer from ‘3:30itis’ and need a sweet hit in the afternoon? Do you simply hate the idea of chucking on your joggers and going for a 30-minute run so you opt to do nothing at all?

Through identifying your barriers, you’ll be able to develop strategies to overcome them next time they arise.

Am I prepared for these lifestyle changes?

As the great Benjamin Franklin once said: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”.

If you’ve signed up for a diet or fitness challenge and truly want to succeed, you need to be prepared for the fact that your fitness and/or nutrition habits will have to change for the duration of the challenge.

While your new diet and exercise plan may seem easy enough at the start, come four weeks later when you’re waking up to a blaring 5am alarm to drag yourself to a Saturday HIIT class, and things might feel a little bit tougher.

It is okay to have rough moments and ups and downs in motivation – that’s normal, but you can help yourself stay the course by having lifestyle strategies in place prior to the challenge period. Some strategies to consider include:

Mini goals

In addition to large end-goals – for example, the 5 kgs you want to lose or the 3 kg of lean muscle you want to gain – shorter term performance goals can be very beneficial.

A short-term goal could be to hit the gym 3 times a week throughout the duration of your challenge or to drink 2L of water every day on top of your nutrition plan.

When your end goal gets daunting and that bright light at the end of the tunnel looks more like a dim candle, short term ‘mini’ targets will help keep you on track.

Book it in

Plan and diarise your training sessions like your weekly appointments. Block them out in your calendar each week to ensure you’ve allowed time.

Get ready

Prepare what you need in advance. This applies to both nutrition and exercise. Write out your shopping list, meal plans and cook in advance, if possible.

Lay your workout clothes out for the next morning, pack your gym bag and set your alarm. You’ll be more likely to stick to your weekly routine, and will have less excuses for slipping up.

What about afterwards?

So much planning and effort has gone into completing your challenge. You’ve achieved some awesome results and have committed to lifestyle changes to keep you moving in the right direction.

But what happens next? How will you keep momentum going once the high of achieving your goal starts to level off? Have you got a longer term plan? Are your current habits even sustainable in the long-term? So many important questions to consider.

There are obviously no one-size-fits-all answers; it all comes to the person and their individual circumstances. But these are important questions to ask yourself and to be able to honestly answer.

We often see genuinely-motivated people caught in the trap of trying to meet unrealistic long-term expectations following drastic lifestyle changes that can’t be sustained. Consequently, they lose their progress and fall right back to where they started.

So, ask yourself how you can sustain your lifestyle changes once your challenge comes to a close. Can you – and are you willing to – implement a lifestyle plan that enables you to reap the dividends of your challenge in the long term? If the answer is ‘no’, then it might be worth considering a different pathway to your health and fitness goals.

Ellyn Johnson is an Australian Institute of Fitness (AIF) Coach backed by a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science (Honours) degree. She is passionate about positively influencing Australia’s next generation of fitness professionals, and continues to specialise in strength and conditioning training, primarily with recreational athletes.

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