The word health covers a wide range of topics. When we talk about cutting down on stress, for example, it’s clear that we’re looking at our mental health; however, stress can also have a range of physical results, such as a lowered immune system, headaches, dizziness, and loss of sleep.
If you are aiming to be happy and productive, it is vital that you pay attention to your body as well as your mind
What you eat and the amount of exercise you do will have huge effects on how you feel; for example, there is some evidence showing that high consumption of fast food is linked with depression (Sanchez-Villegas et al., 2012) while eating oatmeal in the morning instead of commercial cereal can help you concentrate for longer throughout the morning (Mahoney et al., 2005). There are, of course, multiple conflicting views on which diets are best for you, and the problem with diets is that people usually go back to their old eating habits after a while and regain any weight they lost in the first place.
If you’ve been told by a health professional that you need to lose weight, stop smoking, stop drinking and/or increase exercise and you have difficulty in converting this message into action then the first action you may need to take is to change your underlying beliefs.
Changing your underlying beliefs
In Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey’s book, ‘Immunity to Change’ they talk of uncovering the beliefs that are supporting our unhealthy habits and why some changes require the process of uncovering our emotional association with the unhealthy behavior.
For those of us that don’t smoke or have never smoked, it seems incongruous for individuals to knowingly inhale a substance that contributes to an early and painful death. However, for smokers, they have tied numerous positive emotions of belonging, socializing, relaxing, and treating themselves with some ‘time-out’ to the experience of smoking which makes their desire to continue much greater than their fear of death.
This desire for the habit, along with the addictive properties of the substance, makes it one of the biggest challenges to overcome
For some people, an obsession with food or drink is linked with social needs and sugar highs. It can also be associated with giving and receiving love: it is the way that they participate with their family and friends and it may be the way that they reward themselves for ‘good behavior’. If you are unable to visualize and be motivated by a vision of a new slimmer and healthier you being loved, accepted, and feeling rewarded then you may not be able to sustain the everyday changes required in your food choices and activity levels.
You may need to step outside of your usual circle of influence and find success stories that will motivate and convince you that you will feel great, not only physically, but emotionally as well. You are more likely to succeed if you surround yourself with like-minded people with similar challenges (such as at Weight Watchers) and sign up with a personal coach that can help you to set the goals that are achievable and will reward you with positive feedback in support of your commitments.
These like-minded people, mentors, and coaches can also help you to build your knowledge on how to change. Instead of always focusing on your next opportunity to eat, you may instead be focusing on how many steps you can take today and if you can beat yesterday’s record.
If you just take it day by day, the choices you make can become new habits and eventually become a way of life
In the beginning, you may feel motivated by a desire to complete a charity walking/running event or to take up a sport that you really enjoyed when more active. This may then transform into finding pleasure in the activity itself.
Sustaining the change is the last and most important step. If you can sustain the change long enough for it to become a habitual part of your lifestyle, then you will find it easier to enjoy the rewards that the positive change brings in your life. Part of this sustainability must include emotional reward and reinforcement. You must be around people that support your changes more often than not and you must be able to challenge people that dump their needs and fears on to you. You may not realize it, but your friends and family might be holding you in patterns of unhealthy behavior and beliefs.
One thing that you learn in life, is that while it may be easier to identify the changes required in other people than in yourself, it is certainly harder to change another person than it is to change yourself. It may be necessary to limit your exposure to their influences and lifestyle and increase your exposure to people that are pursuing active and healthy choices.
If your friends and family are big drinkers, how difficult will it be to hang out with them every weekend and still lose weight, (considering each drink is about a slice of pizza on average)? How much are they likely to support your choice of mineral water when you socialize with them? How will you be able to avoid craving food when you have KFC and Masterchef rammed into your thinking every-time you turn on the TV? I hope you can see that influences are often indirect and difficult to manage without reducing your exposure. There may be an array of alternative choices that you need to make daily to support you and your goals.
As for exercising, there are short-term and long-term benefits for your physical and mental health.
In the long-term, exercise can reduce the risk of many health conditions, such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and can also improve your mental functioning, strengthening you against stress and depression, as well as promoting enhanced self-esteem, cognitive functioning and well-being. In the short-term, exercise can bring a sense of relaxation or excitement, with some people experiencing a type of euphoria, the runner’s high, after intense exercise (see Hefferon, Lomas & Ivtzan, 2014, for an overview of the research).
Hefferon and Mutrie (2012) in The Oxford Handbook of Exercise Psychology argue that exercise boosts well-being in a number of ways; by boosting resilience, helping people enter a state of flow, increasing relationships (if you join an exercise group or class), and increasing self-worth through feelings of competence. These move us towards our best possible selves and even giving a sense of purpose, as well as those actual physical changes that are happening in your body/brain when you exercise.
Can you think of any other ways you could work exercise in to your day?
This means that even if you don’t have time to go to the gym, you can still increase the amount of movement that you make and keep yourself active.
If you have a desk job, the unfortunate news is that extended periods of sitting is linked to cardiovascular disease – independent of physical activity done in your leisure time (Katzmarzyk et al., 2009), meaning that even a regular work-out can’t undo the damage done by sitting down all day (although it will help, of course). As well as the risk of future disease, sitting all day can cause a lot of back pain, which might chip away at your happiness and lead to more problems later on.
However, there are little things you can do throughout the day to reduce the damage, such as getting up and stretching every 20-30 minutes. If you can’t get up and walk around the office, at least stand up and stretch out. If you have a smartphone, there are apps (for example StandApp) that remind you to get up and stretch at work, or you could set a normal alarm. Moving about in between long periods of sitting will also increase your circulation, moving blood to your brain and helping you feel more alert and attentive. These are great for keeping your concentration on top form and much better for you than downing endless coffees
As well as weaving little bits of exercise into your day, it’s important to find exercise that you enjoy
If you see working out as a chore, I guarantee you’ll find plenty of excuses not to do it: for example, the gym is too far away, it’s raining and you don’t want to get wet by going outside, or you don’t have any clean work-out clothes. However, if you find something that you enjoy, exercise can start to become a reward in itself; something you look forward to.
When you start exercise slowly and see yourself progressing towards a goal, it can increase your feeling of self-worth. You might come to realize that if you can go from breathless on the stairs to running through the park in a few weeks, you can do so many other things, too. When you see your body toning up and changing, and start to feel the health benefits of regular exercise, it can serve as a sign of the other great changes that you’re capable of.
What might your happy exercise be? Do you prefer to exercise alone or in a group? Inside or outside? Set yourself a goal, starting with one weekly 30-minute session of exercise.
Decide what you’re going to do, where and when. If there’s anything else you need to do first, like buy a pair of good running shoes, set this as an immediate goal (so you don’t run into the excuse later on).