A flat white as soon as you get to work, daily muffin at 3pm, three wines with dinner. All of these behaviours have one thing in common; they’re part of a ritual. They are behaviours which are so ingrained into your daily routine that you carry them out on autopilot. The big question is do you even enjoy them anymore? When behaviours become automatic you often don’t stop to evaluate whether they’re still as rewarding or valuable as they once were. Instead you feel dependant on the coffee, muffin or wine rather than feeling joy. That dependency has developed because your brain has been rewired to expect it through repetition. The great news is that you’ve mastered the art of rewiring your brain to carry out these behaviours automatically once, so you can rewire it to carry out new behaviours which favour your health & fitness goals.
Do you remember the ‘brain training’ craze in the early 2000’s on the Nintendo DS? Everyone was trying to train their brain to achieve a younger brain age, that program would have been based on scientific findings about Neuroplasticity. “The term Neuroplasticity is derived from the root words Neuron and Plastic. A neuron refers to the nerve cells in our brain. Each individual neural cell is made up of an axon, dendrites, and is linked to one another by a small space called the synapses. The word plastic means to mould, sculpt, or modify. Neuroplasticity refers to the potential that the brain has to reorganise by creating new neural pathways to adapt, as it needs. Think of the neurological changes being made in the brain as the brain’s way of tuning itself to meet your needs.”1
The structure of our brain reflects the lives we have led up until now, so all decisions, skills, behaviours and feelings have left a lasting impression. This is not only fascinating, but also very exciting because it means you have the power to shape the brain of your future with new habits formed by making different decisions in your everyday life. I always reinforce with my Clients that the important decisions are the ones you make every minute throughout the day. Deciding whether or not to reach for the cookie jar at 3pm at work (when everyone else is doing it) instead you can acknowledge that you are peckish and plan for that mid-afternoon lull. Whether or not you have the burger and chips or opt for a nutritious meal when you’re eating out with friends. You can train your brain to do a quick sense check before you make a decision which will impact on your health & fitness goals.
“Your brain does not distinguish between what is good for it and what is harmful.” says Susan Pearse, founder of Mind Gardener and co-author of Wired for Life “Your brain adopts whichever habits you have focused on and practised throughout your life. It is just as easy to become very well practised at being unhealthy as it is to become well practised at being healthy.”
Research shows that there are a few powerful determinants of success in changing any habit:
1. Finding a compelling and motivating reason for wanting to change.
You will most likely set a goal of fitting into a certain size of clothes, or being a particular number on the scales when you start a new fitness regime. I always ask my Clients to set a performance related goal e.g. run 5km without stopping, squat XXkg in the gym. These are measurable goals which will have a natural bi-product of fitting better in your clothes and working towards those is more positive than obsessing over that number on the scales. You will gain so much more from achieving a performance related goal, it’s something to be proud of.
2. Repetition is an integral aspect of successful change.
This comes back to those small decisions you’ll make on a minute-by-minute basis. You will get used to re-directing your thoughts away from something you have been used to e.g. Thursday night drinks or 3pm cookie time and channelling your energy to making a different decision. Not only will you become used to it, but so will the people around you, they’ll get used to you saying no to certain things / events and that will help. Hopefully you will have supportive people around you to respect the changes you are making, if they are not, you will probably evaluate if they’re the right people to have around you moving forwards. This brings me onto the 3rd determinant of success.
3. Your environment.
The size of your plate, the colour of your crockery, junk food commercials, your home & your friends can all affect your ability to change your habits. Our subconscious mind has a huge amount of power over us, it will take in all this information which will work against our health & fitness goals and make those little decisions harder. Despite making conscious decisions like avoiding the lolly aisle or hitting the gym before work, because willpower is a product of the conscious mind, unconscious content can sabotage your plans. The people you’re with, from cake-baking colleagues to couch-dwelling friends, also figure. “I hear a lot of people saying things like ‘before I go out with my friends I’ve already decided I’m eating healthy but then when I get there because they’re eating really badly it gives me permission to do so too, so all my willpower goes out the window” says psychologist Kellee Waters, who specialises in food addiction and obesity. Does that sound familiar? Ok so there’s one trap you can avoid, you know it’s coming but stay strong and stick to your guns.
You can take steps to creating an environment which will give your subconscious no choice but to make healthy choices in places you can control. Your drawer or locker at work – no unhealthy snacks in there, have a clear out and stock up on small cans of tuna for an afternoon snack, herbal tea and protein powder to make a protein rich shake during the day. “Remove cues like old dieting books and anything that makes you feel bad about your body like a set of scales in your bathroom. Replace them with healthy cues like healthy food and affirmation cards.” suggests Glenn Mackintosh, principal psychologist at Weight Management Psychology.
These are a few determinants of success to changing habits and I hope understanding these will help you acknowledge areas in your life and decision making processes that need to change for your lifestyle to change for the long-term.
Surround yourself with people who will support your goals
Making new habits
You may have heard that it takes 21 days to create a new habit, well scientists also claim it can take as many as 66 days, though they’re still debating over the exact number of days. Basically it is going to take a while and a lot of repetition to nail it. I had many false starts though I hope by sharing my experiences and knowledge with you I can help you avoid some key mistakes. I’ve lived the ‘bodybuilding lifestyle’ for over 2 years now, training consistently week in, week out and meal prepping to keep my food on point. It was worth all the times I had to start over because I knew I would get there eventually and find what worked for me.
Pearse says that success relies on pairing repetition and motivation with developing new thoughts and behaviours rather than stacking new thoughts on top of old unhealthy ones. “If you are constantly thinking ‘don’t smoke’, for example, you’re firing the same network that is already there in relation to smoking, which reinforces your need to smoke.” You’ll get faster results by focusing on the health benefits you’re working towards such as reduced risk of illness and clearer lungs.
Why not start this week? Here are your top 3 to work on, I highly recommend writing down your goals and motivation as something to keep referring to which will help keep you on track.
1. Find a compelling and motivating reason for wanting to change.
2. Practice repetition.
3. Update your environment to benefit your new health & fitness goals.
Good luck shaping your habits, you can do it, science says so!
Source: 1 = http://www.whatisneuroplasticity.com
Quotes from Women’s Health & Fitness Magazine, Australia