How does your mental strength measure up?
Last week we talked about how to reset when your nutrition goes completely off the rails. So, how have the last seven days gone for you? Did you ace it? Or end up face down in a pint of ice cream?
Maybe it was a mix of the two. Some successes with a few misdemeanours thrown in for good measure?
That's a pretty standard experience for most people. Success is rarely a simple upward curve, there's usually a few little side steps along the way.
Recently, we started a new Nutrifit programme and, as usual on intro night, we talked a lot about the issue of willpower.
Most of us know generally what we should be doing; we just have a hard time doing it consistently.
We get frustrated with ourselves because we know what we want and why we want it, but we get derailed.
Given that some people around us are thriving when it comes to their health and fitness, the assumption is that if we are not, then it must be down to our lack of willpower and self-control.
This leads to a ton of negativity and depressing self-doubt and it has a major impact on quality of life. I'd like to undo that for you a little, if I may.
Research shows us that there are several genetic factors that can influence why some people have a harder time losing weight than others.
These include variances in metabolic responses, genetic tendencies to have a sweet tooth or to snack a lot (true story) and different quantities of D2 dopamine receptors (these influence your pleasure response to food, so some people need to eat more to get exactly the same reaction).
This means that we have to look at things slightly differently before labelling anyone “greedy” (isn't that just the worst term?) or assuming that they're just not trying hard enough.
We live within a totally crazy food environment where we're biologically primed to crave, overeat and store energy-dense sources of carbohydrate.
It worked fantastically as a survival strategy when we used to ricochet between food scarcity and food abundance, but it backfires in a world of plenty, especially when junk is so cheap and prolific.
Having said that, there are definitely a few behaviour traits that enable some people to flex their willpower better than others.
People who are thriving when it comes to their health tend to 1) have good habits and 2) have their environment set up in such a way that they simply require less willpower.
I've said it before, but think of it this way: you don't need to use willpower to brush your teeth, you do it because you always have.
That's the power of a good habit. So commit to making an effort to eat a healthy breakfast every day and before you know it, you'll do it out of habit, not because you are forcing yourself.
Similarly, if you don't have ice cream in the freezer you can't eat it when you're at home on the sofa at 11pm — that's an example of having your environment set up in a more supportive way.
When I teach Nutrifit, I teach people how to navigate our food environment in a realistic and manageable way. It's a mix of creating good habits and of actively trying to balance brain biochemistry (to prevent cravings) via blood sugar balance and nutrient density.
I listened to a podcast recently that got me thinking more about this issue of willpower. Some people struggle so much more than others and it's nice to have an arsenal of tactics to overcome the problem.
I downloaded the Blinkist app a while ago, which basically allows you to read or listen to 15-minute summaries of non-fiction books.
I love reading, but had this crazy-long list of things I wanted to get through and not quite enough time or mental bandwidth to do it. I had a stand-off with the app for ages because I thought it was cheating, but eventually I caved in and it's been amazing.
Now, I listen to summaries when I'm unloading the dishwasher and making lunches for the kids. Rock‘n'roll, I know! But I love it and I get through the chores a million times faster when I have something like that to focus on.
Anyway, I digress. Last night, I listened to a summary of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do by Amy Morin. I reacted a little to this concept of “mentally strong” because some of the strongest people I know have had major issues with things like depression and anxiety — but I think I'm splitting hairs!
As I listened to it, what really hit me was that although I think this was written with career success in mind, there were so many parallels to trends I've observed within health too.
I've picked some highlights for you to consider. They gave me a lot to think about and I hope they are interesting for you to mull over too. Many of us spend a huge amount of time battling our weight and/or are bogged down by disease.
Wouldn't it be nice if that could change? This might help you flex your willpower in a whole new way. Let me know how you get on!
Six habits of the mentally strong:
1, Mentally strong people replace self-pity with gratitude
Rather than focus on what you can't do or can't have, focus on what you can.
Ryan Gibbons, one of our local elite athletes, lost his leg from the knee down following a motorbike accident.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, he is full of optimism and gratitude.
He regularly runs May 24 and was last spotted climbing over buses and scaling high fences during the Bermuda Triple Challenge.
His 10K run time is literally twice as fast as mine. He's not only managing, he is excelling. Follow him on Instagram @ryan.c.gibbons and get inspired.
When it comes to your nutrition, instead of thinking, “This sucks because I can't eat Doritos”, think “There is so much amazing, healthy food at my fingertips and it's so much more tasty than I imagined!”
2, Mentally strong people are always ready to embrace change
Choosing a healthy lifestyle often means shaking up old habits that have been ingrained for years.
Letting go of the sugar-loaded coffee, learning to eat breakfast, changing the portions on your plate and approaching celebrations differently.
If you want to be healthy long term, you've got to be ready to make some permanent changes and embrace them wholeheartedly.
3, Mentally strong people don't get distracted by things they can't control
Even when you've got into the groove, there will always be things that throw you off your game — business dinners, travel, getting ill. There will be lots of times when you don't have control over the food that's available, or your appetite.
Don't let these things consume you. Try not to be defeatist and think, “Oh well, I've ruined it now, what's the point?”
Just get it right when you can, focus on the good stuff and move along! (By the way, it's not as hard as you think to pick healthy options when you're travelling or at a business dinner. More on that next week!)
4, Mentally strong people don't envy other people's success, but rather seek to collaborate with them
How competitive are you? It's a weird trait of human nature that sometimes we take more delight in seeing a competitor fail then seeing someone we like succeed.
Collaboration tends to lead to better bonds, support and success. In her book, Amy Morin gives the example of an employee at Hershey's chocolate who went on to set up his own candy manufacturing company (Reese's).
Instead of building opposition, Hershey's provided all the chocolate for their testing and the heads of the two companies continued to be friends until they died. Later, the two companies merged. What a great story, hey?
When it comes to sports performance and healthy eating, you're more likely to have success when you surround yourself with successful, like-minded people. Build a tribe!
5, Mentally strong people don't give up easily and are self-compassionate about failure
Did you know that Oprah Winfrey suffered years of sexual abuse and became pregnant at 14? Very sadly her baby died in infancy. Despite this, Oprah worked relentlessly to push herself forward and, after a series of rejections, built her massively successful empire.
Success seems to require tenacity and dedication, but we also need to learn when to give ourselves a pass. The lesson here? Be determined, but remember that you're human.
6, Mentally strong people recognise that achievements take time and that progress isn't always immediately apparent
Changing to a healthy lifestyle isn't always easy.
It can be hard to keep making the healthy decisions, especially if it takes a while for the results to kick in.
The thing is, if it took you a long time to get out of shape, it'll probably take a little while to get into shape — especially if you're looking for lasting, sustainable results.
Accepting that the journey can be tough is half the challenge, but if you set realistic goals and celebrate the wins along the way, then you're on to a winner.
•Catherine Burns is a fully qualified nutritional therapist trained by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the UK. For details: www.natural.bm, 236-7511 or, on Facebook, Natural Nutrition Bermuda
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