“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but rather a habit.” – Aristotle
I have always believed that we must judge people not by their words, but by their actions. To heed Aristotle’s advice, we must not judge somebody (or ourselves) by an action a person does only once, but by the actions we see them do repeatedly.
Many exercise and diet programs achieve amazing results in the short run, but fail to elicit lasting benefits. I truly believe this occurs because they are set up to capitalize on people’s impatience. As a society we are fixated on quick results. If things don’t improve quickly, we lose interest and move on to something else. In behaving this way, we fail to do the one thing that would actually improve our lives in the long run: change our habits.
If your goal is a short run goal, then by all means find a program that promises quick results. For example, if you need to fit into a bridesmaid dress in two months and you don’t really give a shit what happens after that, then a program that is focused on short-term quick results is perfect. But if you want to be more fit one year from now than you are today, you have to be patient and focus on the process of changing your habits. Achieving your goals will be a natural consequence of changing your habits and gradually fine-tuning them until you do.
How Long Does It Take To Form A New Habit?
You have probably heard the statement that it takes 21 days to create a new habit. This notion originated in the 1950s with a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz. Dr. Maltz published his observations about the new habits of his patients in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics. Unfortunately, Martz’s observations have been widely misrepresented over the years. He thought it takes a minimum of 21 days, but sadly his words have been twisted and exaggerated. There have been countless studies conducted since then, and each has tried to identify the elusive exact number of repetitions or days required to form a new habit. Predictably, most come to the same conclusion: it depends. Your individual physiological and psychological make up, your desire for change, and the simplicity of the change all will have an affect upon how long it takes.
You Don’t Have To Be Perfect
You can absolutely lead a life of sustainable fitness without one (or more) of these habits. However, the more of these habits you can form, the better your chances of improving your life in a permanent way. What’s more, adopting a habit does NOT require perfect adherence. Nobody can adhere to these habits 100% of the time. Plan to make healthy choices most of the time, but allow yourself to make less healthy choices on occasion without feelings of shame, guilt, or failure. These feelings can lead to derailing your progress. I ask clients for 80% adherence as they work with me to develop these new habits.
The Habits for Sustainable Fitness
- Eat Clean and Balanced Meals
- Move Well, Then Move Often
- Practice Mindful Eating
- Enjoy Exercise
These habits have been carefully selected and sequenced in the order of importance. The first habits on the list are relatively fundamental and don’t require much knowledge. Drinking water and sleeping are basic human necessities. However, achieving a vibrant and active lifestyle requires more than just the bare minimum amount needed to survive. At the bottom end of the list are habits that require some learning and practice and, in many ways, are easier to adopt if you have already adopted the earlier habits.
You might already practice some of these habits. If you do, congratulations! You are on you’re way. But from the list, choose the first habit that you do not already practice and start there.
My advice is to try to form only one of these habits at a time. Trying to change more than one thing at a time is much harder. Not only is it harder to adopt the habit, it is also difficult to understand why your body is changing in certain ways. You won’t know if you are feeling better because of the extra water you are drinking, or because you started doing your daily mobility exercises. Treat this like a good science experiment. Control all variables except the one you are testing. Then see what happens and adjust as needed.
I recommend allowing 4-6 weeks for each of these new habits to form. Some might form quickly while others seem to take forever. Be patient and kind to yourself. You might struggle with some of these. That’s normal.
Habit #1: Hydrate
Drink at least 2 liters of water every day.
Why is water so important?
- Temperature regulator
- Lubricate and cushion joints
- Eliminate waste
- Protect your spinal cord and other sensitive tissues
Symptoms of Dehydration
- Excessive thirst
- Muscle weakness
- Dry mouth, lips and skin
- No urination or a small amount of dark yellow urine
- Increased body temperature
Habit #2: Sleep
Sleep at least 6 hours every day.
- Decreased insulin sensitivity which leads to greater fat storage
- Increased cortisol hormone (a stress hormone) level which activates reward centers in the brain that make you crave certain food
- Decreased leptin hormone with increased ghrelin hormone levels which makes you feel more hungry AND slows your metabolism
- Decreased protein synthesis which prevents muscle gain
- Decreased growth hormone which prevents muscle repair
For more information, Here is a good post about how sleep affects weight loss.
Habit #3: Eat Clean and Balanced Meals
What is a clean meal? A clean meal contains only natural things in their natural state. By this I mean foods that are unprocessed and unrefined. Avoid food with artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives. Avoid food that has been altered from its natural state to resemble some other food (as in margarine is really liquid vegetable oil that has been chemically altered to be solid at room temperature and then colored with yellow die to resemble butter).
What is a balanced meal? A balanced meal contains an appropriate mixture of protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, and minerals. You don’t need to stress out about each and every meal being perfectly balanced but you should try to be roughly balanced each day.
Get most of your carbs from fruit and vegetables, with only a small amount coming from starchy sources, and even fewer from grains and sugars.
Get protein with each meal. Good sources of protein include grass fed and free range meats, eggs, dairy, and legumes.
Get a balanced amount of healthy fats each day. Try to consume roughly equal quantities of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.
Here’s a great post about how to get a good balance of healthy fats. as well as a handy chart about how to select the right cooking oil.
To ensure that you are getting enough of a variety of vitamins and minerals, make sure you eat plenty of vegetables and fruit. Try to eat the rainbow, meaning that you should make an effort each time you shop to purchase a variety of colors in the produce area of your grocery store. Then get as many colors as you can into your meals each day.
This infographic from Precision Nutrition is a very helpful chart. Print it out and hang it on your fridge.
Habit #4: Move Well, Then Move Often
This is about focusing on quality before quantity. If you are about to start a new exercise program, first be sure to evaluate your movement quality and correct as many problems as possible BEFORE you begin. If you have been exercising for some period of time, but you have not had your movement evaluated in the past year, you should definitely make time to have an evaluation done. You don’t have to have “perfect” movement patterns, but you must maintain a minimum level of acceptable movement quality.
Once you have achieved adequate movement quality, be sure not to neglect it. You must consistently include mobility and stability training in your routine. We tend to repeat specific movements in our daily lives and our exercise programs. As the body adapts to this repetition, it leads to over-specialization that is experienced as pain and/or reduced mobility. Periodically (at least once per year) re-evaluate your movement quality. Use a movement screen or seek a professional who can help.
Habit #5: Practice Mindful Eating
The practice of mindful eating teaches you to eat with attention and intention. To help with portion control, you become aware of the hunger and fullness signals your body is sending and quantify them with the Fullness Scale. In addition, you learn to ask three questions before you eat and how to use specific interventions if the answer to any of the questions is “No”:
- Am I Hungry?
- Is There a Healthy Option Available To Me Right Now?
- Can I Devote My Undivided Attention To This Food?
Learning to practice mindful eating is a key to controlling portions and fully-enjoying the food you eat. It does not mean you have to make a healthy choice every time. Rather it means that you have thought about your options and made a choice. Then you learn to appreciate the experience by paying attention to sites, sounds, aromas, textures, and flavors. You also learn to be in tune with the hunger and fullness signals within your body. Finally, and this is one of the most important aspects for many people, you learn to let go of feelings of guilt and shame about the food you eat.
Habit #6: Enjoy Exercise
At the end of the day, the “best” exercise program for you is the one you will actually do consistently. Very few people have the will power to force themselves through a workout they don’t enjoy day after day. Even if you do possess that kind of will power, why would you do that to yourself? Life is short. Have some active fun. Play. It does not have to be a “traditional” form of exercise. Any activity counts: yard work, active play with kids, dance, etc.
An activity is generally more fun if you do it with other people. That sense of being part of a community is a powerful motivator. Whether that means joining a gym, a running club, or a dance team, find others with a passion for the same activity and join their group.
How Many Habits Do You Practice?