Building Foundations for a New Healthy Lifestyle
I just spent a day taking care of my 2-year old grandson – what a thrill, and a little work, too. The story of “The Three Little Pigs” came to mind as we built towers out of wooden blocks for the purpose of knocking them down. Who saved the day and kept the Big Bad Wolf out? The Little Pig who took longer to build his house, and used the strongest material available. His brick house, built on a strong foundation, withstood the wolf's best efforts.
When it comes to improving our health, many of us are more like the other Little Pigs. To avoid work and anxiety and perhaps hunger and maybe failure, we use the familiar “just take a pill” model. Weigh too much? Find a pill. Cholesterol too high? A statin ought to do it! Here are some rather alarming statistics from this study published in July 2013 in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “In a 12-month period, almost 70% of the population received a prescription from at least 1 drug group, more than 50% received prescriptions from 2 or more drug groups, and more than 20% received prescriptions from 5 or more drug groups.” In general, the older we get, the more we take. And that’s just prescriptions!
When we finally decide to make changes in our lifestyles to become healthier, we can still be easily driven by the desire for a quick fix. “Low carb is the way to go? I’ve got tremendous willpower – I’ll just do this ketosis thing, starting now.” And after a few days of miserable irritability and perhaps the “keto flu”, it’s back to the old habits. We all know that a Stairmaster champion from sea level can’t helicopter to base camp and climb Mt. Everest the next day. She’d need to build a foundation for weeks or months living with far less oxygen. Similarly, a novice cannot train for a few days and then run a marathon. Even elite endurance athletes spend most of their efforts on building the foundation. (See Primal Endurance for a ton of information on this.)
From my experience in making lasting lifestyle changes for better health, here are a few cornerstones to consider.
- Embrace your internal motivation for change. That will help you be the driver, not some external set of societal ideals or, dare I say, even your coach. “I want the joy of dancing at my granddaughter’s wedding” is an intrinsic and therefore much more powerful and long-lasting motivation than an external one, such as “I want everyone to say how much better I look.” Understand it. Make sure it comes from deep inside you, even if the desire to change is prompted by an event such as a health scare, or a birth, or retirement, or an awakening. Write down what drives you to change, post it on your wall (or refrigerator), paint it on your forehead, think of it often, especially when confronted with a choice – eat that bread? Go for a long walk in the cold? Turn off the devices?
- If nothing changes, nothing changes. What will be your approach to making changes? To diet, to exercise, to sleep and stress management? How will you track what you’ve done and how you feel? Gather data as you try different tactics. Most importantly, manage your new lifestyle as a process, not an event or even a certain goal to achieve. You are not going to lose 40 pounds and then declare victory and yo-yo back. You are managing a lifelong process of continuous learning and change, internally motivated. Your approaches and behaviors will change over time in response to your environment, aging, life events, etc. but knowing you are managing a process will help you get through weight loss plateaus, low energy periods, and other obstacles along the way.
- Self-determination seems to be a stronger cornerstone than external motivation, but you should still plan for and embrace your community of help. Who loves you and will help you on this journey? Your life partner? Other family? Facebook group? Exercise friends? Your health team, perhaps including a coach? Change is hard – we all need support and help.
- Create your environment for success, don’t wait for it to emerge. You are in charge of your environment. For instance, we are all strengthened by the positive reinforcement of progress toward a goal. So, set yourself up for small victories. Give yourself a pat on the back for checking food labels for sugar. Measure your progress in a way that creates positive reinforcement for you. Weigh yourself daily? If that helps you, great. If those days when you followed the plan and yet gained a pound or two really upset you, then weigh yourself once a month. If you are tempted by chips and cookies and soda, throw it all out. If you buy those food-like substances because you are hungry when you shop, then only shop after a healthy, satiating meal. If your bedroom isn’t dark enough, take care of it. You are smart, you can plan, and you are in charge.
I’m sure you can think of other ideas for building a foundation for lasting change as well!