What to do when staying in shape feels harder than ever.
How to build a “system” that helps you get back on track.
Adapted for Older Adults by Bonnie Campbell
A healthy lifestyle is never effortless.
Only for many of us, it feels unusually hard right now, despite all this new found time!
The pandemic just broke your “system.”
We have all lost something and are grieving that loss. Our life, our lifestyle, our freedoms have all been completely undone. We are scared and experiencing trauma to some extent, but have not been able to articulate what it is that we are feeling and experiencing.
It’s also okay to grieve for what you’ve lost. That is part of the process we are all going through.
You have lots of systems already.
We use systems to organize just about every part of our life. Systems help us prioritize what to do and when to do it—so we can complete the actions efficiently and effectively.
Take grocery shopping.
We all do it our own way, but most of us have a method—such as planning meals, compiling a list, shopping on a certain day, or navigating the aisles in a specific order.
And that structured step-by-step process? It ensures we don’t run out of essential items when we need them. Like, say, toilet paper.
Before COVID-19 turned our lives upside down, these systems helped many of us fit workouts and nutritious meals into our busy schedules.
Then everything changed
Now maybe you aren’t even going to the grocery store – you give someone a list and they do it for you!
As a result, your system is disrupted.
And that’s causing many of us to struggle to maintain certain actions.
Like meal prep.
Like sleep hygiene.
Like any semblance of productivity.
The Anatomy of System Disruption
Here is an example of a system that I followed:
Every Sunday I reviewed the week ahead. I confirmed my calendar with the classes I was teaching and the private clients I had booked. I checked my husband’s schedule and my boys’ schedules making careful notes of who had to be where and when and who would be home for dinner. Then I would review the meals I planned to make for the week and when the grocery shopping would take place – I often went 2 or 3 times a week to the grocery store for fresh ingredients!
- Each night, before bed, I reviewed my schedule for the next day and backed my bag accordingly
- I would set my alarm for about 1 hour before my kids had to be up to start my morning routine
- My routine would vary but usually involved some reading while my coffee kicked in and then a quick weightlifting session or conditioning workout, and then getting my dogs out and fed
- Then I made sure the kids were up and out the door to school or the ski hill and then off to work for me at the gym.
You get the picture.
I know you can relate because you lived it once yourselves. Your life has slowed down in some ways compared to mine, but you are all still very busy, engaged and involved in our community
Each day you have at least one anchor activity – maybe it’s a Probus meeting, volunteering for Treasure Tails and the Hospital, GTLLI, Cinema Club, Bridge Groups, Lunch dates, Gardening Club. etc., Hiking groups, skiing with your friends or golf and cycling in the warmer months. You have committee meetings (some of your are still involved and active board members for various organizations. Many of you help your own children shuttling your grandchildren to all of their activities. Some of you are still working!
Then you add in your exercise classes (maybe it is our Fit for Life class or a Yoga Class) around your schedule and organize your day and week accordingly.
That system worked for you. Until:
The gym closed, and so did everything else.
You were told to stay home.
Now, you actually have more time to exercise. But maybe you are not or you are finding in hard to sort out your day and get started doing anything.
Maybe you are binge-watching Netflix or Apple TV. Maybe you are sitting in front of your computer playing endless hours of solitaire, or scrolling through Facebook seeing what everyone else is up to. Maybe you have fallen into the endless trap of forwarding funny emails to your friends all day long.
Why systems matter now—more than ever
It’s pretty easy to understand the importance of a system during “normal life.” But it may be even more important now, for three reasons.
Reason #1: Stress powers down our “thinking brains.”
These times are stressful, especially if we’re worrying about the unknowns:
- How can I safely get my groceries
- When will grocery stores ever restock their empty shelves?
- How long will this last?
- When will I get to see my extended family?
- Will my friends and loved ones survive?
- What is this doing to my retirement investments?
This stress fires up the emotional fight-flight-freeze part of the brain. But it also simultaneously shuts down the thinking-planning-decision-making prefrontal cortex. All that makes it harder to keep our priorities front of mind. Instead, our emotion-driven reflexes take over. (This doesn’t usually turn out well.)
It can also just make us feel drained.
Reason #2: We can only make so many good decisions in a day.
Think of your prefrontal cortex—your decision-making command center—as the weakest muscle in your body. The more decisions you make, the more fatigued this part of the brain becomes—making each successive decision a little bit harder.
And you’re probably making more decisions these days than you realize.
- What’s the best way to check in on my friends or kids? Phone? Video chat? Standing outside and yelling through a window? How does this ZOOM thing work?????
- Should I get out of bed right now? Or just sleep a while longer?
- I wore this yesterday. Wear it again today? Hmmm.
- Should I check the news? Or will it make me too anxious?
- Lunchtime! Should I eat something from the freezer? From the fridge? Or…. from the emergency stash?
- What should I watch tonight?
After a certain number of decisions, your prefrontal cortex fatigues.
Rather than carefully weighing short-term desires against longer-term priorities, the brain spits out, “I don’t know… whatever.”
And once that happens, short-term desires win.
Reason #3: The pandemic wiped out some of our anchor habits.
An anchor habit is something you do every day—without thinking about it.
For example, brushing your teeth is probably an anchor habit.
For many people, it’s the first step in a bedtime routine. And when they don’t brush their teeth, it feels wrong to go to bed, as if something is missing.
Before the pandemic, many of us had several anchor habits that functioned like the first domino in a series. Once that one domino tipped over, many other dominoes fell right after it, without much effort or thinking.
Let’s say someone—like me— I would set my alarm for 6 a.m. every day (the first domino).
I would get out of bed and…
- Have a coffee and read for no more than 20 minutes (second domino – now I have no time limit and can read and read and read)…
- Then go to my garage gym and do a quick workout (third domino – I have all day to workout)…
- Ensure the kids are up and at it (fourth domino)….
- Shower (fifth domino)…
But now? There’s no work or school to go to, so I am not setting an alarm. And without that first domino, things just aren’t not happening.
My entire routine is disrupted. And yours is too.
Build your new health and fitness system
These questions can help you repair old systems and create new ones.
Question #1: What’s important to you right now?
What really matters right now? Maybe it is connecting with loved ones and friends or doing everything possible to avoid getting sick.
So take a moment to consider: What are your priorities?
In other words, what’s most important to you? What’s dropped in importance? And what’s so low on the list it’s not worth putting effort into at all?
Also worth mulling: Do your current actions line up with those priorities? Are you putting effort into what you feel is most important?
If everything lines up: You’re doing great.
If not, let’s take a look at what was once working for you (your old system) to see if there’s anything we can use there.
Question #2: What was your old system?
Take a moment to think about how your daily life looked pre-pandemic.
What were you doing consistently to stay healthy? Were you…
- Connecting with others?
- Eating produce with every meal?
- Getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night?
- Other stuff?
What systems once helped make it easier for you to do all of that?
For me it was setting an alarm and committing to my basic morning routine: Coffee read for 20 minutes and workout. The rest of my day flows much better.
Certain steps may seem trivial. But don’t discount them. They might be a critical domino.
While the example above may not match one of your processes, you can use this approach to troubleshoot any helpful routine, habit, or behavior that’s been disrupted.
Question #3: What systems do you need now?
Now that you’re aware of your old system, you’re ready to think about which parts of that system you want to re-prioritize, what parts you no longer need, and what new habits you might want to add.
What should you hold onto?
How might your old system help you…
- Feel more secure?
- Get going in the morning?
- Make it easier to live a healthy life?
For example, maybe you should still:
- Lay out your fitness clothes before bed (to prompt you to exercise first thing in the morning)
- Connect with friends and family over video (since you can’t meet them outside)
- Create a workout space in your garage, basement, or bedroom—and exercise at the same time you used to go to the gym. (Check out my YouTube Channel to get you started.)
What can you let go of?
Some tasks may not be worth the effort or even make sense anymore.
Maybe you suddenly don’t care as much about certain things in your life right now and the details seem pretty meaningless. If you simply don’t have the capacity for something, it’s okay to release your grip on it.
What new systems do you need?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, your days had anchor points in them that helped you organize your time. Now, without those anchors, you may need new ones. To find one, think about your day from beginning to end.
What would make staying active, eating nutritious foods, restful sleep, and other priorities easier and more automatic? Consider your:
- Daily schedule: Could consistent wake times, meal times, exercise times, meditation time, or bedtime help?
- Surroundings: What changes could you make to your kitchen, workout space, and other aspects of your physical environment?
- Reminders: How might setting alarms, using a to-do list, or time-blocking make things easier?
- Planning: Would you benefit from a two-week meal prep and grocery shopping plan?
- Support: Could you lean on people around you for motivation, accountability, and help? How about trying to exercise with your partner, so you can stay fit together?
- Routines: How might you stack healthy habits on top of something you already do? For example, could you call friends or family while going for a walk?
Think of your new system as an experiment
The only way to know for sure whether your new system will work?
Try it. Besides helping you get back on track and be more consistent, the structure and familiarity of a routine can help you feel more grounded.
This weird, scary, unprecedented time will eventually come to an end. Hopefully we will all come out the other side of this with some new healthy routines and habits to keep us going through life when things start to pile back on.