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Changing Our Eating & Exercise Behaviors: Health is A State of Body AND Mind

Posted Dec 29 2008 4:55pm
Below is a reprint of an article I wrote earlier today for the " Healthy Eating Initiative" group I recently started on the "Just Finish" site:

So I thought I'd start at a very logical place, by starting a discussion about the essence of change. This might seem esoteric or beside the point to some, but it's actually highly relevant.

If you've joined this group as a way to improve your nutrition/health, of course you obviously already realized that some of your behaviors are going to have to change in order for you to become healthier. However, this doesn't have to be a bad or painful thing.

I encourage you to think of the process as a positive transformation. Think of what benefits you will gain & how you will feel. If need be, make a list of these benefits & post it in a prominent location where you'll see it on a regular basis. And keep thinking & reminding yourself of these plusses, even when you are struggling or encountering challenging situations. In setting both fitness & nutritional goals (as well life goals), visualizing success is a huge part of "winning the game."

So, how do we go about improving our nutrition & exercise behaviors? And what allows us to have breakthroughs & succeed in a long-term manner, when in the past we couldn't seem to "step out of our own way"? Well, we'll get into that in a minute....

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A big recurring theme you'll hear both on this site & at my running blog is "balance & moderation."

Personally speaking, these particular ideas been the key to my long-term success, both in terms of fitness and maintaining a healthy weight & body fat percentage.

These ideas might not sound as "sexy" as the multitude of programs & products offering supposed "quick fixes" or an "easy way out," but one thing's for certain, if you put these concepts to good use, they will work for you! If you follow the slow & steady path to change -- to good nutrition, fitness, & a healthy body weight -- it's almost certainly going to be a lot healthier & a longer-lasting route to health & progress! Furthermore, changes like these run deep; they are not just cosmetic or superficial. Once the "light" of knowledge is turned on inside of you & you start to "get" it -- the bigger picture of how good nutrition is a crucial part of overall health & well-being -- that light doesn't just flicker out so easily with a gust of wind. ;-)

This highly effective pathway to progress isn't just some nutritional "makeover" to be used for a few weeks & then discarded. These ideas can change a person's life. Forever. In profound ways. This is about developing a new & better way of thinking & being. A new healthy lifestyle.

I have probably talked about "balance & moderation" until I am blue in the face, but the thing is this: The reason I keep talking about the importance of these concepts over & over is that I know without a doubt that this health philosophy put into practice is the better pathway to progress, & I'm hoping that, one of these days, the people who say "yeah, yeah, I hear you" & then go on some crazy fad diet, overeat/overindulge themselves, or do some other circular, self-sabotaging, guilt-producing behaviors, will have a epiphany (i.e., a "light bulb" moment) & then suddenly realize the profound point of this message. :) But in all seriousness, I realize there are probably some people who might never "get" it, or that sometimes, people just have their own time schedule & aren't able to see things (with their eyes wide open) until they are ready to see them, but as they say, "hope springs eternal." :)

The ideas of "balance & moderation" sounds really simple, & the ideas ARE simple, in fact, but when you finally realize what they mean to you & how they will alter your existence & way of thinking, especially when you've lived most of your life in the food & fitness "fast lane," it's a profoundly powerful & transformative experience.

However, it's something we have to know by doing. In other words, it's absolutely essential to do more than just intellectually grasp this concept; we must deeply know the truth of it by putting it into practice on a regular basis.

Of course, no one can learn this crucial lesson for another person, but all the same, it's really important that we learn from our mistakes, so we don't keep repeating them in an endless loop.

I really believe that it's possible for people to change their behaviors in lasting ways, as most times they are just patterns that have been learned by repetition. So it stands to reason that these behaviors can be unlearned & replaced with more constructive patterns via the same sort of repetition. :)

I think that the best approach is to focus on making gradual, long-lasting changes, instead of trying to change too much too fast & then have all of that hard work disappear in a flash.

How many times have we heard stories of people who keep searching in vain for that perfect panacea -- perhaps in pill form or as a crash diet -- only to find out that these same people, after getting suckered into following some program promising quick results, have since gained the weight back & then some?

Here's the truth, straight-up. (Now this truth really shouldn't be all that surprising, but somehow still manages to surprise people now & then. LOL!): Instant gratification can be empty as an ultimate end unto itself. :) Many a mature adult has learned this lesson the hard way, but ultimately, it doesn't really matter in the end as long as the lesson has been learned. Yes, hard work & effort is really where it's at, people. And sometimes the reality is that the work isn't even truly that hard; it just has to be done.

The trick to losing weight, eating healthy, or getting into shape is simple: There is no trick. :)

What really needs to be lost is the dieting mentality itself, & the public perception of exercise & nutrition only as a means of losing weight! Societally speaking, there's also way too much focus on how much one weighs, (particularly with regard to women & how they are discussed in the media), when what one should really be monitoring is one's body fat. One's body fat percentage is a far better indicator of overall health & fitness.

Our self-worth truly can never be measured in pounds or kilos!

Redirecting one's energies towards losing "body fat" also seems to have a healing effect on one's psyche as well. :) I find that this is particularly true of women, who, on the whole, tend to internalize some of these false messages which wrongly equate a woman's worth with their body weight, & so, tend to be a bit more preoccupied by their weight than men.)

I think a lot of the reason for why the above association (i.e., of realigning one's goals towards "body fat" loss & overall health versus fixating solely on "weight loss") results in a healthier mentality has to do, in part, with the fact that one's acceptable body fat range is relative (versus fixed!) & can differ based on various factors, including body composition, gender, & ethnicity (i.e., bone density levels differ somewhat amongst people of different ethnicities, which can affect one's acceptable body fat range).

Moreover, it is possible to more easily disassociate oneself from the whole "scale obsession" thing when using calipers. ;-) Or, if you use a body fat scale, I encourage you to ignore the weight number & just track the body fat percentage by how much you are improving your overall percentage.

As a personal illustration, I can tell you that the moment I stopped focusing on my weight & retrained my brain & psyche to think about getting to a healthy body fat percentage instead was the moment when I started making real strides of progress. And I've seen this change happen to others as well.

While no one can deny that maintaining a healthy weight/BMI is important, I think that if we look through such a narrow lenses, we are missing the larger & ultimately much more important picture: Good health is a life-long pursuit. And the proper use of metrics in fitness & nutrition should be reserved for the measurement of our progress; scales & calipers & stopwatches are simply tools to help us reach our goals, & should not be internalized as measures of our emotional state. ;-)

And yes, obtaining good health is certainly important, but it really matters quite significantly how we go about achieving it! Plus, we need to take the long view instead of the short one.

When it comes to changing our eating & exercising behaviors, it's been shown time & time again that people who start out by taking small steps (both literally & figuratively speaking), & taking those steps consistently over time, are more likely to be successful at maintaining their lifestyle changes in the long-term.

Furthermore, eating healthfully isn't solely about weight loss even though many people are very focused on the link between the two. I think that in many cases, the real issue is that people need to retrain their brains to think about concepts that are larger than just "counting calories" and the number on the scale.

What I mean by all of this is that our health is not just a biological fact, it's also a mindset.

That is why it is important that we take the long-range view. So let's let go of those broken notions of "what we should be" and instead focus on "what we can do." By putting ourselves in "action mode" (versus "self-reprimand" mode!), our minds will start to synchronize with the inherent wisdom of our bodies. And this is a wisdom that's already been there, lying dormant. It's there without us even having to do anything about it. Instinctively, we KNOW what to do. We already know that, scientifically speaking, food is linked to mood. What we put in our bodies affects our bodies AND our minds. And we KNOW we feel better physically & mentally when we nourish ourselves with healthy food. It's really not rocket science. We just have to listen to this very simple wisdom that allows us to do what's best for ourselves, & takes us in a forward-moving direction.

Choosing good health is really about choosing progress for ourselves. No matter what our current situation is or which course we've chosen for ourselves, it is still possible to reverse the path we're on & head in a new direction. We always have the option to choose progress & make things better.

And a big part of that is retraining our minds to accept a new path & let go of old pathways that just don't serve us in a positive way. The territory of eating & exercise are so often loaded down with our own mental "baggage," which can weigh upon our minds & souls like two-ton pieces of luggage! -- that we first need to dump it all at the "healthy express" depot before beginning our journey to better health.

So how do we get to our fitness & nutrition goals? By rediscovering patience & perseverance, & focusing on what we CAN do. And when we do in fact reach those goals, we need to celebrate our milestones in positive & productive ways, to spur us onto even greater accomplishments. And when we fall short, we need to be gentle with ourselves, let go of our mistakes & learn from them, regroup, & then move forward. It's just one step at a time. But first we've got to be sure we start today what we'd like to accomplish tomorrow.

Trust me, it's really that simple.

These are simple but powerful ideas. So repeat after me, "Everything in moderation. Gradual progress paves the path for lasting change. Balance is key." :)

And now we shall begin......
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