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POWER OF HABIT

“Positive behaviour characteristics are not acquired by doing great (positive) acts but rather through the repetition of many positive acts.”

—Maimonides

 

Living a healthy life begins with forming healthy habits. Optimum health and weight loss are not simply about nutrition and exercise. I believe that failure to keep to a diet is not a lack of willpower or motivation. If we ignore the mind-body connection, we cannot achieve long-term success, even with the most advanced nutritional and fitness principles. It’s only a matter of time before we revert to our original habits—even with the best intentions and resolutions.

Creatures of Habit

It’s so hard to change because we’re creatures of habit. Habits require very little self-control because we do them automatically. They permeate almost every second of our existence. For example, let’s look at the average person’s start to each day. You wake up, step out of bed, and put on your slippers. Off to the bathroom you go, where you wash your hands, brush your teeth, wash out your mouth, and use the toilet. You might take a shower, get dressed, walk down the stairs, eat breakfast, make a hot drink, and jump into the car . . . so your day starts.

You wake up around the same time every day. Even something as elementary as walking down a flight of steps is habit based. You do it now automatically, but watch a child learn to do it. They measure every move, carefully maneuver each step, and still stumble down the steps. Practice (habit) makes perfect, and before long the child is jumping from step to step. Brushing teeth only takes a minute or two, but when you first learned, your mother needed a vacation after every brushing. When you drive, you can do three things at once (although you really should not). You manage to juggle between talking on the phone (Bluetooth), drinking a hot drink, and browsing between radio stations. But do you remember the intense attention you gave driving when you got your learner’s permit? Try driving in a car with a new teenage driver. It’s extremely stressful, though you need to pretend that you’re calm with a huge smile plastered on your face. Just the presence of another car on the road poses a threat! How about reading and writing? It only takes a few seconds, but it took you years to learn how to do it when you were a child—years of struggling to string letters together and thousands of hours of homework. We are definitely creatures of habit!

We’re comfortable with routine, and research has shown that most people can only tolerate a small amount of routine disruption before experiencing stress. Making even the slightest change in your daily routine will help drive this point home. Try switching your pillows to the other side of your bed. It almost feels like you’re hanging from the ceiling. Try switching your usually accustomed seat at the dining room table and you feel lost. If you ever visit a foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road, try driving on their side (not on a freeway, please). I’m sure you can think of many other personal examples. It should be quite obvious by now why habits play such a crucial role in our lives. Can you imagine what would happen to our lives if we had to give the same attention and thought to all our actions as we did when we first learned to do them? I think chaos or overload would be an understatement! So habits become automatic and a fixed part of our personalities.

We can appreciate why we cannot simply change our behaviors or habits overnight. It’s not surprising that many diets fail. Sudden changes don’t take human nature into account. Self-control and willpower soon wane, and it’s not long before we’re back to where we started—our old comfortable habits—if we haven’t regressed even further.

The Master Physicians link mind-body habits with our eating choices: One of the most powerful forces of human nature is habit, irrespective of whether these  are actions or perceptions. For instance, you may choose bad foods to which you are accustomed over good foods to which you are not accustomed even though it is the less correct choice.

In his philosophical work, Maimonides stresses the power of mind habits: Within human nature is a love and inclination toward one’s habits. A person loves his habitual opinions, and he is protective of opinions with which he was raised. This often prevents him from recognising the truth.

According to Aristotle, even moral virtue ultimately depends on habit and not nature: Moral virtue develops from habit. Its name (ethike) is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos(habit). Nature does not produce virtues in us; it prepares in us the ability for their reception, but they are formed through habit.

We all know the particular habits that haunt us, especially as related to eating. My “poison” was always late-night snacking. I started each day on track and fell apart in the late afternoon. By evening I was suffering from heartburn. Before going to bed I would make a firm resolution to eat better the next day. I remember getting on the scale in the morning and gasping, “Wow, there must be something wrong with this scale!” After confirming that the scale was in fact accurate, I would affirm my commitment to eating better for the rest of the day. But a few hours later, the cravings began and old habits crept back. At first I would resist temptation, but eventually I would think, “What’s the difference? Just one. One can’t hurt.” One became two, and before long, it was back to the heartburn at night and the “scale fright” in the morning. Sound familiar?

What happened to that powerful moment of inspiration? What happened to the firm resolution to eat better? Surely the desire to prevent pain at night and anguish in the morning was greater than a few seconds of pleasure during the day?

I thought about it long and hard… (To continue reading, please buy the book)

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