In a previous blog post I discussed ‘How to Get Started with your Fitness‘ and touched on an integral part of the success equation, which I wanted to discuss further. Many of us feel trapped in the present and are fearful of taking that proverbial ‘first step’. When I look back at my own struggles, and in particular, when I made the biggest changes in my life, all major changes that I’ve made were underscored by one common thread. In this post, I want to discuss Getting Fit by Changing Our Behaviors.
Getting Fit by Changing our Behaviors
When I consider my life, prior to my physical (and mental!) transformation back in 2008, what kept me stuck was not a lack of knowledge to change. I knew intellectually that I HAD to make these changes if I wanted to live a better life. The thing is, knowing and doing reside on completely opposite ends of the pendulum. We can read, interpret, surmise, postulate, discuss, write and articulate things to death, but these methods are not substitutes for taking action. Really, they are nothing more than fantasies – intent without action.
One of my major struggles in my 20s was quitting smoking. The second was getting serious about eating properly and getting in shape. For the former, I started smoking in high-school around the age of 16, 1992, and didn’t quit until New Year’s Eve of 2000. Since then, a cigarette has not come near my lips, and now the thought literally repulses me. In fact, the smell of cigarettes completely turns me off to the point that I’ll cross the street or hold my breath if in throwing distance of any poisonous haze. I’m so sensitive to the smell now that I can pick up on the smoker a car ahead of me (often several cars ahead)! This sounds dramatic doesn’t it? But it illustrates my next point. Thinking back to my real ‘turning point’, I am able to sort out my finite inspiration to improve my health and rid myself of bad habits and choices.
We’re not robots on auto-pilot or simply performing actions by some involuntary reptilian response. We, as humans, are capable of making conscious choices. Nothing is making us smoke, or eat poorly, aside from the operating system running in the background that we have CHOSEN to adhere to. The key is to become aware of the programs, move the ‘needle’, and then create new habits – one’s that serve the higher vision that we have for our life. What’s missing is making the correct associations and disassociations.
For years I had the knowledge that my lifestyle was unhealthy. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that. The funny thing is, that despite knowing better, I continued to partake in self-destructive behavior with this notion that one day it would get easier, or that I may magically just begin living a more healthful lifestyle, or truer still, I just ignored it and lived in a strange place that wasn’t necessarily comfortable, but not uncomfortable enough for me to really do anything about it.
Tony Robbins illustrates this point well with his metaphor of a fly hitting the window as it searches for the light – for a way out. Repeatedly, that fly will bounce, bang, collide and drive it’s body against the pane (and ‘pain’!) of glass, often until it’s death. The fly will continue it’s attempts to become free of it’s predicament without making any effective changes. We’ve all heard the expression that “Insanity is defined as doing the same thing, or action, repeatedly and expecting a different result.” Ironically, we as humans are (generally ;) ) more intelligent than that fly, however our actions mirror that fly’s vain attempts for a different way, a better life, but to no avail. Now that is insane!
A Wake Up Call
I’ve suffered from allergies to pollen, and to cats for most of my adult life. Coupled with smoking in my 20s, I found myself bed-ridden at 22 for about 4 days, unable to get a complete breath of air. I didn’t smoke for that 4 days, but still struggled to breathe, likely due to the season and the cat we had in the apartment. Struggling, and with each breath labored, I pictured myself as an old man. I could literally see myself in a hospital bed, connected to oxygen machines, weak, emaciated, and surrounded by loved ones – it really wasn’t that far of a jump from the bed that I found myself. This gave me a very real picture of what was clearly a possibility for me if I continued on my current path and adhered to existing bad habits and patterns. I don’t know if you’ve ever suffered an allergy attack or had impaired breathing for any length of time, but to struggle to get a breath – to feel like your lungs are filled with cement and that you can only reach about 10% of your total lung capacity is a very scary and tiring state. This was that ‘feedback loop’ that I needed; This was part of my process for change.
I got well, vowed that I would never smoke again, and quit for about a year, cold turkey. A year later, though, I began smoking again socially (aka when I went to the bar on weekends), and it wasn’t long before my ‘rules’ changed. I told myself that I would only smoke when I drank, but this only led to more recreational drinking. As crazy as it sounds, I began drinking more at home just so I could have a cigarette. Don’t get me wrong, I was far from the realm of being an alcoholic, and didn’t drink every day, but if friends came over, often a beer (or three) would come out, and so too would the cigarettes.
What happened to everything I’d learned, and promised to myself ? I would reflect on my physical state a year earlier, but hey, I was in good health now and the momentary ‘pleasure’ offset and veiled that very real and dark state that I had experienced. Funny how we can forget, make excuses and choose to ignore what doesn’t interrupt our immediate so-called ‘pleasures’. I can only reflect with compassion now for my former self in view of what I thought was pleasurable. I am thankful that my understanding illuminated the path to change and that I didn’t go through my entire life making excuses or worse yet, ignoring it entirely.
Having the vision of my sick future-self burnished an image on my psyche. It really wasn’t long before that mental Polaroid sat in the forefront of my mind, re-minding me of the state I would inevitably reach if my patterns of behavior didn’t change. This is the magic bullet. In order to change my behavior I realized that knowing it wasn’t enough. The power came with my associations. By picturing myself as a frail old man, gasping for breath through a tubed mechanical ‘monster’ feeding me my oxygen, I had to associate my current behavior with as much negative, frightening and disturbing imagery as I possibly could.
In a sense, I would meditate on every minutia of being ill with respiratory disease or worse yet, cancer. I pictured the texture of my skin, the color, the pallid, pasty clamminess. I could see with vivid clarity my gray body, thin, attached to intravenous, half covered with old hospital blankets that were worse-for-wear, smelling of institutional soap, and covered in nappy pills – the ones that catch on your legs and feet when you move about.
I could see the dim room, hear the beep of monitors, and see the slatted sunlight beaming through the hospital room window, revealing the dust hanging in the air, and reminding me of days when I was a healthy man on the other side (the better side), of the glass.
I imagined loved ones weeping over me and leaning in to express their love, say their goodbyes and me not having the strength or oxygen to reply. I literally created this very real world in my mind so that I could unmistakably connect my behavior to a negative outcome.
By contrast, I then began to picture what I wanted from my life. I envisioned a healthy young man, fit, athletic, vibrant, and able to inhale large, deep breaths of fresh air. I imagined a long and healthy life and enjoying every moment with my future wife and family. I envisioned mountain hikes, running on trails, camping, family holidays, a family home, career, financial freedom and vibrancy into old age. I painted a portrait in my mind of a life that I wanted to live and realized that to live this life, it was as simple as creating new habits. No one was going to do this for me. No one would force my hand. As easily as I could choose to do something, I could just as easily choose not to do something (and vice versa). F*ck the excuses, the blaming and being a passenger in my life. I took the driver’s seat and grabbed hold of the wheel, and it felt amazing.
My Life in the Ghetto
To back track a bit, and to give more leverage to ‘disassociating’ from the negative, I was living in the city at that time, and often walked through some pretty poverty stricken areas. In fact, my last year in Vancouver, I lived at one of the worst intersections in North America, the famous ‘Main and Hastings’, on the very edge of Gas Town. Rent was extremely cheap, but this came at a price: Prostitution, heroin, syringes, vomit, and drug addicts scratching nervously, thin, frail, and desperate, would walk the streets like zombies, right outside my door. My 8th floor bachelor pad sat right on this intersection, above ‘Owl Drugs’ (fitting, and ironically located across from the Vancouver City Police Department, the Public Library, and the Royal Bank of Canada).
From the floor-to-ceiling windows, I would often sit and gaze down at the madness below me. I would walk through this area and connect the life that I did not want for myself to this very environment. I would see these people, skeletal, colorless, desperate, with eyes glazed over, scraping up cigarette butts from sidewalks just to get a few ‘drags’ or collect butts in tin cans to roll up for later.
They would scavenge through dumpsters, garbage cans, sleep in alleys and ATM cubbyholes, shoot up, pass out with syringes hanging from their arms. In short, I took all of these negative associations and made them as real in my mind as I could. I associated smoking with illness, disease, unhappiness, and it was from these associations that I stoked the fire of my ambition to give me the motivation to quit, and quit I did. I also moved out of this area mainly because it was too depressing. I don’t care how much mental fortitude a person has, eventually this type of environment will wear on anyone.
Decide, Commit, Succeed
New Year’s Eve, 2000, myself and 3 other friends quit smoking, ‘cold turkey’. That was it. You see, knowing that I should quit, and being told that I should quit was not enough to change my behavior. I can only surmise that the fear of change kept me in the sorry state that I was in. Fear of the very vivid reality that I painted for myself propelled me into action.
So if you look at a bad habit like smoking, it satisfies us on a certain level. It is safe. It is a constant, and a ‘known’. What is ‘unknown’ are the details that surround quitting.
- Will we fail?
- Will it be difficult?
- Will we gain weight?
- What will others think if we try to quit and don’t succeed?
- How about other people who never smoke and die of lung cancer anyway?
- What is the point?
- What about those who smoke and never get ill?
- and so on, and so forth…
Smokers will often blame their past, or their environment for engaging in self-destructive behavior. They will say things like, “I’m just too stressed out right now.” or “It’s only one vice, and it’s better than a lot of others.” This is crazy! This is justification because they are afraid of taking that step into the unknown. However this is a dangerous place to be. When we begin to rationalize our bad behaviors, it becomes easier to defend our actions. This is the dark disguise that the ‘devil we know’ loves to wear.
I think we, as humans, are amazing excuse makers, and despite our intelligence, despite our amazing capabilities and accomplishments, we have this inane ability to fail on so many levels. We can so easily become victims of ourselves, of our habits and can remain trapped doing what we have always done because it is safe, and comfortable, even if it causes pain.
Like that fly that keeps hitting the window, we often choose the discomfort of the ‘known’ over the potential pain of the unknown. However, that is a ‘glass half empty’ mentality. Why do we automatically view the alternative to what we are presently doing as being unpleasant? The fact is, more often than not, we will find beauty, possibility, wellness and inspiration if we can just take that initial step out of our comfort zone. That’s where the magic happens!
So how do we Change and Break Old Habits?
Like making negative associations with that which we want to change, we need to make positive associations with that which we want to gain, or incorporate into our lives. This refers to anything we want to change, be it smoking, fitness, diet, how we talk to our kids, how we deal with friends, family, colleagues. In terms of fitness, we often make the same excuses.
We fear getting started because we don’t want to fail. For some reason, we prefer the discomfort of our current poor health to the discomfort of making a change. We worry that we won’t lose weight, that we will quit, and that we’ll have to face our peers once we’ve failed. We worry that it will be difficult. We make excuses to remain the same by blaming genetics, busy schedules, lack of knowledge, other health conditions. What we fail to realize is that a far greater happiness exists once we just put in the effort to climb over that mental obstacle and start to build our ‘success muscles’.
For my own fitness transformation, I hit a similar low as I did just prior to quitting smoking. You can read about my personal fitness journey here. In short, I used negative associations as tools to build my motivation, change behavior and build new habits. For me, it was the health concerns related to being overweight. My father had his first heart attack in his mid 30s, and has had two more since then, now in his late 50s. His occupation has him at a desk for the better part of any given day, and with little to no exercise, his health will likely deteriorate quicker than it needs to.
In my own line of work I see clients daily who rattle off long lists of medications they are taking, the bulk of which to treat blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. It seems more often than not that people resign themselves to certain ailments solely on the account of age.
With inactivity and poor diet, naturally things are going to take their toll. It’s really no different than letting your car sit for years with old oil and fuel. Eventually things are going to deteriorate, and seize. Age does not have to equate to illness and disease, yet these are almost expected in our society. I believe that age can, and should (for the most part) equate to longevity and vitality for as long as we can control it. The problem is that many of us do not do everything in our means to protect it.
I knew what I didn’t want. I knew the path that I did not want to take. I realized that I wanted to be a fit, healthy father for my daughters. I wanted to be a role model for them. Now as parents, my wife and I simply don’t buy junk. I even hesitate to give them yogurt with sugar in it, or Cheerios because of the processing. At the end of the day, I want to teach my girls to live healthful lives and to respect their bodies. I want to give them the tools to succeed academically, physically, nutritionally and break any negative patterns. Will I fall short? Of course. Will I make mistakes constantly? Without question. Will I do and say things that I regret? Yep. But that’s okay. What is important is that I move forward in this position as a father with the clarity, goals and focus for what I want to achieve.
After all, we need to make mistakes – it’s part of how we learn and move forward, assuming we recognize our errors and endeavor to correct them. I find it interesting how most parents wouldn’t think twice about setting their kids up for academic success, but at the same time many parents provide their children with a steady diet of processed foods, burgers and french fries. Health is holistic; it is mental and physical.
Why aren’t we Taught about Diet and Nutrition?
Growing up, our pantry was always full of sugary cereals, Ding Dongs, Fruit-Roll-Ups, pastries, morning toaster strudels, grandma’s baked goods, soda, drink mixes, drink boxes, cookies, candies, chips, crackers, you name it. Weekend lunches were often McDonald’s take-out, or grilled white bread and processed cheese sandwiches with highly processed ‘just add water’ soup. We simply weren’t taught to eat healthfully. We were a traditional ‘meat and potatoes’ family. My grandparents are German, so sausage, perogies, fried potatoes, heavy pastries, buns, hearty soups, fatty cuts of meat – these were all the norms. As kids, we didn’t really know any better. A drawer full of candies and pastries meant ‘go time’! We’d often come home from school and none of these things were regulated.
Into my early pre-teens and teenage years I started to get a bit soft. I carried these poor eating habits into early adult-hood, but was at least blessed with a decent metabolism that kept me relatively lean through my 20s. Into my 30s my lifestyle, aimless sporadic gym-going, lack of nutritional knowledge and social eating and drinking caught up to me. At 33, I had to establish my deepest ‘WHY’ and commit to making a change. This was not going to happen just because I knew that I ‘should’. We can ‘should’ all over ourselves (as they say) but this changes nothing. In order for me to make a meaningful and lasting change, my mind had to transition- my behaviors and patterns had to change.
For me, I hit rock bottom. I hated what I saw in the mirror. I focused on the outcome that poor health and diet would bring me, and how it would negatively affect my family. This is not mere speculation, but a fact. Diabetes is on the rise in North America to the point of epidemic proportions, and poor diet and lifestyle are directly related to illness and disease. In fact, 80% of all cancer is directly related to lifestyle! No thanks. Instead, I focused on how proper health and nutrition could positively impact my life and that of my family.
Taking Action to Improve our Lives
In closing, if we change our mindset, we can accomplish anything we want to. It sounds trite, I know, but this is the take-home message and it is so very true. We really are only limited by our perceptions and how we choose to view the world and our place within it. It doesn’t matter where we’ve come from, or the obstacles that we’ve faced because these are all opportunities to gain strength and perspective from.
Further, there are always people far less fortunate, who have faced far more adversity, have struggled, cried, suffered, and yet still overcame their hardships and succeeded. This power comes from within each and every one of us and is drawn upon by changing or habits through better associations and constantly striving to be more than we are today. Complacency is the silent killer. We are all so much more capable than we give ourselves credit for, and the answers we seek all lie within us.