Sledding down the hill of holiday gluttony straight into a field of ambitious resolutions can be a jarring adjustment at best. We spend the holidays gorging on fatty treats and neglecting our work, then expect to wake up on New Year’s Day and turn over a new leaf to a more disciplined self. But revamping our routines and metabolisms isn’t as simple as pushing a reset button.
“People come off the holidays and they’ve totally destroyed themselves,” says Brad Davidson, author of the new book The Stark Naked 21-Day Metabolic Reset. The top three days for heart attacks in the U.S., according to Davidson, are Christmas Day, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
But while people want to use the New Year as an opportunity to transform their routines, what many don’t realize is that drastic changes can do more harm than good. “What we are not told is that when you get to an extreme, it affects your energy,” says Davidson. “The answer is not to take the body you’ve damaged and damage it more.”
Davidson knows this all too well from firsthand experience. In 2008, while running his own business and training with the U.S. bobsledding team, Davidson’s body looked its best, and he was eating the cleanest diet he ever had, yet he felt totally depleted of energy. “I was exactly the way you think you should look, but I was killing myself,” he says. “Most people who eat healthy and exercise a ton don’t have great energy. They always have a coffee in their hand. Just because you look great doesn’t mean you are healthy.”
Over the years, Davidson has worked to better understand healthy living and show people that it’s not about going to extremes, but rather about easing into a lifestyle of moderation and finding the right balance for your metabolism and energy. Tempting as it is to want to start the year eating clean and doing extreme exercise, a more realistic and healthier approach, says Davidson, requires first resetting your metabolism. In other words: Forget the all-or-nothing approach, and you’ll be doing your body a massive favor.
Davidson spoke with Fast Company about steps to take in order to reset your energy and focus in the New Year without going to extremes.
In his private coaching practice, Davidson works with both athletes and executives on developing healthy eating and exercise routines. All too often, he finds that the high achievers are the ones wreaking the most havoc on their metabolic systems. “The things we do as high achievers to keep going destroy our liver,” he says. He’s talking about drinking excess coffee and alcohol, exercising while exhausted, or sticking to a strict diet.
Pushing the body to exercise while exhausted and depleted of energy is one of the worst ways to add fuel to the fire, says Davidson. “If you are tired, fatigued, and run down, exercise just puts you in the tank,” he says. “It’s a big form of stress.”
It’s not that coffee, alcohol, and extreme exercise are the enemy, but if your body cannot survive for three days without caffeine, and you feel exhausted when you’re at the gym, what you need is not to push yourself harder, but to give your body time to rest and recuperate, says Davidson. “Clean up all the damage you’ve done and let your metabolism get back on track,” he says.
That requires giving your liver a break, says Davidson, by gradually cutting down on your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and carbs. “I’m a big fan of coffee, unless it’s a survival mechanism,” he says. “If your body is so tired it can’t function without fake energy, you’ve got an energy problem.”
Instead of reaching for coffee first thing in the morning, Davidson recommends drinking a glass of warm water with half a lemon squeezed into it. This technique, he says, helps promote digestion first thing in the morning. “It’s supporting the liver in doing its job,” he says.
In addition to promoting digestion, lemon water contains phytonutrients, which Roxanne Sokul, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Enterprise, says helps prevent oxidation, protecting the body against disease.
Instead of forcing yourself out of bed for a run or an intense workout first thing in the morning, try working a 30-minute walk into your morning routine. This kind of re-energizing exercise helps reduce stress and improves your metabolic health, research has shown. According to a 2010 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, reducing the amount of time spent sitting, irrespective of the activity being done, can improve the metabolism and lessen the consequences of obesity.
For Davidson, taking a 30-minute walk each morning helps him start the day with movement without depleting the body of energy. “I like [morning exercise] to be more aerobically based to get the blood flowing,” he says.
Our bodies are mostly made of water, so it’s no surprise that staying well hydrated throughout the day is important to our health and energy. But often the negative effects of dehydration are underestimated. According to a 2013 study that examined the effects of hydration on the cognitive function of pilots, researchers found that pilots who were as little as 1% to 3% dehydrated had a 57% decrease in their flight performance, a 26% drop in their spatial cognition, and had poorer scores when their short-term memory response time was tested. “When you’re well-hydrated, everything works better. Exercise is easier,” says Davidson. But it takes time to get to a point where you’re drinking enough water.
Davidson recommends drinking half your body weight in ounces of water daily. If that sounds impossible, know that it takes time to work your way up to drinking more water daily. This is not about chugging gallons of water at a time, but rather drinking more throughout the day. “You want to spread it out throughout the day. You may have to start small and work your way up,” he says. “You know you’re at a good point when you start to crave water.”
Grabbing a bowl of cereal or toast in the morning can make for a quick breakfast, but it also makes for a fast energy crash, says Davidson. Instead of eating a breakfast of carbohydrates, try starting the day with a breakfast high in fat and protein, which will better stabilize your blood sugar and help keep you focused for longer.
“You want to eat the foods that drive amino acids to the colon,” says Davidson. That means avoiding carbs and instead opting for protein and fat-rich alternative like eggs and avocado. “This will actually encourage you to burn fat,” he says.
Rather than eating carbs in the morning, Davidson recommends saving them for the evening. Consuming complex carbohydrates like rice, sweet potatoes, and quinoa at dinner can help you get a better night’s sleep. “This calms your brain down. It releases serotonin in your brain so you can relax and sleep more easily,” says Davidson.
Both foods rich in carbohydrates and dairy increase levels of the amino acid tryptophan in the blood, known to help promote sleep. At the end of the day, it’s a good night of sleep that’s the best medicine for our bodies when it comes to sustained energy throughout the day. “Sleep is the fuel to your fire,” says Davidson. “Sleep is the biggest advantage I can give my business people to work well.”