Turning It Around

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U-turn road sign
08 Nov 2017

It’s over and behind us.  It started with preparations for Rosh Hashanah and after three 3-day eating marathons and a festive Chol HaMoed, our Succahs may be down, but the scale is up.  Besides that, we’ve been very sedentary over the Yomim Tovim and the food we have eaten hasn’t been the healthiest.  Year after year in the name of Simcha, we overdo it and can actually damage our health.  And every year after this period of time, the phone begins ringing in my office well above average.  It’s a combination of weight gain, feeling fatigued and lethargic and our clothes are getting tight.  But now, the choice is yours. You can look back and keep thinking to yourself, “How did I let myself go—how could I have done this to myself”, or you can start taking positive steps on the path to good health. 

Wallowing in mistakes isn’t productive.  Taking a look back in order to learn something from mistakes we might have made is a good thing to do, if you can take that forward.  We can tackle the issue of eating under control on Shabbos and Yom Tov another time.  What is important for now, is taking the steps needed to turn around the situation and repair the damage.  But where do I start and how can I reach my goals? The immediate challenge ahead is changing the mindset and changing behaviors.  This is the hard part! 

Cognitive Dissonance

You want to make a change in your life.  Whether in the area of health and fitness or any area of your life.  You make up your mind and then you go for it.  But then you are executing some behavior that goes contrary to your success.  For instance, you want to stop smoking, and you know all of the dangers of smoking, but you smoke anyway.  Or, you know that your BMI is above 30 and at your age, this presents a clear and present danger to your health.  You have resolved to lose weight, but as you walk up and down the aisles of the supermarket you notice a container of your favorite ice cream and you buy it and bring it in the house and eat it.  So we have conflicting thoughts, hence the dissonance.  On the one hand, we want to do the right thing in order to accomplish a change for better behaviors, but then we go and do exactly the opposite and go back to poor habits which sabotages our ability to attain our goals.  In this case, either stopping to smoke or losing weight.

Changing Habits

Every habit can be broken down into three parts; the cue, the behavior and the reward.  Let’s first look at cues.  If you are in school, the bell ringing ends the class and you get your things together and go out to the next class.  When you hear a sound as you get into a car, you know to put on your seat belt.  But cues can be negative also.  Depression or stress can trigger overeating that container of ice cream.  Slight hunger, which could easily be overcome with a small snack, can induce overeating or even binge eating.  Cues trigger a behavior.  This behavior is the actual habit.  It is something learned over time and it occurs automatically.  We always tie the left shoe first or when we shower we might shampoo first and wash second.  Even sitting at the Shabbos table, we might like to take the fish first, the tossed salad second, the cabbage third and some Humus after—and we always do it without thinking very much.  But what makes these habits or behaviors stick?  It’s the reward that follows.  It can be something really positive like how good someone feels after a productive exercise session.  But it can be something that causes harm, like how good you feel right after smoking or eating unhealthy fast food. Rewards teach the brain that the behavior in question promotes pleasure, making easier for that behavior to recur in the future.  The more of a habit the behavior becomes, the more ingrained it is in your brain.  According to research by Wood and Neal in 2007, it can be so ingrained that it won’t leave!

Breaking bad habits

If you want to break a habit, then start with the cue.  Let’s say your wife has prepared a wonderful looking and tasting dessert.  Rationally, you will say “no” to eating it because your doctor has told you to lose weight.  But your emotions get the better of you.  You know that if you eat it, you will enjoy the taste, compliment your wife and that puts her in a good mood too.  So, what is your behavior?  To eat the dessert.  And now comes the rewards.  It tastes good and you are eating it in your wife’s company and she is pleased that you are eating and enjoying what she worked hard to prepare.  Your brain is now getting more of the feel good hormones and this behavior is stored as positive.  This happens over and over again.  The key is to change the behavior without changing the cure or reward.  You have finished your meal and want dessert and you remember all the pleasure that dessert brings.  Here is where you can overpower the habit.  What if you eat a fruit salad and then go for a walk with your wife?  You have eaten together and can go enjoy each other’s company with and nice walk together and end up with the same rewards—you’ve satisfied your palate, you have been able to compliment your wife on the dessert and you have spent good quality time together.   Keeping all of this in mind, pick some things you would like to change in our new year that will bring your health and wellness to a better place.  Start by picking one item from the list of better eating habits and one from the list of better exercise and activity habits to implement and as you have accomplished and internalized each one, move on to another. 

Eating and Nutrition

Exercise and activity

We are in the season of new beginnings.  It’s never too late to start taking care of your health.  You might even be able to stay out of the doctor’s office this winter!  Take the opportunity to make your well-being and health the priority it needs to be so that you can “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.” 

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.