If so, it’s hardly surprising. Every day we are bombarded with reminders that we should be constantly striving to:
- Perform better at work, and earn more money.
- Be a better husband, wife, child, parent, and friend.
- Get more exercise, and lose weight.
- Eat more healthily. What constitutes “healthy” will also change almost daily.
Looking at that list, it almost seems impossible to know where to start! This, I think, is one of the main reasons that people often struggle to make progress in their health-related goals, and maybe their goals in general. And when I say health, I mean the real-life health that will keep you causing trouble for as long as possible…
When I thought about what I wanted to achieve with this particular article, I wrote this:
What I really want to do is pick everybody up and shake them. There is so much misinformation out there, most of which just serves to make us more miserable!
Society has a backwards approach to “health”. In fact, the approach probably isn’t really healthy at all. If we truly want to be healthier and happier, we need to decide exactly what is important to us personally. Only by identifying real motivating factors will we be able to figure out the sustainable, long-term changes that we can make, and want to stick to.
Who even knows what perfect is? Despite the fact that perfection is probably indefinable and unachievable, we’re frequently enticed with shortcuts to “perfect” things. However, these hugely inflated and potentially damaging claims of how to achieve “flat tummies”, “drop 14 pounds” or “banish cellulite” often involve crash-dieting and intensive workout regimens.
Though perfect arms, abs and thighs have become synonymous with the modern picture of perfect health, there is no science to suggest that six-pack abs will reduce your risk of disease, or help you to live a long and happy life. In fact, our “weight” is a terrible marker of health, and essentially useless to most of us. On top of this, we have gone so far towards idolising individual parts of other people’s bodies that we are never satisfied with our own.
HOW CRAZY IS THAT?!
And men are far from exempt. The second item was an article from TIME magazine, which describes how male bodies in the media are affecting teenage boys (12-18 year olds). Over 2% now use steroids or similar drugs in order to become more muscular. Rates of bulimia are now similar in both boys and girls (around 1%) and, in one study, as many as 31% reported binge-eating or purging.
Having spent over a decade dealing with my own body-image issues and an unhealthy relationship with food, I know exactly how we are continuously manipulated and made to feel inadequate. The thing is that this clearly doesn’t make me any different to millions and millions of other people.
However, many years of reading, coaching, training (and overtraining) have taught me that nobody cares if you have a six pack. Nobody cares if you eat better and spend hours in the gym. They also don’t care if you become healthier or not.
Once we realise that the modern idea of “perfection” won’t actually make any difference to how happy we are, or how much people love us, our aims can become much clearer. Obviously, your loved-ones will be invested in wanting you to be as healthy and happy as possible, but only you can actually make the necessary changes.
If the photoshopped, air-brushed media version of perfection isn’t the right goal in terms of achieving long-term health, what is?
From personal experience, as well as working and talking with a number of coaches and trainers, there is a small unifying list of barriers that people give when they attempt to improve their health and well-being:
- I’m too busy to cook or eat properly.
- I’m too busy to sleep properly.
- I’m too tired to exercise.
- I’m too tired to have sex with my partner.
If you recognise those issues in yourself, you might have given up on one of the few things that I guarantee you are good at.
In relation to food and exercise in particular, people often follow the “mainstream” advice to just eat less and exercise more and more in an effort to get healthier. I probably don’t need to mention how miserable that sounds! This approach, along with the normal stresses of real modern life, usually leads to us giving up on whatever goals we have for improving health and wellbeing.
Don’t get me wrong, I think everybody should exercise and make an effort to eat better, but crushing yourself in the gym and restricting the amount of food you eat is almost never the answer. I’ve written previously about the reasons why cutting the number of calories you eat will never provide sustainable weight loss, and why changing WHAT you eat rather than HOW MUCH is far more important in the long-term. In short, you could make huge improvements by just removing processed foods, and making sure you get more vegetables and healthy fats, as well as adequate protein.
Many people will argue the cutting calories will cause weight loss, and this is true. However, we’ve known for 30 years that cyclical weight loss and weight gain causes metabolic changes that make it harder to lose weight and easier to gain weight in the future!
In fact, one rat study showed that after a cycle of weight loss and weight gain, a second cycle of weight loss in rats required twice as long to lose the same amount of weight. When the rats re-gained weight the second time, they did so three times faster, because they had become more efficient at storing fat.
Any drastic short-term dietary restrictions you put yourself through may cause temporary weight loss (certainly the most common aim), but all studies of calorie restriction have shown that participants re-gain most of the weight they lose (if not more), and they have therefore actually put themselves at a disadvantage for long-term health.
The same is seen with excessive exercise. The combination of stress and sleep deprivation alongside daily strenuous exercise and inadequate calories sounds extreme, but this is often what we feel encouraged to do to become “healthy”.
In studies simulating these conditions in young healthy people, levels of testosterone and thyroid hormone rapidly drop, alongside increases in cholesterol, and the stress hormone cortisol. If you don’t have time to sleep or eat properly, adding more exercise and more dieting is likely to be counterproductive. Having normal thyroid function is essential in order to maintain a healthy metabolism (and burn fat, for example), and lowering your testosterone is going to ruin your libido!
So, where should we start? Rather than tell you what should be the most important thing in your life, I will give you an example of my friend Robyn:
Robyn is 28, and has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). PCOS leads to a number of hormonal changes in the body, which can then cause weight gain, insulin resistance, thinner hair, irregular menstrual cycles, and difficulties with pregnancy. Until recently, she was using the target of 1,200 calories a day* to plan her eating, with little effect.
Early this year, Robyn asked me for some advice surrounding her diet. Her motivation lies in her desire to start a family, and then be as healthy as possible in order to look after that family. The biggest problem was that she just wasn’t eating enough. When we’re stressed (work, dieting, excessive exercise) and under-eating, the body shuts down reproductive function. It thinks two things:
- I need to store as much fat as I can, because food is scarce.
- If I can’t feed myself, how on earth could I look after a child?
The only real change Robyn made was to eat real food (as I explain here), and increase her calories such that she wasn’t hungry any more. This involved more time, and completely changing the way she shops and cooks. This was a big change, which she was willing to make. In just a few weeks, she has noticed:
- Significant visible fat loss (all of her clothes are loose).
- Increased energy.
- Her periods have started again for the first time in many months.
There is still a long way to go to her overall aim. However, she is a perfect example of someone who has identified what is important, and is making changes in a HEALTY way.
Plan to be healthier
If you want to create long-term improvements in health, there are no shortcuts or quick-fixes. There aren’t many things worth having that don’t take some work and effort.
Often, a decision to change our lifestyle is based around doing something that we can talk about, to prove how dedicated we are to becoming healthier (e.g. a detox, or training for a ½ marathon). However, the fundamental changes that are needed are not so dramatic, and can be implemented very easily. You should know that you need to stop smoking and drink less alcohol. After that, these are maybe the next easy steps you could think about:
- Get more sleep. I have some tips at the end of this article.
- Spend more time with your family. Good relationships dramatically increase life expectancy.
- Walk more. And then some more. It is the best-researched mode of exercise.
- Eat real food.
I have previously covered how everybody can and should walk, sprint and lift weights to reduce their risk of heart disease, strokes, cancer and diabetes (overview and guidelines), but the best exercise is probably the one that you enjoy. However, eating well and sleeping well should be the first steps to better health, and are often overlooked.
Finally, once we’ve decided what really matters to us most, we need to realise that every small step we take towards improving how we eat, move, live and love, is a real triumph. We also need to realise how and when we are likely to fail, and plan accordingly.
A frequently-quoted study performed by Richard Wiseman (Professor of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire) gives insights into why we fail to achieve the goals we set.
In 2007, the study “tracked over 3000 people attempting to achieve a range of resolutions, including losing weight, visiting the gym, quitting smoking, and drinking less”. One year later, only 12% actually achieved their goal. However, the study also found that:
- An extra 22% of men achieved their resolution when they set defined goals.
- Women were 10% more likely to be successful when encouraged to persist in the face of setbacks.
Goals such as “visiting the gym” or “drinking less” are difficult to quantify. Conversely, defined goals, such as walking to work or preparing healthy lunches at home, may be easier to follow.
Importantly, a slip-up (one bad meal, one missed trip to the gym or one evening in the pub) does not equal failure. If you truly want to change something in order to kick ass for longer, you can just start again straight away.
Strive for progression, not perfection
If you skimmed the article and skipped to the end, here’s what you need to know:
- Common misconceptions about health are making you miserable.
- Think about what matters to you, and change your lifestyle accordingly.
- Take baby steps, and celebrate them.
- Set defined goals, and don’t be afraid to get it wrong occasionally.
- Walk more.
- Be awesome.
* If 1,200 calories a day doesn’t strike you as miserable starvation, here is a really good article that was published last week about the 1,200 calorie myth.
1. Field AE, Sonneville KR, Crosby RD, Swanson SA, Eddy KT, Camargo CA Jr, Horton NJ, Micali N. Prospective associations of concerns about physique and the development of obesity, binge drinking, and drug use among adolescent boys and young adult men. JAMA Pediatr. 2014 Jan;168(1):34-9.
2. Brownell KD, Greenwood MR, Stellar E, Shrager EE. The effects of repeated cycles of weight loss and regain in rats. Physiol Behav. 1986 Oct;38(4):459-64.
3. Dirlewanger M, di Vetta V, Guenat E, Battilana P, Seematter G, Schneiter P, Jéquier E, Tappy L. Effects of short-term carbohydrate or fat overfeeding on energy expenditure and plasma leptin concentrations in healthy female subjects. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2000 Nov;24(11):1413-8.
4. Friedl KE, Moore RJ, Hoyt RW, Marchitelli LJ, Martinez-Lopez LE, Askew EW. Endocrine markers of semistarvation in healthy lean men in a multistressor environment. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2000 May;88(5):1820-30.
5. Genazzani AD. Neuroendocrine aspects of amenorrhea related to stress. Pediatr Endocrinol Rev. 2005 Jun;2(4):661-8.
6. Richard Wiseman: http://www.quirkology.com/UK/Experiment_resolution.shtml