“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.
When I made the commitment to start training for a half marathon, I knew it was going to be physically difficult. What I didn’t anticipate, however, were the emotional hurdles that would inevitably get in my way. That is, life.
I recently went through a tough break-up. When I woke up the morning after, I was emotionally wiped out. I wanted nothing more than to stay in my pajamas all day, hide in my house, and eat chocolate. Inevitably, my half marathon training schedule flashed open on my desktop, reminding me I needed to run 4 miles that day. Naturally, I resisted. I was so laden with mental and emotional stress that I felt drained of all energy and motivation. And in a way, I think I told myself I couldn’t run because I was “in mourning”, and continuing with life as normal would insult the magnitude of the situation.
Even though running always cheers me up, I spent the day moping about and as a result, felt even worse. The next day, I acknowledged how counter-intuitive this kind of behavior was. I knew I needed to force myself into action. I started small: I laced up my shoes. I stepped outside, and I told myself that even if I managed a ten-minute jog, I would be proud of myself. Almost within minutes of being outside, however, my spirits lifted. I ended up running far more than I had anticipated (4 miles at 9 mph – a personal best). When I came back home, though I still felt sad, I felt more empowered to deal with and process those feelings.
When we are going through an emotional low period, whether it’s the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, or simply being in a funk, getting out the door can be the biggest challenge. We might tell ourselves “I’ll take one day off – it won’t make a difference,” or with feelings of futility, ask ourselves, “What does it even matter anymore?” This kind of thinking is dangerous, however, because exercising not only provides a space for us to process and think through whatever we might be going through, but physically speaking, it releases endorphins. It allows us the freedom to move on with a clearer mind and lighter heart. You don’t have to run that 8K on an especially rough day, but don’t let your emotions keep you inside, as that might simply prolong those negative feelings.
What are your tactics for powering through with tough days? How do you rally the motivation to get out the door?