Fitness is a lifestyle not a diet or exercise program with an end date. Even making changes in small, manageable increments, as my Small Steps series 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 and reduces the situations in which one gets pulled back into old, unhealthy habits. This month, your challenge is to make simple, permanent changes in your environment that enable positive fitness behavior while eliminating the negative influences 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 my examples 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:
- Candy, chips, soft drinks and baked goods are obvious culprits.
- Some foods may seem healthy at first glance but are actually loaded with simple carbohydrates, like flours and sugars, with little to no protein, fiber or healthy fats. These foods are quickly absorbed by the body, causing glucose levels to sky-rocket and then plummet, causing a drop in energy levels and hunger to return. While that 100 calorie pretzel snack pack may seem like a good choice, if you’re back at the snack bin in 30 minutes consuming another 100 calories (or more) you’re no better off than if you’d eaten a candy bar. Crackers, white breads, fruit bars, cereal bars and some granola bars and yogurts fall into this category.
- Stock up on quality snacks and be sure to always have some on hand so you’re ready when hunger strikes between meal:
- Snacks that have protein, complex carbohydrates, fats and fiber give you sustained energy and make you feel ore satisfied for a longer period of time. Think whole foods like nuts, seeds, dairy and whole fruits and vegetables.
- If you’re buying pre-packaged snacks, read food labels. What you’re looking for is protein and fiber with low amounts of refined flour and sweeteners.
- Time of day: A mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack shouldn’t be avoided. But be prepared with correctly portioned, high-quality snacks in order to avoid poor snack choices. 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 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 a physical signal to your 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 or going up and down a flight of stairs. Call or instant message a trusted confidant. Take a warm shower, bath or wash your face. Practice meditation, relaxation and breathing exercises, or journaling. 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: 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. Ideally, you’d enlist them to partner with you, 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.