What do you want to do when you retire? The most common answers to this question are to spend time with friends and family, travel, volunteer, exercise (finally!), learn new things, live abroad, and write a book. (1) But you won’t be able to do these things later if you don’t take care of your body and your brain now.
Throughout this website we stress the importance of adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle. You may have the best intentions to take the advice offered here. Maybe you’re trying to implement the lifestyle changes recommended in our new digital book Brain Gold: Brain Fitness Guide for Boomers, but are struggling.
If you’re like most people, you’ve tried to change, but you find it really, really hard (as in “impossible”). You’ve made the resolutions and set the goals. When you’ve failed, you’ve tried even harder, but making change stick has still eluded you.
Let’s take a look at why the usual ways of making lifestyle changes often fail. Then I’ll give you some super-easy but counter-intuitive tips to create new, healthy habits.
Change the Usual Way Is Hard
Most people rely exclusively on motivation and willpower to make a change. There are some surprising reasons this doesn’t work.
When you decide to start a new diet, exercise program, or any self-improvement venture, you are usually psyched! You just know this time you’re going to stick with it. You’re excited about the new gym you joined or a new diet book you’ve read, and your motivation is high.
Initially you are motivated by the pleasure of what you want (getting into your skinny jeans, wearing a bathing suit this summer) and the pain of what you don’t want (hating the way you look, having a heart attack). But motivation naturally diminishes with time.
When motivation starts to wane, you switch to relying on willpower. But no one has an endless supply of willpower — it is a resource that gets used up. When your day is filled with things you really don’t want to do, by the end of the day you no longer have any willpower reserve left.
So you spend the evening plopped down in front of the TV munching on unhealthy snacks, vowing to do better tomorrow. It’s not your fault — you simply have no willpower left to make the healthier, harder choices. (2)
If motivation and willpower let you down, don’t despair! There is another answer that relies on using the power of your subconscious brain.
Make Change Easy by Working With Your Brain
According to neuroscientist Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief, 95% of your life is dictated by the subconscious mind. This is the part of your brain that runs a large portion of your life on autopilot enabling you to do many tasks without thinking about them, everything from tying your shoes to driving a car.
When you do something often enough, it becomes a habit. Habits are activities you do effortlessly with minimal thought on your part. You can appreciate the power of a habit when you try to stop a bad one. It’s tough!
Next, I’ll tell you how to harness the power of your brain to stop struggling with a healthy lifestyle change by turning it into a habit!
I’m going to use an example of starting a walking program, but these concepts can be used for creating any new healthy habit.
Take Baby Steps
Setting big goals is exciting! Telling your friends (and yourself) that you are going to start walking 5 miles a day sounds impressive, but you are probably setting yourself up for failure.
But starting with small boring goals, “baby steps”, will greatly increase your chance for success. There will be many days you won’t walk at all if 5 miles is your goal. But if you make walking around the block your goal, you can certainly accomplish that!
You will feel good that you’ve honored your commitment to yourself. But even more important, you’ve created a new neural pathway that turns your daily walk into a habit.
Using small goals tricks your brain. Your subconscious likes to be in control and doesn’t like change. A huge change often sets up subconscious resistance, but a small change will be accepted. You can learn more about using this “small is better” concept at TinyHabits.com.
Ask anyone who smokes and they can tell you about triggers. Most smokers have triggers to smoke after a meal, with a cup of coffee, or after sex. You can use triggers to your advantage. When you regularly take a walk after another event (such as eating dinner), your brain will create an association so you’ll automatically be inclined to take a walk after dinner.
You can help yourself with visual triggers, too. Leave your walking shoes by the front door, keep your pedometer by your keys, or lay your walking attire on your bed to create triggers you can’t miss.
If you are going to start a new habit, you need to be prepared. A successful walking habit means more than putting one foot in front of the other.
Initially, you have a few decisions to make. Where are you going to walk? What time do you want to leave? Are you going to walk alone or solo? Will you bring your dog? Should you bring water?
Next, get the right equipment to ensure your success. Get a good pair of comfortable walking shoes and socks to match. Get a water bottle that’s comfortable to carry.
People who use a pedometer walk 27% more than those who don’t, so consider getting one to encourage your success. (3) The Fitbit One is an incredible, tiny device that track your steps, distance, calories burned, and even your sleep cycle. Pretty amazing! Currently, there is free shipping on all Fitbit orders.
Make It Convenient
Put everything you need to take a walk in one convenient place so you can grab it and go. If your shoes are in the linen closet, your socks are in the bedroom, your house key in your desk drawer, and your left your water bottle in the car, you’ll give up before you get out the door!
Make It Fun
Make your walk something you look forward to. If you like companionship, find a walking partner. If you enjoy music, podcasts, or audiobooks, listen while you walk. You’ll find the time spent walking flies by!
The Big Red X
When Jerry Seinfeld was an upcoming comedian, he created the habit of writing new material every day using a wall calendar and a red marker. You can do the same.
Put up a wall calendar (there are free ones you can print online) in a highly-visible place, like on the fridge. Every day you take your walk, cross out that day with a BIG RED X. You won’t want to see any blank days which will, as Jerry says, “break the chain”. I’d listen to Jerry. He’s been pretty successful.
It’s widely accepted that it takes 30 days to create a new habit, so after one month, your new habit will largely be formed. Then you can ramp it up to the next level. Eventually you can turn your walk around the block into a five-mile-a-day habit, if that’s your ultimate goal.
Small Habits Create Gateways
Not sure where to begin? Here are some examples of healthy “baby steps” you could take:
- Replace one soda with a glass of water.
- Replace one cup of coffee with a cup of green tea.
- Eat a small baggie of raw vegetables as one of your snacks.
- Have a piece of fruit instead of dessert after dinner.
- Do 5 minutes of yoga stretches in the morning and in the evening.
- Listen to a 10 minute meditation.
Pick one healthy change (or create your own) and commit to doing it daily for 30 days to create a new healthy habit.
Small changes aren’t very exciting, but many people have found using this technique really works to bring lasting change. Your new habit can serve as a gateway to bigger changes that can significantly improve your life.
SOURCE: Surprisingly…Unstuck: Rewire Your Brain to Exercise More, Eat Right, and Truly Enjoy Doing So by Maria Brilaki
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