The pandemic ruined a lot of things: graduations, vacations, family reunions, the economy — and maybe even your New Year’s resolutions. Forget losing weight, am I right? The Quarantine 15 is, says Yale’s medical school, a “perfect storm for people who struggle with weight.” We’re stuck with the coronavirus for the foreseeable future, so if we want to get rid of the weight, we need to change our behavior.
Lucky for you, I’m a behavioral scientist.
I am certainly not a physical trainer. My fitness level can be best described as “I played the oboe in high school and analyzed data in college.” I’ve always been drawn to activities that use my brain more than my body and all have one thing in common: they’re activities where I get to sit. A lot.
As a child, I wanted to be carried so often my grandma told my mom to have my legs checked out for disease. There was nothing wrong. I just love sitting.
Growing up in the internet age, I felt the pressure many of us do to look like the women on social media and popular culture. So when I did decide to exercise, I would set goals as high as the ones I put on myself for work success, not understanding that I’d been neglecting the former and training for the latter my whole life.
Needless to say, putting the same pressure on my fitness that I did for my job meant I was setting myself up for failure against both. Sticking to a rigorous exercise routine never lasted for more than four months. If I’m being honest, closer to two. And falling off the wagon meant staying off the wagon for months, sometimes years, at a time.
Then COVID-19 happened, and I got tired of sitting. I wasn’t walking to my train for work, frantically speed-walking between meetings at the office or even running out for lunch. In the Before Times, I spent most of my day sitting, sure, but there were moments of movement.
Like many others, COVID became a time for me to reset my habits. It gave me the space to set a new mindset around exercise and finally listen to my own good advice that I’d been giving for years working in behavioral science. So far, it’s working. Ask me again in four (maybe even two) months, but for now, this is how I’m building better habits:
My big trick? Start small. In fact, don’t set goals about the outcome, just the process.
This might feel counter-intuitive, but when we set aspirational goals, we often set ones that are high and difficult to achieve – making it easy for us to fall short and give up early on. If you’re starting from zero, try encouraging yourself to take a half-hour walk three times a week. Success, then, is just taking a walk, not losing a specific number of pounds. The biggest reason people stop exercising? Failure. So set yourself up for easy wins.
Be easy on yourself. This feels obvious. Adopting an “it’s OK, I’ll try again tomorrow” mindset will help you stay on the wagon. My advice? Just do more today than you did yesterday. And don’t set parameters on what days and times you do it. Just encourage yourself to get it done when and where you can. If you define success as just not quitting, you’re far less likely to end up like the majority of people who dump their fitness routine after just six months.
Ditch the desire for instant results and gratification. In a world of Instagram-perfect bodies, it’s easy to forget that those bodies took time. A lot of time. Ditch the pressure you put on your body to see results immediately and think about exercise as a journey for your wholistic well-being, rather than a means to an Instagram-perfect end. If you put off enjoying things until you’ve achieved a destination, then you’re missing out on the entire journey.
Slow and steady wins this race. By the time the pandemic ends, you’ll find that the result won’t be your real reward, but the habits you’ve built along the way will be. Have fun!
Lilly Kofler is the vice president of behavioral science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.