“The single most important factor in determining your health is not your parents, or even your environment. It is the quality of decisions that you make every day.” – Dr. Daniel Amen (child and adult psychiatrist, self-help advisor, author and medical director of the Amen Clinic)
Let’s face it: we all know what foods are good for us, we all know we need to exercise, we all know we should quit smoking. We are bombarded with information and advice about how to get healthy. The problem is not a shortage of information. It is implementing it in our own lives on an everyday basis.
In fact, an eight-decade long study found that the single largest biological factor linked with longevity was conscientiousness. What seems like our permanent state of “health” is, in large part, the consequences of a lifetime of decision-making. We might tell ourselves that we’ll make better decisions tomorrow, but bad decisions quickly turn into bad habits. And as we age, the consequences become more and more magnified.
The question then is, how do we help ourselves make better decisions? We all know what we should be doing, but we often act in contradicting ways.
I find that my moments of poorest judgement come when I am in a weakened mental state. Have you ever noticed that you tend to make the laziest, most unwise decisions when you are tired, starving, cranky, stressed, or intoxicated? In these states, reaching for that donut may seem like the only thing that will help you get through your day. It is so easy to justify bad decision-making to ourselves, especially when in the short term, it may be easier or more fun than the alternative. Unfortunately, if we tend to indulge our cravings in this way, we might be asking ourselves 3 months down the line, “Where did those 5 lbs come from?”
There are several steps we can take to prevent ourselves from falling into these weakened states in the first place (in order words, ensuring that our brain is well-equipped to make the best possible decisions):
- Keep your blood sugar stable. Eat high quality, small meals four to five times a day.
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep daily. Six or less hours of sleep decreases blood flow to vital organs, particularly the brain.
- Eliminate toxins. Heavy drinking or drug use will impair your judgment, making you more likely to do things you might not normally. Not to mention, the carbs from alcohol probably aren’t going to make those fitness goals any easier.
- Lose weight. Did you know that the more weight you put on, the smaller and less efficient your brain becomes?
- Meditate. A UCLA study published in March 2012 found that meditators have larger amounts of folding in the brain’s cortex than non-meditators, enabling them to process information more quickly.
- Worry a little bit. The Longevity Project also found that those with the “don’t worry, be happy” philosophy were a little more inclined to slack on their health than those who worried a small amount.
The type of temporary satisfaction we seek by indulging our cravings or weaknesses may provide pleasure in the short-term, but before you reach for that bag of potato chips, ask yourself if the subsequent guilt and regret is worth it.
I don’t have the right equipment, the right shoes, the right shorts, the right sports bra.
I just showered, I don’t want to get sweaty.
I’m so out-of-shape I’ll make a fool out of myself.
The gym is too far, I don’t want to waste time driving.
I need to send emails.
I haven’t eaten yet. I just ate.
It’s too early. It’s too late.
It’s too hot. It’s too cold.
I’ve had a long day.
I don’t look good in my work out clothes.
I only have a half an hour, it’s not enough time.
My iPod isn’t charged.
It’s a Saturday morning, the gym will be too crowded.
Do any of these sound familiar? Acknowledging that you set up these barriers for yourself is the first-step. Abolishing them is the next. The solution is not to wait for the perfect time, but to understand and deconstruct these mental blocks.
“I wish I could go for a run/to the gym/to yoga class, I just don’t have time.” Especially at school, this is my go-to excuse. I’ve found that in a society where “busyness” has become an indicator of drive and ambition, being too busy to squeeze in even the smallest activities (“I have no time to sleep,” “I can’t even sit down for a meal.”) is simultaneously a complaint and a bragging point. Though I may actually be busy, I find that sometimes I consciously or unconsciously add more items to my plate in order to feel less guilty about not being active.
When I tell myself I can’t work out because I have too much to do, I’m hiding under my work. It reality, it comes down to a matter of prioritization. Can I sacrifice the 30 minutes I spend on Facebook over the course of the day? Can I work with more focus and efficiency to free up time in the evening?
I challenge you to listen to the excuses you tell yourself and question them. Where are they really coming from? How can we reframe our thinking in order abolish mental roadblocks we set up for ourselves? Will there ever be a day when all conditions are perfect: when we are in-shape enough to not feel embarrassed or in adequate about running, when we will be well-fed, well-rested, have the perfect gear and the perfect weather? Most likely not.