The path to eating well and exercising is rarely a straight one with the level of meandering and the time it takes to achieve progress varying tremendously from person to person. There are people out there for whom the road is straight as an arrow. For others, the road doesn’t exist yet. The rest of us live somewhere in between. Some of us have healthy habits most of the time with occasional lapses; while others enjoy periods of food debauchery interspersed with weeks of guilt-induced dieting.
I feel fortunate to have grown up in an environment where physical activity was as common as reading and television, and where the food we ate was relatively healthy. Not everyone grew up with that privilege and sometimes I wonder if it is harder to stick to regular exercise and healthier eating for those who grew up without it.
My healthier living path meanders but not drastically. My normal involves relatively healthy eating, which for me means that I eat primarily home-cooked meals with consideration given to vegetable and protein content, quantity, and taste. My normal also includes alcohol and “unhealthy” foods in smaller quantities. My normal includes either working out or physical activity that I love (currently tennis and skiing are my favourites) three to six times per week. My normal results in feeling great most of the time, which makes it easy to stick to it most of the time, and to get back to it if I stray. My childhood healthy environment privilege probably contributes to this ease.
Despite my preference for healthier living, I still struggle with it at times, especially in the presence of stress. I think most people do, regardless of how healthy they seem. I’ve been living outside my normal for almost a year. Since shortly after I learned that my dad had pancreatic cancer. He passed away from the disease last month. I’m comfortable enough to admit that I use alcohol, and to a lesser extent food, as a way to deal with emotions. Or more accurately, I use them as a means to not deal with my emotions. I have no idea how much weight I gained this year as a result. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s noticeable. Or at least it’s noticeable to me.
Throughout the year there were many times when I told myself it was time to get back to my normal, but each time it only lasted a day or two. I just wasn’t in the right place to get back to normal. This made me think about some of the realities of healthier living that health and fitness professionals don’t often talk about. We talk about what people should do for exercise, and what they should and should not eat; but we rarely talk about whether the person is in a place where change is viable; how much change is viable; and whether there is even an interest in change. With that in mind, I would like to share the following 7 real world tips for healthier living:
1. You have to be ready. Can you wrap your head around the idea of eating more healthily? Around the idea of more physical activity than you currently do? Or do walls pop up in your mind as soon as you start to think about it?
If you have a combative internal dialogue as soon as you think about a new eating or exercise habit, then you’re either not ready to change, or you’re not ready for that change. If you’re not ready, that’s okay. Keep thinking about it and at some point you will be. Or you will be ready for a different change.
2. Choose the right amount of change for you. My favourite healthy living quotation is from Dr. Yoni Freedhoff and goes something like: “live as healthily as you can reasonably enjoy.”
Choose habits you will adopt instead of ones you think you should adopt. No matter how small the change, something you can do it is always a better option than a bigger change you won’t do.
3. Understand that life is about choices, and nobody gets to judge yours. Adopting a healthy habit almost always means displacing a less healthy habit. The problem is that we often really like that displaced habit, which means becoming healthier requires you to choose. Sometimes it’s a hard choice. In some cases the short-term gratification from the less healthy choice is such that your brain sends loud signals telling you, for instance, to EAT THE CAKE.
That can be a very convincing argument when the cake is right in front of you and the benefits of not eating the cake may not be felt for weeks. Sometimes you may want to adopt healthier habits but aren’t in a place where you feel you can. And lets face it; some of us just don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t involve eating cake.
Unfortunately you may know some people who think their opinion about how you should eat matters more than yours. It doesn’t. Nobody gets to make these choices for you, and nobody gets to judge you for your choices. Your family and friends get to care about you, love you, and even be concerned about your health; but they don’t get to judge you.
4. If you are judging yourself for your choices, then you haven’t made the right choice for you yet. If the choice you are making about lifestyle habits is leading to a place where you can’t imagine fulfilling that change, but you also can’t accept yourself without making that change, it’s time to get help. I think that for some of us, the most important person to help with healthier habits is not a nutritionist, but a therapist.
Somehow I managed to avoid self-judgement for my habits over the past year and for having gained some weight as a result. I’m proud of myself for that. I think this was possible because I knew deep down that it was temporary for me. In fact just last week I came to a “now I’m ready to treat my body to healthier foods and cut back on the booze” state, and I’m happy to report that I am following it. Not perfectly, because perfectly isn’t how I roll. I’m not quite at my normal, but I’m pretty close and feel confident I’ll be ready to go there in a couple of weeks. Despite ending this period of emotional eating and drinking, I’m still looking for a therapist. I know emotional health is important, and I know that even though I’m in a pretty good place, I’m still not in the best place emotionally. I will be; but I think I need help to get there. Maybe you do too?
5. Aim for healthier instead of healthy. Healthy living can be a daunting goal, while healthier living is relatively available. Consider that you can make one change to your lifestyle and that will improve your health, instead of trying to make all of the changes. It doesn’t even have to be a big change. Not having “fries with that” once per week could be your one thing. Having a fruit instead of cake one time per week could be your one thing. Drinking water instead of pop one time per day could be your one thing. Walking instead of driving partway one time per week could be your one thing.
You may be thinking this is essentially point 2 restated, and you’d be right. Consider that a reflection of how important this is.
6. Celebrate your achievements. A small change made successfully is a big deal. Respect and celebrate that. Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with celebrating with food, but I do suggest you consider whether there are other ways to treat yourself. Maybe a visit to a local spa? A morning on the links? A bubble bath? Tickets to a football game? Take the afternoon off work and pull your kids out of school for an afternoon of play? Or take the afternoon off and leave the kids at school for an afternoon of play?
7. Once you adopt one healthier habit, you may find you want to adopt another. People often talk about a spiralling effect in a negative way, but the opposite of the downward spiral also exists, although I have no idea what it’s called? Adding a healthier habit to your life often leads to adding another healthier habit to your life down the road. And maybe another. And another…
I was talking about this with a client last week. After she mentioned that she can’t change, I suggested she pick 1% of the changes that are being proposed and that she do that. She then commented that after a while she might want to do another 1%. Indeed! So we started to contemplate 1% per month. In two years, that would add up to approximately 24% change (despite my high geek quotient, I opted to stick with linear instead of a net present value equation with discounting). Either way you calculate, it’s very clear that it adds up.
If you find yourself thinking “I want to adopt another healthier habit”, remember to apply the tips you followed to succeed the first time. Keep choosing habits you will adopt, keep the judges at arm’s length, get help with your inner judge if you need it, and celebrate your accomplishment.
Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who loves working with real clients with real strengths and weaknesses, and thinks it is just fine to not have six pack abs as a goal.