My husband and I were returning from the local gym after a workout recently. We finally decided to invest in a membership and have just begun to establish new exercise routines. "I know this isn't a very positive way to put this," I said to Bill, "but I didn't hate that as much as I thought I would." I've been pleasantly surprised that in spite of some added physical challenges--not to mention age--since I last worked out on a regular basis, I'm finding my new routine to be quite doable.
Around the same time, I was excited to receive my first blog request: a friend suggested that I might write about "mind over matter" when it comes to choices and portion control. So I've been thinking about that topic while learning to use the cardio equipment at the fitness center.
When I hear the phrase "mind over matter" I think of willpower, and certainly there are times on a health journey when willpower is required. You can read, journal, and think about what to do all you want; but at some point you still have to do it.
I suspect one reason so many diets fail, though, is that they rely too heavily on willpower--on forcing ourselves to do things we dislike. For most of us, there's a limit to how long we are willing to feel deprived, and we spend most diets looking forward to the day we can finally stop and do whatever we please again. Hello, Yo-Yo Syndrome.
It seems to me that when it comes to portion control and other healthy choices, the less willpower required, the better. Instead, we should establish as enjoyable and sustainable a healthy lifestyle as possible. In short: We need to focus on positive motivation rather than sheer willpower.
This is where knowing yourself is essential, because not all of us are motivated by the same things. Point systems, meetings, trainers, internet programs, recipe books, journals, online support groups... there are a million tools available, but you have to choose the ones which you personally find to be most encouraging, inspiring, or--at the very least--helpful.
The tricky part is that sometimes we don't know as much about ourselves as we think we do. So, I find that the combination of remaining open to different approaches (when I can manage to do that) and a little trial-and-error can be surprisingly effective. I was sure I would hate working out at the gym, but it turns out I don't. I didn't like my first workout, but within 2 weeks working out on those machines went from something I dreaded to something I don't usually mind. I can even imagine looking forward to it. In fact, I'm already looking forward to getting stronger. I was reading a book yesterday which quoted stats indicating that this kind of positive shift is common among exercisers who start slowly and gradually. They begin to look forward to exercise as they get better at it and experience its many benefits.
If after 2 or 3 weeks, however, I found that I was dreading the gym more and more instead of the other way around, it would be time to make some changes, based on honest inquiry: What is it about workouts that I so dislike, and what could I change to make them more pleasant? An "outdoor person" may never be satisfied working out in a gym except as a back-up plan. A morning person may feel too tired to exercise after work. A social and/or competitive person may prefer team sports to a gym workout, while an introvert may do better with exercise videos at home.
The same approach applies to food. If you eat mostly "diet food" that you find bland and uninspiring, it's well worth doing enough homework to discover more of the abundant options available. With a little research, you can find healthy food choices which you truly enjoy and that also meet your particular requirements, from easy preparation to working around allergies or other conditions. It's so much easier to stick with healthy eating if the nutritious foods you eat are also foods you love and look forward to.
When it comes to portion control, again, for me, the key is to set things up in such a way that I don't have to feel deprived or hungry much of the time. No one wants to sign up for long-term misery. It's essential to do some internal investigation to determine if the hunger I am trying to satisfy is primarily physical or not. If so, I might increase foods with a high water content so that I can eat larger quantities. Or maybe in my impatience to see quick results I've gone overboard with restricting fats and need to sprinkle a few nuts or a little low-fat cheese into my meals in order to feel more satisfied with a single portion.
Of course, if what I really want from food is comfort, companionship, security, or relief from pain and stress, I need to find better ways to more directly address those issues. I might benefit from additional time spent with friends, individual or group therapy, a 12-step program, Weight Watchers meetings, or a class on managing my finances. Or perhaps something even simpler would help address those needs without food, like a bubble bath, listening to music, taking a walk, calling a friend, or conversing on Twitter. Unfortunately, a side-effect of dieting can be obsessing over food, so remembering to consciously place your attention on things beyond food part of the time is essential.
But here's a key point about food and distraction: focus attention away from the food you want to avoid--extra helpings or unhealthy choices--but not from all food. Pay attention to what you actually eat and the choices you make as you are eating. It may be helpful to distract yourself from the leftovers after a meal by engaging in another activity away from the remaining food. But don't distract yourself from a meal that you are in the middle of eating. If we want the food we eat to satisfy us, we need to eat it slowly and mindfully, savoring every moment. Enjoy not only the flavor, but the colors, textures, and aromas. Notice when you begin to feel satisfied and stop before you feel too full--even if there is still food on your plate or nearby. Once we have had enough to eat, then it's time to shift our focus completely to something else and physically remove ourselves from the presence of additional food. Mindlessly plowing through a bag of chips or box of cookies is far too easy to do in front of the television or computer or while curled up with a book. So, when you eat, eat; when you are doing something else, don't eat.
Finally, we need to learn to be gentle with ourselves. Self-compassion is more important than we tend to acknowledge. It's tempting to slip into a punitive mindset while struggling to set appropriate limits regarding our food, but when we punish ourselves for overindulging, rather than consciously deciding what would best support us in achieving our goals, we set ourselves up for failure, disappointment, and shame. Punishment leads to misery, retaliation, or worse. Is that really where you want to go? Instead, be kind to yourself. Withholding kindness until you finally meet all your goals only intensifies feelings of deprivation and hopelessness, and the potential for rebound eating under those conditions is tremendous. Be kind now--whether or not things are going well. In fact, be extra kind when things are not going smoothly. We respond so much better to kindness than cruelty.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for motivating us to do what we need to do, but a prudent approach always involves paying attention--in this case to our needs and to the variety of ways we can adapt to them. Mindfulness may not be a magic wand, but paying attention can initiate miracles. And miracles are worth getting motivated about.