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Habits for Health



Although this may not apply to everyone, I would say it probably crosses the minds of many. We want to lose weight. We put on a few extra pounds this holiday season (or over the past 2 years of pandemic, or since that stressful event of 2016, or whatever the reason is that you personally feel like you have more weight on you than you want). If this is you, perhaps we can change that.


(Side note: Weight is a sensitive topic that is made ridiculous and gross because of societal standards. If you find that weight loss is an idea that we need to remove from society because of how tied it is to superficial and judgmental thoughts, that is fair, and I support that. However, if you still want to lose weight for yourself, for your own health, for your own satisfaction, because it is a part of your larger journey within health, I also support that. Regardless, weight loss in it of itself is not good or bad. If you don’t like it, you have valid reasons for that. If you do like it, you have valid reasons for that. Ok, onto the actual post now)


There are so many paths to weight loss, how can you know what is the right choice? Honestly, for everyone, it will probably look slightly different. I am not here to tell you the diet or exercise regimen that you specifically need to lose weight. And if I did, I would be wrong, probably. However, there are general principles we could follow and then you can take those principles and apply them to your life as you see fit.


All of these principles focus on one thing: habits. There are 3 things here we can try. 1) Create new habits, 2) break old habits, 3) do both. In reality, any of these likely do both, but maybe thinking about it as creating a new habit will be better for some people compared to breaking an old habit. Whatever works for you is the one I want you to focus on.


Below, I’ll give examples of these 3 approaches and how/why they would help, according to science. Everything here is based on a review of 5 articles showing that those that complete an intervention to do one of the above habit-based weight loss strategies on average lost more weight and were able to keep that weight off. Good stuff!


So why habits? The main reason here is that, likely, there are plenty of other tactics you could use to lose weight. And you would probably be successful and possibly even successful faster than the methods I will show. You could lose 20 pounds in the next month. However, in 3 months, maybe you have reverted back to old habits and regained 18 of those pounds (or regained even more weight than you originally lost). This happens all the time! But, when you have a habit built into your system, it becomes easier to stick to a plan, stick to your original intentions (of losing weight), and avoid temptations.


It is so much easier to maintain a habit than have to actively think about your next move every single day. It just really isn’t convenient. And every time we have to think about it, we open up the possibility that we just say “no, I don’t want to do this anymore” rather than a habit which is just automatic.


Enough theorizing. Let’s get into it.



Creating new habits

The way to create a new habit is really just, keep doing the same thing. Keep doing the same thing over, and over, and over again. But a key to success with this is to keep doing it in the same environment. It is conscious at first. I'll go through examples using coffee and then for fruits/vegetables, but similar principles could be used for many other scenarios.


Example: You get up at 7am. What is the first thing you do? Do you rush over to the coffee machine and down a cup of coffee? One option would be to maybe take a lap through your place first. Be active, and THEN make your way to the coffee machine. Do this every single time (with exceptions of course). Eventually you’ll start just being more active before needing that cup of coffee.


Another option would be, maybe you really do need that coffee right here, right now. Fine. But once you have your coffee in hand, take your time. Notice the sensations of it against your hand. Notice the smell in the air. Notice the color of it. Notice how much creamer you put. Notice how the first sip tastes. Then the second sip. Is there a difference? Slowing down and being mindful is a great habit. Now the habit isn’t drinking coffee though, undoubtedly, you are drinking coffee. Rather, the habit is to stop and enjoy things. This will have a nice ripple effect on what we end up doing next with our time and the choices we make with food. You'll like start consuming less coffee because 1) it takes more time and 2) you can be stimulated by other things, be more awake, and be more conscious of how you are actually feeling and what you are actually needing.


Another example: Let’s say you are committed to the idea of eating 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Sometimes this really means, just do it. It doesn’t matter if you want to or not. You’ll get used to it. Of course, we would rather want to eat chips. Or chocolate. Especially chocolate. But to build the habit, you need to try something. In this case, that is to eat that fruit. How? Remember your motivation for doing this. If it is an external motivation (e.g., you get a dollar from a friend for every fruit you eat), that can be a great starting point. But, try your best to have intrinsic motivation (e.g., I feel good when I am eating clean foods). Remind yourself of your motivation.


ALSO, make it convenient. If that fruit is already out and those chocolates are still wrapped up in a box on some top shelf, you might as well just eat that fruit. Do it and eventually, you’ll naturally keep doing it.


I say all of this in a straightforward way. But the truth is, it isn’t straightforward. There are struggles and there are times you really just are not going to try and trick yourself into eating something you barely want to eat. First, hopefully you do find fruits you actually like and enough of a variety of them so you don’t get bored or oversaturated with same fruit over and over again. Second, if you don’t eat fruit and instead go for that chocolate, so be it. You are allowed to. And you wanted to. Hopefully in future moments you don’t feel compelled to and are able to go back to your original intentions. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You were hungry. You wanted to eat. You decided to eat the chocolate. It’s really not so bad. You have plenty of other opportunities to get back on it. The main point is, you will, and everyone does, go back into old habits, give into temptation, get tired of trying to do something new. Eventually you will find that balance you want where maybe you eat chocolate a few times a week, but for the most part, you actually are eating fruits and vegetables.



Breaking old habits

Alright, so we have some new habits in the works, but sometimes we start going back to old habits. What can we do to stop that?


One of the main things is to be more flexible when it comes to your approach. So that could mean doing something new that you hadn’t before. When you do something new, you get to see how self-efficacious you are! You also get to see that you aren’t just one behavior and that you are capable of many other things. And when you see that you have a variety of paths to take, you can make a decision on which paths are truly the ones you want to pursue.


What may also occur as you try doing new things here and there is that you may start to question some of the other habits you have. Let’s say you drive to work in a different way then you normally do. And then the next day you decide to wash the dishes BEFORE watching Netflix, instead of watching Netflix first. And then the next day you decide to be super wild and donate to a charity you had been wanting to donate to for a while, but kept forgetting because it wasn’t in your daily routine. You may start to question the other habits you have such as what you eat in the morning. Maybe you always get a sugary drink rather than make your own beverage at home. Maybe you consistently crave something sweet after dinner. Whatever it is, you can start to be aware of these patterns and break them the more you try new things.




Do both

The last route to losing consistent weight and keeping it off is by a combination of forming new habits and breaking old ones. When you really want to do both, the best thing you can do is change your environment. You can do something drastic and move to a new country, but I imagine that isn’t in most people’s budget (or willpower to do just do on a whim). Instead, you can alter your current environment.


There are a few goals here when you try to alter your current environment. These include ways to minimize unhealthy eating and sitting and maximizing healthy eating and exercise. When doing this there are 5 components to try and target:

1) visibility (are the things you need in plain sight like the foods you want or the exercise equipment/maybe you have gym clothes that you lay out rather than keep in the drawer);

2) variety (when we eat or do the same thing ALL the time, we get tired of it and don’t want to continue it anymore; get multiple types of fruits, have a few different exercise routines or sets of workout clothes);

3) have utensils (it seems like such a “duh” sort of thing, but honestly, we forget these sorts of things until we need them. Have them readily available);

4) abundance (you need to have enough of whatever you having. If you have to keep running to the store, you aren’t going to keep this up this new habit);

5) convenience (the last is to make sure you don’t have to put in extra work after just wanting to do this already. Make sure things are available whenever you want. Put labels. Put it out into the open. Whatever that means for you, do it. You’ll thank yourself later. Make it easy to get to your workout app and make it hard to access Netflix).


 

All 3 of these have been shown to be just as effective as one another through studies, so really, choose the route that is best for you.


There you have it. This is a framework for you to build off of. It would be hard for me to show you the things you specifically could do to lose weight. And like I said before, if I did try to do that here, I would be wrong. It is going to be different for everyone. The habits you specifically need to build will be different than my habits. The foods you’ll need to eat. The foods you’ll want to eat. What kind of physical activity. All of this changes from person to person and on your specific goals in the moment. However, if you apply the methods above, you’ll be able to do whatever behaviors you want to do!

I’ll be talking about more lifestyle changes through this month. Check them out!


-Alex


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