Anyone can choose a salad over French fries – once. Anyone can take the stairs over the elevator, walk rather than drive, or go to an indoor cycling class . . . once. Many people can even make healthy eating choices or get out and move more several days in a row.
But then we have a challenging day at work, or our kids come home with a less-than-thrilling report card, or we're just feeling a little off … and then it's back to our old, unhealthy habits all over again.
This happens because the habits that we've developed over years are like ruts on the road of our brain. We may not like those ruts – and we may definitely not like the results they lead to – but if the ruts are deep enough they allow us to take our hands off our mental steering wheel, so to speak, in order to deal with whatever other challenges we're facing.
In other words, our habits make it so that we don't have to consider every choice we make, whether those choices are about what we eat and our physical activity or which outfit to wear to work on a given morning. Many of our habits are actually helpful to us because they free up space in our minds for the things we really do need to think about.
The problem, of course, is that unhealthy habits wear deep ruts in our mental road. And if you've ever tried to steer your actual car out of a deep rut, you know how difficult getting clear can be. For most of us, then, changing our habits to increase our health and fitness isn't just a matter of everything falling into place the moment we make the decision to change. Instead, just like trying to steer our car out of a rut, we often find ourselves falling back in.
To put it another way – if you've been walking down the same isles and picking up pretty much the same items at your local grocery store for most of your adult life, you're going to make a mental effort to, say, hit the produce and skip the cookie isle.
At the same time we have also developed habits around the way we see ourselves. If you're used to seeing yourself as a certain size, for example, or thinking your needs aren't as important as the needs and wants of your family/friends/boss, you may have developed habits of thinking that are in the way of making and carrying out all of your goals – let alone “just” your health and fitness goals.
This is why becoming healthier and more fit isn't just a matter of what we put in our mouths or how we move our bodies. As I said before, any one of us can make those choices and stick to them once, or even several times. But in order “drive” out of the ruts of our unhealthy habits we need first to sit back and think about how and why we built them in the first place.
Were you given sugary treats whenever you were unhappy – or happy, or excited, or just to make you quiet – as a child? Did your elementary school emphasize being athletic in a way that made you feel excluded and clumsy? Any of these challenges and more can encourage us to build habits that aren't good for us today – because those habits helped us get through yesterday.
So please, don't criticize yourself for the habits you developed that have led you to being less healthy and fit than you want to be. Instead, congratulate yourself for coming up with coping mechanisms that helped you deal with the ups and downs of life. Take a look at where your habits came from and how they served you. Then, make a commitment to yourself to release those habits lovingly and step by step exchange them for new ones.
Also, try to remember not to be harsh with yourself when your old habits rear their heads. You are doing nothing less here than re-routing the cognitive pathways of your mind – like building Rome, this isn't a process you can complete overnight. What I can guarantee you, though, is that once you start seeing just how well you can re-shape your habits of thought and action, the results won't just change your level of health and fitness – they will change your life.