What To Do When Staying In Shape Feels Harder Than Ever

A healthy lifestyle is never effortless.
Only for many of us, it feels unusually hard right now. Yes, stress, overwhelm, and depression may all be contributing factors. But there’s also a good chance something else happened:
The pandemic just broke your “system.”
In this post, we’ll show you why your broken system is making it harder to:

Regular exercise
Eat appropriate amounts of nutritious foods
Engage in other healthy behaviours

More importantly, we’ll help you build a new health and fitness system —one that’s better designed for your current situation.
But only when you’re ready. Because it’s also okay to grieve for what you’ve lost before even considering taking steps to move forward.
This article will be here when you need it.
You have lots of systems already.
You probably use systems to organise just about every part of your life.
Systems help us prioritise what to do and when to do it — so we can complete the actions efficiently and effectively.
Take food 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, and 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 incredibly busy schedules.
Then everything changed.
As a result, our systems were disrupted. And that’s causing many of us to struggle to maintain certain actions.
Like exercise.
Like meal prep.
Like sleep hygiene.
Like any resemblance of productivity.
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 worried about the unknowns:

Is my job secure?
How long will this last?
Will the kids ever go back to school?
Will my loved ones endure?

Most people know that 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 in 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.
Without a system in place, we’re nudged in a direction we don’t want to go.
Reason #2: We can only make so many good decisions in a day.
Think of your prefrontal cortex — your decision-making command centre— 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 realise.

What’s the best way to check in on my parents? Phone? Video chat? Standing outside and shouting through a window?
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?
Where can I work without so many interruptions?
Lunchtime! Should I eat something from the freezer? From the fridge? Or…. from the emergency stash?
How do I get my kids to do their schoolwork?
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 as the first domino in a series. Once that one domino tipped over, many other dominoes fell right after it, without much effort or thinking.
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’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? In other words, are you putting effort into what you feel is most important?
If everything lines up –– amazing. 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 fresh food 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 example, to make vegetables happen, did you…

Block out time to research new recipes?
Plan your meals for the week?
Prep veggies ahead of time?
Organise your kitchen so vegetables were easier to see and grab?

And what order did all of that happen?
 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-prioritise, 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)
Pack your lunch the night before (even though you’ll be eating at home)
Connect with friends over video call (since you can’t meet them out)
Create a workout space in your garage, conservatory, or bedroom— and exercise at the same time you used to go to the gym.

What can you let go of?
Some tasks may not be worth the effort or even make sense anymore.
If you simply don’t have the capacity for something, it’s okay to release your grip on it. You might also need to shift more attention to another area of your health.
Think of your new system as an experiment
The only way to know for sure whether your new system will work?
Try it.
Give it seven days. See what happens. After seven days, reassess.
Ask yourself: “How’s that working for you?”
This can help you determine if you need to adjust.
If it worked great, keep it up. If it didn’t work, see what you can learn.
Make a few changes and test again.
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.
When it does, your new practice of building and testing systems will help you transition back to work and other old “normals” much more smoo