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Habits, Addictions, and Fitness

Most of us know we should be eating healthy foods and hitting the gym consistently – it’s a matter of actually doing it.  That’s where the power of habits and addictions comes into play.

It turns out that a large percentage of our daily actions is done out of habit, without much conscious thought.  We wake up each morning, jump in the shower, drink our coffee, skip breakfast or eat a donut or whatever the case may be.  Day after day.  After enough repetition, our actions become habits that are very hard to break.  While that may sound discouraging, we can use the power of habit to our advantage by replacing unhealthy habits with healthy ones.  Once we do that, it becomes relatively easy to keep the positive behaviors going and make major progress towards our goals.

How to change your unhealthy habits

If you’re in a health slump and find yourself overwhelmed by the thought of turning around your unhealthy lifestyle, the easiest approach is to break your bad habits down into small pieces and tackle them one at a time.

For example, if your entire diet is unhealthy, start off by deciding to eat a healthy breakfast each morning and don’t stress about the other meals.  That doesn’t sound too hard, does it?  After a few weeks of eating healthy breakfast each day, it will start to become a habit.  Next, tackle lunch, then dinner, and eventually snacks, beverages, etc. until eating healthy all day becomes automatic.

The same approach works for hitting the gym.  If you haven’t been to the gym consistently in ages, try committing to showing up 3 days a week at a certain time without any pressure of grinding through some killer workout routine.  Just commit to showing up and doing some simple easy exercise that you enjoy.  The key is to show up consistently until it becomes a habit.  Once you’ve done that, 90% of the battle is already won.  From there, choose a slightly more challenging workout to follow until the new level of effort becomes a habit.  And so on.  Before you know it, you’ll be exercising hard on a consistent basis without thinking about it any more than you think about brushing your teeth.

For anyone interested in learning more about how to recognize, break, and create habits, I recommend reading the highly reviewed book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

Addictions

Let’s talk for a moment about habit’s ugly cousin, addiction.  An addiction is a habit that’s reinforced by positive feelings when performed and/or negative feelings when not performed, creating a powerful compulsion to repeat the behavior.  With a legitimate addiction, chemical changes occur in the brain that can make it extremely hard to stop the behavior.

Whenever addiction is mentioned, most people think of drugs and alcohol.  There are two more common addictions that often sabotage our health and fitness goals: sugar and caffeine.

Some people are highly susceptible to sugar or caffeine addiction, while others aren’t.  How do you know if you’re addicted?  If you find it nearly impossible to stop at one or two cookies/brownies/candies at a sitting or one or two cokes/coffees per day, you probably have some level of addiction to them.  Caffeine by itself isn’t harmful to healthy adults at under 400 mg / day (about 4 cups of coffee), but refined sugar should be kept to a minimum if you want to be healthy and fit.  Sugar and caffeine together, like you’ll find in a coke and most Starbucks drinks, are the worst because they carry the unhealthy aspects of sugar along with the double punch of addictive ingredients.

How to overcome your addictions

Easier said than done!  The baby step approach I recommended for changing your habits won’t work for beating an addiction.  There are all kinds of helpful techniques for addiction that you can research elsewhere, but the bottom line is that to overcome a sugar addiction you’re best off quitting cold turkey.  It will take a lot of will power at first, but after a few weeks the chemicals in your brain will begin to change, the intense cravings will start to subside, and it will become much easier.  If your will power is less than rock solid, it helps to have a health or fitness goal to focus on and someone to keep you accountable during those first few weeks.  Another tip is to get to bed early, as research shows that lack of sleep increases sugar cravings.  After you’ve broken the habit, on the rare occasions that you find yourself splurging on some sugar, get right back on the wagon and you should be alright.

I hope these techniques help you in your quest to become healthy and fit.  A lot of times we get too focused on finding the right diet or workout routine when our mental game is really what’s holding us back.  Please share if you know someone who’s struggling with their health and fitness goals and you think these techniques might help.           

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