The Three Worst Things You Can Do When You Fall off the Wellness Wagon

How to pick yourself up and move forward without guilt.
Published October 20, 2019 | Updated September 27, 2022

“Falling off” the wagon is a normal part of everyone’s health and fitness journey. The key to success is how you react to these moments, and how you move forward.

Here are the three worst things you can do when you fall off the wagon – and what to do instead so you feel better and don’t sabotage your progress.

Stress over it and beat yourself up

“We’re all human. We all want to live life and indulge from time to time,” says Carmen Demske, owner of Sports Kick Gym in Clearwater, Fla. “The worst thing you can do after a major slip-up is to continue to stress about it. This will just make things worse both mentally and physically – stress just converts to inflammation in the body.

“Beating yourself [up] will only lead to more stress and more bad choices,” Demske adds.

Instead, show yourself some self compassion, and commit to making your next choice a better one.

Give up completely

“The mentality of, ‘Oh, I’ve already eaten that one thing so, who cares. I’m off the wagon for the rest of the day,’ is the absolute most destructive thought process you can have when trying to achieve a balanced, healthy, sustainable lifestyle when it comes to eating habits,” says Demske. “When you fall off the wagon, get right back on. The sooner you do, the easier it will be.”

Montreal-based personal trainer Rachel MacPherson adds, “The worst thing you can do when you fall off the wagon is to completely give up. Thinking that weight loss and improving your health is an ‘all-or-nothing’ enterprise is false.”

She says slip-ups are normal and they’re not necessarily bad.

“Deciding that once we've ‘ruined’ our perfect diet or exercise plan, none of what we’ve already accomplished matters anymore is the worst way to approach something that is perfectly normal for human beings. Mistakes and mess-ups happen and sometimes, they are actually a good thing – [a] sign you are being too strict or hard on yourself. Learn from the experience instead of going off the deep end and ruining all of your progress.”

Impose severe restrictions on yourself

Some of us may react to an indulgence by thinking we need to go into severe restriction mode and be super critical of everything we ingest – but that’s a behaviour that could end up sabotaging us further.

“You can end up sabotaging your progress if you binge and then try to counteract that with a period of high restriction,” MacPherson says. “This is a cycle that many people get into. Restricting causes us to become ravenously hungry, fatigued and mentally stressed. When we feel like this, we are much more likely to binge again. And so the cycle continues.”

What to do instead

Learn from the experience

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good, MacPherson says. Make the decision to learn from what happened and pick back up as normal – not restricting yourself or becoming rigid with your routine, but eating and exercising “in a balanced, moderate way that leaves you feeling healthy, energized and refreshed.”

“Put on your scientist hat and use the experience as a lesson for re-evaluating how you were doing things before. Maybe your diet was too restrictive or your exercise routine was too intense. Maybe you need to deal with other stress in your life by planning in self-care and relaxation to your week. Maybe you need to pre-plan your meals and workouts better so that you know what you will eat and do every day and don’t get overwhelmed and fall off the wagon.”

Get back on the wagon

“I tell my clients to take a deep breath and a step back,” says Demske. “Okay, so you fell off the wagon. Great. Now what are we going to do about it?”

After a heavy indulgence, Demske recommends bumping up the amount of greens in your diet as well as your water intake for three to five days. “Beyond that, get to the gym and get on with your life and your goals.”

MacPherson adds, “Remember that to err is human and the best thing we can do is treat ourselves like you would a good friend. Recognize that you can go back to balanced eating and exercising without shame, learning from the experience and moving forward.”