Managing The Vicious and Virtuous Cycles of Wellness

Author - Stephen Griffith C.S.C.S. 


Have you ever been in a situation where everything was going right? Where you felt like an unstoppable train barreling down the tracks of success only to go suddenly off the rails?

This is a common phenomenan when we look at health and wellness. 

Your eating well, sleeping well, training well, and your goals feet inevitable. Then a missed meal or a late night at work throws everything off.

That night of missed sleep leads to a missed morning workout. That missed workout stresses you out and leads you to poor food choices. Those food choices leave you tired and sluggish which makes you less productive at work. Now you have to stay late to work again...and the vicious cycle continues.

Our wellness often bounces between these vicious and virtuous cycles. The goal is to spend as much time as we can in a virtuous cycle where everything’s going right and to minimize the vicious cycles when everything is going wrong. 

We cannot eliminate obstacles or the unexpected detour but we can take steps to achieve this goal of maximizing our time in the express lane. To do so we will begin by learning how these cycles work then learning how we can manage them. 

What are vicious and virtuous cycles?

“The terms virtuous cycle and vicious cycle refer to complex chains of events that reinforce themselves through a feedback loop.[1]

A virtuous cycle has favorable results, while a vicious cycle has detrimental results.”

“ Both systems of events have feedback loops in which each iteration of the cycle reinforces the previous one (positive feedback). These cycles will continue in the direction of their momentum until an external factor intervenes and breaks the cycle.”

“A positive feedback loop is a loop that feeds into itself -   A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A” - Wikipedia

How does this affect you?

Your well-being is the combination of movement, nutrition, sleep, and stress management. Each of these domains can affect one another for better or worse. This relationship creates a positive feedback loop. Success in one domain helps the others while failure in one of those domains hinders the others- and that's how the vicious and virtuous cycles are formed.


How to create a virtuous cycle

Positive Cycle.png

The best strategy to create a virtuous cycle depends on whether you're a beginner or not.

Beginners are full of untapped potential - they can see results with minimal effort and in spite of poor behaviors outside of the gym.  Beginners also tend to several unhealthy behaviors and will find too much change at one time overwhelming and unsustainable.

It’s for these reasons that I suggest to not focus on everything but instead just one thing that can yield tangible results.

The best starting place is to address either your diet or exercise. Both areas can yield results that you can see and measure. When you're starting off these early results are important for keeping you motivated.  

Option #1

Start a workout program and measure your results with a workout log. Log each workout and see yourself get stronger.

If you're a beginner and looking for a good place to start then check out the 

Zero to One Program

Option #2

Alter your diet with a few simple changes. Focus on changing a food habit - such as reducing your portion size, prepping your food ahead of time, or adding greens to each meal. Measure your results using a scale, measuring tape and if available a BIA which can be found in certain scales to measures body fat%.  Watch yourself begin to feel better, lose weight, and get leaner.

The motivation and success from tracking your progress tend to bleed into other activities. For example, if your workouts are going well it’s going to motivate you to eat a better, sleep better, and live better.

While success in one area can positively affect another, it’s true that a detriment in one area can hinder the others. Beginners can improve in spite of this which is why focusing on just one area tend to yield the best results.

For those who are past the novice stage, neglect of any domain is more likely to stall your efforts than success in any one domain is likely to improve the others. The rotten apple spoils the bunch, so your strategy should be to eliminate the rotten apples.

Identify the area in your life that needs the most attention or is holding back your progress in the others.  

Movement, Nutrition, Sleep, or Stress.

Then develop an appropriate strategy to improve it.

My suggestion is to start with sleep as its most likely to affect your progress in the others. A lack of sleep means a lack of energy. A lack of energy means your workouts suffer, your willpower is diminished, and you're more easily stressed.

Effects of sleep deprivation

Precision nutrition sleep infographic.

Priority #2 would be diet. If you're eating junk, you're going to feel like junk - tired, sluggish, and unhappy. After sleep, aim to improve your nutrition. A good diet full of nutritious foods will leave you feeling energized, unstoppable and ready to take on the task of the day.

The 5 Principles of Healthy Eating

Listen To Your Gut - A Guide to Nutritional Wisdom

How To Master Breakfast - Don't Let Breakfast Ruin Your Results

Breaking the vicious cycle

Negative Cycle.png


If you’ve ever felt like you were in a rut and everything was going wrong, then you were likely in one of these negative cycles. A vicious cycle earns its name because of how quickly it can spiral out of control.

The vicious and virtuous cycles act like a light switch,  if one is on then the other is off and vice versa. So the same strategy for starting a virtuous cycle is the same strategies you can employ for stopping a vicious cycle. Instead of repeating what I said above, I will use this section to go over how to slow the unraveling, mitigate the damage and allow yourself more time to turn it around.

You can limit how quickly things unravel by learning how to frame adversity. 

Don’t dramatize

Things always seem worse than they really are. Remember this for when you begin to freak out. A missed workout or two doesn’t mean all your muscle and progress disappear. The time it takes for a noticeable loss is much longer than people are aware.  

If you miss a meal or a workout or a night of sleep, remember that it’s not as bad as you think.  Don’t over stress and don’t use a slip up as an excuse to say ‘The hell with it all’. Do your best in the given situation and you won’t find yourself far off the trail.

How you think about stress matters

In a great TED talk psychologist, Kelly McGonigal shows that how we think about stress affects how it affects the body. She shows research that suggests its the belief that stress is bad is more damaging than the stress itself.

How you frame stress plays an important role in how it affects you. Stress will only crush you if let it. Your body is capable of surviving months with little food or sleep, by comparison, a missed meal is nominal. Trust in yourself and your ability to handle stress, then continue to move forward.

Learning experience

Take the tough times as an opportunity to make decisions under pressure. You may not always make the best choice, but use it as a learning experience so when it comes up next time you’ll be ready. Adversity is when we learn best. Whatever the situation is -  remember that you can only do your best and don’t put yourself down.


Your health is interrelated. Neglect of any one discipline - movement, nutrition, sleep, or stress management, will hinder the others.  

Life is like a game of shoots and ladders; there will be times when things go well and life will thrust you forward up a ladder and times when you fall down a shoot.

Accept that Setbacks are inevitable and aim to take more steps forward than you take back.  Maximizing your time in virtuous cycles, limit the vicious cycles,  and you will be amazed at your progress. 

Stephen Griffith1 Comment