This year, I promised myself that any resolutions I made would not be restrictive, punishing or too difficult. But if this holistic approach to my health and wellbeing felt right to me, the internet, it seems, had other ideas. A new social media trend, the 75 Hard challenge (global Google searches for which are up 3,050% in the last 30 days alone), has permeated my feeds, with those participating documenting their experiences of the challenge online. It sounds hard because it is.
What is the 75 Hard challenge?
A quick Google of the 75 Hard tells me that, despite the current social media buzz, this is nothing new – it’s been around for four years or so already. While I promise to take a balanced approach as I explore the challenge with you, dear reader, I feel duty-bound to point out that it was created by a CEO of a supplement company, which strikes me as a little fishy. And given that it promises to multiply participants’ levels of confidence, self-esteem, discipline and fortitude by up to 100 (if these things are even measurable), the overall pitch is ambitious, to say the least.
Turns out it has to be – why would anyone do it if it didn’t promise big results? The challenge itself is 75 days (that’s almost 11 weeks) long, and requires that you complete five critical daily tasks. If you don’t complete them on any given day, you must restart the challenge again.
What are the rules of the 75 Hard Challenge?
The five rules are as follows:
- Follow a nutrition plan of your choice – no alcohol or cheat meals allowed.
- Do two 45 minute workouts each day, one indoors and another outdoors.
- Drink a gallon of water each day (that’s 3.8 litres)
- Read 10 pages of a self-improvement book each day.
- Take a progress picture each day.
A mix of diet, exercise and mental agility, its aim is to help participants develop the “traits and habits necessary to succeed in life”.
The military approach of the 75 Hard Challenge, decoded
It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? I’m exhausted just reading it, but I have deep respect for anyone who is able to complete this challenge. Slotting just one 45 minute workout into my day is hard enough – two feels out of the question – and having zero cheat meals at all in nearly three months feels almost military. But what do the experts think?
“One of the most common stories I hear from clients is that they’ve tried multiple diets, multiple workout regimes, and have either not achieved the results they wanted or have achieved them, then lost them, then tried something else to achieve them again, and ended up in a yo-yo type situation with both food and exercise,” says Luke Worthington, celebrity trainer. “A challenge like this doesn’t account for people’s current levels of activity, health background, history with exercise, emotional relationship with food, body type, age or even access to equipment/coaching. Applying such a ‘catch all’ criteria to a hardcore challenge will mean the failure rate is high, plus the chances of injury for those who may not be used to such an intensive regime are significant.” If you do manage to fulfil all the requirements for 75 days, what happens after?
It’s a similar story in the nutrition department – and Federica Amati, head nutritionist at Zoe, is less than positive about the challenge. “It sounds like a rehash of dozens of other diet culture programmes that aim for hard and fast results at the expense of happiness and long-term benefit,” she says. “Having an all-or-nothing mindset is not helpful for most of us. Sustainable healthy dietary habits are built through consistency, not perfection.”
She does acknowledge that it’s the kind of challenge that appeals to those who want to make a big change – and given the strict nature and structure of the challenge, it does take the guesswork out of dealing with certain bad habits we’ve accumulated, and makes daily life pretty black and white. “However, mostly such a strict, generalised and uncompromising approach is not likely to be helpful or healthy, so I wouldn’t recommend it,” Amati says.
When we’re nailing each day, of course we’re going to see an uptick in our confidence and in our self-esteem, but that may well be momentary, as there will inevitably be days when we fall short. “One of the goals of 75 Hard may be to enhance our self-esteem, but what setting the bar too high does is quite the opposite: it makes you feel insecure or like a failure because it’s almost impossible to reach your goal,” says Kelly Weekers, a psychologist and the author of Choosing Me. “What happens is that we attribute this failing to our incompetence, even though it’s actually because you’re asking too much of yourself. If you compare yourself to Einstein, you’ll always feel stupid, but that isn’t a fact – you’re just holding yourself against the wrong yardstick.”
As someone who has, in the past, taken the extreme path with “challenges” like this one – particularly in January – nowadays I feel allergic to this sort of approach. Having rules and order in your routine is really beneficial, in my opinion, but when they’re totally inflexible and can’t be broken, you end up focusing on all the things that you’re not allowed – and that usually results in rule-breaking, feeling bad about it and a subsequent spiral of unhealthy behaviours. And when I say unhealthy, I mean unhealthier than before you embarked on the challenge.
A healthy approach to life is about consistency, and habits that can be (for the most part) stuck to every day. As Worthington says, social media challenges can be a great way of encouraging more people to exercise, plus it can build community and even friendships in an isolated and disconnected world, but, he adds: “There should be a responsibility for health and fitness advice to be appropriate, safe and sustainable – the whole concept of helping people build habits into their lives is to improve the quality of their life long term.” The habits we look to build should be those that we can reasonably and realistically see ourselves doing on an ongoing basis.
How to incorporate the healthy elements into your routine
“The core facets of 75 Hard are beneficial – a healthy diet, regular movement, reading, hydration and focusing on the things we’re proud of,” says Weekers. “But there are easier and more attainable ways to commit to it that can contribute to lasting lifestyle changes.” The lesson I gleaned from all the experts I spoke to – and from my own life experience – is that it’s all about adding easy-to-achieve healthy habits into your life as a foundation, then building on top of them.
“Any training, diet or exercise program should make as much sense at the end as it does at the beginning,” says Worthington. “If we accept the theory that it takes 66 days to build a habit, my suggestion would be to work out what lifestyle habits you can realistically commit to in that time – whether that’s going to bed earlier, drinking more water, cooking your meals at home, exercising three times a week or getting your five a day.”
If you set yourself goals and don’t meet them, it’s worth remembering that you can’t fail: “If life gets in the way and you miss one session, a week or even month of sessions, pick up where you left off as soon as you can – things fall back into place quicker than you think,” says Worthington. And remember, good health in the long term is a marathon, not a sprint. Says Amati: “Consistency and knowing when to take breaks is important.”
The 75 Hard: Conclusion
My initial reaction to the 75 Hard challenge was one of concern. Having spoken to several experts, it seems I’m not alone. It’s yet another social media challenge billed as a tool to help us grow stronger, mentally and physically. But the reality smacks of a marketing ploy dreamed up by someone who wants us to buy more supplements. Living life in extremis is rarely beneficial, so my advice – and that of the experts – is to prioritise a balanced lifestyle and try and make healthy choices each day. It really is as simple as that.
Originally published in Vogue.co.uk