In the past two blog posts we have discussed the implications of temporarily stopping a diet and exercise routine and how quickly the benefits of diet and exercise can start to decline and then reverse once you return to them.
I also described a number of benefits from temporarily stopping a diet and/or exercise routine, some of which include better fat loss, more muscle gain, less stress, better sleep, and improved mental health.
Due to the fact that any negative effects of a break in a diet and exercise routine can quickly be reversed and when done properly a break can actually help you reach your goals in a better physical and mental state, I am in favor of people intentionally dialing back their diet and exercise routine with planned breaks.
There is a huge caveat here that I tried to make clear in my previous posts but it is worth repeating here, these breaks are generally not the type of breaks where you throw caution to the wind and sit on the couch watching TV with several pints of your favorite ice cream for the next month. During a break we are still going to prioritize eating whole foods, eating enough protein, moving our body throughout the day, sleeping enough, and managing stress properly. It’s basically a period of time where you are just not being as measured and regimented as you normally would be in the weeks leading up to the break.
A lot of the research we looked at over the past two blog posts used breaks in diet and exercise of several weeks, and in some cases, several months. In reality, outside of the rare circumstance, the breaks I am talking about in this post should not be that long. In nearly all cases I think your breaks should be a couple days up to at most two weeks.
How long and how frequent these breaks are depends on the person and their situation, but let me go over a few very common scenarios that I see play out with the clients I work with.
For most people I work with, taking a break from their diet and exercise does not need to be planned at all, life does all the work for us. As I mentioned in my previous blog posts, life is full of built in breaks in diet and exercise.
Birthday parties, illness, work trips, vacations, anniversaries, sleepless nights, work emergencies, injuries…life is full of things that necessitate us deviating from our diet and exercise.
What do I tell clients when they experience these life events????
DON’T SWEAT IT!
If they happen a few times a month we have natural breaks in diet and exercise. I know a few days a month won’t set us back all too much, and if they do, once they get back to their diet and exercise they will quickly regain what they lost.
It also gives them time to relax or not add any additional stress to their life.
Going on vacation? Great, enjoy yourself! Be somewhat mindful of what you eat and move your body in some way and you are all good.
Got sick for a week?
No worries, eat what makes you feel good, rest, and sleep. Once you feel better we will ease you back in.
Have a work trip with a bunch of work meetings where you are trapped in a conference room all day long?
Don’t worry about it, hit the hotel gym in the morning, have a solid breakfast, and do what you have to do for work. Once you return we will jump right back where you left off.
Going to Grandma’s 90th birthday party? Epic!
Ask Grandma what she did to make it to 90. I bet it didn’t involve skipping birthday cake for her entire life 😉
I think you get the point here.
For most people life has enough chances to inject breaks into our diet and exercise routines that allows you to both get the benefits from some time off, but also enjoy your life.
One thing to keep in mind if you fall into this category of people, is to not view every life event as an opportunity for a break. There are some life events you can’t do anything about, illness, work commitments, these types of things are out of your control, but there are life events that are also within your control.
For example, if you just spent 2 weeks on vacation and enjoyed a more lenient diet and didn’t do any formal workouts and then you come home and have a few social engagements for work during your week back, it’s probably best to be a bit more strict at these work engagements and do everything you can to get your planned workouts for next several weeks. You do not need another break after 2 weeks on vacation.
Another common situation would be the holidays at the end of the year. For many people, the period of time from the end of October till the beginning of January is just a constant barrage of social engagements, trips, and celebrations. You can’t use every one as an opportunity to take a break from your diet, you need to pick and choose your breaks. If you know you have a week long trip planned from Christmas to New Years then you want to do everything you can the rest of the time to be on point with your diet and exercise. That will allow you more freedom on the week-long break from Christmas to New Years.
The second group of people that we should talk about are those that are super consistent with their diet and exercise. They tend to find a way to always be on point regardless of what life throws at them. Don’t confuse these types of people as being “better” than the other group. There are pros and cons to each type of personality and approach. These people also need to take breaks from their diet and exercise but generally it needs to be more structured.
There are two ways to approach breaks for this type of person.
You can do a longer week long break after 5-8 weeks of consistent diet and exercise or you can do 1-2 day breaks per week.
Which one is better?
Neither! Pick the one that suits you best!
In the first case where you do longer breaks with less frequency I encourage you to look at your calendar and try to line the break up with some type of life event. Maybe you have a vacation coming up or a work trip on the horizon. Those would be a great time to take a break from your diet and exercise routine and allow you to enjoy yourself some more and get a bit more recovery.
If you don’t have any kind of life event on the horizon, simply schedule it in your calendar. That week you will dial back the exercise volume (take a deload week) and eat at maintenance calories for a week (either upping calories if you have been in a deficit or decreasing calories if you have been in a surplus..aka a diet break).
For short breaks you can pick 1-2 days every 1-2 weeks where you take a much needed break from the gym and also return to maintenance calories. Ideally everyone has 1 rest day planned in their exercise program a week, so you would add an extra rest day in that week. For your 1-2 days at maintenance calories maybe you pick Saturday and Sunday or pick a day you have a social engagement planned for that week.
So in summary here are the best ways to incorporate breaks in your diet and exercise routine:
- While we want breaks to be a time of more relaxed eating and less formal exercise it does not mean you throw all your lifestyle practices out the window on those days. It’s about a measured approach, you make slight adjustments to your diet, and may not do any formal exercise, you still gently move your body, and you continue to sleep well, and continue to manage your stress.
- Life gives you plenty of opportunities to inject a break in your diet and exercise routine. Look for these opportunities and use them to your advantage, however not every life event needs to be a break. Be conscious about when your last break was and how long it was. The more frequent the break you take the shorter they should be. The more time from your last break the longer they can be (around a week).
- If you are someone who is super consistent and finds ways to always get your workout in and always have your diet on point, then you need to schedule your breaks. You can do shorter more frequent breaks or longer less frequent breaks. Try to look ahead at your calendar and line them up with life events to allow you more enjoyment during these times.
Breaks from diet and exercise should not be feared. If you don’t eat perfectly on your birthday or spend a week on vacation relaxing and have an ice cream or a couple drinks don’t sweat it. By all accounts you can still reach your goals and in many cases it looks like you might put yourself in a better position once you reach your goals. In addition, you will likely be in a better mental space throughout your journey to get to your goal.
The worst thing you can do is catastrophize any kind of break. It might set you back depending on the length, but again all that can quickly be reversed once you resume your diet and exercise routine. If you catastrophize and give up, or return to your diet and exercise routine by dieting harder and/or working out more you will be more likely to completely fall apart.
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