Before we get further into the details of a healthy lifestyle, let me make an important point. Being healthy extends beyond the physical aspect of our being. Plenty of people whose bodies are seemingly in perfect shape may suffer in other ways. Some are dysfunctional or outright self-destructive in their behavior. Others may have to cope with physical disabilities, but they maintain such a great attitude toward life that one cannot help but envy them. Good health is a state of body and mind. Having positive thoughts and feelings can be as important as eating nutritious foods and getting exercise.
A healthy lifestyle is first of all a matter of awareness
I always begin working with new clients by asking them about their lifestyles. Many of them confess that they pay little or no attention to their daily habits. They are so immersed in their busy schedules that they go through the motions as if on autopilot.
Naturally, we all need to stick to a certain routine just to get through the day. We could not function otherwise. And let’s not forget that even “bad” habits can serve a purpose. They give us pleasure, ease pain or are part of our social life. Problems arise when we lose control or become addicted – often without knowing it.
Of course, we don’t adopt unhealthy habits intentionally. We don’t smoke cigarettes in order to get lung cancer or eat ice cream to get fat. However, many of us willingly take such risks and accept them as a trade-off between instant gratification and long-term effects.
In order to break bad habits, we have to replace them with better ones. Since all habits – good or bad ones – develop insidiously over time, it is not always advisable to apply radical solutions or expect salvation from a “miracle pill.” I cannot stress enough that people should not expect quick fixes.
Mere deprivation will only leave an empty void that needs to be filled in one way or another. It is also crucial that we understand why we have acquired our habits in the first place. Our “natural inclinations” can only be reversed when we are aware of the role they play in our lives. If eating certain foods provides us with comfort or helps us to cope with stress, we cannot simply ignore that need by resisting our urges. We must first find healthier alternatives.
Of course, we cannot always control what happens to us at home, at work or when we travel. After all, we cannot completely isolate ourselves in this world. The events of the day can sweep our best intentions away. So, before you read on, I invite you to pause for a moment and consider how your habits are influenced and determined by outside factors in your life.
Keeping a food diary
A good way, for example, to observe your eating habits more closely is to keep a food diary. Starting a food diary is easy. Make it user-friendly. Any notebook, computer or even your cell phone or BlackBerry can do the job.
Begin with a survey of your day. A thorough analysis of your eating habits may include a list of questions you can answer right away: When did I eat? How did I eat? Why did I eat? Call them “eating cues.” Ask yourself: Do I eat when I’m upset, under stress, lonely or bored? Do I eat although I’m not hungry or keep eating when I’m already full? You may also consider your eating style you have developed over time: Do I often eat quickly and absentmindedly? Do I have a regular mealtime schedule? Do I snack whenever food is within reach?
Most importantly, be honest with yourself – always. You don’t have to share your analysis with anybody else. As a matter of fact, it is advisable that you don’t “inform the world” prematurely about your intentions to make changes in your lifestyle.
In the beginning, you may find it a bit hard to remember all the food you consumed during the day. Keeping track of your actual food intake is the purpose of starting a diary. It is okay to be more sketchy in the beginning, however, you should eventually become really detail-oriented, especially when measuring portion sizes.
Write down the calorie amount you want to allow yourself. Try to keep track of all your meals, snacks and beverages. Remember, everything counts! At the end of the day, take stock. How did you do? Have you met your goals? You can do the same with your physical activity level. If you were successful – congratulations! If not, don’t give up. Try again tomorrow.
Review your food diary regularly. This will help you to better understand your “eating patterns.” Many people have the highest calorie and fat intake when their energy and activity level is at its lowest. That is a sure recipe for weight gain. If you are a late-night-snacker, be aware that more extra calories will be stored in your body as fat, instead of being burned as fuel for physical activity. For successful weight management it is especially important that you match your food intake with your energy expenditure.
Different people respond differently to hunger. Some react to the slightest twinge, others wait until they are nearly starved. Filling up whenever you can eat is never a good idea. It tells your body to increase consumption, regardless of its actual need for fuel. On the other hand, ignoring hunger signals for too long may lower your energy level to the point where you turn to binge eating.
On a scale from 1 to 10, ask yourself how strong your “hunger signals” really are. When you reach stage 5 to 6, that is when you are not yet ravenous but somewhat hungry, you should think about getting something to eat. Don’t wait until you get to stage 8 to 10. If you fast too long you won’t be able to control yourself when food finally becomes available. Stop eating at stage 2 or 3 when you are satisfied but not yet full.
Always try to eat slowly. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to signal to the brain that it has enough. Note that alcohol and caffeine make it harder to recognize subtle hints of fullness.
Be extra careful when you encounter food that is nicely presented at a deli counter, food stand or buffet. A feast for the eyes can be quite seductive. How often do you find yourself eating food simply because it looks good? If you resist your impulses, the temptation will eventually pass – right?
Making time for exercise
Physical activity is an essential component for a healthy lifestyle. It is never too late to begin a regular fitness regimen, even if you have been out of shape for a long time. Consult with your physician before you get started. If you have had little or no exercise in a while, start slowly. You can gradually add more to your daily routine. Eventually, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as walking or bicycling) on most days of the week. For weight loss, you need at least twice this much, preferably 90 minutes of daily moderate exercise. But be sure you know your limits. Click here to calculate your target heart rate.
Choose an exercise program you enjoy. No matter which one you favor, focus on these three areas: Aerobics, strength and flexibility. Aerobic exercising, such as walking, running, swimming and bicycling, is beneficial for cardiovascular fitness. Gymnastics, weightlifting, yoga and tai chi can help you build up both strength and flexibility. Click here for some basic information about exercise.
The main obstacle (or excuse) for most people who don’t exercise enough is time. Of course, most people’s days are already packed with work and other obligations and it seems impossible to squeeze in one more thing. Doesn’t help! Your health must come first. If you cannot join a health club or run around a track, here are some alternatives:
Walk short distances instead of driving. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park the car further away from the office or the shopping mall. Do yard work or gardening. Walk or ride a bike to run errands around town. Go dancing on weekends.
There are many other exercises you can do simultaneously while working or watching TV, such as leg lifts, stretching or even using your briefcase as a substitute for free weights on your way to the next meeting. Once you have become more regularly active, you may consider joining (or starting) a “walking club” with like-minded co-workers instead of hanging out with the “lunch bunch.”
If you find it hard to keep your commitment to regular exercise or get discouraged when your goals don’t seem to materialize fast enough, consider the alternatives: What would you gain from letting yourself go again? Continue to Week Three »