All Blacks' strength and conditioning coach Dr Nic Gill has published a new book - Health Yourself - which aims to help you take control of your health and fitness. In this edited extract, Gill writes about confronting issues which regularly make people stop making changes for the good.
What's stopping you changing?
We're all creatures of habit – and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the habit! Changing habits is challenging, but not impossible. We do it often enough when we have to, but less often when there isn't an immediate, compelling need.
For instance, if you learnt to drive in a manual car but later on buy an automatic, you have to change your habit of using a gearstick. It takes a few goes, but you get it pretty quickly. We also make bigger changes: if you start a family, for example, you're very likely to stop partying all weekend, staying up late every night, or spending all your spare cash on fun little things.
Situations like these involve an extrinsic motivating factor – a trigger that's outside of us, separate from us. We might not always like the changes we have to make, but we can achieve them most of the time.
The difference with choosing to live a healthy lifestyle is that it is a choice. We don't have to do it. We can continue to eat what we like, drink what we like, slob around on the sofa and binge watch TV all weekend, every weekend, if that's what we want.
When it comes to changing your lifestyle and choosing to live more healthily, having a strong intrinsic motivation is critical to your success. You need to bring this motivation into the picture when your life puts up barriers to change – and this will happen a lot!
Each of us has different things in our life that make it difficult for us to stick to a healthy lifestyle. It might be habits that we learnt from our parents; our financial situation; time pressures; the people we live or socialise with; or a voice inside our head that constantly tells us to take the easy option.
All of these are potential barriers to change – but as long as you're aware of them, you can overcome them. Below are some examples of common roadblocks, and ways that they can be addressed.
People who encourage your bad habits
These are often friends you love spending time with. They're the ones who'll say things like 'Come on, let's get another bottle of wine', or 'Right, we've walked for 20 minutes – we've earned an ice cream'. You might have become friends in the first place because of your common love of indulgent food or good wine, so it's natural for you to do these things when you're together.
And it's okay if this is a 'sometimes' activity. The problem starts when it's a regular thing and is interfering with your efforts to be healthier.
Solution: You don't want to ruin your friendship, so what do you do? One option is to suggest an alternative – rather than going for more wine, you might say you'd prefer a coffee right now.
Your friend can, of course, still have the wine. True friends are not likely to be offended and you'll still have a great time together.
The other place bad habits get encouraged is in the home. Your significant other – your partner, your husband, your wife – loves you and likes to express that by buying things you enjoy. This might be chocolate, wine or Friday night fish and chips – any treat you find hard to resist.
Solution: Good communication skills can help here! You don't want to upset your loved one – after all, they've just done something nice for you. At the same time, however, you want to discourage them from doing this quite so often.
People who show love by feeding you
This is usually done by family, and it's most likely going to be your mother. Providing food for family members is a fundamental human behaviour, and it's just so easy for parents to take the 'some is good so more is better' approach.
You're much more at risk of this derailing your health efforts if you live near your family and you get together frequently.
Solution: The good thing here is that your family is probably going to love you no matter what, so you can sit down and have a chat with them to explain why you're not keen on having so much food.
You could say something like 'Look, Mum, I know you love me and that's why you make all this delicious food, because you want me to be happy. But if I eat too much I'm not going to be as healthy as I want. And I really want to be healthy so that I can be around for a long time – I bet you want that too.
'So if I don't eat as much as you think I should, it's not because I don't like your cooking – it's because I want to have a long, healthy life so that I can be around to look after you when you're older.'
'I'm too busy with work' is probably the most widely used excuse when it comes to changing our health habits. And for most people, it really is just an excuse. Yes, you might be spending two hours a day commuting and eight hours a day working or studying, but that still leaves 14 hours. Sleep for eight of those and you still have six left over.
What you do with those six hours can make a huge difference to your health.
Solutions: During your six hours of free time, you could prepare healthy meals to take to work – for both breakfast and lunch, if necessary. You could do some exercise (by yourself, or with family or friends), instead of just sitting on the couch watching TV.
It might also be possible to build some exercise in to your commute. Could you get off the bus a few stops earlier or park the car further away from your premises, and so get in a bit of walking?
At lunchtime, do you have to sit at your desk or could you get outside for a walk?
In many workplaces the biggest threat to a healthy lifestyle is those endless morning teas where kind-hearted colleagues bring in cakes and savouries to share. There are several ways to deal with these.
Solutions: You can try bringing in a healthy option, such as hummus or salsa with carrot and celery sticks for dipping. If someone else has provided the food, you can just take a small piece and nibble on it slowly so that it lasts for the length of the morning tea.
Having less disposable income than some others can make it seem impossible to live a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise.
It's not – but it takes a bit more thought, and maybe a bit more time, than if you have spare cash to spend. It's worth keeping in mind that you don't need to join a gym or buy expensive workout clothes to get to a level of physical fitness that will benefit your health.
Solutions: Going for a walk is a perfectly good aerobic activity – as long as you walk fast enough to get your heart rate up a bit.
Choosing healthy food is also often seen as impossible if you don't have a lot of money.
Many news and lifestyle websites quote studies showing that healthy food is far more expensive than unhealthy options. However, some of these studies look at the price per 100g of a particular food, while others look at the price per calorie.
Only a few look at the price per serving of healthy options against their less healthy equivalents – like a wholegrain sourdough loaf or the cheapest supermarket white sliced bread.
Solutions: In fact, low-cost cooking is currently being touted as one of the healthiest ways to eat. Cucina povera, which translates as 'food of the poor', is traditional Italian fare.
It uses fresh vegetables, herbs, olive oil, legumes, fish and a little bit of meat, along with pasta and bread. As money was scarce in the communities where cucina povera originated, the food was seasonal – because when something is in season, it's at its cheapest, and often at its best too!
If you want to keep your food costs down and your nutritional value up, you can follow similar principles. Eat seasonally, and eat close to the beginning of the food chain.
Warning! You or someone you know could be sucking the energy out of your life – and it will be your health that suffers. Ever find yourself going 'I caaan't ... ', in the sort of sad, whiny tone that 3-year-olds specialise in? Or 'It hurts', 'It's too hard', 'I don't want to'.
Then there are the other people who suck the energy out of us. We've all met people who view life as a pit of misery and despair. They trudge through the day, dragging their load of negativity around with them, knocking the joy out of other people's lives. The only thing they have energy for is telling you – and anyone else – how tough their life is, how much everything hurts, and why they can't possibly do anything about it.
Being exposed to such a negative attitude day in, day out takes its toll on us.
Solution: If you're your own energy-sucker, the only way to tackle this is probably to take a long, hard look in the mirror and tell yourself that you deserve better.
Solution: Spending too much time in the company of energy sapping individuals will bring you down and harm your chances of developing a healthier, stronger you. The only thing you can do is to avoid contact as often as possible.
If an energy-sucker starts dumping on you, give them a bright, chipper 'Gosh, that's
terrible for you' and excuse yourself right away: 'Sorry, I've got to go and pick up the kids/go to a meeting/get to my yoga class.'
The voice inside your head
If there's one thing that's going to stop you changing, it's the voice inside your head. You know the one – it says things like this:
## 'It's too cold/wet/windy – give your walk/run/bike ride a miss today.'
## 'It's too much effort to cook – get takeaways instead.'
This is the voice that helped you become less healthy than you wanted. Unless you learn how to shut it down, it's going to take you even further down the same path. None of us is ever going to get rid of that voice – it's part of us – but we can learn to recognise it and stop it dominating our lives.
Silencing the voice inside your head
The first step is to acknowledge that it's there. It is perfectly normal to have an inner dialogue going on.
We debate with ourselves all the time – 'Shall I leave for work now, or spend another 10 minutes on Twitter?' 'Do I have to mow the lawn today, or can I leave it till next week?' 'Hmm, meal deal or just the burger?'
The voice in your head presents you with options, all the time.
Next, identify situations where you know that the voice inside your head will try to convince you to do something that's not in line with your health goals.
• Health Yourself, by Dr Nic Gill, is published by Penguin NZ, is released on September 17 and has an RRP of $40