I am pretty sure you have heard the phrase:
“Fitness is a way of life” or the old time favorite “Fitness isn’t a phase it’s a lifestyle”.
DISCLAIMER: Please BE ADVISED THAT THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE IS OPINIONATIVE IN NATURE. THE EVENTS AND ADVICE DESCRIBED IN THIS ARTICLE IS BASED OFF OF THE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF THE WRITER AND SHOULD NOT BE USED TO TREAT, DIAGNOSE OR BE REPLICATED IN ANY FORM.
Okay, I might have butchered that last one but you get the jist of what I am trying to say. Once we get introduced to the fitness world, whether it’s through sports, traditional gyming or resistance training, CrossFit, swimming, running or cycling, pilates, yoga or even just joining your local walking club - It has a drug like effect on us. We literally get addicted to how it makes us feel.
Now, I know this isn’t the same for everyone and their respective experiences with exercise and fitness, but this is generally the rule of thumb for most fitness enthusiasts. Fitness almost engraves itself in our lives.
And in a world filled with uncertainty, ups and downs, pandemics and economic recessions there seems to be many factors that can threaten our ability to maintain a constant and consistent fitness based lifestyle.
What do we mean by that? Well, let’s look at a calendar year for example, out of the 52 weeks the average person might be physically active through 40-45 of those weeks. Obviously some are more active than others and some people get far less exercise throughout the year; but this is a general outlay for the most part for the average person.
That being said, if you were to take a deeper look at those 40-45 weeks you will quickly realize that despite the overall amount of weeks painting a constant picture of fitness, the actual consistency was far from ideal.
Because something being a constant doesn’t necessarily mean that it presents linearly. And that is ultimately the point we are trying to make here - Life happens.
Injuries happen, we get sick, pandemics rage the globe, family holidays or work related commitments, exams and everything that school or college throws at you on a weekly basis. All of these factors or events can knock you off your fitness stride affecting your consistency despite being able to maintain a good life-fitness balance through any given year.
Ultimately, life affects us all in different ways and unfortunately this sometimes means we need to sacrifice our fitness in order to achieve certain goals in other areas of our lives. And when that happens, getting back into the routine of things is one of the hardest things to do. It will challenge both physically and mentally to the point where most people let themselves go for an extended period of time or even actually give up on their fitness lifestyle completely.
Now don’t panic, this is why we are here! This article is going to provide you with a blueprint on how to bounce back when you get knocked off your fitness saddle. We are going to take a look at my own personal story and how it inspired me to write this article as well as common roadblocks that you might encounter on your fitness journey- And how to kick their butt and get back on track as fast as possible!
My Story: How I went from lying on my deathbed to being able to run again.
Disclaimer: The story below is based on my personal experience and my opinion. This should be interpreted to treat or diagnose any form of disease or ailment.
At the end of 2019 we were all hearing whispers of an outbreak of some type of virus in China. Now I know most of us didn’t take it that seriously as we thought it was just another Ebola, Swine flu or Bird Flu situation. You know where the outbreak sparks global panic but ultimately the disease gets contained to a certain area or region in the world never really affecting us or anyone we know. But boy were we wrong, as I do not need to tell what happened the following 18 months. Now fast forward to the beginning of 2021, there are vaccines in circulation, lock-downs are being lifted, traveling resumes, sports and recreational activities are a thing again all in all life looks to be trending in the right direction.
For myself, I was at the height of my career, planning a wedding (and by planning I mean staring at my fiancé’s pinterest boards trying to figure out how many shades of purple exist) and to be honest life was just really really good. And then I caught the VID’. The big C word that for all intensive purposes we’re not going to mention by name. It’s kind of like Voldemort from the Harry Potter series - The disease that shall not be named! But jokes aside this what I am about to tell you guys is life threateningly serious. Yes, I can joke about it now but at the peak of my bout with the VID’ I found myself facing my own mortality.
Look, I am not trying to be overly dramatic here, I am simply telling it how it is… I was 12 hours away from dying. Yes, the doctors weren’t very optimistic and had to be realistic of my chances of survival. Now why is all of this relevant to this article. Well, during the time I was so sick I found myself trying to figure out why I had gotten sick to the extent where I am busy fighting for my life. I mean I was super active, training 6 times a week, playing amateur rugby and futsal weekly, had a decent high protein diet plus I am 28! I am supposed to be least at risk to this pandemic and yet there I was gravely ill wondering if I’d make it out alive… I did. Barely. I came out of the hospital not being able to walk, yes you heard me, I had to learn to walk again. I couldn’t hear or smell or taste properly. I needed to sleep on an oxygen machine for just over 30 days. I was at rock bottom.
Now 4 months later, after being diagnosed with long haul VID’, having a myriad of symptoms such as muscle wasting and atrophy, permanent lung damage, cognitive dysfunction, loss of perception and or spatial awareness, excess weight gain induced by prolonged use of corticosteroids and a significant loss of strength - I now have to start over. Not from scratch, I wish I was starting from scratch, I am starting below that, my mind and body has completely lost touch with what fitness is, was and what it felt like. It felt like I was trying to learn how to swim, in the ocean during a thunderstorm, wearing a lead apron and both my arms were tied behind my back. The task in front of me was daunting - beyond measure.
I found myself delaying my return to my fitness lifestyle as I was so frustrated. I mean, I was strong, fit and had decent aesthetics. All of that was gone, the anxiety this induced kept me from getting back at it for quite some time. And I am sure most of you reading this article have found yourself in this position before, maybe not to this extent or maybe even worse than I had it. But regardless of the situation the overall consensus remains the same - THIS SUCKS!
Starting over sucks. And I don’t blame you for wanting to quit, I almost did. Why would you want to put yourself through all of that again? But in the end I asked myself whether fitness was a key factor in my life? Could I realistically live a balanced and healthy lifestyle without being physically active? No, the answer is and will always be no.
And so I made the decision to try again. But I knew I needed a plan, because everything I knew relative to training and my current ability compared to my previous capabilities was and is null n void. I had no point of reference to pull from, so I needed a new approach.
I am really not trying to bum you out with this article, but what I am trying to do is show you that we all go through setbacks. We all find ourselves lost trying to figure a way out of the slump we find ourselves in… Whether it’s self induced due to a lack of internal motivation or externally forced upon you through injury or an unexpected life event. Regardless of your specific situation we hope, or at least I hope, to inspire you just enough to get going again.
Lesson Number 1: You’re not alone
Developing a habit: My approach to starting over…
Have you heard the saying: “It takes 21 days to either form or break a habit”. It’s actually a very common saying but it really resonated with me during the initial phase of returning to training. I realized that a common mistake people make when they try to return to fitness after a unexpected break is trying to do too much too soon. More on this later in the article and all the risk factors that accompany this specific situation.
That’s why I knew I needed a much more structured approach. I decided to give myself three weeks - 21 DAYS. I literally broke down this entire process to daily stages that formed part of a 21 day cycle. I looked at myself and said: “We’re just going to try and get through this day, okay?” So one day became three, and three days became a week and a week became three… And suddenly I managed to get through 21 days.
Okay, it might sound simple but if I am honest, this was probably the most difficult 21 days of my life. Yes, I took it one day at a time, but for each day I set out to achieve specific goals. It started with just making it to the gym. Yip, just driving to the gym, warming up and doing some mobility work and a few stretches. And that was it. This allowed me to acclimatize to my environment again. I used these initial sessions as a way to familiarize myself with my surroundings. From there the goals increased in difficulty, 20 minutes of cardio, then 20 minutes of cardio with an average heart rate of 130 beats per minute. This was replaced by 20 minutes of cardio plus 20 minutes of resistance training. Are you seeing the overall training strategy I used?
Now this might sound fairly simple, but do you know how challenging it was mentally, wanting to go longer, harder but being physically unable to do the basic movements or exercises? It was horrible - But I persevered.
And at the end of the 21 days I was averaging 45 minutes of training in the gym, walking a lot more and was lifting some weights without feeling like a total newbie! So I decided to re-apply this strategy and do another 21 day cycle. Again, I took it one day at a time with varying goals and targets set for myself. Week 1 came and went, then week 2 and before I knew it I was done with another 21 day cycle.
I developed or rather re-developed a habit that I lost. I broke down the mountain in front of me into bite size pieces that were much more attainable. Yes, all of this sounds so clichè, but that's because it’s the truth. Whether we like it or not, the only way out of this situation was by taking a single step, and another and another.
I had done 6 weeks of consistent training. And man was I so proud of myself. I mean I almost died, and here I was able to jog for 10 minutes without passing out! Yes, jogging for 10 minutes was a milestone - which I celebrated with so much pride because I had empathy for myself and my journey.
And that is what I am trying to tell you guys, when life hits you and you find yourself starting over it’s so important to gain perspective and empathy for your situation. Now I know this is easier said than done, and I agree. I mean you’re constantly comparing yourself to friends, training partners and Instagram fitness guys and girls.
You are constantly reminded of how far behind you are; and that’s okay. But what’s not okay is allowing these factors to influence you and your commitment. No one else in this world has the exact same story as you do, no one. So why are you comparing their chapter 12 to your chapter 3? It makes no sense, so please do not put yourself in that position.
Developing or redeveloping a habit while maintaining perspective and empathy for your own journey is vitally important to your ability to bounce back from this detour in your fitness journey.
Unlike other things in this world, the only way out of this situation is to go through it.
Lesson Number 2: Develop a habit!
Why decided to take a conservative approach: The risks of doing too much too soon.
Disclaimer: Always consult your physician regarding your specific circumstances. The below statements are of an opinionative nature and should not be used to diagnose any form of health condition.
Have you ever found yourself fed up with your situation? Ready to tackle the elephant in the room?
“I’m starting on Monday!” Yip, we’ve all been there and we all know that this concept is flawed.
Your motivation is through the roof and you are chomping at the bits to get going and smash some goals? And you do, you hit the gym, go for a 5km run and do 100 pushups and 100 sit ups every day! Now this is all good and well, it can be a successful strategy to light a fire under your donkey and get out there start working towards your goals. But for the average person this is far from ideal. Allow me to explain…
This strategy is like trying to drink water from a fire hose; it’s just too overwhelming and ultimately will get you hurt. Doing too much too soon after an extended break from fitness is the biggest risk factor of them all. Seriously, I need you guys to pay attention here, because the reasoning behind all of this could be the difference between you standing proud and strong after an initial 21 day cycle or finding yourself benched or on the sidelines again, because you went and got yourself injured.
Our bodies love homeostasis, they want to maintain a constant balance no matter what the circumstances. So if you took an extended break from fitness, your body has adapted to the lack of physical stimulation. In layman’s terms your body is now used to you not doing much, so if you go and throw your body in the deep end and over exert yourself, your body will have very little to no time to adjust - This is no bueno!
That is why I took it step by step, day by day and slowly got myself back into the swing of things. Was it annoying? Extremely! Was it frustrating? Bro, don’t even get me started. But was it worth it? Heck yes! Dude I couldn’t walk and now I am running again! So yes, in the end I am so happy that I paced myself allowing the natural adaptation to take place. Because once I got through the initial phase, my body was soaring again. I could run, jump, cycle, lift and sprint (all in moderation of course) and actually feel like my old self again.
So what are the risks of doing too much? Well if you were or are in the same boat as I am or was; your health is everything. And after a long bout with illness your body really takes a punch, from all the medication, inflammation and overall crappy stuff we have to go through, your body needs time to heal. Now if you don’t allow it to heal and add stress on a system that is already fragile, you are playing with fire. I can go into the conditions you could develop and their respective pathophysiology but it will become really grim really quickly. So instead I am just going to list them and let you do your own homework!
The risk factors of training too soon after illness include:
These are just the stand out ones’ that caught my attention, but they were enough to scare me straight!
Okay so let’s say you weren’t ill like I was; maybe you got hurt or developed an overuse injury. I think it goes without saying that if you come back too soon after a significant injury you’re once again playing with fire. This is not the time to be over eager as patience is a virtue. If you think getting back into your fitness routine is difficult after an injury?
Try doing it after re-injuring yourself or worse getting a different injury due to the fact that you couldn’t for the initial injury to clear up! Mentally that is a low blow, and I have personally seen many individuals fall out of the train completely because of this! Careers were ended, livelihoods affected and even their overall health and well-being were negatively impacted.
And what about those of us that weren’t injured or ill? Well, I am so glad you asked! So let’s say you had to take some time off from training due to work or school or family commitments. Now that it’s all said and done you realized it’s been a couple of months and you’ve let yourself go a tad and you’re ready to get back and get going. Remember the scenario we mentioned earlier in this section regarding your new found motivation to solve all your problems by going at it 1000% pace with no remorse for your body? Do you know what your risk factors are if you do too much too soon?
GETTING SICK OR GETTING INJURED!
Wow, would you look at that? It’s all interconnected! And the common denominator? Patience or rather a lack thereof! I apologize in advance for my sarcastic tone, but as a seasoned rehabilitation specialist that deals with cases like this on almost a daily basis, it really frustrates me because situations like these are all preventable.
By simply mastering the ability to perceive where you are and where you need to be; being realistic about it and ultimately pacing yourself - you can achieve so much and be in such a great space again. Trust me, slow and steady wins the race.
Lesson 3: Patience - Pace Yourself
Goal setting: You need to be honest with yourself, be realistic yet optimistic!
This section is probably the hardest part of bouncing back. Or at least attempting to get back on track. This is because along with formulating or breaking good or bad habits, taking the conservative approach and everything else we already discussed thus far in this article; at the end of the day all of the above is null and void because you cannot successfully bounce back without a plan. Now we’ve already touched on my personal strategy for the initial 21 day cycle, but we will expand on this a little bit more in the next section of this article.
For now we are focusing on what to base your plan on - IE. What is your goal? Now that is a fairly broad statement so let’s get a bit more specific:
What is your fitness related goal or goals for the next 21 days?
Now we’re talking, as you can see the marked difference in intent between these two questions. I mean the former is far more vague and can technically cover a range of topics. While the latter is far more specific and leaves little to no room for any interpretation. This is important, as we are often too vague in our goal-setting strategies. We sort of throw out a blanket generalized statement that kind of sort of but doesn’t really hold up to anything in particular.
It’s like trying to figure out where a sporting goods store is in a shopping mall with over 100 different stores, where you’ve never been before. Sure you could wander around aimlessly and hopefully, eventually find the store you are looking for, but this strategy is inefficient and poses multiple obstacles such as distractions. The same can be said about your return to fitness, if you just start doing random exercises at random times that serve no particular purpose and do not follow any form of structure you’re just setting yourself up to fail. Make sense?
But I digress, the purpose of setting a goal is to have a :
Can you guys see how goals can be a two sided blade? That doesn’t sound right, is it a flip sided blade? No wait, it’s a double edge blade! Ah, that sounds right! Anyway, back to what we were saying; Your goals are more than just an arbitrary set of words written down in a notebook or in a notes app on your smartphone. Your goal is a very powerful tool that can either make you or break you. This is because when approached in the correct way your goals will end up being such a amazing psychological lever in your toolbox.
Let me explain…
During these 21 days you will find yourself being challenged, whether it is a Friday evening gym session scheduled at the same time all of your friends are about to hit the local pub or go see a movie or something. Ultimately, you will be tasked to make sacrifices that will require you to grow.
On the flip side of the coin, there will be days where you told yourself you will get an extra 10 minutes of cardio done after work. But come knock off time and all you can think about is going home and lazing on the couch until dinner!
In both instances you will need the right motivational tool to get you to your workout, and the correct reference point to hold you accountable and remind you why you are on this journey. This is why having the right goal is such a beautiful thing, because it allows you to hold onto something that in turn will develop your mental fortitude.
Now I would be remiss if we didn’t address the fact that not all goals are born equal. In addition to your goal being very specific, it also needs to be realistic. This is where honesty comes into play, you need to be honest with yourself regarding your current physical state and what you realistically could achieve in your 21 day cycle. You can’t be missing in action from all levels of fitness and expect to run a full marathon at competition pace in 21 days, let’s be real, it’s just not going to happen. Contrastly, you also can’t set a goal that’s too easily attainable; that will just result in a lack of motivation as you technically don’t have much to work towards.
Thus, you need to set a goal that is far enough that requires you to be a bit uncomfortable but at the same time it needs to be within reach to keep you motivated and accountable.
At the end of the day I can’t prescribe to you what your goals will be as I believe that it’s quite personal and specific to each person. Ultimately you will need to actually give this some thought, some people are internally motivated and follow through with their goal as they’re counting on themselves to reach this goal. Other people operate differently, they require an external source of motivation. I suggest turning to someone really close to you, somebody that cares about and has your well-being at heart, but this person should also be able to be honest with you. This person will serve as your “reality check” as they will act as an external motivator and someone to keep you on track. Someone that, during your most difficult periods on this journey, will remind you why you started and what you’re working toward.
Lesson Number 4: Set an honest and realistic goal!
What’s the plan man… Or woman.
Do you remember in the previous section where we alluded to having some sort of a plan for the next 21 days? This is essentially where it all comes together, everything we have just covered and then some, will now be formulated into a plan of action.
However, I believe that it goes without saying that just like most things in life everyone is different, and this applies to your plan of action too. As you will need to consider your specific situation, what led to your break from fitness? Was it due to an injury, illness or did life just have you backed up against the ropes for a while? Each specific reason or combination of both will define how your plan will be set out.
But since we’re really focusing on getting you back to some form of fitness activity, we thought it best to break down the plan into two sections for you to focus on:
Notice how we don’t specify here? Like saying “gym” or using the word “diet”. There is a reason for this approach. In the world we currently live in, the fitness industry has been woefully diluted with misinformation and negative connotations surrounding most things. I mean the word diet alone shoots fear into most people’s minds as it is associated with restriction… to be deprived of.
That’s why we use the word nutrition instead, this is because nutrition is very similar to the word nurture. Creating the understanding that you're feeding your body what it needs and not what it wants. Additionally, training is just a broader term as your specific training could be vastly different than mine or anyone else’s for that matter. Yes, this is a very simple concept and might seem negligible, but trust me the psychology involved here has been soundly proven over the years.
Let’s talk about training…
When it comes to your chosen training modality you really need to align it with your goals. Is your preferred training running? So look at setting a goal of being able to run 5km in 30 minutes or less. Or do you prefer resistance training as your main form of exercise? Well go ahead and set targets for all your big lifts such as the bench press, deadlift and squat.
Again, how we approach this will depend on your reason for your absence from training and how much it has affected your current abilities. Please please PLEASE don’t make the rookie mistake and overestimate your abilities… Seriously guys, this is not the time nor the place for your ego, so leave it at the door. This will only serve you well over the next three weeks.
My advice to you would be to categorize your training plan according to three factors:
All of these factors are adjustable as you go along; so if you find yourself struggling to keep up you might want to dial down your intensity a bit. Or if you had an injury, perhaps a musculoskeletal injury, and you need to manage your load bearing during the initial stages of your activity. You might not want to start running or doing Olympic lifts straight out the gate. Thus you would need to adjust the type of training you do to fit your unique situation.
What about nutrition?
As we pointed out earlier, this isn’t a conversation about a specific diet plan. This is about your nutrition as a whole. How are you fueling your body?
The fact remains that you most likely didn’t have the greatest eating habits while you were away from training. Let’s be honest, working late, or being ill or even lazing at home resting an injured limb can all lead to some bad decisions when it comes to our food choices. And your nutrition plays a HUGE role in your efforts to get back on track. Thus you would need to take a long hard look at your fridge, your pantry and your grocery list… Because it’s time to make some changes!
So here are our tips on how to go about it:
Tip #1: Stop buying crappy foods!
By eliminating junk food from your dwelling you can immediately reduce the risk of temptation.
Tip #2: Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
Water is life, there is no way around it. By drinking a minimum of 2 liters of water a day you’re setting yourself up to win! Your body cannot function when it’s even slightly dehydrated.
Tip #3: Quality over quantity
Now I know there are a lot of different approaches to what we eat on a daily basis. How much is too much, how much is too little. Regardless of the quantity, at this stage of the game you need to be focusing on the quality of the foods. Fueling your body with a variety of good healthy foods will ensure the bounce back to how things were will happen efficiently! Look at getting foods that have good sources of protein, low GI starches that contain good amounts of fiber and unsaturated fat sources. Eating a balanced diet, for the lack of a better word, is key to making sure your body is adequately fueled!
Tip #4: Stick to what you know!
I get it, you let yourself go or the return from injury or sickness hasn’t been kind on the aesthetic of your body. A little extra junk in the trunk, your arms look a bit flat and your tummy has gotten an extra roll or two. It happens, it’s normal… how you are feeling is okay as you have every right to be anxious about the physical state of your body, given that you were in good to great shape not too long ago!
But I beg you, please don’t overthink this by trying to find the next best fad diet or meal plan, I know there might be a temptation to get “rock solid abs in just two weeks if all you do is eat kale and drink bone broth” but listen to me carefully, there is no magic pill. So save yourself the grief and stick to what you know; What worked for you before? What nutrition plan helped you get into the shape you had before the break from fitness?
I implore you to please take a step back and stick to what’s familiar as it will be far easier to remain committed to your plan! Trust me on this one.
To summarize, if you’re in need of bouncing back from an unscheduled detour from your fit life or your fitness goals you will need to look at your own story and use that as the foundation for the next few weeks. You will need to develop a plan based off of your training and nutrition, after which you will need to turn that plan into a habit by enforcing the very specific but realistic goals you have set out for yourself. But remember, this journey you are on will require you to be a bit more patient, pace yourself as there is enough time to bounce back; And remember no matter how low and alone you might feel - You’re not alone.
The entire point of this article is to discuss a topic that really hasn’t been discussed before. The nuances, the challenges and just overall experience you have when you find yourself in this position. A position where you start to question many things. You might start to question your ability or abilities as an athlete. You may start to wonder whether living a fit life is still for you. And in some extreme, but still common, cases you might start to question your self-worth. If you currently find yourself in that position then this article is for you, a way for you to be able to relate to the crappy circumstances you find yourself in. But there is a way to make it out, there is a way to get back to the old you, the real you. Because when it’s all said and done, this version of you is just temporary, and the work you put in over the next 21 days will be everlastingly permanent!