by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
The majority of Americans committed to a New Year’s fitness resolution on January 1st. By January 10th, half of those had already thrown in the towel. A recent Gold’s Gym survey found that by February 7th, significant drops in gym check-ins began to occur, and it only got worse after that. Researchers have estimated that more than 80 percent of resolutions eventually fail in the short term. January’s joyful hope seems to transform into a February failure. But, it’s March! Spring is in the air, and you can easily restart your fitness fire, or keep it going stronger if you’re already on track. Here’s how.
MIND—Buff your brain. Tap your forehead. Right behind lies command central for executive function—the prefrontal cortex (PFC). You might think of it as your brain’s CEO. The PFC is a powerhouse because its countless cells help you organize, strategize, plan, prepare, adapt, adjust, be vigilant, demonstrate willpower and discipline, and finally, rein in impulsivity. This hunk of brain packs a wallop. If you ever want to create and stick with any resolution, you need to have a seriously buffed brain. Just as your biceps need to hoist barbells to develop optimally, so, too, your PFC needs training. Think of it as going into a mental gym to exercise mental muscle and do the following:
- Meditate. Science now shows that when you regularly practice meditation, you activate the PFC, stimulating the growth of new neural circuitry to support your new habits. You also give yourself a priceless opportunity to go inward, check in with yourself, find a place of peace and calm, and stay centered. This helps you adapt and adjust to life’s stresses without being tempted to knee-jerk into the nearest fridge.
- Tie goals to specific small behavior changes. A goal without a plan is just a wish. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to improve their health is to say, “I want to be healthy and have more energy,” but not create a list of small steps to achieve this goal. So, think of several small steps you can take—putting your gym bag by the front door, scheduling a particular day as grocery shopping day, buying a new vegetable steamer—and continuously practice that behavior until it becomes a habit. It’s so important to keep these changes small so that your PFC doesn’t crumble under cognitive overload—too much to think about. Less is more, and small equals successful.
- Practice the 24-hour rule. Beware of future-tripping and not staying present. A frequent mistake people make is to longingly live in the future, not paying attention to the work it takes every hour of every day to practice new behaviors. Create a realistic future goal, but stay vigilant 24 hours a day about the things you must do to make that happen. Identify the toughest times of day, when you tend to cave to the crave, succumb to stress, and lose focus. Then rev up your PFC to plan and prepare to decrease the tendency to self-destruct. Start every day with a commitment: “Today I will____” and follow through. There’s nothing like logging your daily journey to keep you present and accountable. People who track their habits do the best.
- Reward yourself the right way. Start a new habit of rewarding yourself with something that doesn’t involve self-destruction. A mini-retreat to somewhere wonderful works a lot better than a visit to the local bakery. Science now shows that positive feedback in general— encouraging words from your close support group, jeans that fit— significantly contributes to long-term success.
- Willpower is earned. There’s a common misconception that some people are just born with hard-core willpower. The truth is that to achieve stronger willpower you need to regularly exercise that PFC by practicing new behaviors. Head back to the mental gym and lift some mental weight!
MUSCLE—Buff your body. No, I’m not asking you to take up bodybuilding. Au contraire, I just wanted you to know that scientists have discovered that by routinely doing something as simple as taking a walk at a moderate pace for 45 minutes per day, you not only stimulate your cells to grow more neural circuits throughout your brain, but you actually get a bigger brain, too! Recent studies have found that you can increase brain mass in areas of the brain by 2 to 5 percent. And, these neural circuits will help solidify your better habits and keep you on track. Pop a patience pill because this doesn’t happen overnight. But after weeks of regular activity, you’ll notice more energy, better mood and memory, great sleep, and improved focus. Again, all it takes are small steps such as:
- Move more. Assume the vertical whenever you possibly can throughout the day. These activities of daily living really count. You don’t need to trudge to the gym to reap bigger-better-brain rewards. Have fun while you’re at it. Dancing and playing with the dog count!
- Combine mind and body. Try multitasking by engaging in physical activities that involve honing your brain’s focus and memory skills. The martial arts are ideal, as are competitive sports. Or, how about yoga or Pilates?
Take a moment and assess where you are right now. Have you fallen off the wagon? Are you still hanging in there but clinging to the edge of the fitness cliff? Did you just not try to make any changes at all? Wherever you may be, stop now and realize that you can start this minute to make lasting and important changes to look, feel, and live fitter and healthier. You have the tools. Take a deep cleansing breath, tap into your powerful PFC, fan your fitness fire, and get to work. Springtime awaits you.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Dr. Peeke is featured as one of America’s leading women physicians in the National Institutes of Health Changing Face of Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times best-seller The Hunger Fix.