By Beverly Guy
Losing weight, exercising regularly and eating right are often cited as the most popular New Year’s resolutions. A poll of over 5,000 people conducted by 43things.com found that losing weight was by far the most common resolution in 2011. However, less than half of New Year’s resolutions are kept—some studies say it’s less than a third. How can you overcome the odds to reach your health goal?
It Starts in Your Head
While psychologists and advice columnists alike encourage strategies such as selecting a reasonable goal, breaking a large goal into manageable pieces and finding accountability (all great tips!), change in your body must come from change in your mind.
In his book “A Younger (Thinner) You,” Dr. Eric Braverman explains that “There is a brain-body connection. Your brain and body must stay fit together. An unfit body is connected to a highway called your neck, which links it to an equally unfit brain. This is the single most important truth of dieting: you need to fix your brain as well as your body.”
This “brain-body connection” is seen in nearly every emotion we experience. When we’re nervous, we get “butterflies” in our stomach. Adrenaline surges enable our bodies to perform beyond our normal limits when our brains sense a crisis. Our eyes produce tears when we’re upset or overjoyed. A person who’s depressed often sleeps less or is constantly tired; their appetite soars or shrivels up; their backs or necks often ache for no apparent reason.
But there is a reason, and it lies in the profound effects of thoughts upon actions. For example, the National Weight Control Registry (which tracks individuals who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept the weight off for at least a year) posts weight-loss success stories on its website. Nearly every person featured mentions a mental change: some cite an improved outlook or better self-esteem; one mentions changing her “self-talk”; another speaks about “recognizing my own unique irreplaceable value.” None of these changes were physical, but they measurably impacted each person’s body, to the extent that the members of this group each lost significant amounts of weight—one over 150 pounds!
In addition, when cultural anthropologist Dr. Inga Treitler interviewed members of the National Weight Control Registry, she found a common trait: each had undergone some sort of transformation of identity, which played a critical role in their weight loss and in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Lasting physical change was made possible through a shift in thinking.
The American Psychological Association also finds this to be true. On their website, they state that “The causes of obesity are rarely limited to genetic factors, prolonged overeating, or a sedentary lifestyle. What we do and don’t do often results from how we think and feel.”
It’s all connected. That’s why there’s no such thing as a quick fix. Our brains are inextricably tied to our bodies, and if we want to change our bodies for the better, our brains need to not only be on board but in the driver’s seat. Romans 12:2 instructs Christians to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”—to change the way we live by altering the way we think. Any attempt we make to improve our lives, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually, must stem from a transformed mind.
Obstacles to a Transformed Mind – Habits and Vicious Cycles
Using this connection between the brain and the body to our advantage is key to reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. But if this link really is such a deciding factor, why don’t we all just decide to get in shape? A number of obstacles, including a few we impose on ourselves, often stand in the way.
Certain habits are one common obstacle. The brain-body connection also works in body-brain direction, in that your body can impact your brain, sometimes in numerous ways. Since the way you regularly treat your physical self has a major impact on your physical condition, your habits can greatly affect not only your body, but also your mind. Here’s how that plays out for just one bad habit—not getting enough sleep:
• A lack of sleep causes levels of leptin, a hormone that sends a signal to your brain that you’re full, to drop.
• It also causes levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, to rise.
• A greater appetite increases the chances you’ll overeat, making you even sleepier.
• Compounding a bigger appetite, when you’re tired your willpower is weaker, especially for sugary foods that cause a quick spike in blood sugar and alertness.
• High sugar intake backfires when your blood sugar quickly drops, making you feel drained, and often craving more sugar—a vicious cycle.
• Being tired makes it more difficult to exercise, even though regular exercise has been shown to promote a good night’s sleep. In contrast, when you’re well-rested, you have the energy to work out regularly, which in turn will help you sleep better.
• Lack of sleep can increase your stress level, leading to more cravings for sugar, and making it harder to make healthy choices.
Links have also been found between the foods we eat (often out of habit) and stress levels. When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands secrete cortisol, a hormone that some studies have shown increases appetite. While the urge to grab sugary comfort food may make scarfing down a king-size candy bar seem like the perfect solution, eating the sweet stuff when we’re stress often compounds the problem, just as it does when we’re short on sleep.
Comfort foods do exist, however—eating the right foods can help increase serotonin levels, a brain chemical that causes a sense of well-being. This past November the Ohio State University Center for Clinical and Translational Science published the results of a study showing that anxiety among medical students who received omega-3 supplements was reduced by 20%, as compared to those who did not receive Omega-3s. Less anxiety and stress results in lower stress hormones, which can eliminate the surges in appetite that hit when levels of these hormones are high.
However, you’re not doomed to continue in a bad habit just because you’re in a cycle of unhealthy behavior right now. Studies have shown that the neural patterns in your brain that are formed by adhering to habits can be changed. This, too, begins in the mind: decide to break a habit and make a plan to replace it with a positive pattern of behavior. Let the brain-body connection work in your favor by consciously focusing your energy on the reasons why you want to change.
The Impact of Attitude
How we view our bodies and our efforts to improve them plays a critical role in our success in changing for the better. Christians believe that all things belong to God, and that we are only stewards of the things that are “ours,” entrusted to take good care of them. This includes our bodies, and even our minds.
Our attitudes toward our bodies—true or untrue, positive or negative—also shape our actions. If you believe that you’re ugly or only have worth at a certain size (both HUGE lies!), you’ll abuse your body accordingly. If, on the other hand, you believe that every part of you is handcrafted and given to you to care for and nourish, you’ll be compelled to give your body what it needs to function well so it, in return, can serve you well.
Yes, sometimes a negative incident can be a motivating factor: if your jeans are too tight, you may work to fit back into them, and being out of breath from climbing stairs might be the kick you need to start exercising. But negative thoughts (especially if they’re untrue) won’t cut it for the long haul. You need to change your attitude to change your habits, and as a result, change your body for good.
In the words of Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking”: “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Do you want your world, particularly the world of your health, to change? Resolve to transform your mind, and let your habits and body follow.
First Step to a Healthy Weight – Preparing Your Mind