Nature is in constant flux. Trees bloom and shed their leaves. Rivers rise and fall. Animals hunker down in winter and become more active in spring. Our own moods and energy levels ebb and flow with the seasons.
Why, then, do we strive to keep our fitness routines the same year-round?
Part of it may be that we are creatures of habit. And part of it may be that, in all our human sophistication, we simply neglect to acknowledge a very simple truth: “We tend to do better with exercise when we have a rhythm to our schedule,” says Kate Larsen, MCC, executive life coach and author of Progress Not Perfection: Your Journey Matters (Expert Publisher, 2007).
Translation: While a certain amount of consistency generally works to our advantage, rigid, unchanging sameness does not.
It turns out that fitness peaks and troughs are inevitable. And to a certain extent, they are desirable, even necessary, to help us create continuous improvement over time.
Most of us intuitively get the idea of “stepping back to leap forward” or of “resting up before a big game.” We know that energy and enthusiasm often come in bursts and that progress tends to be made in fits and starts.
We also know that exercise scientists have long advocated “periodization” — a method of adjusting your training program on a regular basis (usually every 12 weeks) — to prevent plateaus and injuries while maximizing fitness gains. Indeed, studies show that periodization increases strength, power, muscular endurance, and speed. It also helps athletes stay motivated and focused by preventing burnout.
Most conventional periodization approaches fail to account for nature’s seasonal cycles, however. And they usually fail to consider predictable variations in professional and social demands, as well as your body’s fluctuating appetites, instincts, and biorhythms.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict and account for every variable, but by mapping out your fitness year with at least a few of these factors in mind — much the way farmers have always considered natural cycles while planning their crop-growing strategies — you’ll have a better shot at making the most of your natural inclinations. You’ll also have a better chance of sidestepping frustrating fitness ruts and mindless repetition.
With that in mind, we consulted several health, fitness, and lifestyle experts to help us develop this “fitness almanac,” a seasonal guide to setting goals, eating healthfully, and maximizing your energy.
Think of it as your guide to sowing the right health-and-fitness seeds at the right time — and reaping the most rewarding and satisfying results possible.
First Quarter: January Through March
Theme: Take stock, observe, set direction — and start moving.
Energy Level: Moderate, focused, and thoughtful.
January is the perfect time to concentrate on taking stock: What’s been going well, and what part of your body or your life needs more focus, support, or attention?
“Winter, by nature, is an introspective season, so during this quarter, take an honest look at where you are and how you’re feeling,” advises Elson Haas, MD, author of Staying Healthy With the Seasons (Celestial Arts, 2003) and The Detox Diet (Ten Speed Press, 2012). By midwinter, he notes, many people are feeling depleted and not entirely inclined to tackle ambitious resolutions.
If this sounds like you, Haas says, do some reading, thinking, and visioning to get a sense of where you’d like to see your fitness life go in the coming year. From there, begin identifying some small, healthy adjustments you can start executing now.
While it may be tempting to launch yourself into aggressive self-makeover mode, for many people, January may actually be a better time to get clear about your health goals, establish a realistic plan, and begin taking modest but consistent daily actions toward it.
January goal: Grab a calendar and start mapping out three months’ worth of fitness and nutrition goals in monthly, weekly, and daily installments. Note some specific targets (maybe by June you want to be able to run more miles without stopping) and set some action goals (say, three to four workouts a week) that support the results you’re after.
February goal: Consider scheduling some fitness tests (better health clubs and sports clinics offer this service), so you can use the information as a yardstick to measure your progress the rest of the year.
March goal: Review your calendar and see how you’ve progressed during the first three months of the year.
Fitness Challenges: Lack of time and focus are the typical problems this time of year, so commit to some kind of doable, daily action, even if it’s just a walk around the block or a few kettlebell swings each morning. (For a full-body kettlebell workout that is suitable for all fitness levels, see “Get a Handle on It.”) What’s important right now is establishing new, healthy patterns — and then noticing whether and when they go haywire, and why.
Popular Fitness Retreats: Ski or snowboard in the Rockies or northern Michigan; sea kayak in Baja California, Mexico; or attend a yoga retreat in the Florida Keys.
Seasonal Eats: Opt for winter squash, yams, root vegetables, and citrus, which are all in good quality throughout the season. Choose dark greens and colorful veggies, even if the frozen food aisle is the only reliable source.
What to Focus On: Rather than forcing a complete overhaul, which works against the natural energy of the season, focus on making more gradual changes, staying conscious and positive as you encounter obstacles.
- New to working out? Concentrate on simply moving more every day, even if it’s only for 15 to 30 minutes (you can build on that gradually). Try a weekly yoga or Pilates class.
- Coming back after a break? Take a few weeks to ramp up to your previous intensity level. Start experimenting with heart-rate training.
- Already fit? Maintain your momentum by signing up for an athletic event. An option to consider is Commitment Day 2014. (For more information, visit www.commitmentday.com.) Recruit a friend to train with you. Focus on making some nutritional improvements.
- Clean out your pantry and toss those leftover holiday treats and foods that contain trans fats, refined flours, and sugars. Or declutter any space in your home that saps your energy.
- Strive to get at least 10 minutes of sunshine a day in the morning or midday — it will help ward off seasonal affective disorder (see “Beating the Winter Blues. ”) and boost both your energy and moods.
Second Quarter: April Through June
Theme: Think less and do more; commit to your chosen direction and go.
Energy Level: Intense, upbeat, and action-oriented.
There’s a reason they call it “spring fever.” As the cold weather melts away and flowers bloom, the world takes on a new, exciting energy. It’s a time of renewal, notes Haas. The days are steadily getting longer and brighter. Plants are freshening the air with new growth and putting down roots.
Your fitness momentum should be building, as well. “Tap into the power of nature all around you and within you,” suggests Haas. “This awesome force is available to you, so allow its energy to influence the course of your life and health.” This is a time for hitting your stride, making choices, and fully embracing the personal projects and commitments you clarified over the winter.
As life picks up its pace, anticipate roadblocks and decide now how you’ll address them. “If you can’t make it to that Pilates class you signed up for at the beginning of the year, take 20 minutes at home to stretch or do some calisthenics,” Larsen suggests. “It may not be ideal, but anything that keeps you in action with a flexible mindset helps keep your momentum going.”
April goal: Start a fitness journal and track how you’re feeling physically, both on the days you do and don’t exercise. See what happens when you get in three solid days in a row.
May goal: By May, most farmers’ markets are open for the season, so make a point of stopping by one once a week for the best fresh eats. Add one or two new plant-based dishes to your cooking repertoire.
June goal: The end of June marks the halfway point for the year. Review your calendar to see how far you’ve come in reaching your fitness goals. June is also a great time to repeat your fitness testing and compare the results against your baseline numbers.
Fitness Challenges: Greet spring rains and lingering cold fronts as challenges to your creativity and commitment, not excuses to stay put. Drop in on an indoor fitness class that you’ve never tried (studio cycle? Kickboxing? Pilates? Zumba?). Or give a DVD workout a test run. Don’t automatically assume working out in inclement weather is drudgery, either — just as rain nourishes the landscape, its peaceful rhythm can lend a restorative feeling to your workout. Keep layers of clothing handy for those unpredictable days.
Popular Fitness Retreats: Hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon; take a bike tour in Napa, Calif.; or paddle the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota.
Seasonal Eats: Spring’s first harvest usually features leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach. Also look for artichokes, asparagus, avocados, fresh berries, mangoes, broccoli, citrus fruits, mushrooms, and radishes.
What to Focus On: Spring is all about rebirth in nature and in your life. Use your newfound clarity to write some self-affirmations. “Remind yourself that regular activity and good nutrition help you lead the life you want and support you in being the person you want to be,” Larsen says.
- Think “cleansing and renewal,” Haas adds. “Let go of what you don’t need — physical, mental, and emotional habits that undermine your health — and bring in what you need anew: positive health habits that will satisfy your soul.”
- Need some motivation? Look for ways to enjoy spring and summer like you did as a child. Fly a kite. Go swimming or fishing. Ride your bike after dinner. Explore local hiking trails. Also cook healthy meals and share them with friends.
- Swap one daily serving of coffee, soda, or sweets for a cup of green or herbal tea or a piece of fresh fruit.
- Find a new way to challenge yourself. Add a sprint workout to your program; try an unfamiliar group fitness class.
- Consider a whole-body detox. Haas recommends a weeklong regimen of just fruits and veggies and lean proteins (cutting out sugar, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, soy, wheat, and all processed foods) and cleansing your system with herbal teas and fresh juices.
Third Quarter: July Through September
Theme: Achieve balance, working with available resources.
Energy Level: Varying, from playful and celebratory to lethargic.
The sun is at its most intense this quarter, the days at their longest. The world is bright, warm, and full of optimism, but it’s also fragile; the landscape can become scorched and its resources depleted. Likewise, life in mid- to late summer can be intense and hectic, full of vacation travel, family events, sweltering weather, and back-to-school shopping. Work can be busy, too, as people return from vacations and are forced to play catch-up. It’s easy to get into a fitness rut around this time — or to relapse into old, unhealthy behaviors.
When your schedule is packed, exercise is usually the first thing to fall off your to-do list. And sometimes that’s OK, says Therese Iknoian, exercise physiologist and author of Mind-Body Fitness for Dummies (Wiley, 2000) and Fitness Walking (Human Kinetics, 2005). “Even Olympic athletes take time off and cross-train to rest both their brains and their bodies.”
Larsen agrees, but urges us to find ways to keep moving. “Some exercise is always better than no exercise,” she says. Look for ways to make activity truly enjoyable. If you’re absolutely dreading a scheduled run, take a walk, bike ride, or dance class instead.
July goal: When traveling, pack your workout clothes, and research ways to exercise on the road. Your hotel probably has a gym, or you can find local running maps at www.trimbleoutdoors.com under “Trips.”
August goal: Average temperatures tend to peak in July and August, giving you a reason to try an early-morning workout when the day is coolest. You may also find you enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from exercising first thing in the morning.
September goal: The days are getting shorter and the evenings are growing cooler. Schedule a few minutes at the beginning and end of each day to just sit quietly and visualize yourself as a strong, active, successful person.
Fitness Challenges: While summer provides more opportunities to exercise outdoors, hot weather can leave you feeling sluggish. The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine found that on warm, humid days, performance can decline by as much as 12 percent. So schedule vigorous workouts in the morning when temperatures are cooler and water-vapor pressure is lower (allowing sweat to evaporate faster and cool your body). If you exercise during the heat of the day, do so indoors.
Popular Fitness Retreats: Hike or bike in Door County, Wis.; wind surf in Hood River, Ore.; bike along the high coastal bluffs near Portland, Maine; or hike along a glacier in Alaska.
Seasonal Eats: Look for dark greens, tomatoes, zucchini, peas, peppers, mangoes, peaches, berries, melons, and cherries. As fall rolls around, load up on beets, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, parsnips, apples, and pears.
What to Focus On: Ride the heat waves and find ways to remain true to the spirit of your workout and nutrition goals, even when you’re traveling or feeling a little depleted. “Tell yourself that you’ll just exercise five or 10 minutes, and make that OK,” says Iknoian. “Once you get dressed and get going for the first few minutes, nine times out of 10 you’ll find it’s not so bad and keep going longer.” Maintain high energy levels by staying hydrated and well nourished.
- Get outside. Enjoy the constant sunshine and extra-long days. Take your workouts outdoors when you can — ride your bike, hop in a lake, grab your neighbor and play a round of tennis at the park.
- Sign up now for fall and winter fitness classes and recruit a few friends to join you. It will give you something to work toward, and having friends involved adds a fun, social element that will make you feel more inclined to show up.
- Schedule yourself for a series of massages or other bodywork. Notice how this small act of self-kindness pays off in unexpected rewards for your body and mind.
- Consider adding a supergreens supplement (spirulina, chlorella, etc.) to your daily nutritional regimen (toss a scoop in your morning juice or postworkout smoothie). Continue this ritual into winter for improved energy and immunity all season long.
Fourth Quarter: October Through December
Theme: Harvest results, redistribute resources, and make conscious choices about what’s next.
Energy Level: Contemplative and centered — seeking satisfaction.
October goal: Pack away your summer athletic clothes. Waterproof your running shoes or buy a new ear-covering hat that inspires you to get outdoors.
November goal: Seek out a book that inspires you to daydream and set new goals for your health and your life. In the evenings, turn off the television and read, vision, or journal with an eye toward making positive changes in the New Year.
December goal: Use your spare energy to accomplish a “last-chance” health-and-fitness victory of your choosing. That might include decluttering a space that de-energizes you or knocking off any goal that eluded you during the prior season.
Fitness Challenges: It’s possible chilly weather will usher at least some of your workouts indoors, and it can be difficult to stay motivated through the routine change. Social obligations can get in the way, too, so why not combine fitness and socializing by working out with friends? Sign up for a fun fall athletic event. Don’t throw good nutrition out the window — keep wholesome foods at the center of your daily diet, and you’ll find it much easier to shed winter weight come springtime.
Popular Fitness Retreats: Regroup at a mind-body retreat center such as Shoshoni Yoga Retreat in Rollinsville, Colo.; the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass.; or Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, N.M.
- Update your fitness vision board, or start working on a new one that incorporates more aspects of your healthy lifestyle (food, relaxation, relationships, community, balanced work and play, spirituality, etc.).
- Build a water habit. Research shows that cold weather can hamper our thirst mechanisms, so make hydrating a more appealing option by squeezing half a lemon or lime into a glass of water each morning.
- Make your car, TV area, and bedroom into no-snacking zones. Take your meals at the table, by candlelight whenever possible. Do you have to eat “on the go”? Try pausing to enjoy your food versus eating it while in distracted motion.
Gina DeMillo Wagner is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.