A question I seem to get a lot is, Where do I start? With all of the information that is available and all of the “changes” that may or may not need to be made it can become overwhelming. Starting with an all or nothing approach can be for you if you are that person. Most of us are not, and we need to pick one item and ease into the changes.
I am an advocate of the minimum effective dose (MED) to make a positive change. The MED for week one is only becoming aware of the behaviors that you currently have. I am not saying you obsess over these items, but merely become informed. An example would be with food and meal frequency. I recommend that you write down everything you eat and drink and the time for one week, you do not need to count macronutrients or calories, this is just to become aware of the choices and decisions we make. If carrying a notebook is too much, use the camera on your smartphone and before anything enters your mouth snap a picture. The phone will time stamp and show quantity, and it is simple. This is a MED to become aware of one habit. After we have been able to bring awareness to the meal timing, and content we can then begin to work on making the positive changes.
Typically the next step would be to purge the pantry of any processed food, vegetable oils, sugars, and other simple carbohydrates and to go grocery shopping for real, whole foods. I emphasize green leafy vegetables, some fruit in season that is fresh for a sweet tooth, healthy meats and fats. We work on merely eating these foods over processed foods. Timing, quantity, and frequency will come next. Again each approach is tailored to the individual and what they can take on. For some, it may be easier to go all in and attack all aspects in one step. Understanding how much to change to take on at one time is something you need to play with to determine what the MED is for you. I don’t want clients to be starving or hungry at first. I want them to start focussing on better food choices. As quality foods become a natural part of their lifestyle, then we can start working on the MED for other aspects of health. These would be meal timing, quantity, understanding the difference between satiated and stuffed. After food, we focus on sleep, movement, exercise and stress resiliency. Regaining our health does not happen overnight, in a week or a month. It is a process that takes time. The time required is different for each person, and it has a lot to do with how long a person has been living in a way that was opposed to health. My journey back to health took over a year to get to a healthy weight and as my knowledge expanded so did the time it took. My weight loss and return to health were non-linear, and I am still working on making consistent changes as my goals and understanding progress. The principle of MED has not changed and is still there.
So where do we start? With becoming aware of what needs to change and then taking the minimum effective dose to start making that change.
Part of a healthy lifestyle is moving our bodies and the benefits are enormous. While we think of movement primarily as exercise – going to the gym, getting out for a run, a bike ride, or a yoga class – movement is more than structured activities. Both exercise and movement are essential parts of health and here is why I advocate for doing both. Exercise usually has more structure to it, like a class (spin, yoga, boot camp, CrossFit) or some specific element of cardio for a particular distance or time (going for a run, elliptical, bike ride) or it can look like a weight lifting session. All of these are good things, and we should seek to make them to our routine. Where movement differs from exercise is in the lack of structure. Movement is often a bit more sporadic and sprinkled in throughout the day–movement is the smaller things that keep us from being too sedentary during the day. This is playing with kids, standing, walking, opening doors, it takes many forms. Often we go to the gym, and we get an hour or so of exercise in and we think we have done our part, that we have “moved.” Then we proceed to sit in our cars on our way to work, sit at our desks and then sit in our cars on the way home from work. We sit at dinner and to read or watch TV. “Sitting is the new smoking” has been a popular phrase recently, and with stand up desks being a new rage we are trending in a better direction. Full disclosure, I use both. But, standing stationary all day is not much different than sitting all day. There are times to sit and times to stand, times to exercise and times to move.
The need for movement is important and while no job is perfect, jobs that involve skilled labor and reduce the amount of time one sits during the day does have an advantage since movement is built into part of their day. This does not imply that someone should change jobs, but it is an option and in some circumstances, a career or job change can provide be a step in a healthier direction. I often think back to the years I spent working as a finish carpenter, it was constant movement, with and without a load, up and down and all around. It felt pretty darn good too. Today my environment has changed, as it has for many of us, and we need to adapt and learn to move within these changes. I am at a desk a lot, more than I have ever been, which has made getting movement more difficult. For a while, I struggled to “find” movement in my day.
These are some tips that I use, and that I have seen others use, to find places to add more movement into my day.
I do have a sit-stand desk, and I do not sit or stand all day, I rotate between the two. When I am standing I am often moving around a bit, shifting weight, this an excellent place for a balance or wobble board as well, personally I have a Plane by Fluid Stance.
When I am standing and need a file, I squat down to open the drawer instead of bending over. I make sure I give my brain a break every 50 minutes and take that moment to walk around, sometimes I go to the stairwell and go up and down a flight of stairs or two.
Taking the stairs is another great way to find more movement. Don’t use the elevator if you don’t have to, or alternate between the stairs and the elevator. I am on the 9th floor of my building, some days I use only the stairs, other days I may take the elevator to the third or the fourth floor and then use the stairs depending on the time I have. I park at the far end corner of the lot as well, adding distance means I have to walk. I park far from almost anywhere I go into to add an element of walking (my wife kids me, saying that I park equal distance from our house to the store). I try to use the manual doors as well. I go for a quick walk around the block during lunch. If I have a long call to be on and the weather is permitting I take the call on my cell phone outside while walking around. I add push-ups to my routine whenever I change my clothes (except at the gym) twice a day, it gives me a chance to move a little more. I add body weight squats here and there. I start my mornings walking our dog around the block. Playing with your kids can be another great way to move. So can dancing around the house while listening to music. Cooking a meal from scratch is also a way to add some more movement and have a better meal, this one is a win-win.
Be creative with your environment and find what works for you. Adding more movement to your day requires some self-experimentation. If something doesn’t work well for you feel free to modify it or abandon it and do something different. I like making some things a little harder to get to, just a bit out of the way, even in my home–it forces movement, but there is a balance with this approach. When forming a new habit or creating a routine, one key element is how convenient it is. The more convenient, the easier it is to add the new routine, the more inconvenient, the less likely it will get done. The ease of the task helps break a habit or routine that you want to eliminate.
Habit stacking can be a trick to help add some small movements; it is a tool I use personally and with clients. Recall the pushups I do when I change clothes, that is habit stacking, My cue to do push-ups, (25 if you are wondering), is changing my clothes. The bedroom and act changing my clothes is a daily habit I already have. It can also be something like walking into your office and then doing a few bodyweight goblet squats before sitting at the desk. I have a cup I keep at my desk for water, it is not a big 32oz mega cup I see many others use. It is 14oz; this is intentional. It means I have to refill it many times during the day. Which forces me to walk, adding a bit more movement in my day I would not otherwise get.
Have fun with finding movement in your day, structured exercise is excellent for the mind and body, but movement during the day is also an essential component to a healthy life, be creative in finding ways to move more during the day and have fun in the process of discovering how many new ways you can move.
Recap of Ideas and Ways to Add Movement
– Take the stairs
– Park further away
– Take a mental break from work and to walk
– Add some push-ups or squats
– Use manual doors
– Cook meals from scratch
– Play with kids
– Chores – make them a movement game
– Gardening and yardwork
– Shovel the snow with a shovel
– Go for a walk
– Play with your pets, if you have one
– Alternate sitting and standing
– Use balance and wobble boards
– Climb a tree
– Play on the playground – I love this one, playing on the playground with my daughter is always fun
– Ride a bike
– Have fun and be creative, find small places to habit stack.
It’s time to be real. I struggle on days to get up, to eat real food, to move and to lift heavy things. I struggle on days to shut down the mindless scrolling on Instagram––I recently deleted the app to work on this very item since I felt it was becoming more of a distraction than a tool.
I think we all have those challenging days where a lack of willpower, motivation or drive seems to take over. It is normal and natural to crave and desire things that play on our neurochemistry. Social media is engineered to get us to scroll endlessly and not leave their site. Food, as well, is engineered to the “bliss point,” an industry term in processed food and drinks that refers to the exact range that gets us to want to consume more. Not too sweet. Not too rich. Not too salty. It’s just right. It is on these days that we have to rely on habits that we have set up to help us. The discipline the follow through and to also have compassion and empathy for our shortcomings. Are we going to stumble and fall on days like this? Absolutely. It is human nature. The critical thing to remember is that when we do fall short and struggle, for a day or a meal, to not let that become a negative feedback loop that then becomes days and weeks of shortcomings strung together. Repeated struggling day after day is how we often find ourselves giving up and quitting on ourselves. Digging ourselves into a hole that can feel too deep to climb out of. I know I have been there. I have also learned from those experiences as well.
Take chocolate, for example, I love dark chocolate. The brands I prefer only have two or three ingredients, so I feel pretty good about having it as a healthy treat. But, I do not do well with moderation and chocolate––or sweets at all for that matter. I have tried to get the moderation concept to work for me, but I can still eat the entire bar without much effort and sometimes even while I am eating it saying, “Nathan, stop.” Sweets and chocolate trigger something deep inside, and it becomes hard to stop. It could be a dopamine hit in the pleasure center of the brain or something a bit more emotional, fear of scarcity. Either way, this area of struggle for me is real, and I know this an area I need to pay attention to If I am to guard against this behavior. I do this by making sure I am in the right frame of mind and have a limited amount of chocolate available to me if I am going to eat some. I also try not to keep it in the house. My goal is to set up the right frame of mind by making sure I am eating well, getting plenty of sleep and plenty of movement. If I don’t do these foundational things, then it becomes much harder. And when I am stressed and running on poor fuel and limited deep sleep, I am going to go crazy and end up devouring all of the chocolate around. So for me, if life is getting the better of me on a day with stress, lack of sleep, or something else, then abstinence is my friend on these weaknesses. I won’t tempt fate, it can be hard, and I’m not perfect. But as I mentioned at the beginning, I then have compassion and empathy for myself. I shake it off, get back up and start again with the next meal, the next day, the next time. The key for each us it to learn what these areas of weakness are and how to mitigate them.
If you are struggling, take a step back, breathe, and get some distance so you can evaluate why and the what. Be kind to yourself. None of us are perfect. Remind yourself to focus on the process.