To Change a Habit, You have to Change a Bit of Yourself

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Nobody wants to lose anything. Everybody wants to gain something. Then why do we have so many "weight loss" programs? Language is deep seated in our brain. Speech does affect our behavior. The word "loss" evokes such images in our mind as pain, loneliness, or deprivation of love. Titles such as, "Optimal Weight Gain Program" or "Weight for Health and Happiness" get my vote.

To change a habit, you have to often change the direction in which you had been going. Sometimes, it does involve changing the direction of your whole life. Some addictions and compulsive behaviors are just the milestones of the path of self-destruction. We tend to think of a habit (or an addiction) as an "add on" item something like, "It somehow got added to my life and now I should take it off (or get rid off)." As a result of this kind of thinking, we are drawn towards quick fixes and patchwork remedies. It is an "instant meal" lure. Had it not been for this thinking, most dieting programs would have died of market starvation, left without a steady diet of consumers. A human being is a whole.

Here is an example of how a piecemeal approach to weight problem leaves much to be desired for: according to the Department of Human and Health Services report of 1996, girls reaching puberty become less physically active. At the same time they start doing more sedentary activities such as watching TV or reading. As a result, many girls tend to put on weight. A dieting/weight loss program for such girls without helping them to modify their activities and life style is grossly inadequate. This is what I mean by saying "in order to change a major habit, you have to change the direction you had been going."

Similarly, when college students join the workforce, they tend to put on more weight because they are more likely to sit at their desk all day and drive their car directly to the TV sofa. It is not just the college students, many young adults transitioning to the world of work run the risk of becoming more sedentary. I have been informing people about "Sharma's law of marriage" for years. Sharma's law of marriage is that every man and woman puts on ten extra pounds in the first year of their marriage. The reason for the weight gain lies not in their art of cooking, security or marital content, but in the change of their life style. Likewise, many middle-aged people feel "too old" for playing and exercising.

Puberty, transition to work, marriage, and middle age are some of the critical junctures for life style changes. Education about these turning points can prevent many problems for the future. No drug, weight loss or diet program sells prevention. They only sell "cure." Education and prevention of the problem is up to us. So, tell everyone you care about who is about to pass through these critical junctures.

Twenty-five percent of all adults are not active at all. Only four out of ten adults exercise at or above the minimum recommended level. Physical inactivity costs more in terms of health related problems than does obesity. Why not promote exercise and physical activity! Health insurances companies ought to give free membership to the YMCA or other exercise club if you go there for X number of times. It would be nice if they refunded part of the insurance premium for health maintenance activities. HMOs were supposed to be "Health Maintenance Organizations" but, in practice, they became disease management organizations.

There are many unanswered questions because of our piecemeal approach. For example, why a lot of people start and stop exercising repeatedly. Likewise, many people repeatedly start dieting or stop smoking and then go back to their old habits. Having started onto the right track, how does one stay on course? How does one go through the rough and tumble of life, the disappointments and setbacks, and not lose the determination to stay on course? Unless we educate people in relapse prevention, the failure rate will remain high.

Here is a well-kept secret: after completing a dieting program or a smoke cessation program, those who continue to exercise on a daily basis for at least 20 minutes have fewer relapses than those who remain physically inactive.

Think long-term. Think how you would maintain a good habit, month after month and year after year. The "highs" of weekend motivation seminars or package program pep talks don't last more than a couple of weeks. How would you maintain your motivation to keep up the good habit? How would you keep your energy level and motivation up when the voice inside says, "I've had it up to here. I don't care?"

The most effective way of reducing negative or unhealthy behaviors is to learn positive and healthy behaviors first.

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Copyright 2000, Mind Publications 


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