My journey into fitness began 10 years ago when a dear friend showed me how to do push-ups at his place, which later cured my long term habit of walking with a stoop. At that very time I knew that fitness was indeed going to be a big part of my life, and I started exploring more and more, reading every bit of information that I could find. And just like everyone else, I’ve often struggled when it comes to forming a habit!
Habit formation is the process by which new behaviour becomes automatic. Instinctively reaching out for cigarettes in the evening? That means you’ve developed a habit — a bad one. Inclined to tie up your running shoes and going for a jog in the morning? Again a habit — a good one! Good, desirable habits are often harder to develop than bad ones.
In the context of nutrition and fitness, failing to do something every single day could be due to various reasons —
Having spent years trying and failing to remain consistent, learning from other people’s experiences, reading lot of blogs and trying out hacks, I could gain some perspective on how we can possibly overcome this challenge, and I’ve summarized these things down for you.
When we were kids, our parents had to constantly remind us to brush our teeth, take shower and get dressed up for school. It was a challenge then, because these things were things that we had to do no matter what, every single day.
Fast forward to today, the cognitive overhead in deciding whether to take a shower or not does not exist anymore. You just do it.
So the question is —
How do put your body and mind into autopilot?
And the short answer to that is —
Having goals are important, but if you don’t have a modus operandi in place then you’re replying on luck and chance to reach your goals. A goal without a plan is just a wish.
Turn the odds in your favour. That involves making minor changes in the way we live. However small that you may perceive them to be, they can collectively be a life changing force that can impact your life.
It’s common knowledge that inspiration leads to motivation, which finally leads to action. However, the reverse is also true — if a set of actions are done repeatedly, then it can fetch you results that once again inspire you. And the cycle of positive feedback continues. A system also helps you take fewer decisions, so you can focus your brainpower on more important stuff.
Your environment consists of the place that you live in, the objects inside it, the clothes inside your wardrobe and the ones that you’re wearing, the gadgets that you use, your office space and the vehicles that you use to commute there and so forth. You get the picture — basically any object in space-time that’s relative to you — the observer.
Your surroundings do one of these two things, to various degrees — they give you energy or they drain you. If it’s the latter, you’ll find yourself into a never ending battle with your habitat using only your will power. Will power is like a muscle — use it too much and it gets depleted, and you’ll lose.
Changing your environment is the first baby step towards getting better, because it has a direct impact on your emotions and state of mind, how you feel about yourself and ultimately your behaviour. There are two key things to create a habit —
It’s the energy that’s needed to get started. Getting started is often the hardest. Your environment should enable you to get started in the least number of steps as possible, with the least amount of energy as possible. It’s the same reason why UI-UX is so important in the app world — the best apps are the ones in which every click takes the user closer to their goal while eliminating as much as distractions as possible. In the context of nutrition and fitness —
You’ll find that just these very acts of having a yoga mat in the same room that you’re in and dressing up for a work-out increases your odds of going all in. They act like catalysts for your behaviour. You’ll start thinking — “Oh, since I’ve dressed up, I might as well do the damn thing anyway”. If you don’t go, you’ll end up feeling like a moron.
Just like catalysts, there are anti-catalysts too —
That includes all the unnecessary things that hold you back or tempt you. Keep the cookies and toasts in the top shelf. Don’t buy sugar, chips, wafers or pastries.
Just having them around can tempt you, so just get rid of them.
If you’re just beginning, a nice way would be to replace these foods with healthier choices. For example — use fresh cream instead of salad dressings. Munch on walnuts or almonds instead of wafers or chips. If you have a sweet tooth and are craving for sweets, have a chip of dark chocolate instead.
Once you’ve got the activation part out of the way, the next important thing to do is making sure that you stay on course for as long as you can, without losing sight of your goals —
There are better words to use than diet and exercise
Start using the word nutrition instead of diet. The reasons go beyond just mere semantics.
When someone says that they are in some diet, it sub-consciously has this meaning that at some point, they are going to be off the diet. Besides, the word diet doesn’t invoke positive feelings in you - nobody feels thrilled at the thought of being on some diet! It’s for these reasons why crash diets don’t usually work.
Nutrition has a much more deeper significance to it. Besides it invokes more positive feelings than the word diet - and positive always trumps negative.
When you think in sense of nutrition, you start seeing food as a means to fuel your body, not as a reward system. You start thinking what fuel is good for your body, and what isn’t. There’s a big shift in perspective, and it’s not something that you can be off at any point. You’ll always need good fuel.
At some point when some scientist or researcher discovers a new super food and recommends having it, chances are that you already have that food or what it has to offer as part of your meal, because you started thinking in terms of good nutrition!
What about exercise? Although the word exercise in the truest sense means to do some physical activity with the intention of getting fitter, for different people it can have different meanings. For inactive people, exercise could mean simply walking or climbing the stairs, for our moms it could mean sweeping the floor and doing the dishes. For people that are new to the gym, they could just lift weights for a while and call it as exercise.
How many guys have you met who just walk into the gym and randomly start lifting weights? These are the very people who later come out satisfied that they did some exercise, but they make very little progress.
Replace exercise with fitness, and you automatically start thinking of your body in a more holistic manner. Fitness as a word encompasses several things like strength, endurance and flexibility, and it’s more goal oriented.
Here’s a very nice read by Mark Manson, in which he describes something that he calls the Law of Avoidance — which says that the more something threatens your identity, the more you will avoid doing it. It’s a different take on the Self-verification theory.
When a person has been unhealthy for a long time, known as the couch potato by friends, it becomes a part of their identity. As years pass by, the person subconsciously tries to stick to this identity, and their behaviour is a constant reflection of it. Human beings are social animals, and the fear of losing one’s identity is deep rooted in out conscious, because we all are trying to play a ‘role’, in this case — playing the role of the fat person, and anything that threatens this identity is terrifying, however irrational it may seem to be.
It’s important to realize that fear can be quite unfounded at times, and emotional resistance must not come in the way of fulfilling our goals. Redefining our personalities needs courage, and destroying our older personalities can pave way for a newer one that is better and stronger than before. Think of it as a version 2.0 of yourself!
A lot of people are emotional eaters. We look at food as a means of reward — any time you accomplish something you feel like eating something nice, as a treat. You give yourself a treat even if when you’re upset about something.
In social circles it’s quite the norm for your friends to insist for treats if you got a promotion or something, isn’t it? Social circles and advertisements have given us the idea of looking at food as a reward system - we have Happy Meals, because they’re supposed to make us happy! And do you have in a happy meal? Deep fried patties, french fries and soft drinks - things that make us unhealthy, but we eat them because they taste so good!
The reason why it feels good is because of the release of certain neuro-transmitters in your brain, which gives you those happy feelings every time you eat something that’s tasty. It’s the same feeling that you get when you go to social networking sites like Facebook or twitter and see those notifications — you feel good inside when your profile picture’s got a hundred likes, or when someone’s mentioned you in a comment. Unfortunately, these moments of “feeling-good” don’t last very long, which is why you feel the urge to check Facebook again and again, and you feel like eating cake or ice-cream so often.
The release of dopamine happens in two different ways — one is a short spiked release, and the other kind is one that’s slow but remains consistent, and lasts longer. One key reason why staying motivated is so hard is because the rewards don’t come very fast, it takes time for results to materialize, but when it does — there’s the slow, sustained release of dopamine which will help us reinforce our behaviour even further.
Understanding this phenomenon is important, because only then can we be more observant and mindful of our actions, and not succumb easily to temptations.
While long term goals like “I’ll lose 10 kilos in 8 weeks” or “I’ll get a six pack in 5 months” give you direction, it’s the short term goals that make you actionable.
To be specific, create a list of things that you should be doing everyday. They could be like —
“Jog 5 kilometres today”
“Cycle for 7 kilometres today”
Short term goals are quantifiable and they can be measured. They hold you accountable. By this way, you’re also able to make tweaks and changes to your system in case you reach a plateau or if something’s not working out for you.
Let’s face it, we don’t like doing things that are boring. Especially with activities like running or working out, repeating the same set of actions tend to make it boring. There are few ways to make our workouts a lot more interesting —
Groups are great
When it comes to physical activities, research shows that people perform better when they do the same thing in a group. Find a local running group in your area with whom you can tag along. If you are the type that likes to workout in a gym, a group fitness club is always preferable over an ordinary gym.
Workouts which involve zumba, martial arts and cross-fit make things super fun too!
Apps are awesome:
There are quite many apps available that make mundane tasks super fun by gamifying workouts. Here’s a fun one, called Zombies, run!. It’s a game where you need to run in order to survive the zombie apocalypse, with a fun plot and lots of missions. I’ve personally used this, and it’s super entertaining!
You can also use apps to measure and track your progress.
Have a friend with whom you can share your fitness goals. Just the act of telling someone that you’ll be doing something creates a sense of urgency within you, and you can use it to your advantage. The accountability buddy’s role would be
Some of these tasks can be done by a parent or a sibling too, but ideally you should be having someone who has similar motivations as that of yours, and who accompanies you during your workouts.
In the programming / open source world, something as simple as looking at the GitHub commit graph makes programmers want to commit more and more code in order not to break the streak.
The reverse is also true — I’ve often lost interest in watching cricket matches simply because I didn’t know the scores of the respective teams.
This shows that measuring something keeps you engaged.
One way to do that is by using a calendar. By creating ordinary to-do lists you’re likely to procrastinate and put it off for tomorrow. But a calendar or reminder is really effective for two reasons —
If you’re someone who’s just started exercising, then consuming whey protein could be overkill — you’re better off focusing on having a nutritious diet. But if you’ve been going to the gym or have been into HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) for a while, then you must absolutely consider consuming protein supplements, for the following reasons —
In the longer run, supplementation helps you recover better and helps you stay consistent.
It’s all-right to have cheat days every now and then — we’re humans after all! It’s also important to ensure that we don’t have too many cheat days in a row.
If you have cheat meals on a weekday, say on a Friday evening — then you’re more likely to continue having cheat meals the next day too, because the weekend will be closer. You’d think “Oh, it’s just two more days, the next week I’ll be back on track” — so it’s very easy to fall out of habit.
For this very reason, try having your cheat days only on the weekends, as those are the days when you’re more likely to hang out with friends or go out to eat or drink. This way you’ll keep your cravings under control without falling out of track — and you’re back into the swing of things the next week, because Mondays are when people get back to being organised.
When I began my fitness journey, my goal was never to get a six pack or build strong muscles. I just wanted to get rid of my stoop, so I started doing push-ups. That was a small, achievable goal — and I could stick to the habit easily. Sooner, bigger goals like building muscles, trying out cross-fit and cycling became easier to stick, because I had acquired a habit by then.
You might feel that these tips could be applied not just to fitness but to other things too, and you’d be right. They have ripple effects that will influence other areas of your life too. You can design a similar system for any new habit that you wish to acquire — maybe for creative writing, learning to play a musical instrument or learning something new in your field.
Do check out these apps, which are great for forming habits —