Time For Change
For many people January means detox / diet / ‘dry’ life, followed by February, which can often see a return to excess and comfort eating. But with March and the promise of spring, many of us contemplate longer term changes when it comes to health and wellbeing. It’s hard to know where to begin and how to sustain the changes we embark on so they are not just fads but adopted as meaningful ways of living.
Many of us create fixed narratives about ourselves and our behaviour, things we’ve collected from childhood that people said about us or that we told ourselves; the more we hear or say them the more they stick. The good news is that these narratives can be changed. The first step is identifying the stories you’ve collected. What is it that you repeat to yourself that gets in the way of your health goals? Messages like ‘I hate exercise’, ‘I can’t stop at one biscuit I have to eat the whole packet’, ‘I’m greedy’, ‘I’m lazy’, ‘I can’t cook’ create barriers to our own success to prevent the disappointment of failure.
Perhaps you feel like you don’t have enough time, enough money, or feel low in energy, preventing you from taking that first step. Imagine then what you would do if these barriers were removed? Who would you be if time, money and motivation were no obstacle? Try to unpack these barriers. Are they real or imagined? ‘I can’t afford the gym’ can easily be overcome, there are multiple free classes online, power walking around the park is free, maybe get off the bus or tube earlier and walk the rest of the way to work. You can be creative and try new things.
Think about how you’d like to feel and create a vison of what being well and healthy looks like to you. Set quiet time aside and ask yourself what success would look like to you. You might write this down, or create a visual board to inspire your health goals. This way you have a reference to commit to and it will help you as you create new, positive messages.You can be the person that enjoys vegetables, that occasionally enjoys a slice of cake and feels satisfied without bingeing, someone who looks forward to daily movement as an integral part of your day rather than a chore you must get done.
While I’ve always eaten relatively well and enjoyed cooking my narrative that required change was about exercise. I hated P.E. at school and took every opportunity to sit out, developing the message I can’t, I’m no good. It wasn’t until my thirties, driven in part by vanity and in part mental health that I began to move. I’ve tried the gym, swimming, group classes, workout DVDs, and as I’ve got fitter, stronger and more flexible, I’ve got braver. Now alongside morning yoga in my pyjamas (thanks YouTube), I also attend a weekly dance class, and play badminton with a group of women. I’m not that good, but I show up and I’m getting better, and I know that that’s what counts- my narrative is changing.
You can create new neural pathways in the brain (new habits) in as little as six weeks. I would advise starting slowly and adding a new routine or ritual every few weeks until they become second nature. Identify the change you want to make and shrink it. Shrinking the change increases the chance of success by reducing the resistance to getting started, giving you small wins, which increase confidence and build momentum.
If your goal is to reduce sugar or increase vegetable intake start with one meal. Breakfast is often the easiest to adjust, so why not see what you can change? Switch your sugar-laden granola for eggs with spinach and mushrooms. After a few weeks of that change see what you can change at lunchtime. Can you batch cook some hearty soups and take them to work?
Be aware that a glass of wine at the end of a long day or that first morning coffee are rituals that bring pleasure and relieve stress, so unless you have something to replace them, the urge won’t just disappear, so think of other ways to reward yourself and wind down. Replacing your morning coffee with a green tea provides many health benefits. It won’t taste the same, but you can still walk down the street holding the cup and your brain will create the new habit far quicker. Be careful not to cut everything out all at once, be aware of your goals and move towards them being aware of your old narratives when they creep back in whilst repeating the new ones.
Decision making depletes willpower, so removing choice, and setting a fixed schedule will reinforce success. Being organised really helps, I often carry some dried fruit, nuts even a little dark chocolate in my bag so that I’m not tempted by junk food if hunger strikes. Healthy eating isn’t a punishment and isn’t about willpower, it’s about re-wiring your habits so that you crave the food the nourishes you.
You could begin changes with a friend and chart your progress together; a little bit of praise goes a long way. Remember that making changes is not linear and it’s a process with many steps, and know that we can often take two steps forward and one step back, but reminding ourselves why we’re making the change and getting back on the path to change is more important than the detours.
Really think about your ‘why’. Why do I choose to eat nourishing foods, move daily, get enough sleep, drink enough water, practice relaxation? Because I want to age well without chronic disease, I want energy to participate in life, I want to be strong enough to feel my feet firmly beneath me, I want my moods to be unclouded by nutrient deficiencies or biochemical imbalances, or stimulants. I know that the irony of wellbeing is that it’s easier to make healthy choices when you feel well, and at times when my mental health has been bad incorporating these daily practices can feel fragile like a house of cards ready to topple at any moment, but I also know that when I start to slip, or feel a wave of depression I need these tools to steady me and ride out the storm.
I know that what I do daily has more impact than the occasional indulgence, and I genuinely know that what I eat today is how I will feel tomorrow and that supports my choices. I also know that life is finite and tuning into daily practices that feel good allows me to make the most of it.
Maya Oakley is a registered nutritional therapist who can be found at Nourished London and @nourishedlondon on Instagram