Health Is A Habit, Not A Look


It’s easy to say, “Eat right and get more exercise.” But successfully changing behavior — your own or your children’s — takes planning, persistence, and patience. If it were that easy, we’d all be fit, trim, never smoke, and rarely drink.

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So why is it so difficult to change our habits to improve our health? Because change takes energy and attention, and it requires us to get out of our comfort zones. In a stressful and busy world, that energy often wanes and we slip back to what feels comfortable.

As wild animals with massive brains and the ability to respond to sensory stimuli with more than just base instinctual behavior, we humans have the tendency to over think pretty much, well, everything.

Don’t blame yourself. You can’t escape your head. It’s always there.

Everything you perceive or ponder is filtered through a dense network of constantly firing neural synapses. And whether you’re a strict materialist who thinks it’s all meaty wiring and circuitry up there, or you’re of the opinion that consciousness exists independently of your physical brain, we’re stuck with that consciousness filter – whatever its origin.

It’s a blessing and a curse.

Our hyper-consciousness often separates us from our surroundings. It erects a barrier that severs the pleasure and immediacy of visceral experience.

Human health and physical fitness are important, crucial things to consider, and millions find them fascinating subjects to discuss, analyze, and optimize. I’m one of them. Millions more overanalyze; they make things harder than they need to be, and they generally get poorer results in the long run. Or, they may get objectively good results, but their lives are consumed by the minutiae of calories, miles, reps, and nutrient counting. I’d say there’s got to be an easier way to do things.

There has to be a path that utilizes our big brains without them getting in the way. There’s got to be a balanced, rational method to obtain optimal health and fitness that successfully marries our tendency to think with our animal instincts. Getting fit and being healthy should be simplistic, intuitive, and, most importantly, enjoyable.

Does wildlife obsess over calories eaten or reps performed? How do deer maintain their trim figures and impressive athleticism without a dietitian and weekly personal training sessions? Conversely, why does the house cat grow obese and lethargic, while a bobcat with nearly identical genes stays fit? It isn’t just the simplistic calories in/calories out model. It couldn’t be. Wild animals don’t count calories. They don’t worry about eating before bed, or getting enough exercise to burn off that squirrel they had for breakfast. They just are.

They simply exist in an ecosystem hundreds of thousands of years in the making. Evolution has made sure, by its impartial, unconscious hand, that the flora and fauna live in harmony with each other and internally. The bobcat thrives on rodents and small birds because its digestive system and metabolism evolved eating these things; the house cat gets fat because its digestive system and metabolism aren’t suited for grain-based kibble. If the balance is upset in a given environment, organisms die out or move on, but things always reset. This is simply how nature works.

From the beginning and up to the Neolithic Period, approximately 10 000 years ago, man was a nomad who lived by hunting and picking wild fruit and vegetables and his diet was basically made up of game (protein and lipids) as well as wild berries and roots (carbohydrates with low Glycemic Indexes and high fiber content.) Most authors agree on the fact that our ancestors also ate, accessorily, vegetables (leafy vegetables, vegetable shoots…) and undoubtedly, from time to time, wild cereal. These vegetables also fell into the category of carbs with very low Glycemic Indexes.

The energy primitive man expended on a daily basis was enormous, not only because he had to contend with immense physical demands but also because his living conditions were extremely precarious, particularly due to the erratic weather conditions.

One wonders how these  “high-level sportsmen” were able, for millions of years, to satisfy such a large caloric demand with the limited carbohydrates at their disposal and, above all, without any of the slow sugars *, which are considered essential by modern nutritionists.

We all have them: those negative behaviors we do over and over again. In some cases, we don’t even know why we have those bad habits. It’s as if we’re caught in a never-ending cycle of performing self-sabotaging acts.

If you’ve ever wanted to alter some things about yourself, maybe now is the time to consider it. We see it in the entertainment industry all the time: an entertainer used to look a certain way and behave a certain way in public or while performing. Then, one day, you see them on TV and wow, what a difference!

Even off the airwaves, programs designed to change health-related habits are often intensive and expensive.

During the Neolithic Age, as these men became more and more sedentary, man’s eating habits suffered the first of the dramatic changes to come. Animal breeding allowed him to continue to have meat to eat  (although not exactly the same kind of meat) while the development of agriculture let him plant his own food and produce cereals (wheat, rye, barley.., later on pulses (lentils, peas…) and lastly, vegetables and fruit.

One would imagine that, by becoming sedentary, primitive man had started a process which would lead him on the path to improving his existence.

Notwhithstanding, at a nutritional level, the contrary seems to have occurred. Compared to the hunter-food pickers of the Mesolithic Age, the farmer-cattleman had considerably reduced the variety of the food he ate. In fact, very few animals could be domesticated or bred and only certain vegetables could be grown. We could even say that the farmer-cattleman was forced to rationalize or, to put it in modern terms, to optimize his activities.

Unfortunately, others may assume that eating meals prepared by professional nutritionists and getting one-on-one coaching from a celebrity personal trainer are fundamental to the contestants’ successes. Since most people don’t have access to such help, they may conclude that it’s not worth trying to fix all their unhealthy habits.

Compared with most animals, we humans engage in a host of behaviors that are destructive to our own kind and to ourselves. We lie, cheat and steal, carve ornamentations into our own bodies, stress out and kill ourselves, and of course kill others. Science has provided much insight into why an intelligent species seems so nasty, spiteful, self-destructive and hurtful.

But, nothing is more important than your health! You can thrive in your career, acquire wealth and status, and even experience tremendous success, but if your health is languishing, nothing else matters.

We are creatures of habit and that’s a good thing. As we learn all of the myriad behaviors that make up who we are: standing, walking, eating, speaking, reading, writing and social interactions we habituate these motor skills, habits and behaviors. Habits create a more efficient means of living. They ensure our survival as well.

As we develop and grow, some of our habituated patterns, upon later mature review, may no longer serve us. Some habits may be unhealthy or even destructive. So making healthy choices is a simple thing to say and think about but a complex process internally.

We are often forced to choose against ingrained traits that we are comfortable and familiar with. Choosing implies intention and consciousness. Often we live our lives without conscious thought and presence, simply relying on our habituated patterns; good, bad or indifferent.

If you want to develop good health habits that are associated with a longer, healthier, and happier life you have to start early…very early!

Once problems and poor health habits emerge they tend to be very long lasting. For example, research has indicated that 97% of people who lose weight will regain it all within 5 years. Yes, behavior really is hard to change!

“Habits play an important role in our health,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Understanding the biology of how we develop routines that may be harmful to us, and how to break those routines and embrace new ones, could help us change our lifestyles and adopt healthier behaviors.”Habits can arise through repetition.

They are a normal part of life, and are often helpful. “We wake up every morning, shower, comb our hair or brush our teeth without being aware of it,” Volkow says. We can drive along familiar routes on mental auto-pilot without really thinking about the directions. “When behaviors become automatic, it gives us an advantage, because the brain does not have to use conscious thought to perform the activity,” Volkow says. This frees up our brains to focus on different things.

Habits can also develop when good or enjoyable events trigger the brain’s “reward” centers. This can set up potentially harmful routines, such as overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling and even compulsive use of computers and social media.

“The general machinery by which we build both kinds of habits are the same, whether it’s a habit for overeating or a habit for getting to work without really thinking about the details,” says Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Both types of habits are based on the same types of brain mechanisms.

“But there’s one important difference,” Poldrack says. And this difference makes the pleasure-based habits so much harder to break. Enjoyable behaviors can prompt your brain to release a chemical called dopamine. “If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you’re not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again,” Poldrack says. “This explains why some people crave drugs, even if the drug no longer makes them feel particularly good once they take it.”

In a sense, then, parts of our brains are working against us when we try to overcome bad habits. “These routines can become hardwired in our brains,” Volkow says. And the brain’s reward centers keep us craving the things we’re trying so hard to resist.

If you know something’s bad for you, why can’t you just stop? Why is it so hard to form good habits? Why is it so difficult to make consistent change? How can we have the best intentions to become better, and yet still see so little progress?

Imagine the typical habits, good or bad: brushing your teeth. Putting your seatbelt on. Biting your nails.

These actions are small enough that you don’t even think about them. You simply do them automatically. They are tiny actions that become consistent patterns.

Wouldn’t it make sense that if we wanted to form new habits, the best way to start would be to make tiny changes that our brain could quickly learn and automatically repeat?

A behaviour that is beneficial to one’s physical or mental health, often linked to a high level of discipline and self-control.

“Humans are much better than any other animal at changing and orienting our behavior toward long-term goals, or long-term benefits,” says Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University. His studies on decision-making and willpower have led him to conclude that “self-control is like a muscle. Once you’ve exerted some self-control, like a muscle it gets tired.”

After successfully resisting a temptation, Baumeister’s research shows, willpower can be temporarily drained, which can make it harder to stand firm the next time around. In recent years, though, he’s found evidence that regularly practicing different types of self-control—such as sitting up straight or keeping a food diary—can strengthen your resolve.

“We’ve found that you can improve your self-control by doing exercises over time,” Baumeister says. “Any regular act of self-control will gradually exercise your ‘muscle’ and make you stronger.”

Volkow notes that there’s no single effective way to break bad habits. “It’s not one size fits all,” she says.

“Just making two lifestyle changes has a big overall effect and people don’t get overwhelmed,” said Bonnie Spring, PhD, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and lead author of the study published in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Simply ejecting your rear from the couch means your hand will spend less time digging into a bag of chocolate chip cookies.

That is the simple but profound finding of a new Northwestern Medicine study, which reports simply changing one bad habit has a domino effect on others. Knock down your sedentary leisure time and you’ll reduce junk food and saturated fats because you’re no longer glued to the TV and noshing. It’s a two-for-one benefit because the behaviors are closely related.

The study also found the most effective way to rehab a delinquent lifestyle requires two key behavior changes:  cutting time spent in front of a TV or computer screen and eating more fruits and vegetables.

“Americans have all these unhealthy behaviors that put them at high risk for heart disease and cancer, but it is hard for them and their doctors to know where to begin to change those unhealthy habits,” said Spring, who also is a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “This approach simplifies it.”

With this simplified strategy, people are capable of making big lifestyle changes in a short period of time and maintaining them, according to the study.

Our body-mind-spirit (meaning, they all are one thing) gives us indications of what to be attentive to. In other words, pains or aches, physical, emotional and/or spiritual distress are all similar ways in which the body communicates unease or that it is not well. Our bodies way of telling us to “please stop eating spicy food – it’s bad for me” usually results in heartburn or indigestion. Our body’s way of saying, “please go to sleep” is having a feeling of fatigue.

At first these are all minor inconveniences. Living in a highly demanding society, we can’t just stop what we are doing in our tracks. So we keep going. We ignore the body’s communication and most times – we numb it.

We live in a world that teaches us to ignore these minute symptoms, and we believe it is best if they go away. Pain is something to be avoided, disease is not welcome, and should be suppressed.

A heartburn after pizza – no problem – antacids!
Fatigued all day – no problem – coffee!
Arthritic pain –  don’t stop running – painkillers!
We escape, suppress, and rather not deal with pain.

But there’s another way to look at pain and disease. We can choose to look at these symptoms as an invitation to change. We can choose to become aware of them, rather than suppress them.

If we would start listening to our body’s messages, we’d slowly become more sensitive to what our body really wants. Ultimately we can achieve a balanced state, and prevent disease before it happens.

Whether it is a New Year, a New Moon, a new week, or even a new day – it can always be the beginning of self reflection.

As you work toward Optimal Health, you’ll learn to make the choices that will help you take charge of your health for the long term. Reaching a healthy weight is just the beginning—there is much more to come.

“Optimal Health is a journey taken one step, one habit, and one day at a time.”

The first step in developing your personal plan for change is to figure out where you stand.

Bad habits may be hard to change, but it can be done. Change is always possible, and a person is never too out-of-shape, overweight, or old to make healthy changes.

Change is not just about thinking… it is about doing!

Live and Learn. We All Do.

Thanks for reading.  Please share 🙂

Please don’t forget to leave a comment.

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About julia29

Hi. My name is Julia El-Haj. I am a Hall of Fame Athlete, an MBA, Professional Certified Marketer, Certified Youth Fitness Trainer, a Specialist in Sports Nutrition and a licensed Real Estate agent. I gave up my "seat at the table" to be home with my 3 children because that's where I was needed most. I blog about everything with Wellness in mind.
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