All or Nothing Approach to Diet & Fitness

You’ve been so good all week…until a moment of weakness during Thursday happy hour, when you get a little too chummy with a tower of fries and a cheese dripping burger. After that caloric landslide, Friday’s planned salad lunch seems pointless, so you indulge on some takeaway Thai—and why not splurge on a slice of birthday cake in the break room back at work?

Or maybe you overslept and missed your Wednesday morning gym class, which then leads to skipping the rest of the week’s workouts—because it just makes sense to start fresh on Monday, right?

Sound familiar? Known as the “all-or-nothing approach,” this self-defeating mindset usually leaves a trail of broken resolutions to wallow in and you sink back into the familiar ways that lead you to wanting a healthy change. You might start off oozing motivation to stick to a strict diet, find time to exercise everyday and steel yourself against every passing temptation—but imposing extreme limitations can quickly lead to burnout, injury and frustration…. I’ve had many a client follow this pattern and it doesn’t go away until you change your relationship with ALL or NOTHING.

Why is it that we think this way?

Generally people tend to categorise things into binary systems. “We’re winners or losers. We’re in shape or out of shape, we vote Liberal or Labour”  “But that’s not how life works. Most people don’t agree with every position of their political parties, no one is born as an inherent winner or loser and fitness isn’t an all-or-nothing concept.”

Another thought pattern that I myself have fallen into with the ‘all or nothing approach’ is the tendency to “fail hard,” a belief that if you’re not perfect, you should stop trying. “This mindset can lead down a disastrous road. You can get back on track after one bad choice without too much damage, but it’s much harder to get back on track after numerous bad choices. If you make a mistake, do your best to get back on track without being too hard on yourself.”

With New Year’s motivation at its highest, trainer and nutritionist Kristy Stabler sees many clients who want to adopt radical diet and exercise plans to quickly drop pounds. “The problem with these extreme measures is that the motivation rarely lasts beyond a few weeks,” she says.

The good news is, with a few smart strategies, you can reprogram your brain to abandon the all-or-nothing way of thinking—and start to see the real results that have been eluding you.

1. Stop rationalizing your choices.

You might decide to eat dessert while out to dinner on a Saturday night, telling yourself you deserve a reward for eating healthy all week and working out that morning. “We are all phenomenal at rationalizing our behavior,” says McBrairty. “This is an extremely powerful psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, a tendency to match our thoughts with our actions. If we eat junk food on the weekend, even when we know we shouldn’t, we will convince ourselves that our behavior was justified.”

If you do decide to eat dessert or go out for drinks on the weekend, McBrairty says to take ownership of that choice. “Don’t disguise your choice as being owed to you for doing good earlier in the week. There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, but rationalizing your choices allows you to do it over and over again without taking responsibility.”

2. Realize that less is sometimes more.

Remind yourself that anything is always better than nothing. If a late meeting derails your plans to attend a one-hour group fitness class after work, you can still head to the gym and do 20 minutes of treadmill intervals, which will benefit you more than skipping your workout altogether. Can’t make it to the gym at all? Do 10 to 15 minutes of bodyweight exercises at home, such as push-ups, high-knee runs, stairs and jumping jacks.

“The sum of all movement is what’s important, so even if you have to split your sweat session into two 15-minute workouts throughout the day, that’s better than nothing at all,” also focus on incorporating more organic movement into your day, like taking the stairs, parking far away from the entrance or taking your dog on an extra walk.