In a world overwhelmed with confusing fitness advice, it’s no wonder more of us don’t embrace a healthy lifestyle. Complicated diets and exercise programs can discourage even the most committed individual. Despite its efforts, the fitness industry has made little progress in its campaign to build healthy lifestyles. Some feel that staying healthy is impossible or at least not worth the effort! Fortunately, improving your health does not need to be a painful, uphill battle. There are simple strategies that make a difference when it comes to living better.
Many people believe they are lazy. When asked about their health habits, they acknowledge their unhealthy lifestyle with a degree of shame. However, laziness has little to do with our lifestyle. The tendency towards inactivity and poor eating habits has more to do with the environment. Today, we live in a world engineered to conserve energy. Many of the day-to-day, calorie-burning activities that were once commonplace (cutting the grass, opening the garage door, washing the car, etc.) no longer exist. Opportunities to burn calories have been systematically engineered out of our environment.
Eating habits have also been affected. We push a button (on the microwave) and consume 3000 calories, or hit the drive-through for some equally high-calorie, dashboard dining. Either way, these behaviors are not biologically driven. They are created by an environment engineered to be efficient. It’s only reasonable to expect that changes of this magnitude would contribute to a life of inactivity and overeating.
For decades, fitness professionals have worked hard to promote healthy lifestyles. Unfortunately, our methods leave a lot to be desired. We have historically taken a bad news approach when it comes to encouraging behavior change. A bad news approach focuses on the downside of inactivity and poor nutrition. As it turns out, telling people they are off track often leaves them feeling worse. It doesn’t take a behavioral scientist to realize that this type of approach doesn’t lead to behavior change.
However, a good news approach can inspire behavior change. A good news approach shows how small changes produce significant health benefits. A good news approach provides hope for a better future. By giving people specific good news examples, they become encouraged and begin taking their health into their own hands. Here are several good news examples to inspire your next step.
Your entire body (including your brain) loves physical activity. A review of 78 studies published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research concludes that an inactive lifestyle produces unusual stress on brain chemistry. Fortunately, small amounts of activity can offset this stress. A study in the journal, Health Psychology, found that 10 minutes of moderate-intensity, physical activity (i.e., brisk walking) was sufficient to improve mood and reduce fatigue. Recently, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published a White Paper that reported “Taking regular walks is not just one of the best ways to keep your body healthy, it keeps your mind healthy as well. Building on this idea, Dr. John Raty, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School writes in his book Spark, “exercise is an essential nutrient for the brain”. This exercise, brain-power connection, is a good one, given that everyone wants a sharp mind!
It’s amazing, but true, physical activity gets you to behave better. If you were to ask my clients, they would tell you that physical activity is the glue that holds other health habits in place. Making the decision to be active somehow encourages people to engage in other healthy behaviors. I like to think that one good decision leads to another. A landmark study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior demonstrates a link between physical activity and other health habits. The scientists in the study coined the term gateway behavior. They concluded that physical activity acts as a gateway behavior leading to other health habits such as improved eating.
Maintaining muscular fitness is more doable than people realize. When done properly, strength training should be brief and infrequent. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), two, full-body, strength workouts, per week, can produce significant health benefits. The ACSM goes on to say that “there is overwhelming evidence supporting the health benefits of strength training. In addition, one workout per week can delay the onset of sarcopenia (the age-related loss of muscle and bone). In other words, investing 30 minutes a week can keep you strong as you age. This is good news for anyone that thinks you need to strength train three to five days a week.
Richard J. Wolff, RD, LDN