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What Is Moderation? How to Define It for Yourself

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Much of the advice about healthy living comes down to a simple instruction that in reality can be extremely difficult to follow: everything in moderation.

Okay, but what does that mean? What is moderation?

While it would be nice to spell it out in portion sizes and workout prescriptions, moderation is more challenging than that in practice.

Here is the challenge — moderation is relative.

It’s highly individual and it can change over time. For someone used to eating fast food every day, eating fast food three times a week would be a step toward moderation. For a person who never eats at McDonald’s, eating there three times a week would be an indulgence, not moderation.

So, if moderation is relative, how do we know what’s “moderate” for us, and how do we apply the concept to our lives in a way that makes us healthier and happier?

What Is Moderation? How to Define It for Yourself

The Moderation Philosophy

When thinking about moderation, it’s important to take the long view. An indulgence on one day doesn’t matter when looking at a week or a month. A moderate perspective would allow for dessert on a special occasion, for a day of rest, a break in the routine, or a drink with friends.

If those habits become routine over the course of a month, it’s no longer moderation — it’s starting to become a bad habit.

It might seem then that “moderation” is actually risking the slippery slope into unhealthy behaviors. But, in truth, extreme privation can be just as damaging as constant indulgence. A diet or lifestyle that doesn’t allow for spontaneity is bad for the mind and could get in the way of forming connection and community — which are as important as food in the grand scheme of health and happiness.

If you find yourself always prioritizing a workout or your nutrition plan over socializing or relationships, you’re no longer taking a moderate approach.

What Is Moderation? How to Define It for Yourself

What Is “Moderation” for You?

Moderation is so hard to define because it is truly individual. Everyone’s middle ground is different. I’ve never been much of a drinker, so for me, moderate drinking means one or two drinks on Friday and Saturday. That’s about all I can handle. Any more and I feel terrible the next day. Drinking during the week, even one drink, affects my sleep and causes fatigue. For someone else, moderate drinking might mean a glass of wine most nights of the week.

Both of those definitions of “moderation” can be okay, if it’s what fits you, your life, and your goals. You’ll know when you’ve found sustainable middle ground when you feel good physically and mentally, and you’ve found healthy habits you can see sustaining for years into the future.

The way to find your definition of “moderation” is with minor adjustments:

  • Let’s say your problem is not making time to exercise. Don’t start off with a hardcore workout seven days a week. Commit to something three times a week. Live with that for a while. If it feels good, stay there or add more.
  • When we say a “moderate” amount of rice, that means it’s an occasional food, not an every-day or every-meal food. Moderate consumption of starchy foods means eating a reasonable amount a few times a week or less.
  • If you’re trying to control your smart phone addiction, you don’t have to throw away your iPhone and convert to an old-school flip phone. Instead, leave your phone at home when you go out to dinner or put it in another room after 8:00pm every night.

What Is Moderation? How to Define It for Yourself

As you make these small adjustments, nudging yourself toward the middle, keep track of your results. Treat it like an experiment and walk yourself through the scenario and your potential decisions:

  1. How does eating a big dessert Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night impact your health?
  2. What if you got rid of the dessert on Sunday?
  3. If that feels good, you could then try eating a smaller dessert Friday night.

Slowly tailor your life to find your ideal groove. Since you are the only person who can actually answer the question “what is moderation?” for yourself, it’s important you take a bit of an analytical approach regarding your daily choices and the results/consequences.

When Moderation Doesn’t Work

There are some instances where moderation is not appropriate:

  • If you are a recovering alcoholic or addict, moderate drinking will not work. Instead, seek moderation in other areas of your life.
  • You could be training for a race or a competition, and need to let that preparation take over your life for some time. Sometimes those periods of extreme living can help you appreciate the joy of moderation at the other end.
  • Similarly, it’s okay to let loose on a once-in-a-lifetime trip or a week-long vacation. There are 52 weeks in a year. One week of indulgence isn’t going to send you off the rails.

What Is Moderation? How to Define It for Yourself

Tips for Living Moderately

What does living moderately look like in practice? Here are some tips and examples to help.

  • When facing something that isn’t optimal for health, take the smallest dose of it you can, given the circumstances. Presented with a box of Oreos, eat one or two. Take a scoop of ice cream, not a full bowl. Have one drink, not six.
  • Moderation does not mean easy! Push yourself in your workouts—that’s the only way to see change—but not so hard you’re out of the game the next day.
  • Acknowledge your big dreams and goals, and then take small steps every day to get there. If you start out too hot, you could flame out. Better to take it day-by-day and build in intensity.
  • Celebrate small wins. Over time, those are what add up to big achievements.
  • Don’t get derailed by bumps in the road. Moderation means absorbing the jolt, but continuing to move forward.

Learning to live moderately is a lifelong project that requires constant adjustment. Moderate living does not mean you have to stop dreaming big, avoid going on adventures, or give up on your ambition. It’s about recognizing the importance of the small, daily steps that will get you there as you remain healthy and inspired to keep reaching new goals.

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Hilary Achauer
Hilary Achauer is a freelance health and fitness writer. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Greatist, Racked, Men's Health, Today's Parent, San Diego Magazine, and the CrossFit Journal.

A former children's books editor, Hilary once competed as an amateur boxer, but now spends her free time in a CrossFit gym or surfing. Find out more about her at HilaryAchauer.com.

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