You know it’s not good for you. You know you should shut the door and walk away.
And really, you know you should have never bought it in the first place. But it’s there.
In all its shiny, packaged glory. Bright, attractive letters describing the scrumptious flavors of what’s inside.
Your hesitance is only building up anticipation of your desire for it.
So, you give in and you eat it.
And what about that gym membership you signed up for?
Summer hit, so you figured you would rather exercise outside. But you haven’t.
You wake up too tired. You have too much to do.
There is work, social events, activity groups you belong to and people you feel you must meet up with.
With all of this, making healthy changes and living a balanced healthy life seems like something only Instagram or Facebook influencers can achieve. But that’s not true.
How do you know how to drive a car? How did you become a manager, a CPA, writer or caregiver, a good parent or a student enrolled in a university?
None of these things magically happened for you. You dedicated your time, your mind, body and spirit into learning and experiencing all that you needed in order to fill the shoes you are in. It was through behavioral changes that you have become who you are now. Unfortunately, some poor behaviors may have evolved or came up on the wayside, negatively affecting your health.
When you are so heavily focused on one or only a few things, other important areas of your life can take the back burner. You feel you don’t have the will, time or energy to embrace changes, even if they benefit your health. So, you let your health take a backseat on your ambitious road to success or daily survival. But then illness, or the effects of unhealthy aging hit you. Before you know it, you join the growing number of people suffering from chronic disease.
Your behavior is undeniably critical to your health. The number of people in the world with Type 2 diabetes is expected to rise from 366 million as of 2016, to 552 million in 2030. About 17 million people died from cardiovascular disease in 2008, and approximately 23 million are expected to do so in 2030.
These are just a few chronic diseases that are influenced primarily by your lifestyle choices. What influences your lifestyle choices are your environment, your understanding of your genetic predispositions, the activities at which you spend your time, and the people you choose to spend your time with.
Change is Possible
First, let’s take the whole blame off you. With the strain to fulfill draining hours of work, pressure to attend every event, people to make sure you stay relevant with… it can feel impossible to take time to make every decision healthy. And mainly, changing your behavior is hard. Even when you know what you need to do to reach your goals, the resistance to change has you trapped to your old habits.
If changing behavior was simple, you would be able to make whatever changes you wanted to whenever you wanted, but you don’t. There is more to it than that. Making change is difficult and requires sustained motivation and support. Just saying you’re going to do something is not the answer. You need to understand human behavior in order to fully commit to changes.
Behaviors are created by several factors. These are your interactions between habit, automatic response to your immediate and wider social and physical environments, your conscious choice and intentions. As if that were not enough to consider, it is all happening in a world full of complex social and cultural environments.
The changes you want to make form through processes and practices you must embed in your social and personal life. When you practice with changes, you are ingraining new patterns of behavioral habits. As much of your behavior is reflexive, it takes mindful steps to transform your current behavior.
The old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, is not an excuse, no matter how old you are, when you need to make lifestyle changes critical to improving your health.
You may know that adolescents experience the most cognitive development in their brain. However, the adult brain has neurons that continue to form new connections, strengthen current connections, or eliminate connections as you continue to learn. Even damaged neurons have some capability to regenerate if the conditions are right. It is this “plasticity” that allows you to reshape your brain and thus your behaviors.
How to Make Changes
You can spend time reading and becoming an expert on every aspect of your disease, but knowledge is just one part of the process of creating change. Your identity, or sense of self is in part derived from your behaviors, so you must approach needed changes with openness. While you may feel distinct, personal reasons for certain habits, if they are damaging to your health, you must be committed to taking time to break those patterns. As you make necessary changes for enhancing your health, you will experience a renewed sense of self.
Your behavior is largely driven by automatic responses, controlled by your state of mind and triggered by environmental features. There are ways to “trick” your cognition to making changes feel more reflexive.
Listed below is a series of tips so that your commitment to change feels easier than ever before:
1. Approach changes by using observations of the patterns of your common behaviors. This will help you understand why you do what you do. Knowing this will help you decide what interventions to employ for breaking your bad habits. This requires careful, thoughtful work that leads to a deep understanding of the nature of what motivates you and the pressures that act upon you.
This is why in Functional Medicine, I ask you to fill out a timeline. It indicates to me the events that created conditions for which you responded with habits that impact your health. This is where the real work takes place. Identifying the elements surrounding your behaviors, will guide me towards creating a customized plan for your lifestyle intervention. Empowered and motivated by the support of the doctor-patient relationship, you are a part of generating your solutions and committing to them.
2. Nudge your choices with small changes in your social or physical environment to make specific behaviors more likely. Small changes at first, feel less daunting and are easier to incorporate into your lifestyle. You are more likely to progress your health by making small changes first. For example, place fresh fruit and vegetables in the foreground of your pantry/refrigerator to make healthier food choices more likely. Studies about unconscious food choices and mindless eating has exposed how many of your decisions about what and how much to eat involve little rational thought.
This holds true for other behaviors you wish to change, such as exercising more or creating more time for meditation. Set your workout clothes next to your bed so you when you wake up, they are there ready for you to exercise before your busy day begins. Set an alarm for the beginning of your lunch period to “nudge” you into even just a two-minute meditation every day.
3. Record, repeat, reward and reassess. Repetition of an action in a consistent manner will help you develop your new changes into a reflexive habit. Initially, your brain will be working to strengthen connections with new neurons involved in learning something new. This can feel like work, but stay dedicated and focused on your goal! In time, your new changes will create habits. Once this happens, the automation of the new changes frees mental resources for other tasks.
As you perform each new change, record it on your calendar. This is key, because your brain likes recognizing patterns to perform higher brain functions, such as learning to incorporate changes to your behavior. As your brain picks up on a pattern, it will eventually store the information as a learned behavior.
After you reach a goal or milestone, allow yourself a nonfood reward such as a new workout device, or gear. Your emotions reinforce pattern processes, so this is a great way to encourage positive feelings surrounding new changes. Consider sharing your success with friends and family as support and encouragement from your community is essential. That being said, make sure you choose to spend your time only with those who are supportive, if you can.
Finally, reassess. By recording, repeating and rewarding your progress, you will have a clearer idea for when you are ready to reassess, and build on top of your new changes. Maybe you are ready to get rid of all packaged foods in your home. Maybe you can lengthen your workout time or add in some more complex moves. And maybe you are ready to meditate for 15 minutes a day. Again, add on in small increments. This can add value as it boosts variety, and creates a challenge for which you will plan to reward yourself for achieving.
In time, even small changes in your behavior will significantly enhance your health.
To Your Health,
Kiran Grewal MD
"My goal is to share my knowledge with the world. I believe in delivering valuable and ethical content that changes the lives of my patients."
-Kiran Grewal MD