I spent the better part of last week in Tampa talking to different folks about how they manage (or don’t manage) their health. Their employer provides health coaching to them at work, and as one of their coaches, I have the privilege of being at their side to navigate them through the process of improving their health. It’s amazing and I love it.
Anyway, I almost always have the same question for everyone who tells me about the changes they want to make in their health: why? Why not just stay like you are now? And, almost everyone has the same answer: they want to feel better.
I love that answer because feeling better is great, and it’s completely within our reach. Feeling good is easy, and we all have the skills to feel better almost instantly. I don’t mean the way eating ice cream makes you feel better. That’s pretend. I mean the kind of feeling you get when you’ve done something that makes you feel proud, or when you have been exercising for a few weeks and you notice you have more energy in the afternoons. Even when you make the choice to skip the second helping of mashed potatoes and have some more water instead. It might not feel awesome right at that moment, but later on….I know you’re glad you did that.
That brings me to my next question: what makes you feel better? This answer is brings a smile to their faces: exercise! Then the stories start to come out. “A while back I was walking every morning with my friend, I felt so much better and I really had more energy.” Or, “my physical therapist gave me these stretches to do, and when I do them I feel better, but I stopped.” Or my favorite, “I used to exercise all the time. I even taught exercise classes! I really liked it!” This is where I do an internal high five with myself, because having previous positive experiences with healthy habits makes it so much easier to get back into them, so I know these people are about to start feeling better really soon.
And then I have to ask: why on earth did you stop doing this magical thing that made you so happy?!? Studies show that the most common reason why people fall out of exercise habits is a change of environment, such as a new job; an injury or illness, whether themselves or someone they care for; or a schedule change that compromises their time. I get it. There is a lot going on.
The good news is that it doesn’t take much exercise to make you feel better. In fact, it doesn’t take much of any healthy habit to make you feel better. As soon as you start, you feel better immediately. Instant success.
And friends, all we really have is how we feel. If you think back to times when you spent time worrying about something that might happen, or being angry with someone who had long since moved on from your dispute, you lived in that feeling. Worry and anger were your life. When you think about times when you were content with life, enjoying the people around you, and taking good care of yourself, you lived there. Happy and satisfied were your life. All we have is how we feel, and how we feel is where we live.
So, if you know that there is something really easy to do - getting a bit of exercise and making nutrition choices that make you feel proud - that leads to you feeling good, do that thing. Do it every day! Then, you get to feel good every day. And you get all the credit, too!
Now, of course that doesn’t mean every day will be good. No, we all know it doesn’t work that way. But, the feel-good benefits of those little habits make it easier to get through a bad day and get back to feeling good again soon.
If exercise makes you feel better, do it. If eating healthy makes you feel better, do it. The power to feel better every day is within you, and you can start now.
A friend recently sighed as she took a sip of coffee and said, "I really envy people who can eat to live, not live to eat. I wish I could learn to do that." I completely understood. For a long time, I lived to eat. Growing up in Louisiana, there was always a holiday on the way and it was always celebrated with food. Circling around food and cooking our favorites was a regular pastime, but over time I became frustrated with the value I was putting on food. Like my friend, I wanted to learn how to eat to live, not be preoccupied with what I was going to eat next.
Health and fitness guru Jack LaLanne has been credited with coining the phrase, “eat to live, don’t live to eat,” meaning that we should eat with function and purpose in mind, not with enthusiasm and anticipation of flavors and textures that we enjoy.
Do you eat to live or live to eat? Here's a quick quiz to help you figure it out.
When you are hungry, do you A) choose something that is convenient and satisfying or B) reach for your favorite snack, which you’ve been looking forward to all morning.
When you discover that the food you prefer is not available, do you A) eat something else and move on, or B) feel annoyed and as if you have been cheated out of an experience because it is not there.
When you choose something to eat, is it A) because your stomach is growling or you have some other sign that your body needs food, or B) because it is time to eat or because you have been planning to eat at that time.
In social situations, do you find that you are A) looking forward to the food that will be there and anticipating sharing the food with your friends, or B) looking forward to the people who will be there and knowing you'll find something to eat, too.
If you chose mostly As, then it is likely that you are eating to live. That means that while you may enjoy your meals, it's also okay if your food is less than ideal because the purpose of it is to satisfy hunger, not your taste buds.
If you chose mostly Bs, you may feel that you live to eat. Food may play a central role in your life and be the byproduct or the motivation for your social activities.
It's important to mention here that neither is good or bad, and it is perfectly possible to be somewhere in the middle. Enjoying and savoring food is a beautiful thing and part of a rich and fulfilling life. Delicious food is part of what makes life fun and brings people together. I am totally in favor of tasty food.
On the other hand, some want to sever their emotional tie to food and join the other camp: people who eat to live. While they may consider this relatively Spartan existence to be missing the spice of life, for others it is simply how they have decided to change emotional or disordered eating patterns. Or, they may just not be interested in food, and that is okay too.
As I say about most habits, it's not a problem unless it’s a problem.
Since most of us want to learn how to eat less emotionally, not more, here are some ways that you can raise your awareness of your eating habits and learn how to eat to live. (It is perfectly valid to want to learn to enjoy and savor your meals rather than going about them methodically, but I don’t know many people who are striving for that.)
First, notice how you feel when food situations occur. What is the ratio of socializing to eating when you are with friends? How do you feel when eating during social events is delayed or not included? Consider whether you are placing too much emphasis on the role food in your social life, and try to focus on friends, fun, and fellowship before food.
Then, pay attention to the motivation for why you eat when you choose to. Are you choosing foods that you feel you “deserve” or have earned in some way? Make an intentional choice to wait until you are hungry, and then pay attention to what drives your choice of what to eat.
Finally, make an effort to separate how you feel about food and what food needs to do. That doesn't mean you have to always make the productive choice, but be aware of which one you are making, how often, and how much sense it makes given your hunger level and goals.
How did eating get so complicated? I hope you enjoy every meal this week, whether you’re savoring the flavors or the efficiency.
If you notice parents dancing in the streets this month (except for the parents of kindergarteners, of course, who are crying at the school gates), it is because the first day of a new school year has finally arrived. Hooray!
It’s been a fun summer for my family. We’ve taken road trips together, played with cousins and grandparents, explored cities, climbed mountains, and swam in rivers. We’ve also eaten out a lot more, slept in more often, and well, you know what happens after that. So, when I drop my children off at school tomorrow and return to my car alone, there will be a moment of silence to savor the silence, and the fact that I can finally take some time to focus on myself again, a little more intentionally.
Whether you have kids in school or not, the beginning of a new school year feels like a fresh start. So open up a brand-new notebook and sharpen your pencils: it’s time to brush up on the basics and get back to work!
Do you have a goal in mind for your health? You’ve probably heard advice to set goals that are “S.M.A.R.T.” - specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. You may have also heard that it’s important to know your “why”. This is good advice, because it requires us to take the time to think through what we intend to do and increase our chances for success. But sometimes in our rush to set goals and get to work, we jump over an important step: understanding how ready we are for change in the first place.
One of the most difficult parts of my job as a health coach is being patient when I can see the potential for someone to make radical changes in their lifestyle, but they are not ready to do it yet. Sometimes it seems like it takes forever for the pieces to come together, but I know from experience that we can’t rush these things, and I know how to listen for these clues that things are about to happen:
You See Your Goal Everywhere. Kind of like when you’re pregnant and you see other pregnant women, or you buy a new car and suddenly see other people driving the same car around town, your goal will show up all over the place. You may notice people walking for exercise in your neighborhood or find yourself drawn to the produce section of the grocery store. I don’t have scientific evidence for why this happens, but it does. Pay attention and go along with it! When your goal lays down in front of you, stop and pick it up.
The Thrill is Gone. When I travel, I like to sample local beer and look for restaurants that serve beer that we don’t usually get in our town. The splurge of having a delicious, thick stout with my meals feels decadent and special. But, after a few days of that much beer, it loses some of the magic. Then when I get home and beer finds its way to me, I find that I’m kind of tired of it. That’s another clue! When what used to be a fun diversion has become par for the course, it’s time for a change. Stop pressing repeat on a habit that’s run its course. Take the hint and change directions!
The First Step Feels Like a No-Brainer. Now, this is where it gets personal: the first step. Some folks would have us believe that the first step is doing something dramatic like eliminating a food group or signing up for a big challenge at the gym. For some, those steps feel right. For others, they are overwhelming and discouraging. Pay attention to how you feel and go towards what feels like the first step in the right direction, even if that step seems small. When you’re choosing between a cheeseburger or a salad for lunch, choose the salad. When you’re choosing between a salad with cheese or one without cheese, choose the one without. When you’re choosing between a dessert of brownies and ice cream and one of sorbet with fresh fruit, choose the fruit. Notice here that I didn’t say the step would be easy. It might not be! But it will feel obvious. It’s obvious for a reason.
This month, a new chapter begins for everyone. Look around in your life today and pay attention to what is calling you towards the first step of change. Are you ready? Change is ready for you at whichever level feels right!
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!