As Americans, we tend to be people of extremes. Republican or Democrat. Vegan or Meatatarian. CrossFit fanatic or couch surfer. We are even extreme in our attempts at self-improvement. On a whim, for example, we watch Super Size Me on Netflix and transform overnight from junk-food addict to health-food snob. Or we miss our exercise class twice, so we scrap the whole plan and accept the fact that we’ll be sedentary forever.
These tendencies are perhaps more pronounced in January—the season of making resolutions and quickly ditching them—than at any other time. Take, for example, a recent headline that caught my eye. It read: “Multiple Oregon Ducks Football Players Hospitalized after Grueling Workouts.” The gist of the story is that after time off for the holidays, team trainers immediately subjected players to overly intense workouts, resulting in a very rare condition called rhabdomyolysis, in which muscle tissue breaks down and leaks into the bloodstream, potentially damaging the kidneys. It can happen when the body goes from zippo activity to extreme activity—as some people are wont to do when they get gung-ho about getting in shape.
I, too, have been guilty of massive pendulum swings, especially when it comes to food. One week, I’m the Sugar Police, examining labels and snatching offending snacks from my unwitting children. Then the next week, I’m buying up all the chocolate I can find (you can guess which week my kids like best).
Extremism has its place (there would be no America without a bunch of radicals), but when it comes to nutrition and exercise, balance is nearly always better. Your chances of long-term success are way higher if you slowly wean yourself off caffeine or ease into a workout routine. A recent study suggested that occasional cheat days, or “planned hedonic deviations,” can actually help you stick to a goal over time.
On the flip side, always doing moderate workouts can be its own form of extremism, keeping you stuck on a workout “plateau” and delivering disappointing results. The tried and true way to avoid all these pitfalls is to follow a workout progression, as outlined here.
It takes practice to know when you’re overdoing it—or even more so, when you’re underdoing it. But over time, you’ll soon be able to live out Ralph Waldo Emerson’s head-scratching but brilliant motto: “In all things moderation, especially moderation.”
Kellee Katagi is one of those strange souls who actually enjoys working out for the sake of working out. She’s spent most of her 20-plus-year writing and editing career covering fitness, nutrition and travel, as well as outdoor sports ranging from skiing to spelunking to street luge (yes, that’s a thing).