A year ago, I finished 80 Day Obsession (80DO), Autumn Calabrese’s exercise and nutrition program through Beachbody.
First, a little bit about the program:
It was 80 days’ worth of unique 30- to 60-minute workouts that were filmed in the fall of 2017 and went live in January 2018. Participants were supposed to do each workout almost synchronously—it didn’t have to be at the same time, but everyone was supposed to do the same workout on the same day. (The program is now available for anyone to start whenever.)
Along with the workouts, there were very strict nutrition parameters around not just what you ate, but also when you ate it. Like with several other Beachbody programs, the idea was to use these little color-coded containers for your proteins, vegetables, fruits, carbs, healthy fats, and seeds and dressings.
The whole program actually took 91 days (or 13 weeks). Workouts were scheduled six days a week, with one rest day, and rest days were not counted as part of the 80 days.
I was in a test group (which I think means they take more Beachbody subscribers’ data than they ordinarily take), and was put on a team with others doing the program for support, accountability, and a healthy dose of competition. We used the Beachbody app for tracking and posting our challenges and Facebook messenger to communicate with our teams. Points were accrued by completing challenges, not losing weight or inches (à la Biggest Loser), which I thought was smart.
You’re not supposed to “cheat” on any program if you want the results they promise (or don’t promise because *results not typical), but it was drilled into us prior to starting 80DO via a Skype call that cheating was absolutely off the table because we were in a test group. I’m a pretty disciplined person who loves a challenge, so I was all about it.
Now, for those lessons.
Flexibility is critical.
While we’re on the subject, let’s start with the fact that cheating was completely off the table. Over the course of the 13 weeks, OH MY GOD, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? OF COURSE I CHEATED.
I drank alcohol, which was off-limits. Not often, but I did.
I also substituted some workouts. With six different workouts a week, many of them an hour long, I did not have time to go running. In some cases, I cheated like an overachiever, by doing the workout and going for a run (waking up early or going to bed late to fit it in); in others (and this happened more and more toward the end), I skipped the cardio workouts of the week and went for runs instead.
By the end of the program, I was eating well and mostly according to plan (in terms of what I ate), but the timed nutrition (when I ate) completely flew out the window.
Each time I cheated, I would feel a twinge of guilt and then remind myself that a program this strict is not sustainable in the long run for your average person (or even a really disciplined one like myself).
In fact, restrictions can lead to cravings, which can lead to binges, which, in some cases, can lead to giving up completely. Two insights from Gretchen Rubin come to mind here. First, from her book Better Than Before, is the Moral Licensing Loophole: when we give ourselves permission to do something “bad” because we’ve been “good.” This is how a strict diet can really backfire and spiral out of control.
On the other hand, the other Rubinism that comes to mind is knowing whether you’re a “moderator” or an “abstainer.” They’re just like they sound: moderators are able to have just a little bit (one cookie, one glass of wine, etc.), while abstainers would do better not to touch something tempting at all, lest they get carried away. By not allowing any flexibility through cheat meals (or even other workouts), the 80DO nutrition philosophy is definitely geared toward abstainers. (Can you tell I’m a moderator?)
And since 13 weeks is a long enough time for scheduling conflicts, the lack of flexibility meant that I had to bend over backwards to stay on track when I was traveling and get back on track when a cold took me out of the game for a week.
A lot of people have a disordered relationship with food.
I could not believe the amount of whining, complaining, and panicking my team did when they realized just how much food they had to eat each day on this program. I’d say most folks fell somewhere in the 1200-1500 calories/day range, and this was simply too much for some of my teammates.
And that’s when it hit me: so much of what we’ve (mostly women) learned about weight loss is calories in, calories out. But that is simply an outdated, oversimplified way of thinking. Not all calories are created equal, and if you’re not fueling your body appropriately, you are not going to see results from your daily workouts.
While I was writing my anti-“hustle culture” post, I came across this article by Gabrielle Moss. In it, she aims to get to the bottom of whether eating/skipping breakfast is good/bad (spoiler alert: it depends). What was amazing to me was her realization that her breakfast-skipping tendencies might be societally imposed, instead of a personal choice.
“I know no one makes food choices in a vacuum, and I do wonder how much my belief that I’m “just not hungry in the morning” is influenced by growing up in a culture that pushes women to consume less whenever possible.”
I loved that 80DO really encouraged eating enough good food to see results from the program. And the timed nutrition piece is fascinating and probably an important way to boost your results. Which brings me to my next lesson…
Changing several habits at the same time is harder than stepwise habit change.
For a lot of people embarking on 80DO, doing the program meant upending several aspects of their daily habits and adding a bunch of new ones. They had to:
- Change their eating habits:
- What food they ate
- How much food they ate
- When they ate
- Change their workout habits:
- Work out every day
- Do a prescribed, new workout every day
- Change their social media habits:
- Post proof of their workout on the Beachbody app
- Complete challenges with their team
- Take and post pictures at the beginning/end of each phase of the program
Wow. That is a lot to ask. Oh, and no cheating, remember? Holy hell.
I was fortunate to have already been eating enough calories, with (close to) the appropriate macronutrient composition, and I was already exercising six days a week— but even with that strong foundation, adding all of the other habits to the list was a tall order. (Not to mention the fact that completing challenges as a team felt a little too much like a group assignment in school.)
I think that an all-at-once overhaul of habits might work for some, but when you think about trying to make all of these new behaviors automatic at the same time, you might be setting yourself up for failure (of one, a few, or all of the behaviors). Plus, research has found that you’re more likely to achieve your goals when you focus on one thing at a time.
Accountability is good (for some people).
There’s more to the concept of teams than just friendly competition and prizes; it’s a clever way to build some accountability into the program. And it’s no secret that Beachbody utilizes accountability groups not just for the success of its customers, but also as a recruitment mechanism for more coaches (it is an MLM, after all), but I think the benefits of a accountability system outweigh the ulterior motive.
That is, IF systems of outer accountability work for you. For some, they can backfire (like strict rules can) and become demotivating by seeming like a nag.
My team was pretty motivated by the outer accountability we provided for each other. In fact, we came in second for total points racked up through tracking our workouts and meals and completing the challenges.
Rest is crucial.
I mentioned going for runs and doing the scheduled workouts and also getting back on track after being sidelined by a cold, which also involved doing multiple workouts a day or skipping rest days.
I was annoyed that the titular “80 days” didn’t include rest days, because not only does Autumn mention the importance of rest several times throughout the program, the research supports it, too. If you want to read about a more recent example of learning this lesson (because I apparently need reminders), check out my post, “I ran 500 miles this year and here’s what I learned.”
Finally, consistency is key.
If I may quote Gretchen Rubin one last time (in this post), “What we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.” And what are the things that we do every day? Good, bad, or indifferent, they’re our habits.
According to James Clear (who cites some study), it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit (contrary to the popular 21-day statistic). And depending on the person and the circumstances, it could take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to make something stick.
A 13-week program that aims to help you exercise and eat better every day may or may not make those behaviors automatic by the end, but it’s definitely a start. Because while healthy habits can help you reach your goals, it’s important to remember (or reframe) that successfully developing a good habit is the goal.