Now that winter has set in, you may find your best intentions are slipping when it comes to healthy eating and exercise. But it is possible to change your habits and create healthy new ones that will stick – Jo Joiner (and some inspirational readers) show you how.
If you use a computer, you’ll know that when it crashes, it starts back up again with the basic (and sometimes unhelpful) default settings. The same thing can happen with your food and exercise patterns; you can find yourself doing the same things time and time again because that’s the way you’re “programmed” to do them. These settings are usually linked to a particular context or occasion, and kick in again whenever you find yourself in that situation.
For example, at buffet dinners, your default setting could be ‘eat a little bit of everything’. Friday nights might be ‘pick up greasy takeaway’ or ‘have a few glasses of wine’. Restaurant occasions could be accompanied by a habit of ordering a chocolate dessert, or eating everything on the plate to feel you’re getting value for money. A workday default could be waking up with only enough time to grab a muffin from a café, or skipping breakfast altogether.
Of course, not all default settings are bad. When you consider the entire spectrum of habits that make up what you usually eat, you’ll hopefully find a few beneficial default settings, such as choosing fruit for snacks, taking the skin off chicken, serving meals with salad and not eating the kids’ leftovers.
So can you change these default settings? Absolutely. As with a computer, it is possible to make a few modifications that will change these settings and therefore improve your food and exercise habits.
How do I re-program myself?
According to behaviour-change expert Dr Mary Grogan, the first step to re-programming your default settings is to consciously identify your personal values. A value is a principle, quality or state of being that is important to you – such as strength, creativity, success or perseverance (see opposite for many more examples). Your values form the foundation of who you are (or want to be) and what you do (or want to do). Devote some time to thinking about your values, write them down on a piece of paper and post it somewhere you can refer to them easily.
With your values in place, next you need to identify the current habits that don’t fit with those values. You might have listed ‘honesty’ as one of your values – but find yourself ‘cheating’ when trying to follow a healthy diet. One way to fix this? Create a food diary and commit to writing down everything you eat for a month – you’ll start to see where the kilojoules are creeping in.
Study yourself, and write down the default settings you want to change. The final step is to create new settings to replace the old defaults. See the charts below for ways to mesh your values and your new habits.
Use this sample list to help you create your own list of personal values and determine your new default settings.
Connecting with people
Good role model
Service to others
Choosing new food defaults
A full-fat takeaway coffee every morning
Ask for a coffee with skim milk and artificial sweetener (or reduce the amount of sugar you use)
Ice-cream every night in front of the television
Good role model
Eat a fruit-based dessert, like cobbler with low-fat custard
Spend time on hobbies or with the family in the evening
Friday night takeaways
‘Gourmet night’ for you and your partner (or a friend) – take turns cooking something new each week
Always eating packaged snacks and foods
Learn to bake or sharpen up your existing skills. Bake healthy treats and snacks to share with co-workers and friends.
Going back for seconds after dinner
Pack all leftovers into containers and put them in the fridge before you sit down to eat.
Choosing new exercise defaults
Sleeping in until it’s too late for exercise
Wake up 40 minutes earlier for a morning workout
Bring your runners to work for a 30-minute walk outside at lunch
Finding any excuse not to exercise
Connecting with other people
Partner with a friend to make sure you exercise together
Make Sunday ‘hiking day’; walk a different trail every week
Bored by running and walking
Service to others
Try your hand at a new sport. Or, if you used to play a sport, see if your local school team needs a referee (i.e. netball, cricket)
Enter a competitive event and begin training six months beforehand
Sidelining exercise when you are away from home
When visiting a new city or region, plan time to walk around and explore your environment
Tips to make good habits stick
Dr Mary Grogan offers these tips for getting your mindset to support your goals.
Baby steps. Tackle your changes one by one. Success comes from mastering one area at a time. The confidence you gain from those first steps will motivate you towards meeting your goals and your overall agenda.
Don’t beat yourself up. You can know everything there is to know about nutrition and healthy habits, and still sabotage yourself occasionally. When this happens, don’t let self-defeating thoughts take over. Instead, tell yourself: “I’m doing this behaviour instead of that one – how can I correct this?”
Plan for challenging situations. When an occasion or circumstance is coming up that could challenge your new behaviours, you need to plan ahead. Work out what you’re going to do – “If this happens, then I’ll do this”. Role playing is a good way to practise your new default settings.
Be creative with replacement defaults. You don’t have to replace food with food. If you’re in the habit of red wine and pizza on a Friday night, recognise that it’s a habit linked to your need for a reward at the end of the week. A replacement reward could mean a sleep-in on a Saturday morning, a hot bath and a good book, going to the movies with friends or some time pottering in the garden – any activity that fits in with your values and the goals you want to achieve.
Confront cravings. When you’re hit by cravings for an old behaviour, don’t push them away. Denial won’t solve the problem. Instead, observe your thoughts and feelings; recognise what’s going on and reaffirm your commitment to the new, positive behaviour.
Make exercise value-driven. Tie your exercise activities into your values. For example, if one of your values is ‘connecting with other people’, walk, run or play tennis with a friend. If you listed adventure’, try a new activity or simply try walking or jogging along a different route.
How long does it take to form new habits ?
If you’re struggling to make exercise or healthy eating resolutions feel like a habitual part of your day, take heart. A European study designed to investigate the process of habit formation asked 96 volunteers to choose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context (for example ‘include fruit with breakfast’) for 12 weeks.
The time it took participants to reach ‘automatic behaviour’ ranged from 18–254 days.
Missing one opportunity to perform the behaviour did not affect the habit formation process.
The message to take away from this research is that there is no magic number of days before change becomes automatic. It might take you two or three weeks, or it could take up to a year. What works for one person may not work for you, so the secret is to keep going, knowing that the new behaviour will set in at some stage.
Affirmations that support change
Saying one of these affirmations to yourself may help when you find yourself struggling to stay on track with your new health goals:
“What you do most of the time is what matters most.”
“If you want something to change, you have to change something.”
“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can.”
“Mistakes are lessons of wisdom. The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power.”
Weight loss success: Alan Spilhaus
An accountant by trade, Alan is a Healthy Food Guide reader who has made enormous changes to his eating patterns. The behaviour modifications he’s made have resulted in weight loss of more than 50kg, however he admits that the ‘170kg fatty’ way of thinking still lurks in his mind.
“Because of who I am, if I had gone on the Atkins Diet, the Cabbage Diet or Weight Watchers for any period of time, it wouldn’t have worked because a diet is temporary. Right from the beginning, I acknowledged that I had to change my entire lifestyle permanently.
With smoking, it took me two years to change that default setting. Now, there’s no longer a cigarette in my hand. With food, I’m still working on it. I’m sure that within the next two years, the changes will become permanent – I just have to keep overriding the ‘170kg fatty’ mindset.”
Alan’s ‘go to’ beetroot, egg & onion salad
1 tin diced beetroot, drained
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 eggs, boiled and chopped (slightly runny yolks add to the experience)
1/2 avocado, cubed
1 tomato, cubed
1/2 cucumber, cubed
1 head broccoli, chopped and steamed
Routine made it possible for me to change. I never ate breakfast or lunch, so I introduced a routine of having two slices of multigrain bread with hommous for breakfast, and tomato or pumpkin soup for lunch.
You need ‘go to’ meals that you can trust to be the right kilojoule count. When I started out, my ‘go to’ was tuna salad. My newest ‘go to’ is beetroot, egg and onion salad (see recipe, left).
For me, consistency is really the key. I’ve learned that one day off the rails can screw up a whole week of weight loss. My ‘fatty default’ kicks in, and starts pointing me back to 170kg.
When I do have a slip up, I get back on the horse by looking at what I’ve achieved before. My track record proves I can do this.
I’m an accountant, so accounting for what I eat during the day is important. I keep a food diary.
You need to be personally responsible for what goes into your mouth. Don’t blame your partner for putting tempting food in front of you; don’t blame co-workers for choosing to go to a nice restaurant at lunch time; don’t blame McDonalds for making Big Macs. Nobody puts food in your mouth except you.
Exercise success: Kirsty Donovan
Magazine designer and mother of two, Kirsty Donovan is (or was) a self-confessed avoider of exercise. Then she was offered the chance to join in on a boot camp. “I very nearly said no, because I thought it would be too hard logistically – family, work, all the usual excuses. But I knew that I needed to do it, so I said yes. That was the beginning of the end of coming up with excuses. From the first boot camp, the physical changes were undeniable, but the emotional changes were massive. I broke through mental barriers I’ve had all my life.”
Exercising as part of a group makes you accountable. At boot camp, we’re paired up. We send a ‘rise and shine’ text to each other at 5.30am. If your partner doesn’t show, there are consequences – you have to do extra push-ups or sit-ups!
Excuses fade away once you begin to experience success. The first time the alarm goes off at 5.30am and it’s raining, you have to make yourself go and do it… and you survive. So the next time the old “but it’s raining” excuse pops up, you can tell yourself “I’ve done it before in the rain – and it wasn’t that bad”.
Excuses are short term. The trick is to focus on what’s further down the track – the long-term benefits of the changes you’re trying to make.
Maybe you were teased at school for always coming last in running races, so you’ve thought “I’m not a runner”. Through boot camp, I proved that I can run five or six kilometres. It’s possible to become something you never thought you’d be.