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Health & Fitness: Think Small for Big Changes

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By Kim Duke

NETA & AAFA Certified Trainer

This past Monday, New Years Day, I spent my morning cleaning up the holiday mess and then settled in to binge watch TV.  Of course, no matter what station I was watching, every commercial was geared toward weight loss and fitness.  Nutri-system and Weight Watchers now have new and improved ways of losing weight without giving up your favorite indulgences. Fitness equipment is now so amazing that all you need is 14 minutes a session and you will lose fat and get ripped by using this cardio stepper machine.  And, of course, every spokesperson was fit, good-looking and young.  I have known too many folks who have bought into this fantasy only to be sadly disappointed by the actual amount of work that needs to go into getting their fitness and health back on track.  So disappointed, they quit altogether.

Yes, it’s a New Year!  Time to make the resolutions, wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Dave Zinczenko, editor of Men’s Health, equates making a New Year’s resolution to hitting your thumb with a hammer:  “First you make a big, loud show, get all angry and determined, and take bold action.  The urgency begins to fade.  Within a week or so, you have only a nagging reminder around your finger.” 

New Year’s resolutions have a sense of déjà vu. They seem to be the same as any other year. We make promises to ourselves about how we are going to change.  Sadly, studies have shown that 60 percent of people had given up after six months and who knows how many of the remaining 40 percent secretly gave up but didn’t want to admit it.

One of the main reasons New Year’s resolutions are so hard to change is that we come up against rock hard habits. Typical targets for resolutions like healthy eating, quitting smoking and taking up exercise are very difficult habits to alter because these patterns of behavior have been built up over many years.

It’s natural, though, to assume that we should consciously be able to make changes to even long-established patterns. Unfortunately, this neglects an important fact about how habits work.  This is the fact that our habits live mainly in the unconscious part of our minds. It’s like when you put on your seatbelt or look both ways before crossing the road: these things are done automatically, without being consciously willed. This is fine for habits that keep us safe from harm, but more irritating when we are trying to change a bad habit.

So, one of the keys to changing a rock hard habit is to identify what cues in the environment are setting it off. Once the habit’s trigger has been identified, it’s possible to make a change. But one of the classic mistakes people make is trying to suppress the habit. Research has shown that this tends to backfire, making the habit, and its unconscious performance, come back even stronger.

Instead, it’s much better to try and replace the bad habit with a better one. Rather than suppressing a snacking habit, for example, it’s better to make the snack food healthier: switch from candy to apples.  If you find yourself slipping, here’s a tip for quickly boosting self-control: Try thinking about your core values, something you really care about. It could be your partner, your family or a higher ideal. Studies have found this can help boost your self-control in a moment of weakness.

Finally, one of the most important messages emerging from the research is that breaking old habits is hard. The temptation is to bite off more than you can chew, but baby steps are likely to work better.  Try to start with minor bad habits, or only part of your bad habit. For example, it may not be possible to tackle unhealthy eating all in one go, but you can, at least, change what you habitually eat for breakfast. With this change under your belt, you can layer another good habit on top, and then another.

For big changes, think small.

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