Harness the Power of Habit to Achieve Fitness Goals
Question: “One of my 2021 goals is to lose a few pounds and get in better shape. However, I am hesitant to go to a gym because of the pandemic, and I am simply not into exercise classes. What is the solution?”
The process of changing outcomes begins with changing habits. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines habit as “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” A steady diet of positive habits applied to virtually any aspect of life can, over time, lead to significant change for the better. This is particularly true with respect to health and fitness. The collective power of habits to shape physical destiny cannot be overstated, as they ultimately determine who we become and what we achieve. We gradually become what we repeatedly do!
Surprisingly, many studies demonstrate there is not a big difference between normal weight and overweight individuals’ number of calories consumed and amount of daily physical activity performed. However, the cumulative effect of minor differences in diet, meal preparation, food toppings, and how leisure time is spent can lead to excessive weight gain and an unfit physical state. If you are presently overweight and out of shape, your habits have brought you to this point.
The good news: We need not undergo major lifestyle changes to generate major changes in life. We can achieve fitness goals if we are willing to take small, positive steps on a consistent basis—no marathon workouts, starvation diets and extreme self-discipline needed. The key to success rests with the development of a new set of habits, a lifestyle in line with our short- and long-term goals.
Harnessing the power of habit
To develop a positive habit, three essential elements must be present. Knowledge (information) informs us what to do. Skill (strategy) provides a framework for how to do it. Attitude (motivation) is a measure of our willingness to do it. In a nutshell, we must know what to do, how to do it, and be motivated to do it.
A positive habit can occur when knowledge, skill, and attitude overlap.
The surest way to achieve our fitness goals—and goals in other areas of life—is to channel the power of habit to work in our favor. The following illustration focuses on weight loss—just one aspect of becoming fit—and demonstrates how simply adopting a few positive habits can lead to huge payoffs down the road.
Knowledge: What to do
There is a fundamental truism with respect to body weight. If we consistently take in more calories than required to fuel daily needs, we will gain weight. The extra calories are stored as fat. One pound of body fat contains the equivalent of approximately 3,500 calories of stored energy. To lose one pound of fat, we must create an energy deficit of similar magnitude. This can be done by consuming fewer calories, exercising more, or a combination of both.
The human body is amazingly sensitive to even slight imbalances in the calories-in versus calories-out equation. For example, increasing energy burn by a mere 50 calories per day (the approximate number of calories expended during a brisk 15-minute walk) adds up to more than 18,000 calories over the course of a year. The result? Five pounds of body fat lost, assuming calorie intake remains relatively stable over that period.
Get in the habit of taking two 15-minute walks every day, one before lunch and one after dinner, to double the energy output. In doing so, we double the fat loss: 10 pounds in a year! Enjoying the health benefits of an increasingly active lifestyle is an added bonus. If a person is not able or willing to add two 15-minute walks to their daily routine, she or he can achieve the same result by maintaining present activity levels (calorie burn) but reducing energy intake by 100 calories a day.
Skill: How to Do It
Now that we know what to do, the next step is to figure out how to do it. There are myriad strategies to increase daily energy output and/or reduce calorie consumption.
Add any of the following activities to your daily routine to burn roughly 100 additional calories.
- Walk the dog briskly for 25 minutes.
- Jog for 15 minutes.
- Skip rope for 15 minutes.
- Play tennis for 20 minutes.
- Shovel snow for 15 minutes.
- Swim leisurely for 20 minutes.
- Vigorous aerobic dance for 15 minutes.
- Mow the lawn for 20 minutes.
Likewise, we can reduce calorie intake by approximately 100 calories daily simply by making lower calorie food and drink choices. There is no need to eliminate specific foods or food groups. Performing just one of the following behaviors daily can translate into a 10-pound weight loss over the course of a year, assuming activity levels remain constant.
- Instead of three glasses of whole (4%) milk, try three glasses of 1% milk.
- Instead of two pieces of toast with butter and jelly, skip the butter.
- Instead of a large order of fast-food French fries, try a large baked potato.
- Instead of mashed potatoes and gravy, try mashed potatoes with salt and pepper.
- Instead of 8 oz. of regular soda, try 8 oz. of unsweetened tea or water.
- Instead of three cups of coffee with cream, and sugar, try three cups of black coffee.
- Instead of an iced donut , try one English muffin with jelly.
- Instead of two fried eggs, try two poached eggs.
- Instead of pancakes with butter and syrup, try pancakes with light syrup.
- Instead of pasta with cheese sauce, try pasta with marinara sauce.
- Instead of canned fruit in sugar syrup, try fresh fruit.
- Instead of a pint of ice cream , try a pint of sherbet.
- Instead of breaded and fried chicken breast, try a broiled and skinless chicken breast.
A similar process can be implemented to realize the goal of getting in better shape. For example, let’s assume you want to improve upper body strength but have never done any weight training. The solution? Simply get in the habit of performing five push-ups every time there is a commercial break while watching your nightly TV or movie. That may add up to only 20 or 25 push-ups a day, which does not sound like much. However, over the course of a year, you will have performed more than 7000 push-ups! By adopting that one single habit you will, without doubt, improve your upper body strength by this time next year.
Attitude: Motivation to do it
At this point, you should be motivated by the realization that we can accomplish most fitness goals with minimal effort. We simply need to make minor lifestyle adjustments that align with long-term goals and stick with them. Look for opportunities to burn additional calories. Become more physically active. Make smart food choices. Eliminate nutritionally empty calories from your diet. These are not difficult things to do. Yet, over the long haul, they will lead to major and permanent changes in how we look and feel.
We are the product of our habits. The “little things” we do every day, rather than the “big things” we do every so often, determine our physical destiny. Achieving your 2021 fitness goals will require you to scrutinize eating and activity habits and then make minor adjustments that are consistent with your desired lifestyle. Adopt a new set of habits, consistent behaviors that you can live with. Do not expect to see dramatic change during the first few weeks of being the “new you,” but be assured you will have initiated a process that will lead to permanent physical change for the better.