Effective ways to get back to sustainable health and fitness
After Mexico, America is the second fattest nation on earth, and South Africa is nudging its way into the top 10 most obese countries worldwide. In February this year a report from South Africa’s Medical Research Council found that 70% of all women above the age of 35 and 40% of all men above the age of 35 are overweight.
Are you one of them? Can you say with a straight face that you’re in good condition physically, that you’re enjoying the benefits of health and a healthy lifestyle? Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have become such acute and insidious problems that many doctors and health practitioners are calling sitting “the new smoking”. That’s how serious ordinary sedentary behaviour has become. Obesity, if it isn’t obvious already, is the scourge of our time. Obesity is a leading preventable cause of death worldwide and many experts believe it is one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century.
So, what can we do about it?
The good news is that with the right strategy one can see both effective and rapid results. Probably the most important place to begin is to spend a little time facing up to your personal reality so that you have a clear sense of why you’ll be making changes to your lifestyle. When the temptation arises to go back to old habits, this time spent reflecting about what you want out of life and for your life, and what you ultimately want your life to mean will be important.
But let’s assume you’ve computed the health risks and you’ve decided that you’d like to live longer, and avoid cancer, type-II diabetes, heart disease and strokes. You’d also like to have a better and happier quality of life. It’s then important that you communicate your concerns, and share your new motivations with the person closest to you, be they family or friend. After all, a lifestyle is the way in which a person or group lives. If you can align your goals with someone else’s or, better yet, inspire your whole family or social group to get with the programme by doing healthy things together, your chances of success will be much greater and more rewarding. And if you’re lucky enough, or perhaps young enough not to be suffering from your poor lifestyle choices and habits, someone close to you probably is. As such there’s no harm in participating in a healthy lifestyle with someone who really needs it. For this reason our culture needs to change, which means essentially that everyone must buy into rebooting our way of life.
Once you’ve aligned your inner locus, and perhaps found someone or formed a group to join you on your journey to better health, where exactly do you start? According to Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine “Americans have all these unhealthy behaviours that put them at high risk for heart disease and cancer, but it is hard for them and their doctors to know where to begin to change those unhealthy habits.” So Spring conducted a study on the most effective way to get started on changing bad lifestyle habits. The good news is that they found people don’t have to attack all their problems at once. By simplifying and prioritising what needs to be changed, Spring points out, “people don’t feel overwhelmed”.
“Just making two lifestyle changes has a big overall effect,” the professor says. Spring’s study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, was based on 204 unhealthy adults who only made these two adjustments to their lifestyles over a three week period (and self-reported progress by emailing it to a coach). Having a coach is important because it improves accountability, hence the emphasis on “not going it alone”.
Start by changing these two behaviours first:
- Reduce the amount of time you spend watching TV.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables.
Interestingly, cutting back on TV had the most positive effect by far, which Spring said was due to behaviour bundling. Lounging on the sofa is likely to lead to other bad behaviours, including snacking and exposure to commercials that prod you towards even more unhealthy foods.
“Increasing fruits and vegetables was especially confidence-enhancing for folks,” Spring added. “ [After that]… they felt more confident about being able to make other diet and activity changes.”
So changing just a few lifestyle behaviours will make it easier to change the rest. Obviously if you spend more leisure time in front of your computer (as opposed to watching TV), then you need to cut down on that.
Another useful tip: If you’re going to eat more fruit and vegetables, resign yourself to being in the kitchen more, preparing these sorts of unprocessed meals. At the same time, try to avoid eating carbohydrate-rich foods, especially refined sugars. The reason for this is that sweet foods and many refined carbohydrates (especially breads, colas, potato chips and all junk food) play havoc with energy levels, which in turn will play havoc with moods and motivation. By raising your fruit and vegetable intake you ought to improve your mental health, but you might need to specifically curb your intake of certain foods – especially sweet foods – to help you on your way.
So it’s not as complicated or overwhelming as it may seem at first. “We think health behaviours are interrelated — they tend to complement or substitute one another.” Obviously if beneficial behaviours are related, so are those that aren’t good for you. This means if you can focus for just three weeks and hold yourself accountable you have a solid shot at real results. Eighty six percent of participants reported that after making changes to their lifestyles (which were incentivised with small cash rewards) they tried to sustain them even after the incentives for following the ‘good’ behaviours were removed.