Whether you are dealing with holiday plans upended by border closures, further lockdown orders, or frightening scenes of disorder in the US – the first week of January has not been particularly restful.
So with chaos here to stay in 2021, it’s important any new habits can withstand lots of shocks and pressure.
Last week Guardian Australia kicked off our series on building healthy, pandemic-proof habits for the new year.
This week we are building on the foundations of week one.
Block one: sleep
Each expert I spoke with said that new healthy habits were like building blocks. You start with a fundamental – in my case sleep – and you build up from there. After all, having the energy to exercise and eat healthy foods is often easier when you are rested and full of beans.
But of course it’s easier said than done. Before the challenge I had irregular sleeping patterns and sometimes relied on tranquillisers to knock me out.
So how did I go?
My first step was to set “bedtime” on my phone. That meant I couldn’t access it before 7am or after 10.40pm.
I went to bed between 10 and 10.30pm and I read an actual book, not a screen, until 11. Then I tried to sleep. This week I haven’t found getting to sleep easy – my mind is too active and I can’t seem to switch it off – but hopefully over January, I’ll train myself to wind down without sleep aids.
I’ve decided to have a month of no alcohol. Although drinking alcohol may make falling asleep a lot easier, one too many drinks means waking up at 4am and feeling like hell before I doze off and wake up again around 8am. I want to give my body the best chance possible to get over burnout by feeling rested and rejuvenated after a long and deep night’s sleep.
A month of no alcohol (and possibly longer if it goes well) also means more energy to do exercise.
Block two: exercise
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician, internal medicine physician, and author of the book Staying Alive. She believes healthy habits are not just about short-term goals and achievements like weight loss, but establishing patterns that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
“As a woman it’s really important to maintain your independence … Women in later life need assistance more than men, since women have a lower peak muscle mass than men and are often less active. This lack of strength can have serious implications for independent living in older age.”
To this end she has recommended that this week I start with resistance training (also called strength training), three times a week for 30 minutes each time – and that I should do this … for the rest of my life. I think I’ll start with twice a week for now.
With more energy due to better sleep and no alcohol – it’s time to seriously ramp up the cardio too.
In addition to starting with resistance training, I do a remote consultation with a personal trainer at Vision Fitness in Bondi Junction. Trainer Tania Drahonchuk does a really thorough interview – and puts together a program for me designed for fat loss and endurance. It can be completed in the gym with her, via Zoom or independently.
“We don’t do six pack in six weeks,” says Tania. “We want to design a program that will bring you joy and you don’t get frustrated with unrealistic expectations.”
She prescribes around 140 minutes a week of slow or moderate cardio activities such as cycling or walking, and 60 minutes of hard cardio each week with “heart rate elevated – where you can hardly hold a conversation. It could be cycling at a faster pace, run/walk sessions, online class or resistance training.”
She advises me to “make sure 60 minutes is not done in one day – it could be 3 x 20 minute sessions over the week.”
Downloading the MyVision app allows me to track my food intake and exercise, and the Nike exercise app gives me some training sessions. I’ll be meeting Tania on Zoom next week to do our first training session together.
The framework: Be rigid
Dr Breanna Wright, a behavioural change expert from Monash University, says with any new habit – in this case sleep and exercise – you should not allow yourself much wriggle room, otherwise you are liable to find excuses to get out of it.
“Have a reminder in your phone and calendar … try for consistency as much as possible – and plan for an inconsistency by having a contingency plan. People do really well for a couple of days when their motivation is high, but then are disrupted and they have trouble starting again. Tying the new habit to an established behaviour (like exercising before breakfast) and combining it with a calendar alert makes it more likely you’ll be consistent.”
Wright also advises a mindset shift: “When people are primed to think about changes as a journey, they were much more successful than people who thought it was a goal.”
The mindset: Think de-escalation
Last week Kate James, a life coach and author of Change Your Thinking to Change Your Life, advised that we start the new year with a mindset of self-compassion.
This week she advises that we extend that compassion to others and become aware of the stories we create in our head that may have no bearing on reality.
“This time of year we are spending more time with family and what we can tend to do is escalate something into a conflict, when it doesn’t have to go that way. There might be something small that has been said – and we can go to a place where it can be bigger than what it was meant to be.”
Her advice is to “pause and think ‘what do I want to do with this thought?’ You can go down the rabbit hole – that’s the escalation – and turn it into something big, or you can reflect on it and think ‘there’s another way of looking at it’.”
Unconsciously we “create a story” about someone’s actions.
Instead we should try to stop the story before it escalates. “Be compassionate with yourself and with other people. It’s really quite liberating. That stress is emotionally exhausting.”