How many times have you started (and given up) an exercise program? Don’t be ashamed; you are not alone. According to ACE (American Council on Exercise) data, 50% to 65% of persons beginning or returning to a standard exercise program will drop out during the first six months. Even though the statistics are not encouraging, don’t give up just yet. You are not set up for failure unless you believe so. Your mind is a powerful tool; it can work for or against you. All you need to learn is how to use it in your favor.
For many people, every year begins the same way: a lot of promises to get rid of bad habits and many expectations about the “new you” that is going to emerge from this transformation. But, unfortunately, all this excitement dissipates as time goes by, and soon enough you go back to your old comfortable not-so-healthy habits.
From my point of view, the problem lies in a simple fact: people try to obtain different results by doing exactly the same things over and over again. Come on, if it didn’t work the first time, why would it work on the tenth? This is not being persistent; it is being stubborn! It doesn’t matter how hard you try the next time. If you don’t change your approach, you won’t get a different outcome. For instance, you start the year with another crash diet to “detox” your body from the abuses of the holidays. The problem is that you can’t live on arugula and water for too long, so you ditch it at the first opportunity. Or you decide to join a health club, one more time. Even though you don’t feel very comfortable there, you promise yourself that you won’t miss one workout. Well, as your days start to get busier, guess what will happen…
Can you see where the root of the problem is? We tend to make promises that we can’t sustain for too long just because we want to get results right now. Well, it is more than proven that this way doesn’t work. So it is time to start doing something different.
First of all, you have to stop thinking that exercise and diet are shortcuts to solve immediate weight issues (for example, fit in a killer dress for your high school reunion party). Oh, I know it is not your fault. Most fitness, health and beauty magazines are crowded with articles like “Flat Abs Fast” or “Drop Two Sizes in Four Weeks.” But what I think is sad, is that most programs featured are hard core, meaning that if you are a sedentary person, chances are you won’t be able to follow them. If you are already fit, you probably don’t need to drop two sizes. I just don’t get it!
Anyway, exercising regularly and eating healthfully must be part of your daily routine just as showering or brushing your teeth. They have to become habits so you can enjoy long-term results. What is the point of shedding a few pounds in a month just to gain them back the next one?
In fact, what I am proposing is a lifestyle transformation, not a quick fix to your vanity issues. Have in mind that this is going to be a slow process. It is not easy and does not happen in a straight line. You will experience ups and downs, and it will require effort to stay on track. Consider it as a challenge where the reward is achieving lifelong fitness.
There are three fundamental components in this process: proper nutrition, regular physical activity and behavior management. Together, they form the tripod that will sustain your new lifestyle.
Proper nutrition is the base for a healthy lifestyle. The mouth is the entrance door of the body, and your body is your temple. You should honor and respect it by choosing wisely what you allow in. Food provides energy and building blocks that our body needs to function well. If you eat mainly nutrient-dense whole foods, your body will be able to work smoothly, and the benefits will reflect on your mood, body composition and overall health. On the other hand, when you eat mainly junk food (super processed foods, poor in nutrients and high in calories), your body gets lost and starts to malfunction.
The second component is regular physical activity. Exercise is one of the major contributors to weight loss and maintenance. It helps us to burn extra energy (calories) in order to keep the weight equation balanced (calories in versus calories out). However, it should be considered more than just a way to shed a few pounds so you can get into your favorite jeans. Look at the big picture. An active lifestyle can help you live longer and better. Moving your body regularly will keep the integrity of muscles as you grow older, meaning that it is more likely you’ll age gracefully and pain-free. And the list of benefits continues: reducing the risk of developing heart or metabolic diseases, improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels, decreasing anxiety, tension, and depression, among others.
Even though all those benefits are well known, many people still consider exercise as a temporary fix, something that you use just to lose weight. And, sadly, many magazines and reality-shows still paint the image that losing a lot of weight is super easy; you just need to push yourself into extreme exercise routines and fad diets. But these measures are impractical to maintain for the long run. So once you go back to your normal (aka sedentary) lifestyle and eating habits, all achievements will be reversed in a few months if not weeks.
This brings us to the last component of the process: behavior management. This is the part where you will start to take charge of your life. First, you have to identify unproductive behaviors and situations that trigger each one of them. Once you know exactly what you are fighting, it will be easier to apply strategies to keep you on track. But don’t fool yourself; this is a slow process. All new behaviors have to be incorporated little by little into your life. Too many changes at once will make you feel overwhelmed until you will eventually give up.
It is not that you don’t know what is wrong; you probably do. If you ask around, your friends and family mostly will tell you exactly what they should be doing; they just don’t do it. And I’m sure they will have a handful of excuses: “My doctor told me to exercise regularly, but I don’t have enough time” or “I know I should avoid fried stuff, but it tastes soooo good, and I think I deserve it.” See, information is not the problem; management is.
The truth is that we behave the way we do because it works for us, at least somewhat. And everything we do is influenced by our family, culture, financial constraints, work, and health beliefs. It is a matter of what is important to each one of us and how we prioritize things in our lives.
So, you’ll have to review your priorities, and maybe put you and your health on top of your list. The bottom line is: you have to be aware of your regular behaviors, so you can turn the good ones into habits and ditch the bad ones.
A habit is “a recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.” You’ve probably heard that it is hard to break a habit. The good news is that this is true both for bad and good ones. Practicing healthier behaviors will turn them into habits, so you won’t have to think about them anymore. They will occur without your even noticing. But I’ll talk more about habits later. For now, just have in mind that you are responsible for choosing a healthier lifestyle, and you are the only one who can actually change your life.
 According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy diet should be composed mainly of fruits, vegetables, low fat milk and dairy, lean meats and whole grains. These are considered nutrient-dense foods because they are packed with vitamins and minerals and have relatively fewer calories than highly processed goods.
 See www.thefreedictionary.com/habit