Obsession or Habit?

The equilibrium of consistency and perseverance.

Embarking upon the quest for better health can easily turn into the “current project” or “hobby” that takes up a big chunk of our time. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, for starters, as long as it remains the primary focus of our discretionary time, we’re probably neglecting other important elements of our lives, like relationships with others! This, in turn, can end up working against us, as we feel pulled in too many directions and become overwhelmed with the attempt to hold it all together. At that point, we’ll usually give up altogether, and fall back into our former, usual, way of doing things. It’s also simply not possible. As we say, “life happens,” and many times we find ourselves facing circumstances over which we have no control. Disruptions to routine, such as unexpected car failure, traffic jams, railroad crossings, etc. happen all the time, and we need to be ready to “roll with the punches,” if our plans for healthy living are to succeed.

What are some signs that a desire for a healthier life is more of an obsession, rather than a healthy intention?

1. Attempting to reach a weight loss goal at a rate of anything more than 1-2 pounds per week (unless under the strict orders and direction of a physician). This is the recommended rate of weight loss that has been agreed upon by experts for decades, and when I look back at my own weight loss journey, this was the average rate, over a 14-month period. And it’s important, once again, to keep the “big picture” in mind—there might be some weeks when a person might lose 3-5 pounds or more, and in another week not lose any, or even gain a pound or two. It’s the trend over time that matters. This is my biggest complaint about shows like a new one on TLC called “Fat Chance,” wherein a person attempts to lose an amount of weight in a certain amount of time, in order to become more appealing (in his or her own mind) to another person. In the first episode, Daniel set a goal of losing 84 pounds in  90 days. That’s a little more than 6.5 pounds per week! If we’re attempting this rate of weight loss, it’s going to involve adjusting your lifestyle in such a way that the weight loss becomes the primary focus of your life—and that means it’s not “just the way that you live.” Drastic, sudden changes to eating habits, as well as level of activity, will be necessary. This can easily lead to disappointment, frustration, and other negative emotions, to say nothing of the fact that it can potentially lead to injury (through excessive or improperly done exercise, or malnutrition). Far better to adopt eating habits and exercise routines that support good health all the time, not just while attempting to reach a specific goal.

2. Feeling excessive irritation and anger when “life happens” and our plans are disrupted. I woke up last Thursday with the intention to go to the gym and do cardio. About 20 minutes before leaving the house, I learned that others in the family had made plans that weren’t going to allow me to do this. While I could have gotten angry, made a big deal of it, and, basically thrown a temper tantrum, I decided to simply take the morning off, and enjoy a little bit of extra free time. Since my overall pattern of cardio, weightlifting, eating habits, etc. is consistent, an occasional, unplanned, day off doesn’t negatively impact my long-term goals in the least. If anything, it’s beneficial, allowing the body time to more fully rest and recover.

3. Feeling that missed workouts must be “made up” at another time during the day or week. This was once a big one for me. Back in the 1980s, right after I’d lost a lot of weight, I walked 6 miles or more every day. Six was (in my mind) the minimum. If I couldn’t get the 6 miles in the morning, then I’d feel that I had to get it later in the day, or, make up for it with additional walks during the week. 42-mile weeks were nothing to me, and I’d often get 50+, even, on occasion, getting 60+. I still remember the way that it would “hang over my head” if I hadn’t yet reached the six miles for the day. The nagging feeling would distract me from living fully in the moment, and I am sure that I often gave up time that would have been better spent with family, just so that I could “get those miles.”

4. Feeling strongly about just giving up, if and when things don’t go according to plan. Self-explanatory, but I think it applies especially to weight loss. You may remember reading about my experience losing weight along with my parents: I had lost 42 pounds, but, upon discovering my dad’s secret cache of cookies in the freezer, just gave up and regained the lost weight and more.

I think you get the idea. A sure sign that you’ve got the right perspective about all of this, is that you’re ready to “go with the flow” when necessary, and have no problem getting back on track at the earliest opportunity. Remember…

Keep the big picture in mind; it’s the trend over time that matters the most.


What keeps us on track?

Several years ago I attended a workshop where the clinician talked about the difference between “motivators” and “activators” in regard to rewards for specific behaviors. In this case, the behavior was practicing the piano. But I believe that the differences between these two factors have ramifications for us, as well, in the realm of healthy living.

Motivation refers to the intrinsic rewards one receives as a result of doing something. In music, one is motivated to learn a piece of music because that composition provides the musician with “food for the soul,” or the opportunity to overcome particular technical or musical challenges. Activation refers to external rewards or benefits that one receives as a result of doing something. One might be activated to learn a piece of music, or to practice scales, exercises, etc. in hope of receiving a prize, a “gold star,” “praise from the teacher or parent,” etc. Learning music for a job is also an example of being “activated.” As an accompanist, I am, from time to time, required to learn music that I don’t particularly care for. But that’s irrelevant. I don’t get paid to “like” the music; I get paid to play it. The promise of financial reward “activates” me to learn the music and perform it to the best of my ability.

Already thinking of parallels with the way we think about healthy living? Several have occurred to me, over the years. First of all, let’s review the three factors that support a healthy lifestyle: 1. Generally taking care of yourself, including medical/dental care, stress management, and sufficient rest/sleep, 2. Nutrition, and 3. Exercise.

What’s gotten you to bother with any of this? I just saw an advertisement on television for some diet or exercise device that was saying one could be “beach ready” in just nine weeks! And it’s easy to find workout routines, mostly marketed to men, touted for “building 10 pounds of pure muscle in just 10 weeks!” And of course, these ads are always accompanied by pictures of women and men in bathing suits, looking beautiful, perfectly sculpted, with defined muscles and glowing skin. Which brings up another issue—what does society consider “normal” and “good looking” and why? That’s a topic for an entire book in itself!

Embarking upon a diet/exercise plan because one wants to look like the model on the front of a magazine would be an example of “activation.” “I’ll follow this diet and this exercise plan, and then I’ll be rewarded with a body like that one.” Here’s the catch, though, that you’re not told: genetics play a large part in the way one’s body appears, and beyond that, the staging, lighting, body position while being photographed, makeup, and even the way that a model eats and drinks in the days leading up to a photo shoot, all contribute to the look of the final product. Furthermore, an editor can enhance the photo after the fact to make it look even “more perfect!” I confess that I’ve picked up an exercise magazine or two over the years, and been inspired by the athletic, fit, men who appear on the covers, but I’m telling you from personal experience that most of us will never look like those people. And that is completely OK! “Appearance” is an activator, just as is the goal of getting into a certain clothes size. Nothing wrong with wanting to improve one’s appearance, and if losing (or gaining) some weight contributes to that, then great! Other, more obvious activators include things like the wager I made with my friend at the beginning of my weight loss journey. A monetary reward if the goal was met. Now that I think about it, I remember that my mom promised to buy new clothes for me after I’d reached my goal weight; yet another activator. Other less obvious activators include “doing it for someone else.” Whether it’s believing that someone will love us more, or we’ll gain their approval, or they’ll stop making fun of us—all activators. More subtle activators include our own ideas about body image, healthy weight, etc. These can even become toxic, as in some cases of anorexia or bulimia.

I propose that it would be better to be motivated.

What if our primary goal would simply be to enhance our quality of life? Less joint pain because we’re not carrying around excess body weight? Improved strength and flexibility to make day-to-day activities easier? The potential for longer life along with better quality of life, giving us time to spend doing things we’ve always wanted, or to spend time with loved ones? Think about it: is there really any greater reward? Don’t misunderstand me, and think that I’m only listing positives here. Some motivators can be negative. Fear of dying prematurely is a good example. I know of several people who started their weight loss program, and/or started exercising because they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of family members. It’s sad when we watch a loved one in declining health; especially if he or she could have taken better care of him/herself. And this is a motivator because the reward is intangible; it’s something inside us, that we feel—physically, emotionally, mentally.

It also means that our primary goal is, and always will be, to be headed in the right direction, to be on the road toward success. Being in the process of improving your health means that you’ve already achieved an important goal. Improved health and quality of life are the results of staying in that process. And please remember: the path to success is rarely a straight line. Be prepared for ups, downs, sideways movements, plateaus, etc. Keeping your eyes on the primary goal, and thinking about the “big picture” are the important things.

All this is not to say that activators can’t be useful: “I’m going to buy myself a new outfit after I’ve lost twenty pounds,” for example; but I believe that keeping one’s focus on the deeper motivation is the secret to staying on track. When quality of life is the motivating goal, we take the entire person into account, and attend to all of the factors that contribute to it.

Not just getting ready for the beach.