I am not a doctor and the material in this lesson should not be taken as medical advice. You should check the ideas and suggestions here out with your doctor or medical providers. What's contained here is a summary of information and recommendations commonly provided to reasonably healthy people. It is what I use to guide my own life, but as they say, "your mileage may vary," and it may not be right or healthy for you. Be responsible and check it out.
Keystone habits are habits that lead to or support the development of other good habits. A keystone can also come from ending a significant bad habit like smoking or excessive drinking.
The most frequently recommended positive keystone habits usually involve meditation, exercise, healthy eating and sleep. Reading and journaling can also be great keystone habits. Learning to observe your thoughts and feelings may be the most important keystone habit.
Many of these habits have something in common: making our lives physically healthier. Since they make you feel better physically, they tend to make you feel more energetic and alive. You also tend to find that you have more willpower. You discover that you can cope better with adversity, and so you're more resilient. You can also start handling our relationships better and give more to them. These habits make it easier to be happy and to start moving forward in life.
In this class we're going to briefly look at three potential keystone habits you could work on: Changing the way you eat, getting started with exercise and developing healthy self-observational skills.
Changing the Way You Eat
Changing the way you eat is changing your diet not "dieting." It's a change in lifestyle rather than a temporary plan to change your weight.
When you're changing the way you eat, take it slowly. Focus on moving in the right direction rather than by making sweeping changes. Your body is used to the way you eat and will fight back if you try to do too much too quickly.
Radically reducing how much you eat tells your body that it needs to gear up for a famine. It will slow your metabolism down and encourage you to eat whenever and whatever you can. You will very quickly find yourself focused on food and what you are going to eat next.
The main components of your food, the "macronutrients," are made up of proteins, fats and carbohydrates; and the "micronutrients," the minor, but the other still very important, components are made up of things like vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and a few special fatty acids.
Eating a wide variety of foods make it easy to adequately cover all your nutritional bases. Nearly all of us need to eat more vegetables, somewhat more fruit (the veggies are more important), whole grains and fiber. We also need to eat fewer simple carbohydrates (like sugar and corn syrup), many fats, and somewhat less salt and meat. Doing this will balance macro- and micronutrients better.
You don't need to get idealistic or perfectionistic about this. Your body is quite amazing and can adapt very well to a wide range of foods. You just need to start toning it down in some areas and stepping it up in others. One of the things this means is that there are no BAD foods. Some foods are definitely better than others, but none should be considered evil and never to be eaten. You may need to limit some of them and enjoy them in smaller less frequent portions.
The one area you can probably get the most mileage out of quickly is greatly reducing or eliminating sweetened beverages and many snacks. Junk food not only has a lot of calories but is made to make you want more and ride an energy craving rollercoaster. (In other words, it's designed to be addictive.)
Finally, it's important to say a few things about artificial sweeteners like NutraSweet, Equal, Splenda and Sweet 'N Low. There's growing evidence that they just don't help and, in a few ways, make things worse. Briefly:
- It looks like when you eat sweet stuff your body expects calories. If the calories aren't there, it wants more.
- At least some of these sweeteners mess with the bacteria that help you absorb and digest some of your food in a way that turns out to be unhealthy.
- We also have a very bad habit of trying to think we can cheat, or at least get away with, eating more (usually unhealthy) stuff, because we had a diet drink or other diet foods.
The bottom line is that you are better off learning to not use artificial sweeteners and to just use a little sugar when it's needed. A single teaspoon of sugar has 20 calories, so using some reasonably or responsibly is not going to hurt. By the way, that's the same number of calories you'll find in a packet of ketchup.
Remember, while you are changing the way you eat to do it slowly. Focus on moving in the right direction instead of making big changes. Learn to enjoy the new healthier habits and to naturally let them grow as a part of your life.
Getting Started with Exercise
- There is a longstanding recommendation that you exercise "moderately" for 30 or more minutes a day at least 5 days a week. It has also been recognized that you don't need to do it all at one time and that it can be broken up into 2 or 3 shorter (but perhaps slightly more intense) chunks during the day.
- I've found that even 10 minutes most days is enough to feel significantly better, with more energy and less "depression."
- It's important to get up and move around at least once an hour. 2 or 3 times is better. As you walk around, you can also swing your arms to get your heart rate up a bit.
- If you have physical limitations, do what you can to work around them. Walk or ride a bike instead of working out. Just moving as much as you reasonably can is the main idea.
- Just like with changing the way you eat, take it slowly. Pay attention to your body and avoid hurting yourself or working out when you're sick or injured. "No pain, no gain" is a lie.
- Remember, it doesn't take a lot of activity or hard work to start making you feel and sleep better. Consistency is the most important part.
My First Keystone Habit
Years ago, I was dealing with myself in the aftermath of a divorce. I was 26, my own worst critic as a perfectionist and haunted by thoughts about not being good enough and embarrassing myself. I had developed a bad habit of trying to make perfect, bulletproof plans. I could waste a lot of time going over plans and finding weaknesses and flaws, changing the plans and then go on to find new weaknesses and flaws. It was becoming a difficult and depressing way to live, since there was never a safe way forward.
One summer afternoon, I was in a business seminar and the facilitator started talking about how we treat ourselves. As he went on, he brought up how we often say things to ourselves in ways we would never talk to our friends. We can be very nasty and mean with these inner remarks and conversations. He invited us to think about what we might expect one of our friends to say to us in one of those moments, or even what we would say to them if they came to us. Would we try to help? Would we try to comfort? Would we try to help them see things in a different light?
He told us could be our own friends, our own best friends. Why did we have a problem with doing for ourselves what we would happily do for others? Did being harsh and punishing with ourselves actually work? Do we really deserve less compassion and respect than they do?
A light went on in my head, and I immediately chose to be my own best friend. Did I instantly act like it? No. Habits don't work that way. It took a month or two to consistently remember it in the moment. I frequently had to stop and ask myself what I would say or do as a good friend right now in this situation.
Soon enough though, I was having much better conversations with myself, and I found that I was starting to move forward. I finally realized I didn't have to try so hard to be perfect. I actually did a pretty good job nearly all the time, and that even if a plan wasn't perfect, it was usually good enough, or I could change it or fix it as I went. Life became happier.
As you work toward becoming the person you want to be, as you start working on your own habits, you may want to take the time to become your own best friend, too. It will help you develop the master keystone habit of self-observation. You can read more about it in an article by Suzanne Manser.
All About Nutrition, Food Groups and MyPlate
Joy Bauer MS, RD, CDN, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Total Nutrition, 4th Edition: Food Group Fundamentals from the Dairy, Fruit, Vegetable, and Grain Worlds (2005)
Maggie Powers, et al, American Dietetic Association Guide to Eating Right When You Have Diabetes (2003)
John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain 1st Edition (2013)
Gretchen Reynolds, The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer (2012)
Quotes for the Week
Take care of your body. It's the only place you have to live.
You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.
Even if you fall on your face, you're still moving forward.
I learned a few years ago that balance is the key to a happy and successful life, and a huge part of achieving that balance is to instill rituals into your everyday life – a nutritious balanced diet, daily exercise, time for yourself through meditation, reading, journaling, yoga, daily reflection and setting goals.
Questions for Journaling
- How good would you rate the way you eat on a scale from 1 to 10? What do you think is right or wrong with it?
- How much exercise do you get on a scale from 1 to 10? If you had to pick something to do to exercise or be more active, what might you choose?
- How do you feel at the end of the day? Do you have enough energy during the day? Do you “run out of gas” late in the morning or middle of the afternoon?
- How well do you sleep? How many hours a night do you normally get? Does your work schedule interfere with sleeping well?
Verse for the Week
1 Corinthians 6:12
You say, "I am allowed to do anything" – but everything isn't good for you. And, even though "I am allowed to do anything," I must not become a slave to anything.
Prayer for the Week
Help me pay attention to my body this week and recognize it's need for better food, exercise and sleep. Help me take the small steps I need to make to get started and to pace myself so my body can get used to the changes. Help me treat myself like I would a friend or anyone else I truly care about. Amen.