Avoid These 4 Pitfalls When Making Lifestyle Changes.

August 21, 2013 — Leave a comment
Counting on willpower is like counting on an untrained eelephant.

Counting on willpower is like counting on an untrained elephant..

“When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.” ~ Augusten Burroughs

Who doesn’t want to be healthy?

To have, or to regain, good health:

  • We know what to do. It is a familiar mantra. You need to change your lifestyle. This means you need to replace bad habits with good habits.
  • We know how to do it. Another familiar mantra. You need to eat healthy, exercise, and manage stress.
  • We know why to do it. When you change your lifestyle and replace bad habits with good habits you will prevent and reverse chronic diseases. You will reverse heart disease. You will reverse type 2 diabetes. You will restore immune health. You will prevent or reverse a host of crippling diseases: cancer, strokes, heart attacks, dementia, depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, etc.

But, apparently, we do not know how to change our lifestyle. It is easy to say, “change your lifestyle,” but it appears we simply are unable to do it. We keep trying. As a group we have a 95% failure rate.

Why are unhealthy people so reluctant to change their lifestyles?

Researchers followed a group of more than 1200 overweight men and women for a year following a heart attack. Their study, published in the American Heart Journal, found that individuals lost an average of just 0.2% of their total body weight. For a 200 pound man, that translates to less than 1 pound of weight loss in a year!

As reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, 9000 cancer survivors were instructed to make lifestyle changes, including regular physical activity and consuming five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Only one out of every 20 (5%) of these cancer survivors was able to follow these two principles of healthful living. This is a 95% failure rate.

When cancer survivors were asked why they were unable to make these lifestyle changes, the top two reasons given were: (1) “I don’t have the willpower,”  and (2) “I can’t do it alone.”

To regain your health – avoid these 4 pitfalls

1. Do not rely on willpower. Willpower is a vastly misunderstood term.

“Where there is a will, there is a way.” ~ Old English proverb

This proverb means that if you are determined enough, you can find a way to achieve your goal, even if it is very difficult.

Willpower is the determination to find a way to accomplish a goal, discipline is following that way – following a predetermined plan. Willpower is a starting point. However, when trying to make a lifestyle change involving exercise and a healthy diet, most people appear to think of willpower as being the strength needed to accomplish the goal.

To rely on willpower is to rely on your conscious thoughts (the mind) to be able to overpower the unconscious power of the body (the brain). Almost every weight loss program causes signals to be sent to the brain.The brain interprets these signals as your body being in harms way because of a rapid decrease in nourishment.

When the brain is signaled that the body is in a state of potential starvation, the brain will fiercely protect it against starvation by causing the release of hormones that stimulate the appetite to cascade throughout the body. These hormones will cause the body to do the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish by your diet. They will slow metabolism (burn less calories), take part of what you eat and store it as fat, and increase your appetite for high carbohydrate junk foods. The “appetite” signaling hormone is ghrelin.

Ghrelin is a powerful hormone that tells the brain your body needs nourishment. As long as the brain gets the ghrelin signal it will continue to cause hormones to cascade throughout the body, increasing your appetite to the point that you will become obsessed with satisfying these cravings.

Trying to use willpower (determination) to try to overcome hormones like ghrelin is like trying to ride an untrained elephant. An elephant trainer describes it this way: The rider is quite small compared to the huge animal he rides, he can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, the rider is no match for him. The more the elephant is trained the more the rider is able to control the direction.

2. Do not try to make lifestyle changes alone.

“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” ~ Proverbs 27:17

Lifestyle changes take time and require support. Studies by the American Psychological Association (APA) show that individuals need ongoing support to make lifestyle and behavior changes. The APA recommends talking about lifestyle and behavioral goals with family, friends, or a professional.

Building a habit of regular exercise, an absolute necessity for good health, should be easy because the body and its hormones are not constantly fighting you as they do when you go on a weight loss program. In fact, your body supports an exercise habit; your body is more like a dog sitting at the front door with its leash in its mouth, waiting to go outside and get exercise.

Not staying on a routine of regular exercise is a case of your own conscious thoughts blocking your ability to develop an exercise habit. It is a matter of inertia – a body at rest tends to stay at rest. You have all the right excuses: you’re too busy, you’re too tired, the weather is bad, you feel sick, or there is a family crisis. The point is, when you don’t feel like doing something, one excuse is as good as another.

Ninety percent of success in forming a habit of regular exercise is just making the effort to show up. Research has proven that if you add a social commitment to your exercise program, by enlisting a partner or committing to a group, you are far more likely to honor those commitments.

3. Do not take shortcuts.

“Shortcuts make long delays.” ~ JRR Tolkien (Fellowship of the Rings)

Taking a shortcut in anything you do comes with a heavy price. There is something in our nature that likes to believe there are shortcuts to things which we know take discipline, planning, and hard work. We want to believe there is a pill or a new diet that “takes weight off fast,” or a secret program where we can “eat all you want and lose fat by exercising only 15 minutes a day on this new exercise equipment.”

Human nature is drawn to shortcuts like a moth to flame.

The Donner party, a California bound wagon train of 81 pioneers chose to take an unproven shortcut to California. That decision resulted in one of the most famous tragedies in the history of the Western pioneer migration.

Why would you turn off the trail that was rutted with wagon tracks to follow a trail that had no wagon tracks at all? Why would you take a shortcut where not a single wagon had traveled before you?

Investors lost $50 billion in the “Bernie” Madoff investment scandals, one of the largest Ponzi schemes in history. Investors chose to take an investment “shortcut.”

Why would a person invest in a stock fund that had returns that “seemed too good to be true,” and the criteria for investing was to be invited to slip under the “velvet rope” with other privileged individuals.

Replacing bad habits with good habits is hard. When you are encouraged to follow shortcuts and are coddled into believing there is an easy way to achieve what normally requires discipline, planning, and hard work; you will do so usually at great expense.

4. Do not delay.

“He has the deed half done, who has made a beginning.~ Horace (born 65 BC).

There are many variations of this quote. I first heard it as, “beginning is half done.” It means that if you get over your inertia and start something, you’ll be halfway toward your goal.

If you are not actively committed to a regular exercise program of 20 to 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, then I strongly recommend you begin a moderate walking program now. Your health depends upon daily exercise. Pick a set time each day and make a commitment to take a brisk 30 minute walk at that set time. Do this while you explore exercise options.

If you are just beginning an exercise program, I recommend you read this short article, “Fitness Training”, by the Mayo Clinic staff. If you have a chronic disease, I recommend the article, “Exercise and Chronic Disease”, by the Mayo Clinic staff.

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