My morning running group has made it a habit to take a picture after we reach the end of our workout. We put the toes of our sneakers together in a circle, someone snaps a pic, and then it is official: we can begin our day of being all of the things - moms, teachers, nurses, budget analysts, computer programmers, writers. Naturally, within minutes after our run the picture is posted online and everyone tags everyone else, and someone will inevitably comment, “I don’t know how you people get up and do that so early in the morning!”
One day I was reading the responses to that inevitable comment and realized that what I was reading was not actually an explanation of how we get up so early to exercise, but why. After all, the how-to part is pretty simple: the alarm rings, we get out of bed, put on our exercise clothes, and leave the house. Now, I said that the process is simple, not easy! What moves this process from “not gonna happen,” to “I’ll be there,” is not in the how, but the why.
The why, of course, is your motivation. Many people have a goal hidden somewhere to get healthier, and those who pursue it do because they decide the benefit outweighs the hassle. When push comes to shove, there is an internal dialogue that convinces them to lace up and get out there. There is a mental switch that flips and moves their hand away from the chips and towards the bottle of water. Something speaks up and makes it easier to turn down the second helping. That thing is the answer to their question, “why?”
The answer is different for everyone, but there are some definite trends. A longer lifespan to enjoy grandchildren, improving mobility for an active retirement, getting off of expensive medications or avoiding surgery, and increasing energy are some of the motivations I hear often as a wellness coach. And, if your motivation is to fit into your jeans and feel better when you look back at pictures from vacation, that’s okay too. The more motivation you can get, the better!
For me, the why comes in a combination of practicality and self-preservation. I have a busy day and know from experience that if I don’t exercise first thing in the morning, I will run out of time and energy for it later on. It just won’t happen. When I eat healthfully and plan my meals, I feel my best. When I feel my best, stuff gets done. But when I skip it, I am grumpy and disorganized. No one enjoys that, trust me.
Adhering to my routine also helps me manage my weight. This is important to me because I’ve been overweight before and remember how uncomfortable, tired, and frustrated I was. I worked hard to lose weight, and I don’t want to do it again. When that alarm goes off in the morning or it is time to organize my meals for the next day, it is not a matter of how I will get out of bed or pack my lunch. It is simply reminding myself why. Sometimes I have to remind myself more than once, so those reasons need to be powerful enough to move me.
That is the key! The reasons why must be powerful enough to move you. There are plenty of perfectly logical reasons to eat healthy and exercise, but there may only be one or two that actually inspire you to get up and do something. Luckily, that’s all you need! So, how do you figure out what it is?
The next time you are standing at a crossroads for your health, listen to the internal dialogue that takes place when you negotiate with yourself. Take a step back from yourself and be the observer of your thoughts. Watch as your different priorities have their debate and pay attention to which one wins. When it does, make note of the prevailing reason. There you have it: your true motivation.
If the healthy choice was the winner, hooray! You are connected to a strong motivator (or have experienced the consequences enough times to know what’s best for you). If other interests prevailed, be honest with yourself about why. There are times when other priorities take precedence over fitness. Sometimes we don’t take action because the goal has actually been set for us by someone else, and we resent it. It’s important to know these things, because that awareness can relieve you from feeling like a failure for reaching a goal you didn’t even set. Instead, negotiate new terms to make the goal something you care about.
The truth is, sometimes we are not motivated to change until things have gotten so bad that the pain of change is not as bad as the pain of staying the same. Sometimes we are more motivated by avoiding unsavory consequences than by the promise of things being better. That is all okay! Your motivation isn’t up for judgment or evaluation. No one else even has to know what it is.
Connect with your why this week. Put a picture of it on the fridge. Write it on your shoes. Tape it to your computer screen. Make it the ring tone on your phone. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to it. Because once you are connected with the why, the how becomes obvious.
So, what’s your why?
Last week we paused to reflect on the eighteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As I scrolled through the posts on social media that recounted where we were when we heard the news, how it affected our lives and perspectives, and how we honor those whose lives were lost, one message continued to bubble to the top: America on September 12.
The patriotism was strong, but what seemed to resonate the most was the sense of fellowship that had come over our country. We were united, regardless of the differences between us. But it didn’t take long for our old ways to come back, and now our country is more divided than it has been in my lifetime. The pendulum of human nature swings from one extreme to the next, from terrorists trying to kill us to us killing each other.
The events of our personal lives can have the same effect. In my work as a health coach, I often hear stories of the heart attack that was the wake-up call, or the cancer diagnosis that put things in perspective. Life on September 12, there are moments of clarity when complicated issues seem less important than the fundamental values of civility and unity.
For some, this shift is a permanent one, and they live life differently. A cardiac patient may adopt a plant-based diet low in cholesterol, begin walking every day, and learn how to manage stress to protect their heart. It requires work, determination, and a learning curve, but the reality check of the alternative is enough to make it worth the effort, and life is changed for good.
For others, lifestyle change is more tentative, contingent on other criteria being met. As long as things go well, then healthy choices are possible. But if schedules are interrupted, drama erupts in relationships, healthy habits become inconvenient, or the learning curve is too steep, then change is abandoned or considered to be impossible given the circumstances.
For a while after September 11, we were united in our humanity. But as our list of criteria for living in harmony with each other has grown, so has the distance between us and our potential. We have more demands now. We need things to be a certain way in order to play nice. We say, “no deal,” if an obstacle is thrown into our path.
I wonder if the same can be said about how we live our lives and manage our health. Are you one who changes for good, or as long as everything else works out?
Do you live life like September 12, setting aside the petty obstacles in life and striding forward towards the changes you desire for a more balanced life? Do you look for ways to make the lives of others easier, to smooth their path towards progress as a neighbor? Or do you agree to the plan for change as long as everything goes how you like it?
Reading the accounts of life on September 11, and then on September 12, I sensed a shared nostalgia for the day when we were united. I’m making a feeble attempt now to encourage you to search for ways that you can bring a September 12 mentality into your life today.
Set your work to the side and go for that walk. Life is fast; slow down.
Put on your swimsuit and jump into the pool. Life is fleeting; have fun.
Push that greasy food away and give your body the good stuff. You are surrounded by people who love you; stick around for a while.
For a brief moment in 2001, our complicated lives were put into perspective and we held hands in unity. Now we have written a long list of criteria that must be met before we will consider doing that again.
I argue today that if you have a list like that in your life, one wake-up call could render it irrelevant. I wonder - will you wait for that wake-up call, or start living like it is September 12 today?
Did you know there is a new bad word? I’ll give you a hint: it starts with “sh” but has more than four letters.
It’s the word “should.” Did you know we are supposed to feel bad when we say it now? It’s true! I’ve read all over the internet and heard in videos about how we should - oops, there I did it again - stop being so critical of ourselves and just live our dreams.
We should also stop focusing on the things we should stop doing, because that’s negative, and you can’t live a positive life with a negative mindset. I said should twice in that sentence!
When you go to school to learn how to be a wellness coach, you learn a lot of rules for how to talk to people in productive ways. One of them is that we’re not supposed to tell you what you should do. And, and we’re supposed to listen for when you are saying this taboo word so we can reframe your scenario into something more positive and helpful. I’m telling you our secrets! If you hire a health coach now, you will know what she is up to.
The reason why “should” is such a bad word is because it usually means we are beating ourselves up for making what we consider to be a bad decision, leading to feelings of shame and obligation. When we say something like, “I should order the salad,” our brains sometimes continue that sentence with, “because I need to lose weight,” and then something like, “but I don’t want to.” Either way you’re doomed to feel pretty miserable about your choices.
But I don’t think it is a bad word. I mean, there are some things we should do to promote a healthy quality of life, and some things we shouldn't. That’s just reality. And in my line of work, reality is where it’s at.
So I like to ask people what they know they should do. It’s important to know. And, it is the best way to get to an even better question - what do you want to do?
I want to know what people know they should be doing, and then find out what they want to do, so we can discover the gap in between, and then mend it. Here are some ways to do that.
Know Your Needs
There is a difference sometimes between what we should do and we needs to be done. For example, I should clean my baseboards more often, but do I need to? Eventually, yes, but it’s not urgent. I should get some exercise every day. Do I need to? Absolutely yes. Everything is better when I exercise, and my body both needs and thrives on it. That needs to be done, and I should do it. You should, too.
Know Your Wants
Often, what my clients tell me are things they should do are also things they want to do, they just haven’t figured out how to do them. I should clean my baseboards more often. But I don’t really want to. I should exercise every day, and I want to. I always feel better after a workout, and I want that feeling. I should exercise, and I want the feeling that I get from exercise, so I do it.
Know Your Readiness
Sometimes, what my clients tell me are things they should do are things they don’t want to do, but wish they wanted to because they know it would be good for them. They aren’t ready, or it is too complicated, or too time consuming. That’s cool.
It’s okay to know that you should do something and are not likely to, but don’t stop there. Explore what you are ready to do instead. What would be a step in the right direction? Do that, and don’t worry about whether it’s the best solution or not. It’s better than doing nothing.
“Should” is not a bad word! It is a helpful word! When we look around and acknowledge the difference between what we are currently doing and what we should be doing instead, we can make informed decisions based on facts rather than feelings of shame or obligations.
That is something we should all do.
About This Blog
Each week, I write the "Healthy Heather Blog" in the Tallahassee Democrat. It is republished here in case you are not a subscriber (what???). Sometimes it is really good and other times it is just okay. Thanks for reading it regardless of your opinion!