No matter what our goals in life may be, good health is a fundamental requisite for all and everything we can ever want for ourselves. And yet, many of us do not adhere to a healthful lifestyle. In principle, we all know when we “get off track.” We may be aware that we should lose weight, cut back on alcohol, quit smoking, exercise more and so on. We promise ourselves to change all that – someday. Every so often we make another resolution, but chances are we’ll fall back into old habits over time.
It’s Never Too Late
To Start Over
According to the Surgeon General’s Report, seven of the leading causes of death in the United States are diet- and lifestyle related. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease, diabetes, liver- and kidney problems kill more people every year than all virus- and bacteria-related infections combined. In other words, we inflict the most common life-threatening diseases upon ourselves.
The medical profession focuses primarily on fixing our ailments with surgery and drug treatments – in a sort of mechanical way, if you will. By contrast, I believe that it is not enough to repair the damage as it occurs. The true meaning of health encompasses much more than mere physical intactness. What we need is to develop a deeper understanding of how we can live altogether healthier lives and prevent illnesses from occurring in the first place.
Examine your habits, what makes them, what breaks them?
I always begin working with new clients by asking them about their lifestyles. Many confess that they pay little or no attention to their habits. They are so immersed in their busy schedules that they go through the day as if on autopilot. Ask yourself a few simple questions about your own routines. What do you have for breakfast? Do you start your day with a nutritious boost? Do you take time off for lunch or do you work through? Do you do other things while eating? Do you find yourself munching absentmindedly? Do you sit down with family or friends for dinner or do you eat while watching TV? Do you work out or play sports? How often? Do you take breaks to walk and stretch or do you sit all day?
Most habits come about insidiously. Naturally, we all need a certain routine just to get through the day. We could not function otherwise. Once in a while, we may try new things. If they work for us, we do them again until they become part of our routine.
Even “bad” habits serve a purpose, as long as they give us pleasure, ease pain or are supported by our social surroundings. Problems arise when we lose control or become addicted, often without knowing it. Of course, we don’t consciously adopt unhealthy habits. We don’t smoke cigarettes in order to get lung cancer or eat ice cream to get fat. However, many of us are willing to take such risks as a trade-off between instant gratification and potential long-term effects.
In order to break bad habits we have to replace them with better ones. Mere deprivation will leave us with a void that needs to be filled in one way or another. It is also crucial to understand how we have acquired our habits in the first place. Even though we may spontaneously reach for the chocolate donut, candy bar or cigarette, we can reverse our “natural inclinations” only when we are aware of the role they play in our lives. If eating certain foods provides us with comfort or helps us cope with stress but has otherwise negative consequences, we cannot simply ignore that need by resisting our urges. We must find healthier alternatives.
The trickiest part of making positive lifestyle changes is that we don’t live alone in the world. We cannot always control what happens to us at home, at work or when we travel. The events of the day can sweep our best intentions away. Before you read on, I invite you to pause for a moment and consider how much attention you pay to your habits. Let’s have a closer look.
Do you have days like these?
Wake up, get out of bed, shower, dress, get the kids going, feed the dog, make breakfast and school lunches. And by then you are already late. Something’s got to give and, as usual, it’s the time you would spend on yourself. A sit-down family breakfast has to wait until the weekend. Never mind that you had your last meal 10 to 12 hours ago. Your blood sugar’s low and you’re hungry. But all you have is coffee. The omnipresence of coffee shops speaks for itself. There is no way to start the day without a serious fuel injection. Unfortunately, your daily calorie and fat allowance is probably blown by that Grande something-or-other. Had a scone with that? Oh dear!
At the office meeting the obligatory pink box appears out of nowhere. Croissants oozing with butter, bagels buried under cream cheese, chocolate donuts topped with a thick crust of white sugar – all glaring at you. If you started your day on an empty stomach, you’re most likely ravenous and ready to wolf down anything within your reach by now. Add more coffee with fatty creamer and you are over your limit before the day has even started. Feeling a little wasted by mid-morning? It’s probably more due to the munchies than the numbers you crunched.
Business lunches can be hazardous. You don’t want to give the impression that your client isn’t worth it. But can you stomach it? You’re the kind who gives it all, but your health should not be part of the collateral damage. By the time you’re done with three courses, you’re finished too. Back at the office, you’re just going through the motions.
Your energy level is in the basement and every part of you begs for a nap. But you need to keep going! Here’s where the candy bar comes in. Before you know it, you’ve lost count. Oh well, too late, let’s have one more…
It’s 5 p.m. and you’re ready for cocktail hour. You may call it “office culture” or “bonding with your buddies.” If abused, it can easily get out of control. Heart disease, kidney and liver problems can all result from reckless drinking. Winding down should not be confused with numbing yourself.
Back home you’re too tired to even engage in conversation. News channel or sitcom, let them do the talking. What’s for dinner? Pizza or stuff from the freezer? Perhaps Chinese take-out. And then to the fun stuff! Ice cream and cookies! This makes up for all the stresses of the day. The downside is that you eat more sugar – lots of it. In a few hours, you’ll get hungry again due to a “rebound drop” from high blood sugar.
The couch is probably your last stop before bed. You remain physically inactive for the rest of the evening while your stomach fights dinner and the extra munchies that follow. You may be able to get away with this lifestyle for some time, especially when you’re still young. Some day, however, the truth will sink in and things will add up – you get the picture.
Looking at the larger picture
Like many of my colleagues, I used to prescribe a diet plan that was primarily geared towards good nutrition and, if necessary, weight management. Although most of my clients made good progress and started to feel confident enough to continue on their own, a few returned confessing that they had fallen back into their old habits. It’s no secret that a large percentage of dieters relapse, often more than once.
Naturally, people who come to me are mainly concerned about diet-related health issues. It is crucial, however, to understand that real change involves all aspects of a person’s lifestyle, not just nutrition and weight management. People can be ready to make dietary changes, but their circumstances and social surroundings may limit the extent to which those changes are possible. Without looking at the larger picture, it can be much harder to to treat particular aspects of our health and well-being successfully.