As the spring and summer months begin, the phone starts ringing in my office well above average.
It’s a combination of winter weight gain, feeling fatigued and lethargic and realizing our summer clothes are a bit too snug. But now, the choice is yours. You can look back and keep thinking to yourself, “How did I let myself go—how could I have done this to myself?” or you can start taking positive steps on the path to good health.
Wallowing in mistakes isn’t productive. Taking a look back in order to learn something from mistakes we made is a good thing to do, if you can take that forward. What is important for now, is to take the steps needed to turn around the situation and repair the damage.
But where do I start and how can I reach my goals? The immediate challenge ahead is changing your mindset and behaviors. This is the hard part!
You want to make a change in your life — in the area of health and fitness or something else. Yet you have conflicting thoughts, hence the dissonance. Although we want to do the right thing in order to accomplish better behaviors, we go and do exactly the opposite! We go back to poor habits which sabotages our ability to attain our goals.
Alex wants to stop smoking. He knows all of the dangers of smoking, but he smokes anyway.
Dave knows his BMI is above 30 and, at his age, this presents a clear danger to health. Dave resolves to lose weight, but as he walks home from work and passes the bakery, he stops in for two pastries as a pre-dinner snack.
Every habit can be broken down into three parts:
- Cue – Cues trigger behaviors. A school bell ringing tells you the class is over. Cues can also be negative. Depression or stress can be a cue to overeat. Slight hunger can be a cue to have a small snack or can trigger binge eating.
- Behavior – The behavior is the actual habit. It is learned over time and occurs automatically. We always brush our teeth before bed, or carry our keys in the same pocket. The more of a habit the behavior becomes, the more ingrained it is in the brain. According to research by Wood and Neal in 2007, behaviors can be so ingrained that they won’t leave! But what makes these habits or behaviors stick? It’s the reward that follows.
- Reward– Rewards teach the brain that the behavior in question promotes pleasure, making it easier for that behavior to recur in the future. A reward can be something positive, like a good feeling after an exercise session or satisfaction in knowing your keys aren’t lost. The pleasure from a reward can also be harmful, like how good you feel right after smoking or eating unhealthy fast food.
Breaking bad habits
If you want to break a habit, then start with the cue. Let’s say your wife has prepared a wonderful looking, tasty dessert. Rationally, you will say “no” to eating it because your doctor has told you to lose weight. But your emotions get the better of you. You know that if you eat it, you will enjoy the taste, compliment your wife and that puts her in a good mood, too. So, what is your behavior? To eat the dessert. And now comes the rewards. The dessert tastes good and your wife is pleased that you are enjoying what she prepared. Your brain is now getting more of the feel good hormones and this behavior is stored as positive.
This happens over and over again. How will there ever be a change? The key is to change the behavior without changing the cue or reward. After your meal you want dessert. You remember all the pleasure that dessert brings. Here is where you can overpower the habit. What if you eat a fruit salad and then go for a walk with your wife? You have eaten together and can enjoy each other’s company with and nice walk together. The resulting rewards will be the same—a satisfied palate, a compliment to your wife on the dessert, and spending quality time together.
Keeping all of this in mind, pick some things you would like to change this summer that will bring your health and wellness to a better place. Start by picking one item from the list of better eating habits and one from the list of better exercise and activity habits to implement. As you accomplish and internalize each habit, move on to another.
Eating and Nutrition
- Don’t eat after 8 PM
- Try to eat 5 servings of vegetables and 3 fruits daily
- Cut your portion sizes by 10-15% (you still won’t be hungry)
- Switch your carbohydrates to unrefined only
- Drink 8-10 cups of water per day
- Eat three meals starting with breakfast and 2 snacks every day
- Write down what you eat on a food tracker every day
- Cut down on processed foods that you buy off the shelf or from the freezer case
- Include some lean protein at all meals
- Brown bag it! Take your own food to work and only eat out occasionally
Exercise and activity
- Start walking from place to place instead of driving or using public transportation
- Schedule a daily 30 minute brisk walk or two 15 minutes brisk walks.
- Get off public transportation a stop or 2 before your destination.
- Use stairs instead of elevators. If that is difficult, start with a few flights.
- Park your car a few blocks away from where you want to end up.
- Add a quick muscle building circuit 3 days a week. See what 6-7 minutes can do!
- Sign up for a fun exercise class at your local gym–and actually go!
- Go on a family hike once a week.
It’s never too late to start taking care of your health. Take the opportunity to make your well-being and health the priority it needs to be so that you can “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”