A new year brings new resolve to eat healthier, exercise more and build better health. It’s so easy to be tempted by a quick fix. There are certainly many dieting or exercise programs eager to grab your cash, all claiming to have discovered the “secret”. They don’t have it. There is no “secret”. In fact, dieting has been shown to not only fail in creating sustainable weight loss but can also foster psychological distress and increase unhealthy physiological markers! (*1)
Being healthier is a step by step reformation of your attitude toward your daily routines. Now that sounds just cruel. And it will feel that way if you approach this new year with an attitude of deprivation, self-criticism and self-aggression.
What if there were a way to move toward a healthier, more fit you that was infused with curiosity, compassion and playfulness?
Mindful eating and exercise emphasize health behaviour change through attunement to physical sensations within a framework of self acceptance and self care. It is a “third wave” cognitive behavioural therapy practice, meaning that it builds on traditional CBT with additional emphasis on compassion, spirituality and acceptance.
What we choose to eat and how we choose to exercise is part of our total life experience. These choices are influenced by our other life choices. To create sustainable change toward healthier patterns, all aspects of our life are open for examination. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Here’s how the plan works:
Eat differently. At first, eat what you would normally but begin adjusting the circumstances. For example, sit down and eliminate all other distractions like tv, internet, books, work. Express gratitude for the food (ie say grace, etc.). Smell the food; appreciate the colourfulness of the food. Slow down as you chew. Truly taste the food. Attune intensely to the way your body feels as you eat. It is recommended to keep a food journal that focuses on your thoughts and feelings after eating. Do this for one week. If you are unable to carve out time dedicated to feeding yourself as a stand-alone activity, you may benefit from some counselling to help reflect on why such a fundamental health investment is minimized for you. Cognitive behavioural therapy has been shown to be very effective in these circumstances.
This sounds very counter-intuitive. But change requires a great deal of mental effort. Energy resources may have to be reorganized. This prescription here is for therapeutic rest as an intervention for balancing the nervous system to prepare your organism to shift behaviours. (here is a deeper description of therapeutic rest). Begin therapeutic rest in week one.
Begin to make friends with hunger sensations.
It is hardwired that hunger will make us panic as a primeval survival skill. As readers of this article are highly unlikely to suffer from starvation, our higher selves can supersede this coding but it will take time. The hunger signals are mediated through the nervous system by way of hormones. Our nervous systems are major creatures of habit. The hormones will be secreted in the same ways that they always have unless we take executive action. How can you tell if you are truly hungry? Ask yourself two questions: Has it been more than three hours since I last ate? Do I actually have grumbling in my tummy? If the answer is no to these, then substitute a healthier activity for eating. Journaling, going for a walk, connecting with a supportive friend, some deep breathing or diving into an uplifting book can all be better choices. This emphasis can begin in week two.
Ride the Wave of Sensation.
Getting used to unpleasant sensations, like hunger, is difficult. We have decades long habits for avoiding having to really listen to these signals. Substituting a healthier activity might be overwhelming in the moment. Mindfulness asks you to acknowledge the discomfort but delay reacting to the sensation for a short period. Taking this observational stance will teach you that there is a wave to any sensation, especially a craving. Something triggers the sensation; the sensation builds. Often we jump off the wave by indulging in that habitual distraction (like eating comfort foods) and smothering the sensation. Mindfulness asks you to continue riding the wave to its peak, utilizing specific strategies to help you hold open to the experience. The sensation will ebb, at which time you now have greater alignment between intention and action. This practice, and #4, can also begin in week two.
Use Mindfulness strategies to remain open to the experience of this moment.
A simple and powerful tool is the three minute breathing space. Upon recognition that a sensation is building, you simply remove yourself as best you can from the situation (maybe closing your eyes) and take a few minutes to focus on specific physical sensations such as breathing. During this time, you will have ridden the wave. After incorporating this tool regularly, your nervous system will begin to have enough experience to support new behaviours.
Add mindful exercise.
In week 3 or 4, apply this “riding the wave” protocol to movement. Yoga, especially the slower, more meditative types, is ideal. Walking mediations are also recommended. To practice a walking meditation, outdoors is ideal although a treadmill can substitute. This is not an aerobic focus. Engage in walking, hiking or running (whatever activity appeals most) and remove all emphasis on distance, speed or competitiveness. Embrace your surroundings. Listen to sounds and inhale odours. As you did with eating, eliminate distractions so the activity is the sole focus. Breathe regularly and deeply, preferably through the nose.
Embrace self compassion.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the practice begins in week 3 or 4. Seeking a healthier lifestyle is sustainable when it comes from intrinsic motivations that emerge from your higher self – such as connection, peace, harmony, love and cooperation. See what you choose to eat and how you choose to move your body as a loving expression of how you value this life and your privilege of living it. A gratitude journal in which you list five things for which you are thankful each day is a great practice along these lines. A supportive group of like-minded individuals that explores spiritual questions relevant to you (in yoga we call this “sangha”) can be helpful in discovering your intrinsic motivations.
Now let’s talk about what to eat.
Around the second month, it’s time to create a food plan. You have spent quality time, observing your body’s signals. What do you truly enjoy eating? Are there any foods that don’t agree with you? What made you feel more alive or less joyful? As you begin to dialogue with your amazing physical form, it will teach you what it needs. Much well-meaning advice is given about paleo or vegan diets, going gluten free or fasting. These approaches work for some people, some of the time. You are the world’s foremost expert on your needs, when you learn to listen. A healthier diet is common sense (you already know this) – watch portion sizes; eat foods close to the way nature made them; allow each meal to fully digest before adding more to the stomach. A more detailed food diary might be helpful for about two weeks as you begin this phase of the program.
Dealing with guilt is a big part of successfully adjusting habit. You will make choices that are not perfectly healthy. What do you do with the guilt? Riding the wave of sensation is an excellent strategy for observing the thoughts and feelings that arise. Accepting this process of change within a framework of compassion, curiosity and even playfulness can create the space for experimentation.
What about exercise?
Decades of an aggressive fitness industry have convinced us we need to be faster, stronger and ever more aggressive in our pursuit of excellence. The pressure to achieve may aggravate the nervous system and prevent a holistic return to vitality. A body can be healthy at any size, not just the ones pictured in the fitness ads. Movement is essential to health (mental, physical and spiritual) but is a very poor weight management strategy in and of itself. In the mindfulness approach, exercise is seen as an extension of loving kindness to oneself. An opportunity to celebrate the amazing physical form through which we are experiencing our lives. Choosing exercises that speak to those higher needs (connection, harmony, peace, etc.) will be joyful as opposed to another “to do” on your already lengthy list of obligations.
This is so much more than a weight loss program. This is a “fall in love with life” program that results in a healthier body. It is a program that can be adapted regardless of your current level of fitness. The blocks of time needed for this self care can be divided into smaller batches throughout your day.
Save your money and take charge of your personalized new year’s plan!
(*1) Based on research from Medicare’s search for an effective treatment for obesity published on Aug 2, 2011; article available on PubMed from the American Journal of Psychiatry)