Good and bad habits, and discipline

I was busy cooking the other morning when it dawned on me: I must be a really boring person, because I always make the same breakfast (see photo above)!

It seemed, to my not quite fully awake mind, that a not so boring person would find all sorts of ways to make a healthy breakfast, whereas all I do is make the same healthy breakfast every morning. And I don’t need to be fully awake to do it.

Actually, when my mind started working a bit better, I realized that I have formed a breakfast habit: I make pretty much the same breakfast every morning, and it is a healthy breakfast. And since when I’m fully awake I’m pretty much always in “coaching mode,” it made me think of the need to talk about habits in relation to the oft-misunderstood concept of discipline. So here’s a post about that.

You see, when you have habits, you don’t need discipline.

Wait, no, let me re-phrase that a little:

When you have good habits, you don’t need very much discipline.

There, that’s better. But wait, don’t go yet; allow me to explain a little.

Habits

We all have them. There can be no doubt about that. Many, as a matter of fact.

Whether it is the side of the bed you sleep on, the time of day when you read your newspaper, how many hours per day you spend reading Facebook, the road you take to get to work every day, or what you eat on a typical day, these are only some of the habits you likely have.

I can almost hear you say “but, those are just routine things we do,” and you are correct. Because that is exactly what habits become: The routine, automatic things we do without really thinking about them.

It is true of things like breakfast, as I illustrated. Most of us eat the same thing day in, day out. It saves time, and it is efficient.

Many of you are probably tempted to respond that you don’t really have a choice in the matter, perhaps by providing the example of the route to get to work, which is what it is simply because of the origin and destination combination. I must, however, put a red light to that train of thought: If you think about it a little, except in some very specific situations, there is always a way to find alternate means and routes that, at some point, you decided against. Route choices were made at some point in time, and you’ve become comfortable with those decisions.

But you could choose to sleep on the other side of the bed, to not read Facebook at all, to read the newspaper at another moment of the day, to use a roundabout way to get to work. It might not be comfortable, and perhaps it would mean a longer transit time, and less recent information to discuss with colleagues at the water cooler (and in the case of Facebook, a lot more free time for other things), but it is possible.

Hence the inescapable conclusion that our lives are filled with habits that we accept. We simply could not function if we had to make every single decision about every action everyday. So we form habits.

The question is : Are they good habits, or bad habits? You see, the key to fitness and health becomes one of having more good habits than bad one.

Good or bad?

So, if you are still here, the idea is to have more good habits than bad ones.

Because I’m such a helpful kind of guy (that’s what good coaches are), I’m going to give you a few examples:

  • Good: To move regularly, frequently. Every day, if possible, even it it is not very strenuously.
  • Bad: To stay idle for too long, like sitting in a chair at the office.
  • Good: To eat real food; meals made from fresh ingredients without extensive processing by machines.
  • Bad: To drink calories, largely through pops, but also by consuming juices, milk, etc.
  • Good: To get off the couch and do physical work around (and outside) the house on weekends, or just to go outside to play with the kids.
  • Bad: To get on the couch and watch sports on TV on weekends, especially if accompanied by lots of liquid calories and NOT FOOD items.
  • Good: To cook your own meals.
  • Bad: To eat prepared meals, either bought in grocery stores (especially in the frozen aisles) or at restaurants (especially fast food restaurants).
  • Good: To read this blog on a regular basis.
  • Bad: To read Facebook for more than 30 minutes per day.

Ok, I think you are getting the point; even if I add a bit of humour around it, you know this is a serious matter.

But keep in mind that I’m talking about habits here. Once in a while, those “bad” behaviours are not a problem. They become a problem, however, when they are automatic, casual, and frequent actions. When that’s the case, something has to be done.

Discipline, what is it good for?

If you are like most folks, you are a little in awe of elite athletes. At the very least, you probably have some admiration for them, as well as for those who manage to train regularly.

You might be telling yourself something like “Wow! I wish I were that disciplined myself…”

At this point, you should begin to understand that training regularly is more a matter of having good habits than of having a strong self-discipline. With good habits, the behaviours that impress us the most are actually easy, because that are automatic!

But don’t get me wrong : This is not to say those athletes (and everyday athletes) we admire don’t have any discipline. They do. It is just that their discipline is used sparingly, and put to work where it works best.

If you try to apply discipline to make yourself do your training sessions, or eat better, you will run out of steam before very long. And you will fail. The good habits you seek will not be created.

You must first set your lifestyle, your daily and weekly routine, so as to make the good habits possible, instead of trying to wedge good behaviours into a routine that is not built to accommodate them. You must have a Purpose, and align your activities accordingly. Discipline comes a distant second, or even third if you include a good dose of motivation, towards building good habits that will serve your purpose.

Then, and only then, do you use discipline to eliminate bad habits. And to make sure you don’t go overboard in your training, like doing too much, too soon.

What does discipline at work look like?

You are tempted to read Facebook? Get up and go for a short walk. You feel like having yet another large coffee with lots of sugar and cream? Take a tall glass of water instead (and for crying out loud, don’t take it out of a plastic bottle!).

Simply put: Say “no” to the bad habit. You know how to recognize it when you see it…

If you use discipline to limit the behaviours you wish to do away with anyway, while you have set the stage for good habits to form, you stand a better chance of succeeding. At least, according to my life, and coaching, experience.

Saying “no” to the “free” pop with a meal or during a meeting at work, not picking up a fast food meal on your way home after work, or refraining from doing “just a few more kilometres” when in fact your training session is completed, that’s what discipline is good for.

The heavy lifting is done by establishing good habits, by being mindful of what your Purpose is, and setting the stage correctly. That Purpose might be something like “To be healthy and fit so as to live a long, active life” or it could be something else; what matters is that it must be explicit.

Choose your own, and be clear about it. Then set the stage for the good habits that will support your Purpose. And only then, when you really need it (and not all that often), use discipline to stay on course…

Photo credits: Sacha Veillette

5 Things to Do while Traveling (to stay in, or get back into, shape)

 One finds inspiration where one can.

Take this post, for instance:

My wife and I are currently in Florida for a conference. Well, it is more accurate to say that my wife is here for a conference; I’m just tagging along to keep her company and to carry the luggage. (Isn’t that convenient?)

This short trip is bringing back to mind a whole slew of tips and advice about traveling and keeping in shape. Or getting back in shape. So allow me to use the opportunity to pass on a small part of my vast amount of knowledge. (Not to put too humble a point on it.)

And since we all know that posts with a number between two and ten are far more likely to be read, I’ve distilled the fount into five key ideas.

1) If you travel by plane, wear comfortable clothing and running shoes, and walk as much as you can.

At the airport, don’t just go straight to the boarding area once you have (finally) gone through the mandatory security checkpoint: go for a walk, do some sightseeing, and use the time to visit the airport and check out the various planes. Finding yourself between two flights and with some time on your hands? Walk to your next gate instead of using the various escalators, moving sidewalks, and inter-terminal trains that are so prevalent in airports. Seize every opportunity to move on your own power…

2) If you travel by car for a long time, stop frequently to do body weight exercices, or just to walk a little.

It will help you remain in top shape for driving, and make the road trip more enjoyable. Better yet: Plan your itinerary so as to have some running or hiking stops along the way. The drive should also be part of the trip, not just something to get over with as quickly (and stressfully) as possible, so why not make the most of it? Your entire trip will be fare more relaxing that way!

3) Get outside, but in particular, get out of your comfort zone, by trying new activities or sports.

You happen to be in a place where nobody knows you? Use the opportunity to try something you might not be very good at, so you won’t have to worry about being embarrassed (taking pictures and posting to Facebook is entirely up to you)! Never used snowshoes? Try some on and go for a wintery hike! Never played tennis? Grab a racket and hit a few balls, or take a private class to learn how to play! Haven’t been on a bicycle since you were a wee lad? Rent a bike and knock yourself out (not literally, please)! Never participated in a spinning class because, like me, you consider it to not be real bike training? Broaden your mind a little, like I did yesterday, and try it!

4) If you are heading to the sun and warmth in response to winter’s onslaught, please, please (please!) don’t just lie on the beach sipping alcoholic beverages and eating food (or worse, NOT FOOD).

First of all, moving will help you relax a lot more than just doing nothing. Or stuffing your face. The heat may seem oppressive at first, but while crisping yourself in the sun will help your vitamin D levels, it does not melt fat. Moreover, it puts you at risk for skin cancer. So enjoy the warmth and use the time to move. Also, should you be enjoying an “all included” hotel in a sunny setting, don’t forget that alcohol is high in calories, and that drinking a lot just because it is included in the deal is a sure way to send the signal to your body that your brain is not really in charge. Be reasonable. Water is better for you. Incidentally, a beach also has a lot of water; you can do more than just cool yourself off in it: You can swim in it, too!

5) Don’t just take a break from your daily grind: Use the opportunity to start a new routine.

Vacation time, or even just short business (or otherwise) trips, have the great advantage that they break the monotony of the daily grind. It is a break that does not need to be just temporary. You can use the opportunity of a trip of any length to put aside old habits, and put in place new, and better, ones. For instance, adding a walking routine to your day, removing some food (or NOT FOOD) items from your diet, setting a few minutes aside each evening for a meditative look-back on the day, reducing the amount of TV you watch, etc. Changing habits is easier when there is a clean break; do you know anything that is a cleaner break than a trip? Moreover, after you return, you can use the newly formed habit as an enjoyable reminder, almost as an extension, of the vacation time…

So there you have it! Use the opportunity to move more, whether you go far or not so far, and improve your fitness. I have to stop now, because it is time to go for a run, barefooted, on the beach…

Photo credits: Sacha Veillette

Thinking about getting fit in the New Year? Why wait? Start getting fit right now.

Holidays, Exercise, Habits, New Year, Resolutions

Looking forward to all the food and sugar you’ll eat during the holidays?

The holiday season is just around the corner. And then it will be a New Year.

So many of us take the New Year as a signal to start an exercise program it has become a cliché. A tired one at that.

Part of the reason we want to start an exercise program in the new year, of course, is the abusive regimen we put our bodies through during the festive season. Another part of it is the logical attractiveness of a new calendar, with all the associated renewal and new beginning.

But those are illusions, and contribute to the very high rate of failure of those very same resolutions.

Simply put, if you really mean it, there is no point in waiting for January 1st. Why wait? The best time to start a new set of good habits that will lead you to better fitness is today.

As an additional bonus for starting today, having the “excuse” of being on a new tract towards better fitness is an excellent way to limit the damage of over-indulging during the holidays. And it also an excellent conversation topic, and may spread much more joy around by being more reasonable (and limit the spread of mid sections in your entire family).

“But, wait, in order to start now, don’t I need to join a gym, or buy expensive equipment?” I imagine some of you asking.

No. Not really. Not at all, as I’m about to show.

(Though asking for a few useful pieces of equipment as Christmas gifts can also be a very good idea, by the way.)

Here’s the recipe I’ve come up with, based on all my reading and experience, to get you going immediately and have a much more healthy holiday experience and a head start on your fitness for years to come:

1) Start using your body more to move around

You don’t need any special equipment. Just look for opportunities to walk more, take stairs more, not sit as long as you normally do. Every time you move, you score a small victory: make it a game and keep score. As you graduate through the levels of moving around, you might want to reward yourself with a pedometer (to keep a more accurate count) or a FitBit, or just start using your smartphone for much better purposes than reading Facebook updates… After 3-4 weeks on this stage, with new habits in place, move on to the next phase.

2) Start re-building your muscle mass

Yeah, this is the not-as-much-fun part, I must admit, at least at first. But it is oh so important. What is often neglected when talking about reduced metabolism as we age is the fact that we lose muscle mass, and that it is muscle mass that burns the most calories. The best use you can make of a few minutes in the morning is to do some simple exercises like squats, push-ups, sit-ups, etc. Look into the 7-minute Workout and adopt it on a daily basis. Then reward yourself, perhaps with a set of shiny weights or kettle bells, or a very nice dinner out. After this becomes a habit, 3-4 weeks of focused effort, move on to the next phase.

3) Put a sport in your schedule

Play is the best way to spend energy without noticing. And it is fun. If you’ve ever played a sport competitively, or just for fun, when you were younger, pick it up again. If you never did, then become a “big kid” and pick one up. Not competition, just playing. You’ll soon come to realize that it is better to do something than to watch it on TV. Do it with your spouse, with your kids even; a family that plays together, spends quality time together. A brand new badminton racket, or new court shoes, make very nice rewards for being more active. Again, take a good 3-4 weeks to make this a new habit before moving on to the next one, and keep room in your schedule for this from now on.

4) Sign-up for a walking, running, or cycling event

By this point it will be spring time, or very close to it. There are many running shops and fundraising programs that offer training for various local events to be held during the summer; in those events you can walk or run, or bike through various distances. These are great ways to get with a group of people working towards a fitness goal, even as you all work together to help others. And you can do this at your own pace, quite often with coaches that are eager to help you at no charge. The event t-shirt and/or finisher medal make rewards enough for your achievements, though I know a lot of people who conclude such event with a bottle of bubbly… I don’t even need to tell you to do this again each year, or multiple time per year, because once you try it, you’ll adopt it.

You notice a pattern of “effort and reward” emerging? Nowhere am I suggesting you need to spend first, and then exercise: That’s often why people feel particularly bad about failing in their resolutions.

What I’m hinting at is that you can start doing the right thing, right now, with a future reward in mind. When you get to the reward, you can set the next goal. It comes from within yourself, not from feeling bad about having spent money.

Also, note how I’ve not told you to join a gym. You don’t need to. But it could come later, if you feel like it. However, getting fitter right now begins at home and in your daily activities. Again, with minimal expenditure.

One final note about the coming holidays

It is part of the recipe in general, but not a specific step in the program, or it would be “step 0”: Consult the list of NOT FOOD items and make a conscious effort to remove them from your habits.

Do this gradually, not all at once, but do it. Just removing liquid sugars (pops, fruit juices, etc.) makes a HUGE difference. With each step (1-4) outlined above, pick a NOT FOOD item you want to work on reducing and eventually eliminating from your life. Your body will thank you for it by getting fitter faster, and, incidentally, getting leaner in the process.

So, instead of indulging and feeling bad this holiday season, spread the cheers and the word about getting fit. Get a head start on the holidays by starting today.

There’s nothing stopping you from having the best holiday season ever.

Rewards, Habits, Effort, Exercise

A bit of celebrating, when it is as reward for your accomplishments, is always good for you.

Pictures from Pixabay.