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Fallen off the fitness wagon? Here’s how to get back on track

You skipped your workout then power-lifted three servings of four-cheese lasagna into your mouth instead. It happens. It’s frustrating. But it does not mean that you’ll never stick to anything, that you should throw in the towel on your dreams and settle for a life of mediocrity and failed ambition instead. A temporary lapse is not a sign of failure, nor is it the first step to a full-scale relapse. Almost everyone experiences slip-ups when trying to break old habits or adopt new ones, whether quitting smoking, starting a diet, or committing to a workout routine. A lapse is a natural part of the process of change..

"In any new learning challenge, you expect to make mistakes," says Alan Marlatt, PhD, a professor of psychology and the director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. "When you’re learning to ride a bike, you have slips and falls. If you’re trying to learn a new language, you expect to make mistakes. The same principle applies to learning a new behavior."

Falling down didn’t prevent you from learning to ride a bike, of course. But if you had browbeaten yourself as a no-good failure, it might have. "What people think about these lapses seems to make the biggest difference in how quickly they get back on track," says Marlatt. "People who don’t recover from lapses are people who have a black-and-white attitude about it. They think eating one cookie means they’ve failed. People who recover quickly are people who don’t think one mistake is a total failure. They don’t turn it on themselves. They look at the situation that caused it instead."

A lapse can actually be an asset, if you take the right approach. A fall can not only motivate you to try harder, but also provide clues about what you need to succeed.

Analyze, Don’t Criticize

So you had a lapse. Step one: Act like a detective—not a judge, jury and one-man sentencing band. People slip up for a variety of reasons. A negative emotional state, such as wave of discouragement after a bad review at work, may send one person running for the comfort of a cold beer. Social pressure, like the weekly poker and pizza night with the guys, might temporarily overcome another person’s diet goals. Basic biology, such as the scent of a just-baked cinnamon bun, might temporarily derail someone else. Uninterrupted success can even lead to a lapse; a person might get too comfortable, forgo a critical step in his plan, and wind up falling short.

What were the factors that led to your lapse? Go back over the day or week and identify the chain of actions that led up to it. "Look at what happened, how the day started out, what was the build-up of stress, how you felt afterwards," says Marlatt. "Just tell the story, without any self-criticism. Recreate the journey of the day."

By identifying the events that triggered the lapse, you not only flesh out potential roadblocks to success, but also see a lapse for what it is – a reaction to specific stimuli, rather than a sign of a character flaw.

Strategize Alternate Routes

Once you’ve identified the event or events that led to your lapse, the second step is to plan a strategy for navigating around those situations in the future. Often the easiest path is one of avoidance. If you know Friday night poker means pizza and beer, stop playing poker, at least until you’ve reached your target weight.

If you can’t avoid the trigger event, brainstorm ways to work around it. You might decide to continue playing poker, but pack your own dinner, for example, or eat dinner before the game. Or start hosting poker nights at your house and provide dinner for everyone, offering only items on your diet regime. Say your trigger event is an overwhelming desire for a super size fries at the drive-through every day after work. Analysis? You’re famished after work. Strategy: Stock protein bars in your desk.

If you can’t avoid a trigger event and you can’t navigate around it, embrace it as part of your overall plan. If you must have poker night with the guys, and eat everything in sight, make that evening be your weekly "cheat meal," and make-up for the extra calories during the week. Maybe you’ll add another cardio workout on pizza days, or skip another cheat meal. Relish your pepperoni-sausage-ham combo, and let your weekly indulgence prevent you from feeling deprived at other times.

Build in a Bounce-Back Plan

You’ve identified all your temptations and stresses, and devised ways to minimize their impact. Then, wham! You get sick. Or your dog dies. Or your workload doubles. Even with the best strategies in place, some unforeseen event will likely rise up and sabotage your goals. Accept that fact, and plan for it.

"We do not have 100-percent control over the environment or over our bodies’ fluctuating rhythms and hormonal levels. We’re biologically wired to react to things," says Jack Henningfield, PhD, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a vice-president for research and health policy at Pinney Associates. "There are things you can’t control. Recognize that as part of being a person."

And take the time now to create a bounce-back plan for when it does. It may seem counter-intuitive to envision lapsing when you’re trying to focus on successfully reaching your goal, but it’s an important part of staying on track. "You need your plan developed ahead of time because often when the slip happens, it’s too late to develop a strategy," says Henningfield.

Your bounce-back plan can be anything that works for you. You might decide to get someone else involved in pursuing your goal with you; you’re much less likely to slip if someone else is counting on you. You could arrange regular, weekly check-in meetings with a supportive friend or family member. Or have someone on-call to remind you why you decided to pursue this goal in the first place. You could create a special super-charged workout routine to do the day after an unscheduled binge. Make it challenging enough that after one session, you’ll once again see yourself as a mean, lean, workout machine. Be as creative about your bounce-back plan as you are about your lapse-avoidance strategies. As with any other slip, your goal is to avoid judgment and move forward again.

Some people may go from start to finish in a straight line, but most take detours and experience setbacks. Whatever route ultimately works is fine. There isn’t one morally superior road to victory. The plan you follow to reach your goal is the means, not the end. You can alter it, or falter on it, and still arrive at your destination. Remain flexible about your plan and do what works for you. The key to overcoming a lapse quickly is to accept it, and yourself, when you have one, and keep powering forward toward your dream.

What if it is a relapse?

If you’re back to your old habits 50-percent of the time, or are slipping so often that you’ve made no progress toward your goal over a period of months, you’re looking at a relapse. Take the same analyze-strategize approach you use to overcome a slip-up, but look at both your plan and the goal you’ve set for yourself. Does this goal still have meaning for you? If not, it’s time to move on to something else. If so, have factors in your life changed so significantly that your old path toward it no longer works? Take a realistic look at where you are and what has led to your relapse. Then create a new plan that works for you.

And make it easy on yourself. "Set up things so that they fit as naturally into your life as possible," says Henningfield. "If you’re slipping so much that you’re gaining weight again, you have to say, `Okay, it’s calories in, calories out. Am I not exercising enough or am I eating too much? Or both? What can I change? Am I too busy now to walk 30 minutes each day?’ If so, park the car further away. Or walk 10 minutes at lunch. It makes no sense to say that you lack self-control. That has no meaning. It’s about setting up a behavioral pattern and weaving it into your life."

Tips for staying on track

Carry a reminder card: It might be a photo of the beach you’re planning to visit in three months, a picture of your family, or a 3" x 5" card on which you’ve written, "High School Reunion!" A reminder card is anything that reminds you of the reason why you’re trying to adopt this new behavior.

Praise your personal progress: If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the challenge still ahead, look back at how well you’ve done so far. Acknowledging your past success helps you succeed in the future.

Use social support: Look at your friends and family to see who is likely to support you and who isn’t. Then plan how you’ll deal with each person individually.