By Jacob Summers
Lasting change never results from just fixing the symptoms of a problem. Lasting change only ever results from fixing the root cause. This concept holds with everything—disease, political turmoil, family issues, and even interpersonal romantic relationships. But there is one major area we often ignore: our health.
As a personal trainer, I often talk with people about how they want to take back control of their health. Unfortunately, a large chunk of this crowd wants a magic supplement, a workout, or a piece of advice that will help them reach their goals. In the fitness community, this is called the “magic bullet.” This is the idea that if you just had “it,” you too could have six-pack abs and run marathons. There’s an entire portion of the industry dedicated to exploiting this very idea.
The truth is, not only does that magic bullet not exist, but my most successful clients have never asked for it, or they stopped asking a long time ago. They realize the simple truth: Getting healthy isn’t a thing you do; it’s a thing you become. Health isn’t something you do for an hour or two, like going to the movies or visiting the store. It’s not something you can turn on and off when you want. Sure, occasionally you can turn it off to have pizza with friends or ice cream after a terrible week at work—but the point is that it should be “on” more often than it’s “off.”
You’ve probably heard this before, but packaged differently: fitness is a lifestyle. If “lifestyle” seems a little overwhelming, let’s call it what I call it: a habit. What, then, are some good habits for the average person to build?
1. Stay Aware of What You Eat
I’ll start with a simple one. Every year, either for a competition or for my own goals, I end up going through a “cutting” period of a couple of months when I make an active effort to trim unwanted fat. Because I know I’m a nervous eater, and because I can’t eat what isn’t there, I keep my fridge stocked with only healthy options. That’s not to say that I couldn’t overeat eggs, raisin bran, or chicken, but if I craved what was already in my diet, I probably wouldn’t be opening the fridge at eleven thirty at night looking for the Ben & Jerry’s. If it’s not there, I can’t eat it. This article isn’t about dietary recommendations, so I won’t go into how your pantry should and shouldn’t look. You know what’s within your diet and what shouldn’t be kept in the house to tempt you.
This leads to the next way to make health a habit: don’t eat out if you can help it. I’ve been found guilty of eating out a lot when I finish my cutting season, and it showed. A friend reminded me that when I started to feel bad and it was affecting my runs, it was probably because of the junk food I was eating. After all, even the “healthy” option on a drive-through menu isn’t really healthy. How do we fix this? Prepare something to eat before you leave the house or wait until you get home to eat. Many people think food prep is a chore, but it doesn’t have to be. Not all of you want to be bodybuilders. Some of you want to lose ten pounds or fit into the clothes you used to wear. So maybe baking pounds of chicken each week isn’t for you. Instead, make some turkey-and-cheese sandwiches to eat at work and resist fast food on your drive home. When you get there, you’ll find your healthy options waiting (if you heed my first tip).
2. Create Healthy Habits
People are creatures of habit. We crave routine. I am extremely free-spirited, but even I begin to lose my mind a little bit without some external structure. Use that trait to trick your brain into wanting exercise at the same time every day. Again, not everyone wants to be Mr. Olympia or finish a triathlon. You don’t have to spend hours per day working out. Simply set aside a little exercise time before work, during your lunch break, after work, or after you’ve put the kids to bed—whatever works best for your routine. This can be at your local gym or in your garage gym with a treadmill and some weights or even without. The key is to keep the routine consistent. Set reminders when you’re starting out: your phone can remind you to work out at five thirty in the evening on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, for example. Stick to it, even if it’s just thirty minutes. Learn to enjoy the habit like you would enjoy a daily cup of coffee, but with a bit more sweat. After a while, you won’t need the reminders because your body and mind will both crave that routine and the direct effects of exercise. It’s chemical dependence, but of the best kind possible.
They realize the simple truth: Getting healthy isn’t a thing you do; it’s a thing you become.
There are some ways to make the habit easier. Set things up the night or day before your workout; it’s a lot easier to get up and go on a morning run if you set your shoes, clothes, and water bottle out the night before. Same with evening workouts—if you pack your gym bag the night before and take it to work with you, there’s no scramble to go home and get stuff together after a long day. Lock yourself into the commitment you’ve made.
3. Educate Yourself
Learn the direct effects of your actions. When you’re oblivious to how much sugar and how many calories are in a doughnut, it’s easy to “guesstimate” that one doughnut can’t hurt. The average doughnut has about twenty grams of carbs and ten grams of fat. That’s 170 calories for a basic doughnut, and all of those carbs are coming from sugar—meaning that if you casually eat a couple of doughnuts from the break room at work instead of a healthier breakfast, you’re setting your system up to have an energy crash in the next hour or so. It puts your body back into hibernation after it burns through those simple carbs, and it’ll make you feel weak and tired until your next meal. None of that information is meant to scare you. It just demonstrates the stark difference between your actions if you are better informed compared to being blissfully unaware of the direct impact your diet has on you. It is much easier to foster and maintain willpower if you know the exact consequences of your actions, good and bad. The doughnut might look tasty, but now you can see it for what it is and make an informed decision, and that’s a gift—not everything in life readily shows you the direct effect of your actions.
4. Do the Little Things
Finally, learn to see everyday actions as challenges to improve your health. In such a technologically streamlined society, we have removed most of the physical struggles from our daily lives. Try simple things to get in shape that either supplement your time in the gym or on the treadmill or replace them for the day in case you have to skip a workout. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Carry an extra bag or two of groceries on each trip from the car. Take some time to run around and play with your pets or your children. If you can walk instead of drive to where you’re going, do so. Basically, remove a handful of handicapping comforts and learn to appreciate the value of keeping your body active and moving.
- Keep your fridge stocked with only that which is already in your diet and nothing else.
- Try to eat at home and not to eat out.
- Get into a routine with your exercise.
- Prepare things ahead of time to make exercise convenient. Set yourself up for success.
- Educate yourself on the direct effects of your actions.
To change the symptoms of excess fat, problems climbing stairs, getting winded carrying the groceries in, high blood pressure, etc., fix the cause: you. Get in shape. Start with the mind. The body, the results, and the lessening of symptoms will follow as the body begins to heal and improve. The body will do what the mind tells it.
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