Poor health habits in times of stress

The past 2 months have been a tad stressful for me. And by a tad, I don’t actually mean a tad. It’s been a rough patch. There have been a number of factors, but work has been the biggest. It’s not surprising as I’m moving into my own personal training studio. Moves are stressful, but it’s even worse when the roof over the place you are supposed to move into starts to leak and 8 weeks later, it is no better, forcing you to find a new place but still having paid for the first place. Eek. You can read more about the roller coaster ride (more of a slide actually) on the entrepreneurship blog that I started.

Whether it is work, family, or money, stress hits every one of us. And over the past couple of weeks, I have responded to stress the way most people tend to: I ate and drank more, and I slept, socialized and worked out less. And I’m a personal trainer – I know better! In fact my livelihood depends on my knowing better. But that’s just it: sometimes we start slipping. We catch ourselves doing all the wrong things, but we continue to do them anyway.

I had an epiphany two nights ago as I ate my 5th and 6th oatmeal raisin cookie with my second glass of wine: I realized just how easy it would be to continue this path to poor health. Poor health habits beget more poor health habits.

Every day that I don’t workout makes it easier to skip my work out the next day.

Every night that I have an extra snack after dinner even though I’m not hungry makes it easy to have an extra snack the next night.

Every night that I stay up watching crappy TV until 1 am makes it easier to do that again the next night.

Every day that I poor myself a glass of wine with dinner, and then a second one after dinner, makes it easier to do that again the next day.

Poor health habits can be a very slippery slope. And in a strange way, the poor choices are enjoyable; which makes it that much harder to pull yourself out.

Any of this sound familiar?

The other part of my ephiphany is that I think there’s only one way off the slippery slope:

You have to decide to stop, and then you have to stop.

I know that’s a ridiculously simple and unscientific statement, and it looks completely unhelpful. But I believe it to be a true statement. In fact I think this is why it is so hard for health and fitness professionals to realize long-term, meaningful change with their clients or patients:  Unless the person is ready to commit to making this change, it will not stick. Arming you with better information about food; providing you with tactics and tricks to help you improve your eating habits; motivating and guiding you through better exercise programs are all important parts of the solution. But it is not THE solution. Because odds are, it’s not about the food or the exercise; it’s about your emotions. It’s about how you feel.

The good news is that stopping this cycle will make you feel better. Eating the right foods, exercising, getting enough sleep and spending time with loved ones will help improve your emotional state. It can help to alleviate the stress. And often there will be some degree of improvement in a remarkably short time.

But the decision to change has to come from you. You have to decide to stop, and you have to stop.  And you have to mean it. I made the decision to stop after my 6th cookie on Wednesday night, but I haven’t stopped yet. I will stop on Saturday (so healthy habits start up again on Sunday). I know that I can change back to healthy living because for me, this has been a short fall from grace: it is how I reacted to being temporarily overwhelmed. I am not proud of it; but nor am I ashamed of it. It was not an ideal response to stress – the ideal response would have been to arm myself with the best nutrients, endorphins from exercise, lots of sleep, and the company of loved ones. But I’m not ashamed to say that I falter sometimes.

If you have been in the cycle of unhealthy habits, then you can do it too. But you have to want to.  And if you find it too hard, consider getting some professional help. I say this particularly to anyone who has been in the cycle of unhealthy habits for a long time. This experience taught me something about how lucky I am that my period of being overwhelmed is truly a short term one, born of circumstance. For many people, it comes from a deeper sense of despair. I think the reality is the same whether you want out of a short or long term cycle of unhealthy habits: that you still have to decide to stop, and you have to stop. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it without help! And if it’s been a long battle, then you probably should get some help.

A trainer can help you get back to exercising and to provide some guidance about healthful eating (I know that sounds like self-promotion, but the fact is exercise will make you feel a bit better almost immediately). If you are in Ottawa, consider improving your healthful eating knowledge by signing up for one of Beth Mansfield’s Energy Balance workshops. It’s basically a 3 hour “Healthy Eating 101″ class that gives you a very useful foundation of knowledge about healthy eating.

Most importantly though, is to recognize that if the root of the problem is not the food or the exercise, then addressing the food and exercise will probably not solve the problem. If you’ve been in a cycle of poor health as an emotional response, then consider a therapist. Find someone to help you get to the root of the problem so that you can get to a happier and healthier place.

Anyone else ever find themselves in this spiral of unhealthy living? Did you get out? If so, how?

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada. 

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