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, 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 helping them avoid burnout.
But most conventional periodization approaches fail to account for nature’s seasonal cycles. Nor do they consider predictable variations in professional and social demands, much less 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-building 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
January is the perfect time to hit life’s reset button. Rather than beating yourself up about the previous year’s bad habits and failed fitness attempts, 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). By midwinter, he notes, many people are feeling depleted and not entirely inclined to tackle ambitious resolutions. “You may feel more vulnerable and more susceptible to illness,” he notes. “Your emotions may be high, or you may be more sensitive than usual.”
If this sounds like you, Haas says, the first quarter of the year may be a good time for self-reflection — acknowledging and accepting wherever you are now and getting a sense of the authentic desires that are calling.
This is an ideal season to do some reading, thinking, journaling 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 make starting now. Experiment a little and see what happens.
While it may be tempting to launch yourself into aggressive self-makeover mode, for many people, January — with its nasty weather and packed gyms — 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, says Larsen.
“Map out just one or two daily food and fitness adjustments,” she suggests — and let that provide the foundation for more ambitious changes to come.
Theme: Take stock, set direction — start moving and observing.
Energy level: Moderate, focused and thoughtful.
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. (For some thoughtful advice on planning and obstacle-stomping, see “Recommended Reading,” below.)
- 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 and recruit a friend to train with you. Focus on making some nutritional improvements.
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. What’s important right now is establishing new, healthy patterns — and then noticing if and when they go haywire, and why. Next, carve out an hour of quiet time to define some attainable, time-measurable goals, suggests Larsen. Don’t just resolve to “work out more.” Instead, pull out your calendar and slot in two or three workout sessions a week — whether that’s walking 30 minutes or hitting the gym for circuit training. Too much? Resolve to spend just five minutes each day doing any kind of physical motion.
January goal: Grab a calendar or datebook and start mapping out three months’ worth of fitness and nutrition goals in monthly, weekly and daily installments. First, note some specific targets (maybe by June, you want to be 15 pounds lighter or be able to run more miles without stopping). Next, set some action goals (say, three to four workouts a week and eating a healthy breakfast daily) that support the results you’re after. Also mark down monthly check-in dates where you’ll assess your progress. Finally, establish specific calendar appointments and to-do lists for whatever you’ve committed to doing. (Hit the gym? Shop for healthy foods? Take your vitamins?) Each day, check off what you’ve accomplished. And keep those monthly check-in sessions happening: That way, if you’re not meeting your smaller goals, you’ll have the chance to take corrective action — whether that means consulting a nutritionist, finding a new workout buddy or class, or signing up for personal training or health coaching.
February goal: Consider getting some fitness testing done (better health clubs and sports clinics offer these services), so you can use this information as a yardstick to measure your progress the rest of the year. If you don’t already have a heart-rate monitor, consider getting one. If you haven’t had any health screenings done lately (blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides, etc.), now’s a good time.
March goal: Time for your first-quarter check-in! Review your calendar and see how you’ve progressed during the first three months of the year. Are things going well? Consider increasing
the intensity of your workouts. Not as much progress as you’d like? Consider scaling back your commitment to something more manageable: Remember, one small, positive change is sometimes enough to shift your energy in the right direction.
Reach for winter squash, yams, beets, Brussels sprouts, root vegetables, apples and citrus, all of which are in good quality and ample supply throughout the season. Try out some unconventional whole grains like quinoa, millet and wild rice. Keep the dark greens and colorful veggies coming — even if the frozen food aisle is the only reliable source for them. Make a big batch of broth or bean-based vegetable soup on weekends and expand on it for healthy meals and snacks throughout busy workweeks.
Popular Fitness Retreats
Ski or snowboard in the Colorado Rockies; sea kayak in Baja, Calif.; or attend a yoga retreat in the Florida Keys.
Average Temperatures (F)
- Clean out your pantry and toss those leftover holiday treats and foods with trans fats, processed flours and sugars. Or declutter any space in your home that saps your energy.
- Create a fitness vision board, and include photos or magazine clippings to help you illustrate your aspirations (hint: strive to choose energizing action photos that reflect what you want to experience and do, as opposed to images of picture-perfect bodies you might merely admire or envy). Share the board with your partner or a trusted friend who will support you in
- making your vision a reality.
- Strive to get at least 10 minutes of sunshine a day — it will help ward off seasonal affective disorder and keep both your energy and moods higher.
- Learn to make at least one healthy new vegetable-based dish that’s simple, flexible and delicious enough to make weekly (veggie soups, roasted vegetables and stir-fries are good, multiseason options).
Rather than listing a bunch of resolutions for the New Year, top life coach and best-selling author Debbie Ford recommends grabbing a journal, sitting down and answering questions like those below, which are excerpted from her book, The Best Year of Your Life: Dream It, Plan It, Live It (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).
- What’s my vision?
- What two goals will support me in moving toward my vision?
- By when do I want to achieve these goals? How will this fit into my schedule?
- What are the important milestones along the way to reaching these goals? What are key obstacles?
- What skills do I already have that will support me in reaching these goals?
- What skills, assistance or support will I need to develop?
- What is the reward for following my plan and achieving my goals?
Second Quarter – April Through June
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.”
Theme: Think less and do more; commit to your chosen direction and go.
Energy level: Intense, upbeat and action-oriented.
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 summer like you did as a child. Go swimming or fishing. Ride your bike after dinner. Explore local hiking trails. Also cook healthy meals and share them with friends.
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? Belly dancing?) 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.
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: May is typically when most farmers’ markets 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: 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.
Spring’s first harvest usually features leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach. As the weather warms up, look for artichokes, asparagus, avocados, fresh berries, mangoes, broccoli, citrus fruits, mushrooms and radishes.
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.
Average Temperatures (F)
- 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 all-fruit-and-veggie regimen (cutting out sugar, caffeine, alcohol, dairy, soy and processed grains) and cleansing your system with herbal teas and fresh juices. (For more detox guidance, see “Recommended Reading,” below.)
Third Quarter – July Through September
The sun is at its most intense this quarter; the days are 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, Larsen notes. It’s easy to get into a fitness rut around this time — or to relapse into old, unhealthy behaviors.
When your schedule is packed and you’re exhausted, exercise is usually the first thing to fall off your to-do list. And sometimes that’s OK, says Therese Iknoian, MS, exercise physiologist and author of Mind-Body Fitness for Dummies (IDG Books, 2001). “Even Olympic athletes take time off and cross-train to rest both their brains and their bodies, so why shouldn’t you?”
Larsen agrees, but urges us to find ways to connect with nature and keep moving. “Some exercise is always better than no exercise,” she says. She advises simply rescheduling missed sessions as you would any missed appointment, and looking for ways to make activity truly enjoyable. If you’re absolutely dreading a scheduled run, take a walk, bike ride or dance class instead. “If you need extra motivation, talk with a friend or loved one who encourages you to take care of yourself.”
Theme: Achieving balance, working with available resources.
Energy level: Varying, from playful and celebratory to lethargic.
What to focus on: Enjoy the constant sunshine and extra-long days. 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.
Fitness challenges: While summer provides more opportunities to exercise outdoors, hot weather can leave you feeling sluggish. The United States 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 or take it easy by walking or bicycling instead of running.
July goal: Play around with your program a little. Plan a vacation or getaway that incorporates some of your new fitness and nutritional habits — perhaps a hiking tour of some national parks or an organic cooking seminar. When traveling for work, pack your workout clothes, and research ways to exercise on the road. Your hotel probably has a gym, or you can find local running routes at www.runnersworld.com.
August goal: Try an early-morning workout. Average temperatures tend to peak in late July and early August, giving you a great reason to get out early — but you may also find you enjoy the solitude and sense of accomplishment that comes from exercising first thing in the morning.
September goal: Whether it’s back to school or back to the office, you’ll probably be working hard this month. Take some extra time to relax and breathe. The days are slowly beginning to shorten again, 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. Make choices throughout the day with that person in mind.
Shop local farmers’ markets, where an abundance of nutrient-rich and delicious produce is available all summer long. Dark greens, tomatoes, zucchini, peas, peppers, mangoes, peaches, berries, melons, red grapes and cherries are all packed with phytonutrients. Drink fresh berry smoothies and invigorating mint teas instead of sugary sodas. As early fall rolls around, load up on beets, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, parsnips, apples and pears.
Popular Fitness Retreats
Wind surf, hike or bike in Hood River, Ore.; bike along the high coastal bluffs near Portland, Maine; or hike along a glacier in Alaska.
Average Temperatures (F)
- 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 super-greens 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
Come fall, animals and plants carefully allocate their resources so they will survive the winter. Take some time to consider how you can sustain yourself through the coming season, as well. You should be seeing and feeling the fruits of your labors, having followed your fitness and nutrition goals for much of the year. As the weather cools, the days shorten and the leaves change colors. This can be an invigorating relief from the sweltering heat of the summer, and you may feel your energy pick up in October.
As the months progress, however, it’s natural to grow more quiet and introspective again. What’s your vision for the holiday season and the upcoming new year? What accomplishments are you proud of this year? What dreams and goals will you explore next?
The return of winter also encourages creativity and closeness with family and friends. Share stories, make gifts, and cook warm, soothing meals. Embrace nature’s slowest season to reconnect with comfort and beauty, and celebrate the bounty of the year.
Theme: Harvesting results, redistributing resources; making conscious choices about what’s next.
Energy level: Contemplative and centered — seeking satisfaction.
What to focus on: Indulge in the pleasures of the season — without overdoing it. “Emotional nurturance offers a satisfaction that may allow less emotional eating and help you avoid the excesses of the holidays,” says Haas. Ask for help from friends and family if you need it.
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.
October goal: Pack away your summer athletic clothes and prepare for the cooler months ahead. Waterproof your running shoes or buy a new performance jacket or ear-covering hat that inspires you to get outdoors. Enjoy the cooler weather by focusing on your senses; the crunch of dried leaves beneath your feet, the slant of autumn’s light or the smell of fall foliage may evoke powerful memories.
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: The year’s quickly coming to an end. Decide which holiday events and activities you enjoy the most and ditch anything that leaves you ho-hum. 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 appealed to you, but eluded you, during the course of a prior season.
With cold-and-flu season approaching, emphasize foods that build up your body’s natural defenses: Garlic, vegetable broths, yogurt and foods rich in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits and green vegetables (all have been shown to boost immunity). Incorporate a cup of hot herbal tea into your evening routine. Try a new fermented food, such as kimchi, kefir or kishk.
Popular Fitness Retreats
Regroup at a mind-body retreat center such as Shoshoni Yoga Retreat in Rollinsville, Colo.; the Self-Realization Fellowship Retreat in Encinitas, Calif.; Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, N.M.; or Sacred Mesa in Sedona, Ariz.
Average Temperature (F)
December 2, December 32 (blue moon)
- 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 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. Gotta eat “on the go”? Try pausing to actually enjoy your food vs. eating it while in distracted motion.
Wow, where did the year go? Time flies, and we know we’ve given you a lot to think about, but if you embrace even a fraction of the advice offered here, by the time next year rolls around, you’ll have harvested a wealth of insights and progress. You’ll also have a good idea about where next year’s efforts will be best spent. And perhaps that’s the best part of respecting nature’s cycles: They conclude and recommence — again and again and again.
Gina DeMillo Wagner is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.