Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Establishing Healthy Habits, Part 1

A few months ago, I heard from a reader who was struggling with motivation. It seems he had gotten into some bad habits... eating junk food, sitting too much, not getting enough sleep, chain drinking coffee and Diet Coke, etc. He was tired and lethargic all the time. He didn't like feeling this way, yet he said he 'lacked willpower' to really do much about it. Did I have any ideas where he could start?

I suggested he make small changes, tackle one thing at a time, then move on to the next. I'm a big fan of small changes, not so much of the total-life-overhaul approach. Personally, I find that sort of thing too overwhelming, and ultimately not sustainable. And you know I'm all about sustainability. I like to think of myself as the bamboo flooring of health and fitness bloggers.

I never heard back from him so I don't know if it was helpful, but his email got me thinking...

How can we bring about lasting, positive change in our lives?
This man's query reminded me of a book I read maybe six years ago, Never Say Diet. I was perusing the library shelves and wow, what a good title! Way to name your book after a James Bond film! Totally eye-catching.

The author is a woman called Chantel Hobbs, and she has a compelling personal story--so much so that I remember it after all these years.

Let her have cake!
Chantel struggled with overeating since she was a child. She tried different diets, eventually finding her way to one national weight-loss chain (I can't remember which one) and lost quite a bit of weight using their method. Her 16th birthday was approaching, and she asked her weight-loss coach if she could deviate from the (rigid, unsustainable) plan and have a piece of cake at her party.

The coach responded with some degree of horror. "Why would you want to have cake?! You've worked so hard! Of course you can't have cake!" the coach replied... or something to that effect.

Obviously, this was not the bamboo flooring of weight-loss coaches. I'm a big fan of cake. A sustainable way of eating needs to factor in treats in some capacity. Really? No cake for the rest of my life? Nevah?! Unwilling to live the Posh Spice way of life, Chantel left, feeling defeated. She ended up gaining the weight back... and more.

She continued to struggle, anesthetizing her pain with food. She married, had some kids and eventually hit rock bottom. She weighed herself one morning and found her scale couldn't even account for her weight--it's limit was 350lbs, and she had exceeded that.

So she made a plan, and as it turns out, it was a very sensible one.

She resolved that she would start with exercise. Every day, she would exercise. That's it. She didn't even address the food issue... yet.

Now, some might argue this part of the plan is controversial. I ranted a while ago about exercise and how it's been grossly oversold as a means of weight loss, and I stand by my rant. There are myriad reasons why exercise can be ineffective for weight loss, and can even sabotage weight-loss goals. At some point, you have to deal with your relationship with food. The maxim 'you can't out-train a bad diet' is absolutely true.

But exercise can be a very effective 'keystone habit.'

A keystone habit is one behavior that sets off a chain of other behaviors. Implementing a positive keystone habit, like exercise, can lead to other good habits. In the beginning, it doesn't even matter what or how much exercise you do, it's just about cultivating the habit.

Chantel found a local gym that provided childcare, and she resolved to ride a recumbent bike everyday for thirty days. Without fail, she got on that bike every day. Sometimes she couldn't motivate herself to do it until 10pm, but she did it. Just that one thing.

She details the other things she did in her book, which of course, involved dealing with her food. I don't remember all her other strategies, but the exercise was key. By starting with a plan of regular exercise, she eventually overhauled her health and her life. She has maintained this way of life through all kinds of ups and downs. You can check out Chantel's website here.

Of course, a keystone habit can be something other than exercise. For me, making my bed has a similar domino-effect. Once I've made the bed, other tidiness seems to click into place. On days that I exercise, I'm more likely to make wise food choices. It's odd, but true. It's one of the reasons I don't like to take total rest days. I do a little bit of exercise everyday. It isn't always super intense... sometimes it's just a short walk and a stretch, but even a little bit of purposeful movement keeps me on track.

I've been reading a lot about habits lately, and it's fascinating stuff. Next time we'll talk about exactly how habits are formed, how to establish the good and break the bad.

But now it's... ummm... 4pm. I'm going to make my bed.

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