This month’s Small Step is all about setting yourself up for success. Remember, fitness is a lifestyle not a diet or exercise program with an end date. Even making changes in small, manageable increments, as my program advocates, doesn’t guarantee one won’t get derailed especially if she is relying only on willpower and well-intended plans. What’s needed is an environment that promotes a healthy lifestyle but also reduces the situations in which one gets pulled back into old, unhealthy habits. So, this month, your challenge is to make simple, permanent changes in your environment that can accentuate the positives while eliminating the negatives in your fitness quest.
What follows are considerations for the most common environmental pitfalls and how to turn them into advantages for you. Weaknesses vary from person to person. For some, having ice cream in the house isn’t much of a temptation. For others, it’s impossible to resist on a regular basis. Therefore, it’s important to take an honest, thorough assessment of the obstacles that present the biggest challenges to fitness for you. You might identify some challenges that aren’t listed here. You can use the examples here to come up with your own strategies to manipulate your environment to thwart those pitfalls as well.
Make the foods that tempt you hard to get and the healthy ones easy to get: Purge your home, vehicle and office of junk food and always have on hand healthy snacks to satisfy urges.
Junk food encompasses the obvious like candy, chips and baked goods. But other empty calorie snacks are those that contain mostly simple carbohydrates, like refined flours and sugars, and little to no protein, fiber or healthy fats. Keep in mind, if a snack contains almost all sugars or refined flours, your body quickly absorbs those foods, causing insulin levels to sky-rocket and then plummet, leaving you with a sudden drop in energy levels and hungry again in a short amount of time. Having a snack with a combination of protein, complex carbohydrates and fats, plus a little fiber, gives you sustained and even energy levels and makes you feel fuller and more satisfied for a longer period of time.
*Nuts/nut butters, seeds, popcorn (popped in canola or olive oil), cheese and whole fruits and veggies are superior to highly processed snack foods like pretzels, crackers, cereal bars and most commercial granola bars. Yogurt can also be a pitfall wrapped in a healthy reputation. Better to opt for plain Greek yogurt that has some fat than to opt for the sugar-filled, no-fat, “light” flavored yogurts. See my previous post on stocking a healthy pantry for more healthy eating strategies.
Be smart about food shopping so you won’t replace what you’ve purged with more junk: The basic rules of thumb for food shopping are: have a list and stick to it, don’t shop when you’re hungry, shop the perimeter of the store first (where the majority of healthy, whole foods are located) and then go down only the aisles that contain the remaining items on your list. For more tips, see my healthy food shopping post.
Know your bad eating habit triggers: We all have our moments of weakness. It’s at these times that the pull is very strong to slide back into bad habits. Telling yourself that you will simply say “no” is a strategy for failure.
- Time of day: The most common times of day when there is a strong urge to eat high-calorie, high sugar foods are mid-afternoons and evenings. Having snacks, such as between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner, are necessary for most people. A mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack shouldn’t be avoided but one has to be ready with correctly portioned, high-quality snacks in order to avoid over-eating readily available, poor snack choices. If you’re away from home at these times, always have with you a pre-measured, pre-prepared, healthy snack (*see above). On the other hand, snacking in the evenings is rarely a good idea. If you’ve eaten three meals and a few snacks in a day, chances are you’ve consumed all the calories and nutrients your body needs. Try flossing and brushing your teeth right after dinner. This does two things. First, it creates an annoying inconvenience if you eat something – you’ll have to floss and brush again. Secondly, it’s an actual physical signal to your digestive system by way of the brain that eating is done for the day and it’s time to prepare for sleep.
- Mindless eating: Eating while distracted by something else – TV, reading material, electronic devices – is a recipe for over-consumption of calories. You aren’t paying attention to what you’re eating, so you over eat. It also creates a trigger by association. If you eat breakfast in front of the TV every day, your body associates eating with watching TV at other times of the day, tricking you into thinking you’re hungry when you’re not. Make it a rule to eat all meals and snacks at a table without distractions.
- Emotional eating: Emotional eating means you self-medicate with food at times when you’re most vulnerable – stressed, sad, angry or even bored. These vulnerable times are weaknesses at their very peak. This is why emotional eating is such a tough habit to break. Try taking a walk, preferably outdoors. But, even going up and down a flight of stairs or a couple of laps inside a building can be enough to keep you from food-medicating. Another option is to call or instant message a trusted confidant. Take a warm shower or bath or even just wash your face. Try meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises, or journaling. What you need to do is find another physical stimulation, outside of food, to break the funk.
Always be ready to be active: You can’t take advantage of a spontaneous invitation to take a walk or a free hour to head to the gym courtesy of a last-minute lunch date cancelation if you’re wearing a skirt and heels. Always have a bag with sneakers and workout clothing in your car or at your office.
Manipulate your social environment: It’s true the things around us influence us a great deal. But nothing influences our behavior, good and bad, more than the people around us. Take inventory of the people in your life – friends, family and co-workers – and place them into one of two categories: good influencers and bad influencers. People who are fit or are actively working to be fit are your good influencers and those who are not fit or not actively trying are your bad influencers.
- Harness the good influencers: Tell them about your quest to be fit and your willingness to enlist their help and support. You’re likely to find new workout partners and people with whom to exchange healthy recipes.
- Limit the damage of bad influencers: This isn’t about cutting loved ones from your life, it’s about changing what you do when you’re together. They, like the good influencers, need to be told about your quest to be fit and you’d like their support. The best thing would be to enlist them to partner in your quest but many won’t be receptive. If you can’t recruit them, social gatherings with your bad influencers should avoid food as much as possible. Arrange phone chats while you’re out exercising. If you’re spending time together in person, go shopping, get mani/pedis, go to a museum, movie or on a relaxing stroll through a park. Find something you enjoy doing together that doesn’t involve food.
If you’re new to the Small Steps series, you can read about the philosophy and strategies of the series here. Know the Small Steps strategies don’t need to be done in any particular order and are independent of one another. So, you can begin the series with this post, continue throughout the rest of the year and pick up what you missed next year.
Author’s Note: I am an exercise professional, not a nutrition professional. My diet recommendations are based on the most current science-backed information provided by nutrition professionals in the fitness industry. Mine are general recommendations that are in line with the guidelines published by the US Dept of Health and Human Services for apparently healthy individuals. If you have a health condition that requires dietary restrictions, I recommend consulting a medical doctor or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet. Always consult your physician before beginning any new exercise program.