The secret to breaking habits? Go with the ‘flow’

Grit Doctor: Pick just one bad habit to give up – and stick with it for 66 days


1. I want to get fit but I hate exercise.

Join the club. I’d hazard a guess that very few people love exercising. There is a crucial distinction between loving the exercise and loving what the exercise does for you that people who exercise regularly appreciate. As a keen – if very slow – runner myself (and sometime gym-goer), I can tell you that I do not love running or gym-going, but I do love being in relatively good shape for my age, having a heathy heart and being a happier, more balanced and productive individual than I would be without the exercise.

There are of course more fun exercises that you could try out to see if you enjoy: ballroom dancing, kick-boxing, rock-climbing, ice-skating to name a few, but sticking to these activities and doing them often enough – and long-term – will always be a challenge. A challenge that may become your Achilles heel, which may morph into the reason you remain slumped in your sofa nursing that warm arse-shaped dent for yet another year. So lose the excuse and take up the solution.

Adults need a minimum of 30 minutes exercise five times a week to be healthy, so simplify things for yourself and your family by making a 30-minute brisk walk your exercise of choice – and build on that. I’m not asking that you love it, but to see that it has a huge advantage over the above sexier activities in that you know how to do it already, plus you have to do anyway – even if it’s only to get to the car or bus stop.

This makes it infinitely simpler to factor it into your daily life: park your car further away from your front door, get off two bus stops earlier on your way home, etc. If you make walking your staple exercise (or jogging as it may well become), then you can bring in other more fun activities as and when you’re ready, but you are not dependent upon them for your daily exercise quota.

We all need to be so much more active than we are, so never worry that you will overdo it. You cannot overdo a walk. The worry is when we rely on just one weekend family stroll for our weekly exercise rations. On such mean rations, we will surely starve.

The Grit Doctor says: Don’t look for what you love, look for what you can realistically do five times a week.

2. How can I stick to my resolution to lose weight?

As Sheila Wayman pointed out in The Irish Times, research from UCL debunks the popular idea that 21 days is what’s needed to kick a bad habit/for a new good habit to bed-in; it’s more like 66 days. Little wonder then why we all fall off the wagon with our weight-loss resolutions before the month is out, because we haven’t been at it anywhere nearly long enough. So, let’s start by accepting that this will take some time. Knowing this has us braced for the long game, because healthy living is so much more than a new diet or weight-loss goal – where there is a finishing line to cross.

Next up: re-frame the goal as “healthier living” rather than a diet or losing weight. This gets your brain trained up for the idea that this isn’t just for one month, it’s for life. And it’s a resolution we should all make – whatever shape size or state of health we are in. Why? Because all of us can be heathier.

With this in mind, I recommend you start by picking just one bad habit to give up – and stick with it for 66 days. Accept that it may be 66 days of grit and suck it up. But hold on to the thought that after 66 days, it will be gone forever. Ditching a bad habit can usually be read as taking up a good one (giving up second helpings translates to eating smaller portions for example). Small changes consistently made have a dramatic impact on your waistline over time. Giving up having a second helping at dinner would have a huge effect over the course of the year – if you were a serial offender. You’ll have eaten almost half the amount of dinners, which is a whopping great calorie saving, isn’t it?

Approached this way – tackling one habit at a time – you are developing a sustainable and realistic pattern of eating more healthily, that you are far more likely to succeed with than a radical overhaul of your diet that involves eating kale for breakfast lunch and dinner – especially when you can’t stand the stuff.

I’m going meat-free for a month and recommend any reasonably healthy eating readers out there to join me. We already do meat-free Mondays and sometimes Tuesdays too, but a meat-free month is going to be a real challenge. I’m excited about this as it’s good news for the planet, our waistlines and my culinary repertoire, which is going to have to take on loads of new recipes!

3. I can’t run when I’m so overweight.

Oh yes you can. No beginners, even the whippet-thin ones,, start running by actually running. Everyone has to begin with walking because it is too hard to jog from the get-go and you really do have to build up your fitness levels first. Actual running for more than two minutes is bloody hard work! So forget about jogging and running for now. If you can walk to the shops, you are the perfect candidate for running, whatever you look like, whatever your weight, and whatever your age, but it won’t happen overnight.

If you can commit to walking each day, (use “Run Fat B!tch Run” for a plan to take you from overweight couch potato to lean and serene 5k jogger – based on my then 55-year-old mother’s experience.

The Grit Doctor says: Don’t let being overweight be the excuse that stops you from taking up sport.

4. How can I stop eating late at night?

Make sure you eat breakfast, because if you starve in the morning until lunch, your body is going to be on the lookout for opportunities to get those calories back. Much better to have had them early when you’ve got the whole day ahead to burn them off. No-one needs those breakfast calories at bedtime.

Pause before you open that fridge/cupboard door and wait for 10 minutes before acting on the impulse to eat. You may find that the urge has past.

If, despite having eating breakfast, you still find yourself as if magnetized to the biscuit tin before bedtime, don’t be surprised, because it may be an ingrained bad habit that isn’t just about hunger. Question yourself - why you are there at the fridge door? Ask yourself if you are truly hungry. Chances are, when you question it, you will discover you are not in fact hungry, but bored, tired, lonely frustrated or some other emotion. So call a friend, listen to a favourite tune, read a book, have a good cry but don’t eat because food can’t cure anything except good old fashioned hunger (cue: tummy rumbling).

The Grit Doctor says: Our bodies – unsurprisingly – do not need extra fuel for sleep.

5. I want to be happier.

Don’t we all. Aside from regular exercise and a healthy diet – which are guaranteed to make you happier, there are all sorts of other contributing factors. Here are two I’d like you to think about:

“Love what you do. Now this isn’t about ditching your job as a lawyer to join the circus troupe you’d truly love to be part of, unless of course this is genuinely an option. I’m talking about shifting our attitude to what we do. Because sometimes, in fact most of the time, that’s the only thing we can change. You can’t change your awful boss for example, but you can change how you see him/her.

These shifts in attitude – I find – are brought about more easily when we start cultivating an attitude of gratitude and project it outwards. Look out for something to be thankful and grateful for every day and make a note of it – which allows you to enjoy the experience again. It may help you feel more kindly towards that boss. Or at least to give less of a s***.

The Grit Doctor says: Make gratitude your attitude.

“Do more of what you love. Listening to Dr Malie Coyne on RTÉ’s Alive and Kicking show about nourishing versus depleting activities and redressing the imbalance really struck a chord with me. Hell yeah, I want to do more of the activities that nourish me and less of those that don’t. What that looks like for me is spending more time with the people I love who energise and inspire me and less with those who sap my mojo. But doesn’t have to be limited to people. Doing more of what we enjoy and what we are good at is an obvious way to feel happier. When we are fully immersed in an activity and truly absorbed in our work, we enter a state of ‘flow’: full involvement and enjoyment in the process.

It’s that wonderful feeling when you have been so absorbed by what you’re doing that you totally lose track of time. We all have things we do that can bring on this magical state of ‘flow’, and running by the way, is one of them. Find yours.”

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).

First, pick the programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: This programme is an eight-week course that will take you from inactivity to being able to run 30 minutes non-stop.
- Stay On Track: The second programme is an eight-week course for those of you who can squeeze in a 30- to 40-minute run three times a week.
- 10km Course: This is an eight-week course designed for those who can comfortably run for 30 minutes and want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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