Getting handle on habits key to better health

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An important benefit to keeping an exercise and nutrition log is it will often make patterns and habits very obvious. As humans, we are creatures of habit, and often do things not because we need to, but rather because it's just the way we've always done them. Some common examples are:

• Salting your food.

• Eating while watching TV.

• Always purchasing popcorn at the movies.

• Eating while studying.

• Always overeating at parties.

• Eating poorly when you're with friends.

• Always eating the same exact amount of food regardless of your hunger level.

• Stopping for an ice-cream or treat on your way home from a weekend destination regardless of your hunger level.

The movies just wouldn't be the same without popcorn! This is a habit and people will often find themselves ordering popcorn even though they've just had dinner and are feeling quite satisfied.

The first step to getting control of these nutritional habits is to become aware of your patterns. A journal that tracks your exercise and dietary habits will help you examine your behaviors. Once you discover what actually stimulates your less-than-healthy behavior, you then have the choice of either changing the stimulus or situation, or changing your response to the stimulus or situation. Review the following examples to help clarify the action steps.

Step one: Recognize what stimulates the unhealthy action. Become aware of the habit. Monitor what you eat, when you eat, who you are with and how you felt.

Some examples:

Whenever I'm depressed, I eat junk food.

Whenever I go out with my BFF, we always drink too much and eat terribly.

Every Friday night, friends come over to watch a movie, and I always eat four slices of pizza

Every time I eat ice cream, I always order a double scoop.

I always eat a foot-long sandwich at lunch.

I always go to the cafeteria and buy two chocolate chip cookies for my mid-afternoon break.

Step two: Either change the stimulus or change the response.

Change the stimulus. For example, using the scenarios above:

Try not to get overly depressed and attempt instead to examine whether there could be any potential outcomes from the depressing situation. Try to develop the skills to become an optimist.

When you go out with your BFF, bring along another friend who may be a better influence. Instead of watching a movie, schedule a hike or a walk with your friends. Instead of ordering ice cream, order a fruit salad. Bring a bowl of chili to lunch. Take a short walk on your break instead.

As for changing the response, examples might include:

When you get depressed, watch a funny movie or call a best friend or go for a long walk.

You and your BFF make a healthy dinner at home and then go out dancing, both understanding that you'll be drinking two glasses of water for every beer or alcoholic drink.

Order Japanese instead of pizza.

Order one scoop of ice cream instead of two.

Order a 6-inch sandwich.

Bring a few Fig Newtons to work for your break.

Now, your homework assignment:

  1. List the stimulus-response connections that you participate in regularly.
  2. What actions can you take to overcome them and change your behavior?

Sherri McMillan, M.Sc. is the owner of Northwest Personal Training in downtown Vancouver. She can be reached at www.nwPersonalTraining.com or www.ShapeupwithSherri.com.