Exercise, diet and mindset.
Of these three components, if you get the last one wrong you may as well not bother with the previous two. You may lose some weight, you may run 5km for a couple of weekends, but if you don’t have the right mindset any improvements you make to your health and fitness will be fleeting.
Mindset is the most important part of any undertaking — learning a new skill, giving up smoking, saving money… If you go into any endeavour with the view that you’re making a sacrifice, then you will always be looking forward to the moment when the sacrifice is over and you can ‘reward’ yourself once again. Depending on your habits that reward will either be a massive blowout weekend of chocolate and pizza, a ‘well I’ve earned it’ cigarette or a can of Coke and a Mars bar (my personal mid morning treat when I was in my twenties).
My smoking mindset
When I finally gave up smoking it wasn’t using patches or gum, it was a simple switch in my mindset. I realised that not smoking a cigarette wasn’t a sacrifice. Feeling better, breathing better, was the reward. It turned out that smoking had been the sacrifice all along. Once I worked that out, the three or so days of feeling grouchy wasn’t nearly as bad as the adverts for Nicorette would have us believe. Don’t get me wrong, that change in mindset was a long time coming. I’d tried patches, gum, inhalators… The worst method is ‘will-power’ — because it sets you up to fail. Will-power suggests that if you fail, you’re weak; and if you’re weak, well then you may as well give up and resign yourself to a life time of smoking.
Even the term ‘giving up’ tells us that we are sacrificing a lovely bit of our lives! When we smoke, we ‘give up’ feeling well. We ‘give up’ smelling like a human being. We ‘give up’ £8 a day.
In the end I was able to change my mindset because smoking was making me feel unwell. I realised that my sacrifice was not being able to go through the day without pain. After that, stopping was easy.
Eating clean isn’t a sacrifice
Is the shaky sugar crash feeling you get mid morning and mid afternoon lovely? Do you look forward to it? We can get rid of that feeling quickly by eating a Mars bar, or a granola bar or any one of a million products designed to keep our blood sugar bumping along. However it’s a vicious circle.
We all know this: You eat something high in refined carbohydrates (like sugar or white flour). Your body produces insulin to convert as much of it into fat as possible (because we’re designed to store energy for the days when no food is available — except we in the west never see those days). The sugar levels drop, but the insulin in our blood persists and we feel crashy. Our bodies know what we need. Refined carbohydrates! So we eat an energy bar, or down an energy drink (so much better for us than a chocolate bar and a Coke right!) and we feel better!
Eating the bar-o-carbs feels great. Refined sugars in drinks and snack bars hit our blood stream super fast. It literally feels like a lovely drug saturating our systems. Unfortunately it’s a cycle that has a long term effect on our health and wellbeing.
The sugar is stored as fat by the liver, which has to work hard to process all this stuff. The constant high levels of insulin cause our cell membranes to become less permeable to insulin, which means our bodies have to produce more of it (another vicious cycle), and ultimately we put ourselves at risk of type 2 diabetes.
To me, it seems fairly obvious that in order to enjoy your chocolate bars, the sacrifice you make is that feeling of crashiness, the extra fat stores and the eventual decent into long term ill health.
Eating clean is simply eating freshly prepared food. Nothing faddy, nothing expensive. No superfoods, no weird unpleasant berries or deep fried kale (although I have discovered kale is a delicious ingredient in stews and curries). Eating clean is not getting a jar of Dolmio pasta sauce, or eating a Mc Breakfast or an Uncle Ben’s stir-fry pot.
It just requires a little more thought about shopping and menu planning, and at the weekend, after a great week of freshly prepared meals and lovely packed lunches what’s your treat? You’ve been eating treats all week! The weekend is just the same, except maybe you cook something that would take to long on a work evening! Why? Because you’ve not made a sacrifice, you’ve reclaimed control over the food you put in your body.
This isn’t about will-power
We hide behind phrases like ‘I wish I had the self discipline that person has’. In using words like discipline and will-power, we create and reinforce this culture of sacrifice around healthier living.
After spending a couple of weeks eating well and taking time to exercise, you will come to resent to horrible effect that eating a Tesco cupcake has on your system, which makes it way easier to say ‘pass’ when the inevitable tray of chemical tasting supermarket ’treats’ gets left on the end of the row of desks by the feeder in your team.
Will-power is not required when you start to appreciate the sacrifice you’ll have to make when you eat crap and do nothing.
Running isn’t stupid
We see people who run and we do one of several things.
- We laugh at them for the stupidity of running at lunch time or in the pissing rain. Sitting on a bench eating a snack and laughing at runners is the best way to make yourself feel better about sitting on a bench eating a snack
- We say how much we admire them for their superhuman fitness, and in doing so put their achievements out of reach of our own abilities. This is a classic way of subverting our own ambitions and abilities
- We marvel at the time spent by these people and wish (although not to hard) that we had that time to spend too.
Anyone can run. If you have legs you can run (and if you don’t, there are always options). It’s super simple to stack up reasons why we shouldn’t. Human beings are designed to run, we’ve uniquely adapted in the mammalian world to run long distances. What we’re not designed for is sitting in chairs staring at screens for 8 hours a day followed by 4 hours of sitting on a sofa staring at a screen.
Running costs very little. Requires no gym membership and minimal equipment. Pretty much everyone owns a pair of trainers and a t-shirt.
If you can’t run, walk. Then try running.
One of the biggest problems we face is that the people whose exercise habits we admire seem like they must be natural runners, and nature hasn’t made us a natural anything. In truth, we are seeing people who got over this exact same belief and went running anyway. Then they got fitter. Nothing is beyond our reach.
Spending time on yourself isn’t a sacrifice
A lot of people will complain that they don’t have time to menu plan, cook, go running. Firstly I would counter this with a question: What is more important, the extra bit of work you can get done by coming home late every night or your health and happiness?
None of us would say the work is more important, and yet as individuals we think our situation is unique. We alone have a job that is so important, that we have to spend those extra hours on it. We will one day be more organised, or get more support in our role so that we can have more time to look after ourselves.
We are fucking over our future selves for something that, in all probability, we won’t even remember in 6 months time. Will your future self thank you for postponing making the changes to your life that you could have made years before? No. Your future self will be too busy working late and fucking over their even further future self.
Unless you are on the brink of curing cancer, your work is not important. Elevating the importance of that thing you just spent your lunch hour doing above your health and happiness is seriously messed up.
Thing you worked on over lunch: Forgettable and transient and will still be there after lunch.
Health and happiness: Literally all you have in the world. You have one life, no do-overs.
No rational person would ever put the first of these before the other.
If you think that the work will decrease, it won’t. If you think that taking 45 minutes to go running at lunch time will impact the amount of work you have to do, it won’t. There will always be more to do, so you may as well face it with a healthier mind and body. Research continually shows us that fitter, healthier people are more productive.
I will start on Monday
We’ve all done this. “I will make X change in my life…. next week”. You feel great because you’ve made a positive decision. Which is almost as great as actually doing something (except it’s clearly not). Next week comes, but we have a hard day at work, or get invited to an all-you-can-eat dim-sum buffet. So we postpone it for another week. And another and another.
Don’t wait for the right time. The right time is the moment you decide to do it. However do it with the right mindset. Do it in the knowledge that you’re not killing it for a month to get into a suit or a wedding dress or some beach wear, but that you’re doing it because you’re sick of sacrificing your health and happiness (and the health and happiness of future-you) for the dubious pleasure of eating a forgettable Pret meal-deal over your keyboard so you can work through lunch on something you won’t remember a week from now.
Parting thoughts (some of which have been stolen from inspirational Pinterest posts — don’t judge me)
“Fitness isn’t a punishment, it’s a blessing. [Good] Nutrition isn’t restrictive, it’s healing (and delicious). Health isn’t a one size fits all thing and may not look the same for everyone but it is something that’s worth fighting for.”
“I wish I’d spent more time doing work stuff rather than taking time to feel mentally and physically better, eating delicious fresh food and enjoying the benefits a long, mentally and physically active life spent with friends and family”, said no person on their deathbed ever.
Your mindset is the single thing stopping you from making the change future-you deserves. Not next week. Not for one month (with ‘treat blow outs’ every weekend) and not because it’s to hard or to much of a sacrifice.
Stop making sacrifices. Start rewarding yourself.