Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is challenging - there’s no way around it. It takes time, discipline, accountability, and yes, money. Consequently, it’s ever so easy to jump off of the wagon. Oh how the seductive appeal of social media and food delivery can lure you in. Just cue Netflix’s insulting inquiry, “Are you still watching?” ...you know what I mean. All this to say, there are plenty of roadblocks to achieving sustainable, healthy living.
But what does ‘health’ really mean anyway? It’s an age-old debate that has been plaguing philosophers for years. A quick Google search will tell you that it is the “state of being free from illness and injury”. Sadly, we have a lot of work to do if this is the first definition people see. Why? The essence of health is so much more than the absence of illness. I believe it’s a practice that encompasses the seven dimensions of wellness: social, physical, emotional, occupational, intellectual, environmental, and spiritual. If you were to view them on a pie chart, the ratios would vary as each individual leads a different life. The major point here is that, as humans, we have fundamental needs in each of these areas, and they must be addressed before illness comes knocking.
Now that we’re aware of the complexity of achieving health and wellness, how do we maintain this state throughout the good, bad, and ugly? Well, everyone likes a good list… so here are five tips to staying on the wagon, even when the road gets a lil’ bumpy.
1. “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”. — James Clear.
Motivation won’t get you where you want to go. It’s that simple. It may get you up for the first two weeks of January, but it will surely shrivel when the going gets tough and you’re leaning on your emotions to pull you through. In order to be consistent, you must build systems that are greater than one goal or habit.
When failing a goal, participants can get so discouraged that they believe they’re incapable of maintaining good habits — like it's a character problem. I want to challenge that psychology. What if we peer deeper into the causation of the slip up? What if we’re not setting ourselves up for success in the first place?
Trying to maintain a habit without a system is like building a house on a crumbling foundation. But implementing a strong ‘why’ to habits that are interconnected and infused with accountability? Now that’s some Cyber Truck type sh*t. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear outlines why systems beat goals time after time.
1. Winners and losers have the same goals. (Do goals really set you apart?)
2. Goals are at odds with long term progress. (You’ve achieved it, now what?)
3. Goals restrict your happiness. (Does happiness have to be conditional?)
Goals can certainly be useful, especially if they’re SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based). What people often overlook though, is the necessity of proper systems to achieve these goals and turn them into lasting habits.
2. Be proactive by predicting future hurdles and planning around them.
In the same way that an athlete visualizes success before a challenging race, you must prepare for how you will stick to your habits when there is every reason to stop. This is so key, because life happens. If you’re not ready for the things outside of your control, you’ll lose momentum quickly. To circumvent this, write out a list of potential barriers, and highlight upcoming seasons that will be difficult. With your preliminary work complete, you’ll have the reward system and accountability in place to keep you on your feet when life hits you from all angles.
3. Decrease the activation energy.
What do I mean by this? Just take a look inside the human body, at the marvel that is the enzyme. It’s a protein that speeds up chemical processes by lowering the amount of energy that is required to start a reaction. In the same way that alpha-amylase catalyzes the breakdown of starch, your strategically placed workout clothes can kickstart your morning activity. In order to find success, you need to decrease the requirement to be motivated at every possible turn. Another good example of this would be to write out a grocery list before going to the supermarket. This really goes back to creating effective systems that keep you accountable.
Before moving on, I want to quickly touch base on the value of environment. There’s a syndrome we often carry called the fundamental attribution error. This is our tendency to under-emphasize situational (environmental) explanations for an individual’s behaviour, while over-emphasizing personality-based explanations for the behaviour. You can be a gym rat, but if you’re in a space that doesn’t suit you, you won’t succeed to the level that you could. Please take time to think about the who, what, and where of your habits. Find things that you love to do, do them where you love to be, and do them with the people that you love.
4. Foster intrinsic motivation.
This may seem counterintuitive to my previous statement, but be assured that there’s a dispositional element to all of this as well. The best way I can elaborate on this point is to portray a case study.
Introducing Mark and Sadie, a middle aged couple that is trying to lose some weight before their upcoming wedding. Unfortunately, they have differing opinions on the ideal game plan to achieving this goal. Mark wants to do an intensive diet and HIIT training regime for eight weeks to get down to 190lbs. Meanwhile, Sadie wants to make subtle changes in several aspects of her life, including nutrition, occupational health, and physical activity. She’s more focused on taking steps to building her identity has a healthy individual as opposed to hitting a short term target or number.
Although both of them may achieve the goal, who is more likely to maintain this behaviour change far into the future? If you chose Sadie, you’re ready for the last tip.
5. Have fun and laugh a lot.
Are habits that lack joy even healthy? Now not everything is going to be a walk in the park, but please don’t forget to be a kid every once in a while. To sustain healthy habits, you must build in rewards and pit stops that keep you coming back for more. Try skydiving on your fiftieth birthday. Go for a midnight ocean dip in December. Eat another slice of pizza, it’s your friend’s birthday for goodness sakes. Although they may seem to be defeating the whole purpose of the matter, well-placed ‘cheat days’ or rewards will go much further than a stringent plan ever will.
I want to conclude by saying that healthy living isn’t about a start and finish line. It’s an ongoing process, taking the form of a pendulum that we frequently swing across. My point? Give yourself some grace when you fall off the wagon momentarily. These mistakes are actually critical, as they allow one to reflect and repair — building an even sturdier relationship with healthy living. Before signing off, here’s a quote to get you back on the wagon, striving to be a healthier, happier human than you were the day before.
“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing” — George Bernhard Shaw